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Mud and hooves: Three cavalry regiments and their Battle of the Somme

By June 30, 2016 History No Comments
[Men and horses of The Royal Scots Greys on the Somme battlefield.]
[Men and horses of The Royal Scots Greys on the Somme battlefield.]

Our three cavalry regiments did not play any combatant part, in its traditional mounted role, in the Battle of the Somme, fought on the Western Front between July and the autumn of 1916. However, accounts of the duties carried out by the three antecedent regiments of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards make clear that these regiments did deploy in roles which were vital to what was then modern warfare. Of especial relevance is how adaptable our cavalrymen had to be during the late summer and autumn of 1916; it is clear that they did whatever was asked of them with the greatest courage and determination.

3rd Dragoon Guards (Prince of Wales’s)

Of the three antecedent regiments of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the 3rd Dragoon Guards (3DG) was deployed in the most varied of roles during the Battle of the Somme and its preparation. The 3DG deployment began in the last days of June 1916 when a party of its officers and NCOs rode to the town of Albert and reconnoitred the country beyond in readiness for the forthcoming assault. This mounted group of 3DG bore witness to the massive bombardment of German lines which stretched along a 15-mile front: the scene was said to look as if the German lines had been ‘blotted out of existence’.

On 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began: waves of British infantry began ‘going over the top’ at 07:30, following the cessation of the British artillery barrage. At the same time, 6th Cavalry Brigade (in which 3DG formed part) was saddled-up in bivouac and ready to move at short notice. The Brigade’s task was to exploit the advance, riding through gaps in the German lines that had been created by the infantry. In places, the British attacks were successful but not on the scale necessary for the cavalry to be utilized. The regiment continued to be at short notice to move until 4th July, at which date it was withdrawn to Merelissart. Following the regiment’s withdrawal, a detachment of 58 men formed 3DG’s first working party of the offensive: its task was to fill holes and remove obstacles, such as tree limbs and other debris, littering the British area of the Somme battlefield. The formation of working parties was a task common to all cavalry regiments on the Western Front in the middle-war years and our three antecedent regiments all fulfilled that role during the Battle of the Somme. Cavalry regiments remained largely in reserve in France and Flanders between 1915 and mid-1918: as such, they contained a ready supply of men both for working parties and for dismounted duty in the trenches. This work was vital, both in assisting the infantry in securing the front line and in allowing infantrymen to concentrate their efforts on the deployment for which they had been trained.

On 14th July, the British launched an attack on the German second line; again, this involved 3DG being ‘stood-to’ at half an hour’s notice to move. The regiment continued to be on four hours’ notice to move until the 19th, at which date it marched to La Neuville.

On 29th July, for the first time during the battle, the machine-gun section of 3DG was sent into the front line and saw action at Mametz. In August, the machine-gunners were in the line opposite Thiepval and, on 3rd September, they supported the infantry attack from Beaumont Hamel to the ‘Wunderwerk’.

As a further example of the regiment’s adaptability, on 3rd August a sergeant and two men of the regiment joined a party of snipers which was provided by 6th Cavalry Brigade for 64th Infantry Brigade at Arras.

On 15th September, a fresh attack took place on the Somme. 3DG, along with the remainder of 6th Cavalry Brigade, mounted and moved to an area just south-west of Bonnay in order to exploit any gaps in the German lines made by the new offensive. Although some success was gained, just as with the initial assault of 1st July, the scale was insufficient to allow the cavalry the opportunity to break through and so, on 16th September, 6th Cavalry Brigade returned to its bivouacs.

The final role played by 3DG in the Battle of the Somme was in the contribution of men to a Brigade working party of 330 men of all ranks – the task of which was to ensure that trackways towards Flers and Gueudecourt were traversable. The party arrived at Windmill Ridge just as the area was hit by heavy enemy shell-fire; it sustained 40 casualties as a result.

For bravery during the Battle of the Somme, 3162 Private Harry Gooch received the newly instituted Military Medal (M.M.) in November 1916.

6th Dragoon Guards (The Carabiniers)

The role of 6th Dragoon Guards (6DG) during the summer offensive of 1916 was very similar to that of 3DG: 6DG was employed in dismounted duty in the trenches in addition to finding men for working parties. The Carabiniers shared the frustrations of their fellow cavalry regiments on the Western Front between 1915 and mid-1918: repeatedly mounted in readiness to move, in the hope of exploiting gaps in the German lines, they were then stood-down when the longed-for gaps never materialised.

2nd Dragoons (The Royal Scots Greys)

The Greys were not involved in the Battle of the Somme as mounted cavalry despite the hope of planners that the regiment would be. The Greys’ experience of the battle was akin to that of 3DG and 6DG: being used in working parties and in providing dismounted trench reinforcements. By September 1916, the battle, having raged for two months, was entering its third phase. The intention was that, during this phase, mounted cavalry would exploit any gaps made in the German lines by fresh infantry attacks, attacks that would include the first British deployment of tanks.

On 6th September, 2nd Cavalry Division (containing 5th Cavalry Brigade, of which the Greys formed part) moved in the direction of the Somme, having come from billets at Bonningues. 5th Cavalry Brigade was then directed on to Amiens and into bivouacs just north of Bonnay on the River Ancre.

On 13th September the horses’ grey coats were dyed: a regiment of grey horses would be immediately identifiable as the Greys and the brigade’s deployment thus revealed to spies or enemy reconnaissance aircraft. The commanding officer, adjutant and squadron leaders reconnoitred the route for advance (made by filling in trenches and shell holes) running from Mametz, west of Montauban and Longueval, to near High Wood. On the 14th, the Greys, together with the 2nd Cavalry Division, marched to Bray-sur-Somme and bivouacked about a mile to the north-west of that town. That same day, orders for the coming battle were issued to the Division: these made it clear that the Division was expected to reach Bapaume. On the 15th, the brigade stood-to, at 30 minutes’ notice to move, but the order never came and the regiment was stood-down at dusk. On the following day the brigade was again ordered to stand-to, after which the battle orders for the envisaged advance were finally cancelled. On 25th September hopes were again high that the cavalry might advance but, again, these came to nothing. On 2nd October the brigade was moved back to Morlancourt and away from any further involvement in the Battle of the Somme.

For the men and horses of The Royal Scots Greys, the summer of 1916 proved tiresome and wearying. Food rations were meagre and the weather during the September was dismal. While awaiting mounted action, the horses were laden for longer than would normally be the case with all the food, ammunition and equipment required by themselves and their riders when in the field. This was far from ideal and, importantly, the horses were unable to get the much-needed exercise which kept them both healthy and strong. After the frustrations of mid-1916 and their ramifications for the horses, it would take a winter of care and training for the horses of the Greys to be back to a healthy state.

Sources of information:

Holt, H.P., The History of the Third (Prince of Wales’s) Dragoon Guards, 1914-1918 (Guildford, Billing, 1937).

Oatts, L.B., I serve: Regimental History of the 3rd Carabiniers (Chester, the Regiment, 1966).

Hardy, S. J.. et al, History of The Royal Scots Greys (The Second Dragoons) August 1914-March 1919 (no publisher’s details, 1928).

WO 95/1139/3 – 2nd Dragoons (The Royal Scots Greys) War Diaries 1914 Aug.-1919 Feb.

The London Gazette (Supplement), 29819, 10th November 1916, p. 10923 (award of the Military Medal to 3162 Pte. H. Gooch).

Sources of image:

2nd Dragoons (The Royal Scots Greys) First World War photograph album.

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum reference number: G358.