Over the Silver Sea: 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery in the First World War

119 Battery Royal Field Artillery – Winners of the 27 Brigade RFA Shield 1912-13

In this guest blog post, Paul Bourton shares the latest instalment of his series revealing stories through the pre-war photograph pictured above. In this post, Paul details the mobilisation of the 119 Battery and its arrival at Mons with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

 

  • Parallel Journeys

In late July 1815, HMS Bellerophon, a 74 gun Royal Navy ship of the line and veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, made passage from France to England with a precious human cargo.  That single unremarkable voyage marked the end of a conflict that had raged for over two decades; a truly global conflict that, in terms of chronology, history could easily have dubbed the ‘First World War’.  The man held personally responsible for the greater part of that conflict had stepped aboard the vessel on 15 July and formally surrendered himself to the ship’s captain, Frederick Maitland.  He was now being transported to England to await his fate; a fate that was to be decided by a government fearful of his influence if he be allowed to set foot on British shores.

The surrender was the culmination of Napoleon Bonaparte’s flight from the field at Waterloo the previous month.  The peace that followed meant that the epic battle was the last action fought on European soil by British troops for very nearly a century.

HMS Bellerophon, 1914 battleship shared the same name as 1815 ocean-going liner predecessor. Image in the public domain.

Almost exactly a century after the Bellerophon’s historic voyage and following the outbreak of what would become the next great global conflict, three ships made the crossing from Ireland to Napoleon’s former homeland carrying more human cargo.  The SS Courtfield and the SS Chinese Prince were two of the ships conveying the Brigade to French soil, where it was to assemble with the other units of the British Expeditionary Force that made up the 5th Division.  Somewhat ironically, the third vessel in the convoy bore the name of the ship that had been the harbinger of the peace that ended the Napoleonic Wars and brought stability and security to Europe.  The SS Bellerophon now conveyed British troops to fight on European soil once more.

 

  • Heading to war

The 27 Brigade Royal Field Artillery was based in County Kildare on the outbreak of war and its home since its move from Ballincollig in County Cork in late 1913 had been the town of Newbridge on the banks of the River Liffey.  The three batteries that formed the Brigade were the 119th, 120th and 121st.  The Brigade had mobilised with the 5th Division on 5 August and set sail for France shortly after.

QF 18 pounder gun in action. © IWM Q 4065

As well as the men from the three field gun batteries aboard, there were also the men of the headquarters staff and the brigade ammunition column that made up a field artillery brigade in 1914.  The weapons and equipment on board included the Brigade’s eighteen Ordnance QF 18 Pounder field guns, which were the stock-in-trade of the Royal Field Artillery at that time,  limbers to transport them, ammunition, wagons and requisite equipage for war.  There were also the myriad horses vital to the role of the field artillery in wartime.

The 27 Brigade was to fire some of the first rounds by British artillery on European soil in ninety-nine years.

The ships landed in France on 18 August and disgorged their cargoes at Le Havre. Only two men did not sail to France with the 119 Battery from its trophy-winning football team of 1913: Gunner Stanley Baker and Driver F. Thomas who appeared in the previous instalment.  The remaining eleven men were to take part in the momentous events which marked the opening of hostilities for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) just days after landing in France.  The 27 Brigade was to fire some of the first rounds by British artillery on European soil in ninety-nine years.

 

  • Preparing for battle

Between 11 and 17 August 1914 the various parts of the British Expeditionary Force were concentrating at Mauberg about ten miles south of the Belgian city of Mons.  In a plan arranged with the French years before the war, the British forces were to form up on the left flank of the French Army and prevent the right arm of any advancing German Army from entering France, while the main body the French Army would thrust forward in an all-out attack to the east.  This was the long-standing French contingency to meet the threat of attack known as Plan 17.

The gallant but outdated and ultimately catastrophic tactics of headlong attacks requisite of Plan 17 saw wave after wave of infantry and cavalry impaled on the spikes of massed German artillery and machine gun fire.  The French were driven back and their supreme commander, General Joseph Joffre, changed his priorities.  Recognising that he was making no headway, and seeing the threat from the German right arm swinging its way towards France from Belgium, he engaged his Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac alongside the BEF to move north into Belgium to meet the Germans head-on.

The main body of the BEF was formed of two Corps each of two infantry divisions.  I Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Douglas Haig, comprised the 1st and 2nd Divisions and II Corps, made up of the 3rd and 5th Divisions, was led by Lieutenant General Horace Smith-Dorien.  He replaced the original commander, Sir James Grierson, who died suddenly on the train to the front on 17 August.  There was also a cavalry division under the command of General Edmund Allenby, plus support and line of communication troops.  In overall command of the BEF was General Sir John French.

Horses gathered in a field during the Mons campaign, August 1914. © IWM Q 109607

By the evening of the 22 August 1914 the two Corps of the BEF were stretched out along a twenty mile front along the Mons-Conde Canal just to the north of the city.  The I Corps was on the right of the British line and II Corps on the left.  Sir John French had agreed to hold the German advance for twenty four hours to protect the exposed left flank of the French Fifth Army.  The battalions dug in along the canal with the artillery batteries of the various divisions in positions just to their rear.  The BEF was facing the might of the German First Army under General von Kluck and it was to be II Corps, among its number the men of the 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery, that bore the brunt of a German attack.  The attack began on the morning of the following day, the 23 August, when the Battle of Mons began.

 

The aftermath of the action at Mons saw the 119 Battery win the highest award for valour but lose a number of its men, including two men from the photograph of 1913.  The details will appear in the next instalment as my research continues to uncover the stories of the men in the picture.

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