The following text describes the actions which took place on the days surrounding the death of Private Herbert Bernard Cooper of Avon Dassett.
CHAPTER XI11 – WIELT JE
1915 May 13th.-At 3.30 on the morning of the 13th, a day few of us will ever forget, just as it was beginning to get light, the enemy opened an intensely heavy shell-fire on the trenches held by the Brigade, that portion occupied by the 18th Hussars being particularly battered. The cross-fire from heavy howitzers was annihilating, and the bombardment was of such intensity that a black pall hung over the trenches occupied by the Regiment for long periods from 3.30 a.m. till 10.30 a.m., when intermittent shelling continued till dark. The noise was deafening and the place a veritable inferno. An inspection of the trenches in the late afternoon disclosed the fact that, commencing with the left of the 9th Lancers and right through the18th Hussars lines the parapets had, in many places, been completely demolished, that it was impossible to distinguish where the original line ran, and only here and there were found little lengths of trenches remaining. Behind these were grouped, however, the heroic remnants of the squadrons, about a hundred men out of the three hundred who had occupied them the night before. Casualties had commenced to be severe very early in the morning, “A” Squadron and a part of “B ” suffering heaviest at first. About 5.30 a.m. a part of ” B “Squadron, which held the right of the 18th line, was withdrawn by its commander, Capt. O’Kelly, to a ditch some 150 yards in rear of the firing line, which he had been informed by the former occupants gave better cover, but he did not consider it at all a good position and he brought his men back to the original line about an hour later, where the rest of ” B,” under Lieut. Lane, had remained.
Telephonic communication with Brigade Headquarters was broken at once, and the levelling of the trenches, combined with the searching fire of German machine guns, made it impossible to keep up anything but very intermittent messenger communication, and Lieut. Meredith made some very successful trips on this duty, though he was wounded whilst executing them.
About 8.45 a.m. it was reported that the two left squadrons of the 18th had retired, but this was not correct. The centre
squadron, under Capt. Lyon, had suffered very severely: out of the three Officers with it one, Lieut. Taylor, was killed and
of the others Capt. Lyon and Lieut. Chasemore were wounded. Three out of the four Troop Sergeants were killed. Sergts. Graham, East and Attree were killed and 64 other ranks were either killed or wounded. The left squadron had its trenches on the right smashed to atoms and was compelled to close into the left while, as we have already seen, a part of ” B ” Squadron temporarily withdrew a very short distance. Capt. Lyons, himself wounded at the time, with the remnant of “A,” cutoff from all communication, believed that he was “left in the air ” and withdrew to the support line held by the 9th Cavalry Brigade. Here he was compelled to retire from the fight for a time in order to get his wound dressed, and when he had done this and also discovered that he had been deceived in thinking that the other squadrons had retired, he collected the men who had gone back with him, and a few others as well, and led them up again to the original line. The almost total annihilation of a part of the front line, together with the facts related above, no doubt led the 11th Infantry Brigade, which was on the left of the 18th Hussars, to conclude that the two squadrons of the Regiment had retreated, and a company of the Essex Regiment was despatched to re-occupy the line, but our men were found to be still in possession when the company, after heavy losses, fetched up, and their surprise and satisfaction in finding friends behind the shattered parapets was considerable; they strengthened our line and, with a machine gun which they brought with them, helped us to repel some attacks, which the enemy attempted in a very half-hearted manner. Major Corbett was commanding the Regiment on this day, as Colonel Burnett was in charge of the Brigade, and the former had his Headquarters with ” C ” Squadron, towards the left of the 18th Hussars line. When the heavy shells were falling in great quantities towards 8 a.m. and the left of ” C ” Squadron trenches were being rapidly demolished, Major Corbett went towards that part of the line to cheer up the defenders and to see that they held on tight. Whilst moving along the line he was twice very slightly struck by fragments of shells, and a few minutes later he was hit in the head by a large fragment, which killed him instantaneously.
