Posted by: michaeldaybath | February 26, 2016

The Dorset Yeomanry at Agagia

The Dorset Yeomanry at the Action of Agagia

William Norman memorial, Sherborne Cemetery

Memorial for Trooper William Norman, Sherborne Cemetery

Walking around Sherborne Cemetery recently, I found a partly-disassembled pink-granite cross in the north eastern corner. Standing next to the tall Celtic cross memorial to the McAdam and McCreery families (which is where General Sir Richard Loudon McCreery and his wife are buried), a smaller Latin cross next to it had obviously seen better days. The cross marks the burial place of some of the Norman family of Sherborne; it contains the following memorial inscription:

ALSO OF
WILLIAM NORMAN
1st DORSET YEOMANRY,
(BELOVED SON OF
F. AND R. C . NORMAN)
WHO FELL IN THE
BATTLE OF AGAGIEH, N.W. EGYPT,
FEB. 26, 1916, AGED 26 YEARS.

Norman was the son of Frederick Norman, a farmer, and Rebecca Norman. Trooper William Norman’s death had been reported in the Western Gazette (24 March 1916, p. 3) and this provides some additional information on his background:

TROOPER W. NORMAN KILLED. — Included amongst those who fell in the charge of the Dorset Yeomanry at Agagieh on February 26th is Trooper William Norman, seventh son of Mr. and Mrs. F. Norman, of Home Farm, Lenthay. The deceased soldier, who was 26 years of age, was an old member of the Yeomanry, and was nearing the end of his term of service, his family expecting him home in April. He was the best of sons, and was held in general respect and esteem.

Finding Norman’s memorial at Sherborne was a timely reminder of the 100th anniversary of the Action at Agagia, as the events of the 26th February are now more widely known. This was the occasion of a famous event in the history of the Dorset Yeomanry (Queen’s Own): a successful cavalry charge against a force armed with machine guns.

The Dorset Yeomanry

At the beginning  of the First World War, the Dorset Yeomanry (Queen’s Own) were part of the Territorial Force. Members could not be obliged to serve overseas, but many in fact did volunteer for Imperial Service after the outbreak of war. The 1st Line Regiment of the Dorset Yeomanry was mobilised in 1914 and moved to Egypt in 1915 as part of 2nd Mounted Division, from where they took part in the Dardanelles campaign, with the regiment fighting dismounted in the offensives around Suvla in August. By January 1916, the Dorset Yeomanry were back in Egypt and part of the independent 6th Mounted Brigade.

The Action of Agagia itself took place on the 26th February 1916 near Sidi Barrani as part of a campaign against the Senussi, a tribe that had been encouraged by the Ottoman Empire to attack the British in Egypt from the west. On the 26th, a British and South African column under the command of Brigadier-General Henry Lukin found and attacked a Senussi encampment at Agagia. As the Senussi retreated, a cavalry charge by the Dorset Yeomanry proved decisive. The yeomanry suffered five officers and 27 other ranks killed that day.

Memorials of Agagia in Dorset

Thornford War Memorial

Thornford war memorial, in the Church of St Mary Magdalene

A look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission registers show that many of the yeomanry dead came from the Sherborne area, especially from around the Blackmore Vale. Records of the war memorials that I’ve personally visited in Dorset show yeomanry names listed on memorials at: Beaminster (Trooper Percy Dunn), Bradford Peverell (2nd Lieutenant Ernest Middleton), Dewlish (Trooper Claude Cutler), Glanvilles Wootton (Trooper Henry Charles Frizzell), Leigh (Trooper Frederick William Fox), and Marnhull (Trooper Bertram Sidney Down). 2nd Lieutenant Middleton also has a separate memorial plaque inside the church at Bradford Peverell. Thornford’s war memorials list three members of the Dorset Yeomanry that died on the 26th:  Trooper John Biss, Corporal Sidney James Brister, and Sergeant Gilbert Watkins Hellyar. Stalbridge is similar, with Sergeant Howard Brown, and Troopers Claud Davidge and William Wiles listed on their war memorial cross.  Sherborne’s main war memorial contains the names of three or four of the dead (Troopers Trevor Chaffin, Edward John Cooper, and Percy Victor Dunn, possibly William Henry Diment). All are also listed on the Dorset Yeomanry’s First World War memorial in Sherborne Abbey.

