Exactly one hundred years ago today the charge of the Dorset Yeomanry at Agagia, in Egypt’s western desert, played a major role in the WWI campaign in North Africa. Barbara Elsmore shares her own family’s memories of this important military event.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, while visiting my grandparents’ house in Nether Compton, we would have all our meals in a room dominated by what seemed to me like a huge picture of men on horses brandishing swords charging towards a lot of other men in white robes who faced them with machine guns and rifles. It was stated on the bottom of the picture The Dorset Yeomen at Agagia. On wet days, when my brother and I had to resort to exploring in the house, we would often go to a particular drawer where there was an old book with some pullout maps, a scrapbook full of old photos of tiny crashed aeroplanes with lots of men in uniform, some medals, buttons and a set of heavy metal ‘chainmail’ epaulets that we would try to keep on our puny shoulders. There was also an old German water bottle in the garage. What did it all mean?
Now that I live in Sherborne, I have tracked down a copy of the book with the maps in it (Records of the Dorset Yeomanry 1914-1918) in Sherborne Museum and it once belonged to a Mr W L Warr of Half Moon Street and in the back of the book are his personal discharge papers from the Dorset Yeomanry. When I mentioned this to a friend he remarked ‘I remember Lennie Warr – he used to cut my hair!’ I also visited the Keep Museum in Dorchester and began to understand why all these items might have been important to my grandfather and to many men like him at the time. I also came to realise that there must also be lots of people like me, with photos and other items of memorabilia that may have led us to want to know more.
Let me take you back to Sherborne in 1914. It was described by an eyewitness as being ‘like a garrison town’ as it was the headquarters of the Dorset Yeomanry with recruiting taking place for ‘B’ Squadron. There would have been men and horses seemingly everywhere. Farmers’ sons made ideal recruits as they were usually work hardened and tough and sometimes came ready equipped with their own horses. One of my grandfather’s photographs appears to be straight out of ‘War Horse’. The commanding officer was Major John Goodden, of Compton House, assisted by the veterinary Captain Charles Golledge from Long Street and the Medical Officer was Captain Gerald Rickett also of Long Street. The Quartermaster was Captain Weston P Parsons of Manor Farm, Charlton Horethorne. This scene would have been replicated all over Dorset as ‘A’ Squadron was in Dorchester, ‘C’ Squadron in Blandford’ and ‘D’ Squadron in Gillingham. There were also detachments recruiting in twelve other towns across Dorset and also into Somerset.
My grandfather, Arthur Collings, had volunteered ten years prior to the start of WW1 and from his photographs I worked out that he was involved with the training of the early recruits. Reginald Foot, a resident in the town, recalled in the Foster’s school journal – ‘Who could forget the marvelous transformation wrought on many a well known farmer, when the Sherborne troop of Yeomanry, in all the glory of their wonderful uniform, would ride through the town with Major Goodden or Major Digby at their head? He continued: ‘Perhaps we were sometimes inclined to smile at their playing at soldiers, but we would not know how they would cover themselves with glory in that charge at Agagia, not many years after.’
In August 1914 the 1/1 st Dorset Yeomanry was formed. The 1/1 st was made up of the men who would become the fighting force and would be sent overseas. In September the 2/1st Dorset Yeomanry was formed and these were the men who, for various reasons, could not join the fighting force and would be deployed at home. The 2/1st were twice converted to Cyclist units and ended the war as such in Ireland. In 1915 the 3/1st Dorset Yeomanry was formed and I now know for sure that my grandfather would have joined them. The 3/1st were affiliated to a reserve cavalry regiment in Tidworth. They later went to Ireland and were absorbed by 2nd Reserve Cavalry Regiment.
The first overseas action that the 1/1st saw was at Gallipoli where a long drawn out campaign with heavy losses took its toll on the men of the Dorset Yeomanry with over 40 men lost at the Battle of Scimitar Hill in August 1915 alone. Dr Rickett accompanied the men but was soon transferred to Alexandria where he would spend the rest of the war running the military hospital before eventually returning to Sherborne and resuming general practice.
