The Kensington Rifles/Prelude to War

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Chapter I: Prelude to War

The country in the late nineteenth century was defended by a small standing army, and Militia - a body of troops raised from the citizenry, by voluntary enlistment. In ancient times, it was a force raised by the Lord Lieutenant of a county - for the sovereign – to be on hand, in times of invasion, rebellion, or similar emergency. The men were to keep themselves available and serve for six years; training was to be for twenty-four days annually… whilst providing their own arms and equipment. Initially, the Lord did this by detailing off one-hundred men from his estates, placed under the command of a captain. This recruitment was achieved by compulsion, but later, the body of men were Volunteers. The final acts of the Militia were in the Crimean War followed a little later by the South African War. Thereafter the Militia was superseded - to become a more professional force of trained Volunteers; this came about in May 1859.

‘’After the Crimea War the government realized that the country had insufficient forces available to defend the state. It was decided to have a Volunteer Force made up of three part-time corps: of infantry, gunners and engineers. It did not take long for this force to be considered an important part of the nation’s defence.’’

On April 29th 1859, war broke out between France, under Napoleon III, and the Austrian Empire - the Second Italian War of Independence, and there were fears that Britain might be caught up in a wider European conflict. Lord Truro, one of a number of aristocratic county landowners, raised the 4th Middlesex Volunteer Corps [West London Rifles], based at Islington. He maintained command for twenty years. The 2nd Middlesex [South] were raised by Lord Ranelagh. All three were to prepare for this possible encounter. Two years later many of these isolated bodies of troops were amalgamated into battalion-sized units. By 1862, the government issued a grant: to provide headquarters, drill-halls, transport, uniforms and equipment. Later, the government, appreciating the worthwhileness of the scheme, removed the financing from those of county precepts to a national commitment. To carry out the reorganization of the commission, The Volunteer Act of 1863 was announced, whereby each man was to offer their services to her Majesty through the Lieutenant of a County. An annual inspection process, overseen by an officer from the regular army, was put into place, and the standards set by order in council.

In 1872, The Secretary of State for War, by the Regulation of the Forces Act, ordered the jurisdiction removed from the County Lieutenants. The Childers Reforms of 1881, nominated, ‘that the rifle volunteer corps should be volunteer battalions of the new ‘county’ infantry regiments’. Childers set about ensuring that regiments were henceforth made up of two battalions – one based at home the other overseas. The intention was that there would always be a body of troops capable of responding to an emergency. These changes took a further twenty years to be completed, including adopting a standard dress and designated names and badges. The Volunteers now numbered a quarter of a million men. This reserve force incorporated: the Militia – the country regiments, the Yeomanry – the mounted infantry, and the Volunteers – the urban regiments.

In 1859, the 4th [North] Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps was formed at Islington, and the 2nd [South] Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps formed in Fulham. The West London Rifles became the 2nd. Volunteer Battalion of The King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1881; four years later they moved to Kensington changing title to the 4th Middlesex Rife Volunteer Corps. A further six years saw its title change yet again to 4th Middlesex [West London Rifles] Volunteer Corps.

The stimulus for all these changes was the South African War of 1899-1902. Three-quarters of those that volunteered were declared physically unfit - to fulfil the duties of a soldier. This shocked the Home Office. A call was made to recruitment officers through the Inspector General to find out why so many men were in such poor health. The conclusions: the plight of the poor - their sub-standard housing, and lack of a healthy diet. Both these were considered equal factors. The legislative reforms made by the Liberal government went some way to correct the deficiencies. However, this correction process took another ten years.

