Song of the Dark Ages

Song of the Dark Ages

We digged our trenches on the down
   Beside old barrows, and the wet
White chalk we shovelled from below;
It lay like drifts of thawing snow
   On parados and parapet:

Until a pick neither struck flint
   Nor split the yielding chalky soil,
But only calcined human bone:
Poor relic of that Age of Stone
   Whose ossuary was our spoil.

Home we marched singing in the rain,
   And all the while, beneath our song,
I mused how many springs should wane
And still our trenches scar the plain:
   The monument of an old wrong.

But then, I thought, the fair green sod
   Will wholly cover that white stain,
And soften, as it clothes the face
Of those old barrows, every trace
   Of violence to the patient plain.

And careless people, passing by,
   Will speak of both in casual tone:
Saying: “ You see the toil they made:
The age of iron, pick and spade,
    Here jostles with the Age of Stone. ”

Yet either from that happier race
   Will merit but a passing glance;
And they will leave us both alone:
Poor savages who wrought in stone —
   Poor savages who fought in France.

by Francis Brett Young

Stonehenge is just north of Salisbury and just north of Stonehenge is Salisbury Plain. It’s an area of rolling hillsides (downs) –  the largest area of chalk grassland in North-West Europe – and contains 2,300 ancient monuments. It is full of stone circles, ancient hill forts and barrows – large burial mounds that rise up in the fields and downs.

In 1668 Samuel Pepys visited Avebury and Silbury Hill to the north of Stonehenge and commented “… it was prodigious to see how full the downs are of great stones, and all along the valleys stones of considerable bigness most of them growing certainly out of the ground so thick as to cover the ground.”

The War Office purchased land there in 1897 and it’s been used for military training ever since. Over one million men from all over the Empire trained on Salisbury Plain during the first world war. At the height of the war 80 trains a day left Salisbury, delivering troops for embarkation at Southampton.

There was a aerodrome for pilot training at Stonehenge and technology developed in the training grounds and secret facilities nearby led to developments in aviation, artillery and chemical warfare.
“I was encamped very very near Stonehenge and must confess to not finding it very impressive. I like Constable’s picture of it though.” David Jones

Stonehenge, John Constable 1835.

Edmund Antrobus (1887-1914), in the Uniform of a Grenadier Guard by Harold Speed

Stonehenge was part of the Amesbury Abbey Estate inherited by Sir Edmund Antrobus. In 1898 he offered to sell the site to the British Government for £125,000. The offer was refused. Antrobus fenced the site in and started to charge visitors a shilling for admittance. This created considerable ill-feeling and led to protests especially among Druid worshippers. In 1913 Antrobus banned the Druid solstice celebrations at the site. Druid leader Macgregor Reid called down a “kara” on Antrobus, chanting “in grief and sorrow I call down the curse of Almighty God”.

Antrobus had served with the Grenadier Guards in the Sudan campaign of the 1880’s. His only son – Lieutenant Edmund Antrobus  – was engaged to be married when Germany invaded Belgium and Britain declared war.  He was an officer in the same regiment, the same battalion and the same company as my second cousin, Drummer Charles Samuel Steed.

They sailed from Southampton to Zeebrugge on 7 October 1914. Nineteen days later both men were dead. Lt. Antrobus was 27 years old and Drummer Steed was 20.

By the end of October only 44 officers out of 400 were left; and out of 12,000 men only 2336 remained.

Below is a dramatic account of the battle adapted from this site. 

First Battle of Ypres Oct 1914: 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards

The 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards arrived at Ypres to join up with the BEF and prepared to give battle between Zonnebeke and Hollebeke. On 17 Oct the brigade was ordered to occupy the ridge at Kruiseik and on the 19th to advance on Menin. However the attack was aborted when the strength of the German opposition was discovered. The Battalion withdrew to a position around Kruiseik. On 20 Oct the German artillery pounded their trenches and then attacked unsuccessfully with infantry. On the night of the 22nd two platoons from no.4 Company were sent forward to occupy vacated trenches by the 21st Brigade on the left. On the morning of the 23 Oct the enemy artillery again bombarded Kruiseik and their attack was directed at the 21st Brigade. Two Battalions of Germans descended on the Grenadier platoons and inflicted heavy casualties including the deaths of the platoon commanders, 2nd Lieuts S Walter and N A H Somerset. The King’s Company were sent to support the Border Regiment who were in trouble from collapsed trenches, and were in turn bombarded with some loss. They had to pull back which they did in good order.

On 24 Oct the enemy attacked and gained Polygon Wood. They tried to break through on the left of the battalion but no.4 Company under Major Lawrence Colby managed to drive them back. In this brilliant action Colby and Lt Antrobus were killed along with 100 of the men. The only officer not wounded was Lieut Sir G Duckworth-King. Another platoon became isolated on 25th when the Germans took the trench on their left and the houses behind. Lt Lambert sent 3 messengers for help but only one got through. A platoon was sent up and the enemy was cleared from the houses. Later that night the Germans tried to approach the platoon by shouting out that they were the South Staffords but the silhouette of their helmets gave them away. Lambert ordered the men to open fire causing the death of 40 of the enemy. Lt Lord Claud Hamilton, the battalion machine-gun officer, was also alerted by the shape of German spiked helmets moving along the road behind his position and trained one of the guns on them.

