THE DIARY OF A FORGOTTEN BATTALION by Gerald William Harvey
The story of the Household Battalion in the First World War
There are over 180 pages of text plus 48 A4 size maps (42 specific to the Household Battalion), 24 pages of black and white photographs and 8 pages of colour photographs (81 photographs in total).
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Mrs J. Harvey
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Carleton in Craven
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HOUSEHOLD BATTALION HISTORY - 1916 to 1918 by Squadron Corporal Major C W. Frearson Esq
Formation of the Battalion (1st September 1916)
More than 600,000 British infantrymen were killed or wounded during the ten weeks of the battles of the Somme Valley which began on 1st July 1916. The battlefields of Flanders and France had become a maze of trench systems so complex as to require air observation to comprehend.
Trench warfare bore hardest on the infantry and in August 1916 it was decided by The King, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the Colonel of The 1st Life Guards, that the flood of recruits for the Household Cavalry would be diverted into badly needed infantry - a battalion, in fact, raised and trained within The Household Cavalry. On Friday, 1st September 1916, The Household Battalion formed at Hyde Park Barracks, under the wing of the Reserve Regiment of The 1st Life Guards. The battalion strength was 28 Officers and 900 men. Of the 84 Officers who eventually served in the new unit, 15 were 1st Life Guards, 11 were 2nd Life Guards, 8 were from The Blues, 22 were commissioned directly into The Household Battalion, 17 were Foot Guards and 11 came from cavalry and infantry of the Line.
Captain Wyndham Portal of The 1st Life Guards was appointed to the Lieutenant Colonelcy of the Battalion. He had served in The 1st Life Guards from 1908 to 1911 and rejoined from the Reserve in 1914. He was to command The Household Battalion throughout its existence.
The new infantry battalion trained in Hyde Park and later in September, moved to camp in Richmond Park. Shortly after The Household Battalion entrained for France, on 8th and 9th November 1916, the Reserve of the Battalion moved from London to Combermere Barracks. Windsor, with the Reserve Regiment of The 2nd Life Guards. From here, drafts of over 2,000 men were sent out to the Western Front to replace casualties suffered by the Household Battalion during its 14 months of combatant service. The men were paid the cavalry rate of pay, a few pence more than the infantry, and they wore cavalry service dress on furlough with a distinctive cap badge, the design of which is perpetuated in the present day Household Cavalry Forage Cap Badge.
The Somme Valley (8th December 1916 to mid February 1917)
Most of the men had merely 99 days service when The Household Battalion manned trenches for the first time on 8th December 1916 at Sailly Sailliesel, east of Combles and Morval in the Somme Valley. The Somme battles had petered out five days earlier but German artillery still rumbled and the sticky, red, Somme red mud was just as deep. Over forty men had to be dug out and there were cases of total exhaustion during the period December - January, after which The Household Battalion moved to other trenches at Bouchavesne and went into the 'rest area' of Arras in mid February.
The Scarpe, Arras, Fampoux and Roeux (8th April to 14th May 1917)
The misfortunes of Britain's allies in 1917 dictated circumstances in which three major battles, Arras, 3rd Ypres and Cambrai, were planned and fought. The Household Battalion was involved to the hilt in all three. The French commander Nivelle was replaced by Marshals Foch and Petain in Spring 1917 after part of the French army mutinied. Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig launched the Arras offensive on Easter Monday 1917 to draw German attention away from the disaster which had overtaken the French army, further South. As a cavalry officer, he saw the mission of cavalry as the exploitation of the eventual break through in the trench war stalemate and put the 3rd Cavalry Division into the attack on the Hindenhurg Line at Monchy le Preux on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. There was a general advance of the infantry north and south of the 45 foot wide, 6 foot deep Scarpe River flowing east to west through Arras. North of the Scarpe, the Household Battalion, as part of the 10th Brigade in the 4th Infantry Division were allotted the task of advancing along the swampy banks of the muddy little river on the hamlet of Fampoux, (formerly pop. 1,015 but now flattened and enemy held).
