The Berkshire Yeomanry in World War One

Although war had been feared for some time and preparations were well advanced, its outbreak came suddenly. Within days of the announcement of mobilisation at the beginning of August 1914 the Berkshire Yeomanry was shaking down at Churn, while the Regimental Depot at Yeomanry House, Reading, dealt with an influx of volunteers. Part of the Mobilisation Plan was that the Regiment should be reorganised into three squadrons; C (Newbury) Squadron was disbanded and its manpower redistributed within the Regiment.

Gallipoli 1915
Like many other Yeomanry regiments the Berkshire Yeomanry at first remained in the United Kingdom on Home Defence duties. On mobilisation the Oxfordshire Hussars had joined the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders and their place in the Brigade was taken by the Dorsetshire Yeomanry. In April 1915 the Division, complete with horses, was sent with other troops to Egypt where they remained until August when ordered to the Dardanelles. Although training in the Middle East had been as mounted troops, the decision was made in early August that the Yeomanry would fight dismounted; each Regiment fielded a double-strength Squadron, leaving the horses with a strong guard. The Brigade (or Regiment as it was now officially and confusingly called because of its diminished size) sailed from Alexandria on 14th August aboard SS Lake Michigan; after trans-shipment on the 17th at Mudros the Regiment landed on A Beach East at Suvla on the morning of the 18th.

Chocolate Hill (Hill 53) and Scimitar Hill (Hill 70)
The Regiment's first contact with the Turks was a bloody affair. The Brigade War Diary records:

20th August

8.00pm The Brigade marched by night to Lala Baba and bivouacked on the shore west of the hill (rate of march about one mile per hour owing to frequent halts to allow supply carts to pass both ways).

21st August

3.00pm The Brigade took part in general attack against enemy entrenched in Hill 70. The Brigade advanced across the open leaving the Salt Lake on the left flank by Regiments in following order: Berks, Dorsets, Bucks, each Regiment in line of troop columns. Machine guns brigaded on right flank. During this advance the brigade came under heavy shrapnel fire (casualties in this advance two officers 40 other ranks).

4.45pm The Brigade formed up under cover of Hill 53.

5.00pm Verbal orders received to attack Hill 70.

5.15pm Berkshire Yeomanry started the attack. Dorsets, Bucks following in support. During this attack heavy casualties were caused in all Regiments - owing to the skilful way in which the enemy's trenches had been sited it was impossible to see them (a large amount of scrub which had been burnt made the advance difficult). The Dorsets and Bucks had meanwhile reinforced the Berks first line and also prolonged their left.

6.15pm The Berks with portion of the Bucks and Dorsets charged and captured the enemy's front trench. The portion captured formed the apex of a triangle and owing to enfilade fire the Brigade was unable to hold the trench and had to evacuate it. All Brigade staff and 70% Regimental officers had become casualties.

8.00pm The Brigade gradually retired in various small parties and eventually rallied on 22nd on western slope of Hill 53.

The casualty rates were high as can be judged from the following figures:-

HQ & Signal Troop - going in 4 Officers and 47 Other Ranks - returning 45 Other Ranks
Bucks - going in 9 Off & 312 ORs - returning 3 Off & 178 ORs
Dorsets - going in 6 Off & 301 ORs - returning 1 Off & 159 ORs
Berks - going in 9 Off & 314 ORs - returning 4 Off & 150 ORs

Included amongst the Berkshire officers killed were the Commanding Officer Major E S Gooch and Lt W E G Niven, the father of the actor David Niven.

A Victoria Cross, two Military Crosses, three Distinguished Conduct Medals and eight Mentions in Despatches were won by soldiers of the Berkshire Yeomanry on this occasion.

For the remaining three months of the Gallipoli campaign the Regiment remained in the defence on and around Chocolate Hill, plagued by heat, disease, lack of shade and water, and the continuous shell and rifle fire of the Turks. On 1st November 1915 the Second Mounted Division finally embarked for Mudros and Egypt. The evacuation from Gallipoli was the only well-executed part of a most unfortunate campaign.

