Ampleforth Journal 20:3 (1915) 248-258

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The following letters written by the late Captain Hamilton Berners [Irish Guards: born 1881; killed 14 Sept 1914] give a vivid account of-the retreat from Mons up to the day before he was killed. They are published with the permission of Mrs Hamilton Berners, and have been passed for publication with certain necessary excisions [–––] by the Chief Field Censor at Field Marshal French’s Headquarters.

Captain Hugh Hamilton Berners was born on 30 September 1881 at Chertsey, England. He was the son of Charles Hugh Berners and Mary Anstruther. He married Edith Mary Georgina Sandham, daughter of Charles Munro Sandham and Evelyn Fanny Barttelot, in 1907.

'Captain Berners, of the Irish Guards, was known to many Ampleforth boys by the visits he paid us, the lectures he gave us, and the great interest he showed in our contingent of the O.T.C. He was killed in the early days of the fighting on the Aisne, being at the time second in command of the Irish Guards. In him we have lost a good friend, the Army a most capable officer and the Church an enthusiastic convert.'  VPN, AJ 20:2 (1915) 151

[ MAP ]

Letter dated September 2nd, received 20th

This is only a short line to tell you I am all right, but we are only stopped for an hour or so, and I have no kit with me; in fact, I’ve not had any kit since Tuesday, 25th [August], nor changed my clothes, or had them off since Sunday, 23rd. I have quite a fine beard, and Stepney looks like the commander of a 2nd class cruiser as George Morris said. We have still been kept marching, and on an average do about 12-15 miles a day in hot sun, on the top of two hours’ sleep at night in icy dew. We have, however, been able to feed fairly well, up to date, though breakfast this morning, about 3.30, on Monday’s bread and mouse trap cheese rather went against the grain. We fought a rearguard action all yesterday in a big wood, quite a good fight. We had to cover the withdrawal of all the baggage of the 2nd Division [–––], but we did it all right, and I think the 4th Guards’ Brigade gained a good deal of credit. Our retirement was in turn covered by the 5th Brigade, among whom was Reggie Woods, whom I saw for a moment. I saw George Miller this morning, and was able to give him some bread and jam to help out his breakfast. We are right back now and in the same latitude as Paris. I hear the 4th Division has captured eight guns–rather good–I don’t know what our movements are, but I hope we shall have a rest soon. Please send me a refill for ‘Orilux’ torch, from Steward, in Charing Cross. The other night I was so tired and yet my brain was so awake, that I got up at 1.30 a.m., dressed, and went and woke up all my company officers and sergeants, and told them to parade the company at once, as the alarm had sounded. Imagine their feelings when I woke up ten minutes later and had to go and tell them I was dreaming all the time. No more now. Keep cheery, &c.

Letter dated September 5th, received September 19th

As you will see for some time past, I have given up all idea of numbering letters, and am as a rule more than hazy about dates. Sometimes I get no chance of writing for days, as we have been so rushed. We have done 242 miles in a fortnight, and a lot of it was on pave [acute] roads, roads made of paving stones. Well, now I can tell you something of our doings. Look up our route on the map, and I think it will surprise you. After leaving Havre on the 14th, we trained via ROUEN, AMIENS, ARRAS (where we got such a reception), DOUAI to MASSIGNY, where we entrained late at night on the 15th. Marched to VAUDANCOURT on the next day, where we stayed till the 20th, when we marched to FESNEY, near Oise. Then on to MAROILLES, then on to LONGUEVILLE, then we went for a week-end to Belgium, starting on Sunday 23rd, going to CIPLY, just outside MONS [ MAP ]. At the latter place a big fight was going on, and later on we joined in further to the east, at a place called HARMINGIES, where, as I have told you, the regiment first came under fire.

We had retired into billets at QUEVY-LE-PETIT [–––], but after an hour we were suddenly called out, and off we marched, eventually coming up on a ridge where we had a halt, and the Battalion was able to see the German shells bursting over a wide area, about two and a half miles away – a most impressive sight. The men hardly said anything, but were not in the least perturbed – only a bit silent. Then we went on, and in an hour’s time we four company commanders rode forward with the C.O. to reconnoitre. Then we advanced over an open bit of country for about a mile to some big chalk cliffs, where we were about to take cover, previous to climbing up, when we found that shrapnel was bursting just over the edge.

It was getting dusk, so we cleared off to the right – the Irish Rifles and Royal Scots were entrenched half a mile to our front, and were holding the enemy back, who kept rushing them in great numbers. We got all the benefit of the shells and machine gun fire which missed them, only, as we we were lower down, most of the bullets went over our heads. The Maxim’s bullets made an extraordinary noise; they seemed to say 'Wheeo', 'Wheeo', 'Wheeo', as fast as one could say so. The men were splendid; we were the last company, and I was with my last platoon, and one of the last to come up to where the Company was lying behind a bank. They all shouted to me to keep down, and I went slowly up and sat down by Tom and Sam[?].