In The South African Wars Britain sustained nearly thirty-four thousand casualties for the cost of two hundred million pounds. It was declared, ‘that the war had been a shambles.’ It did however point the finger at national shortcomings. The formation of The Boys’ Brigade, by Sir William Smith, and The Boy Scouts, by Baden Powell, was partly to improve the physique and mental health of young boys, who might in the future become army volunteers. Both these organizations and others like them gave the young, especially children in inner cities of Glasgow and London, something to work for and benefit by. The 6th London Company, Boys’ Brigade was formed in 1900. The first company was set up by Sir William Smith seventeen years before, on 4th October 1883. The organization quickly caught on in Glasgow, and the first company in London started soon after. The Brigade’s uniform aped that of the army – white haversack, brown belt and Pill Box hat. The bands of the pill box hat were pipe-clayed and the buckles of the belt and haversack polished brass. The lads conventional school uniform, plus lapel badge and everyday black shoes, formed the basic uniform… Dummy rifles were issued to provide the necessary equipment for drill and parade purposes. All the drill commands and actions followed those of the Army Manual, of the 1880s. In effect, The Boys Brigade, taking boys from the age of eleven to seventeen, was a valued recruiting arm of the country’s military establishment. Sir William introduced camping to continue the boys association with each other during the school’s summer holiday.

The Edwardian economy, business structure, and social attitudes, rested in part on the philosophy of Imperialism, and that was about benevolent exploitation and economic advantage. However, what marks the period was the direct intervention by a number of well meaning individuals to improve the social and economic opportunities for all. Britain’s population in 1901 was 42 million and growing fast. Railway goods traffic grew by one thousand per cent and the first of many steam tractors were now used to tow pantechnicons. The numbers of carmen, carters and carriers grew in London to over a quarter of a million and the delivery of coal and heavy equipment soared. In 1903, Joseph Chamberlain used the Imperialistic mood in the country to suggest a series of tariff reforms. Over six million frozen rabbits were imported from Australia. This and the import of wheat just two of the items which undermined British goods. The tariffs were meant to protect the country from the dumping of foreign goods and gather taxes to help promote new social measures. This hint of protectionism undermined the idealistic concept of free trade weakening the country’s great imperial dream… the concept of Imperialism never really recovered…

1904 was the year the Entente Cordiale was signed. This was a treaty which gave France a free hand in Morocco allowing Great Britain to take over the ‘governorship’ of Egypt. Germany saw this as aggressive… any move by Britain was a stab in the back to the Kaiser, who was paranoid about Britain’s grand designs – he saw this as an attempt to corral his ambitions of expansion… This was the start of Britain and France becoming allied against Germany and the creation of the British Expeditionary Force by Haldane at the War Office. Britain signed an alliance with Japan, in 1902, France by 1904, and Russia in 1907. The General Election of 1906 brought a Liberal Government, under Campbell-Bannerman, to power. Richard Haldane was appointed Secretary of State for War. The Liberal Party’s manifesto centred upon social reform. They intended to do something about the poor health of the working class and the amount of unemployment – ‘greater equality and equal opportunities for all’, was the cry. The Liberals were determined to push through all their schemes related to social reform even if it created a quarrel between the two Houses of Parliament. Poor Campbell-Bannerman did not live long enough to see the fight for he died two years later. The only bill he did see become law was, ‘that medical inspection was to be introduced into state schools’. This laid the foundation of the modern system of school clinics. His other great works involved his Resolution, ‘that within the limits of a single parliament the final decision of the Commons should prevail’. This broke the power of the House of Lords.

Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary of the minority Liberal Government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, appointed Richard Haldane to the post of Secretary of State for War. Grey had committed The British Army to go to the assistance of France, if attacked, needed a strong pair of hands to ensure the army was up to the task. After much studied thought Haldane concluded that an Expeditionary Force was needed – settled on six infantry units. These six units required back-up to cater for leave, sickness, casualties and deaths by a home-defence force. Haldane further supported his suggestions by having drawn up two Field Service manuals implemented by the new Director of Staff Duties Douglas Haig. The supply of officers was filled by volunteers from universities and public schools trained by Cadet Corps and university Rife Corps. It was realised by Chancellor St. John Broderick, that the army was not capable of fighting a protracted war without the support of additional troops. Volunteers had to be brought in to fight in the war… afterwards reform was necessary to change the system… the Liberal Secretary for War Haldane set about forming the Territorial Force. These Volunteers were mainly local business people, craftsmen and professional, lower and middle-class men training at weekends and at the summer annual camp numbering two hundred and thirteen rifle corps.

