Pte Frank Shaylor and The Retreat from Mons

The following letter was received by Mr. and Mrs. Shaylor, Pontycymmer, from their son. Pte F. Shaylor, (12/2/1915) who was serving with No 2 Company. 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards in France.

“Dear Mother and Father,

Here is just a little narrative of what me an my chums have gone through. To start with, there are 91 of us left out of the 1,200 who came out with the battalion, 60 of those who have been in the firing line all the time, and I believe the battalion casualties amount to 1,300. Of course, that includes, killed, missing, and wounded, etc. So you can bet I think of myself as one of the lucky ones, and when I look back on some of the escapes I have had, I think I am not intended to meet my doom at the hands of the Germans.

But of course it is not over yet, but I have done my share with a good heart, and I should like the chance of doing as much again. I can tell you I have some old scores to pay back, as I have lost some of the best pals a man ever had, but they all died fighting.

Well, to start from the beginning, we had our first taste of war at Mons on Sunday the 23rd of August. We had to go and reinforce another Brigade, we advanced up towards the firing line, anmd had just reached the base of an embankment, when deadly Maxim fire came from the top, of course all we could do was lie low, which we did; I don’t suppose that many of us would have lived to do much fighting later. We stayed there for about 3 hours, and then began the retirement from Mons.

A thing if I live, I shall never forget, as I think that every man that stuck the retirement all the way through without falling out deserves a medal.*

Wasn’t it hot, and the flies! If you had a halt you could not rest with them biting lumps out of you. We did 215 miles in 9 days, which wanted some doing with 80 lbs on your back, besides your rifle, and didn’t the boys grouse and curse the Germans! We were all fed up and wanted to ‘turn about’ and have a smack at them, but we had to keep plodding on. We reached Landrecies after marching 4 days without hardly any sleep, and we were just going to have a rest. After having a good wash, we thought of having a good feed. So I went out and bought some tobacco to make cigarettes, and a couple of bags of cakes, etc. as we had not had much food in the last few days. One of our officers, the first man to get killed, bought us a small barrel of beer. We had a drink each, and were just settling down for a good “blow out.” When the alarm went, and out we rushed, thinking to have a good “dust up.” After waiting a bit, we learned that they had caught 2 German spies dressed in French Officers uniforms. And they informed our Officers that the Germans were advancing from a certain direction. Of course you can guess their fate.

Well, we were ‘stood down,’ and after having our good feed, we were just rolling our beds out for the night, we were tired to death, when the alarm was sounded again. Any order this time, as long as we had our rifle with bayonet fixed and our ammunition pouches. There were some without socks, some without shirts or puttees or caps, etc. Any way it was a ‘real’ alarm this time. It was believed that a German Army Corps was on us. As it happened the Coldstream Guards were billeted on the side of the town where the Germans advanced, so they formed up a line and then the fun started, or rather a terrible time, as it was very dark, and all we knew was that the Germans were upon us. We did not know their numbers, we might have been surrounded for all we knew. The firing started and didn’t they let rip! I think they had 4 guns, and we had 2 in the street close by us.

My platoon was ‘told off’ to hold 2 houses on the end of the street leading in the direction of the advancing Germans. Our Commanding Officer told us to hold on at all costs, no matter what happened- which meant that if the Germans did break through we should be having a lot of bayonet practice.

Well, dear Mother, to tell you the truth, it was terrible. Bullets were coming through the windows and banging against the walls, and we could see the shells creeping over in the sky, as it was dark. We lost one Officer; The Coldstreams had a few wounded. About 5 in the morning all the firing ceased, and we learned that the Germans had retired, And that morning  we had to leave in a hurry-no time to call for the remainder of our kit. Before I go further, I think the Coldstreams lost about 200. The Germans were supposed to have left about 1,500 on the field, so that was not too bad for a start.

Well we started tramping it again, and we were dead beat, and didn’t we look a sight, some of us with half our equipment missing! We had no razors or washing kit,etc. We used jam tins to have our tea and stew in-when we got it- After doing about 12 miles we had to stop and dig trenches,

And while digging a German monoplane came over and dropped a bomb right by us, it was intended for our battery of guns, but luckily it missed! We all started firing at it; it was good sport, and he started to come gliding down. We set up such a yell, as we thought we had got him, but instead he flew away, we could have kicked something we were so disappointed, but our artillery had him later or so we heard.

 We left these trenches, and that morning we set off again, 23 miles a day. The next thing of note was, we were acting as rearguard. Our battalion and our company happened to be the rear one, after a days march we were told what a narrow escape we had just had. While we were on the march there had been a Brigade of Germans not a 1,000 yard away waiting to attack us at the first opportunity. But the 19th Lancers had spotted them, and after stampeding their horses they charged them, and after going through them, they charged back again, and I don’t think many of them got away. I think it was the following day we had our first big loss . The Germans caught us by surprise, and we had to fight for it, but my company did not do much as we were in the advance position, but our No 4 company copped it pretty hot, losing, I believe about 150 including missing. Of course all the 4th Guards Brigade were in it. (The Fighting Brigade), and they fought well. The Germans had to pay dear, even If we did have to retire. Our guns did some good work that day, hanging on like grim death- like we were mowing the Germans down. That day we had our Brigadier wounded, and we lost the Adjutant and 3 more Officers. That was the last time on the retirement we had it hand to hand with the Germans. Our company that day missed by a hairs breadth getting cut off, we retired a few more days, the average march being 20 odd miles, and we had quite a few shells chucked after us. It was”Bally hot,” and some of our chaps  suffered terrible, but they stuck it like Bulldogs.

