HISTORY  

   

 

In 1881 what has become popularly known as "The Cardwell System" was put into effect. This system introduced a number of much-needed reforms to the British army. One of these reforms was the idea of linking two battalions or regiments into a single "corps," the idea being that one battalion would always serve at home and the other abroad. The home battalion would be charged with enlisting and training new recruits, who would then be shipped off to join the sister battalion once the desired level of proficiency had been achieved.

And so it was that the former 34th and 55th Regiments of Foot were amalgamated into the first and second battalion of the Border Regiment (respectively).

At the outbreak of the Great War, the Second Battalion Border Regiment -- formerly the Westmorland or 55th Regiment of Foot -- had just returned from garrison duty in South Africa. At this time in its history, the British Army had gone through many reforms and soldiering was now a respected and admired profession. Therefore, when the call went out, volunteers literally streamed in from all parts of the country.

Recruits for the Second Battalion Border Regiment largely came from the areas of Westmorland and Cumbria counties. Cumbria county is in the extreme northwest corner of England proper and is nestled against the English border with Scotland. Westmorland county is just southeast of it (see map). Today these two counties, as well as the northwestern most bit of Lancashire county, have been combined (due to a redrawing of county boundaries in 1974) and are now known collectively under the name of Cumbria.

 

   

 

Modern Cumbria county is home to some of the most picturesque landscapes in all of Great Britain. Much of the county is taken up by The Lake District National Park -- a favorite vacation spot for Queen Victoria. In 1914 the area was home to many mining villages, and There was a great deal of national pride at the time, as well as a prevailing sense that the war would be over within just a few months, and those that tarried would miss out on all the action. When the call went out so many young men flocked into the Border Regiment depot at Carlisle that many had to drill in their civilian clothes and use broomsticks in place of rifles!

The area around Cumbria is well-known for its long history of quality hunting, and the old 34th Foot's regimental marching song "John Peel" was often sung as the regiment went into battle.

 

 


Major actions that the Second Battalion, The Border Regiment participated in include:


October, 1914: First Battle of Ypres

 

On the third of October, 1914, the 2nd Battalion Border Regiment embarked as part of the expeditionary force to relieve Antwerp. This force, totaling some 53,000 men, landed at Zeebrugge, Belgium, where it climbed onto trains and was transported to St. Andre on the French border. They arrived in their lines just in time to begin the evacuation of Antwerp. The battle, originally intended to be an offensive move to save Antwerp, quickly became a desperate defense of the Channel ports.

The Germans poured tens of thousands of fresh troops into the area around Ypres, and a month-long battle -- the First Battle of Ypres -- ensued. An account of some of the action the Second Border participated in has been quoted in Anthony Farrar-Hockley's book "Death of an Army":

"South of the crossroads 1st Grenadier Guards had waited at 5:30 for the enemy like the other battalions in the line. Behind brought urgently from the rear by the brigade commander to meet the the expected attack, were the 2nd Scots Guards and 2nd Border, each at half strength since the battle for Kruiseecke three days before. At 6:30, none of these units knew that the Bavarians had captured the crossroads 200 yards distant, although they heard firing and occasional shouts through the fog. Battalions had no telephone communications to one another and there was of course no wireless. By 6:45 all sounds of battle had faded to the north-where Gibbs' detatchment and 1st Scots Guards were fighting- and there was no sign of an attack on 1st Grenadiers, who began, as practical soldiers, to make their breakfast. But there was no breakfast to be had for the 2nd Scots Guards and 2nd Border because they had no rations. When called forward the previous night, the cooks, carts were just arriving from the administration echelon in rear. There had been no time to break down the bulk of tins or open even the sacks of bread. The battalions had marched off into the fog. Brigadier-General Ruggles-Brise decided to send them back to their respective areas to eat and rest."

The germans attacked at 7:00.

It seems this was on the Menin Road which leads to Kruisecke where the Second Battalion Border Regiment fought a few days before.