Viscount Haldane engaged Colonel Ellison as a member of his staff. A year later the reorganization of the army was complete. The National Army was to consist of a Field Force and a Territorial Force. The Field Force organized to be ready for mobilization in the event of war. The Territorial Force would be there to train – to support and effect the expansion, a new force of fourteen divisions. was created by Richard Haldane in 1908, [Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907] becoming the new reserve volunteer force, made out of the previously civilian-administered Volunteer Force: this made up of the Militia, Yeomanry and Volunteers – the Militia being mainly those officers and men from the counties, the Yeomanry the mounted rifles and the Volunteers, men from the towns and cities. The new volunteers, with an overall strength of just over a quarter of a million men, were part-time soldiers paid the same rate as the regulars whilst engaged on military activities.

General Sir Ian Hamilton, 1853 – 1947, was told by Haldane, on the 27th July 1914, that he was to command the Home Army – previously he had been Inspector General of all forces – Home and Overseas. His immediate duties were to defend the nation and mobilize the Territorial Force - who were at summer camp. This he accomplished rapidly, forming battalions, brigades and whole divisions, ready to replace regulars in overseas garrisons and fill up depleted ranks after the initial fight in late summer, early autumn. Hamilton considered the 1st London Division Territorial Force to be of ‘exceptional value’. By the end of October the Allied Force was dug in from Switzerland to the North Sea – in deadlock. The Territorial Force was under no obligation to serve overseas. In reality most of the men did…

Britain’s isolationist stance came to an end when she agreed a treaty with Japan in 1902 and then again with the entente cordiale in 1904… It was on the cards that Germany would force an issue with France. That moment came when The Kaiser sent his troops through neutral Belgium to attack France… That momentous event however was not on the minds of these bunch lads about to join the Volunteers…

In 1906, soon after his seventeenth birthday Albert turned up at the Kensington Volunteer Rifle Corps Headquarters by appointment, to fill in the necessary forms and take part in the medical. If these were accepted the recruit had to swear allegiance to The Queen. It had been a bit of a wrench leaving the Boy’s Brigade, for he had been a keen member – it had been eight dedicated years - taking part in all the drill competitions, and playing the piano for the Sunday bible readings. He left at the same time a number of friends did having discussed joining the Territorial’s. It was an auspicious time, not that Albert and his friends realised the significance. After the attestation the lads were lead to the Quartermasters Stores to receive their uniforms. This to them was the most exciting part as they all fancied walking down High Street, Kensington, in their new uniforms. The colour of the cloth was field-grey with shaped cuffs. The buttons tarnished - just waiting for all the hard work to turn them into sparkling brass. The helmet, grey too, looked very similar to a policeman’s helmet, plus a spike on the top. All the fittings: spike, badge and chin strap, came separately, also needing much cleaning. The recruits were each handed a kit-bag to carry the boots, socks, shirt and vests, plus the belt, scabbard and bayonet. It was not going to be easy to carry this lot home.

The Kensington Rifles, was now adopted by the Royal Borough of Kensington, and granted permission to take the Borough’s Coat of Arms, mounted centrally within an eight pointed star, as a cap badge. Colonel A J Hopkins VD was the commanding officer for a further year. The Kensington Volunteers moved to a purpose built Headquarters at Adam and Eve Mews, Iverna Gardens, Kensington in 1908, now under the command of Lieutenant Colonel A Sutherland-Harris. The 4th Middlesex [North] Volunteer Rifle Corps [VRC] [Kensington Rifles], under the reorganization of the Secretary of War, amalgamated with the 2nd. [South] Middlesex VRC, representing the London Boroughs of Kensington and Fulham. This amalgamation joined north and south Middlesex under one Battalion, to be called the London Regiment, Territorial Force Association. The 13th [County of London] Battalion, The London Regiment [Kensington] transferred to a Territorial Force, with its Headquarters and A-H Companies, at Iverna Gardens, Kensington.

