William Holbrook

Born on 12 November 1892 and brought up in a poor family on parish relief in Hornchurch, William was recruited underage into the Royal Fusiliers at in 1908.

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November 1914

In early November 1914, the first battle of Ypres continued to rage. The Germans pressed forward, moving remorselessly from ridge to ridge, wood to wood and village to village. By 11 November, when there was another major attack, Private William Holbrook was one of the few survivors of the original 4th Royal Fusiliers who had fought at Mons just three months earlier.

 

"Next morning they drove us back about 100 yards towards the Menin Road. It was a Prussian Guard attack – big bloody fellows, thousands of them! You couldn’t see them in the half dark; not only that, they were among trees and bushes, with no clear field of fire at all. You couldn’t see them until they were quite near you, though you heard the noise. You were more or less firing, but not knowing what you were firing at.

Down on the Menin Road the French had put north African Zouave troops. They were hopeless – as soon as they got heavy shelling they cleared off. So the Germans came down that road and encircled us; there was nobody to stop them. We had to hold that part of the road and our own positions as well.

They drove us out of our trenches and killed Colonel McMahon. I was about 20 to 30 yards along the line. A fellow named Corporal Chaney said: “The colonel’s been killed!” “Killed?” I replied. “No!”

God, it frightened the life out of me. I looked upon the colonel as a father more than anything else. Chaney gave me his pocket book and revolver, so I knew he was dead. I didn’t know what to do with myself for days. When he got killed it was as if somebody had obliterated the whole battalion, they thought so much of him. No other officer made them feel like that. We fell back. When morning came on my birthday [12 November] we had no officers left, and 34 men out of 900."

The British were reaching the end of their tether. Many had been in almost unremitting action for the best part of three months. Units were beginning to fall apart at the seams, and desperate defensive measures were required to keep the line intact. Battalions, companies and even platoons were shuffled about the battlefield to fill the gaps.

In the course of the first battle of Ypres the British Expeditionary Force suffered more than 54,000 casualties, bringing total losses during the campaign to nearly 90,000. The regulars who had marched to war in August 1914 were no more.

But the Germans were also close to exhaustion. Their losses in the Ypres battles numbered some 80,000, and many of the advancing German formations were filled with inexperienced reservists and wartime volunteers who had barely completed their training. In the end they just ran out of steam and the battle trickled to a halt on 22 November.

The Germans had almost broken through, but together the British and French still held the ring in a shallow salient in front of Ypres.
 

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November 1914

In early November 1914, the first battle of Ypres continued to rage. The Germans pressed forward, moving remorselessly from ridge to ridge, wood to wood and village to village. By 11 November, when there was another major attack, Private William Holbrook was one of the few survivors of the original 4th Royal Fusiliers who had fought at Mons just three months earlier.

 

"Next morning they drove us back about 100 yards towards the Menin Road. It was a Prussian Guard attack – big bloody fellows, thousands of them! You couldn’t see them in the half dark; not only that, they were among trees and bushes, with no clear field of fire at all. You couldn’t see them until they were quite near you, though you heard the noise. You were more or less firing, but not knowing what you were firing at.

Down on the Menin Road the French had put north African Zouave troops. They were hopeless – as soon as they got heavy shelling they cleared off. So the Germans came down that road and encircled us; there was nobody to stop them. We had to hold that part of the road and our own positions as well.

They drove us out of our trenches and killed Colonel McMahon. I was about 20 to 30 yards along the line. A fellow named Corporal Chaney said: “The colonel’s been killed!” “Killed?” I replied. “No!”

God, it frightened the life out of me. I looked upon the colonel as a father more than anything else. Chaney gave me his pocket book and revolver, so I knew he was dead. I didn’t know what to do with myself for days. When he got killed it was as if somebody had obliterated the whole battalion, they thought so much of him. No other officer made them feel like that. We fell back. When morning came on my birthday [12 November] we had no officers left, and 34 men out of 900."

The British were reaching the end of their tether. Many had been in almost unremitting action for the best part of three months. Units were beginning to fall apart at the seams, and desperate defensive measures were required to keep the line intact. Battalions, companies and even platoons were shuffled about the battlefield to fill the gaps.

In the course of the first battle of Ypres the British Expeditionary Force suffered more than 54,000 casualties, bringing total losses during the campaign to nearly 90,000. The regulars who had marched to war in August 1914 were no more.

But the Germans were also close to exhaustion. Their losses in the Ypres battles numbered some 80,000, and many of the advancing German formations were filled with inexperienced reservists and wartime volunteers who had barely completed their training. In the end they just ran out of steam and the battle trickled to a halt on 22 November.

The Germans had almost broken through, but together the British and French still held the ring in a shallow salient in front of Ypres.
 

 

September 1914

On 6 September the Great Retreat from the battle of Mons came to an end and the men of the BEF found themselves advancing alongside the French 5th Army into the gap between the German 1st and 2nd Armies during the battle of the Marne. There was no great clash, but the penetration threatened disaster to the Germans, who fell back towards the Aisne river. Here they took up strong positions on the Chemin des Dames Ridge. William Holbrook paints a vivid picture of the challenge faced by the 4th Royal Fusiliers as they teetered across a narrow plank high above the river.

 

"The Germans had blown up the bridge over the river. It was very, very high. What the engineers had to do was throw a bridge from one side to the other – a distance of 10–15ft. We had to cross these planks next afternoon – it was half-dark when I got across.