In January 1916 the Yeomanry left Gallipoli and went to Egypt where they joined the Western Front Force whose role it was to keep the Suez Canal open because a large Ottoman force was intent upon capturing the canal to disrupt Britain’s vital supply route to India.
In February 1916 a large force of Senussi tribesmen, backed by Turkish and German Officers and with machine gun and artillery support, was located at Agagia near Sidi Barrani, about 75 km east of the Egyptian/Libyan border. The Western Front Force staged an attack and during this battle, the retreating Senussi were charged by the Dorset Yeomanry with drawn swords across open ground and despite machine gun and rifle fire the 196 Dorset Yeomen drove the Senussi into headlong flight. According to the Keep Museum even the brigade cooks joined in the chase with their meat cleavers. It was later reported that ‘this achievement, one of very few successful cavalry charges during the first world war, is all the more remarkable for having been carried out by a territorial unit of part-time soldiers from the towns and villages of Dorset’. Of course it took a heavy toll and 32 men died with 26 wounded and 85 of the horses killed or wounded. The men are remembered on the Roll of Honour just inside the south door of Sherborne Abbey and on the village and town war memorials all over Dorset and parts of Somerset.
In 1916 Major Goodden’s father, Colonel John R P Goodden, commissioned a painting from Lady Elizabeth Butler to commemorate the event and he hoped to find 100 people to donate £10 per head towards the cost. I believe there are many who would have managed to raise this not inconsiderable sum in memory of a lost loved one and perhaps my grandfather was one of them as he would have seen so many young men off to fight as they passed through their initial training. One of the long term residents of Nether Compton remembers asking the by then Colonel Goodden, at sometime in the 1950s, if he could have one of the copies and he visited the Colonel at Compton House where a copy was handed to him from a rather dusty and spider ridden roll. Perhaps Col Goodden had copies made to hand to the subscribers? So now I know why this painting was hanging on the wall in my grandparents’ house. When my grandfather died he donated it to the village hall in Nether Compton and it hangs there to this day.
My grandfather was based with the 3/1st at the Curragh Camp, near Newbridge in Ireland, when the unit was absorbed by the 2nd Reserve Cavalry Regiment. In early 1917 he volunteered for duty in Egypt. He left with many others, including his good friend and fellow sergeant (Robert) Leslie Burnell of Gillingham on board HMT Willochra bound for Alexandria on 13 February. When he arrived he volunteered for the 1/1st but within three months, due to him being a carpenter, he was recruited into the burgeoning Royal Flying Corps. The RFC were clearly on the look-out for men with the skills they needed. His pal Leslie had joined the fighting force and so they were separated. Contained amongst my grandfathers memorabilia are a couple of letters and a telegram sent to him by Leslie. In one of the letters dated Christmas 1917 he tells how he has been recommended for the DCM and how he would like to meet up with his old pal and he finishes ‘Now tell me Arthur when will this D— war end that is what I want to know’. Arthur received Leslie’s last letter dated 19 May 1918. On 9 June Leslie was killed when Lt Mason led a charge consisting of four men and Leslie was killed along with Private F Darter and Trumpeter T Routledge; the latter, incidentally, is shown in Lady Butler’s painting of Agagia. When I visited the Keep museum I found Leslie’s medals on display.
I have not been able to find a definite photograph of Leslie but I think he may be shown here (left) with my grandfather just before they left the Curragh Camp. One of Leslie’s nieces very kindly let me have a copy of a photograph of his twin boys, Robert Leslie and Thomas Leslie Burnell, born in June 1916. As their father was based at the Curragh camp during 1916 and then travelled to Egypt in February 1917 one can only wonder at what very little time he would have had with his boys.
I would like to thank Jean Lawson and John Pitman, volunteers at the Keep Museum in Dorchester for all the help they have given me in this research and I would very much like to hear from anyone who would be willing to share any family memories of the Dorset Yeomanry. I will be very pleased to share any names or information that I hold. Please contact me marking any email for my attention, or post comments below.
Lady Butler’s painting is on display at Dorchester Museum until 3 June as part of a current exhibition. Mrs Pam Puley has written of her family connections to the Yeomanry in The Greenwood Tree Vol 39 No 3 August 2014.
26 February 2016