During the remainder of the day the remnant of the 18thheld the still intact parts of the parapet, aided by the men of the Essex Regiment and their machine gun; and though the shellfire was not quite so intense in the afternoon on our immediate front, other portions of the Cavalry Division on our right came in for more special attention, and there was more than one critical period when portions of the line gave way. A vile day it was too, driving rain and a gale blowing from the northeast,the trenches in a horrid state, and rapid movement, just when it was most needed over exposed spots, usually ended in a slithery fall. The length of the day also added to its other amenities; it seemed that eternity couldn’t be longer. However the laws of Nature usually necessitate an eventual period of darkness, and this day proving no exception to the rule, we were at last able to take stock of our surroundings and get up the squadrons of the 4th Dragoon Guards to take over the line, which the 18th Hussars were now quite too weak to hold any longer. The actual trenches originally occupied by our Regiment were useless, so our successors set to work to dig a fresh line of a narrower and more suitable type. The losses of the Regiment on this day were enormous. All, or nearly all, of them were caused by shell-fire. Two four-gun batteries of howitzers, firing salvoes of cross-fire every minute for periods at a Stretch, were the main engines of destruction. Such good men we had loft, too, men it was impossible to replace, who had served long periods in a Regiment which we have always regarded more as a family concern than a mere automatic war machine. It takes us many years back to the day when Major Corbett first set foot in the Regiment, and throughout that long period all who have known him can testify to his sterling qualities, his honest, open, kind-heartedness and his cheery disposition. All loved him and all deeply regretted his death. We had lost, too, a most promising young Officer in Lieut. Taylor who, during the time he had been out at the front, had shown great zeal in his profession and had on several occasions done some very good work ; we hoped for a successful career for him in the Army, and felt sure we should not be deceived. Then those tried and trusted non-commissioned officers, who had done so well in peace time and during the war, men who knew their troops inside out, who had initiative, and who could not only instruct but also lead their men, who were certain of promotion and who would have done the Regiment so much future good: how we regretted their death, and how little we could show it!
Sergts. Armitt, Graham and Craig were men it seemed impossible to do without, but it had to be so. Sergts. Holt and East had gone too, and Sergt. Attree, the latter pluckily and successfully regaining his old place in the Regiment at the time. It seemed there was no end to our losses and we should have no leaders left. Capts. Lyon and Waudby, Lieuts. Lloyd, Chasemore, Millerand Meredith were all wounded, luckily none of them very seriously, though sufficiently to incapacitate them and to reduce our strength in Officers to a vanishing point.
Excluding Officers, our losses by squadrons were :-
Killed Wounded Unaccounted for Total
“A” Squadron 12 40 15 67
“B” “ “ 7 25 7 39
“C” “ “ – 38 2 40
19 103 24 146
Adding :-Officers-2 Killed, 6 Wounded Total – – 154
It was beyond reason to hope, too, that any of the “unaccounted for ” were alive; none of the enemy had penetrated our line, and no counter-attacks had been made. Moreover, in addition to the above losses, there were many who were seriously damaged by concussion and a few who had slight wounds; the former cases often developed into serious affairs until the nerve system regained its proper tone. We had taken 12 Officers and just under 300of all ranks into the trenches on the night of the 12th, and in twenty-four hours had loft half our strength, and this loss was caused entirely by shell-fire, which shortage of gun ammunition prevented our artillery from countering. Late at night on the 13th an Infantry Brigade relieved the2nd Cavalry Brigade at Wieltjze and we betook ourselves to Potijze Chateau and remained in support there on the 14thuntil 8 p.m., when we were relieved by the 2nd Cavalry Division, and marched back through Ypres to Vlamertinghe, where we rested in hutments for three days. Capts. C. L. Wood and Anderson rejoined us here and their return was very welcome, as we were grievously short of Officers and men.
The Memoirs of the 18th (Queen Mary’s Own) Royal Hussars
INCLUDINGOPERATIONS IN THE GREAT WAR BY
BRIG.-GENERAL CHARLES BURNETT, C.B., C.M.G.
WINCHESTER : WARREN AND SON, LI-MIT ED, 85 HIGH STREET 1926