We had been ordered to advance on a certain objective, and we were still not there. There was a series of banks, like the ones we were behind, further up the hill and gradually I got the whole Company up to the last of these by platoon rushes. It was quite dark by this time, and the only light we had was the flash of the enemy’s guns and shells. Eventually we got on to a road, which was on the top of the ridge, about one hundred yards behind the other troop trenches, and this was the objective we had been told to go to. The road itself was one mass of broken branches from the trees after the shrapnel had been through them. They had the range of the road to a nicety, and several men had been hit in Spud’s Company (Stepney’s), and T. shouted to me to rush the road to a ditch and bank the other side. My men were so blown after their climb that they refused to run, and it was a great mercy none of them were hit.

On the way up we went through a turnip field, and I found the doctor, with his stretcher bearers looking for wounded. I chaffed him about picking up his birds without a retriever, and the men were quite amused. One bullet went through a stretcher bearer’s pack, and into the heel of the boot of the man next to him, without touching him. One of my men, on searching his haversack the next day, found a hole in his bully beef tin, and, on investigating further with his fork, produced a shrapnel bullet out of it. We only lost five wounded, and I believe one was likely not to recover. After some time the firing slackened, but every now and then the enemy charged and tremendous bursts of firing from our trenches broke out, which completely stopped the German advance. An Irish rifleman was shot through the head quite close to me.

When all the firing had ceased, we had the men’s teas brought up to them where they were lying, and after a bit my Company was marched down in reserve on the right. Eventually all troops, except our Battalion, withdrew, and I had to cover the retirement of the other companies in conjunction with T.

It was lucky we got out of it, as when we were two miles away at dawn we saw the whole of our position absolutely covered with shells. I heard afterwards from some one who no doubt knew nothing, that there must have been 150 guns there. Personally, I doubt it. Well, we got away and that day reached LONGUEVILLE again, [–––]. At MONS we had three corps in front of us, and one on each flank, so with our little force of four Divisions, no wonder we suffered. [Excision.] The 3rd Division suffered very heavily. [–––] The German infantry are reported to have come on in close column and to have been absolutely mown down by our machine guns, and still they came on, owing to their numbers, but they never reached our trenches. [ MAP ]

After leaving LONGUEVILLE on the 25th we marched to LANDRECIES*, where we billeted; my Company was in waiting, and had to be the first turned out on any alarm, and that to be outside the Battalion Headquarters. We had hardly got into our billets before the townspeople took panic and came rushing up the street, crying 'Les Uhlans!' We immediately turned out, and as nothing happened we thought it was a false alarm, and I was in the act of stripping, and had got my face lathered, when we heard guns outside the town. It was now dark, and we got orders to fall in again.

What actually happened I really don’t know, but all I know is that the whole place was surrounded except the south-east, and that the whole was a put up job, worked by spies. [–––] I with my company was on guard at Battalion Headquarters [–––]. Soon our Battalion was separated all over the town, holding buildings, and putting houses in a state of defence. I was left with only one platoon. We had only our own 4th Guards Brigade and some guns in the town, and we had to hold on till the 7th Transport and guns could get out of the town. The Coldstreams and Grenadiers occupied barricades at the ends of the streets, and presently were rushed by the enemy, of whom not one reached the barricades alive. [ MAP ]

This went on for hours, and eventually we withdrew and were sent up to relieve them. By that time, however, the enemy had had enough. I heard afterwards that 850 dead Germans were piled up outside the N. and N.W. exits to the town. The Coldstreams lost two officers killed and some wounded, while the Grenadiers lost one killed. We fell back about 4 a.m., and retired to ETREUX, where we dug ourselves into trenches and prepared for defence. However, the Germans went off westwards to fight the 3rd Division, and I have since heard that they lost rather heavily. [–––] How the Transport ever got out of the town I don’t know, owing to the darkness and the firing. [–––] It poured that night, the 26th, and we slept in our trenches. Here it was that the Spud (Maj.Sipper ?) shot the aeroplane which bombed us. Then we marched right on to ORIGNY, then to DEUILLET, where Spud and I were sent in with our Companies to defend a bridge which was very hard work, digging and making barricades. Then we retired again to PASLY, near SOISSONS, and the next day had to form the rear guard to the 2nd Division and its transport. [ MAP ]

I must stop now, as I want to ask for some things as the post is going. Please send me every week some food, sardines, potted meats, &c., for our Company mess – not too much at a time, and no packet to weigh more than 3 lbs. We have had no letters for ages. Yours dated the 22nd my last. Please tell –– at the Oratory to raise hell about us. We have not seen a priest except French once since arrival. We have had 3 sharp fights for a priest to be with the wounded, and it does mean so much to our Irish men. About hearing Mass it does not matter as he always seems to leave us for a battle on Sundays and Tuesdays. [Blocked by censor, but not enough! Ed.]