On 25 Oct 1914 the shelling was so concentrated and heavy that many men suffocated under the weight of the soil from collapsed trenches. 60 shells a minute were counted on each trench. The Germans broke through and surrounded and captured the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards. The Grenadiers were now in a desperately exposed position and Lt-Col Earle ordered them to retire. The King’s Company under the command of Major A W O C Weld-Forester was occupying a fire trench and they did not hear the order so became cut off and surrounded. Lieut Pilcher managed to reach Major Weld-Forester and inform him of the withdrawal, and Lt G E Hope brought some more men to him. The major decided to gather his men and make a bold dash for it in the open. The Germans were astounded at their foolhardy action but were prevented from firing on them because their own men were so close. They reached the trenches of the Black Watch and rejoined the battalion the next day. At this stage the battalion had lost 9 officers and 301 men.

The 20th Brigade were moved to a new position on 28 Oct, south of the Menin road, where the trenches were in a poor state. They had to spend the night digging and repairing defences. On the morning of the 29th the Germans decided to force their way through the British line and chose the point where the 1st Battalion were in defence. The enemy attack was expected at dawn but did not materialise so some of the support troops that had been brought up in the night were sent back. When the attack did happen the only support was the King’s Company which was rushed forward to assist the frontline companies. Many were killed in this endeavour. The Germans occupied houses to the left and were firing on the battalion which was exposed to enfilade fire as well as from the left rear. The King’s Company were led by Major Stucley 200 yards to join up with the support trenches but no.4 Company was still in the fire trenches on the right.

The enemy had decided upon a close formation charge using a mass of men concentrated on a narrow front. This was intimidating for the defenders but it presented an easy target for soldiers who could keep a cool head. To encourage the men and dispel their fears some officers went out in front and were soon gunned down. Major H St L Stucley and Captain Lord Richard Wellesley were killed outright. Major Weld-Forester and Lieut the Hon A G S Douglas-Pennant were mortally wounded, and Captain C M B Ponsonby was wounded. The battalion was ordered to retire to a wood. Here the Grenadiers were reinforced by a company of the Gordon Highlanders from their right, commanded by Captain Burnett. They decided on an offensive action and advanced bravely towards the wood and were enfiladed by enemy machine-gun fire. Past the wood they gained the brickfields but were forced to take cover. A second attempt gained them the cover of a ditch south of the road but this was as far as they got and they had to retreat to their former position.

The CO, Lt-Col M Earle was badly wounded but in too dangerous a place to be moved. The medical officer, Lt J G Butt, was shot dead as he tended the Colonel. It was deemed too dangerous to collect him and he was captured by the Germans. Eleven officers of the battalion had been killed, and 9 wounded. The battalion had started off with 1,000 men and ended up with 250. The only remaining uninjured officers were Capt Rasch, Lt Lord Claud Hamilton, Lt Pilcher, Lt W R Mackenzie, Lt J Teece (QM), 2nd Lieuts Darby and Sir G Duckworth-King. It would be reasonable to assume that the men were due a good rest but incredibly the remnants of the 7th Division were sent in once more to hold the line from Veldhoek to a point 500 yards north of Zandvoorde.

On 31 Oct the brigade was heavily shelled and the 21st and 22nd Brigades, who were in front, had to be pulled back. The Grenadiers were led forward to help stem the enemy advance. They went into the trenches vacated by the 21st Brigade after proceeding through shell and gunfire. They got into the trenches just in time to receive the attack from a huge horde of Germans. But the enemy were disorganised and badly led so that the Grenadiers were able to cut them down with rapid fire. However, things looked very serious for them, and a staff officer who managed to reach them decided to ride off and inform General Capper, the Divisional commander. But this did little good as there were no support troops, although the 4th Guards brigade, which contained the 2nd Battalion Grenadier, was advancing through the wood and would soon be making a counter-attack. The officer rode back expecting to find the battalion on its last legs. Instead he found them in good spirits and beating off repeated attacks. They were soon relieved and replaced by the shattered 21st Brigade. The casualties were not too heavy on the last day of the battle but they had lost 50 more men. They were sent back to Chateau Herenthage where the officers found that their quarters had been destroyed by a direct hit which would have killed the last remaining 4 officers of the battalion if they had been sent to the Chateau instead of going back into battle on that last day. The decimated battalion had fared no worse than the other regiments in the Division in the 3 weeks of fighting. Out of 400 officers there were only 44 left; and out of 12,000 men only 2336 remained. It was acknowledged by the High Command that the 7th Division had performed incredibly and held off the German advance to the sea against all odds. The Germans themselves praised the ‘brilliant feat of arms’ and expressed their shock at finding out that only a single division had held them up.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, Barrows and Parallel Banks Edgar Barclay (1842–1913)

Paul Nash: ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’, 1935

David Gentleman – The Ridgeway

The featured image shows footage from WW1 projected onto the stones as part of a memorial exhibition at the now closed  Soldiers at Stonehenge – Salisbury Plain And The Journey To The First World War  at the visitor’s center.

2 Comments

  1. There is some stone circle up in the peaks. Hopefully there will be no trench warfare there.

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