Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

The Deathless Epic of 'L' Battery

One of the most heroic episodes of the early war was the dauntless stand at Nery (near the French town of Compiegne) by the famous 'L' Battery, Royal Horse Artillery. This splendid incident caught and held the public imagination, and well it might.

The opportunity to perform a heroic deed of this particular nature was only afforded in the earlier stages of the great conflict, when the fighting was in the open.

While all the men of 'L' Battery showed great bravery and skill, three of them exceptionally distinguished themselves and were awarded the coveted Victoria Cross. No three heroes of the war deserved it more. They were, Captain Bradbury, Sergeant-Major George Thomas Dorrell, and Sergeant Nelson. Their heroic stand at Nery has been described as a 'deathless epic.' The story we give below will prove how fitting is this description.

'L' Battery took a notable part in the great battle of Mons, and underwent some terrible experiences. From the very first our superb gunners were hard pressed. The Germans brought into the field a vastly superior force of men and guns. With these they were able to defeat our gallant little army. The honours of the battle of Mons, however, did not rest with the Germans; for what credit can be claimed by a big bully who is able to overpower a little boy? Although our army was forced to retreat from Mons it inflicted terrible punishment on the Germans, and our gunners, outnumbered and hard pressed, gave an excellent account of themselves. In pluck and skill we were superior to the enemy, and the whole world rang with praise when the full story of the battle of Mons and the subsequent retreat became known. It is not necessary to enter here into the details of this historic fight, but we may mention in passing that when the duel of the guns was at its height British and German shells struck each other in the air.

When the general retreat was ordered, 'L' Battery continued fighting. Its work was to cover the retirement of the main army. On August 31, 1914, it had experienced a particularly severe handling from the German artillery. Late in the afternoon it was ordered to retire to Compiegne, and early in the evening reached a field at Nery, which is near the former town.

Darkness had begun to fall, and the officer in command of the Battery decided to spend the night in the field. He was under the impression that the enemy was some distance away, and that his pursuit had slackened. The men were thoroughly exhausted after the heavy day's fighting and sorely in need of rest. The horses were equally done up after the furious riding of the day. Sentries were posted, the horses were fed and watered, and very soon most of the Battery's heroes were wrapt in sleep. It should be mentioned that the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays) accompanied the artillery and occupied a field opposite. The road there formed a deep cutting, and, later, proved a valuable haven of refuge for the survivors of the Battery.

At half-past three in the morning the men of 'L' Battery were awakened. They rose from their bivouac in the field, rubbed their eyes, wondering what the day would bring forth, and how many of them would be alive at evening; for the retreat was still in progress, and they realized that the Germans would give them no rest. They were ordered to prepare for an immediate march, but could not start until certain instructions were received. Sergeant-Major Dorrell told off a number of his men to water the horses of the right-half battery. Every man was at his post, ready for any emergency.

About 600 yards away was a ridge supposed to be occupied by French cavalry, which was also engaged in the work of covering the retreat. Owing to the cutting of the telegraph wires, or from some other cause unavoidable in the terrible stress of the retreat, the expected order to continue the retirement failed to reach 'L' Battery, and meanwhile the French cavalry, unknown to the Battery, retired from the hill. A thick mist prevented this fact becoming known to the British. 'L' Battery had received explicit orders to proceed to their present position and remain there until further instructions arrived. All they could do was to see that the guns were limbered up, ready to go on at a moment's notice.

Suddenly the mist began to clear, and soon the officers, looking toward the ridge, were amazed to discover that the French cavalry were not there. It did not require much reasoning to convince the officers that the Battery was in danger, for the main body of the Germans could not be far off. Confirmation of their fears was soon forthcoming, for a few minutes later they were startled to observe Germans occupying the ridge, and simultaneously a shell fell plumb in the very centre of the Battery.

Dorrell was the first to make out a number of guns on the hill, and gave vent to an exclamation of surprise. He, like the rest, had believed that the French cavalry were holding the important and dominating position. It transpired subsequently that the French cavalry had left their position in the early hours of the morning, and that a strong force of Germans, with ten field guns and two Maxims, had, under cover of the mist, advanced and occupied the hill. They had so placed their guns that the Battery was almost surrounded. The officers at once, without showing the least excitement, quickly gave the necessary orders. Hardly had they done so than the German guns opened at point-blank range a fire that, to use Dorrell's own words, "was nothing more or less than murderous." The heroic little band, as they stood there exposed to the storm of shells, were not in the least afraid. Their only concern was the knowledge that they had been trapped.

British soldiers are always prepared to meet any and every emergency, and certainly on this occasion 'L' Battery maintained the glorious traditions of the Army. Officers and men showed wonderful bravery and coolness, although all realized from the start that they were in a very precarious position, and that death was very near.

Gallant Captain Bradbury called above the awful din for volunteers to get the guns into action. Every man of the Battery responded. This hero was the life and soul of the little party as long as he was unwounded. Three guns were unlimbered and got into action. But so murderous was the fire at the 600 yards' range that numbers of our men were shot down at once. It should be mentioned that the Commanding Officer of the Battery, Major the Hon. W. D. Sclater-Booth, was placed hors de combat  early in the fight, and consequently the command had devolved on Captain Bradbury.

No words can describe the terrible confusion that resulted from the German fire. The little band of men had been taken completely unawares, and, despite their coolness and bravery, were unable to do much in face of the terrible rain of shells. One can scarcely realize the scene. Some of the horses bolted at the roar of the first guns, others were struck down and lay on the ground neighing and floundering. Of the six guns all but one was soon useless, and this received severe handling.

