A musical interlude (plus war animals!)

Trench mortar school mascot on a German trench mortar Man standing next to a captured German trench mortar. There is a tiny monkey sitting on the barrel of the trench mortar. The man is holding the monkey's hand and is looking closely at the monkey's face. Many soldiers adopted animals, often abandoned or left behind by their owners, and kept them as pets or mascots. From the National Library of Scotland

Trench mortar school mascot on a German trench mortar
Man standing next to a captured German trench mortar. There is a tiny monkey sitting on the barrel of the trench mortar. The man is holding the monkey’s hand and is looking closely at the monkey’s face. Many soldiers adopted animals, often abandoned or left behind by their owners, and kept them as pets or mascots. From the National Library of Scotland

From Michael Gubser of James Madison University:

I am a professor of modern European history (including World War I) in Virginia, and I have recently had a musical that I have co-written accepted into the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) as part of its Developmental Reading Series.  The musical, entitled “Into the Sun,” takes place in World War I and is based loosely on the experiences of the British World War I poets, such as Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and others.  Some of the songs in the play use their poems as lyrics.

NYMF is a major festival of new musicals that takes place each year in July, and it attracts producers and theatre representatives looking for new plays to develop and produce.  As part of this festival, ‘Into the Sun’ will have three staged reading performances in New York City on July 15 and 19.  It will hopefully be a great opportunity to raise awareness of World War I and of the war pets during this centenary.

I’m sending two sites: 1) the announcement of the show on the NYMF website:  http://www.nymf.org/festival/2015-events/sun/   and 2) our Kickstarter site which provides a succinct summary of the musical as well as two videos — one an artist’s statement and the other a documentary-style promo video — that describe the show:   https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/intothesun/into-the-sun-nymf-2015

Fightin’ Friday: The Affair at Nery

Nery map edited


The Affair at Nery: Sept. 1, 1914, reprinted from Camaraderie

By Paul F. Guthrie

Our U.S. Branch WFA 2007 tour included a tour of British action at the beginning of the war featuring the fighting around Mons and the retreat.  It ended at the Battle of Le Cateau of Sept. 25, 1914.

The next action of any significance was the affair at Nery. It’s a fascinating encounter and one of the best visits on the entire Western Front because the approaches to the village, the village itself and the surrounding fields are unchanged since the battle.

Why is it called the affair at Nery rather than the battle of Nery?  It’s a matter of battlefield nomenclature, because the British Army didn’t feel the action was large enough to be called a battle.  It was the first time in the war that the British were in control of the battlefield after the action.  It was fought almost entirely by cavalry units on both sides, with the Germans having superiority of numbers of about two to one.

The main street of the village runs from north to south.  The north of the village was defended from German attack by the C Squadron of the Fifth Dragoon Guards and their machine guns.  A bit further south was the headquarters of the First Cavalry Brigade, which was the larger unit participating in the battle.  Just a bit south is the village church where the 11th Hussars had its headquarters and established a strong defense along the church with machine guns and rifle fire.  At the south end of the village on the west side of the road were the Queen’s Bays, and on the east side of the road L Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, which achieved fame and two Victoria Crosses.

Further south and beyond the village is a sugar factory.  Just to the east of the village is a deep ravine.

The German Third Cavalry Brigade approached from that direction.  At the north side of the village were the 9th Uhlans, who formed a dismounted firing line, and the 2nd Cuirassiers who did the same.  Firing against L Battery and the Queen’s Bays, were the 18th Dragoons of the 17th Cavalry Brigade.  All of these units were part of the 4th Cavalry Division which had its headquarters about 1,000 yards to the east of the village.  It was a British brigade against a German division.

The Queen’s Bays were one of the oldest cavalry regiments in the British Army, having been raised by James II to deal with the Monmouth Rebellion in June 1685.  Originally the regiment was named the Queen’s Regiment of Horse, and it was a matter of pride that all the horses were bays.  The regiment served for much of its history in India. During the Great Sepoy Mutiny, it won three VCs and took part in a famous cavalry charge during the relief of Lucknow in 1858.

One Royal Horse Artillery battery of six 13-pounder horse-drawn guns was attached to each cavalry brigade.  L Battery was commanded by Maj. Walter Sclater-Booth, who had taken command in 1910, and the battery captain was Edward Bradbury.  This unit of five officers, almost 200 men and 228 horses was organized into three sections. Each had two modern quick-firing 13-pounder guns with buffer recoil systems and bullet-proof shields. They could fire 15 rounds a minute. Each section was accompanied by two ammunition wagons.  The battery had seen considerable action after enduring the Battle of Mons.

On August 31, the First Cavalry Brigade was directed to Nery.  They arrived there about 6 p.m. The horses had been watered earlier, since it was thought there would not be sufficient water at Nery.

