1914 Immediately on the outbreak of war, the Germans invaded Belgium in great strength, with a view to pushing straight on to Paris, and the French advanced into Belgium to meet them. The task allotted to the British Expeditionary Force (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Divisions), was, therefore, that of prolonging the French line to the north-west, in order to prevent the enemy from making a wide enveloping movement on the Allies’ left flank.
On August 13th the 52nd, in the 2nd Division, embarked at Southampton on the Lake Michigan, landed at Boulogne next day, and proceeded by rail to the area within which the Division was to concentrate for a forward movement.
Arriving before Mons on August 23rd, the brigade was detached at night to fill a gap in the British line, and the Regiment, after entrenching a position, assisted to cover the withdrawal of other troops next morning and subsequently joined the column as rearguard.
In this memorable Retreat from Mons, which continued till September 5th, the Regiment was but little in touch with the enemy, and this period and that of the subsequent advance across the Marne are remarkable for magnificent marching and endurance under extreme fatigue.
Crossing the Aisne on September 13th, the Regiment consolidated and held for some days a section of the line in front of La Cour de Soupir, often under heavy bombardments, until the transfer of the British Army to Flanders in time to take part in the first Battle of Ypres.
At Langemarck on October 21st, the 52nd was on the left of the attacking line which made any progress, and, in spite of severe enfilade fire and heavy casualties, made an advance of some depth, and for forty-eight hours held the position against counter-attacks. Steady rifle and machine-gun fire, and careful use of ammunition, accounted in one night for over seven hundred Germans, found dead in front of the trenches next morning. Again with its left flank exposed, the Regiment stood its ground in the Battle of Gheluvelt on October 31st, and on the morning of November 11th was brought up from divisional reserve to restore a part of the British line. Here, in the hundredth year since Waterloo, and opposed to another Imperial Guard, the Officer Commanding the 52nd, hampered by conflicting orders, saw a chance and seized it, and Nonne Bosschen Wood was cleared of the enemy in a bayonet charge limited only by the unlengthened fire of some supporting French artillery, and the position secured.
In December the Regiment was moved to the area of Bethune, and was in the breastworks and trenches in regular reliefs until May, 1915.
1915 It was then in support at the Battle of Aubers (May 9th), and made a very gallant night attack in the Battle of Festubert (May 15th/16th).
From Givenchy on September 25th, the Brigade made a subsidiary attack, using gas, but in fulfilling its mission of holding the enemy to their front and preventing their moving reserves elsewhere, suffered heavy losses without gaining ground.
1916 Early in 1916 the Regiment was moved to the area of Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette, in relief of French troops required for the defence of Verdun. Going thence to the south, in the Somme battle of 1916, it attacked from Delville Wood towards Guillemont and Ginchy on July 30th, and in the Ancre battle attacked the trenches north of Beaumont Hamel on November 13th, on each occasion losing heavily in all ranks.
During a period of rest and training near the historic forest of Crecy, Christmas, 1916, was Spent under something approaching peacetime conditions.
1917 The Regiment returned in January, 1917, to the scene of the early Somme fighting of the previous July, and for many weeks held a line of posts on the left of the Albert—Bapaume road, in every kind of discomfort. In very severe weather, with little protection from shellfire and none from the wet and cold, and with only such cooking in the forward posts as was possible with a short allowance of solidified alcohol, the health of the Regiment, usually excellent, became impaired. Owing to the difficulty of carrying out the prescribed treatment of the feet with oil many men were compelled to go sick from frostbite and “trench feet.”
In March, 1917, when the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line, the Regiment was engaged in the pursuit, and was present at the capture of Bapaume on the 17th before being withdrawn to take part in the Battles of Arras. Here it was in support for the fighting about Vimy (April 13th), and Gavrelle or Scarpe (April 23rd), and in the front line for the attack at Arleux, on April 28th. After this Regimental headquarters and the reinforcements of the 52nd and other regiments of the brigade were organised as a provisional battalion to hold the captured ground after the Regiment had been relieved.
The summer of 1917 was spent in the neighbourhood of Bethune and the trenches south of the Bethune—La Bassee road. In October the Regiment marched to the area behind Ypres, but after a period of training in scattered billets, entrained at Cassel in November for Bapaume, to take part in the operations in progress about Cambrai.
On the 30th November the Regiment was brought up from support during the German counter-attack about Bourlon Wood, and held the line during the following week.
1918 In the Somme battles of 1918 (March—April and August— September) the Regiment fought in the engagements of St. Quentin (March 23rd) and Bapaume (March 24th), where only the judgement and good leading of the captains saved the companies from being surrounded. Later, after a period of holding the line south of Arras, at the Battle of Albert (August 23rd), and the subsequent capture of the villages of Behagnies and Sapignies on the 25th, the Regiment was commanded in action by Major Field, M.C., who had joined it some eighteen years previously as a private soldier. Next came the battles of the Hindenburg Line, Havrincourt (September 11th/12th), Canal du Nord (October 1st), and Cambrai, in the last the Regiment being in support holding the village of Noyelles-surl’Escaut.
On October 23rd, 1918, in the Battle of the Selle, the 52nd made its last attack of the war, when it passed through the leading troops at Vertain and captured its allotted objective, the village of Escarmain, and advanced beyond it. The casualties in the day were 8 killed and 50 wounded.
On November 11th the Regiment was in billets at Villiers Pol, near Valenciennes, when the news of the Armistice came.
The 2nd Division having been selected for the British Army of the Rhine, as the Army of Occupation was called, the march into Germany began at once, and on Monday, December 9th, the 52nd crossed the frontier by the Stavelot— Malmedy road, led by the buglers, the band playing the Regimental Marches of the 43rd and 52nd, while the whole Regiment passed.
During the march through Belgium, at a halt of forty-eight hours at Charleroi, a representative party of the Regiment, 6 officers and 21 others, chosen by rank and length of service with the Regiment, visited the field of Waterloo, and traversed the ground over which the 52nd had charged and routed the Imperial Guard of France.
1919 Demobilisation began on arrival at the Rhine, but proceeded slowly, so that educational training was carried on, and at an examination for 3rd Class Certificates held at Zons on February 28th, fifty-two men of the Regiment sat, of whom thirty passed; the total successes in the rest of the division being two.
In May the cadre came home to Woolwich, and was welcomed at Oxford on June 12th. The 52nd was at the Depot till July 30th.
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