The Rushden Echo, 20th July, 1917, transcribed by Gill Hollis
Undying Fame for Northants Regiment
Great Stand in The Battle of The Dunes
Sergeant’s Remarkable Pluck - A Fight to the Death
How the Little Remnant Escaped
The wonderful work of the Northamptonshire Regiment in the Battle of the Dunes is commented upon by all the war correspondents. The resistance of the 1st Northamptonshire Regiment and the King’s Royal Rifles is agreed to have been magnificent.
The Special Correspondent of “The Times” writes:-
The Northamptonshire Regiment and the King’s Royal Rifles added imperishable lustre to their annals, but against such overwhelming odds there could be but one result. It was a most valiant fight. The remains of two platoons, forming the largest body which maintained touch, were surrounded and fought until the last man fell amid a circle of dead and wounded Germans. Bombers and a “flammenwerfer” party made for the tunnel wherein the headquarters of the King’s Royal Rifles lay, and the last scene here was the spectacle of six officers, back to back, using their revolvers with a cool deliberation for which the language of admiration can find no fitting words.
Fighting all the way, a number of the men were pressed back to the river bank, where such of them as could swim dived in and swam across. But there were those who could not swim, and to try to succour them a soldier performed a magnificent act of heroism. With bullets hissing around him, he plunged into the Yser, breasted across to the opposite bank, ran off, and promptly returned with a rope, one end of which he secured; then took to the water again and carried the loose end across, thus establishing the means of escape for the non-swimmers, many of whom got away in consequence.
By about seven o’clock the Germans had cleared the ground right up to the river, but they apparently thought it prudent to establish a line along our old support trench, which is about 300 yards east of the Yser.
A Gallant Sergeant
Mr. Perry Robinson, special correspondent of the “Daily News,” says:-
A sergeant of the Northamptonshire Regiment volunteered to warn the regiment on the right that there was a danger of their being cut off, since all the bridges over the Yser were now destroyed, and it was impossible to bring up reinforcements.
Although wounded, this gallant fellow swam the river, as being the only practicable means of getting to the regiment, and delivered his warning, with the result that a bombing barrier was hurriedly thrown up and machine guns got into position, and the attack, when it came, was prevented from extending beyond this point.
Mr. Percival Phillips, in a glowing tribute, says:-
Never have British troops shown greater heroism or fought against overwhelming odds with greater coolness and tenacity than in Tuesday’s battle of the dunes by Nieuport.
Northampton men and their comrades of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps bore the brunt of this German attack, and although the ground they held is now in enemy hands, their deeds will make every Englishman thrill with pride.
Broken and dazed after a day-long bombardment of unprecedented fury, the survivors stuck grimly to the wreckage of their defences – fighting hand to hand with the marines who came in the wake of a whirlwind of shell, fighting when surrounded, even when overpowered, fighting, many of them, until they died.
The loss of a few sandhills can be borne with equanimity, the loss of many fine men with fortitude, for the memory of their day of trial will endure long after the Hun has been swept far inland from the sea.
A Day of Agony and Blood
There are many details of this action (writes Mr. Philip Gibbs in a graphic dispatch) which may never be known. No man saw it from other ground, and those on the other bank of the Yser could see very little beyond their own neighbourhood of bursting shells. But a sergeant of the Northamptons (who had an astounding escape) saw the first waves of German marines advance with bombing parties. That was shortly after 7 p.m. They were in heavy numbers against a few scattered groups of English soldiers still left alive after a day of agony and blood. They came forward, bombing in a crescent formation, one horn of the crescent trying to work round behind the flank of the rifles on the seashore as the other tried to outflank the Northamptons on the right. A party of German machine-gunners crept along the edge of the sands, taking advantage of the low tide, and enfiladed the support line (now a mere mash of sand) in which some wounded and unwounded men held out, and swept them with bullets. Another party of the marines made straight for the tunnel, which was now the battalion headquarters of the 60th, and poured liquid fire down it. Then they passed on; but, as if uncertain of having completed their work, came back after a time and bombed it. Even then there was a least one man not killed in that tunnel. He stayed there among the dead till night, and then crept out and swam across the canal. Two platoons of riflemen fought to the last man, refusing to surrender. One little group of five lay behind a bank of sand and fired with rifles and bombs until they were destroyed.
Meanwhile, the Northamptons, on the right, were fighting desperately. Seeing that the German marines were trying to get behind them on the right flank, and that they had not the strength to resist this, they got a message through to some troops further down in front of Lombartzyde to form a barrier, so that the enemy could not come through, and these fought their way grimly up, thrusting back the enemy’s storm-troops, and then made a defensive block through which the marines could not force their way. The Northamptons fought without any chance of escape, without any hope except that of a quick finish. The German marines brought up a machine-gun and fixed it behind the place where the Northamptons officers had established their headquarters and fired up it. Our machine-guns were out of action, filled with sand or buried in sand.
One gunner managed to get his weapon into position, but it jammed at once, and, with a curse on it, he flung it into the water of the Yser, and then jumped in and swam back. Another gunner lay by the side of his machine-gun hit twice by shells, so that he could not work it. One of his comrades wanted to drag him off to the canal bank, in the hope of swimming back with him. To linger there a minute meant certain death.
“Don’t mind about me,” said the machine-gunner of the Northamptons, “Smash my gun and get back.” There was no time for both, so the gun was smashed, and the wounded man stayed on the wrong side of the bank.
The fighting lasted for an hour and a half after the beginning of the infantry attack. It was over at 8.30. The wounded sergeant of the Northamptons, who swam back, saw the last of the struggle. He saw a little group of his own officers, not more than six of them, surrounded by marine bombers, fighting to the end with their revolvers. The picture of these six boys out there in the sand with their dead lying around them refusing to yield and fighting on to a certain death is one of the memories of this war. It is a tragic tale, and there will be tears when it is read. But above the tragedy there is the splendour of these poor boys, young soldiers all, who fought with a courage as great as any in history, and have raised a cross of sacrifice beyond the Yser, before which all men of our race will bare their heads, there where so many Belgians have died – as I saw them die – in the early days of the war, and after them so many French, so that these sand dunes are the tombs of heroes without individual fame.