German cavalry were to make a night attack against Nery.  They were quite tired and suffered a number of other disadvantages before beginning the attack.  The division had suffered considerable casualties in the advance through Belgium. The Germans had sacrificed support for speed, and the division was lacking much of its logistics, including support transport, ammunition wagons, lead horses, etc.

German cavalry units by doctrine were to be supported by infantry and horse artillery that closely followed the advancing cavalry. The unit that was to attack Nery had no infantry, and six machine guns were also absent.

In German cavalry doctrine, mounted action would take place primarily against other cavalry, not infantry.  It is true that in this attack the German cavalry was fighting British cavalry but, the Germans were armed with carbines, smaller less effective versions of the rifle carried by the infantry. Contrarily, the British carried the standard Lee-Enfield infantry weapon, and the firepower of the individual soldier was much greater.

The Fourth Cavalry Division rode all through the heat of the day on August 31st and following night without a stop for food or rest apart from one 2-hour stop.  At 5 a.m., the general in charge, von Garnier, ordered an immediate mounted attack designed to surprise and destroy the British forces with overwhelming shell fire and mounted flanking attacks.

Visibility was poor and hampered the German artillery, but the attack did achieve surprise.  At the beginning of the attack, L Battery was quite shot up with tethered horses and men suffering equally.  However, it was able to return fire fairly quickly.

The farm to the right of the Nery church was defended by the 11th Hussars.  Then and now it doesn’t look like what we think of as a farm.  It rather looks like a series of fortified buildings.   It suffered a lot less in the initial attack than the units at the south of the village.

Battery lines had been laid out neatly for the night with each section of two guns and their horses and limbers in line.  This was the first time this had been done on the retreat and an indication that the battery felt secure.  Following reveille at 2:30 a.m., the battery prepared for meeting out at 4:30 a.m., but because of the dense mist prevailing that morning, headquarters ordered a stand still until 5 a.m. which was extended till 5:30. Thus L Battery was still in place when attacked.

The surprise of the attack could hardly have been greater.  The battery’s horses were standing in march order with their poles down. Shrapnel exploding among the horses and men was horrific, causing panic among the horses which drove their lowered poles into the ground, trapping them until they were shot down.  The terrified horses could not be released easily from their harnesses, and were killed.

There was chaos with limbers and wagons overturned.  Despite efforts by their crews, B, C and D guns were knocked out, leaving the F gun in action.  The ammunition supply was in wagons 20 yards from the gun and collecting it meant crossing an open space with machine gun fire and shrapnel, but it was done.

L Battery kept up its effort until almost 8 a.m. when I Battery arrived and began firing.  It was firing only shrapnel, but the shrapnel had a wicked effect on the Germans opposing.  It forced the Germans to concentrate all their guns to the south of Nery.   Resistance of the gunners of L Battery, against all odds, was the key to the survival of the First Cavalry Brigade that morning.

The First Dragoon Guards were also effective in preventing Third Brigade from succeeding its attack further north.

The Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Bays) provided very significant support to the men of L Battery.   On the south side of the village there are memorials to both units.  Seven men were all that were available to man the Queen’s Bays machine guns, but they did so to great effect.

Every unit arrived in support of the British and once I Battery commenced firing, the rest of the German guns fell silent. The Germans attempted to bring up horse teams to get the guns away but came under fire from the guns of I Battery and the machine guns of the Queen’s Bays. Despite valiant effort, they were unable to get their horses close enough to get all the guns away.  Four were extracted, but eight were captured.

By 9 a.m., it was clear to General von Garnier that the situation was very dangerous for his division with the apparent hapless enemy not being overcome, and in fact being reinforced.  Four infantry brigades and another cavalry brigade were gathering to attack, and it was becoming dangerous to remain at Nery.  He thus decided to recall his units from their attack position as quickly as possible and concentrate his division, and the Germans retreated, leaving the British in control of the battlefield.  This is the first time during the war this had happened but, of course, the retreat was resumed shortly.

The Fourth Cavalry Divisions likely suffered about 200 casualties, about twice those of the British.  The affair did have a deleterious effect on the Germans and gave the British reason to believe that under the right conditions they could still win.

The failure of their action at Nery and the futility of cavalry charging sound defensive positions manned by well-trained men with modern rifles and machine guns confirmed to the Germans the value of having supporting infantry integrated with the cavalry.

For the cavalry on both sides, the attack proved the acclamation of the critical importance of ground reconnaissance before charging boldly at the enemy.

Affair at Nery

Memorial to the British officers and men killed at Nery on Sept. 1, 1914. About 55 British troops were killed.


The only gun to survive  the German artillery, it  belongs to the Imperial War Museum.

The only gun to survive the German artillery, it belongs to the Imperial War Museum.

