Captain Cyril Mumby and the First Lincolnshires at Nonne Bosschen, 13 November 1914

November 13th, 2014 by admin

The photograph above was signed and dated precisely a hundred years ago by my great-grandfather, Cyril Mumby, on the very day that he was wounded on the Western Front.

A former captain of militia (the 3rd Leicesters), the 35-year-old Cyril had rejoined the Special Reserve on 20 August 1914, soon after the outbreak of the war. After training in England, he had been ordered on 21 October to join the British Expeditionary Force in France, made up of regulars and reservists like himself.

Cyril had crossed by night from Folkestone, and had been attached to the First Battalion, the Lincolnshire Regiment, part of the 9th Infantry Brigade. It was an appropriate posting for someone with Lincolnshire ancestry. Raised in 1685 as the 10th Foot, the Lincolnshire had been collecting battle honours since Blenheim. With considerable apprehension, Cyril was joining them in their temporary billet in the village of Rouge Croix, south of Armentières.

Despite their legendary efficiency and ésprit de corps, the men of the Lincolnshire presented a shocking sight. In the action of the past few days, they had suffered no fewer than 144 casualties, yet were called forward again that very afternoon. Cyril’s first grim taste of action was an attack on Neuve Chapelle. Advancing under heavy machine gun fire, scores of the Lincolnshires were hit, their casualties amounting to a further fourteen killed, 74 wounded and seven missing.

It had been raining heavily. Barely able to keep themselves awake, the survivors huddled overnight in hastily-dug trenches that amounted to little more than muddy ditches. When the battalion eventually withdrew before dawn, it was to spend most of the day marching wretchedly through the rain to their billets.

The following morning they advanced on Kemmel, where the landscape was unspoilt as yet and seemed more picturesque. The battalion was to reinforce the line around Messines against a formidable assault by the Germans, who were bent on breaking through to the Channel ports. On 1 November, they were ordered to re-take the village of Wytschaete, which they achieved with further heavy casualties. Cyril survived the engagement, but five of his brother officers were killed and three were wounded. Formed up on the road by the Colonel and acting Adjutant, fewer than a hundred men answered the roll call. Astonishingly, the number of dead, wounded or missing, in all ranks, now totalled 293.

Refitted and reorganised, if not fully recovered, the gallant unit received orders on 5 November to move ‘at five minutes’ notice’. Detailed as reserve battalion, the Lincolnshire sheltered from heavy shell fire in dug-outs on the Menin road, mere holes in the ground. Mud, water, rain, frost and snow combining with murderous shell fire, the regimental historian considers their predicament to have been ‘without parallel in the history of the British Army’.

The British having been driven in a desperate battle from their trenches, the Lincolnshire and other reserve battalions were now sent to recover that ground. That is how my great-grandfather found himself in the Nonne Bosschen (‘Nun’s Wood’), on the north side of the Menin road, into which the enemy had fallen.

About a hundred yards short of the German line, the Lincolnshire halted and set about digging new trenches, but were unable to penetrate below the roots of the trees. For three days they huddled in shallow, water-logged ditches, easy targets for the German machine guns. Then, on 9 November, in pouring rain, they heroically beat back repeated onslaughts by the massed enemy, his final attempt to break a way through to Ypres and the coastal towns.

The succeeding days ‘were days of almost indescribable misery, when only the inherent cheerful disposition of the British soldier kept his soul alive amidst desperate conditions’. The trenches had been flooded by the heavy rain. Liquid mud mingled with blood and gore. Relentless shelling on 12 November accounted for 29 casualties. On 13 November, there was more of the same. My great-grandfather had time to sign and date a studio portrait of himself that he had had taken in Ypres, and to post it off to his sister, Isabel, in England. I have it now and it is the one illustrated above.

A novel form of trench-mortar, the Minenwerfer or ‘Minnie’, had been turned against them, the first of its damaging shells exploding in soft ground near a burying party and spattering it with mud. Heavy rain fell and Cyril, in the forward trench, was knee-deep in mud and water.

Suddenly, Cyril found himself on the receiving end of a shell. The next he knew he was concussed, the sound of the blast ringing in his ears. The shrapnel had torn into both feet, cut up his face and knocked out a tooth. A stretcher party hastily carried him away and he was transported, in agony, to a field hospital, where his wounds were classed as ‘severe’. His wife and mother were both informed by telegram. Four days later he was taken to Boulogne and, much to his relief, embarked on the troopship Carisbrooke Castle for England.

Cyril’s recovery was slow and it was not until March 1916 that he was declared ‘fit for light duty’. Determined to be of service, he re-trained as a Railway Transport Officer and, in October 1916, returned to France, to see out the war there as an R.T.O. Based in Rouen, his work was to issue movement orders, order waggons, certify demurrage bills. The Armistice was signed in November 1918, but two years later Cyril was still in uniform. Promoted to Major in 1919, he obtained his longed-for release in April 1921, by which time he was Deputy Assistant Director of Transport, British Troops, France and Flanders, a survivor, but greatly affected by his ordeal.

Cyril’s period of active service had left him permanently disabled, his business career and his marriage both in ruins. He would not have been human if not profoundly damaged psychologically by his experiences. The decimation of the gallant Lincolnshires that he had witnessed – in spite of which they had remained an effective fighting unit – must have haunted him for the rest of his days. He died in 1938.

Men of the First Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment, in the trenches at Nonne Bosschen, 11 November 1914. Cyril Mumby was in this trench on 13 November when a shell landed nearby, causing 'a terrific explosion'.

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