The battle of Ypres began on 31 October and in the intense fighting that followed, the 7th Division, of which the 2nd Battalion was a part, was reduced from 400 officers and 12,000 men to just 44 officers and 2,336 men. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, the British lines held, and the Channel ports continued to feed needed supplies from England to the entrenched Allied armies. In the second week of November, French reinforcements arrived to relieve the battered British troops. A blizzard blew in behind the French troops, and the first battle of Ypres finally ended in stalemate on 17 November 1914.

Two members of the Border Regiment; Pvt Abraham Acton of the 2nd Bttn and Pvt James Smith of the 3rd Bttn (attd 2nd); were awarded the Victoria Cross during the First Battle of Ypres. These two men continually exposed themselves to enemy fire as they retrieved several wounded comrades who had been lying exposed to enemy fire form upwards of 70 hours. It was estimated that in their daring rescue Smith and Acton were under direct enemy fire for more than an hour

 

     

Autumn, 1915: Loos, France

 

 

After successfully holding the Germans back at Ypres the allied commander, Frenchman Field Marshal J.J.C. Joffre, developed a new plan for breaking through the German lines in three different places; Artois, the Champagne Valley, and Loos. The Loos offensive would be left up to the British First Army (including the Second Battalion Border Regiment) commanded by General Douglas Haig.

At first General Haig, concerned with the poor condition of his army after Ypres and a shortage of artillery shells, tried to postpone the attack, but intense pressure from Field Marshal Joffre caused him to go ahead. In addition to artillery, General Haig was allowed the use of chorine gas to offset the shortage of artillery shells, and Loos became the first battle in which the British would use poison gas.

The attack began on the 25th of September with the release of 5,243 British gas cylinders. 600 Germans were killed outright in the gas attack, and the British forces pushed forward almost 4,000 yards. Then the battle turned ugly for the British.

Much of the gas was caught in the wind and blown back on the British infantry as it advanced. The British artillery began its barrage on the German lines but had little effect in knocking out the German trenches and emplacements. Subsequently the German machine guns, who knew full well which direction the infantry attack was coming from caught the advancing British in a deadly crossfire. In the smoke and clouds of gas, the British could not tell where the machine guns emplacements were, and they stumbled blindly about, all the while getting shot to pieces. Entire battalions were all but wiped out in a matter of minutes.

The British assaults continued with similar results for several more days. Until, by the 28th, the fighting at Loos had ended. In another week, by the 8th of October, the Third Battle of Artois and Second Battle of Champagne had also ended with similar disastrous results for the allies. The British forces alone had suffered 60,000 casualties in under a week, causing the Germans to dub the battle "Der leichenfeld von Loos" -- or "Field of corpses of Loos."

After the battle, the French lost control of the British forces and General Haig became Commander in Chief of the British Army. Months later, after attending a lecture on the battle of Loos, a young Winston Churchill (who was made a battalion commander in 1916) wrote "They asked what was the lesson of [the battle of Loos]. I restrained an impulse to reply 'don't do it again' -- but they will I have no doubt."

 

 

April 1915: With the 91st brigade at Bray

July 1916: With 15th Corps, The Battle of the Somme

September 1916: The Battle of the Somme, at Ginchy, France

Early 1917: Ancre, France

May 1917 : Bullecourt, France

July 1917: Third Battle of Ypres

October 1917: sent to Italy as part of 7th Division

November 1917: assigned to Montello sector, Italy

January-October 1918: with the 7th Division in Italy

October 1918: 2nd Btn Border leads attack over Piave River.

 

 

Bibliography

Sutherland, Douglas, Tried and Valiant, the Story of the Border Regiment, 1702-1959 (London: Leo Cooper, 1972)

Barnes, Major R.M., A History of the Regiments & Uniforms of the British Army, The Development of Weapons & Tactics (London: Seeley Service & Co., 1967)

Gilbert, Martin, The First World War, A complete History (New York: Holt & Co) 1994