On Monday, 31st August 1914 L Battery the Royal Horse Artillery had followed in the wake of the rest of the 1st Cavalry Brigade as it continued the retreat south from Mons. It reached the village of Néry after the other units had begun to settle down into their allotted positions. The allotment of positions within the village was as follows: -
- 5th Dragoons at the northern end with their horses in the open.
- 11th Hussars were billeted on the eastern face and up the east side of the village street, the men and horses being under cover – in houses, yards, barns, sheds, or lean-to’s.
- Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) on the west side of the village street, and in the fields behind the village on this side, plus one squadron in a field further to the south. All their horses were in the open.
- The 1st Cavalry Brigade Headquarters was established in the main street.
L Battery was allocated a field to the south of the village in which to bivouac and assigned the sugar factory to serve as its headquarters. In the north-west corner of the field were some haystacks and while the battery was completing its arrangements for the night Major Sclater-Booth the Battery commander made his way to the Cavalry Brigade Headquarters to ascertain what protective arrangements had been made to cover the bivouac of his battery. He received orders that L Battery was merely required to block the two roads which led east and south from the sugar factory. He was also told that the force would continue the march at 04:30 hrs the following day, 1st September 1914.
Major Sclater-Booth returned to his battery and put in place the necessary arrangements to cover the southern end of the village and bivouac area. Gradually the work was finished and, wearied with the day’s march under the hot August sun, men and horses settled down to rest. Silence brooded over the little village and the surrounding bivouacs that nestled around it on the western slope and at the bottom of the narrow valley, which was shut in to east and west by its guardian heights.
When the Cavalry Brigade readied itself the cool and very misty morning orders were issued to delay the march until 05:00 hrs due to the poor visibility which was less than 200 yards. The battery, which was standing halted in mass with the teams hooked in, took advantage of this delay to let down the poles and water the horses by sections at the sugar factory.
The mist had hardly begun to lift and was as thick as ever when, just before 05:00 hrs Major Sclater-Booth and his officers walked down from the sugar factory towards haystacks at the northwest corner of the battery field. Leaving the other officers by the haystacks, the Battery Commander walked on up the main street to Brigade Headquarters in order to get the latest instructions as to the resumption of the march.
Going into the house he found Brigadier-General C J Briggs and his Brigade-Major. Major Sclater-Booth had hardly crossed the threshold when a high-explosive shell burst over the village and all hell broke lose as gun and rifle fire came into Néry from the heights to the east. It was now about 05:05 hrs and the 1st Cavalry Brigade had been taken completely by surprise.
At the same moment Second-Lieutenant Tailby of the 11th Hussars, who had been sent out with a patrol to reconnoitre the high ground north of Néry, reached Brigade Headquarters. Dismounting he entered and reported that his patrol had ridden into a body of German cavalry in the mist and had been chased back to the village.
As soon as firing broke out, the Brigadier, Brigade-Major and Major Sclater-Booth went out into the street to see what was going on. The Brigade-Major dashed off to check that the necessary action was being taken as Major Sclater-Booth left to return to his battery.
Suddenly a mob of maddened horses came galloping wildly down the main street. They were the horses of the Bays, stampeded by the enemy’s fire. At the same moment a high-explosive shell burst among the surging mass of animals and rendered the road impassable. Crossing over to the western side of the street Major Sclater-Booth ran behind the houses into to the field where C Squadron of the Bays had bivouacked during the night. From here he could see the battery field, where three of the guns had been unlimbered and were being brought into action to answer the fire of the German battery. As the flashes of his guns stabbed through the slightly thinning mist, he ran forward. As he did so a shell burst immediately in front of him knocking him off his feet and put him out of action for the rest of the fight.
The German guns on the heights to the east about half-mile away were firing ‘Universal’ shells that were bursting over the Battery. The din was terrific and there was one incessant roar of gun and rifle fire punctuated by the violent detonations of the shells.
Despite the disadvantage at which the British Cavalry and Horse Artillery were taken, and despite the heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire pouring into the open bivouacs around the village, all of the units of the 1st Cavalry Brigade were able to offer an effective resistance and hold on till assistance arrived from neighbouring troops.
The Royal Horse Artillery Memorial at Néry.
On 1st September 1914 Néry was an inferno of exploding shells. When the battle began, Captain Bradbury and the other officers of the battery were standing near the haystacks. Suddenly, with no previous warning, a shell burst over the battery, and immediately afterwards the bivouac area came under very heavy rifle fire from the ridge.
Captain Bradbury was the first to react shouting ‘Come on! Who’s for the guns?’, as he ran from the cover of the haystacks towards the limbered guns. Followed closely by the other officers he dashed across the field to the waiting guns.
The exposed Battery was taking fire and men and the horses were falling fast. Reaching the guns Captain Bradbury took charge and with the assistance of the men who were engaged in steadying the horses got three of guns unlimbered and swung round to face the German battery. Captain Bradbury with Sergeant Nelson and others manned one gun, Lieutenant Giffard took another and Lieutenants Campbell and Mundy were at a third. The ammunition wagons were 20 yards away, and over that death-swept open space the ammunition had to be brought up.
L Battery had hardly got into action when the gun manned by Lieutenants Campbell and Mundy and their men was knocked out of action by a direct hit. The other two guns opened fire on the enemy and the battle was joined.
Heroic stand of ‘L’ Battery, R.H.A. at Néry, September 1st, 1914. The artist is unknown; the postcard was published by Gale & Polden, Aldershot, as card. No. 1549.
These two guns of ‘L’ carried on an unequal struggle. A few rounds only had been fired when Lieutenant Giffard, in charge of one of the guns, was severely wounded and all the detachment either killed or wounded. This left only one gun – under Captain Bradbury – still in action.
