Horses on the First day of The Somme?

#1
I was looking at a German account of the First Day on the Somme opposite Fricourt, which I found interesting and it mentions that British Officers appeared on horseback. This surprised me as I thought that we wouldn't allow even the eccentrics to go that far.
However as on many other occasions I may be wrong. Anyone got any evidence?

Relevant part of the extract:


1st July 1916 - Battle of Albert
The Attack on La Boisselle - Fricourt (German account)
from Ralph J. Whitehead

At 8 o'clock in the morning the English artillery fire suddenly grew quiet on the foremost positions of the R.I.R. 110 and 111. Instead they placed new fire waves upon the rest of the batteries and all hollows and roads that lead from the rear to the front. Hardly had the artillery fire ceased on the forward positions when a terrible earthquake followed by the R.I.R. 110. The enemy had exploded two large mines with powerful charges by La Boisselle. The one, more insignificant blast, caused no losses; the position had previously been evacuated. However, the other explosion formed a crater approximately 50 m deep by La Boisselle. The stones rained down for a full minute striking the entire regimental sector. This explosion was the signal for the attack. Wave upon wave came out of the English trenches. They walked forward in and on both sides of the Bécourt Hollow. Dense columns followed out of the Bécourt Wood. Staff and company leaders appeared on horseback. So the enemy attack troops rolled on toward the crater debris. The Badeners waited for the approaching enemy, with their machine guns being silent. When the storm waves were only a few meters from the forward crater line, a hurricane of fire roared into the dense enemy ranks. Daring individuals stood up, throwing hand grenades. In hardly one minute the flat battlefield, densely peopled by the attackers, appeared empty. However, shortly, groups then entire masses began to yield to Bécourt, and finally it appeared as if everyone wanted to hurry to the rear.

Full article, - and quite interesting-.

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/thegreatwar/articles/timeline/attackonlaboissellefricourt.htm
 
#2
Part of the 'plan' was to exploit gains made by the Infantry by having Cavalry advance through and play merry hell in the Huns rear, the Ossifers on horseback may have been observing to see if the time for bugles sounding the advance had come.
Then again maybe they didn't want to get their boots muddy.
 

mercurydancer

LE
Book Reviewer
#3
dwarf

I will have to review the historical evidence for the formations close to La Boiselle but there were cavalry formations behind the infantry attacks in many WW1 battles so it doesnt seem unusual that the german accounts saw men on horseback. Cav were in the battle plan for 1 july but as for the details I will have to check. Company leaders in the Infantry were definately not on horseback. I would say in deep cynicism that no staff officers would be outside of thier chateaux during a battle but that is an incorrect statement. Far more staff officers died in WW1 than in WW2 by an awful long way.
 
#4
Pitswamper said:
Part of the 'plan' was to exploit gains made by the Infantry by having Cavalry advance through and play merry hell in the Huns rear, the Ossifers on horseback may have been observing to see if the time for bugles sounding the advance had come.
Then again maybe they didn't want to get their boots muddy.
May well be, but it seems to me more in the lines of 'the gesture' rather like kicking the Football towards the Hun lines as the lads went over.
I know the cavalwy didn't get a look in at all, and it was less than realistic to expect them to do so, - except in GHQ.
 
#5
I seem to recall that High Wood had been abandoned by the Germans very early on and our cavalry were on stand-by to attack it. The commanders weren't sure of the fact and didn't risk it. Big mistake, because by September tens of thousands of men had died trying to take it. And it's only a couple of hundred yards square at the most. Very spooky place.
 
#6
mercurydancer said:
dwarf

I will have to review the historical evidence for the formations close to La Boiselle but there were cavalry formations behind the infantry attacks in many WW1 battles so it doesnt seem unusual that the german accounts saw men on horseback. Cav were in the battle plan for 1 july but as for the details I will have to check. Company leaders in the Infantry were definately not on horseback. I would say in deep cynicism that no staff officers would be outside of thier chateaux during a battle but that is an incorrect statement. Far more staff officers died in WW1 than in WW2 by an awful long way.


Now I find that both surprising and interesting. Got any sources for me to look at?
 
