" "The Glorious Cambs" - Col. Clayton's Thrilling Story"
An account from the Cambridgeshire Times of 30th May 1919
Many of the men of the Isle of Ely served with the 1/1st Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment during the First World War as this was a “Pals Battalion” formed in the first instance from men of the local unit of the Territorial Army. Thirty-four “Ely men” died with the Cambridgeshires.
In May of 1919 a luncheon was given for the cadre of the battalion who were the last to return from France (a battalion cadre consists of 6 officers and 50 men). Two distinguished speakers told the story of the regiment’s service to great applause from the assembled men:
The Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire Mr Charles Robert Whorwood Adeane proposed the toast and said it “was a very joyful occasion, for the were able that day to welcome home, after 4 ½ years arduous, terrible, but successful fighting, the glorious 1/1st Battalion Cambs. Regt. He remembered the day in January 1915 when the members of the County Association went to Bury St Edmunds to say farewell to the Battalion. They were very much depressed on that occasion as saying goodbye to their friends who were so soon to go abroad, but there was no depression in the Battalion. The spirit of enthusiasm and courage on that occasion was in every man who was about to embark in the great enterprise no less than that of resisting the greatest menace that had ever threatened this country. Col. Copeman had the great honour and distinction of taking the Cambridgeshires over the water. From that day to this the Cambridgeshires had won nothing but glory; so great was their renown that whenever there was a stiff job up at the front there the Cambs. were sure to be found. He would like to give them the names of the battles and engagements in which the Battalion had taken part. In March 1915, the Battalion fought at St. Eloi; in April 1915, at the second battle of Ypres; in September and October, 1916, at Thiepval, Schwaben Redoubt of immortal memory and St. Pierre Divion; in July 1917, at St Julien; in September of the same year at Menin Road; in March 1918 at Voormezeele (Ypres)l in August and September, 1918, at Morlancourt, Carnoy, Maltz, Horn Ridge; Nurlu and Ephey; and in October at Auby. But in this war the reward of gallantry and bravery on the field of battle was casualty, and the Battalion had suffered very severely. No less than 7,000 had passed through the Battalion. There had been altogether 4,700 casualties. It came to this that only about 30 men out of 100 (i.e. 30%) came through unscathed! That was the reverse side of the medal, and he was quite sure that today those men who lay over there in France and in Flanders were in their thoughts, and so also were all those they had left behind them. They had lost last August that gallant officer, Col. Saint. But the victory was won, thanks to the brave Cambs. men and their like, and they hoped in the future for an enduring peace.
“The Battalion had won great honours: 1 CMG; 1 DSO and two Bars; 5 DSO; 2 Military Cross and two Bars; 6 Military Cross and Bar; 31 Military Cross; 2 DCM and Bar; 30 DCM; 6 Military Medal and Bar; 172 Military Medal; 5 Meritorious Service Medal; 1 Medal Militaire; 1 Bronze Italian Medal; 1 Belgian Croix de Guerre; 27 Mentioned in Despatches; 1 OBE; 14 Mentioned in Despatches to the Secretary of State for War for valuable service rendered in connection with the war; 1 KCSI; 1 CBE. …..”
Lieutenant Colonel Muirhead Collins Clayton responded for the Regiment: “…..he and his comrades were quite overwhelmed with the warmth of their reception. As individuals perhaps they did not deserve all this ovation, but they realised that they were the representatives of those 7,000 men who had served with the Battalion abroad. Many, alas, would never return, but others had been luckier, some not so lucky as others, but still they had come back. They (the cadre) were the last remnants to come back and they felt it was great responsibility to have to receive the official welcome to the Battalion returning from a victorious war. When they first went out they were used to take off Regular troops, and almost before they had got into their stride they ran into the battle of St. Eloi, and shortly afterwards the Second Battle of Ypres. They were both pretty desperate affairs, especially the Second Battle of Ypres. Some of them remembered what it was to be shelled and not able to shell back; some of them saw what poison gas did. He remembered seeing a whole company near Hill 60 gassed, and he thought that made them more determined than ever never to rest until the Boche had gone back to Germany. …. Afterwards the Battalion had a long period of trench warfare, and very costly trench warfare, especially in the Spring of 1916. The Summer of 1916 found the Battalion going down to the Somme.