Lieutenants Campbell and Mundy, when their gun was knocked out, at once ran to the gun where Captain Bradbury and Sergeant Nelson were working, while Gunner Darbyshire and Driver Osborn crossed and re-crossed the shell-swept zone behind the gun to bring up the necessary ammunition from the wagons.
Almost immediately after the two subalterns joined Captain Bradbury’s detachment Lieutenant Campbell was killed. Lieutenant Mundy took up position close to the gun and acted as the Gun Commander, while Captain Bradbury carried out the duties of the layer and Sergeant Nelson those of range-setter. The gun and the men manning it appeared to bear a charmed life and remained untouched.
At the beginning of the battle the German guns appeared to be working in two groups; one group taking on L Battery whilst the other firing on the 1st Cavalry Brigade in the village. The resistance being put up by Captain Bradbury, Lieutenant Mundy and Sergeant Nelson however seemed to change the emphasis of the battle for the German Artillery and they began to move the guns ranged against the village around to those in the duel with L Battery which were approximately 800-yards away. Thus the solitary gun of L Battery became embroiled in a duel with the guns of three German Batteries.
The action broke out with renewed fury as the massed guns of three German batteries made a determined effort to crush the single undaunted gun. Lieutenant Mundy was seriously wounded and the tale of casualties began to mount up. By 07:15 hrs only Captain Bradbury, who was still unscathed, and Sergeant Nelson, who had been severely wounded, remained keeping up the best rate of fire they could.
It was at this moment when Battery-Sergeant-Major George Thomas Dorrell arrived at the gun. With ammunition running low Captain Bradbury set off for the wagons to fetch up more, but as he left he was hit by a shell and mortally wounded. There now remained only the Battery-Sergeant Major and the wounded Sergeant Nelson and with only these two senior NCOs to serve it, the gun fired its last remaining rounds, before falling silent.
The end of the Artillery duel had come, but it had not been fought in vain for as its last discharge boomed and echoed over the battlefield reinforcement arrived and the day was saved.
Battery-Sergeant-Major George Thomas Dorrell, V.C., Royal Horse Artillery. Contemporary postcard, passed for publication by the Press Bureau on the 10 February 1917.
At 05.30 hrs the 1st Middlesex withdrew outposts and marched on Saintines, joining up with 19th Brigade Headquarters. About 06:00 hrs the Brigade, having ascended the hills south of the Néry, was met by a messenger asking for assistance urgently for the 1st Cavalry Brigade and L Battery RHA, which were in battle with the enemy and had suffered very heavily. Major F G M Rowley who was commanding the 1st Middlesex was ordered to march his Battalion to the British Cavalry’s aid. The 19th Infantry Brigade war diary entry reads:
“The enemy appears to have got right round the Cavalry and had succeeded in placing some ten field guns within 800 yards of their camp. The Cavalry had a great many casualties, whilst their horses were lying dead in rows.”
Major Rowley set off at once taking D Company, the nearest available Company, with him. On arriving at the village he reported to Brigadier-General Briggs 1st Cavalry Brigade who sent the Middlesex to attack the German guns that were firing from the high ground east of the village. On reaching the eastern exits of Néry, D Company and the two Battalion machine guns under Lieutenant Jefferd went into action against the German Batteries. Their rapid rifle fire and machine gun fire caused the German guns to cease firing within minutes.
Major Rowley then ordered D Company to advance and capture the German guns. With bayonets fixed and yelling as they advanced the Middlesex men rushed across the small intervening valley and captured eight of the guns that had been firing on the 1st Cavalry Brigade and L Battery, RHA.
With the exception of some 12 dead or badly wounded Germans the gun crews had fled. A few minutes later the German limbers were seen about 1,000-yards away, but they retired rapidly when fired upon and were seen no more. The captured guns were found to be undamaged and two were still loaded. There were no horses available however so the sights were removed and the elevating gear damaged.
The officer’s graves and memorial in the Communal Cemetery at Néry.
L Battery’s casualties amounted to 45 officers and men killed and wounded, out of a strength of 170. Among the dead was Captain Edward Kinder Bradbury who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Sergeant Nelson and Battery-Sergeant Major Dorrell were also awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions that day.
Edward Kinder Bradbury
George Thomas Dorrell
Captain Edward Kinder Bradbury – L Battery Royal Horse Artillery.
Published in the London Gazette dated: 25th November 1914.
“For gallentry and ability in organising the defence of ‘L’ Battery against heavy odds at Nery on 1st September.”
Sergeant David Nelson – L Battery Royal Horse Artillery.
Published in the London Gazette dated: 16th November 1914.
“Helping to bring the guns into action under heavy fire at Nery on the 1st Septemebr, and while serverely wounded remaining with them until all the ammunition was expended – although he had been ordered to retire to cover.”
Battery-Sergeant-Major George Thomas Dorrell – L Battery Royal Horse Artillery.
Published in the London Gazette dated: 16th November 1914.
“For continuing to serve a gun until all the ammunition was expended, after all officers were killed or wounded, in spite of a concentrated fire from guns and machine guns, at a range of 600 yards, at Nery on 1st Septemebr.”
The German Cavalry Division that attacked the 1st Cavalry Brigade on 1st September 1914 suffered heavily at the hands of the British. They withdrew as the reinforcements came up into the surrounding forests and did not emerge until late next day. It was still unfit to move on 4th September.
The three Victoria Crosses are displayed at the Imperial War Museum, in London, together with the No. 6 gun of ‘L’ Battery – The Néry Gun. One of ‘L’ Battery’s ammunition wagons is displayed in The Land Warfare Hall at Imperial War Museum Duxford.