A salute to Cher Ami

Here’s the telegram that brave little Cher Ami, the passenger pigeon, carried for the Lost Battalion. Maj. Charles Whittlesey sent the message to his commanding officer.

Cher Ami was shot during his flight — his leg later had to be amputated.


And here’s the story of the Lost Battalion and its pigeon soldier:


An Aussie and his memoir

Capt. R. Hugh Knyvett an intelligence officer with the 15th Australian infantry, wrote a memoir, or so  it was called, published in 1918 that is stunning for its good humor and sunny outlook.  He takes the strangest positive view of Gallipoli, that successful diversion for the navy (who dropped the ball) that was only ended by the weather and established the Aussie as a force to be reckoned with. He was writing to encourage the Americans coming into combat. Most Americans knew nothing of Gallipoli then — and most of them don’t know much about it now, except that Mel Gibson was in the movie.

Knyvett had a sharp eye for detail, especially whimsical detail. His accounts of his experiences in a London hospital are so entertaining, it’s hard to remember that he was badly wounded.

He greatly disliked his service in Egypt. If you’re sensitive to racist language, you will find these chapters hard going. Then he writes something like this:

“There were gorgeous sunsets—poetry there, but more poetry still in the wonderful mirages. Why, here, hung above the earth, were scenes from every age: Cleopatra’s galleys, Alexander’s legions, the pomp of the Mamelukes, Ptolemy and Pompey, Napoleon and Gordon—their times and deeds were all pictured here. Perhaps the spirit world has its ‘movies,’ and only here in the desert mirage is the ‘screen’ of stuff that can be seen with mortal eyes.”

Here he is at Gallipoli,

“Never did men live under worse conditions than in those eight months of hell, yet never was an army so cheerful. ‘Bill-Jim,’ which is Australia’s name for her soldier-boy, always makes the best of things, and soon made himself at home on that inhospitable shore.

“The first thing he decided needed alteration was his uniform. Breeches and puttees were not only too hot but they closed in the leg and afforded cover to the lively little fellow who lives indiscriminately on the soldiers of both sides. As each soldier began to trim his uniform to his own idea of comfort, it was soon, in very reality, a ‘ragtime’ army. Some felt that puttees were a nuisance—everybody realized that the breeches were too long, but differed on the point as to how much too long. Some would clip off six inches from the end, others a foot, and others would have been as well covered without the article at all. Almost everybody decided that a tunic was useless, but some extremists threw away shirt and singlet as well. A Turkish army order was captured which stated that the Australians were running short of supplies, as they made one pair of trousers do for three men.

“Evidently Johnny Turk could not understand the Australian disregard for conventionality and his taking to nakedness when it meant comfort and there were no women within hundreds of miles to make him conscious of indecency. Clothes that couldn’t be washed wouldn’t keep one’s body clean and became the home of an army that had no interest in the fight for democracy. The Australian showed his practical common sense in discarding as much as possible—but, say, those boys would have caused some amusement if drawn up for review!”

Actually, I have read elsewhere about an abandoned house in France that was looted because Australian soldiers had discarded their lousy, unwashable underwear and marched away in lacy, but clean ladies’ drawers.

Here’s the link to a free copy of Knyvett’s book, “‘Over There’ with the Australians:


And here’s a review of of the book by blogger Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, who has read more of it than I have:


You’ll want to know that he also writes about Nipper, the shepherd’s dog who went to war. He doesn’t say what kind of dog Nipper was, so I am arbitrarily assigning him a breed. Thus, here you are, from the Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian kelpie.







War Horse Sketch Contest

War Horse on Facebook held a contest that collected entries until Aug. 11. Here are the rules:

“In War Horse, Captain Nicholls records his time in Devon and France by creating sketches of landscapes, battles and Joey. Take a page from Captain Nicholls’ sketchbook and create your own landscape or an illustration of a horse.

“All entries will be eligible for a chance to win a signed personalised copy of The War Horse Drawings, the hardback souvenir book featuring multi-award winning designer Rae Smith’s sketches for War Horse.

“About Rae Smith: The Olivier and OBIE award-winning British designer Rae Smith works regularly in a wide variety of styles and genres. This diversity has taken her from Slovenia to Broadway.”

The winner will be announced Aug. 31. Now you can vote on your favorite at:


This drawing comes from Joseph of Granite City.

War Horse drawing entry by artist identified as Joseph.

A real-life Joey and Albert duo

The Brisbane Times has an interesting story today — I think it’s now yesterday in Australia — about a man and his horse who went to Gallipoli together. Only one came home:

“Shot by snipers at Gallipoli in May 1915, Major-General Sir William Bridges was bleeding to death in a hospital ship when he reportedly asked that his beloved horse Sandy be sent back to Australia.”

Sandy was returned to Australia in 1918 — the only one to come home of the 6,100 horses sent to Gallipoli.