#7
Awol said:
I seem to recall that High Wood had been abandoned by the Germans very early on and our cavalry were on stand-by to attack it. The commanders weren't sure of the fact and didn't risk it. Big mistake, because by September tens of thousands of men had died trying to take it. And it's only a couple of hundred yards square at the most. [i]Very[/i] spooky place.
Know what you mean. I was camping/interailling in 81 on Chemin Des Dames on the Aisne, one of the big battlefields, and I tossed my dossbag down in the woods in the ruined village of Craonne. No way could I sleep, I had to go to the nearest house (farming country) and ask if I could doss in his field. Spent the whole night with my head inside my dossbag. Spooky? Now I know what it means.

don't know if it was a mistake to withhold the cav. given the state of the field and often untouched wire, would they have made much progress, it seems doubtful.
 
#8
Dwarf said:
mercurydancer said:
dwarf

I will have to review the historical evidence for the formations close to La Boiselle but there were cavalry formations behind the infantry attacks in many WW1 battles so it doesnt seem unusual that the german accounts saw men on horseback. Cav were in the battle plan for 1 july but as for the details I will have to check. Company leaders in the Infantry were definately not on horseback. I would say in deep cynicism that no staff officers would be outside of thier chateaux during a battle but that is an incorrect statement. Far more staff officers died in WW1 than in WW2 by an awful long way.


Now I find that both surprising and interesting. Got any sources for me to look at?
Command and Control on the Western Front . Sheffield and Todman (eds)
Spellmont 2004.

gives (p29) the following stats for staff officer casualties in the BEF during the early months:

4 Aug 14 - 30 Nov 14: 22% (yes, twenty-two)

1 Dec 14 - 28 Feb 15: 2.2%

1 Mar - 31 May 15: 7.6%

No idea what the WW2 stats are, but I doubt they ever come near 22% at any point.

Again, don't know the figures but I suspect the casualty rate at 1* and above was much higher in WW1 as well.

OaC
 
#9
#10
Dwarf said:
Now I find that both surprising and interesting. Got any sources for me to look at?
Richard Holmes goes over it in detail in his book "Tommy". Think it would be in the part entitled "Brain and Nerve". A good read.

Hope this helps.

Peter
 
#11
At this moment i'm watching a boxed set of DVDs called The First World War, based on a book by Prof Hew Strachan, 10 hours long!. One epsiode claimed that 79 British General Officers were killed in action in the course of the war. I find that figure extraordinary!

Just re read Murphy_Slaw's link which seems to validate the figure.
 
#12
And some went back for more, brave men indeed.

British Senior Officer Casualties on the Western Front 1914-1918

Borrett, Oswald Cuthbert GOC Infantry Brigade 197 Bde Wounded
Borrett, Oswald Cuthbert GOC Infantry Brigade 54 Bde Gassed

Carton de Wiart, Adrian GOC Infantry Brigade 105 Bde Wounded
Carton de Wiart, Adrian GOC Infantry Brigade 12 Bde Wounded

Gosling, Charles GOC Infantry Brigade 7 Bde Wounded
Gosling, Charles GOC Infantry Brigade 10 Bde kia

Kay, Sir William A.I. Bt. GOC Infantry Brigade 2 Bde Wounded
Kay, Sir William A.I. Bt. GOC Infantry Brigade 3 Bde kia

Sackville-West, Hon. Sir C.J. GOC Infantry Brigade 190 Bde Wounded
Sackville-West, Hon. Sir C.J. GOC Infantry Brigade 21 Bde Wounded


Stewart, Alexander Edward GOC Infantry Bde 2 NZ Bde Wounded
Stewart, Alexander Edward GOC Infantry Bde 3 NZ Bde Wounded
 
#13
Thanks for the replies so far Gentlemen.
 
#14
Got a bit off thread there with the Senior Officer stats, Sorry!

The same documentary series shows a number of photos of cav on horseback including Germans (Uhlans?)

Also not forgetting the Australian Light Horse charge at Bersheeba!
 
#15
Old_and_Cold said:
Dwarf said:
mercurydancer said:
dwarf

I will have to review the historical evidence for the formations close to La Boiselle but there were cavalry formations behind the infantry attacks in many WW1 battles so it doesnt seem unusual that the german accounts saw men on horseback. Cav were in the battle plan for 1 july but as for the details I will have to check. Company leaders in the Infantry were definately not on horseback. I would say in deep cynicism that no staff officers would be outside of thier chateaux during a battle but that is an incorrect statement. Far more staff officers died in WW1 than in WW2 by an awful long way.


