Reservists report for duty

'A' Company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, resting in the town square at Mons before entering the line prior to the Battle of Mons in August 1914
'A' Company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, resting in the town square at Mons before entering the line prior to the Battle of Mons in August 1914

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Frank Richards was a reservist in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Since 1901 he had served eight years as a regular soldier, most of them in India and Burma, and then five and a half years as a civilian in the coalmining industry. Promptly, within hours of the declaration of war on August 4, he had reported to his regimental depot at Wrexham where he was assigned to the second battalion. From there the battalion went by train to Southampton, crossed the Channel, and arrived at Rouen in the afternoon of August 11. Passing through Amiens and Valenciennes by train, they then marched towards the sound of artillery on August 22. Along with the 1st Middlesex, 1st Cameronians and 2nd Argyle and Sutherlanders, they formed the left wing of the BEF’S line at Mons, just inside Belgium. Here they met the full impact of the Kaiser’s huge invading army.

Frank Richard’s early experiences in August 1914 were not untypical of the 60,000 or so infantrymen of the BEF; but almost uniquely, he survived the whole war unscathed and lived to write his personal account of it.

Like Frank, about half of the BEF were reservists and their average age was 25. They were hardened veterans of colonial campaigns and the harshest of conditions. A French description of some of them landing at Boulogne, printed a week later in the Scarborough Evening News of Tuesday, August 18, though exaggerated in detail, did convey a sense of this truth: “... every man in the prime of life, not a youth or stripling among them ... every movement spells for long marches, for hard fighting and rough living.”

All of them were volunteers and most of them, except for their officers, were recruited from Britain’s industrial underclass, rural peasantry and criminal outcasts, who in many cases had joined the Colours to avoid civilian poverty or even prison. Each carried a 200-word advice note from Lord Kitchener which must have caused them some amusement. They were told to abstain from liquor and looting, to be courteous to women, but no more than courteous (!), and to remember that the French were our allies and friends.

By the time that Private Richards and his company arrived at Mons they had been drunk more than once on “ving blong” (white wine) and had given away their cap and collar badges in exchange for female favours. By October, they were wearing an assortment of ragged civilian clothes and, instead of his peaked cap, Richards had a handkerchief knotted at the four corners as his only headgear. All of them who had survived were unshaven, filthy and lousy.

Yet their discipline, courage and camaraderie were superb. As they had marched proudly through the streets of northern France, they bellowed the slogan: “Are We Downhearted?... N-o-o-o-o” and “Shall We Win?... Y-e-e-e-e-s”. (British regular infantry did not normally sing marching songs.) Even during their rapid retreat from Mons there had been few desertions.

But marching 20 miles a day for two hundred miles was only one of their achievements: small arms marksmanship was another. In South Africa the Boers had taught the British a painful lesson in the crucial importance of rifle skills and since then every infantryman in the Colours and reserve had been rigorously trained in the use of the new .303 Lee Enfield magazine rifle, a deadly weapon in the hands of an expert. At Mons, the advancing Germans were mowed down, not by machine-guns as they assumed, but by directed, accurate rifle-fire, at an average rate of 15 rounds a minute. As one Gordon Highlander remembered, “Poor devils of infantry. They advanced in companies of 150 men in files five deep... and in their insane formation every bullet was sure to find two billets.” At 300 yards a .303 bullet would pass clean through two men in a line.

Of course, none of this was known or appreciated by the civilian population or press at home. Indeed, as the BEF made its historic movement into Belgium, in Scarborough the summer season was making a partial recovery. By Saturday, August 22, the second round of the annual Hospital bowls cup, consisting of 32 matches, was being played. County and local cricket matches were still being held. Hull beat Scarborough by five wickets; Silpho, the home team, could manage only 20 runs against Scarborough reserves; and in the Beckett League, Ayton lost to Brompton by two runs. Best of all, “Benny” Wilson, Scarborough’s representative in the Yorkshire county side, had scored a double century in over five hours against Sussex at Bradford. And, on Wednesday, August 19, the NER ran three excursion trains to Scarborough from Leeds, York and Hull. Things were picking up!

It seemed then that the only place in Scarborough engaged in the war was the wireless station. To emphasize its special performance, on Monday, August 17, John Walker of Stockton-on-Tees was summoned before magistrates JW Rowntree and J Hall. The charge against him was that he had camped in Green Lane on August 15 and allowed his two horses and a goat to graze there. Walker had first rented a field near the wireless station for ten weeks, but after a month he had been told to move off. So he had gone to Green Lane with his caravan, two carts, a tent and two horses early on Saturday morning. Now he had taken them all to Seamer. The magistrates fined him 3s. 6d. Once again, the particular wartime role and value of the wireless station was implicit in this press report.

So as the BEF crossed the Channel and moved north to do battle with the might of the German army, Scarborough congratulated itself on a revived summer season. The special Sunday War Edition of the Evening News of August 16 noted welcome signs of commercial recovery. Significantly, last Friday, Messrs Robinson’s cabs had taken 301 fares, most of them from the railway station over Valley Bridge. Twice as many were coming in as were leaving the town. Over the weekend every Peasholm park lake boat had been in use and the Floral Hall had filled nearly all its seats. And there had been record catches of cod, mackerel and especially herring. Last week, one local fisherman had drawn £3 in wages! Some war!