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Saturday, 14 April 2012

10. War and France

Albert Ray standing
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Bert enlisted in September 1914, probably at the Royal Fusiliers' Depot in Hounslow. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) as a rifleman and gave his civilian occupation as nurseryman.

The Royal Fusiliers got their name from their original job when formed from soldiers of the Tower of London guard in 1685. They were an ordinance corp, carrying flintlock fusils, to light the muskets of the infantry corp they accompanied. It was too dangerous for the soldiers to carry both the gunpowder for their muskets and fusils to ignite the powder for fear of accident. The regiment participated in the War against the American Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars.

insignia from Bert's uniform

The Royal Fusiliers had four regular army battalions that were hastily recalled in August 1914, and a number of territorial units that mobilised. The third battalion, to which Bert was assigned, was recalled from Lucknow in August 1914 and assembled, as part of the British Army’s 28th Division, at Hursley, Pitt Hill and Magdalen Hill Camps near Winchester in December 1914. It isn’t clear when Bert and the other volunteers joined the regulars, but presumably they went into camp at Winchester around November 1914.
insignia from Bert's uniform

Bert's dogtags

They set sail from Southampton between 16-19th January 1915 for le Havre in France.Bert left Nell in Essex with their 18 month old son and expecting their second child.

Arriving in France in mid-winter, with the cold and damp conditions, the Division had a high sick list, particularly amongst the regular soldiers who, weeks before, had been in India.

British soldiers prepare for gas attack
Bert’s regiment took part in the Second Ypres Salient, fighting at the Battles of Gravenstaffel and St Julien in April and the Battles of Frezenberg and Bellewaarde in May 1915. Second Ypres was the first battle in which the Germans used chlorine gas as a weapon, causing outrage, and with limited tactical success. Nevertheless, the Allied forces lost 69,000 soldiers and the Germans 35,000. On 22 and 23 April, when the gas was first unleashed, the 3rd Fusiliers were on the right flank of the Canadians with the French, who took the brunt of the gas, to their north. The impact of the gas left the Fusiliers the task of restoring the lost ground. Their machine-gun attack under Lieutenant Mallandain is mentioned in Conan Doyle's British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol II. (p64).

According to H. C. O'Neill's The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War, (Ch. XVII) between  April 22nd and May 3rd, when the line was ordered to retire, deaths in the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were a Lieutenant, five second lieutenants and 100 NCOs and men. In addition, 13 officers were wounded along with 363 other ranks. By May 12 they had lost a further two second lieutenants and 40 other ranks, with an additional 3 officers and 141 men wounded. By the Battle of Bellewarde Ridge on 24 May, 1915, after a gas attack and a successful German offensive to take British trenches, the 150 Fusiliers left of the original battalion of 880, managed to hold the third defence line to the end of the day, when it was decided the lost ground could not be recovered and the battalion was withdrawn.

In June 1915 the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers was moved South. At the same time, Bert was appointed as batman to Captain Clement Hermann Bailhache, a position he retain for the rest of the War. Bailhache began the War as a Lieutenant and became Captain at some stage during the War – more than likely at the same time Bert became his batman.

Bert in France, back left.
Their battalion joined what became the Battle of Loos in September 1915 – the first battle in which the British used chlorine gas as a weapon – with even less success than the Germans. The chlorine blew back on British troops, creating 2632 British casualties, of which 7 died. British losses in the Battle of Loos are estimated at 50 000, about twice the German losses. The 3rd Fusiliers lost 7 officers and 337 men. It was largely as a result of this battle that the British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig.

Grace's baptism, with Albert.
Bert survived. In the meantime, at home, Nell had given birth to a daughter she named Emily Grace, after Bert’s mother on 26 May 1915. She would be two years old before Bert saw her.

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