On 28th July 1914, the armies of Austro-Hungary invaded Serbia in retribution for the murder of the heir to the Empire’s throne by Balkan nationalists. A sequence of events led, on 4th August, to Great Britain declaring war in defence of Belgian neutrality: the war was to last over four long years, and led to the deaths of over 16 million people.
The 11th Hussars began the war in Aldershot, as part of the 1st Cavalry Brigade in the 1st Cavalry Division. Amid great excitement the regiment prepared for war – 120 reservists (old soldiers recalled to the army) joined, and a number of horses were also acquired. Before the war a census of all horses in Great Britain had been undertaken and over 120,000 were requisitioned in 12 days. The regiment left Aldershot on 15th August, 549 men and 608 horses on three trains to Southampton, where they took ship for France. They arrived at Le Havre on the afternoon of Sunday 16th August – they were not to return to England until March 1919.
The 10th Royal Hussars began the war in South Africa; on 5th August they left Cape Town and were on Salisbury Plain by 20th September. After a period of re-equipping, they were sent to Belgium as part of the ill-fated attempt to defend Antwerp, in the 6th Cavalry Brigade of the 3rd Cavalry Division.
The Eleventh were the first to see action, at Mons on 23rd August. From that battle followed a series of withdrawals, with the cavalry always the last to leave, protecting the army as it retreated. The action at Nery, where the 1st Cavalry Brigade fought off a surprise attack by over a Division of German cavalry, was the first of many successful fights the regiment took part in.
Following the fall of Antwerp, the Tenth withdrew to Ypres, where they took part in the defence of the town whose suffering was to become synonymous with the Great War. Horses were left in safety and the cavalryman became an infantryman: pre-war, both the 10th Hussars and the 11th Hussars had dedicated much time to musketry – the science of expert marksmanship. The desperate times spent holding the Ypres Salient against overwhelming German attacks repaid that dedication. The winter was spent in the cold and mud of the primitive trenches of the period, far away from the glamour of the hussar uniforms the men had left behind.
For the cavalry the war brought many changes. After the early days, the use of cavalry was very limited – no opportunities for gallant charges with drawn swords. Bayonets were issued, together with tools to dig trenches and prepare fortifications, but the cavalry was nothing if not adaptable. Just as the soldiers of The King’s Royal Hussars today undertake a range of roles in Afghanistan, their great-grandfathers turned their hands to many things between 1914 and 1918. The result was time spent as infantry holding the Line (but never in the great offensives such as the Somme), or as labourers helping to build tracks or carry supplies or even digging trenches.
Time was also spent preparing for the ‘proper’ role, training, looking after the horses, and keeping equipment in top condition ready for the day when the opportunity arose to charge the enemy. On several occasions the prospect was close (on the Somme, regiments of British and Indian cavalry had been able to mount a brief, but quite successful charge) but never quite within reach.
The Tenth had their day in 1917; on 9th April, as part of the Battle of Arras, the regiment (with the Essex Yeomanry) was called on to make a charge near the village of Monchy le Preux. In a blizzard the two regiments set off: German fire forced them into the village for shelter, where they were then trapped under heavy shell fire for over three days. When finally relieved, the Tenth had lost 27 men killed and 157 wounded, and between themselves and the Yeomanry, around 900 horses are thought to have become casualties.
However, after three years of frustration, in 1918, the cavalry was to come into its own. A massive German offensive began in March, and British and French forces were pushed back many miles. Cavalry was the only mobile reserve available, and was used to plug gaps in the Line, counter-attack threatening situations, and generally act as a fire brigade to keep the enemy at bay. On 23rd March, men from the Tenth took part in a mounted charge on a wood near Amiens.
With sabres drawn, and cheering loudly, the charge was made across ploughed land into a heavy machine gun fire. The Germans broke – around 100 became casualties and another 100 were captured. Six machine guns were also taken. A German cavalryman wrote that the charge was “…so courageous and well carried out that we are proud to have witnessed it.” (It is interesting to note that the Germans saw no future for cavalry and had dismounted all their cavalry regiments and turned them into infantry – time and again British cavalry showed them how wrong they were).
On 8th August the tide turned and the Allied armies began a series of attacks which ended the war. The 11th Hussars took part in the Battle of Amiens, as the attack on 8th August is known, with their comrades in the 1st Cavalry Brigade. During the day the German line was broken and British cavalry and tanks ranged many miles beyond the front line. The 1st Cavalry Brigade took over 1,000 prisoners and innumerable guns and machine guns.
From that date on, the war was won. The series of Allied attacks (the Americans now joining the British, French and Belgian armies) known as ‘The Hundred Days’ ended with an armistice on 11th November. By strange coincidence, both the Tenth (near Le Cateau) and the Eleventh (near Mons) finished the war almost on the same spot that the fighting had started in August 1914.
On 1st December the 11th Hussars crossed the German border as part of the Occupation forces – the war was over. 15 officers and 199 other ranks of the Tenth, and 12 officers and 151 men of the Eleventh had fallen.