Blaenau Gwent and the First World War

3rd Monmouthshire Officers

3rd Battalion the Monmouthshire Regiment in World War I

Prelude

The Monmouthshire Regiment had been formed in 1908 as the Territorial Army unit for the county and was made up of three Battalions drawn from different areas of the county.  Abergavenny was the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion (“3rd Mons”) which included two companies from Abertillery, one each from Blaina, Sirhowy, Tredegar, Ebbw Vale and Cwm and one company from Abergavenny.  

War broke out on August 4th 1914 and the order to mobilise the 3rd Mons was received at 6.10 p.m. on the same day.  Throughout the night of the 4th, the companies from the various towns and villages mustered and caught trains to Abergavenny and the whole battalion gathered outside the Market Hall at dawn on August 5th.  Later, they marched on to Bailey Park, where they were given tea.  

Late that night, the battalion travelled by train to Pembroke Dock where they joined up with the rest of the Welsh Border Brigade - the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Monmouthshire Regiment and the 1st Herefords.  They stayed at Pembroke Dock for four days before being moved to Oswestry to complete their training.  By August 31st, the whole brigade had been billeted in Northampton.  

In November, after a fortnight digging trenches in East Anglia, the battalion was ordered to prepare for service in India.  On November 18th, their Indian equipment arrived - duly followed by the cancellation of the original order!  The Battalion returned to East Anglia and spent Christmas there before being transferred to Cambridge on January 10th, 1915.  It was now reorganised into four double companies (Companies A, B, C and D) of about 200 men each.  

At the end of January, orders were received for service in Flanders and the battalion sailed from Southampton on the S.S. "Chyabassa" on the night of February 14th, 1915.

Monmouthshire Regiment Soldiers
 
Wulverghem

After a gruelling journey by train and forced march, the battalion reached billets at Steenworde.  Here they were to stay for the next ten days for their final training in the techniques of trench warfare.  A detachment of 40 men under Lieutenant Lancaster was sent to Ypres to join up with men from the 1st Battalion to form a new unit - the 171st Tunnelling Company which first saw service at the infamous "Hill 60".  

Meanwhile, having been transported to Bailleul in a fleet of 100 London omnibuses, the rest of the unit was posted to the 83rd Brigade of the 28th Division under the overall command of Major General Bulfin on March 6th. 

On March 3-5th, each of the four companies was taken in turn into the front line for "twenty-four hours' instruction" in the care of regular troops.  Private G. Norton of A Company wrote home:

 "The firing line is not as bad as you would think, at least it is not so bad as we expected it to be.  The trenches we have been in are dry ones, and the only thing is the cold nights.  We were shelled rather heavily last Tuesday; but our guns gave them something after.  The men we were in with didn't seem to mind much.  They say "Keep your napper down and you're alright!"" 

On the night of March 12th, 1915 the battalion was sent into the front line near a small village called Wulverghem about 5 miles south of Ypres.  They were responsible for about 1000 yards of the trenches known as 10a and 10b.  They stayed here for five days and were under heavy fire almost continually.  Private A. E. Jones, of the Machine Gun Section (under Lieutenant Martin of the Hill) wrote home:

 "The Gun Section has been in the trenches.  We went in last Friday week and came out on Wednesday night . . . We had two killed and eight wounded out of our battalion, so you can guess we had it a bit rough . . . The trench I was in had it the worst, I think, as they knew we had the machine gun there.  I thought our number was up, as they shelled us for an hour and ten minutes.  I don't think I want to go through the same thing again.  One good thing was we had fine weather during the time we were there . . ." 

The battalion continued its frontline service in this area until April 2nd when it was taken out of the line for a very brief period of rest.  On April 6th, the entire brigade was inspected by General Sir H. Smith-Dorrien and, on April 8th, the battalion was transported by bus to Ypres.

Ypres

When the warring armies dug in during the winter of 1914-1915, the Allied lines developed a large bulge around the Belgian town of Ypres.  This was the infamous "Ypres Salient" and the lay of the land meant that the British forces in this area were surrounded on three sides by the opposing German armies.  It was here, on April 22nd 1915, that the Germans first used poison gas as the prelude to one of the most determined attacks of the war.  The ensuing battle - later known as the Second Battle of Ypres -was to last almost a month and cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. 

On their arrival at Ypres on April 8th, the 3rd Mons had moved straight into the front line.  They were to relieve French troops to the east of Polygon Wood and spent the next four days in the firing line.  Private Reg Pritchard wrote home to his sister:

 "It is much worse fighting where we are now to what it was in the last place.  One of the chaps out of the same section as I am got wounded in the leg yesterday morning as we were leaving the trenches.  One man got killed in our company by a trench mortar shell, he was in the same platoon as dad." 