In January 1909 the Army Council declared the Battalion should become a ‘line’ regiment bearing colours, relieving the battalion of its ‘Rifle’ designation. Brigaded with the Queen’s Westminster’s [16th London], Civil Service Rifles [15th London], and the London Scottish [14th London] in the 4th London Infantry Brigade. Lord Truro and Lord Ranelagh decided on a grey uniform with red facings, a shako with a glazed peak. The belts were to be black and the uniform trimmings were of buff laces with silver appointments. To contain an assortment of necessary items a starched white haversack completed the uniform. They became known as the ‘Grey Brigade’ mobilized for home defence at the start of the war although the uniform had been regularized to khaki some years previously.

The Regiments Headquarters was positioned close to the home of Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. King Edward VII was approached by The Regiment to ask if Princess Louise would associate her name with the regiment – he was to give his consent she took an interest in The Regiment organizing the design and production of the regiment’s colours. The colour were duly consecrated and presented to the Regiment by King Edward VII at Windsor on the 19th June 1909. Thereafter the Regiment was referred to as the 13th London Regiment. The Princess Louise, four years later, consented to give her name to the Regiment.

In 1914, the 1st Battalion were billeted in the White city stadium were there waiting to go to France - with The Expeditionary Force. The 2nd Battalion were at Abbots Langley, near Watford – there training at summer camp, for ‘Home Service’; the 3rd Battalion was recruited much later. From the 27th July 1914, Britain began to respond to the gathering crisis in Germany. Two days later, all British troops on leave were recalled and the army was mobilized. Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State, appealed for volunteers. An Expeditionary Force of six divisions [80,000 men] set sail for France… they arrived on the 6th August and moving northeast reached the small town of Mons, in Belgium. The first contact with the enemy was on the 22nd August.

By chance, The Kensington Territorial Force had just been assembling for summer camps – had entrained at Addison Road Station on 2nd August for Salisbury Plain. At 10pm that night they receive orders to report to their Drill Hall. Full marks must be given to their commander - that they were able to mobilize quickly, under their commanding officer Lieut.-Colonel F G Lewis, 1910-15. The first days of August were the time of the ‘Battle of the Frontiers’ waged against the German Army by the Belgians and the French. The losses were high and as the Germans were also attacking Russia… they were occupied of two fronts.

Battle of Cateau, 23rd August 1914[edit | edit source]

On 23 August 1914, the German 1st Army of General Alexander von Kluck arrived at Cateau – a village on the edge of Mons. They were following the Schlieffen Plan to outflank the Allies – to cut them off – from using the channel ports. The BEF was made up of four regular army divisions arranged as I Corps [Douglas Haig] and II Corps [Horace Smith-Dorrien]. Three hours later eight German battalions advanced against two battalions of the 3rd Infantry Division. D and B Companies of the 4th Middlesex Regiment were overwhelmed by the 31st. 85th and 86th German Fusilier Regiments. These three comprised the German 18th Division. – forced the British back towards Paris. By mid-day, the British began a withdrawal. To assist them, they requested reinforcement from the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish.

Battle of Mons, 23/24 of August, 1914[edit | edit source]

The 1/13th [County of London] Princess Louise’s Kensington Battalion, The County of London Regiment was mobilised on the 4th August 1914, two days after boarding the train for summer camp. They were to form part of the then 24th Brigade, 8th Division. Ninety thousand men descended upon Southampton and Portsmouth to board ships for Boulogne, Rouen and Le Havre, under the command of Sir John French… their destination was Maubeuge. The Army was made up of four infantry and one cavalry division. A division at this time equalled about eighteen thousand men – this sum included support troops. Two or more divisions made up a corps and two or more corps made an army.

