The telegram arrived at the barracks in York at 5.30pm on 4 Aug 1914, ordering the 20th Hussars, to mobilise. On 17 Aug the regiment along with the rest of the 5th Cavalry Brigade, crossed the channel with a strength of 24 officers and 519 men, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Graham Edwards. The first four cavalry brigades made up the Cavalry Division under Allenby, but the 5th was directly under General HQ. The BEF, commanded by Sir John French, concentrated on the left bank of the Sambre between Mauberge and Le Cateau.
First Shots of the War, 21 Aug 1914
On the night of 21 Aug the 20th bivouacked near Binche. At 4 a.m. two patrols of 12 men each were sent out, one under Lt Thompson towards Godarville and the other under Lt Goodhart towards Seneffe. Thompson's patrol found itself surrounded by vast masses of Germans and had to beat a hasty retreat. Private O'Shaughnessy's horse was shot and he only managed to escape by finding some civilian clothes and pretending to be deaf and dumb. Goodhart's patrol exchanged fire with enemy cavalry at Seneffe and noted the time which was well before 8 a.m. on 21 Aug 1914 when the 4th Dragoon Guards claimed to be the first to fire shots in anger, at Soignies. On the way out of this situation Goodhart mistook a party of Uhlans for British cavalry and approached them alone. When they saw him they pursued him as he dashed back to his patrol. Looking behind him he 'saw an ugly hun with a lance not more than two horse's lengths behind me' He tried to shoot him with his revolver but had made the mistake of not loading it before going on patrol. Luckily he was riding a polo pony which was faster than the German horse. A skirmish followed between the two groups, in which the British came off best and three horses were captured. The capture of this booty was another first in the war.
Battle of Mons, 23 Aug 1914
When the Germans began to appear before Binche on 22 Aug they were driven back by the Scots Greys, but the British cavalry were covering a front of 18 miles against 325,000 Germans. Sir John French moved the four cavalry brigades to the left of the line while the 5th Brigade remained on the right. But they had to cover a large gap in the line between the right of 2nd Corps at Mons and the French left on the Sambre. This had to be protected until the 1st Corps were brought up to complete the front extended along the Mons canal from Conde to Mons. The British cavalry made a good impression on the Germans and the French. When General Spears escorted a senior French officer around the British lines he noticed how impressed he was, '..really splendid, perfectly turned out, shining leather, flashing metal, beautiful horses, and the men absolutely unconcerned, disdaining to show the least surprise at or even interest in their strange surroundings.'
But the French 5th Army was being driven back from the Sambre and the British agreed to stand fast at Mons for 24 hours to protect the French flank. On the morning of 23 Aug the Germans arrived and attacked 2nd Corps who were able to beat them off with steady fire. The 20th Hussars were off-saddled in Brigade reserve but received news of enemy movement on the right flank. One squadron of the 20th was sent to Peissant on the Sambre and a patrol under Lieutenant Harold Soames ran into trouble when faced with a large force of Germans. Soames was killed, another man wounded and two were unhorsed and missing. The Germans were continuing to advance in heavy columns, too numerous to withstand, and the French allies were in retreat leaving the BEF exposed. So the decision was made to join the retreat from Mons.
Covering the Retreat, 25 Aug 1914
When the two divisions of 1st Corps began their retreat on 25 Aug the rearguard consisted of the 5th Cavalry Brigade, the Guards and artillery. The 20th took up a position on the road to Maubeuge and sent out patrols. The enemy were wary of the cavalry and kept their distance but fired shrapnel at them all morning. They fell back to another position 4 miles away and then on to Hargnies. The roads were jammed with demoralised French soldiers making the movement of the British troops difficult. There was skirmishing with the Germans at Andigny on the 27th which resulted in casualties.
St Quentin, 28 Aug 1914
On 28 Aug there was a battle between German cavalry and the 5th Brigade at St Quentin. The Germans dismounted on a forward slope and fired on the brigade from a range of 500 yards but they had their horses stampeded by J Battery RHA, and the dismounted troops were successfully charged by the Greys and 12th Lancers. Meanwhile an enemy battery were about to go into action and Colonel Edwards ordered the 20th forward to divert attention from the rest of the brigade. C Squadron dismounted but their horses came under shrapnel fire and had to be taken away. A mounted charge was made by Lieutenant Sparrow's Troop against dismounted German cavalry which covered the withdrawal of C Squadron. The enemy attack had been halted and the 20th covered the continuing retreat of the brigade.