Please send me an occasional paper other than The Times – Punch, for instance. A whole battery of machine guns surrendered to me yesterday evening (September 8th), and we took 105 prisoners, but I will tell you about that in my next letter as the post is going. I hear that the Russians have sent a force to Belgium. I hope they will soon cut in behind the enemy. Arthur Hay and Arthur Fitzgerald have brought out our first reinforcements, but they have not brought us much news. I have shaved off my beard which was quite thick. The spud looked like Capt. Hinckley[? illeg.] Exactly. No more now.

* Landrecies: for details, images &c., see:

Last letter, dated September 13th, received 21st

I have just got an extraordinary mixture of posts: (1) a letter and a card from you, written at Mabel’s flat on the 14th August, the day after I left you, which has taken just 30 days to get to me – a card written on the 15th, and also a letter written by you on the 28th. The posts are too terribly bad for words, and there are general complaints on all sides. Please send me a scarf made of wool – khaki colour – to put round my head at night. Many thanks for the handkerchief and paper, both arrived at an opportune moment, when both my original articles were beginning to get soiled and smelly!

It has poured incessantly now for 36 hours, and the last two nights we have been billeted in houses on the line of march. The night before last we were in clover, and I slept on a sofa, and should have slept on a bed, had not Hugo Gough, having no coat, been soaked to the skin, so I put him to bed in my big bed, and got Eakin to rub him. We had the great good luck to hit on a house which had not been looted by the Germans during their retirement.

Please send me some pencils, two will be enough, only they must be H., not H.B., as I find this H.B. pencil too soft. This is only a short letter, in case I can get it off via Fitz, but I have not seen N. since the other day and I have still my last letter waiting for N. to take, but as soon as I finish this I shall send the last one in the usual way. It seems so funny that we should be able to hear from you in two days or so, whereas it takes your letter such a long time to reach me. If you don’t hear from me for some time you can always get news of me if you write to him, as of course they know most things at General Headquarters, or else can find out, but we have been kept so much on the rush, it has been impossible to write, even at the halts along the road.

Have you heard anything of the de Beauforts yet? I can’t think why they could not come home via Italy and long sea, as both Switzerland and Italy are neutral. We are at the present moment in reserve, also waiting for a bridge to be repaired which has been blown up in front of us. There was a big battle along our left yesterday, some way off, mostly an artillery duel, and I have not heard the result, but rumour has it that 60,000 Germans are cornered, and that the French gave them five hours in which to surrender, which they refused. So they are plugging at them again now. It is impossible to buy anything in the village now we are advancing, as the Germans have taken everything in the shape of eggs, fowls, tobacco, chocolate, so that your soup and chocolate will be most welcome when it arrives. Up till Friday night we had not slept in a house since the 22nd. No more now. Please thank Mapa and Tommy for their letters. I hear Chummy is on his way out.

More from the last letter written by Berners

This is the continuation of my long descriptive letter of all that has happened to us. After having passed the night at SOUCY [ MAP ], we left early on the 1st September, and marched to where there were some huge woods. We were to act with the Brigade as rearguard to the 2nd Division, and the powers that be had decided that they were to have a halt and eat their dinners from 9-1, four hours. Well, first we took up a line in some fields, with my Company in a wood, behind a wall which had been loop-holed by the engineers. This we occupied for an hour without being attacked, but the guns behind us were shelled and had some casualties. Then we were retired to the big wood, and took up a position to cover the retirement of the Brigade.

One of the Coldstream Battalions was on our left, but they cleared out, and No. 3 Coy Irish Guards were left to hold the edge of the wood. No. 1 Company afterwards came up, but I never knew it, as they never got in touch with me. Nothing happened at first, and as I could not see very far, and was uncertain about my left front, I sent Castleross with a section out to watch it. After an hour I sent Tom Young out to see how he was getting on, and on his way he saw the enemy coming down the road in fours. I saw it at the same time, and he shouted to Castleross to warn him, and the enemy, who were only 400 yards off me and only 300 off him, heard him and stopped. I at once opened fire with the men I had near me, and as one man could not see them, I took his rifle and I think brought down my opposing Captain’s horse.

The enemy stood it for a few minutes, and then turned and ran, but reinforcements came up and soon artillery opened on the edge of the wood with shrapnel. My men began to get hit, and I was just cursing one of them for not getting up and going forward to where he could shoot, when I found he had a wound in his thigh, breaking the bone. I did what I could for him, and got Tom and a sergeant to carry him to the road, when I came upon my Company Sergeant-Major lying terribly wounded by a shell in two places. The doctor was with him, but I am afraid he must have died soon after I left him.

