Sunday, August 17

1910: The Battle of Purleigh (part two)

The British reaction to the surprise German invasion in September 1910 was criticised by the press as being tardy and it took almost a week for the first major response to occur as the British army launched a counter-attack to thwart the westward German advance in Essex.

War Correspondent Henry Bentley report of the second day of the battle was reported in The Times as follows:

"When I sent off my despatch by motor-car last night, it was with very different feelings to those with which I take my pen in hand this evening, in the Saracen's Head Hotel, which is the headquarters of my colleagues, the correspondents. 

"Last night, despite the hard fighting and the heavy losses we had sustained, the promise of the morrow was distinctly a good one. But now I have little heart with which to commence the difficult and unpleasant task of chronicling the downfall of all our high hopes, the repulse—ay, and the defeat—it is no use mincing matters—of our heroic and sorely tried Army. 

"Yes, our gallant soldiers have sustained a reverse which, but for their stubborn fighting qualities and a somewhat inexplicable holding back on the part of the Germans, might very easily have culminated in disaster. Defeat although it undoubtedly is, the darkness of the gloomy outlook is illuminated by the brilliancy of the conduct of our troops. 

"From General down to the youngest Volunteer drummer boy, our brave soldiers did all, and more, than could be humanly expected of them, and on none of them can be laid the blame of our ill-success. The plan of attack is agreed on all hands to have been as good a one as could have been evolved; the officers led well, their men fought well, and there was no running short of ammunition at any period of the engagement. 

"'Who, then, was responsible?' it may well be asked. The answer is simple. The British public, which, in its apathetic attitude towards military efficiency, aided and abetted by the soothing theories of the extremists of the 'Blue Water' school, had, as usual, neglected to provide an Army fitted to cope in numbers and efficiency with those of our Continental neighbours. Had we had a sufficiency of troops, more especially of regular troops, there is not the slightest doubt that the victory would have been ours. As it was, our General was obliged to attack the enemy's position with a force whose numbers, even if they had been all regular soldiers, were below those judged necessary by military experts for the task in hand. 

"Having broken through the German lines, success was in his grasp had he had sufficient reinforcements to have established him in the position he had won, and to beat back the inevitable counter-attack. But it is best that I should continue my account of the fighting from the point at which I closed my letter of yesterday. I had arrived at the checking of our advance near Loddard's Hill by the blast of shrapnel from the German ironlads. It was plain that the Volunteer Brigade, though it held its ground, could not advance farther. But, unnoticed by them, the General had been preparing for this eventuality. 

"On the left the two battalions of Marines that I noticed drawn up behind Woodham Mortimer Place suddenly debouched on Loddard's Hill, and, carrying forward with them the débris of the Volunteer firing line, hurled themselves into Hazeleigh Wood. There was a sanguinary hand-to-hand struggle on the wire-entangled border, but the newcomers were not to be denied, and, after a quarter of an hour's desperate mêlée, which filled the sylvan glades with moaning and writhing wounded and stark dead bodies, we remained masters of the wood, and even obtained a footing on the railway line where it adjoins it. 

"Simultaneously a long line of our land iroclads came into action near Woodham Mortimer, some trying to beat down the fire of the German ironclads opposite, while others replied to an artillery battery which had been established near West Maldon Station to flank the railway, and which was now beginning to open on Hazeleigh Wood. The latter were assisted by a battery of 4·7 guns manned by Volunteers, which took up a position behind Woodham Walter. The firing on Great Canney from our ironclads and batteries at East Hanningfield, as well as Royal Naval aeronef, redoubled, the whole summit of the hill being at times obscured by the clouds of smoke and débris from the explosions of the big, high-explosive projectiles. 

"The main firing line, continually fed from the rear, now began slowly to gain ground, and when the Grenadiers and the Irish Guards, who had managed to work up through the series of plantations that run eastwards for nearly two miles from Woodham Hall without drawing any particular attention from the busily engaged enemy, came into action on the right, there was a distinct move forward. But the defence was too stubborn, and about midday the whole line again came to a standstill, its left still in Hazeleigh Wood, its right at Prentice Farm. Orders were passed that the men should try to entrench themselves as best they could, and spades and other tools were sent forward to those corps who were not provided with them already. 