Skirmishes on the Aisne, 31 Aug 1914
The 20th crossed the Aisne below Soissons on 31 Aug, and sent out patrols under Lieuts Hall and Sparrow on 1 Sep. Hall's patrol ran into a car full of German officers and there was an exchange of shouts but little else. They were later stalked by Uhlans but Private Hayhurst took it upon himself to deal with the situation and single-handedly charged the enemy lancers with his sword out and halted them in their tracks. The Germans assumed it was a diversionary attack and stayed away.
Fighting on the Marne, 3 Sep 1914
Sir John French was under pressure from his divisional generals to make a stand against the Germans but he could get no support from the French commanders. When they crossed the Marne on 3 Sep the BEF flank was exposed and it was decided to hold the high ground north of the river. The 20th were allotted a sector west of Avernes and C Squadron held a crossing over the River Ourc. They were shelled by enemy artillery and had to retire with Lt Sparrow's Troop being nearly cut off. The squadron took up a position in front of the village of Jaignes and exchanged fire at 600 yards range. The brigade was ordered back from the river, having achieved some success in delaying the German advance. The final retirement of the 20th Hussars was covered by B Squadron which sustained several casualties as well as losing their commander Captain Cristy who was killed. The CO, Colonel Edwards remained until the end to make sure all the patrols had returned, then crossed the river himself, the last man of the regiment.
Battle of the Marne, 6 - 9 Sep 1914
The retreat from Mons was over and the tide turned against the Germans so Sir John French led the BEF back north. The 20th were the advance guard of the 5th Cavalry Brigade and the pace quickened so that the transport wagons were unable to keep up. These wagons were horse-drawn but heavy laden, so the Quartermaster Bill Adams decided to throw out unnecessary stores, including picks and shovels which later proved to be a big mistake. On the road, the regiment came across stragglers, two of which were Uhlans whose lances were captured by Corporal Goring who managed to have them shipped home to his family as souvenirs.
The BEF at this stage consisted of three Army Corps, and the French now fielded a Sixth Army commanded by General Franchet d'Esperey, someone with whom Sir John could cooperate. The allies advanced to the Marne but first had to cross the Petit Morin. Here there was a major battle, fought by the infantry while the cavalry waited impatiently. When it was over the 20th advanced, crossing the Petit Morin, the Grand Morin and finally the Marne on the 9th Sep. The brigade had been on the right wing which saw little fighting. On 10 Sep they were ordered to pursue the Germans, riding through Marigny, and Veuilly where the infantry fought the German rearguard, much to the annoyance of the 20th who felt they could have dealt with the enemy at that point.
Crossing the Aisne, 14 Sep 1914
The Germans made a stand on favourable ground at the River Aisne where the infantry again took the brunt of the fighting. The 5th Cavalry Brigade was ordered to cross the river at Vailly via a pontoon bridge. This was a tricky job as the pontoons swayed about, making it difficult to lead the horses across. The heavy artillery fire must have caused the commanders to change their minds because once they reached the other side they were ordered back again. In the course of this procedure the 20th lost an officer and ten others killed or wounded. More men and horses were hit when crossing the Vesle River at Conde a few days later. The BEF disengaged from the Aisne in secrecy and the Cavalry Corps marched north of Ypres as part of the Race to the Sea. The 5th Brigade was now in the 2nd Cavalry Division commanded by Brigadier-General Gough.
First Battle of Ypres, 15 Oct - 30 Nov 1914
The BEF was deployed in Flanders and fought a series of battles that brought about heavy casualties on both sides but especially for the Germans who used dense attack formations. The 20th, at Wytschaete, saw much action, starting on 15 Oct when two Troops of C Squadron drove the German picquets from the villages of Hollebeke and Houthem, while A and B Squadrons dismounted and pushed skirmishers back along the line of the Kortekeer Beck. On 18 Oct, B and C Squadrons captured and held the village of Tenbrielen losing Corporal Charlotte, but clearing out snipers in the process. The regiment then took up defensive positions at Warneton and the horses were sent to the rear. Trenches had to be dug with knives, forks and mess tins because the picks and shovels had been thrown out by the QM on the road to the Marne.
Sergeant Bassinthwaite's Troop, 30 Oct 1914
On 30 Oct the 12th Lancers were forced to retire leaving the 20th's flank exposed to enfilade fire. As a result the withdrawal of the regiment was ordered, covered by the machine-gun section under Lieut McConnel. Also covering the retirement was the 4th Troop of B Squadron commanded by Lieut Carew, but when he was killed by sniper fire command fell to Sergeant Bassinthwaite. The Troop sacrificed itself and fought until only one man came out after the others were killed or captured.