Memorial for John Crosbie Bengough, Wotton under Edge

Memorial for Captain John Crosbie Bengough, in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Wotton under Edge

Outside Dorset, I have also found a plaque in St Mary’s Church, Wotton under Edge (Gloucestershire) to Captain John Crosbie Bengough of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, who was attached to the Dorset Yeomanry on the 26 February.

Stalbridge War Memorial

Stalbridge War Memorial

To give an brief idea of the effect of Agagia on the Blackmore Vale area, the single page of the newspaper that contained the first report of Trooper Norman’s death also included short obituaries for four other members of the Dorset Yeomanry that died the same day: Sergeant Howard Brown (Stalbridge), Troopers Henry Charles Frizzell (Glanvilles Wootton), Frederick William Fox (Leigh), and William Wiles (Gillingham, but formerly Stalbridge).Troopers Norman, Frizzell and Wiles’s photographs featured in the regular “Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori” column in the Western Gazette the following week.

The Chetnole Memorial

Reeves Memorial, Chetnole

Memorial for Major Reeves and members of the Dorset Yeomanry, Chetnole

Perhaps, the strangest memorial of all is in St Peter’s Church at Chetnole. While the main village war memorial does not contain any Dorset Yeomanry names, on the north-east wall of the nave is a marble tablet memorial for Major Victor Charles Methuen Reeves, who was the most senior member of the regiment to die on the 26 February. The memorial is perhaps worth transcribing in full:

TO THE GLORY OF GOD
AND THE LOVED AND VERY DEAR MEMORY OF
VICTOR CHARLES METHUEN REEVES,
OF LETRIM HOUSE, KILWORTH, CO. CORK,
MAJOR IN THE 1ST DORSET QUEEN’S OWN YEOMANRY,
WHO WAS KILLED IN ACTION AT AGAGIR, EGYPT, FEB. 26TH 1916,
AGED 29 YEARS.
For duty dared and done, For the Crown of life well won, we thank thee Lord.
AND IN MEMORY OF THOSE OF HIS REGIMENT WHO WITH HIM
GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR THEIR COUNTRY THAT DAY
SECOND LIEUTS. C. H. PAULET E. MIDDLETON C. B. HOPE
SERGEANTS H. BROWN G. W. HELLYAR W.G. HARRIS
LANCE-SERGT. J. WATERS CORPL. J. BRISTER LANCE-CORPL. C.E. CADIE
TROOPER J. BISS TROOPER B. DOWN TROOPER C. O. RANDALL
— E. A. BRISTER — P. DUNN — W. RYALL
— T. CHAFFIN — F. W. FOX — C. SEVIOUR
— C. L. A. CUTLER — H. C. FRIZELL — A. J. SHEAN
— E. J. COOPER — W. GOULD — W. E. WAKELEY
— C. DAVIDGE — W. MEECH — C. H. WICHER
— W. H. DIMENT — W. NORMAN — W. J. WILLS
“For ever with the Lord:
Amen, so let it be.
Life from the dead is in that word,
‘Tis immortality.”
THIS MEMORIAL WAS ERECTED BY HELEN LOCKHART McCALL, OF FOYS, CHETNOLE.

The quotations are from an epitaph seemingly popular at the time and the first verse of the hymn, “Forever with the Lord,” written by James Montgomery (1771-1854).

None of those mentioned on the memorial seem to have had a direct connection with Chetnole, but Major Reeves was the nephew of Barbara Josepha Helen McCall, the widow of William Lockhart McCall, who lived in the parish at “Foys.” Mrs McCall had previously lived at Little Barwick, near Yeovil, but came to live at Chetnole in 1901, after the death of her husband. According to her obituary in the Western Gazette (22 May 1925, p. 4), she soon made herself a well-loved feature of village life:

There was not a movement for the welfare of the village in which she did not take a part, and she delighted in unostentatious acts of kindness towards the sick and needy around her. She was a keen supporter of the Yeovil Hospital.

