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The Steelbacks

Rushden Echo, 10th Dec 1915
Steelbacks 1915
Back row l-r: Sergt. F Lilley (Finedon), Coy. QMS Barker (Rushden), Sergt. T J Pepper, Sergt. R F Freeman (R), Sergt. G Robinson (R), Coy. QMS W D Marsden (R).

2nd row: Corpl. H E Chettle (Rushden), Sergt. F Reynolds (Irthlingboro)

Front rwow: Col. Sergt. F L Robinson (I’boro), Sergt. Major W Bullard (Rushden),
Col. Sergt. Owen Thompson.

Rushden Echo, 30th April 1915, transcribed by Gill Hollis

The Steelbacks’ March
Rousing Reception at Rushden
Visits to Raunds, Higham, and Irthlingborough
Col. Willoughby and The Shirker

The officers, men, and band of the 2/4th Northamptonshire Regiment, to the number of about 140, who, under the command of Lieut-Col. Willoughby, are marching from Peterborough to Northampton, reached Raunds on Tuesday from Thrapston. A recruiting meeting was held on the Square at Raunds, presided over by Mr. J. Adams, C.C. Addresses were given by Colonel Willoughby and Capt. The Rev. Basil Stothert, of Thrapston (retired Army Chaplain).

The men were afterwards entertained to refreshments, cigars, and cigarettes by Mr. J. Adams.

By way of Stanwick the men then marched to Higham Ferrers, where they halted for an hour. Ald. Owen Parker, J.P., entertained them to refreshments at the Green Dragon.


The company arrived at Rushden about 6 p.m. on Tuesday, the officers in charge comprising Col. Willoughby, Major Watkins, and 2nd Lieuts. Manfield and Lenton. Crowds lined the pavements to witness the march through the town, the company being headed by the regimental band under Drum-Major Allen. The men were billeted in Queen-street.

At 7.30 p.m. the band contributed selections on the Green, and at 8 p.m. a recruiting meeting and smoking concert was held in the Public Hall, Councillor T. Swindall, J.P. (chairman of the Urban Council) presiding, supported by Colonel Willoughby and Councillor G. H. Skinner. The musical programme was arranged by Mr. Bert Sanders who contributed songs. Selections were given by the Rushden Adult School Male Prize Choir, and songs by Miss Evelyn Harlow, Mr. F. Thompson, and Mr. Bernard Tomkins. Much appreciated items were also contributed by little Miss Mollie Battersby (elocutionist), and Mr. Harry Neal “recitated.”

The Colonel, in the course of a stirring address, said that all knew perfectly well that the present war was not one of our seeking. Britishers, as men of honour, had no option but to defend their Allies. Having put their shoulders to the wheel there was nothing for it but to go through with the war. The French admitted that it was the British Army that saved the situation at Mons, Britain, at that moment, was engaged in no fewer than seven wars, so that the nation had its hands pretty full. The losses during the past few days had been very serious, that much he did know, the news having come through that evening, but better news was in store for the morning. It was absolutely essential that every man possible be put in the field if Britain wished to avoid annihilation. Old as he was, he would rather go out to France and fight and take his chance, than stay at home and take the chance of those who remained in England if the Germans landed on these shores.

“At any rate,” said the Colonel emphatically, “I should get a run for my money, but I’m blowed if you would.”

Continuing the Colonel said that if only Britain could find the men and ammunition to finish the war soon it would be so much the better for all of them. It was necessary that a 3rd Battalion of Northants Territorials be formed, and for that purpose they required 550 men. In the 2nd Battalion they had 300 men not yet 19 years of age, and therefore not of military age, so that actually 900 men were required. Every one of the Territorials in Rushden that evening had volunteered for the front, and although he (the speaker) had seen 42 years’ service, he was not going to shirk it. (Applause.) He appealed to mothers and young girls present to do their duty. It was the duty of every mother to persuade her sons to enlist, and if he was a young girl he would be hanged if he would walk out with a young fellow who refused to do his duty to his King and country. Reference had been made to the taking away of men from the boot industry, but he could assure them that the necessity for men had outgrown the need for Army boots.

Some regret was expressed at Rushden that more extensive provisions were not made for the reception of the men, but as a matter of fact there was no time to do much. Mr. T. Swindall, J.P. (chairman of the Urban Council), received a letter on Monday afternoon from Colonel Willoughby, stating that the men would arrive at Rushden on Tuesday and he would like a smoking concert to be arranged for the men and their friends. Mr. Swindall took steps to arrange a good programme, and a recruiting meeting was also arranged, but the men arrived at Rushden two hours later than they were expected, so that there was no time for a separate recruiting meeting, advantage therefore being taken of the smoking concert to have a recruiting speech from the colonel. Only about a dozen of the soldiers attended, but there was a fair attendance of the public. The Rushden Hairdressers’ and Tobacconists’ Association gave Mr. Swindall a box of cigarettes for the men, and the gift was greatly appreciated. Mr. Swindall was anxious for the men to parade the town on Tuesday night, but they were too tired after their long march. If there had been more time to make arrangements doubtless the preparations would have been more elaborate.

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.

Overwhelming Odds

  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.

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