Oostaverne, 31 Oct 1914
The regiment moved to a prepared position at Oostaverne where the 4th Cavalry Brigade was driven back by a concerted attack so that Captain Little's B Squadron was facing an exposed flank and the line became very extended. Some French troops and the 12h Lancers made a counter-attack which was joined by B Squadron who were keen to avenge Carew's 4th Troop. They were unused to the bayonet but were highly motivated and did not hold back.
Retirement from the Front Line, 1 Nov 1914
The 2nd Cavalry Division's position was taken over by French troops on 1 Nov under a heavy bombardment from the German artillery. McConnel's machine-gun section again covered the withdrawal, earning him a DSO. Captain Little, who became CO in 1918, was also awarded the DSO for his squadron's action the previous day. The cavalry was sent back to be reunited with their horses and were ordered to ride about plugging gaps in the line. This kept them busy for most of November. One relief operation occurred at a place in the line occupied by Frenchmen who had lost all their officers. The soldiers were ashamed to have British officers in their trenches which they considered to be un-chic. But the 20th had never seen such sophisticated dug-out accommodation before. The regiment came out of the action on 22 Nov and went into billets at Steenwerk until 15 Jan 1915.
Dismounted Cavalry Division 1916
At the beginning of 1916 there were preparations for the formation of a Dismounted Cavalry Division which was to be used in close support of the infantry, to relieve them or plug gaps in the front line. Each of the two Cavalry Divisions contributed one dismounted brigade of 3 battalions. Each of these battalions was made up of 3 companies, one from each regiment in a brigade. The officers were detailed in rotation for periods of duty with the Division. The idea behind this was presumably to impress upon the infantry that the cavalry were doing their bit in the trenches, even though that is what they had been doing already. The dismounted company provided by the 20th Hussars for the 5th Brigade's dismounted battalion consisted of two platoons from each squadron, commanded at first by Captain W H Micholls, but relieved by other officers as time went on. Duty in the trenches consisted of local raids, mining, mortaring and sniping. The British high command were keen to keep the infantry busy to maintain morale. This contrasted with the French whose trenches were much quieter and more relaxed by comparison.
A favourite activity of the 20th was the bombing raid, usually to clear Germans out of an enfilade position. Subalterns received special training for this and one such officer, Lieutenant Jeffrey, known as 'Iron Man' was adept at grenade throwing, having devised a special sling to project it further. In one attack in February 1916 he and 7 others were killed although the enemy casualties were much higher.
The Somme Offensive, July - Nov 1916
The mounted cavalry continued to move from one gap to another, and to make this movement easier constructed cavalry tracks which were a larger version of duck-boards to pass over craters and waterlogged ground. The organisation had changed so that the 2nd Cavalry Division was attached to the 2nd Army near Boulogne and the regiment was billeted at Licques. When the Somme offensive began the Division was moved to the Hazebrouck area as mobile reserve. The 20th Hussars spent the time patrolling and supplying working parties, but at the beginning of September they went up to the front and bivouacked at Bray. Throughout the offensive they had been ready to ride through any breach in the enemy line and they were still hoping for that chance at this late stage. Dismounted parties went forward and prepared cavalry tracks for the breakthrough. But these tracks proved to be of little us after the incessant bombardments and heavy rain had turned the land into a crater-poked morass. The rain eventually brought the whole offensive to a soggy halt in November.
Monchy-le-Preux, 10 April 1917
The British and French armies planned a joint effort in early 1917 with the British concentrating around Arras. The Germans were falling back on the Hindenburg Line having lost Vimy Ridge and the Scarpe Valley. The Cavalry Corps assembled south of Arras to exploit a breakthrough at Monchy-le-Preux. The weather was very cold and the rain turning to sleet as they were ordered forward to Telegraph Hill west of Tilloy. The sleet turned to snow making visibility difficult, and the Germans bombarded them as they tried to make their way forward. They halted for the night and resumed the advance on 10 April. The cavalry were told that Monchy had been taken by the infantry, but there had been a delay which meant that the Germans were still in place. An attack had to be made by the 8th and 5th Cavalry Brigades but this was fraught with difficulty as the snow was falling thickly and visibility was restricted to a few yards. The 20th Hussars came through Tilloy Les Mouflains at the trot with the Greys on their right and the 12th Lancers in support. However, the regiment became trapped in a maze of barbed wire and they had to cut themselves out with wire-cutters. When the snow stopped they found themselves on the ridge, their original objective. The Germans had abandoned their forward positions and Monchy was captured. The regiment spent a wretched night in shell-holes, with no food or forage. The battle of Arras ended on 20 April and the cavalry taken out of action. The 20th had lost 37 horse killed or died of exposure. One man had died and 7 were wounded, 2 of which were officers.
