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Guernsey's Finest Hour - Bravery in our name

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IT WAS the first of June, and after a cold wet winter, the sun was shining on the faces of the young soldiers parading on Belvedere Field, Fort George. Hundreds of people, wives and children, sweethearts, mothers and fathers, friends, well-wishers, watched and cheered. Many followed as the soldiers turned from the field and marched down through St Peter Port to the harbour, where more cheering people waited to watch them board the SS Lydia, with their regimental mascot 'Joey' the Donkey.

In the column were Le Pages and Sarres, Langlois and Ozannes, Hamons and Vaudins, Le Moignes and Le Pelleys, Galliennes and Martels. In fact almost every Guernsey family name was represented. For many, Guernsey-French was their mother tongue.

It was 1917 and this was the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry, formed only the previous December, going off to war, smart in their khaki uniforms and sporting cap badges with their Guernesiais motto, Diex Aix (May God be with us).

The First World War, which had been raging for nearly three years, was bogged down in the brutal stalemate of the Western Front, and the young soldiers and their parents would have known something about the conditions they would face and the steadily increasing numbers of Guernseymen already killed and wounded fighting in other regiments.

Loved ones and parents would have been proud on that June day, but worried also, and they would have tried to hide their fears with smiles and waving and encouraging cheers.

The Royal Guernsey Light Infantry was formed largely because of pressure on the States from the Lt-Governor, Sir Reginald Hart. He felt that, even though hundreds of Guernseymen had already volunteered to fight in other regiments, the name of Guernsey should be represented in a unit on the battlefields. The States voted to introduce conscription and the RGLI was set up. The Guernsey Militia was therefore suspended for the duration of the war.

On 1 June 1917 The Lydia took the RGLI soldiers to England for advanced training and then they came home on leave before returning to the UK. On 26 September, the new service battalion, consisting of 44 officers and 964 men of other ranks, sailed to France. Two months later, they would be involved in the brutal action where they showed their bravery – and suffered greatly.

One of the strengths of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry was also a contributing factor to the tragedy. The men in the RGLI knew each other well; some were friends from infancy, some had been to school together, played football together, worked together. Many were blood relatives. And they all came from a small island which had its own sense of identity. They were the last of the 'pals' battalions.

Put a group of men with this shared experience together, so the thinking went, and they would fight better because they would be fighting for the people around them, people with whom they had so much in common.

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This was certainly true of the RGLI, but the downside is that when they take heavy casualties, every family in the small place from where they come suffers. Their community will never be the same. The effects of British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener's 'pals' battalions had been seen before; they fought bravely, but when they suffered, so did their communities.

The RGLI joined 29th Division, a regular British Army group which had served at Ypres and was now training to take part in the forthcoming Battle of Cambrai. The original plan for this battle was first conceived as a mass raid using tanks, the newest battlefield weapon, but developed into a full-scale offensive as other pressures on the Allied front lines grew.

At first, all went well. The attack began on 20 November and a great deal of territory was gained. When the Middlesex Regiment met German resistance on the edge of Nine Wood, the RGLI swept into action and took the wood with three killed and 25 injured, relatively light casualties. They took prisoners and captured more than 20 machine guns.

After its initial success ground to an all-too-familiar halt, the main thrust of the attack reached a stalemate and both sides dug in, the British forces anxious to hold their new gains.

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At 8am on 30 November the Germans, who had quickly recovered, counter-attacked in large numbers, taking back territory held by the 29th Division. The RGLI were encamped at the time in the little town of Masnieres and faced the German onslaught.

Fighting was fierce as the Bavarians streamed down both sides of the town's canal banks. At first the Guernseys were pushed back, but they retook the village twice in hand to hand fighting in the narrow alleyways and lanes around Les Rues Vertes. One senior officer, an eyewitness, said that the RGLI 'fought like veterans, plunging into cottages of the suburbs, taking the ruins at the point of the bayonet against machine-gun fire with a promptitude that completely disconcerted the enemy'.

By the end of the day the line was held, but over the next two days the Germans attacked no fewer than seven times, with superior strength and especially superior artillery. In the end, the salient defended by the RGLI and 88 Brigade had to be abandoned as the RGLI were ordered back to straighten the line and cover the withdrawal. They left many of their dead behind.

The RGLI, according to 29 Division commander Major-General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, who wrote directly to the Bailiff, 'fought magnificently' but suffered heavy losses. Fifteen men were killed, 274 wounded, many of whom would die from their wounds later, and 216 were 'missing', which meant either lying dead on the abandoned battlefield or captured by the enemy.

According to military historian Major Edwin Parks, in his book Diex Aix – the Guernseymen who Marched Away 1914-1981, nearly 40 per cent 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.'

Never again would the RGLI be made up completely of men born in the island.

Most of the island's families were affected.

One family, the Sarres of St Peter's, lost two sons killed in action on the same day.

In the days and weeks after the battle, the RGLI was strengthened and in the Passchendaele area saw service on the front line. But, if Cambrai had not been enough, the Guernseymen were to fight in another heroic and tragic action in April 1918 at Doulieu. Again, the regiment fought bravely and again losses were high – and again, casualty lists were long.

The Armistice was signed on 11 November but it wasn't until six months later that the remains of the Service Battalion of the RGLI returned to Guernsey, leaving behind them the graves of 327 of their comrades. Many who came back suffered from crippling wounds and illnesses, physical and mental.

The island was sure that these concentrated losses should never be repeated and the RGLI was decommissioned after the war – and although it could hold its head high, the island paid a heavy price. Families were changed forever by grief and loss, and the island had lost part of a generation, young men in their prime. In all, Guernsey lost 1,400 in the First World War.

Why did this generation go to war in 1914? For some it was out of patriotism, for some it was to stop German aggression. Probably for more it was because they felt they ought to go, for others it was to be with their mates. Perhaps when you consider that young men in the island looked ahead to a life of hard toil, often in boring repetitive work, it is hardly surprising that so many volunteered to fight when war broke out. In 1916, there was no choice – conscription was imposed.

It seems amazing that out of a population of just over 40,000, between 4,000 and 5,000 served in various regiments, not just British but also French.

The population of Guernsey in 1911 was 42,000, a number which fell dramatically after the war and was not to be equalled until the late 1930s. Apart from those who died, there were some who chose not to come back to their small and comfortable island home. A surprisingly high number transferred into regiments of the regular British Army, 'preferring to see the world rather than go back to civilian life in their little island', writes Major Parks.

Before the war there had been high levels of employment, especially for young men, in horticulture, agriculture and quarrying. Cambrai, Doulieu and many other wartime actions hit these industries hard. Not only that, but the lost generation of young men would have been expected to have married and had families – the next generation.

But the island pulled through – it always does – re-establishing its economy and community in time for the start of the Second World War and the Occupation in 1940.

The sacrifice of the RGLI will never be forgotten.

The colours, placed in the Town Church the day before they left, fly there still today – untouched in 100 years. The names of those who died are forever inscribed on the Smith Street memorial or the parish memorials standing around the island.

To help us mark the RGLI's contribution and sacrifice with memorials at home and in France, plus provide a legacy of remembrance for the future, you can donate directly to our Guernsey's Finest Hour appeal, on behalf of the RGLI Charitable Trust, at Lloyds Bank, St Peter Port, quoting sort code 30 93 73, account number 32700168 and The Royal Guernsey Light Infantry Charitable Trust. For more details email chris@lesemrais.com

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