After a short stay in Ypres itself, the battalion found itself back in the front line on April 17th.  Here they were to stay, without relief, for the next 17 days.  On the afternoon of May 2nd, a shell landed among the machine gun section.  Corporal Bosley, of Tredegar, wrote home to tell his parents of the death of his brother, Fred:

 "I do not know how to write this letter, which is to convey such bad news and to give you all such a blow.  Poor Fred was killed by a shrapnel bullet at about 4 p.m. on Sunday May 2nd.  He died instantly.  He and Lieut. Martin were killed by the same shell.  They buried them in an open space by a wood and I followed his last remains to the grave where the Colonel read the burial service.  I cannot write anymore.  He came to me about twelve o'clock.  I wish I had kept him with me." 

The gas attack of April 22nd had caused widespread panic among French troops and German forces swept through the gaps which opened up in the front line.  Canadian and British troops struggled to hold back the attack but, after suffering constant shelling and very high casualties, they were forced to retreat to a new defensive line.  The 3rd Mons evacuated Polygon Wood on the night of May 2nd/3rd and reformed on the new G.H.Q. line at Potizje.  A Co. (Capt. Baker) and C Co. (Capt. Steel) moved up into support trenches. B Co. (Capt. Gattie) were stationed in the front line while D Co. (Major Lewis) stayed in reserve at Potizje. 

The evening of May 4th saw the beginning of a terrible German bombardment followed by a fresh attack.  Casualties were horrendous and the front line troops soon became exhausted.  The next morning (May 5th) Capt. Steel led half of C Company up to reinforce the front line.  They were caught by German machine gun fire and suffered terrible casualties.  In civilian life, Capt. Steel was a doctor and he set about attending the wounded as well as leading the advance.  For this action, he was later awarded the Military Cross.  One of the men in his company, Private A. M. Mitchell, wrote home:

 "Words utterly fail me to say what a hero Capt. O. W. D. Steel was during that fearful struggle.  From every person I meet they tell me the same tale.  Under very heavy shell and maxim fire he went out and fetched in wounded, bandaging them and if he doesn't deserve the V.C. no man on earth ought to get it . . . I would like you to let everyone in Abergavenny know what a brave officer he is." 

An hour later, A Company (under Capt. R. A. Lewis) also tried to reinforce the front line and again suffered terrible casualties.  Pvt. I. Skidmore was awarded the D.C.M. for attending to the casualties until he was so badly wounded himself that he could not carry on. 

May 6th was a "quieter" day.  Shelling was less severe and there was no German attack.  The heavy shelling returned on May 7th and casualties began to rise again. 

On the morning of May 8th, the battalion had three companies in the front line and one in support.  Half a mile to the north, the 1st Monmouths were fighting with the 83rd Brigade.  The German bombardment began at 5.30 a.m. followed by the first infantry attack at 8.30.  This was driven off.  Almost immediately, the shelling started again and, at 9.00 a.m., the Germans attacked again and were again driven back.  This was to be the pattern throughout the day. 

After another hour of shelling, the front line was virtually destroyed and there were few survivors from A and D Companies.  Those that were left were wiped out by machine gun fire trying to evacuate the front line trenches.  Of the 500 men in A and D Companies only 29 were left. 

The survivors of C Company were forced back to the battalion headquarters where they regrouped.  The battalion commander, Col. Gough, led them in a counter attack on Frezenberg.  They held their new position until 11.00 a.m. when they were ordered to withdraw.  They found themselves back where they had started out from on May 3rd at Potizje.  At 2.30 p.m. and again at 3.30, the 3rd Mons joined a counter attack on Verlorenhoek.  This eventually ground to a halt at 5.30 p.m.  The battalion was finally withdrawn from the firing line and marched to billets in Vlamertinghe.  Private Badham, of Abergavenny, wrote to a friend in the military hospital in Leeds:

"The 8th was the day I shall never forget.  They started bombarding the same time in the morning, and about half an hour afterwards we could hear a long blast of a whistle, and the attack started.  We were only a handful of men, and they came on in thousands, but we kept them at bay; but I knew we would have to give way before long.  The fellows on our left and right were retiring and we had orders to do the same, but we did not go until we put some more shots into them.  

It was in the retirement that we lost a lot of men.  They were bayoneting our wounded that we had to leave behind.  Well, we got back to our second line of trenches, and reinforcements came up.  After that I don't know what happened.  I went to the hospital with shrapnel in my back and a big bruise on my shoulders and the gas in my eyes." 