Passionately fond of all animals, and of dogs and horses in particular, Mrs. McCall had in her day been a noted horsewoman, and a well-known figure in the hunting field. In earlier years she hunted regularly with the Blackmore Vale, then under the mastership of the late Mr. Guest, and later with the Cattistock.

She was keenly interested in the prosperity of agriculture, and one of her last wishes was that her body should be conveyed to its last resting place in the farm wagon of one of the many friends she numbered among the members of the farming community.

I have not been able to trace an account of the dedication of the Chetnole memorial, but there is an account in the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (19 April 1916, p. 3) of a memorial service for the Agagia dead, held at St Peter’s Church, Chetnole in April 1916.

Never before has the little village presented such a scene of mourning, parents, sisters, brothers, or other near kith and kin of the fallen officers and men coming from near and afar to join in the solemn service. Practically every one of the bereaved families was represented, and the half-masted flags and tolling of the minute bell added to the general solemnity.

The church was beautifully decorated. Choice flowers, given by Mrs. McCall, and the more simple emblems of the countryside adorned the lectern, font, and pillars of the aisles. The pulpit and aisles were draped with the National Colours, and a wreath of laurel and card bore the words: “Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry, R.I.P.” Amongst the mourners present in the church were Mrs. McCall, Mr. and Mrs. H. B. Middleton and family (Bradford Peverell, Dorchester) and, as stated, representatives of practically all the fallen men.

The Last Post was sounded in the churchyard at the end of the service, and the visitors and friends were then entertained at “Foys” by Mrs McCall.

A 10th Anniversary Account

An anonymous eyewitness account of the action itself was published in the Western Gazette on the tenth anniversary of the action (26 February 1926, p. 12). It is written in the style of the time, but does give a flavour of what happened that day from the perspective of the yeomanry.

THE DORSET YEOMANRY AT AGAGIA.

FEBRUARY 26TH, 1916.

MEMORIES OF THE FAMOUS CHARGE.

[BY ONE WHO WAS PRESENT.]

The following reminiscent account of the charge of the Dorset Yeomanry at Agagia has been written by one who served with the Regiment throughout the war, and was present at all the fights in which it was engaged. For various reasons — chiefly that of modesty — he remains anonymous. — ED.]

The Dorset Yeomanry, except for the period of service at Gallipoli, remained a cavalry unit throughout the Great War. In this it was fortunate, for many cavalry regiments were dismounted. It was even more fortunate, however, in experiencing what every true cavalry soldier desires, namely, a cavalry charge. On three occasions the regiment distinguished itself in this respect; at Agagia, 26th February, 1916; Mughar Ridge, 13th November 1917; Abu Shusheh, 15th November 1917. To-day is the tenth anniversary of the charge at Agagia. That battle will always live in the memory of those who were privileged to take part in it. The county is justly proud of that day’s achievement, and to commemorate the sacrifice of those who fell in action on that occasion let us re-call the events of that day.

THE TROUBLESOME SENUSSI

Towards the end of 1915 the Senussi tribe, assisted by Turkish troops and guns, threatened to invade Egypt on its western frontier. A small British Force was detailed to combat the trouble, and a base was established at Mersa Matruh, a port on the north coast. From this place detachments of troops set out on various occasions to engage the enemy. These engagements were indecisive, and failed to weaken the Senussi. Consequently a re-organisation of the force took place.

On February 20th, 1916, a mobile column, consisting of the Dorset Yeomanry, very much below strength, a squadron of the Bucks Yeomanry, Notts Battery, R.H.A., and two battalions of South African Infantry, left Matruh under General Lukin, a distinguished South African soldier, with instructions to occupy Sidi Barrani. For four days the small force marched along the coast, averaging about 20 miles a day. At night the column rested in bivouac protected by its own outposts. Th night of February 24th was spent at Wadi Maktil, and reports came to hand by aeroplane reconnaissance that the main body of the enemy lay at Agagia, 14 miles south east of Barrani. The troops therefore remained at Maktil on the 25th, and towards evening Colonel Souter paraded the regiment and told them the plan of campaign. A night march was to be made with the object of attacking at dawn. The Colonel did not mince matters, for he said that if the opportunity came on the morrow, he would charge. His enthusiasm and keenness were infectious, for as the parade fell out with the order to saddle-up he was loudly cheered.

