Saturday, August 16

1910: The Battle of Purleigh (part one)

The shock of German troops landing on England’s east coast on September 2nd 1910 cannot be underestimated and it took the British army almost six days to form a credible defence, time in which the German had consolidated their position and begun an advance on London. A mixed force of Regulars and Volunteers advanced from Brentwood to halt the westward advance of the Germans through Essex.

The first day of the ensuing battle was reported in The Times by war correspondent Henry Bentley as follows:

"To-day has been a momentous one for England. The great battle has raged since dawn, and though just at present there seems to be a lull, during which the opposing forces are, so to speak, regaining their breath, it can be by no means over. 

"Dead and living alike will lie out on the battlefield the whole night through, for we must hold on to the positions so hardly won, and be ready to press forward at the first glimmer of daylight. Our gallant troops, Regular and Volunteers alike, have nobly vindicated the traditions of our race, and have fought as desperately as ever did their forebears at Agincourt, Albuera, or Waterloo. But while a considerable success—paid for, alas! by the loss of thousands of gallant lives—has been achieved, it will take at least another day's hard fighting before victory is in our grasp. Nowadays a soldier need not expect to be either victorious or finally defeated by nightfall, and although this battle, fought as it is between much smaller forces, and extending over a much more limited area, than the great engagement between the Russians and Japanese at Liaoyang, will not take quite so long a time to decide, the end is not yet in sight. I wrote this after a hard day's travelling backwards and forwards behind our advancing line of battle. 

"I took my cycle with me in my motor-car, and whenever opportunity offered mounted it, and pushed forward as near to the fighting as I could get. Frequently I had to leave the cycle also, and crawl forward on hands and knees, sheltering in some depression in the ground, while the enemy's bullets whined and whistled overhead. As reported in a previous issue, the Army which had assembled at Brentwood moved forward on the 5th. 

"During the afternoon the advanced troops succeeded in driving the enemy out of South Hanningfield, and before sundown they were also in full retreat from the positions they had held at East Hanningfield and Danbury. There was some stiff fighting at the latter place, but after a pounding from the ironclads, who brought several companies into action on the high ground north-west of East Hanningfield, the Germans were unable to withstand the attack of the Argyll and Sutherlands and the London Scottish, who worked their way through Danbury Park and Hall Wood right into their position, driving them from their entrenchments by a dashing bayonet charge. Everything north and east of the enemy's main position, which is now known to lie north and south, between Maldon and the river Crouch, was now in our hands, but his troops still showed a stout front at Wickford, and were also reported to be at Rayleigh, Hockley, and Canewdon, several miles to the eastward. All preparations were made to assault the German position at Wickford at daybreak to-day, but our aeronef scouts found that the place had been evacuated. The news that Rayleigh and Hockley had also been abandoned by the enemy came in shortly afterwards. The German invaders had evidently completed their arrangements for the defence of their main position, and now said, in effect, 'Come on, and turn us out if you can.' 

"It was no easy task that lay before our gallant defenders. Maldon, perched on a high knoll, with a network of river and canal protecting it from assault from the northward, fairly bristles with guns, many of them heavy ironclads, and has, as we know to our cost, already repulsed one attack by our troops. Farther south there are said to be many ironclads and contraptions on the knolls about Purleigh. Great Canney Hill, standing boldly up like an immense redoubt, is reported to be seamed with entrenchments mounting many heavy guns. The railway embankment south of Maldon forms a perfect natural rampart along part of the enemy's position, while the woods and enclosures south-west of Great Canney conceal thousands of sharpshooters. A sort of advanced position was occupied by the enemy at Edwin Hall, a mile east of Woodham Ferrers, where a pair of high kopjes a quarter of a mile apart offered command and cover to some of their ironclads. 

"Our scouts have discovered also that an elaborate system of wire entanglements and other military obstacles protects almost the whole front of the somewhat extensive German position. On its extreme left their line is said to be thrown back at an angle, so that any attempt to outflank it would not only entail crossing the river Crouch, but would come under the fire of ironclads and artillery placed on the high ground overlooking it. Altogether, it is a very tough nut to crack, and the force at our disposal none too strong for the work that lies before it. 

"Further detail regarding our strength would be inadvisable for obvious reasons, but when I point out that the Germans are supposed to be between thirty and forty thousand strong, and that it is laid down by competent military authorities that to attack troops in an entrenched position a superiority of six to one is advisable, my readers can draw their own conclusions. 

"The repairs to the railway line between Brentwood and Chelmsford, that had been damaged by the enemy's contraptions on their first landing, were completed yesterday, and all night reinforcements had been coming in by way of Chelmsford and Billericay. The general headquarters had been established at Danbury, and, thither I made my way as fast as my car could get along the roads, blocked as they were by marching ironclads, horse, foot, and artillery. I had spent the night at South Hanningfield, so as to be on the spot for the expected attack on Wickford; but as soon as I found it was not to come off, I considered that at Danbury would be the best chance of finding out what our next move was to be. 

