The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest award for gallantry. Of the 628 awarded to British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen during the Great War, 18 were won by men of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The very first gunner VC of the war was earned at the Action of Elouges on the first day of the retreat from Mons, by Ernest Wright Alexander of the 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery. In his latest guest blog post, Paul Bourton shares this story.
- The retreat begins
In my previous blog post, I described the circumstances which led to the decision to retreat from Mons from 24 August 1914. This day would become known as ‘Shrapnel Monday’ because of the ferocity of the shellfire, and 119 Battery would play a key role in the events.
To achieve a successful retreat and prevent isolation from its allies and inevitable destruction, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would have to conduct a series of rearguard actions carried out by certain of its units to buy time in which to allow the main body of the force to escape. Units that were freshest or least depleted by battle were given the task of protecting the retirement of those formations which had more recently been in the thick of it or which had sustained greater losses. The job of flank guard therefore was allocated to the four, as yet untested, infantry battalions of the 15 Brigade with cavalry support provided by the 9th Lancers and 4th Dragoon Guards of the Royal Horse Artillery’s ‘L’ Battery would supply artillery cover to the cavalry while the infantry battalions would rely on the six 18 Pounder field guns of the 119 Battery.
On the extreme left, just north east of the village of Elouges, were 1 Battalion Norfolk Regiment and 1 Battalion Cheshire Regiment. Providing close artillery support for these two battalions and covering the withdrawal of the 5 Division, Major Ernest Wright Alexander and the men of 119 Battery under his command were ready for action. One section of the Battery, consisting of two field guns under the leadership of Lieutenant Preston, was positioned to the right of the other two and detached from them by a distance of about five hundred yards.
As the main body of the 5 Division began to melt away from its line to join the exodus of soldiery heading south, the men of the Norfolks and Cheshires came under attack across the open fields between Elouges and Audregnies from four regiments of Germans advancing in close order. Despite fierce resistance from the British infantry and artillery over a period of some four hours of intense fighting, the massed German infantry managed to exploit the vacuum left by the retreating units of the Division and worked its way around the right of the position at Elouges. The detached section of 119 Battery suddenly found itself under attack from the rear and in danger of losing its pair of guns.
Meanwhile, the other two sections of the Battery five hundred yards away came under direct attack from two batteries of their German counterparts and were forced to turn their attentions and their 18 Pound shrapnel shells from the advancing German infantry and invest them in a kill-or-be-killed artillery duel. Despite neutralising one of the enemy batteries, the four 18 Pounders were losing men and horses and when a third German battery brought their guns to bear from the right flank and began to rain shells down upon them, the men of these gallant sections found themselves completely outgunned.
- Courage Under Fire
Under intense shellfire and with the German infantry closing in on their position, enemy bullets now scored regular hits on flesh of both the human and equine variety and only a handful of gunners remained standing and able to man the guns which were now in imminent risk of capture. The guns had to be saved but all the horses had by this time been either killed or wounded and their position in a hollow in the ground peppered by shells and bullets meant that fresh mounts could not be brought in to evacuate them. The guns would have to be drawn away by hand. It was for his gallant actions in these circumstances that Ernest Wright Alexander earned the first artillery VC of the war. His citation reads:
the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty
For conspicuous bravery and great ability at Elouges on 24th August, 1914, when the flank guard was attacked by a German corps, in handling his battery against overwhelming odds with such conspicuous success that all his guns were saved, notwithstanding that they had to be withdrawn by hand by himself and three other men. This enabled the retirement of the 5th Division to be carried out without serious loss. Subsequently Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander (then Major) rescued a wounded man under a heavy fire, with the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty.
The citation is somewhat misleading. The majority of the 5 Division was indeed able to escape without serious loss, but for the men who facilitated their withdrawal, the losses were severe. The men of the 1st Cheshire Regiment lost 78% of its strength during the fighting that day. Its position was encircled and the Battalion was eventually overrun and virtually annihilated by the enemy. The sacrifice of the 119 Battery also resulted in the loss of many of its men.