Bourlon Wood, 25 Nov 1917
There were no mounted actions for most of 1917 although the 20th relieved infantry units for periods of time in the trenches. A mounted action was expected when the 3rd Army attacked at Cambrai with 400 tanks on 20 Nov. The cavalry rode up to the Scheldt Canal but there was nowhere to cross and the shattered countryside was too difficult for horses. The 20th had turned back at Masnieres, and on 25th they provided a company of 5 officers and 218 for the 5th Brigade's battalion. They went into trenches along the north side of Bourlon Wood. Here there was heavy fighting in which 2 officers and 5 men were killed, and 25 men wounded.
Gouzeaucourt, 30 Nov 1917
The Germans counter-attacked on 29 Nov with different tactics. They sent forward specially trained storm troops who were able to by-pass the forward positions and attack the rear areas, backed up by aircraft. The Brigade was ordered to hold on to Gouzeaucourt. The 20th rode forward and took over trenches thinly manned by the Royal Engineers. The Guards Brigade arrived and together with them the regiment attacked, gaining 1,000 yards and inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy storm troops. There was now a gap between the 20th and the Coldstream Guards but this was filled when Major Little rallied 3 infantry companies whose officers had been killed, and brought them into line to fill the gap. A C Little was second in command of the 20th, and later became CO in March 1918 when Colonel Cook was killed. Major Little had won the DSO at Wytschaete in 1914 and now won a bar to that medal. The regiment was relieved from the Gouzeaucourt sector later after a tank attack stabilised the situation.
The Great German Offensive, 1918
In February 1918 the cavalry were moved to an area between Peronne and the Oise, behind the 5th Army. It was known that the Germans planned a huge offensive so preparations to meet it were intense. As well as recce patrols and training there was a dismounted company of the 20th numbering 224 commanded by Captain D'Arcy Hall, which spent a week constructing trenches and wire defences northwest of St Quentin. On 14 Mar the 5th Brigade was organised in an even more dismounted role, as a Dismounted Brigade Group, although it had about the same strength as a battalion. When the German bombardment began on 21 Mar the brigade was in the line at Montescourt. The offensive pushed the British army back to the Somme, and organisation broke down so that the units became mixed up. The story of the regiment becomes confused here but one officer made a name for himself; Major Little DSO was given the task of organising broken groups from different units and organised them as a battalion to take up a position along the Faillouel to Flavy-le-Martel road. They came under a strong German attack in late March and had to fight hard for two hours to thwart a flanking movement.
Cook's Detachment, March 1918
The cavalry were forced back to a point where they were reunited with their horses. The various small groups were unable to find their regimental headquarters so officers formed squadrons out of mixed cavalrymen, and two regiments were formed this way that came under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel George Cook, CO of the 20th. They were referred to as Cook's Detachment and were in great demand where gaps need to be filled and trench positions needed relief. They were in dismounted action at Lagny and received orders to go to the relief of dispirited French troops at Cattigny in late March 1918. The French were quick to leave their trenches, having been reinforced by the detachment, so the two regiments had to face a concerted attack by vastly superior numbers of Germans. They became surrounded and fought bravely, losing many men, including Colonel Cook who was killed on 26 March. The survivors retreated to Thiescourt, mounted up and rode to Compiegne where the 5th Cavalry Brigade was re-formed and sorted out. The remnants of the 20th Hussars paraded as a regiment once more under the command of Major A C Little.
Rifle Wood, 1 April 1918
On 31 Mar the 20th Hussars, who were in the Bois de Hangard near Amiens, organised a dismounted company of 138 men led by Captain Walter D'Arcy Hall. Other officers in the company were Lieutenants Taylor, Austin and Fairbrother. The next morning they supported the 4th Dismounted Battalion in an attack against Rifle Wood near Domart-sur-Luce. They came under enfilade fire as they entered the wood and suffered heavy casualties including the three subalterns. But the company continued on into the wood and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. They were successful in capturing the position and held on to it until relieved by the infantry. As well as the 3 officers, there were 3 more men killed, 39 wounded and one man missing.