While their brothers of The 1st and 2nd Life Guards and Blues rode against barbed wire and machine guns with the 3rd Cavalry Division to Monchy, The Household Battalion stalked towards Fampoux with rifles and bayonets in the sleet. With them were the Warwicks, Seaforth and Royal Irish Fusiliers. It took the Brigade 11 days to take Fampoux and The Household Battalion lost 9 Officers and 166 non Commissioned Officers and Men killed in action. Ahead was the smaller but even more formidable German defence at Roeux at a bend in the river, one mile from Fampoux and 6,000 yards from the Hindenhurg Line itself.
Roeux Cemetry (3rd May and 12/13th May 1917)
Roeux cemetery, 50 yards north west of the village, must have been among the least attractive pieces of land in northern France in 1917. Packed with Germans, well entrenched, it was even less desirable when The Household Battalion attacked on 3rd May. With the Irish Fusiliers, who had attacked the village. The Battalion was forced back with above 230 casualties. The attack was renewed on the 12th May, the same battalions taking the same objectives. Smoke shells gave a screen which prevented a clear picture of the attack from Battalion Headquarters, but overnight, and in the early hours of the 13th May, The Household Battalion won one Military Cross and nine Military Medals and forced the Germans out of Roeux at bayonet point. The squalid little villages of Fampoux and Roeux cost The Household Battalion nine Officers killed and a total of nearly 500 casualties, that is to say, more than half the original strength of The Battalion. The remnant moved to the cellars under the old city of Arras, ruined and bleak. They rested here for some days while their losses in manpower were made good by new faces - recruits from Windsor.
Ypres 1917; Poelcappelle and Passchendaele (4th to 13th October 1917).
Russia, our eastern ally, had virtually ceased to be militarily effective against the Germans from July 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 took Russia out of the war altogether. Italy suffered the crushing defeat - at the hands of the Austrians - of Caporetto. The United States had come into the war in April 1917 but no United States troops arrived in France in any number until 1918. The British authorities were apprehensive of the arrival of new German Divisions on the Western Front from the Russian Front. The 3rd battle of Ypres began on 31st July 1917 and lasted to the 10th November. Its aim was to kill as many of the enemy as possible - not to gain ground. The fact, reckoned in killed and wounded per mile of territory gained, the 3rd Battle of Ypres was more expensive than the Somme 1916. 8,200 British casualties were inflicted per mile of territory gained at Ypres against 5,000 on the Somme.
On 10th October 1917, Colonel Portal's unit came under command of 12th Brigade and was instructed to be ready to advance on 12th October on extreme right of the 12th Brigade which was on the extreme right of the 4th Div with 18th Inf. Div on its right. The Household Battalion's objective was a few pillboxes and MG posts marked on the map as Requette Farm, left and east of Poelcappelle where fighting had been going on since the 9th October.
Early in the morning of the 12th October, Colonel Portal's men lost touch with the Royal West Kents, who were on their right and acting as extreme left flank battalion of the 18th Infantry Division. The Household Battalion also came under heavy fire from Poelcappelle which contained enemy. Part of a company of The Household Battalion were able to get into Requette Farm, capture its machine gunners and guns and hold it. Their hold was tenuous since no runner, (the only means of communication with Battalion Headquarters), could get by Poelcappelle on account of snipers. Nonetheless, this dwindling remnant of a company of cavalry-cum infantry held out until the late afternoon. At 1500 hours, 12th October, only three Officers remained in the forward companies of the Battalion. They were Captain V.A. Cazalet, MC, (1LG); 2nd Lieut. C.H. Davies, (2LG); and Lieutenant A.L. Martin (Gren. Gds.). All three had begun the action in the Support Company. The men under their command were utterly exhausted and not a single non-Commissioned Officer above the rank of Corporal remained. In the dark of the small hours of the 13th October, the 3 rifle companies still left at the rear had to be taken up in relief by the Commanding Officer, his Adjutant, Captain R.W.G. Dill, and Battalion Corporal Major Wright.