The landings were completed by the middle of August. Almost immediately they had gone into the line alongside the French Army, trying to stem the tide of the German advance. The object was to hold the line located by the Mons-Conde Canal in Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force was stationed on the left of the Allied Forces directly in front of the advancing 1st German Army Commanded by Alexander von Kluck. In manpower the German and French armies were equal at a million each. The British totalled eighty thousand The German Schlieffen Plans, which entailed encircling the Allies, had been carefully planned long in advance. The BEF were crucial in keeping the line intact by stopping the German right wing. Whilst the British troops were heavily engaged the French 5th Army was engaged with the German 2nd and 3rd armies at the Battle of Charleroi. The French Army Commander, General Lanrezac instructed Field Marshal Sir John French the BEF Commander to hold the line for twenty-four hours. The BEF dug them in preparation for the onslaught that was bound to happen.

The battle opened at dawn on the 23rd August, with a German bombardment. There were four bridges over the canal… these the Germans had to force. Advancing in close-order, parade ground fashion, the advancing Germans were skittle down and forced to retire in confusion. Another attack was formed only this time in loose formation… this was more successful; using the plantations of fir-trees to shied them. On the right of the Royal Fusiliers were the Kensingtons and Gordon Highlanders… Both suffered grievously. Fortunately the reserve battalion, the Royal Irish, gave sufficient steadying power to hold the bridges. Throughout the day the British II Corps held out. It was obvious to all that holding the bridges were not going to last.

The Kensingtons had suffered 15 officers and 353 killed or wounded nearly half the total. To the east the Germans had penetrated the parameter turning the right flank. After initially digging in - after becoming used to the place, they were ordered to retire – so as not to be cut off… by the Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre… after the French Army had been defeated at the Battle of Charleroi. This British Army was the original Old Contemptibles and considered Britain’s finest troops capable of rapid, accurate firing with their Lee-Enfield rifles, capable of 15 aimed shots a minute.

At 15.00 hours the British 3rd Divisions was ordered to retire to the south of Mons. Straightening the line the 5th Division also retired establishing a line through the villages. As news was received about the French collapse – pulling back exposing the British right flank, a further withdrawal was scheduled for that night. It was an invidious position to be in. There had not been time to organise a proper holding action. The British Army was now holding a defensive line on the Valenciennes to Maubeuge Road. All the time the Germans were advancing. This retreat lasted two weeks and covered 250 miles. The battle had been won by the Germans although at a tremendous price of 5,000 casualties. The advance nearly took them to Paris.

The remainder of the German 1st Army had by this time arrived. Although the Germans advanced they lost considerably more men – it was considered a great strategic withdrawal… saving the French line from total collapse. The 4th Royal Fusiliers defended the northern approaches to Mons. The remainder of D and B Companies of the Kensingtons retreated to St Symphorien cemetery on the outskirts of Mons. Early that afternoon the British could see they were unable to withstand the pressure. The French army was retreating south together with the Belgian army. The British had their flank exposed and in danger of being cut off, falling back to Etreux on the 27th August. It was claimed the ‘Angels of Mons’ had aided the British army. This was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force – the retreat from Belgium to the Marne. The BEF was then moved to Flanders to be in easy reach of their supply base at the channel ports… arriving the second week of October.

Battle of the Marne, 5-14 September, 1914[edit | edit source]

The fighting in Belgium and France was along traditional lines, which was of armies surging backwards and forwards… in what is known as engaging if forward and retiring movements. At the beginning of September the Allied retreat slowed down as the Germans lost impetuous becoming further from their supply base. This resulted in the Battle of the Marne which halted the German spearhead lasting until the middle of the month. After the battle it was decided to move the BEF north to Flanders convenient to the channel ports. Travelling by train III Corps reached Abbeville on the 8th October, II Corps a day later and I Corps following on. On the 11th October IV Corps found itself close to Bruges and Ghent. Three days later the last gap in the Allied line was secured. The BEF held the line from Le Bassee to the river Douve… The French holding the southern flank.