I think the Grenadiers hold the record for the least  men falling all through.

We reached Meaux, just outside Paris- the last stage of the retirement. That night we had a swim in the River Marne. Half of us could not get our socks off, so we cut them off. Oh, it was good that bathe! Now we started to advance, when we began to get our own back, and to pay off old scores. We saw what plundering they had done, and murdering and looting, and other offences, no doubt you will have read of. On the first day of the advance we came across a few Germans, and took them prisoners. Our first “Joy Day” was when we had driven them back over the hills. We had a warm time of it, because they had their maxims trained on us. It was wooded country, and we could not locate them, as we were advancing through the wood. Our Battalion was on the extreme right. Our chaps got it pretty hot there, one dropping then another. They were ‘going it hot’ on the left, so we hurried them up as we thought to do a ‘flanker’ on them. We had got almost behind them, when, by a mistake our own artillery started to shell us; No doubt mistaking us for the Germans, so we had to hang back. It was a good sight to see what our artillery did to them, making up for their earlier mistake. A German battery was just coming into action, when 4 of our shells burst right in the middle of them, smashing the guns, only one man got away.

I heard of a sad affair later, the Germans murdered an old Frenchman, because he would not allow them to put a Maxim in his house.

Our Brigade did good work that day. The next day we advanced to the River Aisne and advanced up a hill . The Germans were in a good position, and the Connaught Rangers were in advance of us. We got orders to to reinforce them ‘at the double’ as the Germans were in a large force and the Rangers were hard pressed.  Out we ‘doubled’ across a ploughed field, and didn’t we have a warm time of it!

The bullets came over in swarms as well as shells. We lay down expecting every minute to knocked out, but we stuck it, and wasn’t it a battle that day! Heavy losses on both sides. It was a terrible time, fighting like cats all day. Towards night it was a real battlefield-a large barn went on fire as well as houses.  When our company mustered that night a shell burst in our midst and killed 6 and wounded 40. It was terrible, I believe our Battalion numbered about 300. 

We hung on to that position for about a month, during which time we were refitted and reinforced. We then had a train journey to Ypres. We entrenched that night. The next day the Germans charged us, but they did not get far. We mowed them down. Well, to get over it quick, as I am getting fed up with writing. The shell fire was heavy every day, and they made their attacks at night. (Excuse my mistakes, but there are about 6 mouth organs on the go in this barn)  But the Germans never managed to break through the Grenadiers, Oh, no ! Our Battalion stuck it, and we were soon reinforced and drove the Germans back.

One day we were sent back for a rest,we were just settling down, when we had to ‘double up’ to another position, and in doing so lost 43 men wounded in 5 minutes.

Didn’t it rain that night! We were in an open field like drowned rats, but we saved the situation, and then we went back to our old position. I think I told you what a time we had of it then. We were there 7 days in the trenches; They shelled us something awful. One of our Sergeants popped his head up. What ho! “The Germans are on us,” he shouted, “They are well within 30 yards. C’mon boys,” Shouted the sergeant. “On top of the trenches.” We did so, and didn’t they get it; not many made it back to their own trenches.

On the 23rd of December, at the break of dawn, they started bombarding us. We had to walk up to our waists in water in order to get into our positions. In the firing line it was up to our knees. Quite a few of our chaps got stuck. The Germans carried on with their bombardment,  the shells kept on coming over, but the bombs were better than the shells, aas you can often see them coming, but they are almost as deadly as the “Jack Johnsons.” We had been dodging them for about 2 hours when one came over and buried one of our Sergeants. We dug him out after a tussle, and were just getting straight again when over came another right in front of our trench. I was going to to move, and it was a good job I did. My chum got blown into a shell hole right up to his neck in water! We could just see his head. We started laughing; I think it was the shock.

Well we had to leave those trenches . We lost every thing we had again, and we went back to to the reserve trenches. We had a sharp frost that night so you can’t imagine what we went through to get back.

After a couple of days rest we went to another position-worse for water. It was rotten-up to our armpits, and we had to stick it. We were in and out of those trenches for a week or more. We had it a bit quieter then. We had a day or two of rest again, and then back into the trenches once more. It was here we lost 2 more good men-one who had won the D.C.M., and a Sergeant, a very decent man- one of the jolliest I have met and a fine chap, standing 6’6” ins. Well, he managed to murmur. ” I am done, boys; Goodbye.” We got relieved that night, and now we are at farm for 6 days, half of which has gone already.

This is just a rough sketch of what we have had to go through, but it will give you an idea.

So I will close

Your loving son, Frank”

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