The first casualties

Major Charles Beck Hornby was the first officer to kill a German; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Major Charles Beck Hornby was the first officer to kill a German; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

Ever since the days of Oliver Cromwell and the rule of the major-generals in the 1650s, the nation had been distrustful of a permanent, standing army, so that every year the government had to ask Parliament to pay for it. It was common for the public to regard the army, unlike the navy, as the last refuge of social misfits, violent ruffians and runaway criminals who were unable or unwilling to behave responsibly in an ordered society. Only in wartime, and sometimes not even then, were soldiers respected and rewarded for their courage and endurance. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem Tommy:

Oh, it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Tommy go away;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play.

It’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country”, when the guns begin to shoot.

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy ‘ow’s yer soul?”

But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

As news of casualties gradually filtered through from France and Belgium in September 1914, more and more of the people of Scarborough began to appreciate the sacrifices that their young men were making for their country. In particular, the town was soon all too aware that their local cavalry regiment, the 18th Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own), had taken heavy losses in the earliest encounters with the Germans.

The regiment had arrived at Boulogne as early as August 16 and there surprised even its officers by bursting into song. “Here we are, here we are, here we are again”, they bellowed, though it had been 99 years since their predecessors under Wellington had fought at Waterloo.

Six days later, along with their comrades in the Second Cavalry Brigade, the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards and the 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers, they were at Mons, only 25 miles short of Waterloo. There in 1815 the Prussians were our allies in defeating Bonaparte; now, at Mons, the Hussars met them as implacable enemies.

The first British shots of the war were in fact fired by an advanced squadron of the Royal Irish about three miles beyond Mons against a party of German lancers. Captain Hornby of the Dragoon Guards was awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal as the first officer to kill a German with his new pattern cavalry sword.

At first the Second Cavalry Brigade held the left flank of the BEF along the Mons-Conde Canal, but in the face of overwhelming attackers they were forced to cover the infantry’s retreat. Reminiscent of the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, on August 24, the Lancers and Dragoons charged the German guns across a mile of open ground and suffered dreadful losses of men and horses. One of the Lancers that day was Mrs Longtoft’s son of 44 St Mary’s Walk. Later, on a postcard, he told his mother, who had no idea how close to death he had come, that he was “in the pink”. Of her second son, in the 117th Battery of the Royal Field Artillery in General Haig’s Brigade, she learned only that he was “feeling fine” and that he was “having plenty of excitement”!

Such were the euphemisms and standard phrases relayed by sons and husbands to their families back in Scarborough. Another member of the Royal Field Artillery was the son of JJ White, publican of the Bedford Arms in Castle Road. As a wounded trooper no longer at the front, he was able to write more fully and frankly to his father from his bed in Alexander hospital at Cosham in Hampshire.

All there is to be seen are two holes where it [the bullet] entered & came out. One is better, only the one [where] it came out needs to heal. I can walk, but limp a bit.

He expected to be out of hospital in a week with a fourteen-day furlough. Edwin, his brother in the 5th Yorkshires, was at Darlington and would soon leave for Egypt. Then, almost as an afterthought, he told his father that he had been wounded on September 1 at about six in the morning. He had lost everything, all his kit and his horse. He had not heard of the fate of his old friend Dicky Wood in the Royal Flying Corps. But the war would be over in five or six weeks!

Meanwhile rumours of returning wounded soldiers passed round the town. On September 4, a large crowd gathered outside the railway station to greet 15 war casualties. Miss Graham, the lady mayoress, members of the St John ambulance brigade and a trained nurse were there only to be told that the 15 were “sitting” cases from York hospital who were being cleared for more serious war wounded. Nevertheless, as the 15 were driven off to Burniston Barracks the crowd gave them rousing cheers.

Mrs Kerr of 23 Potter Lane and Mrs Flemming of 1 Princess Lane denied that they had heard news of their trooper husbands being wounded in action, but there was no doubt that many in the 18th and 20th Hussars who had been garrisoned at Burniston Barracks had been casualties. Sergeant Cooke of the 20th, Corporal Robinson, Trooper Williams and Trooper Harrodance all of the 18th were all listed as wounded. Robinson had taken part in a charge at Mons and was said to come from 16 Seamer Street. Harrodance had been taken to the General Hospital at Brighton.

As more and more names of local men were added to the lengthening list of active servicemen, the mood of the town became increasingly solemn and apprehensive. Jottings in the Mercury of September 11 accepted that the country was engaged in “a stupendous military struggle” of unpredictable duration.

The Admiralty instructed all seaside places to reduce lights as much as possible on “piers, esplanades, and public places visible from the seaward or from the air”. A long, detailed report published in the London Gazette written by Field Marshal Sir John French failed to conceal the gravity of the military situation since the retreat from Mons.

And for the first time the Scarborough press referred to the Germans as Huns.