Now I find that both surprising and interesting. Got any sources for me to look at?
Command and Control on the Western Front . Sheffield and Todman (eds)
Spellmont 2004.

gives (p29) the following stats for staff officer casualties in the BEF during the early months:

4 Aug 14 - 30 Nov 14: 22% (yes, twenty-two)

1 Dec 14 - 28 Feb 15: 2.2%

1 Mar - 31 May 15: 7.6%

No idea what the WW2 stats are, but I doubt they ever come near 22% at any point.

Again, don't know the figures but I suspect the casualty rate at 1* and above was much higher in WW1 as well.

OaC
Half of the staff officers killed in the First World War were killed by small arms fire, which obviously puts them within a mile or so of the front-line.

Assuming it was enemy bullets of course... :)

I know of at least one memoir (unpublished) which concerned a Kiwi who used to pot British officers at Gallipoli.
 
#16
Dwarf said:
I was looking at a German account of the First Day on the Somme opposite Fricourt, which I found interesting and it mentions that British Officers appeared on horseback. This surprised me as I thought that we wouldn't allow even the eccentrics to go that far.
It wouldn't surprise me as the British did use cavalry all the way through the war. Not to very much effect though. However in June 1918 two cavalry divisions where used to support the commonwealth attack (probably as both cavalry and mounted infantry role).
 
#17
[quote="Old_and_Cold]Command and Control on the Western Front . Sheffield and Todman (eds)
Spellmont 2004.

gives (p29) the following stats for staff officer casualties in the BEF during the early months:

4 Aug 14 - 30 Nov 14: 22% (yes, twenty-two)

1 Dec 14 - 28 Feb 15: 2.2%

1 Mar - 31 May 15: 7.6%
[/quote]

The Aug-Nov 1914 figures cover the retreat from Mons which would explain the high losses of staff officers. It would be interesting to see comparable figures for the second (1940) BEF's retreat.

Looking at the Senior Officer Casualty list, the vast majority are Brigade or Divisional commanders. My understanding is that they had staff officers, they weren't staff officers themselves - this might be distorting some figures. Conversely, many officers on the staffs would have been below general rank.

Regarding the German account that started this, the 'identification' of staff and company leaders is perhaps an assumption based on who had horses in the German Army. I don't know the lie of the land but given the observation of 'dense columns' - not what you'd expect from the assaulting troops - might Herman have been watching supports with mounted elements moving up?
 
#18
This dates from 1918 but shows that the use of cavalry was still in vogue at that point.

"An exclamation from my orderly made me turn around. I could hardly believe my eyes. Two squadrons of Corps Cavalry were advancing at a trot, apparently unscathed by the shelling. When one hundred yards away from me, they formed line and drew sabres. I heard the shouted command of their leader on a big plunging chestnut, and away they went at a canter straight for the centre of all the trouble. I had no chance to tell them to make their way towards the left where there was more chance of exploiting our success. The enemy shelling had increased; they seemed to bear charmed lives; and I was fascinated by the sight. When they had gone about one thousand yards they topped a slight rise. There was a crescendo of machine gun fire, and down they went like a pack of cards: odd riderless and wounded horses were careering back, but the two squadrons had ceased to exist. That was the only cavalry charge I ever saw. I never want to see another." From "The Cambridgeshires 1914 to 1919" 21st-27th of August 1918 by Colonel M.C. Clayton
 
#19
[quote Regarding the German account that started this, the 'identification' of staff and company leaders is perhaps an assumption based on who had horses in the German Army. I don't know the lie of the land but given the observation of 'dense columns' - not what you'd expect from the assaulting troops - might Herman have been watching supports with mounted elements moving up?[/quote]

Pertinent comment.
Though I know that certainly at the start of the war the top dogs in a battalion also went on four legs in some cases, having seen photos.
I have also just looked at my copy of Robert Graves Goodbye to All That, and shows a photo of 1 RWF attacking near Mametz, the bunching is more than we would expect today, and may be interpreted as dense columns.

You are very possibly correct as the opposition positions were invariably on higher ground, and would have a good view of the situation.
It would explain away the question that the article raised, though knowing how eccentric British Officers can be, I wouldn't have put it past someone to take Dobbin up to the front Line.
Mind how the hell they got him to scale up the trench-ladder is beyond me. :)
 

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