An appeal from Flanders: a Guernseyman to Guernseymen, July 1916
'You're very young and very small you boys, but your hearts are big.' His Excellency the General Officer Commanding has authorised in the public interest the publication of the following extracts from a letter received from a non-commissioned officer at the front, and the statement that every consideration will be given to the promotion of those men who have passed through the fiery furnace of this war. H St Leger Wood, Colonel, AA and QMG, August 8th, 1916.
This letter was published in theStar newspaper on August 8th 1916, shortly after conscription had been introduced in Guernsey. The author of the letter must have been deeply disappointed in December of 1916 as few of the original Guernsey volunteers were transferred to the new Royal Guernsey Light Infantry from the Royal Irish Regiment or Royal Irish Fusiliers—they were too battle-hardened to lose1—and the officers of the RGLI were appointed in just the manner he had feared they would be.
In the Field, July 17, 1916.
The reports in The Guernsey Press regarding the formation of a Guernsey battalion for service overseas are being eagerly followed by the men of the original contingents from Guernsey, and I know you will be interested to hear how the idea appeals to these lads who voluntarily left their homes and who have suffered so severely in doing their duty for the credit of their island home.
You know, of course, that we have lost our identity as 'Guernsey' companies. Only last week an order appeared in the Royal Irish Regiment that owing to the non-arrival of reinforcements from the island it was regretted the D. Company could no longer be recognised as the 'Guernsey' company. In this battalion the same change took place six months ago since the commanding officer was compelled to post Irishmen to the Company to keep it up to strength.
Our Guernseymen are clannish. They came out as a unit of Guernseymen and they have fought together and clung together. There's not a shadow of friction between them and their Irish comrades—each respects the others' qualities and temperaments. Both have faced the music with such grit and real 'guts' that a man feels a glow of pride to have soldiered amongst them. But our men wanted to retain their identity as an island contingent and they have felt very deeply the gradual decrease in the number of Guernseymen in the Company and the increase in the number of (to them) outsiders.
I wonder if ever the relatives of this gallant little crowd fully realise the price these boys are paying. The figures beneath will no doubt open the eyes of those who casually read of the one or two more whose names appear in the Press from week to week as having been killed or wounded.
The total number of unwounded officers and men still serving in the battalion is:
Unwounded: 103; Killed and died of wounds: 19; Wounded (28 of whom have rejoined): 58; Evacuated for sickness: 60. Total who left Guernsey to join this battalion: 240.
Out of a total of 240 of us who left Guernsey 9 months ago, 131 are left on the active list, 28 of those wounded having rejoined.
The figures speak for themselves. For six months these boys have fought in the trenches round the Loos-Hulloch salient. The first month was knee-deep in snow. They have faced and suffered from every conceivable weapon of our resourceful opponents, bullets, bombs, rifle grenades, trench mortars, high explosive shells, gas, everything. And each has taken its toll from our contingent and nobody has come to fill the gaps.
They are all eager and willing to come to a battalion representative of the Island. But they feel, and feel strongly, that they are entitled to places of honour in such a battalion, and have a dread of coming to serve under NCO's who have carried their rank from the militia with them. They want to be there when the battalion is first being formed with a chance to qualify for any promotion that might be going, and they realise that their experience of hand-fighting and the fact that they are 'The' Guernsey Volunteers are valuable assets that will count heavily.
These men are veterans by hard experience. The new battalion can count itself fortunate if it gets a stiffening such as the remnants of these two companies can give it. If the new battalion has had 6 months' training, or even 6 years, it would nevertheless be a battalion of very green amateurs on arrival in this country. It would make all the mistakes and suffer all the discomforts that this battalion and every other battalion made at first. This kind of warfare can't be learned at home—it has to be endured and the learning comes whilst the mistakes are being made. But a battalion containing 200 men who had lived through it like these men have lived would have won half its battles before coming out [and] would be double the ordinary value as a fighting unit to its commander. We hadn't an officer or man in the whole of this battalion with experience of trench warfare. The new Guernsey battalion can have a few seasoned men in every platoon.
I can't speak too highly of the Guernseymen here. They know their work from A to Z—they have learned it in a bitterly hard school. Their coolness and courage and real sound grit and cheerfulness are wonderful. As General Hart said to a platoon I was training at Grandes Rocques last August, 'You're very young and very small you boys, but your hearts are big.' They have proved that all right.
Guernsey will never be able to do enough honour to these, their best. But Guernsey has this opportunity of showing its appreciation of the unselfish devotion of the men now fighting and at the same time can make the best use of these seasoned soldiers when forming the new battalion.
I humbly suggest that the Company Commanders of the two Guernsey Service Companies now in the field should be asked to submit rolls of NCO's and men deserving of and suitable for promotion. There are many most excellent NCO's in both Companies and many privates who ought to be given a chance. And this might be done before appointments in the new battalion are made open to Militia NCO's.
I have a very natural interest and pride in the contingent I worked hard to raise and I trust this may be allowed to cover what might be otherwise deemed impertinence. I am confident of having voiced above the unanimous opinion of the remnants of the Guernsey Company, Royal Irish Fusiliers, and I believe the feeling in the other Company is much the same.'
The Star, October 13th, 1916: We are officially informed that the War Office has decided that the Guernsey Service Battalions shall be designated the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Royal Guernsey Light Infantry, and will not, therefore, be attached to other regiments.
The Star, December 16th, 1916:
The Royal Guernsey Militia.
In abeyance until the end of the war.
From and after today, the 16th December, the Royal Guernsey Militia, one of the oldest forces in which compulsory service was incumbent on every man, is suspended, and every man in the island between the ages of 18 and 41 is automatically enlisted in the Active Service Battalion RGLI, or in the 2nd or Reserve Battalion. This is in accordance with the decision of the State of the 32rd last.
The Star, Monday, December 16th, 1916:
The Last of the Royal Guernsey Militia.
After being in existence for nearly a thousand years, the Guernsey Militia was suspended at midnight on Saturday, for the duration of the war. During Saturday afternoon the colours of the 1st Regiment, carried by two officers with an escort, were marched from Baubigny Arsenal to Fort George, where they were deposited in safe keeping until they are required again.
During Sunday the last of the old militiamen who were embodied carried their clothes and equipment to the Arsenals. The forms which will call the men to the colours will be issued tomorrow.
History of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry (Guernsey Museum).
1 The Star, October 29th 1916: The Guernsey Service Battalions; Formation of an Independent Regiment. 'With a view to the concentration of all Guernsey fighting men in the same unit, application was made for the return of all Guernseymen now at the front, to the Depot of the new Battalions in Guernsey, a request which could not however be complied with, for the reason, highly creditable to our island soldiers, that their services were too valuable to be spared. It has however been arranged that about eighty of our men who are now training in Ireland will be sent here in due course to join the new Guernsey Battalion whose ranks will be further augmented by the return of all men wounded or sick from the Island Contingents at the front.' See also Star October 24th, 'States convened.'