To the right of the 4th and 18th Divisions, the attack on Passchendaele failed and wounded men, and some able, drowned in the mud beneath floating duck-boards. There was a withdrawal along the whole sector of the Poelcappelle - Passchendaele Front. The reckoning for The Household Battalion was a loss of over 400 men for a temporary gain of 600 yards.
In rest at Arras, The Household Battalion received its last draft of 500 new faces from Windsor in late October.
THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI 1917
On the 20/21st November 1917, 324 British tanks attempted to take the Hindenburg line by storm west of Bourlon Wood. The tank attack failed. Infantry went in and took Bourlon Wood 23rd-28th November, but the Germans launched attack with infantry, artillery and poison gas, 30th November to 3rd December 1917 and restored the former position.
THE DEFENCE OF BOURLON WOOD (30th November to 3rd December 1917).
This reference is to the activities of Colonel Portal's men during the battles near Cambrai between 20th November and 3rd December 1917. Here in an effort to end the stalemate of trench warfare by the use of the mobility of tanks, the British army had been engaged in violent action, the vortex of which was a few acres of tree stumps and rain filled shell holes known as "Bourlon Wood .
The Battalion Padre, the Rev. R.E.M. Haines wrote of Bourlon Wood "I doubt very much whether his, (a clerical acquaintaince) religious beliefs would have stood us in much stead in holding Bourlon Wood at Cambrai, living as we had to, under the most beastly shell and gas fire, simply in shell holes, and come away as we did with just 90 fit men.' So much for routine trench duty'
In another letter, the same Padre Haines writes, "I see the Cambrai despatch is out. We feel a bit disappointed as we thought one of our Troopers might have got the VC for which he was recommeded . The Bosch began shelling us with his beastly gas shells and everybody dashed for his respirator. In the confusion, the Colonel could not find his and called for his orderly to bring it. It couldn't be found but in a few seconds the orderly came back with one in his hand and said 'Here it is Sir, Colonel Portal put it on. When we came to take them off, twenty minutes later, the orderly was seen dead without a gas mask. He had deliberately given his own respirator, which he was perfectly justified in keeping for himself, to the Colonel, knowing that it meant death for him in a few minutes. One can never take a mean view of life and men but we did think he might have been given the Victoria Cross."
The End (27th January to 16th February 1918.)
The Household Battalion was disbanded on 16th Febuary 1918. It had proved too much to fill the gaps in its ranks from The Household Cavalry in addition to the maintenance of drafts for The 1st and 2nd Life Guards and The Blues, who were due to lose their horses for the rest of the war and become The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Guards Machine Gun Regiments. Thus on 27th January 1918, the remains of The Household Battalion manned the trenches for the last time. It was as muddy, cold and unpleasant as ever, but this time the mere handful of men were not called on for either offensive or defensive action on any large scale. By early February all that remained was Battalion Headquarters, which dispersed 16th February. George V wrote a valedictory, "You can rest assured that as an infantry battalion formed from The 1st and 2nd Life Guards and The Royal Horse Guards, you have added yet another chapter to the grand traditions of my Household Cavalry."
All That Remains
The Household Battalion never had a Standard or Colour during its existence but in 1919 a King's colour was made for The Battalion. It remains in the place where it was lodged by Colonel W R Portal, in Holy Trinity Church, Windsor on Sunday, 25th July, 1920 on the left of the chancel screen. On Sunday 16th October 1921, new alter rails in the church were dedicated to the memory of the 450 men of the Household Battalion who had given their lives during the Wars darkest years.
The Colour is the normal Union Flag of the infantry colour but unique in respect of its gold stitched title, in the first quarter, "The Household Battalion'' and, totally without any other device or heraldic embellishiment. It bears at the centre of the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick, the Crest of The Household Cavalry and the cap badge of The Household Battalion. The finial is the spear point of old days, before 1858 and not The Crown and Lion emblem.
The final gesture of this gallant Battalion came when it was given the choice of selecting its honours to be stitched on the Colour. Colonel Portal decided that the honours to which The Household Battalion was entitled should be embroidered on the Standards of the parent Regiments of Household Cavalry.
The Household Battalion Colour therefore bears no battle honours.