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by Randall Nicol
formerly Scots Guards

Men of the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards in a barn on the road between
Sailly-sur-la-Lys and Rue Petillon near Fleurbaix, December 1914

As we approach the centenary of The Great War, it is useful to outline the operational organisation of the Household Cavalry and the Foot Guards, and how this evolved from 1914 onwards.

Household Cavalry

On mobilisation, a Composite Regiment of Household Cavalry was assembled in the 4th Cavalry Brigade of the Cavalry Division (which became the 1st Cavalry Division from early September). It went to France on 13th August 1914, the Cavalry Division’s involvement initially being principally with Sir Horace Smith Dorrien’s II Corps. That meant the Battle of Mons, the Retreat, the Battle of Le Cateau and subsequently the Battles of the Marne and Aisne, before they went north in October to the First Battle of Ypres.

Back at home during September, the 3rd Cavalry Division formed at Ludgershall, many regiments coming back to join from overseas garrisons, while the 1st and 2nd Life Guards and the Royal Horse Guards, all previously in London and Windsor, formed the 7th Cavalry Brigade. They sailed to Ostend in early October 1914 and all were very soon in the thick of it at Ypres, fighting as infantry. Towards the end of the battle, the Composite Regiment was disbanded, the survivors returning to their regiments. Also after Ypres, as part of a process to integrate yeomanry regiments into cavalry brigades, one of these having taken their place, the Royal Horse Guards moved to the new 8th Cavalry Brigade, still in the same Division. Nothing changed thereafter until March 1918, very shortly before the opening of the first German Spring Offensive, Operation Michael, on 21st March, when all three regiments of Household Cavalry left the 1st Cavalry Division. This was because of a recent decision to form the Guards Machine Gun Regiment, the first three motor machine gun battalions being Household Cavalry, the 4th (Foot Guards) Battalion serving with the Guards Division, and the 5th (Reserve) Battalion training machine gunners at Epsom. From May 1918 the Household Cavalry battalions served with First Army until after the Armistice, when they gave up the machine guns and got back their horses. They remained in Belgium until they went home in the early spring. The 4th (Foot Guards) Battalion was disbanded early in 1919 and the Guards Machine Gun Regiment itself early in 1920.

At the beginning of September 1916, the Household Battalion was formed from Household Cavalrymen not required for their Regiments in the BEF and arrived in France that November to join the 4th Division. It fought with them next year in the Battles of Arras and the later stages of Third Ypres. The Household Battalion was disbanded in February 1918 and some at least were posted to the Foot Guards, those who were Scottish being distributed between the 1st and 2nd Scots Guards.

Foot Guards

In August 1914 only six battalions of the Foot Guards were operational in the sense that we might use that word today and ready to go to France once complete to war establishment with reservists - estimated at around 60% of all other ranks. Of these six battalions, two, the 1st Coldstream and 1st Scots Guards, were in the 1st (Guards) Brigade, plus two line battalions, under a Foot Guards brigade commander with a headquarters staffed by guardsmen. They were in the 1st Division, with the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades, as they were designated. In the 2nd Division was the 4th (Guards) Brigade consisting of the 2nd Grenadiers, 2nd and 3rd Coldstream and 1st Irish Guards, with the 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades.

They all went to France at the very start, were not involved at Mons, but did take part with Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps in the Retreat and then, to a limited extent in the Marne, but much more heavily in the Aisne, before going to Ypres. When after dark on 11th November the 1st (Guards) Brigade were withdrawn from that battle the 1st Coldstream had twice been put beyond fighting effectiveness and the 1st Scots Guards, 1st Black Watch and 1st Cameron Highlanders had together a fighting strength totalling five officers and just over three hundred men.

Soon after the war began the 7th Division began to form at Lyndhurst in the New Forest, mostly, as with the 3rd Cavalry Division, from troops brought home from overseas garrisons. The 1st Grenadiers and 2nd Scots Guards, till then public duties battalions, were sent to the new 20th Infantry Brigade, which, although it had all the forms and appearances of the 20th (Guards) Brigade does not ever seem to have been called that. At the same time in October as the 3rd Cavalry Division sailed to Ostend the 7th Division went there too and were likewise soon fighting for their lives at Ypres, suffering 75% casualties. Afterwards all those six Foot Guards battalions were engaged in trench warfare from a bit south of Armentières to the neighbourhood of the La Bassée Canal. Each also, to a greater or lesser extent, took part in the Battles of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert. The 1st (Guards) Brigade also spent some time during the summer of 1915 further south in a part in the line soon afterwards on the Loos battlefield.

