AUTHORS NOTE: Below is the first installment of my “Great War Chronicles”. Harry Blake and the 2nd battalion Royal North Leicestershire Regiment have recently arrived on the continent and have been rushed to the Franco-Belgian border to meet the seemingly unstoppable German advance. Although the story and characters are fictional I have based the incident below on the real events of the 22nd August 1914 – the day when British and German soldiers first came to grips with one another. If you are interested to find out more then I can highly recommend Lyn Macdonald’s book 1914 : The Days of Hope and this link from the BBC website..
This is my first draft so please feel free to comment, pointing out any mistakes that you may spot. I hope that as this series expands my writing and my Great War knowledge will improve. If you like the stories then don’t hesitate to share the link via social media. Enjoy!
(UPDATE – I’VE NOW COMPLETED A LONGER VERSION OF THIS STORY WHICH INCLUDES THE BATTLE FOR NIMY ON THE FOLLOWING DAY. IF YOU SUBSCRIBE TO MY BLOG THEN YOU WILL RECEIVE IT FOR FREE, JUST CLICK HERE)
Saturday 22nd August, 1914. 06:20am
10km north of Mons, Belgium.
It was a fine summer morning, the sun rose quickly, burning off the wispy early morning fog that clung to the ground like coils of cotton wool. A selection of different bird calls competed for attention. “There they are,” said Lance Corporal Harry Blake watching the small group of six heavily armed Horsemen trotting absent mindedly along the paved road, the Officer in Command puffing contentedly on a cigar. “It looks like we’ve finally found the enemy.” He felt a hollowness in the pit of his stomach and a tightening of the chest, the hunger that had bothered him since the night before suddenly disappeared.
“Do you think they could be French?” asked Lieutenant Winsbury, twisting the rings of his binoculars until the men on horses popped into sharp focus.
Blake paused, contemplating the field grey service dress and the odd square topped headgear that reminded him of a graduates mortar board hat. “No, Sir. Definitely German.”
The two British soldiers were hidden in a small copse at the top of a minor elevation one hundred meters east of the road. They’d cycled from the small Belgian town of Mons just before daybreak on the orders of Lieutenant Colonel Steele, commander of their battalion, the 2nd Royal North Leicestershire Regiment. His orders had been to locate the enemy and report back. He was a tough, impatient man keen for his troops to get into action against the advancing Germans. Winsbury studied his map and used a pencil to note the position of the German cavalry. He was tall, skinny and young with good natured blue eyes and an educated high pitched voice.“This is terrific isn’t it lance Corporal?” he said quietly, struggling to hide his excitement. “We may be the first British soldiers to catch sight of the Hun.”
“Yes. We very well may be, Sir.” Blake was older than his Officer, he was twenty five and had already served five years with the battalion, three of them in India. He was tall and muscular with barely an ounce of fat, he had hazel eyes that were deep set below a permanent frown and a wide jagged scar that ran from his left temple to the corner of his mouth, a permanent reminder of a brawl in the Agra bazaar.
Winsbury turned to Blake, “We should take a few pot shots. The Colonel would be chuffed if we could take him a souvenir. One of those helmets or a Lance would look wonderful in the Mess.”
Blake glanced sideways at Winsbury, he barely knew the Officer and certainly wasn’t ready to trust his judgement. In fact he rarely trusted the judgement of any officer, for him it was the tough and experienced NCO’s that made the army tick. He’d always felt the Regiment survived despite the Officers, not because of them. “Our orders were simply to find the enemy and report back, Sir. I’m not sure that Lieutenant Colonel Steele would appreciate us instigating our own private war.” What concerned him was the fact that thousands more cavalry were likely to be close behind and he suspected that the bicycles that he and Winsbury had commandeered in the town would struggle to out run the German horses.
Winsbury nodded, biting his lip in disappointment, “Yes, perhaps you are right. The Colonel wouldn’t be happy if we got ourselves killed.” At that moment the German troops stopped abruptly, their Officer shouted something and they hastily turned their beasts around, galloping the way they’d come.