No railing, just bare planks. They kept moving as you walked: no supports, no rope to hold on by. As you put one foot down, the weight of your body – as you lifted your foot – the plank sprang up and met your other foot before you could get it down! It was a hell of a job. One or two shells coming over.

You could hear the roaring water of the river rushing by 20 or 30 feet below. We lost a few men drowned, fell over from the plank. Colonel McMahon went across first and stood the other side, calling out the names and helping. Sergeant Jarvis in front of me was very timid. As he went he stopped. I heard the colonel say: “And what’s your name?” “Sergeant Jarvis, Sir?” “Are you all right?” “Yes, Sir!” Eight or nine hundred men across a plank. Marvellous it was really!"

The British assault on the Aisne was repelled by the Germans and soon both sides took to digging trenches.

 

 

August 1914

 

Once the BEF got to France in mid-August, they began to advance into Belgium. It was on 23 August that they encountered the massed strength of the German 1st Army at the battle of Mons. Here William found himself in a very tight spot by the canal bridges at Nimy.

 

"We were on the bank – a bit of cover, nothing much, no trenches. The machine guns were on the bridge on my left. The Germans were getting close to the canal bank, very near, waves coming over.

Our fellows were very rapid – the fire from the bank was more like machine gun fire, different altogether from the German fire. Our fire was terrific. Every man was firing what he’d been taught to fire, 15 rounds per minute. They were being reinforced. They didn’t fall back from the canal bank, they were doing their best to get across, there were so many of them.

We had a few casualties where I was – they had the worst part on the bridge – quite a number got killed and wounded. Lieutenant Dease, in charge of the machine gun party, was wounded about three times, but he still went to the gun. Godley was firing. Dease died there, leaving Godley in charge of the gun.

There were some village kids up there, quite near the canal bank and I remember Godley shouting at them: “Get out of the way! Get away!” These kids were within about 50 yards – during the attack! When the Germans started crossing the bridge, Godley had sense enough to take the breech block out of the gun and pitched the gun over into the water, so they couldn’t use it on us as we retreated. He got captured there."

 

 

Maurice Dease (posthumously) and Sidney Godley were both awarded the Victoria Cross for their courage that day. In the ‘Great Retreat’ that followed, the BEF was sorely strained but just about held together. William Holbrook was witness to a famous incident on 27 August, when Captain Tom Bridges of the 4th Dragoon Guards rallied stragglers in an unorthodox fashion in the Grande Place of St Quentin.

 

"A lot of men fell out of the retreat and they had to be picked up. We had to carry their rifles! Some were in a bad way. I saw a couple; their feet were so bad they were bleeding. They took their puttees [cloths worn on the lower leg] off, threw their boots away, tied their puttees round their feet and marched back in their puttees.

When we got to St Quentin, we halted. They were in a bad way, some of them were sitting at the side of the road crying. There was a toy shop and Captain Bridges went in the shop and got this drum out of the shop window – whether he paid for it or not I don’t know! He came out: “Come on, we’re all right now!” He got this drum going, got them together and they marched behind the drum! One helped another – the more fit stragglers helped the elderly ones. Some were left behind – you couldn’t get them all back.  

 

The fighting in France would be desperate indeed. The first battles of Mons and Le Cateau were little more than skirmishes compared to the ordeals that faced the BEF. But for the men that fought them they were dreadful baptisms of fire." 

 

June 1914

 

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interview with William Holbrook

In prewar Britain, the regular army was not regarded very highly in polite society. Often new recruits had few opportunities in life, and the army offered a slim chance of bettering themselves. Many were entranced by the ‘old soldier’ tales they heard of India and the fabled east. The recruitment procedure could be somewhat lackadaisical, as William Holbrook discovered when a conversation with a gardener inspired him to enlist at just 15 years old:
 
"This gardener, he’d beenin the army and he used to tell me all the tales about India and all these rajahs he made out he’d seen. I thought: ‘This is the job for me.’ So one morning instead of going to work I went up the post office where I saw: ‘Recruits wanted in the army! 30 Southchurch Street, East Ham!’
 
I found the place and knocked on the door – a woman came to the door and she said: ‘Yes?’ I said: ‘I want to join the army, please.’ She said: ‘How old are you?’ I said: ‘15.’ She said: ‘You can’t join the army at 15; you’ve got to be 18! Come in, I’ll make you a cup of tea – you stop here till my husband comes home and you talk to him.’
 
About an hour later he came in: a smart-looking man with an army uniform and khaki cap. He looked and said: ‘What we got here?’ ‘He wants to join the army.’ ‘He can’t join the army: when you’re 18 I’ll put you in the finest regiment in the British Army, but not before.’
 
I suppose I looked miserable because he said: ‘Stand up against that door!’ So I stood against the door and it was marked off in inches. He said: ‘You’re a tall boy, you know!’ I was about 5ft 8ins tall. He said: ‘Can you tell a white lie? Can you say you’re 17?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Right, tomorrow morning you come with me.’
 
Next morning he took me up to Stratford to the doctor. When it was my turn to go in he said: ‘Strip!’ I took everything off – I’d never done it in front of anybody so I was a bit nervous at first! He said: ‘Hop on your left foot and right foot alternately.’
 
Well that did for me – I’d never heard the word alternately, didn’t know what it meant. So I started hopping. ‘The other left foot, you bloody fool!’ I thought: ‘I’ve come to the right place!’ Never been spoken to like that before. Anyway, I passed."
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