Throughout the battle, B Company (under Capt. Gattie) were separated from the rest of the battalion.  They were in the front line in a wood near Red Lodge.  They were shelled heavily all day throughout May 5th, 6th and 7th.  Strangely, the battalion history records that: 

 "the nights were absolutely quiet, and it was safe to walk about in the open behind the front line.  Rations and letters came up regularly and one fortunate officer even received a tin of cooked sausages!" 

On the morning of May 8th, the wood came under heavy shelling and Lt. Groves and Lt. Palmer were killed by a direct hit on their dug-out.  After two German attacks on the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the front trenches, B Company charged across open ground to reinforce them and Capt. Gardner was shot dead.  The company stayed in the front trench all day and eventually became cut off.  

Casualties were high and the soldiers were coming under fire from their own troops behind them.  Under cover of darkness, the remnants of the company began to withdraw to rejoin the rest of the battalion.  Just as they got back to the G.H.Q. line at dawn on May 9th, a staff officer ordered them back into the front line.  They were finally withdrawn on the morning of May 10th and marched back to Vlamertinghe where they rejoined what was left of the rest of the battalion.  

On May 11th, the 3rd Mons briefly to the front line where the commanding officer, Lt.Col. Gough, was wounded.  Major Bridge took command and the battalion moved out of the line to bivouacs at Poperinghe.  Here they found piles of parcels from home which it had not been possible to deliver during the battle - most of them were addressed to men who could no longer receive them. 

Casualties between April 22nd-May 8th had been horrendous.  Of the 1020 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion the Monmouthshire Regiment who had arrived in France in February 1915, only 134 were left alive on the morning of May 10th.  On May 14th, what was left of the battalion was moved to the village of Winnezeele in France for a period of rest and re-organisation.  

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the regiment had also been virtually wiped out at Ypres and, on May 22nd, orders were received for the remains of the three battalions to amalgamate under the command of Major W. S. Bridge. 

On May 24th, the Germans launched a fresh bombardment and infantry attack on Ypres and the battalion again found itself in the front line - this time at the infamous "Hellfire Corner".  They were relieved the following day and returned to Vlamertinghe.  They were joined by the 2nd Monmouths on May 27th and the official amalgamation of the battalions took place on May 28th.

  

Dickebusch and Kemmel

By June 12th, the amalgamated regiment was back in the front line - this time at Bois Carre near Dickebusch to the south of Ypres.  Here they remained until June 19th.  The battalion history records that "this part of the line was a pleasant change, but was unfortunately not free from casualties".  Before they were relieved, the regiment had lost 7 killed and 32 wounded, mostly during severe shelling of B Company on June 17th.  The regiment had two more spells in the front line before leaving this area, from June 26th-July 3rd and July 11th-14th.  Fortunately, casualties were lighter - 2 killed and 8 wounded. 

On July 19th, the battalion were sent for the first of two tours in the front line at Kemmel - July 19th-22nd and July 28th-August 2nd.  Here the regiment took part in the successful counter-mining of a German mine directly under the front line.  On August 2nd Capt. Walbeoffe-Wilson, who had only joined the battalion on July 26th, was shot through the head as he peered over the parapet.  The regiment was then relieved and marched to billets at Locre. 

On July 5th the first steps had been taken to reform the original three battalions of the regiment.  The 2nd Monmouths were detached on July 24th and the 1st and 3rd Battalions parted company on August 11th.  The newly re-formed 3rd Mons were organised into four new companies under Lt. J. M. Jones, Capt. H. G. Tyler, Lt. L. D. Whitehead and Lt. H.A.Hodges.  They were also re-attached to the 83rd Brigade and returned to the front line at Kemmel on August 22nd-28th. 

On September 2nd, the 3rd Mons received orders to join the 49th Division as one of the new Pioneer Battalions.
The Yser Canal

During 1915, it became clear that the digging of fire trenches and communication trenches and the construction of light railways and bridges required specialist skills and knowledge and that there was a need for specialised units to do this work who were also fully trained infantrymen.  It was soon recognised that units raised in mining areas had all the necessary experience and skill to fulfil this role and so the idea of the Pioneer Battalions took shape.  All three battalions of the Monmouthshire Regiment became the pioneer battalions for their respective divisions. 

At the beginning of September 1915, the 3rd Mons were sent to the Yser Canal front just north of Ypres.  They set up their battalion headquarters in Elverdinghe Chateau which stood among a largely undamaged forest of "splendid oaks".  

The canal and the front line were below sea level in this area and flooding and mud was a constant problem.  The battalion set about the construction of a series of drainage ditches to ease the problem.  On September 21st, B and D companies moved out from the chateau grounds to "Dunbarton Dug-outs" on the west bank of the canal and started work.  A and C companies remained at Elverdinghe and the two groups relieved each other every six days. 

