Continuing our occasional series based on the book It Wasn’t All Sunshine: a Larne man’s account of his recruitment, training and action with the Royal Irish Rifles in France during the First World War. In this excerpt, soldier Robert McGookin witnesses one of the last great cavalry charges.
Our guns were bombarding the enemy trenches day and night and on June 5, 1917 everything was made ready for an attack.
Next night we went up to the trenches where our Battalion advanced from. We had to wait until 3.10am. Everything was as still as the grave.
I will try here to describe how I felt while I was awaiting for the attack to commence. I thought of the coming battle and how I would fare in it, wondering whether I would ever return alive. Then I thought of the my father and mother, brothers and sisters, and how my mother would feel if I never would return. And as the time for the advance drew near, I thought of the sins I had committed in the past, hoping God would forgive me.
My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by an officer coming along and telling us the correct time, and instructing those who had watches to set them so as to prevent mistakes, as we had to remain a certain time while the artillery bombarded in front of us. The officer told me it was exactly three o’clock and to prepare to go over at 3.13. All the boys started to shake hands with each other and wish each other the best of luck. If some of the people at home could have seen them then, they would have seen true comradeship.
In the trench where I was standing, there was a good few boys from Inver, and we were talking about the mine that was going to be fired, when an officer told us to get out of the trench as it might fall in with the reverberation from the explosion. We got out and the first thing we heard was the hum of an aeroplane, then we discovered there was a number of tanks behind us, waiting for the advance to begin. All of a sudden the earth gave a tremendous heave, then there was a blinding flash and roar. Then a red light was fired from an aeroplane and the mass of artillery behind us opened out with a mighty roar. With a yell which we could barely hear, we were off next the enemy’s trenches, which were discernible, in the morning darkness, by the flashes of the bursting shells from our artillery. Wytschaete Ridge just looked like a line of fire for about three miles in length.
We rushed on to the enemy’s first line trench. There were a few Germans here, so they were all bunched up and sent back behind our lines to the prisoners’ compound. We had to stay here 10 minutes until our artillery shelled the second line. At this period if you wanted to speak to the man next to you, you had to almost yell in his ear. So we advanced to the second line, and here we had a few casualties inflicted by an isolated machine gun post, but a few bombs silenced it in a very short time. By this time our mouths were parched by the fumes of the shells.
By the time we reached the fourth line of the enemy’s trenches we had daylight, and our men were marching the prisoners down in batches of fifties and some batches even numbered a hundred. Up to this time we only had about thirty casualties, and we had gained our objective, Wytschaete Ridge.
When we were firmly established on the ridge and had the time to view around us, we saw what was once a green hill turned into a brown mass of clay. Most of our Company was spread out near a dugout called Lumm Farm which was a system of dugouts made of reinforced concrete four feet thick. There was a dugout for stores and another was a machine gun emplacement. Best of all was the dugout occupied by the German officers. Evidently they meant to stay for a while in it because there were feather beds, cane chairs, a large wardrobe with a mirror, and two writing desks. There were, some German Officers’ greatcoats hanging around and a chap, named Clarke, put one of them on and forthwith proceeded to write out our discharges.
The German officers and men who held Lumm Farm fought stubbornly and it was only when they were about wiped out that they surrendered. They had forty or fifty dead when we took possession.
After we had been properly established on the ridge, we consolidated the line we had gained and held it for four days and nights. We did not undergo any counter attacks from the enemy until the early hours of the fourth morning.
I was in charge of A. Coy. Signal Station when I was brought to the alert by the signal lamp of the Brigade Headquarters, four miles from our company position, calling our Battalion Headquarters to take an urgent message: “Enemy massing in large numbers on the left of Russich Wood. In ten minutes, we had thirty two machine guns covering the ground. Then, from an aeroplane, a rocket was fired directly over the wood and our artillery issued forth their messengers of death into this wood, and every machine gun spat lead into it at the rate of six or seven hundred rounds per minute. I can truthfully say that there was not a single German advanced to the attack as it would have been an impossibility, for trees were falling everywhere and limbs and splinters were flying about as if in a terrific gale. To complete the (I will call it a dispersal), our aeroplanes sailed over and unloaded a good many heavy bombs into the wood. That was how the German counter attack was smashed and we were not troubled by counter attacks after that.
Next morning our artillery started to bombard the enemy’s line and the 11th Division advanced further over the ridge and we went out for a rest.
I will try to describe one of the grandest and most exciting incidents of the Battle of Messines. The Australians, who were on our right, were held up by uncut barbed wire. Our tanks moved forward and soon cleared the wire, when this was done, the Canadian Mounted Rifles advanced and this was the one and only cavalry charge I ever saw.
I could see the glint of swords as each rider crouched behind the horse’s head and I could hear the thunder of the hooves, after the bugle sounded “The Charge”. There were about eight lines of horses, a hundred yards apart, and about a hundred horses in each line. It was wonderful to see the horses keeping position while the German shells were bursting among them.
A good many horses and men were killed, but they completed the task allotted them. I noticed too that when a man got wounded and fell out of the saddle, in some cases, the horse stood beside him. In other cases, when a horse lost his rider, the horse went on and never broke the rank and came back in his place just the same as if he had a rider.