News from the front line

A HUNDRED years ago this year, at the height of the First World War, the newly formed Royal Guernsey Light Infantry was involved in a bloody and brutal battle at the small town of Masnieres, near the French city of Cambrai. They fought bravely but suffered terrible casualties. But how much did the families of these soldiers, many of whom would never come back, know about the action? Nick Le Messurier finds out how it was reported at the time

cambrai
The letters depot for soldiers’ mail.

TODAY, news travels fast. Something important happens on the other side of the world and you will hear it on radio news in minutes. You will see film footage on the television within hours. And now, with social media, the news can be flashing around the world as it happens.

Even in the tight world of military intelligence, when a soldier was killed in Afghanistan, the news would be released within hours and the identity of the soldier normally released the next day, as soon as next of kin have been informed.

But in the First World War, things were different. There were no roving TV and radio news crews racing to get their stories back to the network for broadcasting that evening. Messages were passed by ‘runners’ and the use of pigeons was common. Telephones were a new idea but not really trusted. Communication links were so much slower than today and, although there were some special newspaper correspondents near to the action – nowhere near as many as in the Second World War – they had to compete with another difficulty, censorship.

We can understand why it was important for newspapers not to give away to the enemy information which might put troops in danger, such as positions and numbers massing to take part in a big attack. But what would be much more difficult to swallow today was the idea that there should be no criticism of the war effort.

Only days after war was declared, in 1914, The Defence of the Realm Act was passed and part of it stated that: ‘No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population.’ This was used to prevent the publication of stories which were critical, or even perceived to be so.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, when the British Army suffered 57,000 casualties, the War Department released the information that the advances made were a sign of success and victory. The battle went on for months, with 420,000 British casualties, as well as 200,000 French and 500,000 German, but these growing casualty rates were rarely reported in British newspapers. One British journalist said that he wanted ‘to spare the feelings of men and women who have sons and husbands fighting in France’, though another said that he was ‘deeply ashamed’ by what he had written.

In 1917, Prime Minister Lloyd George said privately: ‘If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know.’

Families and loved ones of the soldiers serving on the Western Front could get information from the soldiers themselves. Millions of letters a week were delivered between British soldiers and their families. These were censored by regimental officers and anything to do with location, number of troops, trench conditions (sometimes including the weather) were banned, as was any criticism of their superiors.

In effect, families in Guernsey would know how their sons and husbands were, but not where they were.

In those days, the Guernsey Evening Press produced three editions a day, the morning edition at 8am, the first edition at 1pm and the special edition at 5pm. These were updated through the day. Sometimes the original story was published together with an updated story.

But after the initial fanfare of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry leaving the island, reported in the Press with a set of impressive posed photographs, including with the RGLI mascot donkey Joey, on 2 June 1917, news reports gradually became scarcer. News from the ‘front’ was not available, neither was it the concept that we understand today. Life at home had to go on.

Guernsey had seen some casualties of war in ones and twos up to now. There were Guernseymen who were regular soldiers in a variety of regiments when war broke out, others who joined up and served mainly with the Royal Irish Regiments, and many with French links who joined up to fight to defend France, their parent country.

On 2 June 1917, the same newspaper that reported on the RGLI’s departure also carried details of deaths in action, of Gunner W J Tostevin and Private Taylor.

The RGLI went to the UK for training and, after a short leave at home, left Southampton for France in September. On 20 November, the British launched a huge offensive at Cambrai, with infantry following more than 400 tanks, the new and frightening armoured mechanised weapon. The attack was initially a great success, and the RGLI went into action in the second wave to hold some of the ground gained. Then the Germans launched a fierce counter-attack and on 30 November and 1 and 2 December, the RGLI fought heroically and ‘like veterans’, according to their commanding general, in and around the lanes of Les Vertes Rues, near the town of Masnieres. Over three days of waves of enemy troops advancing, mortar and artillery shells pounding the ground around them, they stood often defending themselves and their friends in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.

At the time of the battle, unaware of the situation in France, the Guernsey Evening Press made no mention of their involvement, but it did carry general news of the battle, released by the War Department and several syndicated war correspondents’ own censored reports. The day before the battle, on 29 November, the Press reported that ‘The Germans, considerably reinforced, continued to defend Cambrai. Engagements of extreme violence follow one another west of the town...’

The people of Guernsey were not then aware that those ‘engagements of extreme violence’ were featuring their sons, fathers and brothers.

A lull in the fighting was reported the following day under the headline ‘Calm at Cambrai’, which looked at communiqués from British and French authorities and, surprisingly, information from Germany. In reality at Les Vertes Rues at 8 o’clock that morning the first waves of Bavarian troops came into view along the canal banks of the town.

The roll of honour that day for those who had died in action included 21-year-old Sergeant Lorier, killed by a shell, Lance-corporal Davidson, died of wounds, and Privates S Roberts and Guille.

But the morning edition of 1 December reported that action at Cambrai (meaning Masnieres) had been renewed. According to a Press Association special correspondent, ‘There has been considerable infantry activity upon the battle fronts south-west of Cambrai, very lively machine gun fire but our men went forward stubbornly.’ The report went on, ‘The enemy artillery is steadily increasing in volume.’