Work was carried out at night and the conditions were terrible.  The Germans occupied Pilckhem Ridge to the east and the whole area was constantly shelled and swept by machine-gun fire.  To cross the canal, soldiers had to use small temporary foot bridges, described by the battalion's historians as "very unhealthy, as they were open to enfilading machine-gun and shell fire from the German positions".  There was a constant stream of casualties.  Added to this, the ground was boggy; men often sank up to their waists in mud and had to spend weeks in wet clothing in bitter cold without hot food. 

On the morning of December 19th, the chateau and canal came under heavy shell fire followed closely by a gas attack.  All four companies moved into the trenches to reinforce the front line against the expected German attack.  The attack never came but the battalion was shelled all day and all the following night and had 40 men killed or wounded.  Lance-Corporal Dixon and Private Moore were later awarded the D.C.M. for rescuing wounded men and bringing them in through wrecked trenches and over the rickety wooden bridges across the canal. 

On December 27th, the battalion was taken out of the front line and received orders to leave the Yser Canal.  At 2.30 p.m. on December 29th, the whole battalion paraded in the grounds of Elverdinghe Chateau prior to moving out.  As the men fell in, "an ominous sound was heard, like an oncoming railway train" and 17 inch shells began to burst among the ranks.  In a few seconds, 39 men were killed and 30 wounded.  Among the dead were many of the men who had survived the slaughter of Ypres.

The Somme

For most of January 1916, the battalion was rested but, by February 14th, they had been moved to the Somme sector to help prepare for the "big push" which everyone knew was to come.  The various companies set about their new tasks - A Company repairing roads near Bouzincourt, B Company building a light railway through Aveluy Wood across the Ancre Marshes and on to Thiepval Wood and C and D Companies working on "Northumberland Avenue" a new road running from Bouzincourt to Martinsart.  

Although the rest of the 49th Division were relieved on March 5th, the 3rd Mons were left to carry on their pioneer work in the "forward area".  They were split up to work on various engineering schemes throughout April and May.  D Company began construction of a new road from Forceville to Englebelmer which became known as "Monmouth Road".  It was completed on June 20th.  By this time, tension was running high as the opening for the Battle of the Somme had been set for July 1st, 1916.  On June 24th, the 3rd Mons were re-united as a battalion and ordered to rejoin the 49th Division.  They were marched back to Bouzincourt and reached their destination 2 o'clock on the morning of July 1st. 

When the British attack began, the battalion was in support of the 36th (Ulster) Division who were attacking the Schwaben Redoubt - a formidable German strongpoint - through the Thiepval Wood.  By July 3rd, the battalion was digging the new British front line at the Schwaben Redoubt and Ancre.  Here they came across the dead and wounded of the terrible fighting that had taken place over this ground.  They also came under heavy shelling and German grenade attacks.  The site of these trenches is now marked by the Ulster Memorial Tower. 

On July 6th, A Company came under attack while digging trenches near the German lines captured by the 49th Division.  The pioneers had to become infantrymen again and were ordered to hold the line until the next morning.  14 men were killed or wounded and Second-Lieutenant Straker of Abergavenny subsequently died of his wounds.  On July 9th, A and D Companies helped hold off another German attack and four men were awarded gallantry cards.  On July 16th, B Company came under heavy shell fire while repairing an ammunition dump and lost 19 killed and wounded. 

The battalion spent the whole of July under battle conditions and suffered heavy casualties.  On August 5th, they received news that it was now impossible to reinforce the Monmouthshire Regiment as a whole and that the 3rd Battalion was to be broken up to supply drafts for the 1st and 2nd.  

A farewell parade was addressed by Major-General Perceval on August 8th.  On August 14th, 200 men left to join the 2nd Battalion and on August 24th the remainder left to join the 9th Entrenching Battalion - they were later transferred to battalions of the Welch Regiment and Royal Welch Fusiliers. The 3rd Mons had been broken up.

Three Heroes from Cwm

On the morning of December 19th, while in the front line on the Yser Canal, the Battalion came under heavy shell fire followed closely by a phosgene gas attack.  All four companies moved into the trenches to reinforce the front line against the expected German attack.  The attack never came but the battalion was shelled all day and all the following night and had 40 men killed or wounded.  Lance-Corporal Dixon and Private Powell, from Cwm, were later awarded the D.C.M. and M.M. for rescuing wounded men and bringing them in through wrecked trenches and over the rickety wooden bridges across the canal.  

One of the wounded men was Private George Stanley Clist, also from Cwm, who had been badly gassed.  Ironically, the heroism of his rescuers was to no avail as he died shortly after he was brought to a nearby dressing station.


Bibliography

Dixon, J. and J. 1991. With Rifle and Pick (Cwm: the authors)