Of the 135 Berkshire Yeomen who had remained behind with the horses, a number went with the composite Yeomanry Regiment which was part of the Force sent to Salonika. This was an operation on the border between Greece and Bulgaria which lasted until 1918 and about which very little concerning the Berkshire Yeomanry has been recorded.

In Egypt however, although the main Turkish threat to the Suez Canal and the British troops in Egypt came from the East, attacks were made on their rear by the Senussi; these were a fanatical sect which had been plaguing the French and Italians since 1900. In December 1915 a Western Frontier Force was formed, which included the Second Composite Yeomanry Regiment containing a squadron each of Berkshire, Dorset and Buckinghamshire Yeomanry, with the aim of eliminating the Senussi attacks.

On 11th December a detached force of armoured cars and horsemen including elements of the Berkshire Yeomanry successfully attacked an enemy party of about 400 at Wadi Sennab; there was a similar action two days later at Em El Rakhum. This Force was led by Major Wigan who had been wounded at Gallipoli while in temporary command of the Regiment. Heavy rains over Christmas delayed further operations until mid-January when the Force were able to drive the Senussi out of Hazazin.

After this action the Yeomanry were again reorganised. The Second Composite Yeomanry Regiment was broken up and the various squadrons were reunited with the survivors from Gallipoli. The Second South Midland Mounted Brigade was renumbered the Sixth Mounted Brigade. Some months later the Camel Corps was raised as part of the Western Frontier Force - many yeomen swapped horse for camel.

Action against the Senussi was resumed in the Western desert in February 1916 and on the 25th of that month a charge by the Dorset Yeomanry was decisive in breaking up the Senussi forces who never again stood up to the British.

During the summer and autumn of 1916 the Berkshire Yeomanry were employed in patrolling and outpost duties in Upper Egypt. Then under command Lt Col J T Wigan, they moved east to the Suez Canal where the defences were extended into the Sinai. There was little activity during the remainder of the year for the Berkshire Yeomanry who, as a result, were occupied with patrolling and training.

The Battles for Gaza
In January 1917 the British began their advance towards Jerusalem. After dislodging the Turks from the Sinai the British column advanced towards the enemy's principal strong-point at Gaza, arriving there in early March.

Men of the regiment on the outpost line in front of Gaza circa April 1917. For a short time in the spring the parts of the country were very like English meadowland which was very much appreciated by the horses. One in four men had to act as horse-holder for the section's four horses.

The First Battle of Gaza (26th/27th March) was not a success. Fog delayed the infantry attack on what turned out to be well-prepared positions and the enemy were able to bring up reinforcements to repel the attack. The Berkshire Yeomanry formed part of the screening force which was attacked by 4,000 Turks who arrived from Huj; although these were held off it was their arrival which caused the decision of the British Commander to order his force to retire. The Berkshires withdrew successfully but by then had lost their commanding officer Lt Col J T Wigan, who had been seriously wounded.

The Second Battle of Gaza was fought on the 17th - 19th April, with the main assault planned for the 19th. The Imperial Mounted Division was ordered to mount a diversionary, dismounted, attack. After a strong Turkish counter-attack the Sixth Mounted Brigade, held in reserve, was called up: they advance at a gallop. Eyewitness, Lieutenant O Teichman (Veterinary officer of the Worcestershire Yeomanry), later writing in the Cavalry Journal of 1936, described the action thus:

The situation of the Worcestershire Yeomanry, indeed of the 5th Mounted Brigade was very critical when an urgent message was sent to the 6th Mounted Brigade. Looking south-westwards from the Atawineh Ridge across two miles of level ground towards the Wadi Munkheileh. The writer could see the latter enveloped in clouds of black smoke from the shell which were bursting over it. Suddenly he saw a sight which thrilled him: out of the wall of smoke which hid Munkheileh there emerged a mass of horsemen which gradually opened out in to extended order and filled the foreground. it was the Berkshire Yeomanry led by their CO Lt Col J T Wigan, and C Sqdn Bucks Yeo. Disdaining to dismount, for they knew it was only a matter of minutes, the yeomanry galloped on, here and there a horse and rider coming down as they covered the two miles between the Munkheileh and the Atawineh Ridge. Dismounting the yeomanry came in to the advance at once and after driving the Turkish front line of the Turkish advance, they effectively re established the broken line.