“What’s spooked them?” said Winsbury craning his neck to look further down the road.
Blake pointed to another small wood to the south, close to the tiny village of Casteau, “Our boys, Sir. Cavalry. Look,” A Squadron of British mounted troops were emerging onto the road. There were over a hundred of them, the sun glinting brightly off their raised swords, heavily polished boots and saddles.
Blake instinctively touched the butt of his Short magazine Lee Enfield Rifle that was slung across his back. It was a wonderful weapon and the crossed rifles marksman’s badge on his lower left sleeve was proof of his talent with it. Like most of his fellow regular soldiers he could easily fire twenty-five aimed rounds a minute.
The sound of shouted commands rippled across the dewy countryside, “Fourth troop dismount ready for action.” called the plum voiced Cavalry Captain, “First troop – CHARGE!” Hooves clattered loudly on cobbles as the desperate chase began.
“Look at that,” said Winsbury grinning and patting Blake on the back, “What a wonderful site, Hun cavalry on the run.”
Blake nodded, unslung his Rifle, pushed forward the safety catch and pressed the wooden butt tightly into his shoulder, “I think we can take those pot shots now, Lieutenant,” he said scanning for a target. He lined up the weapons foresight with the broad back of a retreating German Uhlan. His heart hammered against his chest, he’d never fired at a human target before and his hands felt clammy. He squeezed the trigger gently with his right index finger, the barrel coughed and the recoil kicked against his shoulder. The bullet snapped past the head of his target and sparked on the cobbled road. “Fuck it,” he said to himself, quickly working the bolt to eject the spent cartridge and replacing it with a new round from the magazine.
Winsbury fired two shots with his revolver, there was no chance of him hitting anything but he was overtaken with excitement and desperate to be in on the action. “Come on Lance-Corporal, let’s join the hunt,” he cried, grabbing the handlebars of his black bicycle and beginning to pedal along the dusty track that ran down the slope due north, parallel to the main road. Blake fired one more shot which zipped over the head of his target, he swore again and grabbed his own bike hurriedly racing to catch Winsbury. Colonel Steele had quietly indicated to Blake before they had set out on patrol that he was to keep an eye on Winsbury and stop him from getting into trouble. As Blake swung his leg over the frame of his bike he feared that he may have already failed in that task. He reached into his tunic and touched the cool silver of his hip flask. It had been a gift from his Uncle Harold who had always claimed that the dent in it was made by a Zulu spear at the battle of Ulundi. Blake had carried it everywhere since joining the army, hoping it would be his lucky charm.
They bounced awkwardly along the uneven track accompanied by the sounds of rifle fire, horses hooves and shouting. After half a mile the path suddenly veered to the left and joined the road, bringing them just metres behind the charging British cavalry. Blake pumped the pedals as fast as he could, his thighs beginning to ache and his lungs struggling to take in enough oxygen. He didn’t enjoy cycling and was beginning to regret following his over enthusiastic Officer.
“Action front, dismount.” Came a shouted order, Blake braked hard, skidding to a halt and throwing his bike to the ground. There was a sharp, high pitched whistle as a bullet zipped past his head. Others followed and he dived onto the road burying his face into the cobbles, trying to make himself as small a target as possible. “Fucking hell,” he groaned. He looked up despite the crack and fizz of bullets slicing the air around him, and saw the advancing cavalry climb down from their horses and begin to return fire with their carbines. The small German patrol had now been joined by at least two dozen of their comrades and they were firing rapidly. Some of the Dragoons, high on excitement and desperate to get their first kill, ignored orders and continued to charge at the Germans. Blake grabbed his weapon, it suddenly felt incredibly heavy. Slowly he levered himself onto one knee into a decent firing position. As he did so he was distracted by a heap on the road close to him, he glanced over and with a start realised that it was a dead German. A vacant face stared back at him, sporting a well groomed black moustache above a narrow mouth that was open, giving it a look of mild irritation. Blake blinked rapidly and turned away, forcing his mind to focus on the battle. Don’t think about it he told himself, you’ll see plenty more dead before this war is over. He took a deep breath, blocking out the sound of gunshots and shouts of command. His heart and his breathing slowed and he picked out a German who was still mounted on his horse, trying to fire his carbine as the beast cantered nervously from side to side. Blake set his site to the appropriate distance using the graduated slide on top of the weapon and aimed. The target was only one hundred yards away and there was no wind, not even a gentle breeze. His finger was reluctant, it froze over the trigger pausing for what seemed like an eternity before it finally obeyed the command of his brain and squeezed hard. The high-powered .303 round exploded out of the blunt nose barrel and travelled at 2250 feet per second smashing into the German’s chest, his body shuddered and he toppled from the saddle falling sideways onto the road. Blake felt a wave of elation wash through his body, no matter what happened to him now he thought, at least he’d taken one of the buggers with him.