"Here we must leave the main attack to notice what was going on elsewhere. On the north the Colchester Garrison again brought their heavy ironclads into action on the slopes south of Wickham Bishops, while others of our troops made a show of advancing against Maldon from the west. These movements were, however, merely intended to keep the German garrison occupied. But on the right a rather important flanking movement was in progress. 

"We had a considerable body of troops at East Hanningfield, which lies in a hollow between two little ridges, both running from south-west to north-east, and about a mile apart. The most easterly ridge is very narrow for the most part, and behind it were stationed several companies of our ironclads, which fired over it at Great Canney at a range of about 5,000 yards. A number of Imperator ironclads, scattered over the western hill, were also concentrated on the same target. Although the range was an extremely long one, there is no doubt that they made a certain number of effective hits, since Great Canney offered a conspicuous and considerable target. But beyond this the flashes of their discharges drew off all attention from the artillery batteries in front of them, and served to conceal their presence from the enemy. Otherwise, although invisible, their presence would have been guessed at. As it was, not a single German projectile came anywhere near them. 

"When the fighting began, those troops who were not intended to be held in reserve or to co-operate with the right of the main attack moved off in the direction of Woodham Ferrers, and made a feint of attacking the German position astride the two kopjes at Edwin's Hall, their contraptions coming into action on the high ground north of Rettendon, and engaging those of the enemy at long range. But the real attack on this salient of the German position came from a very different quarter. 

"The troops detailed for this movement were those who had advanced against Wickford at daybreak, and had found it abandoned by the enemy. They consisted of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, the Royal Mechanised Corps, and the Inns of Court Volunteers, together with their own and three or four other machine-gun detachments, their Maxims being mounted on detachable legs instead of war-cars. Co-operating with them were the Essex and the East Kent Yeomanry, who were scouting in the direction of Hockley. 

"The troops had a long, wearisome march before them, the design being to take advantage of the time of low tide, and to move along out of sight of the enemy behind the northern bank of the river Crouch, as it had been discovered that the German line of defence turned back to the eastward at a mile or two north of the river at the point aimed at. Its guns still commanded it, and might be trusted to render abortive any attempt to throw a bridge across it. The Yeomanry had the task of occupying the attention of the enemy at Canewdon, and of preventing the passage of boats from the German warships. This part of our operations succeeded admirably. The long creeping lines of the Oxfordshires and the machine-gun detachments even in their red uniforms were almost indistinguishable against the steep mud banks at any distance, and they escaped observation both from the German main lines and from their outpost at Canewdon until they had reached the entrances of the two branch creeks for which they were making. 

"Then, and not till then, came the sound of artillery from the left rear of the German position. But it was too late. The Oxford companies pushed forward at the double. Five companies lined the embankments of Stow Creek, the easternmost of the two, while the remainder, ensconced in Clementsgreen Creek, aligned the whole of their machine-guns on the southern of the two kopjes against which the manœuvre had been directed. Their fire, which, coming from a little to the rear of the left flank of the southern kopje, completely enfiladed it, created such slaughter and confusion that the Royal Mechanised Corps and the Inns of Court, who had been working up the railway line from Battle Bridge, had little difficulty in establishing themselves at Woodham Ferrers Station and in an adjacent farm. Being almost immediately afterwards reinforced by the arrival of two regular battalions who had been pushed forward from Rettendon, a determined assault was made on the southern kopje. Its defenders, demoralised by the pelting shower of lead from the machine-gun battery, and threatened also by the advance from Woodham Ferrers village, gave way, and our people, forcing their way over every obstacle, seized the position amid frantic cheering. 

