DISASTER AND TRIUMPH
An account of two battles, which the Kings Own took part in during the First World War, vividly illustrate the horrors and fortune of war. The title is, of course, the reverse of Kipling's two imposters triumph and disaster..
1st King's Own were stationed in Dover in 1914 at the outbreak of war where they were to be part of an anti-invasion force in the south-east. Plans however were quickly changed and they found themselves sent to France with the rest of 4th Division.
1st King's Own detrained at a little town called Le Cateau in the early morning of 25 August 1914 after 24 hours in the train, where there was not much sleep for the men in the cattle trucks. They then marched forward all day and then having been ordered to take over the rearguard had marched back again, deployed, and fought their way all through the night. Exhausted, they reached their position on the extreme flank of Le Cateau at dawn on the 26th .
The King's Own unwisely formed up on a forward slope ( i.e. in full view of anyone to their front ) at a village called Haucourt, piled their arms and removed equipment. The soldiers were all lying down and it was believed that the French cavalry were out in front protecting the Brigade. Sadly they did not follow the example of the Lancashire Fusiliers who were digging in on the higher ground above them.
At about 6 am whilst most of the men were asleep an officer reported that a few horsemen had ridden out of a wood some 1,000 yards away, observed the battalion and ridden off. He probably thought they were the French cavalry.
Suddenly and with no warning machine gun fire from 800 yards opened up on the battalion as it was massed on the forward slope. In the first burst eighty-three men were killed including the CO, Lt Col Dykes DSO, and over 200 wounded. There was chaos as arms were unpiled and ammunition unpacked. The machine gun fire was followed by shrapnel bursts above the exposed men.
The Second-in-Command rallied the battalion and withdrew it behind the crest ( i.e. the "reverse" slope ) and another battalion from the Brigade came forward to support it and then relieve it. However there was no peace as that night the Germans entered Haucourt and further fighting took place in which the King's Own took more casualties - the dead being buried in the village cemetery, later to be part of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
As for the officers and men who were killed in the disaster, that morning they were buried where they fell by the Germans in a mass grave. The exact position of the grave is not known but it can be surmised.
Late that night the King's Own slipped away on a long march of 150 miles. Nights were spent in the open or under any shelter they could find. It was not until the river Marne had been crossed and the Germans given up the chase that anyone was able to take off their boots.
This was a horrifying introduction to the war as the battalion were caught unprepared. Even if they thought there was a protective screen in front of them they should have avoided the forward slope and taken basic defensive measures. However we are not to know the orders and information they were given on arrival at Le Cateau so any criticism should perhaps be tempered.
We now move on towards the end of the war. The collapse of Russia in 1917 had allowed Germany to move large numbers of Divisions back to the Western Front and the Americans had entered the war. The Germans needed to act quickly so as a last throw of the dice they launched a huge counter offensive against the British and French Armies. 21 March 1918 saw the opening of a campaign, which strangely seems to have no name. Thirty-one German Divisions attacked on a thirty-two mile front with the aim of splitting the British and French armies.
The 8th King's Own, one of Kitchener's Army battalions, as part of the 3rd Division was attacked. It had already distinguished itself on the Somme and at Arras. At dawn on the 22nd the battalion was attacked by the Germans but they met with no success either that day or the next. Their right flank however was exposed but determined counter-attacks by the King's Own drove the Germans off with the Lewis gunners and riflemen along the line inflicting many casualties.
A tired battalion remained in the line and two days later were attacked by fresh German troops. Brigades on the left and right gave way leaving 8th King's Own isolated. The two forward companies withdrew to join the reserve companies and for a while still held fast. The CO was killed and under intense shellfire they pulled back to a new, barely organised position some 1000 yards to the rear. The battalion stood firm while others were falling back. By the evening the exhausted enemy ceased his attacks.
Twenty-four hours later, with a still unbroken line, the 8th Battalion were relieved. In its four days of continuous action the battalion had suffered over four hundred and eighty casualties. The resistance of the Division and in particular 8th King's Own played an enormous part in holding up the great German offensive.
The delay imposed on the Germans allowed Haig to bring forward his reserves and stabilise the line, which was not breached. The young battalion had acquitted itself with great honour.
As a postscript to this story it is worth mentioning that the King's Own in the First World War provided two regular, three territorial and five Kitchener battalions that saw active service. The Kitchener battalions were raised in response to Lord Kitchener's " Your Country Needs You" appeal-in one day in August 1914 30,000 men joined the Colours. The King's Own losses for the war were great and the Roll of Honour in the Regimental Chapel in Lancaster records the names of 6,515 men who lost their lives; a large number of whom were from the Lancaster area.