DESERT TACTICS

The sun was just setting, and preparations for moving out were almost complete when to everybody’s surprise a detachment of the enemy started to snipe and shell the bivouac. The Notts Battery, ready to march, unlimbered their guns, and were quickly in action, and the shelling was silenced in half-an-hour. Fortunately the column suffered only a few casualties. Plans, however, had to be altered. Instead of the night march the column stood to arms. Horses remained saddled-up, and a line of outposts was formed around the bivouac in case of attack. No attack was made, and everybody was glad when dawn began to break, for the night was intensely cold. When daylight came the column began to move and the Dorsets went out at the gallop and quickly occupied a ridge, a mile and a-half away, from which the enemy had shelled on the previous evening. There was, however, no sign of the enemy. He had disappeared inland once again, and so the advance was continued once again until the middle of the morning. A halt was then called while an officer’s patrol went out to reconnoitre, and everybody made use of the opportunity to refresh themselves with bully, biscuits, and water. The water was precious, for bottles had been filled the previous evening, and no-one knew when the next supply would be given out. When the patrol returned it reported the enemy’s position, and a move was once more made.During the next few hours the regiment was in dismounted action at various positions, supported by the Bucks, the South African Infantry, and the Notts Artillery. Targets were good and firing was rapid. At mid-day the Senussi started to evacuate their position and to retire further inland. It was now the opportunity of the cavalry to come into their own. By skilful leading and long sweeping movements at the gallop the Colonel brought the regiment round to the enemy’s flank.

THE CHARGE.

It was now about three o’clock. Many miles had been covered moving from position to position, and the Colonel dismounted the regiment in a flat open plain. There, 1,500 yards away, the enemy could be seen moving in long columns across the front. Colonel Souter was surveying the ground through his glasses, and it was obvious he was trying to decide whether the moment was opportune to charge. Suddenly the order was given to mount and form line of squadron column. A further order brought the regiment into line, and at the trot the advance was made on the enemy’s flank, where a strong force had been placed with machine guns. In a few moments the enemy opened fire, and keeping a steady line in the teeth of withering fire the Dorsets at 500 yards broke into the gallop and drew swords. The pace increased and so did the enemy’s fire. At one moment bullets screamed overhead as sights were lifted. The next moment the ground in front was lashed into dust. The gunners then found their target, and sweeping the line from end to end, men and horses were shot down, but despite the galling hail of bullets the line held steadily until 50 years from the enemy, when the Colonel gave the “charge.” With one tremendous yell the regiment broke and hurled itself at the enemy. So far they had stood their ground and kept up an incessant fire, but at last they were compelled to break, and they scattered in all directions. The scene was one of pandemonium. Many of the enemy were cut down — for swords were used with great effect. Some stood up to man and horse and fired point blank, while others lay on the ground to avoid a sword thrust and leaping up shot men down from behind. Others lost their nerve and fled panic-stricken. In the midst of this scene a dramatic episode occurred.

A DRAMATIC MOMENT.

Colonel Souter’s horse was shot dead under him. Its dying strides brought the Colonel face to face with Gaafar Pasha, the Turkish General, in command of the Senussi. Surrounded by the enemy, and with only Lieut. Blakesley and Trooper Brown to support him, the position was desperate, but the Colonel seized the initiative, and pointing his revolver in the face of Gaafar Pasha, called on him to surrender. The Turkish General, who had been wounded by a sword thrust, realised that discretion was the better part of valour, and despite the attempts of his followers to get him away, surrendered with all his staff. They were escorted from the battlefield by the Machine Gun Section, who arrived on the scene just at that moment.

SUCCESS AND THE COST.