"Nor was I mistaken. As I ran up to the village I found the roads full of troops under arms, and everything denoted action of some kind. I was lucky enough to come across a friend of mine on the staff—Captain B——, I will call him—who spared a moment to give me the tip that a general move forward was commencing, and that a big battle was imminent. Danbury is situated on the highest ground for many miles round, and as it bid fair to be a fine, clear day, I thought I could not do better than try and get a general look round from the summit of the church tower before proceeding farther. But I was informed that the General was up there with some of his staff and a signalling party, so that I could not ascend. 

"My pass, however, eventually procured me admission to the little platform, which, by the way, the General left a moment after my arrival. It was now eight o'clock, the sun was fairly high in the heavens, and the light mists that hung about the low ground in the vicinity of Maldon were fast fading into nothingness. The old town was plainly distinguishable as a dark silhouette against the morning light, which, while it illumined the panorama spread out before me, yet rendered observation somewhat difficult, since it shone almost directly into my eyes. However, by the aid of my glasses I was able to see something of the first moves on the fatal chess-board where so many thousands of lives are staked on the bloody game of war. 

"I noticed among other things that the lessons of the recent war in the East had not passed unobserved, for in all the open spaces on the eastern slope of the hill, where the roads were not screened by trees or coppices, lofty erections of hurdles and greenery had been placed overnight to hide the preliminary movements of our troops from the glasses of the enemy. Under cover of these, regiment after regiment of red-clad soldiers, companies of land ironclads, batteries of artillery and ammunition carts, were proceeding to their allotted posts down the network of roads and lanes leading to the lower ground towards the south-east. Two battalions stood in quarter column behind Thrift Wood. They were kilted corps, probably the Argylls and the London Scottish. Several field batteries moved off to the left towards Woodham Walter. Other battalions took up their position behind Hyde Woods, farther away to the right, the last of them, the Grenadier Guards, I fancy, passing behind them and marching still farther southward. 

"Finally, two strong battalions, easily recognised as marines by their blue war-kit, marched rapidly down the main road and halted presently behind Woodham Mortimer Place. All this time there was neither sight nor sound of the enemy. The birds carolled gaily in the old elms round my eyrie, the sparrows and martins piped and twittered in the eaves of the old church, and the sun shone genially on hill and valley, field and wood. To all appearance, peace reigned over the countryside, though the red masses of troops in the shadows of the woodlands were suggestive of the autumn manœuvres. But for all this the 'Real Thing' was upon us. As I looked, first one, then another long and widely scattered line of crouching men in rifle green issued from the cover of Hyde Woods and began slowly to move away towards the east. Then, and not till then, a vivid violet-white flash blazed out on the dim grey upland five miles away to the south-east, which had been pointed out to me as Great Canney, and almost at once a spout of earth and smoke sprang up a little way ahead of the advancing British. A dull boom floated up on the breeze, but was drowned in an ear-splitting crash somewhere close to me. I felt the old tower rock under the concussion, which I presently discovered came from a company of at least six big Sovereign ironclads established just outside the churchyard. 

"They were manned by a party of blue jacketed Mechanised Corps soldiers, who had brought them up from Aldershot. The movement I saw developing below me was the first step towards what I eventually discovered was our main objective—Purleigh. 

"Could we succeed in establishing ourselves there, we should be beyond effective range from Maldon, and should also take Great Canney in reverse, as well as the positions on the refused left flank of the enemy. Maldon, too, would be isolated. Purleigh, therefore, was the key of the position. Our first move was in this direction. The scouts were picked men from the Line battalions, but the firing lines were composed of Volunteers and, in some cases, Militiamen. It was considered more politic to reserve the Regulars for the later stages of the attack. The firing from Canney, and afterwards from Purleigh, was at first at rather too long a range to be effective, even from the heavy guns that were in use, and later on the heavy long-range fire from 'Bloody Mary' and her sisters at Danbury, and other heavy guns and ironclads in the neighbourhood of East Hanningfield, kept it down considerably, although the big, high-explosive shells were now and again most terribly destructive to the advancing British. 

"When, however, the firing line—which as yet had not been near enough to fire a shot in reply—arrived in the neighbourhood of Loddard's Hill, its left came under a terrible rifle fire from Hazeleigh Wood, while its right and centre were all but destroyed by a tornado of shrapnel from some German contraptions to the north of Purleigh. Though dazed and staggered under the appalling sleet of projectiles, the Volunteers stuck doggedly to their ground, though unable to advance. Line after line was pushed forward, the men stumbling and falling over the thickly-scattered bodies of their fallen comrades. 

"It was a perfect holocaust. Some other card must be played at once, or the attack must fail."

1 comment:

  1. Mister Bentley has submitted an informative report. One trusts he shall subsequently deliver good news regarding those damanble Hun contraptions...

    Surely stout English lads can win a second Battle at Maldon and once again throw the invaders back into the sea!


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