VICTOR CAZALET AND THE HOUSEHOLDERS
by Peter Martin
Mrs Cazalet with her two sons, Edward and Victor,
The article A Very Brief Life (published in the Summer edition of The Guards Magazine) told the story of Edward Cazalet’s tragically short time at the front before he was killed in September 1916. This article is about Victor Cazalet, born on 27th December 1896, two years after his elder brother Edward. Like his brother, Victor went to Eton and Christ Church, Oxford which he represented at real tennis, lawn tennis, and racquets. In 1915 he joined the West Kent Yeomanry as a cadet and then transferred in to the 1st Life Guards in 1916. In August 1916, during and as a direct result of the disasters of the Somme battlefields, it was decided that the flood of recruits to The Household Cavalry would be diverted to infantry service. In September 1916, The Household Battalion formed at Hyde Park Barracks under the wing of the Reserve Regiment of 1st Life Guards. Captain Wyndham Portal was appointed to command the battalion as a Lieutenant Colonel and he survived to command the ‘The Householders’ as they came to be known throughout their 14 months existence. Officers came from The Life Guards, The Royal Horse Guards, the Foot Guards, and from regiments of the Line, 84 in all; the original battalion strength was 28 officers and 900 men. Yet, over the 14 months, drafts of over 2000 men replaced casualties.
Victor served with The Householders in all the major engagements on the Somme from December 1916 until mid-February 1917. Although offered an opportunity to leave the trenches for a liaison job with the Belgian Mission under Prince Alexander of Teck, Victor refused preferring to stay with his battalion and his men. He wrote home of the ‘utter uselessness’ of staff officers and that after two and a half years of war nothing had been done ‘to mitigate the hardships of the men’. In another letter sent on 12th December 1916 he wrote ‘Do you know when I see these luxurious pictures of ladies in London, even I boil that anyone should have such luxuries now except those men back on leave and us out here’.
Victor served principally in the area of Sailly and later in trenches near Bouchavesne. Then in April and May 1917 he was in the battles at Arras and Cambrai, principally the engagements at La Scarpe, Arras, Fampoux, and Roeux. The newly available war diaries, online now from The National Archives, tell us, in the laconic and unemotional style of these documents, just how unpleasant and dangerous these battles were, with long casualty lists at the end of accounts of fixed bayonets assaults on very limited objectives. At Fampoux, for example, The Householders lost nine officers and 166 other ranks killed in action. At Roeux, a little later, in May 1917, with further very substantial losses, The Householders took the miserable village of Roeux at bayonet point with total other ranks’ casualties in the two engagements totalling over 500. After a brief rest in some cellars at Arras, the remnants of the battalion were brought up to strength by drafts from Windsor.
By July 1917, Russia had ceased effectively to be a military power and the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 took Russia out of the war altogether. The United States had come into the war in April 1917 but no substantial numbers of troops arrived until early 1918. The tactical result of the Russian collapse was to release substantial numbers of German divisions previously on the Eastern Front for service on the Western. Profoundly concerned about the effect of these new troops on the Western Front, the British decided that a new campaign should begin in the Ypres area with the principal aim of killing as many Germans as possible at the lowest possible cost to our own troops. Thus began, on 31st July 1917, the battle known as 3rd Ypres which was to continue until 10th November 1917, a battle was more costly in men and materiel than The Somme; the butcher’s bill was reckoned later at some 8000 British casualties for every mile gained as against some 5000 for every mile on the Somme.
At this point, the war diary and other fragments of battalion history, including an article in the Westminster Gazette of 30th January 1918 written anonymously by Victor, tell us much about the engagement known as ‘Poelkapelle’, the fierceness of the fighting, the hunger and fatigue of the men, reduced at one point to eating abandoned German rations picked up among the dead. On 10th October 1917 Lt Col Portal’s battalion formed part of 12th Brigade and received orders to be ready to advance on 12th October on the extreme right of 12th Brigade, itself at the extreme right of 4th Division and with 18th Infantry Division on its right. The Householders were tasked to take a few pillboxes and machine gun posts shown on the map as Requette Farm to the East of a small and apparently miserable village called Poelkapelle.
On 12th October, in the morning, The Householders lost touch with The Royal West Kents on their right. The war diary for that day, too faint to be reproduced in facsimile here, reads:
The battalion had two objectives
1st objective 750 yards to line Requette Farm
2nd objective 1100 yards to line Requette Farm
Nos 4 &1 Coys were to go through Nos 3 & 2 after taking the first objective to take the second. Owing to the 18th Division being completely held up in Poelkapelle we could not go beyond the first objective as a defensive flank towards the village had to be formed. All the officers in Nos 2, 3,& 4 Coys were casualties and the line was reorganised as one Coy by Captain VA Cazalet the only other officers being Lieut LA Blackburn. The Germans launched a counter attack on our right flank at 4pm but were easily repulsed.
Two platoons of the 1st Kings Own Regiment reinforced our right with one company of the 1st Rifle Brigade consolidated a line from LANDING FM to REQUETTE FARM.
Later that afternoon had come came an order ‘Requette Farm must be captured by this evening; you will arrange with the Rifle Brigade to support you’.
Two platoons of the Rifle Brigade did indeed arrive, as we are told in the war diary, but even so, Victor’s handful of remaining men was unable to attack and exhausted itself in beating off the recorded counter-attack. Early the following morning, but later than hoped for, the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers came to relieve the line manned by the very few hungry, thirsty, and tired men of The Householders, the Warwicks, and King’s Own. One company of Fusiliers was sent to the exhausted Victor, with The Householders’ CO, the Adjutant, and the Regimental Corporal Major each taking one of the remaining companies. With the relief duly completed, only Victor and Lt Blackburn from HQ came out of the action with another 400 men lost. Portal later wrote:
I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of the officers and men, as they were tired when they went in, and wet through, and subject to heavy shelling twenty-four hours before the start. Captain Cazalet’s work is deserving of the highest praise. He led that attack with great gallantry and reorganised the whole line himself. I should not think a finer bit of work has been done by any one during this war. I should like to mention the work done by my Adjutant and RSM during in helping with a very difficult relief our officer and NCO casualties speak for themselves and show with what great gallantry they helped to gain a very difficult objective.
Just 600 yards were gained. Victor was recommended for a DSO and awarded the Military Cross.
After much more fighting, Victor was moved to a staff job in which, we must hope, he did better than those he had mercilessly criticised earlier. He chafed and fretted behind the lines and asked to be returned to active service. He missed his comrades, those many who were killed and the few who survived. Despite his desire to go back, Victor did not return to the fighting and, in July 1918, he was told of a new posting, to Siberia as part of an Allied mission to prevent a complete Communist takeover of Imperial Russia. On 16th October 1918 Victor sailed from Liverpool on the 11,000 mile journey to Vladivostok.
The rest of the story is not for this article. Victor returned home, became an MP, rejoined the Army at the outbreak of WW2, was appointed a liaison officer to General Sikorski, the Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile, and accompanied him on a visit to Polish forces in the Middle East; on their return journey by converted Liberator bomber, the party stopped at Gibraltar and, on take-off in the evening of 4th July 1943, the aircraft crashed with the loss of life of all on board.
One Cazalet brother remained, Peter, the youngest, who served in the Welsh Guards and Guards Armoured Division during the Second World War.
For a full account of Victor’s life, particularly his later political life, see Victor Cazalet - A Portrait by Robert Rhodes James, Hamish Hamilton, 1976.