"Meanwhile the Oxfordshires had been subjected to a determined counter-attack from North Frambridge. Preceded by a pounding from the guns on Kit's Hill, but aided by the fire of the Yeomanry on the south bank of the river, who galloped up and lined the embankment, thus flanking the defenders of Stow Creek, it was beaten back with considerable loss. The machine-guns were transferred to the neighbourhood of South Kopje, and used with such effect that its defenders, after repulsing several counter-attacks from the adjoining German entrenchment, were able to make themselves masters of the North Kopje also. 

"Elsewhere the fighting still continued strenuous and deadly. The main attack had contrived to make some little shelter for itself; but though three several attempts were made to advance from this, all ended in failure, one nearly in disaster. This was the last of the three, when the advancing line was charged by a mass of cavalry which suddenly appeared from behind Great Canney Hill. I myself was a witness of this attack, the most picturesque incident of the day's fighting. 

"I was watching the progress of the engagement through my glasses from the high ground about Wickham's Farm, when I saw line after line of the German horsemen in their sky-blue tunics and glittering helmets trot out into the open, canter, and one after another break into a mad gallop, as they bore down upon the advancing lines of our citizen soldiers. Staunchly as these had withstood the murderous fire which for hours had been directed upon them, this whirlwind of lance and sabre, the thunder of thousands of hoofs, and the hoarse cries of the riders, were rather more than such partially trained soldiers could stand. A scattering discharge from their rifles was followed by something very much approaching a sauve qui peut. 

"A large number of Volunteers, however, sought shelter among the ruined houses of Cock Clarke's hamlet, from whence they opened a heavy fire on the adventurous horsemen. The Royal Mechanised Engineers and Highlanders, who were by this time in Mosklyns Copse, and the Guards and other troops on the right, also opened a rapid and sustained fire on the German cavalry, the ‘Mark Two’ contraptions charging the shocked Germans, which seconded by the shrapnel from our guns on Loddard's Hill, caused them to turn and ride back for their lives with the Engineers in motorised pursuit. There was a tremendous outburst of firing from both sides after this, followed by quite a lull. One could well imagine that all the combatants were exhausted by the prolonged effort of the day. It was now between five and six in the evening. It was at this time that the news of the capture of the two kopjes reached me, and I made for Danbury to write my despatches. 

"Shortly after my arrival I heard of the capture of Spar Hill, a detached knoll about 1,200 yards to the north-west of Purleigh. The Marines from Hazeleigh Wood and the Highlanders from Mosklyns Copse had suddenly and simultaneously assaulted it from opposite sides, and were now entrenching themselves upon it. What wonder, then, that I reported satisfactory progress, and reckoned—too confidently, as it proved—on a victory for the morrow? 

"I spent a great part of that night under the stars on the hilltop near East Hanningfield, watching the weird play of the ironclads searchlights which swept over the country from a score of different positions, and listening to the crash of artillery and clatter of rifle fire which now and again told of some attempted movement under cover of the darkness. Just before daylight the continuous roar of battle began again, and when light dawned I found that our troops had cut right through the German lines, and had penetrated as far as Cop Kitchen's Farm, on the Maldon-Mundon road. Reinforcements were being hurried up, and an attack was being pushed towards the rear of Purleigh and Great Canney, which was being heavily bombarded by some of our large guns, which had been mounted during the night on the two kopjes. 

"But the reinforcements were not enough. The Germans held fast to Purleigh and to some reserve positions they had established about Mundon. After two or three hours of desperate effort, costing the lives of thousands, our attack was at a standstill. At this critical moment a powerful counter-attack was made from Maldon, and, outnumbered and almost surrounded, our gallant warriors had to give ground. But they fell back as doggedly as they had advanced, the Argylls, Marines, Mechanised Engineers and Grenadiers covering the retreat on Danbury. 

"The ironclads at East Hanningfield and the two kopjes checked the pursuit to a great extent, and the Germans seemed unwilling to go far from their works. The kopjes had to be abandoned later in the day, and we now occupy our former line from Danbury to Billericay, and are busily engaged in entrenching ourselves."

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