A young lieutenant had succeeded in getting it to work, and when Dorrell arrived on the scene he found brave Sergeant Nelson in charge, although he had already been wounded. Our brave gunners were determined to give the Germans the full benefit of the one gun. Had you asked either Dorrell or Nelson why they continued the unequal fight, they would have replied that so long as one gun remained and there were shells to feed it they must not give in. This is the unwritten law among British artillerymen. They were British soldiers fighting 'with their backs to the wall,' and our men never fight so superbly as then. Firing with marvelous rapidity, they were able to silence gun after gun of the Germans, although shot and shell literally rained about them.

It was an amazing feat. This dauntless little band of gunners had abolished the odds against them, and it was now one German gun against one British gun. Our gunners had been splendidly supplied with ammunition by Gunner Darbyshire and Driver Osborne, who deserve their share of the glory. Both acted like real heroes and performed their work with utter disregard of the storm of shot and shell. The whole place was, in the words of one of the survivors, "a living hell," yet the little group of determined men stuck to their posts, coolly and without fear.

Up till now three brave officers had directed operations. They were, Captain Bradbury, and Lieutenants Campbell and Mundy. When they were struck down the command fell to Sergeant-Major Dorrell, whose one gun, like the little Revenge of old, fought on magnificently against overwhelming odds. When Captain Bradbury was lying on the ground, his life quickly ebbing, he begged to be carried away so that his death agony—he was suffering terribly—should not interfere with the working of the gun. A noble end to a noble life! A nation that breeds heroes like Captain Bradbury will never die.

To a less dauntless spirit than Dorrell's a feeling of utter helplessness would have followed upon the deaths of the three officers. But Dorrell was of the stuff of which heroes are made, and his stout heart did not quail although by now only four men were left to fight the gun—Nelson, Darbyshire, Osborne, and himself. Turning to Sergeant Nelson, who was by his side, he cried above the screaming shells: "Let's stick to the gun! we can hold out a long time yet."

Hardly had he spoken than a shell came whizzing into their midst which wounded all four men. Gunner Darbyshire and Driver Osborne, despite their wounds, continued to fetch ammunition, and nobly seconded the splendid work of the two brave sergeants. But there is a limit to human endurance, and Darbyshire and Osborne became thoroughly exhausted, and were compelled to rest. Only two men now remained to work the gun. Both were wounded, Sergeant Nelson the more seriously, and he was rapidly becoming weaker. After every shot the brave fellows crouched behind the shelter of the steel shield of the gun to escape the Maxim bullets. One can picture this crisis of the 'L' Battery survivors—the two brave sergeants serving their gun, now become very hot, their ammunition rapidly running out, both wounded, yet refusing to give in, while around them shells fall in quick succession, and bullets whiz dangerously near.

Battle of 'L' Battery


Suddenly the German fire ceased. Our men had won the unequal contest, and finished one of the bravest deeds of which there is record. Dorrell and Nelson, however, had no intention of stopping. They had silenced the enemy; they also wanted to defeat him. So, crouching and staggering, weak and faint, they served their gun until they had to stop from lack of shells—they had exhausted their ammunition.

The reaction following this strenuous conflict was natural, and Dorrell, as he sank to the ground, did not know whether to laugh or cry. His strong nerves became for the moment weak and his purpose irresolute. He roused himself to action again. The Germans had a strong force of infantry as well as guns not far off, and it would have been a tame ending to such a splendid morning's work were he and his wounded comrades taken prisoner. He decided that the best plan was to make for the shelter of a haystack not far off where a number of the wounded had already sought refuge. Accordingly he organized the removal of the men lying around the gun, and all safely reached the haven of refuge.

One curious feature of the famous 'L' Battery fight was that the Germans, although in overwhelming numerical superiority, made no effort to advance. This fact struck Sergeant-Major Dorrell very forcibly, for he says: "During the time we had been fighting there had been no attempt made by the Germans to advance, and I shall always think they were sorry for themselves. They thought we should run, but we didn't."

While this amazing fight had been in progress the Bays, who, as already stated, were near by, kept up a galling rifle and Maxim gun fire at the German position, and this fine co-operation naturally helped the men of the Battery. Their magnificent stand had been seen from the main British lines some distance away, and before the firing died down 'L' Battery of Royal Horse Artillery came galloping to the rescue and got their guns into action. The least wounded of the survivors sprang to their feet and cheered wildly. Those who were not able to rise waved their hands. Dorrell went out to meet the relieving force, and helped to direct their fire on the enemy's position. The Germans gave our reinforcements a couple of rounds and then retired, leaving their guns in our hands.

The relief force now turned its attention to the guns of 'L' Battery, to which Sergeant-Major Dorrell led the way. A number of cavalry horses accompanied the men, as all the Battery's horses were dead or wounded. Skilful hands soon repaired our guns, changing the wheels where required, and effecting various other temporary repairs. All the guns, including the famous one used by the heroes, were brought out of action. Not one was lost, although all bore marks of the severe handling they had undergone in the historic fight.

"It amounted to just this," said Sergeant-Major Dorrell, summing up the incident in a letter which appeared in the columns of The Daily Telegraph, "we had had a fierce fight, a glorious fight, and we had beaten the Germans after having the flower of our battery placed hors de combat  at the very first onslaught. The whole of the ten big guns of the Germans were left by the enemy as they had used them in action, and they were captured by our forces. I could not tell you all the brave things that were done that day, how two wounded men collected their wounded comrades and brought them back to cover, of how the Bays' officers and men alike stuck to us through it all, never once yielding an inch of ground, for that would be a long story."