“Then followed, at the end of August and until November 14th, practically continuous fighting which culminated in one of the greatest events of the war, the capture of the Schwaben Redoubt. He was not there at the time but he was there a few weeks ago, and one realised what a tremendous feat it was, and appreciated what Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig said when he wrote “It was one of the finest feat of the war.” He visited it a few weeks ago; there was no monument there except the crosses of the Cambs and the Black Watch soldiers on the summit – and he thought those were sufficient monument. Then came the successful attack on St. Pierre Divion, and then the Battalion returned to its old hunting ground, Ypres. Altogether, during the time that it was in France, the Battalion was 22 months in the Ypres Salient. Those who knew that Salient could appreciate what it meant. It was always twice as bad as fighting anywhere else. Not only were they overlooked on three sides, but it often meant lying in shell-holes half-full of water for days on end, but that and the general discomfort no troops could have put up with better than the Cambs. men did. Then came the very wonderful show at St. Julien, when, owing to the original plan going wrong, the Cambs were thrown into the breach and broke successfully the German counter-attack, until finally the Germans were brought to a standstill, and our advance eventually went on again. Col. Clayton went on to refer to Menin Road, in which the Battalion captured Tower Hamlets Ridge, a very difficult task – they did all required of them. At the end of January 1918 they were still in Ypres, and were ordered to the South, to Gouzeaucourt. They were there six weeks, and were in rest when the big Boche offensive started. For ten days they fought continuously a rearguard action. The Division to which the Cambs. belonged and two other Divisions were chosen to cover the retreat of that particular Army. Well, covering a retreat was a task which did not generally get much credit and he should say that many glorious deeds done in the retreat would never be known. There were many, many cases in the Battalion of little groups of isolated men, often without an officer or N. C. O., holding on until eventually the enemy was all around them and went over them, and they were never heard of again, but they did their work. Then they were sent up North, and five days later found them opposite Messines Ridge. Then followed the Battle of Voormezeele, which took place on the same day as the Battle of Kemmel. “I have always regarded Voormezeele as one of the most desperate bayyles the Battalion has ever taken part in” said Col. Clayton. “Remember what we had at stake there. There were no troops between Voormezeele and St. Omer except the troops actually in the line there – we had one line of men left. They called it “the thin khaki line”, but the Battalion beat off eight successive attacks and we handed over the line intact after five days’ incessant fighting.” Col. Clayton remarked how much they always valued the kindly messages received from Cambridge and the County and said they were very grateful indeed for them and for the help they had always had from the County. Proceeding, he said that after Voormezeele the 39th Division, to which they belonged, owing to incessant fighting, was reduced from 10 battalions to 2 and it became necessary to reorganise. The 39th Division ceased to exist as such, and they joined the 12th Division. After a period of trench warfare and a short time when they were in support behind the French, they went into the line at Morlancourt, and August 8th took part in the initial attack which finally broke the Boche power. “On the day”, said Col. Clayton, we were put to attack opposite Morlancourt, a very strong position. Two companies attacked in the early morning: they were not successful. At noon two other companies attacked. As near as we could say 140 men attacked from those two companies. Not only did they capture the position, but captured 370 Germans and 30 machine guns. We regard that as a very fine feat. Next day we took Molancourt. On August 22nd we attacked again; then followed a succession of attacks until on August 28th we captured Maltz Horn Ridge, and there we lost that very gallant officer – Lieutenant Colonel Edward Twelvetree Saint. The Battalion had a very, very heavy loss when we lost Colonel Saint. He was a brilliant soldier; he always thought for others, never for himself. When very badly hit, before he was carried away, he insisted on giving full orders to Adjutant Capt. Walker. In September we attacked Nurlu and captured it. We also attacked Ephey and captured it. At the end of September we were used to guard the hinge of the big attack that broke the Hindenberg line. Then we were taken out of the line and went north to Vimy, where we attacked next morning and went on until eventually, on October 14th, the anniversary of the Schwaben Redoubt, we were given the task of capturing Aiby, a bug village on the banks of the Haute Deule Canal. The enemy were holding a bridge head there and it was absolutely necessary if the advance was to continue, that we should capture the village. The Cambs. captured it. After that followed what was perhaps the most notable part of the war, several days of open fighting. It was very good fun; I think all the Battalion enjoyed it – no casualties, several prisoners, covering ground the whole time. We came across for the first time civilians – we were able to release civilians. They were very kind to us indeed; in fact the advance of the Battalion was on several times held up by a barrage of coffee and flowers. In those days I always envied the sergeant-drummer , because I could only get geraniums, but he went about with a wreath over one eye. The Battalion was at rest, and just moving forward when the Armistice was signed. I think that was a fine record.
“What has helped to make this Battalion a fighting battalion?” asked Col. Clayton. “Leaving out the factors of experience and training which are absolutely necessary, I think there are three main factors. One is confidence, mutual confidence, between the men and their Commanding Officer…. The second important thing I think is good leader. Well there is no need for me to talk about our leaders, our regimental officers – look at the casualty list, you will see that. Then we come to the main thing, the men in the ranks. Well right the way through, from St. Eloi to Sameon, it has been the same, no battalion could have had better men than we had. They were cheerful under the most depressing circumstances, they endured very hard times in the Salient at Ypres, they were irresistible in attack, and they never gave ground unless they were surrounded. I feel that even now the country does not realise what it owes to the British soldier in the ranks. In this war I have seen Americans, French and Belgians fighting, but I have yet to see anybody that comes up to the British soldier.
“I feel it is only right to point out that we are all only continuing old traditions. The 30th Foot was the old Cambs. Regt., and did brilliantly in the Peninsula, and wherever else it was taken in the olden days. I have spoken of the way the officers responded to all calls made on them – the officers and the men, and I want to make a special point of saying how proud we are that every Colonel of the Regiment since 1900 has been serving out in France in this war. Colonel Charles Heycock, I believe, was first gazetted in 1876, he has been out. Colonel A J Lyon served a long period there, Colonel Charles Louis Tebbutt has been out a long time and has been wounded, and now he is at Cologne. You have both sides of the medal, you have seen what it has cost, what the Battalion has done. The engagements that we have been in during the war, some of them, will eventually be placed on our Colours. There is an officer present here who will have the unique distinction of having been present at every engagement that will be on our Colours. Mr Benjamin Pooley (the Quartermaster) served with the contingent in South Africa, was with the Battalion at the start of the war, and he has served throughout until January of 1919 with the Battalion in France. That is a very fine record. I doubt whether there is any other officer in the Eastern Counties’ battalions can say the same. We have tried to keep up the traditions; I think we have maintained them. Those are our engagements, and they will be placed on our Colours….”
Colonel Clayton was later a co-author of the book “The Cambridgeshires 1914 to 1919” which may be acquired online through Google Books.