The Northamptonshire Regiment – 1st Battalion
In 1914 the Battalion was stationed in Dettington Barracks, Aldershot and in the early evening of 4 August orders were received to mobilize and by midnight of 7/8 August horses had been collected from civilian sources and reservists had arrived. The Battalion was at full strength of 1000 men and training had begun.
On the 11 August the King and Queen visited the Battalion to inspect the troops before their embarkation.
On the 12 August the Battalion left by train for Southampton where it embarked on the Union Castle liner ‘Galeka’ for an uneventful night time channel crossing, arriving in Le Harve in the early hours of the 13 August and marched to a camp on the outskirts of the town.
Troops arriving in France
A troop train
After two days in camp the men had a hot, dusty march through miles of coal yards to reach the station to board trains for a painfully slow journey to Etreux and a six mile march to a new camp at Esqueheries.
Training and route marches to help harden the feet of the reservists filled the next four days until 4.30 am on the 22 August when orders were received to move North. With only short breaks the Battalion marched through the night until they reached Rouveroy about midday on the 23 August.
The Northamptonshires spent the rest of the day resting but in the early evening moved up to new positions close to the front line. The night passed without incident. At 6 am orders came to retire, but the Northamptonshires being part of the rear guard did not move until late afternoon, the retreat from Mons had begun.
On the 25 August the Northamptonshires were still moving away from the enemy without having fired a shot or even seeing a German. Due to the numbers of troops and French civilians on the roads the men were on their feet until 8 pm, although the distance covered was only 14 miles, when they went into billets at Marbaix.
The Capture of Walter Wood
During the night of the 25/26 August orders were issued to the 1st Northamptonshires to make preparations for an early march towards Landrecies to reinforce troops who were heavily engaged there with large German forces. The men were to carry extra ammunition and march as light as possible. Rations were to be issued from the roadside as the battalion marched along. Accordingly, all greatcoats were collected and placed in a house under charge of Armourer – Sergeant Wright and twelve men. At 6.30 am on the 26 August the battalion marched off in a south-westerly direction to Favreuil, near Landrecies.
At about 11 am the village of Marbaix, which was then held by the 6th Battalion of the 329th French Infantry Regiment, was suddenly attacked by a strong force of German cavalry and artillery. Sergeant Wright at once placed himself under the orders of Captain de Lillers, who was commanding the 24th Company of this regiment and who was in reserve in the village.
Subsequent events are described in the following letter from Captain de Lillers, which reached the 1st Northamptonshires after the war:-
On the 26 August 1914, the 6th Battalion of the 329th Infantry Regiment, coming from Jeumont on the Belgian frontier, had been sent to Marbaix, a small village of the Department du Nord on the main road from Avesnes to Landrecies. My orders were to reconnoitre the south-eastern edges of the Forest de Mormal, where strong parties of German troops had been reported.
At the time, I commanded the 24th Company of this regiment. After having sent patrols all over the ground between the village and the canal of the Sambre, I got the order to post my company in reserve on the main square of the village, opposite the church. It was about 11 am. The men started eating their meal, taking great interest in a party of a few British soldiers who were busy packing ammunition onto mules.
Suddenly, the battalion was attacked by an important force of German cavalry supported by artillery, from the directions of north and north-east. My company was under very heavy machine-gun fire, and after a few minutes, having no orders from my battalion commander, I decided to retire from the village, situated in a hollow, from which I had no view and where I feared to be surrounded; I wanted to occupy the hills south of the Avesnes – Landrecies road.
As soon as the first shots were fired, the N.C.O. in charge of the British party reported to me, asking for instructions; I gave him the order to follow the company, which he did, his men showing the calm and pluck of old, well trained troops.
To leave the village in the direction I had chosen, I had to cross the Avesnes – Landrecies road under the fire of hostile machine-guns apparently posted on the top of the hill east of the village. I sent out a strong patrol both to cover my left flank and to locate the position of the machine-guns as much as possible. Most of the British soldiers volunteered at once to go with this patrol; some of my men who rejoined the company after the show reported with great admiration the gallant conduct of these brave soldiers, who with the greatest contempt for the danger, marched towards the machine-guns and were mowed down.
