Lest We Forget
11 November 2018 sees 100 years since the end of hostilities on the Western Front during the First World War. To commemorate this, we would like to share a pertinent object from the Collection of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment Museum, and an overview of the regiment’s involvement in the Great War.
This is the ‘Miracle Rifle’ and its fascinating story. Near Armentieres in Northern France on Friday August 13th 1915, Private W.J.Smith of the 6th Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment was aiming his Short Lee Enfield. 303 rifle at a German sniper in a trench just 50 yards away. When the German, using a gun of slightly smaller calibre, fired first, his bullet, despite near impossibility, went along the narrow barrel of Smith’s rifle and smashed the bolt. Miraculously Smith survived the incident. These images show the rifle, and x-rays including the bolt:
During the First World War some 60,000 men served in the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), including Private Smith, in its 18 battalions – over 42,000 of which were overseas. Of them, nearly 7,000 were killed and another 20,000 were wounded or captured. During this time they were awarded 73 Battle Honours and 3 Victoria Crosses.
At the start of World War 1 the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) (QORWK) was quickly dispatched to France, landing at Le Havre on 15 August 1914.
They saw action at Mons, Le Cateau, The Marne and at Neuve Chapelle where the battalion suffered 450 causalities, including all but 2 officers. After these huge early losses the British Army had to expand rapidly and new battalions were raised to serve alongside regular and territorial units. Most fought on the Western Front, taking part in many major battles. Other Battalions served in India, Italy, Egypt, Gallipoli, Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) where they were fighting the Turkish Army.
In August 1914 The Kent Cyclist Battalion (formed in 1908) were mobilised with three battalions in total. They were a Territorial force unit, originally known as the 6th Battalion Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment). This photograph from the collection shows them on parade in 1914:
The 2nd Battalion QORWK was dispatched to Mesopotamia on 30 January 1915, with two companies taking part in the defence of Kut-Al-Amara. Holding out for 147 days, the 2nd Battalion, and rest of the 9,000 British troops were eventually forced to surrender to the Turks in April 1916. Almost 230 men of the West Kents were captured, but due to the appalling conditions of their captivity, only 69 soldiers would come home.
In September- October 1915 the 8th Battalion QORWK also fought on the Western front at the Battle of Loos in France, the biggest British attack of 1915. They suffered heavy losses – of the 24 Officers and 800 men only 1 officer and 250 men remained fit to serve. The battalion had been annihilated. These photos show some of the men and boys of the 8th Battalion many of whom were killed or wounded at Loos:
In February 1916 the 1st Kent Cyclist Battalion was sent to India while the other two battalions supplied drafts of men to other units. Although not fighting in the trenches they saw significant action, fighting the Mashuds on the North Western Frontier in 1917, and later in the war, the Marris and the Khtrans in Baluchistan in 1918.
On the French front held by the British armies, there was a lull in the early part of 1916, but in February the Germans engaged the French armies at Verdun, beginning the longest and one of the bloodiest battles of the war. This image shows soldiers in gas masks, c. 1915-18, though the location is unknown:
In May 1916 the Germans and British navies clashed at the Battle of Jutland, perhaps the greatest naval battle in history. A month later on 1 July the British armies tried to break through the German lines on the Somme, starting a battle which led to enormous loss of life on both sides (60,000 casualties on the first day made it the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army). Most of the British battalions were involved, including the QORWK. The 7th Battalion West Kent’s made an historic stand at Trones Wood on 13 and 14 July 1916, where they successfully defended their position against overwhelming attacks for 2 days. This artwork by Frank Hyde, shows the regiment at Trones Wood:
Elsewhere in 1916 British armies advanced in Mesopatamia, Lawrence of Arabia helped form an Arab revolt against the Turks, tanks were used in battle for the first time (by the British), German airplanes raided English cities and the Russians began successful counter offences of the eastern front.
In 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare which ultimately led to the United States being drawn into the war and the British launched more costly attacks on the western front. Also, Canadian and British Armies launched a successful attack on Vimy Ridge, the Russians exited the war amid two revolutions, there was a mutiny in the French army, an attack of 400 British tanks at Cambrai, and a major and bloody British offensive was launched at Ypres. June 1917 saw the arrival in France of the first US troops, the capture of Baghdad by the British and the fall of Jerusalem to General Allenby who famously entered the Holy City on foot. The keys to Jerusalem were ceremonially given to members of the 20th London Regiment (linked to the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment), and are part of the museum collection. These have been on loan to the Tower of David Museum, Jerusalem, for the Great War centenary:
In the final year of the war in Europe (1918), Germany moved forces from the eastern front to attempt one last major offensive on the western front. It almost succeeded but was ultimately thwarted by a series of allied successes in the summer.
This year saw the successful conclusion of T E Lawrence’s Arab revolt, the German ‘Spring Push’ offences aimed at the French and British armies, the murder of the Russian Tsar and his family, the start of the successful Amiens offensive in which the Allies initially drove the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line and then pushed beyond it. There were also successful British campaigns in Palestine, the mutiny of the German Navy at Kiel, the abdication of the German Kaiser in November and the signing of the Armistice at 11am on 11 November (the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month).
This artwork by Frank Hyde shows wounded soldiers returning by train to Maidstone East station during the war:
During the Great War centenary commemorations 2014-2018, the museum has seen a huge number of enquiries, with individuals wishing to learn more about their ancestors who were members of the regiment during the First World War. It has captured the public imagination for this devastating period of history, not only nationally, but on a personal level as it touched so many lives.
To find out more about the regiment’s history and to see the miracle rifle, visit the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment Museum: https://museum.maidstone.gov.uk/our-museums/queens-own/