The look of confusion and astonishment on the locals isn’t surprising. They are greeted with the sight of men on horseback moving slowly up the main road, dressed from head to toe in First World War army uniforms. For some of the onlookers it is almost as if they have been transported back one hundred years., which is the exact purpose of the riders. They are part of the War Horse Ride, the biggest British First World War cavalry commemoration ever to take place outside the United Kingdom.
In August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The first real engagement, at Mons in Belgium, was a disaster. The scale of the German onslaught was entirely unexpected and the British, despite a gallant defence, were forced into a retreat which lasted several weeks, always with German troops on their heels. It was then that the 9,000 men and 10,000 horses of the cavalry division played their first major role in the war, covering the rest of the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) retreat.
This is what the 26 riders, who are all serving or former soldiers, are commemorating. They were each representing their company’s 1914 equivalent, wearing exact 1914 regimental dress and armed with First World War rifles, swords and lances. The ride was to take place over 5 days and cover nearly one hundred miles following the exact line of retreat to the day, and stopping in the towns where some of the main cavalry actions took place.
We left London for Dover on the 25th August in heavy rain which last nearly the whole trip, provoking thoughts of the conditions in 1914. The first day covered over 30 miles, a gruelling experience for horses and riders alike who contended with long rides and cumbersome 1914 military saddles. Three of the riders carried lances owing to their serving in lancer regiments and those riding as officers carried pistols and swords.
The second day of riding brought the company to the town of Moÿ-de-l’Aisne, in time for the town’s commemorations for the battle of Moy exactly one hundred years earlier. Celebrations involved the marking of a new memorial. A company of 9th/12th Lancers had travelled from their base in Germany to take part, the same regiment in 1914 which had charged successfully from their position at the battle of Moy.
After several days riding, the company reached the end point, Nery for commemorations to mark the hundredth year anniversary of Battle of Nery. On 1st September, 1914, one brigade of British cavalry and one battery of the Royal Horse Artillery were engaged by almost twice their number in the form of a German cavalry division and artillery. Dismounted German cavalry attempted to attack the village whilst their artillery wreaked havoc. Of the thirteen British guns, only three could be brought to bear and two were quickly knocked out of action, leaving one gun with only three men. They performed admirably and distracted the German guns long enough for the British cavalry to get into a defensive position around the village. ‘L Battery’ kept up supporting fire until ‘I battery’ arrived with cavalry reinforcements, forcing a German withdrawal.
Nery hosted a whole weekend of events, including a parade and a football match between German and British soldiers. Representing the Royal Horse Artillery, is the Kings Troop there to commemorate the actions of L Battery now known honoured for their achievements as Nery Battery. We camped on the very spot where the 11th Hussars were camped one hundred years earlier and on 1st September we rose to the same mist that had greeted them just minutes before the Germans attacked. The morning’s parade and commemorations marked the end of the ride.
On 5th September 1914 the German advance was stopped and the British and French began advancing back towards Belgium. The role of the cavalry had been instrumental. One hundred years on and the War Horse Ride had been a great success. There was no doubt that if those riders who had taken part in the Great Retreat were looking down, they would have been immensely proud.