The Germans had held their ground and now a vicious brawl had developed, a few men of both sides were still mounted and British sabres slashed against the long, unwieldy German lances. It was a confusing mess, nothing like the well ordered peace time training exercises that Blake was used to. He shielded his eyes from the low sun and finally picked out Winsbury at the centre of the melee, his bike had been thrown to the ground and he was walking amongst the Germans firing his revolver rapidly, demonstrating a remarkable display of cool headedness. Blake watched for a moment, feeling a new found respect for the rookie subaltern, before standing up and sprinting forward, the adrenalin rattling through his body and filling him with confidence. A mounted German spotting his approach, lowered his lance and spurred his horse forward.
Blake froze, his eyes locked on the sharp spear point of the Germans deadly ten foot lance. Before he could react the steel tip ripped through the sleeve of his uniform tearing the skin at the top of his left arm. He grimaced in agony, his teeth grinding together, and stumbled backwards, dropping his Rifle. “Bastard,” he snarled. The Uhlan turned sharply, the corner of his mouth twisted in the hint of a smile. Blake scuttled backwards on his palms, angry with himself. No fucking German is going to get the better of me, he thought. He picked up his Lee enfield and swung it around to defend himself, wood struck steel with bone shaking force as the tip of the lance was knocked to the side, quivering violently. The German pulled it back for another thrust. Blake saw his chance and steadied his weapon. He had no time to aim – just point it in the right direction and squeeze the trigger. BANG! The rifle jerked in his hands and the German threw his lance to the ground, grabbing his side with both hands. His mouth fell open in shock as he realised that he’d been shot and was bleeding. Blake chambered a new round and fired again, this time he aimed and the bullet punched into the Germans face knocking his head back savagely and exiting the back of the skull in a cloud of pink mist. Swallowing hard and panting heavily Blake jumped to his feet. “They’re clearing out,” somebody shouted and with relief Blake saw the German’s were disengaging, turning away and streaming northwards along the road.
There was a moment of silence and then the British Dragoons began to cheer and congratulate one another. Their Captain waved his sabre in the air, bright red blood dripping from its razor sharp blade. Blake spotted Winsbury and watched as he holstered his revolver, wiping his face with a white handkerchief. He would never see the young man in the same way again, any Officer who liked a scrap was worthy of respect in Blake’s mind. Winsbury found his abandoned bike and wheeled it over to Blake, “You’ve been wounded, Lance Corporal,” he said grabbing Blake’s arm and examining the wound.
“Just a scratch, Sir. Bloody lancer caught me by surprise.” Blake twisted his neck so that he could get a proper look at the injury. The lance had missed his artery but his uniform was ripped and blackened by blood. He pulled a first field dressing from inside his tunic and ripped it open with his teeth. “Didn’t think I’d need one of these so soon, Sir,” he said, pressing the pad against the cut and wrapping the bandage tightly against his arm.
Winsbury helped pull the bandage taught and then used a safety pin to keep it in place. “Well it’s quite a gash old boy,” he said smiling, “Best get you back to Mons and fixed up,” he paused and looked earnestly at Blake, “The rest of the men will be jealous as hell of us. What a day. What a fine bloody day. If the rest of the war is like this then I think it will be marvellous.”
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