Follow the Drum: Go on the Die Hards!
The gripping story of the Middlesex Regiment at Neuve Chapelle continues as the local men face going over the top. The detail of this part of the battle is based on an eye-witness account given by Sgt Davis, which was reported in the local newspaper, the Richmond & Twickenham Times (May 1915). The story of the fighting continues…
Sadly, the first line to advance was met with terrible machine gun fire. Going over the top at 8.10 am the troops were shouting as they left the trench: ‘Go on, the Midds! Go on the Die Hards!’. (Richmond & Twickenham Times May 1915). Sgt Davis’s letter vividly describes those moments between the soldiers as the second and then third lines went over: comrades and friends together.
‘Over they go and yet more cheering. Don’t forget Mons lads! … A handshake as one chum passes another. “Good luck Jim, take care of yourself”. They meet the same fate as the first only a few getting up to a trench facing the Huns.’
Through the third advance Sgt Davis bravely led his men (a half a platoon) through to an old trench by jumping a thick hedge over spongy ground. Reaching an old trench of the Midds, they landed in with the Devons. He witnessed the death of a young officer there in the communications trench and it sums up the fate of so many of the officers.
‘Here I saw poor Lieutenant McFarlane, the tallest and most popular officer of ours killed: 6ft 8in in height and very broad he was a splendid man. He led the bomb throwers and made too good a target’.
No time for sentiment in the battle the Sergeant continued to lead his men forward despite the conditions in the trenches:
‘The communication trench is full of water, but what is water after what we had experienced in the trenches? … We have reached here without one of No. 2 platoon getting hit’.
A Maxim Jammed
Sgt Davis fulfilled his duty as platoon leader trying to urge his men on though in the face of obvious dangers:
‘Now then boys give them hell; plug into them!’
At the crucial moment their machine gun jammed but a quick recovery was made by mending the lock on the spot just as the Devons came to their aid.
‘… just as the Devons came with their gun we got ours into action. The Devons team was captained by a colour-sergeant, who was bowled over as soon as he was sighted… all their team went down. The Germans could not find ours, as we had found out where they were situated. Then they got a peppering’ (Sgt Davis).
With no time to think No 2 platoon were under orders to form-up as part of the third advance. It is possible to sense the nerve-jangling anticipation through Sgt Davis’s account.
‘At last the order comes down. “Packs off! Now then boys, we are for it. Get ready the third line.” A whistle sounds and over the parapet we go. “Go on the Die Hards: don’t forget Mons! Whirroo!’
A Terrible Sight
Once over the top, these men then saw the fate of the first two waves of the Middlesex Regiment: they had been cut down.
‘The sight that met our eyes almost staggered us: our poor first and second line lying in all positions. Then we saw red, we reached the barbed wire, trampled on it, cut and hacked it the barbs cutting us in all places. We were beaten back. “Rally boys and at it again!” (Sgt Davis, Richmond & Twickenham Times May 1915).
The orders, once in the enemy trench was to stop using their bayonets and take prisoners, though there was one dug-out where the Germans refused to come out. The bomb-throwers were sent in to clear it out and the large pieces of shrapnel came close to No 2 Platoon.
‘If it had struck our heads we should have been killed on the spot. I remarked “Harrison old chap, we are not to be killed.” (Sgt Davis).
This calm expression of relief and disbelief marked his survival of a historically cruel battle.
An Unlucky Bomb
Sgt Davis describes yet more incredible details about the shortage of water for the troops after the battle, another brush with a shrapnel bullet at the end of the day, changing positions in the trenches under darkness and then subsequently being ordered to take another trench with his men after 11 pm. This resulted in his being blown into the air by another bomb and dumped in a deep traverse. His men were left in a distressing condition by the impact.
‘… another bomb exploded amongst us… blinding poor Hussey and severely wounding six others, and we had a very poor night of it for the poor fellows could not help crying in their pain. The next morning they were got away at daylight.’ (Sgt Davis, Richmond & Twickenham Times May 1915).
The heavy artillery supporting the Midds was brought in at this point to bombard the village causing the Germans to rapidly withdraw.
‘We squared matters up a bit. We remained in this position some days and were relieved by the 13th London and we marched back to our billets, a remnant of a battalion, but no one prouder in the world. And I say, although I have suffered and am still in great pain, that there is not a luckier or prouder man who assisted to take Neuve Chapelle.’ (Sgt Davis, Richmond & Twickenham Times).
The tribute paid by the paper to Sergeant Davis and the local men of the MIdds was to sign off the article in capital letters as being by “ONE OF THE DIE HARDS”.
The images accompanying this feature show the Old Battalion Badge and the front page of the history of the Middlesex Regiment, which can be accessed in Local Studies , Old Town Hall, Whitttaker Avenue, Richmond TW9 1TP. Look out for more about the involvement of the local community in the First World War in future posts that will appear in this blog.
[ by Patricia Moloney, Heritage Assistant ]