The Berkshire Yeomanry took a number of the enemy trenches and fought off further Turkish attacks. Major Philip Wroughton, much loved by all ranks, was fatally wounded by shellfire during the battle. Subsequently, as in the first battle, the British troops were ordered to withdraw.

After the failure of Second Gaza, General Sir Edmund Allenby assumed command of the British Forces. A cavalryman and one of the best British generals of the Great War he reorganised his forces before resuming the advance on Jerusalem. The Desert Mounted Corps was reformed to provide three cavalry divisions: the Yeomanry Mounted Division, The Australian Mounted Division and the ANZAC Mounted Division. The task of these three cavalry divisions during the build-up was to patrol the waterless expanses between the two opposing armies. As one division patrolled, another was held in support while the third went into training camp.

The Advance to Jerusalem
The Third Battle of Gaza took place at the beginning of November 1917; the Berkshire Yeomanry was engaged in minor actions near Beersheba, part of the successful covering operation aimed at preventing counter-attacks similar to those that had bedeviled the earlier battles. The result of the battle was to drive the Turks from the Gaza - Beersheba line and the British Forces moved on in pursuit of the enemy.

El Mughar 13th November 1917
El-Mughar was a ridge held in strength by the Turks and dominating the surrounding countryside. The Sixth Mounted Brigade was ordered to dislodge the enemy. The Bucks and Dorsets led the advance covering 4,000 yards at the gallop under heavy machine-gun fire. They took the enemy trenches at the charge. The Turks began a heavy fire from the flank and it was not until the Berkshires arrived that the Turks were finally driven off the ridge. In all, the Brigade captured 1,000 prisoners, two field guns and 14 machine guns. This action, in which the Turks lost several hundred dead, is cited in the Official History as a fine example of the successful employment of all arms. The artillery attached to the Sixth Mounted Brigade throughout this campaign was the Berkshire Battery RHA, another Territorial unit.

The Yeomanry had a similar success two days later when the Yeomanry Mounted Division was ordered to take the Abu Shusheh ridge held by a strong Turkish rearguard. A and D Squadrons of the Berkshires attacked dismounted on the left towards the highest point of the ridge, while B Squadron, with the Bucks Yeomanry, made a mounted assault on the lower slopes to the right, with the Dorsets in reserve. This combination of mounted and dismounted attacks proved entirely successful with the Turks losing 750 men for the loss on the British side of only 50.

The operations in Palestine formed part of the last great cavalry campaign. In his history of the campaign, Field Marshal Lord Wavell cited the charge at El Mughar as one of the "notable demonstrations of the dictum that "speed is armour" and show that, provided there is no natural obstacle to stop it, a mounted attack may get home by sheer speed where an infantry attack would be slow and costly."

After a few days rest and reorganisation the Yeomanry Mounted Division marched into the Judaean Hills. Advance parties found the enemy well dug in on the Zeitoun ridge. For two days there was desperate fighting amongst the rocks and ravines in atrocious weather. Sadly, in the afternoon of the second day the Berkshire Yeomanry commanding officer, Lt Col A M Pirie, was killed. The arrival of Turkish reinforcements led to a British withdrawal leaving just a precarious foothold on the ridge.

Conversion to Machine Gun Corps
By January 1918 the Berkshire Yeomanry was brought up to a strength of 20 officers and 450 other ranks and resumed training and refitting. In April the Berkshire Yeomanry was amalgamated with the Royal Bucks Hussars under Lt Col F H Cripps to form the 101st Battalion Machine Gun Corps.