1st Battle of Ypres, 15th Oct – 22nd Nov, 1914[edit | edit source]

Early on 3rd November 1914, the Kensington Battalion marching behind their band to Watford and entrained for Southampton. Embarkation was complete by the following morning. The Battalion sailed for Le Havre which came in sight by midday… There they were marched off to Rest Camp 1. The next day mounting railway trucks they steamed off for St Omer grasping their long Lee-Enfield rifles reaching their destination on the 6th. A period of training followed at Blendecques.

The major battle that first year for the British was the 1st Battle of Ypres fought October 19th. by the BEF under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French. That month the Allies had reached Nieuport on the North Sea coast. The Germans captured Antwerp and forced its defender back. The 8th Division had been redeployed north to join two divisions of reinforcements recently landed in Belgium. They advanced east from St Omer halting the German forces at the Passchendale Ridge. The Division was lined up from La Bassee to Messines, there was little activity but you could hear the battle raging to the north. The French Army Command and General Foch believed a coordinated attack would result in the recapture of the industrial city of Lille, then Belgium finally capturing Brussels. The German general Falkenhayn had other opinions. He ordered the capture of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne. He struck the Belgian defences on the Yser River.

By far it was the worst battle fought – there was an almighty clash of troops. Only a few miles down the road was Ypres. There was constant hand to hand fighting as the battle swayed from one side to the other. The problem for the British was that the position was vulnerable to superior German artillery. The British made a stand which formed a salient around Ypres, the Battle becoming ‘The Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres. The Innocents being eight German units of young volunteers many of them students.

Battle of the Aisne, late November, 1914[edit | edit source]

Almost immediately there came the four day Battle of the Aisne. The method of waging war changed to one of stagnation as each side settled down and dug Battle Lines. Henceforth the artillery and its insatiable appetite for ammunition and the strung barbed wire developed into the Western Front. The line from Ypres to Nieuport was held by the Belgians; Bethune, Lens, Arras, Bapaume, Verdun, and St Quentin were to become synonymous with great suffering and death.

At the start of November 1914, the Kensingtons were attached to the 8th Division as part of the 25th Infantry Brigade. The Brigade included the 2nd Lincolnshire’s, 2nd Royal Berkshires, 1st Royal Irish Rifles and the 2nd Rifle Brigade. The 8th Division was allocated a four mile stretch alongside the La Bassee Road and La Rue Tilleloy, just in front of the village of Laventie. This was referred to as the La Bassee Front and lay opposite Aubers Ridge north-east of Bethune, in Atois.1914 saw The Kensingtons fighting for their lives almost as soon as their feet touch French soil. The gradually retreated from prepared positions to the south of Mons losing a third of their men. It had been a difficult initiation but the coped well a tribute to their previous training. Now it was going to be a hard slog – fortunately they did not know then how hard it was going to be…

During the 14th November 1914, the Kensingtons marched to Estaires. This small mill town on the banks of the Lys was to become very familiar to the Battalion. The low-lying land around the river and bridge; the lined cobbled roads shaded by tall poplars on either side echoed to the sound of marching feet.

The 8th Division was part of General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s IV Corps… he inspected the Kensingtons that Sunday, after the Battalion had reorganized itself - into a four-company structure. He recognised the enormous efforts made and made reference to it. The 8th Division went into the line just south of the Belgian frontier, close to Armentieres. By the end of November the terrible battles died down, both armies were spent forces needing to reform. The Salient came to be attached to the Belgian names of the farms, villages and features – Mouse Trap Farm, Cheddar Villa, Polygon Wood, Sanctuary Wood, Hill 60, and many more At Neuve Chappelle the 1st Battalion lost 160 men even though they had broken the German lines. The losses at Aubers Ridge the losses were even higher reducing the battalion by thirty per cent. There were several awards granted and the gallant action by Captain Kimber rated a DSO. Over to the northeast a village on a ridge provided cover and observation posts for the German observers. They could see all that was going on. For the next four years this ridge was to become a raging sore, the landscape a pulverised mass of pocked marked soil… this was Passchendale. The Battle of Aisne ended on the 13th November 1914, the last battle of the first year of war. By December, the Germans decided to call off their offensive and to dig in – to resume the battle in the spring.