Having returned to this part of the country in November 1918 I took the first opportunity to go back to Marbaix. The inhabitants remembered perfectly well the fighting of 26 August 1914. They showed me the houses burnt by the enemy and told me they had decently buried the corpses of those fallen on that date. In the cemetery there is a grave in which nine soldiers are lying (7 French and 2 English)
The two English are:-
Private 7350 Alfred Little 1st Northamptonshire Regiment Killed in Action 26/8/14
Private 11430 James Thompson 1st Liverpool Regiment Killed in Action 25/9/14
Armourer-Sergeant Wright and two or three of this party rejoined the battalion a few days later. Of the remainder, one was killed and the others wounded and captured.
After his capture Walter was taken to a military hospital in Hammerstein, West Prussia before being transferred to Sennelager camp. Because he refused to work in a munitions factory at a time when he was still suffering with a broken leg, one of the guards knocked him senseless with a blow on the back of the head with the butt end of a rifle. On regaining semi-consciousness he found himself in a train for Berlin where he was brought before a court martial and had to defend himself against a charge of insubordination and inciting to mutiny. He was sentenced to three months hard labour and flung into a dark cell in Moabit convict prison, where he was put in convict dress and for the first 14 days given nothing but bread and water. Then for every other day he had some so-called soup, consisting of one potato, three small rings of carrots, and dirty water. He was not allowed to receive parcels or write home.
On leaving that prison in a very weakened state, he was sent to Neuenkirchenland, a horrible punishment camp amid the marshes of the Rhine, where the prisoners were confined in underground dug-outs which often contained six inches of water, so that they could not lie down, and in the daytime they often worked knee-deep in water. This terrible experience caused him to contract rheumatism, and lung complaints. By February 1916 he had been moved to a new camp Munster 2 and his condition caused him to be passed by the Swiss doctors for repatriation to Switzerland, but even then the German doctors heartlessly continued his torture by keeping him for five-weeks in the fortress at Eettstatt on a starvation diet.
Walter was part of the first contingent of British prisoners of war to arrive in Switzerland and arrived in Zurich at 8 30pm on the 28 May 1916. The station was packed with people all trying to reach the platform to cheer the arrival of the train. It had been the same everywhere since crossing the border into Switzerland, every village turning out to cheer them as they passed through. During the journey the men were assured that a rumour started by German camp guards that they would be returned to Germany once they were restored to health was untrue and the next move, when it came would be to home.
At 7am on the 31 May after travelling the length of Switzerland the prisoners reached Montreux close to Geneva, where they were helped off the train by Boy Scouts who guided them through large crowds who had broken through the police cordon to load the men with flowers and gifts. After breakfast the men with lung complaints, some with tuberculosis, were transported to Leysin and the rest to Chateau d’ Oex.
Munster main gate
Arriving at Leysin
The men in Switzerland were technically not Prisoners of War but internees which meant much more freedom as part of the terms was a pledge not to try to return to duty. In some cases they could find paid employment. Some of the Officers even had their wives move out to Switzerland to stay with them, and more than 600 wives and mothers had visits organised for them by the Young Women’s Christian Association and paid for by public donations.
Sport was a very popular pastime boxing, tennis skating, skiing and football all being played against local Swiss teams.
Later as more men arrived schools were set up to teach men skills for their return to England. The main subjects were Joinery and Cabinet making, Electrical Wiring, Leather work, Tailoring and Automobile Engineering.
The internees began to leave Switzerland at the beginning of December and on the 18 December 1918 Walter married Amy Bosworth at the Northampton Unitarian Church. Until a few days before the wedding the couple had not met but had written to one another during the time Walter was a prisoner. Sadly it was a short marriage as Walter died of double pneumonia on the 4 March 1919.
On the 2nd July his widow received a War gratuity of £26 10s.
Of the six other men taken prisoner with Walter, John England, George Johnson, Harry Smith and George Tinkler survived their time in Germany and the other two died, both near the end of the war.
Albert Mitchell died 24/10/1918 and is buried in Cologne Southern Cemetery.
John Pascow died 25/10/1918 and is buried in Niederzwehren Cemetery