The charge had been brilliantly effective. Those of the enemy not sabred had fled in utter disorder. The Commander, with his staff and many others, were prisoners. But for the moment the regiment was in the air. Some had been killed and some wounded, while many had their horses shot under them. The wounded were picked up and carried off the battlefield, while everybody rallied on their squadron leaders. The regiment finally got together at a point about a mile from the scene of the charge, where a pool of water was found. It was a thrilling scene as the survivors were brought together. Some of the wounded were being carried on the backs of other men. Others lay across saddles, while some were brought in on stretchers. Where possible, wounded horses were led in, and many of them presented a pathetic spectacle. Everybody smothered in dust and sweat was utterly exhausted, but it was refreshing to hear the great cheer that the South Africans gave when they came up with the Dorsets. It was indeed providential that the rallying point was near a pool of water, and despite its filth, for it was used by wandering tribes for watering sheep, goats, and camels, men and horses drank and drank, for all were parched with a thirst that beggared description. A patrol of 12 men, under an officer, now set out to search the battlefield for the dead. In the half light it was difficult to keep direction, and despite persistent circling in all directions, the exact spot was missed, and it was practically dark when the patrol returned. It was fortunate that everybody returned without casualties, for the patrol was sniped the whole time it was out.

SHELTERING THE WOUNDED.

Darkness had now fallen, and the column made bivouac for the night. Outposts were detailed and formed a circle around the encampment. All blankets and great coats were taken for the wounded, and as the night was bitterly cold it proved a cheerless and sleepless time for everybody. In fact, sleep was impossible; to lie on the ground with not covering whatever chilled the very marrow of one’s bones. As no rations were available, everyone was grateful to the Bucks Squadron, who, while the charge was taking place, had captured the enemy’s camel convoy. The convoy was laden, amongst other things, with dates — the staple ration of the Senussi — and these dates were issued out to the men, who devoured them ravenously.

Everybody was quickly astir at dawn, and the sun was indeed welcome. An early move was made to the scene of the charge in order that the dead might be picked up. Moving out at the trot in extended line, the spot was found. The dead were scattered, for some had fallen in the advance, while others had been shot down when face to face with the enemy. It was most distressing to find all the bodies stripped of every shread [sic] of clothing, but it was some relief to see that no mutilation had been carried out. It was surmised that stripping the dead was the work of the Senussi women, many of whom followed in the wake of their fighting men. The bodies were picked up and placed in the machine gun limbers and, escorted back to the bivouac, where in the meantime the South African Infantry had dug a large grave. Each body was reverently laid to rest and covered with beautiful flowers, marigolds, poppies, and anemones, that carpeted parts of the desert at that time of the year. The South African Chaplain, assisted by Colonel Souter, conducted the burial service, and everybody was profoundly moved as fitting tribute was paid to those who had fallen in battle.

The charge had cost the Dorsets many gallant lives. Major V. C. M. Reeves, Lieuts. J. C. Bengough, C. H. Paulet, E. Middleton, and C. B. Hope, and 27 other ranks were killed. Major J. B. H. Godden and Lieut. O. C. Bryson and 24 other ranks were wounded, while 90 horses were killed and missing. Such was the price for a feat of arms that will always stand to the honour to the regiment, and particularly to the memory of those who gave their lives.

The Dorset Yeomanry memorial in Sherborne Abbey

The Dorset Yeomanry memorial in Sherborne Abbey

The dead from the 26th February 1916 are now all buried in the Alexandria (Chatby) Military and War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt, which is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; thirty of the dead belonged to the Dorset Yeomanry, one (Captain Bengough) to the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, and one to the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars. The names of the Dorset Yeomanry dead also appear on the regimental war memorial in Sherborne Abbey and, has been noted here, on various village war memorials around the Blackmore Vale and beyond.

Sources: British Newspaper Archive

Update: Photographs of Stalbridge and Chetnole memorials added, 26 February 2016

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Responses

  1. Michael, thanks for highlighting Bengough. I recognised the slightly unusual surname as one that appears in my family tree. On a little investigation I find we both descend from the Revd Alan Gardner Cornwall and are 2nd cousins 3 times removed.

  2. I’ve just discovered this (probable) photo of Bengough on the NPG website http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp87039/john-crosbie-bengough

    • Many thanks for sharing this information; I obviously had no idea that Lt Bengough was a distant relative of yours; his name is also on the Wotton under Edge war memorial

  3. I have placed photographs of war memorials with a Agagia connection in a Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/13706945@N00/albums/72157664985135585


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