A Biddulph Postie's Graphic Account
submitted by Jeremy Condliffe
A graphic story of a British retirement that was turned into a pursuit was given by Private Patrick Caine of the 1st East Lancashire Regiment, who was wounded during the Battle of the Aisne. The account was given by the-then Private Caine, a former Biddulph postman, to the Weekly Sentinel, on October 24th 1914.
He was a native of Newport, Shropshire – his parents were Richard and Mary Caine – but he was spending a short leave at 30, Church Street, Tunstall. At the time war broke out, he had been a reservist for about 18 months, and was employed as a postman between Biddulph, Harriseahead and Mow Cop, in which districts he was very well-known. Prior to that, he was at the Market Drayton Post Office.
Private Caine was among the first batch of the British Expeditionary Force to go to France. He was at Mons, but his regiment first went into action at Ligny on August 26th, when they were first ordered to cover the retreat of other troops. They were under fire for four hours and lost about 200 men. The enemy were pressing in superior numbers: “A bullet struck the knapsack of the man on my right, and he remarked to me ‘that was a near one wasn’t it?’ and moved away a little.” Private Caine said.
He had hardly done so when a shell came over and killed him. As he was stretchered out, our officer took hold of his hand and said, “He has done his duty, poor fellow.”
“The enemy were only 400 yards away, and we signalled to our artillery in the village, and soon we could see the shells dropping among the packed formations of the enemy. The artillery must have killed hundreds. We had to retire and we lost a lot of men. What was worse, we had to leave our dead and wounded, and we don’t know what has become of them. If they fell into the hands of the Germans, we hope that they were treated properly. It was as much as we could do to get away ourselves.
“While we were retiring on Paris, we caught a young German officer. He was all bombast at first, and said that he was sorry for us English. ‘We (said the German) had been let in by the French, and as soon as they (the Germans) took Paris, they then would be in London and then it would be ‘God help England’. He reckoned that the Germans would be in Paris in a fortnight’s time.”
Private Caine also wrote about the death of a colonel.
“A couple of days after that we turned the retirement into a pursuit, and we were after them as fast as we could. On September 9th we were at La-Ferte-sous-Jouarre, a hilly country where the German cavalry with machine guns were trying to stop us. We advanced well within range of their machine guns, but luckily they had not had time to take their range properly, and the shots went over our heads and struck the roofs of the houses behind us. We would have caught it hot had they had time to set their range properly.
“Our commanding officer, Colonel Marchant, was killed, together with a sergeant, as they were trying to locate the machine guns from the windows of the houses. When our guns got to the Germans’ range, they were soon silenced. We were awfully sorry to lose our Colonel. He was a fine officer.
“He was buried that same afternoon, just like a private soldier, with his clothes on, and I was one of the burial party. We continued our pursuit on to the 13th. That was when I got wounded. We gave the Germans no time to get themselves into position until they got to the Aisne river, where they seemed to be prepared. It was then that they made their first stand.
“On Saturday, September 12th, on the Sunday morning, we were over the Aisne river and got into position to attack. We were lying down in a field when a German aeroplane came over and dropped a ball of smoke, which remained in the air for about a minute, giving the Germans our range. They soon got at us, and I was hit with the first shell. A shrapnel bullet passed through my left arm and glanced off my ammunition pouch, which was full. Had the pouch been empty, the bullet would probably have passed through my body and I would have been killed.
“I was able to walk to the hospital, although I consider myself very lucky, for the Germans were shelling the village, and houses were crashing down right and left of me. Soon, there was only the hospital left standing. They left that alone, and we who were in the hospital were very glad to get away.”
Private Caine was a witness to an exciting encounter between a German and British aeroplane.
“We could see and hear them firing at one-another quite plainly. The machine got much higher than the German, who must have been wounded, or else his machine, or machine gun, got damaged, because he made a dive down, and fortunately for him, reached his own lines.”
And giving some idea of the rapidity of the German retirement from the Marne, large numbers of carcasses of sheep and cattle were found lying about, ready to be cooked. Everywhere was desolate. Dogs were found chained-up dead, and cattle had died in their sheds from hunger.
Asked how our artillery compared with that of the enemy, Private Caine said: “Gun for gun, the British were the better.” And the British shells were more destructive, as most of the German shells burst high in the air, while those of the British burst low and wrought dreadful execution. The Germans, however, appeared to put great faith in their machine guns, and had eight to each regiment, as compared with two to each British regiment.
Private Caine was later killed in action.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has him recorded as Corporal Patrick Caine (service no 9207), being killed on August 15th 1916, age 27. He was recorded as serving with the 6th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment. He is buried in Amara War Cemetery, a town on the left bank of the Tigris.
With the 6th Battalion he would have seen a lot of action, though it is unclear when he joined. The 6th (Service) Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment was raised at Preston in August 1914 as part of Kitchener’s First New Army and joined 38th Brigade, 13th (Western) Division and trained at Lucknow Barracks, Tidworth, spending the winter in billets at Winchester.
They sailed from Avonmouth on June 16th 1915 landing at Alexandria then moving to Mudros, by July 4th to prepare for a landing at Gallipoli. The infantry landed on Cape Helles between July 6th and 16th to relieve 29th Division. They returned to Mudros at the end of the month, and the entire division landed at Anzac Cove between August 3rd and 5th.
They were in action in The Battle of Sari Bair, The Battle of Russell’s Top and The Battle of Hill 60, at Anzac. Soon afterwards they transferred from Anzac to Suvla Bay. They were evacuated from Suvla on December 19th and 20th 1915, and after a week’s rest they moved to the Helles bridgehead. They were in action during the last Turkish attacks at Helles on January 7th 1916 and were evacuated from Helles on the 8th and 9th.
The division concentrated at Port Said, holding forward posts in the Suez Canal defences.
On February 12th 1916 they moved to Mesopotamia, to join the force being assembled near Sheikh Sa’ad for the relief of the besieged garrison at Kut al Amara.
They joined the Tigris Corps on March 27th and were in action in the unsuccessful attempts to relieve Kut. They were in action in The Battle of Kut al Amara, The capture of the Hai Salient, the capture of Dahra Bend and the passage of the Diyala, in the pursuit of the enemy towards Baghdad. Units of the division were the first troops to enter Baghdad, when it fell on March 11th 1917, by which time Caine was dead.
The regimental museum website reports: “Thousands of Lancastrians fought their way to Baghdad in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I. From the three predecessor regiments of The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment alone, no less than 1,239 of them lie there still.
“The 6th (Service) Battalions of the East Lancashire, South Lancashire and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments landed at Basra in March 1916. They formed part of the 38th (Lancashire) Infantry Brigade of the 13th (Western) Division of Kitchener’s New Army. Less than two years before they had been civilians in the cotton towns of Lancashire, but were now seasoned veterans, having recently emerged from Gallipoli. Initially, Mesopotamia was to prove to be no improvement on that ill-conducted campaign.
“Thrown into the muddled failure to relieve a besieged British garrison at Kut, they contributed over 700 casualties in five days of fighting. With this disaster coming so soon after the Gallipoli debacle, incompetent Indian Army generals were sacked and General Maude, their own much respected Divisional GOC, was made Commander in Chief.
“Maude brought sense to the shambles, and insisted on devoting the next seven and a half months to training, improving the lines of communication and acclimatising to the extreme weather conditions. Even so, with temperatures regularly exceeding 50 deg. C, death and illness from heat-stroke were common and dysentery, malaria and other tropical diseases endemic.”
So it’s possible Lance Corporal Caine died of disease, not the bullet.