The 1st Army, April 1819
At the beginning of April 1918 the 20th were reduced in size to 13 officers, 150 other ranks and 245 horses. The German offensive had petered out but General Ludendorff saw a thinly held gap at Neuve Chapelle, and another attempt brought about a breakthrough, reaching Armentieres so that British divisions on either side were now outflanked. On 11 April the 2nd Cavalry Division were ordered to reinforce the 1st Army. They rode the whole way, using roads crammed with refugees, vehicles and marching men. They had to travel at night across country and reached their destination on 13 April by which time the Germans had been halted by the infantry. The division was moved to the left flank around the Foret de Nieppe. The 20th Hussars received drafts of men from the yeomanry and now had 19 officers and 442 other ranks. For some weeks there was patrol work to be done and then they went into billets at Aiz-en-Issart.
Beaucourt, 9 Aug 1918
It was now the turn of the Allies to launch their Hundred Days Offensive and, under the leadership of Douglas Haig the attack began on on 8 August 1918. The cavalry supported Australians and Canadians east of Amiens and success was achieved so that the cavalry were able to keep the enemy on the run. The 20th Hussars went into action near Beaucourt on 9 Aug. They had to pass through the Canadians to prevent the retiring Germans from taking up intermediate positions. This was fraught with difficulty because of the open nature of the ground and the danger of machine-gun fire from pockets of resistance. They were not able to move fast as barbed wire was everywhere. The lead Troop of C Squadron led by Lieut Mann came under fire from a machine-gun. They headed for a gully to avoid the fire, but their way was blocked by wire. They had to turn into the direction from which the Germans were firing, and within 500 yards of the gun turn off again to reach the gully. Several horses were hit on this occasion. The rest of C Squadron were able to take a different route to work around the enemy gun crew.
Gas Shells, Aug 1918
The regiment was given the task of patrolling along the flanks of the advance to keep touch with neighbouring formations. This was unspectacular work that brought them little appreciation but it was essential and caused them many casualties.The ground was saturated with liquid mustard gas which was sent towards them in the form of artillery shells along with high explosive and shrapnel. The horses suffered most because of their lack of protection, lack of uncontaminated food, and poisoned water.
Joncourt, 1 Oct 1918
By 1Oct the Hindenburg Line was almost completely in the hands of the Allies, and the cavalry were now more free to advance with speed and take part in mounted actions. At Joncourt the 32nd Division had made a successful attack and C Squadron was split into three for patrolling the area. Lieutenant Mann, SSM Adams and Sergeant Brook led the patrols. Adams's section came into contact with a pocket of resistance and every man was hit and wounded. The Germans counter-attacked the next day near Montbrehain and Lt Mann was killed. Another officer, Lieut Jackson, was killed on patrol near Le Cateau.
The Sambre and Oise Canal, 5 Nov 1918
When, on 4 Nov the 32nd Division attacked across the Sambre and Oise Canal, the regiment was under the orders of the 97th Infantry Brigade in reserve. The 97th passed through the leading brigades on 5 Nov with C Squadron on the left flank and the rest of the regiment following. The squadron lost 2 men killed and an officer and 2 men wounded. Two Troops under Lieutenant Bland reached Favril capturing 2 heavy guns and 50 prisoners. They were mobbed by overjoyed French people who were now liberated.
Avesnes, 6 Nov 1918
The regiment was leading the advance of the 97th Brigade until there was a hold-up at Avesnes on 6 Nov. SSM Adams led a brave charge against enemy machine-guns despite having a wounded leg from the attack at Joncourt on 1 Oct, and also suffering from mustard gas poison. He was wounded again in this attack. Other casualties of the regiment were two men killed, one of whom was the medical officer, Captain Clark, and 7 men wounded.
The Last Actions of World War One, Nov 1918
The regiment was riding 5 miles ahead of the infantry on 9 Nov, and came in contact with the Germans at Touvent. They were out of touch with any British formation. The next day they mopped up some enemy emplacements and were about to deal with machine-gun crews on a spur beyond Eppe Sauvage. But they were ordered to join Bethell's Force of the 5th Cavalry Brigade and two infantry brigades marching on Renlies. They had been living on iron rations for two days but wagons were on their way on 11 Nov. Patrols were still being sent out while everyone was expecting the armistice at any moment. The regiment were operating in the area of Sivry when they received the news that the war was over. At 11am all trumpeters of the 20th Hussars assembled outside the regimental HQ at Clair Fayts and sounded the ceasefire.