Those were the structures until the Guards Division formed in August 1915 around St Omer - not a universally welcomed proposition. At that point the 4th (Guards) Brigade metamorphosed into the 1st Guards Brigade (there being now 1st and 4th Infantry Brigades elsewhere). The 1st Coldstream and 1st Scots Guards joined the new 2nd Guards Brigade with the 3rd Grenadiers and 2nd Irish Guards, who arrived for the first time from England. The 1st Grenadiers and 2nd Scots Guards joined the new 3rd Guards Brigade, with the 4th Grenadiers and 1st Welsh Guards, who also arrived for the first time from England. In addition the 4th Coldstream, who were pioneers, came out from England. Every division had a pioneer battalion who worked mostly with and under supervision of Royal Engineers field companies, but had to be able to fight if necessary and were clearly distinguishable from labour battalions. Nevertheless, the demands on the infantry to provide fatigue parties were incessant and interfered constantly and damagingly with both rest and training. On formation, the divisional cavalry squadron was from the Household Cavalry and so was the divisional cyclist company, at the time standard components of infantry divisions. Both were disbanded while the Guards Division were in the Ypres Salient in the early summer of 1916.

Loos was the Guards Division’s first battle. They next spent most of that winter in the line at and north of Neuve Chapelle and moved to the Ypres Salient from March to July 1916. While, among other things, they had been preparing for major attacks which would have been launched from the Salient had the Battle of the Somme progressed much better than it did, it was to the Somme that they went next and to the two big battles in September between Ginchy and Lesboeufs (respectively the battle honours of Flers-Courcelette and Morval, not names which would have meant much to any of them at the time). The winter of 1916-17 was very hard, very cold and extremely unpleasant in the trenches on the east side of the Somme battlefield south from where the Eurostar and Autoroute now run from Bapaume towards Péronne. In June they went north again to get ready for Third Ypres, were heavily involved there till mid October and then withdrawn ahead, though they had no idea of what was going on, even when they got there, of the Battle of Cambrai at the end of November. Thereafter they were based on Arras till late March 1918 and the start of Operation Michael.

There were no significant structural changes to the Guards Division until early 1918 when all British brigades, but not Canadian or Anzac ones, were reduced to three battalions. This led to the 4th Grenadiers, 3rd Coldstream and 2nd Irish Guards being hived off on 2nd March 1918 into the new 4th Guards Brigade and posted to the 31st Division, at the time close to the Guards Division. The 31st Division had a fairly rough time in the early stages of Operation Michael, was relieved and then sent north, under strength. This put it in the area of the essential railway junctions at Bailleul and Hazebrouck when the third German Spring Offensive, Operation Georgette, began on 9th April. The Germans here, after breaking through the Portuguese near Neuve Chapelle and dislodging the British divisions north of them, headed northwest into the hinterland, threatening Bailleul and Hazebrouck. On 12th April the 4th Guards Brigade were ordered to identify and fill an unspecified gap north of Merville and near the Forest of Nieppe. There, over three days and two nights, they and the divisional pioneers, the 12th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, fought an epic defence against determined attackers, during which the 4th Grenadiers and 3rd Coldstream each had over five hundred casualties. It gave Australian troops behind them time to prepare a new, strong position. The 4th Guards Brigade were withdrawn from this battle altogether on 25th April and left the 31st Division soon afterwards to become GHQ troops, as little more than a cadre. In consequence, they took no further part in the fighting.

Because of where they were next deployed south of Arras, the Guards Division were relatively lightly involved in containing the northern edge of Operation Michael, the main German successes being further south across the old Somme battlefield and nearly as far as Amiens. The Division remained southwest of Arras until 21st August, from when they joined in the Final Advance, taking part in a significant number of mainly small battles, but often extremely fierce for those who fought them, and in the major attack on 27th September across the unfinished Canal du Nord, over the Hindenburg Support Line and along the Flesquières Ridge. By 11th November they were in Maubeuge, where they heard of the Armistice. Near there the six original Foot Guards battalions in the BEF had been at the start of the Retreat from Mons. Soon afterwards, the 4th Guards Brigade arrived to join them, the brigade headquarters being closed down and the battalions returning to their original brigades. A few days later came the order to march by easy stages to Cologne. The 2nd Guards Brigade got there first because, after crossing the frontier on 12th December, they were sent on by train.

At the end of February 1919, the Guards Division began to go home, their final appearance, with the Household Cavalry and representative detachments of supporting arms also present, being the march through the streets of London on 22nd March, starting from Wellington Barracks and going through the Forecourt of Buckingham Palace past King George V and Queen Mary, down The Mall and on to the Mansion House and then back up Piccadilly before dispersing from Hyde Park Corner. Those who had been discharged marched with their former Regiments and Battalions, including, according to press reports, some who had been blinded, guided by their comrades, while lorries carried those too badly disabled to march.

Battle of Poelcappelle, October 1917 - men of 4th Battalion Coldstream Guards
on a wrecked gun outside a German concrete blockhouse

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