In May 1918 the Battalion was ordered to France. The fighting on the Western Front was at a critical stage; the French forces had taken the brunt of the German offensive of March 1918, and the American troops were still in training.

The journey began inauspiciously; within hours of leaving on the night of 26th May the SS Leasowe Castle was torpedoed with the loss of the Adjutant and one soldier, both drowned. There was a three week delay while lost equipment was replaced. After re-embarkation on HMT Caledonia the Regiment landed on the 21st June at Taranto in Italy and entrained for France.

The Regiment arrived in France in time to take part in the final allied offensive which began on 8 August 1918. Like heavy artillery, Machine Gun Battalions were Corps troops under the direct command of the Corps Commander. In an attack the Battalion provided covering fire for the assaulting infantry division during the initial assault. Thereafter, the individual companies supported the Brigades as needed. Flexibility was the principal requirement, which, coupled with the ability to master the detailed staff requirements of the complex fire-plans, was ideally suited to the Yeomanry tradition and spirit.

The Battalion first saw action in support of the 51st Highland Division at the Battle of Scarpe on 29th August 1918. The fighting was in complete contrast to that in Palestine; the dash across the desert on horseback was now replaced by deliberate assault across muddy fields and shell-holes.

The Battalion moved to Belgium on 16th September in preparation for the attack on the Wytschaete Ridge to the South of Ypres. This attack began on 28th September and the Battalion's task was to support the 35th and 14th Divisions in the assault on the Comines Canal. In contrast to many of the Great War attacks there was no preliminary artillery bombardment and the machine gunners went forward with the leading waves of infantry.

This attack was successful and the Battalion remained with the 35th Division for their last action of the war, that at Tieghem on the 31st October 1918, which resulted in the easily accomplished capture of the western bank of the Schelde. Plans to cross the river on the 11th November were brought forward after the Germans withdrew on the 8th. The 101st Battalion was no longer required for the assault and was back in Courtrai when the Armistice was announced, and there it remained until demobilisation a few months later.

2/1st and 3/1st Berkshire Yeomanry
In addition to the Regiment deployed to the Middle East, designated 1/1st, the Berkshire Yeomanry formed two further Regiments.

The 2/1st Berkshire Yeomanry was raised on the 23rd September 1914 at a time when all Territorial Force regiments had been ordered to form second line units. As well as acting in a Home Defence role they provided a source of trained soldiers for the first line regiment.

The 2/1st Berkshire Yeomanry was formed at Bearwood, Wokingham, where it remained until May 1915 when it moved, after a month at Churn, to Kings Lynn in Norfolk. East Anglia was believed to be the likely site for a German invasion. Although this threat never materialised the enemy carried out several air raids in the area. The War Diary for 1915 - 1916 records 2/1st Berkshire Yeomanry as providing "Observations Posts for Hostile Aircraft" as well as taking part in the occasional general turnout when the German navy came close to the coast.

At the end of March 1916 horses were exchanged for bicycles. Mounted thus, 2/1st remained in England until early 1918 when they were sent to Ireland to carry out garrison and guard duties.

3/1st Berkshire Yeomanry was raised at Bearwood in April 1915 as a training unit for the first and second line regiments. It remained in existence until the Spring of 1917 when training within the British Army was reorganised. From July 1915 the 3/1st was based at Tidworth although between October 1915 and April 1916 its headquarters was based at Windsor in the new Drill Hall at 15-16 High Street.

Recruiting during the Great War
Until conscription was introduced in 1917 recruiting was the responsibility of the County Associations. After the first burst of enthusiasm in 1914 those recruiting figures that survive reveal a considerable variation from month to month.

In August and September 1914 1/1st Berks Yeomanry received some 190 volunteers. 2/1st Berks Yeomanry raised 431 recruits between September and December 1914. A further 92 recruits were raised between January 1915 and September 1916, 53 recruited within the Kings Lynn district. 3/1st Berkshire Yeomanry recruited 491 men in 1915 and more than 200 in 1916. By the middle of January 1917, 800 men had passed through 3/1st Berkshire Yeomanry.

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