A later story under the headline ‘Fierce Battle near Cambrai’ says that ‘the enemy attacked south and west of Cambrai from Masnieres to Moeuvres. The attacks were repulsed after fierce fighting in which great losses were inflicted on the German infantry.’ Nothing was mentioned of the RGLI, or indeed of any specific regiment or battalion.

In the same edition, the death of RGLI Lt. A F C Borrett, married only two months earlier, was reported.

The special edition on 1 December talked about ‘successful British raids’ and ‘no more German attacks on the Cambrai front’. As it transpired, these communiqués from the War Department were inaccurate.

On Monday, 3 December, the morning edition carried the story that ‘Further details which are now coming back in connection with the German attack render it clear that this was a big and determined effort...’

News of this was carried on the Press front page – a rare occurrence in those days – alongside adverts for artificial teeth, New Centaur cycles and spectacles to suit all sights from Spiller in Mill Street.

In fact, by that Monday the battle at Les Vertes Rues was over.

Inside that edition, there was more about the battle that had raged over the weekend. ‘During the fighting yesterday in the neighbourhood of Masnieres, the enemy delivered no less than nine separate attacks upon our positions in and around the village. All were beaten off with heavy losses.

‘In the last attack, detachments gained a foothold in the adjoining village of Les Vertes Rues, on the west bank of the Canal de L’Escaut, but were driven out by our counter-attack.’

Those reading the newspaper on that day would almost certainly not have known that the action at Les Vertes Rues featured the soldiers of their regiment, the RGLI. In fact, by the time this page was read, the RGLI had been ordered to withdraw from their positions, having fought bravely and suffered heavy losses.

In the days that followed, the Guernsey Press continued to report on Cambrai, with headlines such as ‘German offensive resumed with great violence’, ‘Twenty German divisions thrown into the Furnace’ and ‘Huns Taught a Rough Lesson’.

It was in the 5 December edition that the RGLI involvement was acknowledged, in a two-column box headed ‘The Royal Guernsey Light Infantry’ and ‘Fought with Steadiness of Veterans in Cambrai Battle’.

The story was from the special correspondent of the Times, who, after paying tribute to the Newfoundland regiment, wrote: ‘I also mentioned certain new troops which had never been in action before which distinguished themselves by their special keenness and desire to do well on their first appearance in the great theatre. These, one can now say, were a Guernsey battalion. There are no hardier men in the Empire than these Channel Islanders, and they fought as keenly as young troops could, and with the steadiness of veterans.’

It was also reported that: ‘The Guernsey flag was hoisted at the Royal Court House this morning, and flags were flown in all parts of the Town and Island, in honour of the gallant lads of the RGLI.’

Over the page, under the Toll of the Cambrai Battle, were listed three killed and 21 wounded. The list of casualties would increase over the following days. In the Friday 7 December first edition, the list had five deaths and 18 wounded, a figure which would increase to 23 by the time the special edition was published later that day.

The following Monday, there were two dead and 26 wounded listed, some with poignant details, such as those of Private George H. Langlois, who died of his wounds. ‘Pte Langlois was 22 years old and was employed by Mr H R Bougourd, La Tourelle, St Peter’s as a greenhouseman. He was called up for service in the army last February.’

The list of dead and wounded reported continued to increase in the following days.

At the opening of the Les Touillets, Castel, military hospital, the Lt-Governor Sir Reginald Hart said, ‘We have reason to feel very proud. We all feel the deepest sympathy with those who have suffered bereavement’, but he added that ‘the military situation is very serious and this is no time to keep back young men of 18 years and eight months for selfish reasons’.

On Friday 14 December, five more dead were listed and the following day, 62 wounded. Sometimes the names of the dead were listed and then later repeated, with more information.

It was also reported that a statement from the General Officer commanding the division to which the RGLI were attached was read out at the state meeting. It was headed ‘Gallant R.G.L.I.’.

The General Officer wrote: ‘I want to convey to the Guernsey authorities my very high appreciation of the valuable services rendered by the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry in the Battle of Cambrai. Theirs was a wonderful performance.

‘Guernsey has every reason to feel the greatest pride in her sons and I am proud to have them under me fighting alongside my staunch veterans...

‘I regret the casualties of the Battalion were heavy, a further proof, if any were needed, that they fought magnificently.’

Over the following days, casualty reports and names continued, with some new categories of ‘Missing’ and ‘Presumed Dead’. Even on Christmas Eve, the Press reported a list of 26 men who died at Cambrai, men with names such as Hotton, Peter and John Ozanne, Jehan, Guilbert, Marquis, Meagher, Priaulx, Sarre, Le Prevost.

The final toll was that during the battle, 15 men were killed outright, 274 wounded, many of whom would die from their wounds, and 216 were ‘missing’, which meant either lying dead on the abandoned battlefield, hit by artillery or captured by the enemy.

Major Edwin Parks, in his book Diex Aix – the Guernseymen who Marched Away 1914-1918, estimates that nearly 40% of the battalion’s total strength of 1,311 soldiers had become casualties. ‘Cambrai was the end of a generation in Guernsey and the island was stunned by the length of the casualty lists.’