I was beginning to be a bit anxious as regards being cut off, as there was a lot of firing going on all round behind. When the C.O. rode up and ordered us to retire, I gave the order, but the men would not go. It was most extraordinary, and when they did go they turned round and crawled on all fours, rather nervous, but not so much as to prevent them stopping to eat blackberries, with the enemy only about 150 yards off. I had got a rifle and bayonet from a wounded man by now, and felt far safer than with a revolver only. I sent all the others up the road, except Castleross, who retired on the left, and followed with the last few left in the wood.

The enemy had now worked round our left, and the remainder of the Battalion was facing in that direction. I told the Company to re-form at the first opportunity, and soon overtook Tom, who was being sniped at all the way up the road. One bullet smashed a stone just where he had left with his heel, and a bullet went right through his map case. Charles Walker had the bottom of his haversack shot away, and Learmouth had a piece taken out of his puttee. Charles Walker also had his mess tin shot through.

When we joined the other Companies the C.O. was there, and gave our Company a few words of encouragement, and said we were carrying on just as he wished. Then he ordered some of us to retire, and we stayed on and covered the retirement. By this time I had lost four sergeants, one corporal, and 21 men, and things were getting rather hot. I then retired through the others, got the Company together, and took up a position to cover the others again when they retired. During this time very heavy firing was going on in the wood in all directions, and we began to lose heavily. No one saw the C.O. hit, but he never appeared. Hubert Greenson was killed, [illeg.] we fear is killed. Old [illeg.] was wounded in the leg. Castleross I never saw again. [illeg.] , our interpreter, and [illeg.] the doctor, the former badly wounded, have not appeared.

In fact every one above mentioned are either killed or wounded or taken prisoner. Desmond [illeg.] was hit in the foot, and Blacker (Douglas) in the thigh, or rather hip, but both were got by our own ambulance. The Brigadier [illeg.]was also badly hit in the knee, but he is safe, too. So you will see that old Spud now commands, and I am second in command, but, of course, the C.O. may only be slightly wounded and captured.

We got back after that without any more fighting, and I fancy gave a fairly good account of ourselves, as the enemy ceased to come through the wood. Our Brigade retired to VILLERS-COTTERETS, where we were relieved by the 6th Brigade. We slept that night at BETZ, which we reached after midnight, then we went on to MEAUX and ISLES DE VILLENOY, then PIERRE LEVÉ, thence to VILBERT, where we started in the morning and entrenched ourselves against shell fire, as by this time we had turned east, and had stopped our retrograde movement and were now running up against the flank guard of a German force moving south against the French on our right. [ MAP ]

Well, we ran against them all right, and they plumped shells all over us. It was afterwards reported that our opponents were all mounted on motors and motor cycles, with horse artillery guns mounted on lorries, as when they stopped shelling us, they were away at once and our cavalry could not get them. They landed a shell right in one of the [Haddock]’s trenches, killing six and wounding ten, including Guernsey slightly in the hand. Poor [illeg.], who only joined us with Arthur Hay’s draft the night before, got introduced to the Battalion and to shell fire at the same time, and was standing with Sark only five yards behind the said trench and was never scratched. You never saw such a mess as the rifles were in afterwards. Luckily all the bodies and wounded had been taken away, but the rifles were all bent and twisted into all shapes.

They were shelling the ground where I was holding a farm pretty considerably, but none ever burst actually in the farm, although at the critical moment of my company being about to get its dinner, the cookers and water-carts stampeded to the rear by order of Walker, who is transport officer, and so my men did not get fed for some time. We then advanced to TONQUAIN and on the way [illeg.]

The next day we went to ST SIMEON [ MAP ]after a long and uninteresting march. I was sent to get in touch with the 3rd Division alone in the dark, a ride of about six miles, and found Lord [illeg.]'s Brigade, but of course he was missing. The next day, 8th, we advanced toward toward Boitron, where a small river was held by the German rear guard. We had a sharp little fight, and lost some men, but eventually we got over, after being badly held up by machine guns.

In the afternoon we came up with them again, and No. 1 Company of the Coldstreams and my own, supported by the rest of the Battalion and a battery, advanced on a wood, where we were received by very heavy gunfire.

After a little short advance, during which the guns opened on the wood at about 600 yards, the Coldstreams on our right reported that the enemy had hoisted white flags, and had ceased firing. We ceased also, but unfortunately could not stop the guns for some time. I then put a line of men out to cover the Coldstream party, who were to go and capture the guns,and the German Lieutenant, ignoring them, came right across to me and surrendered. I saluted him, and shook hands, and he told me, in French, that all except four horses of his galloping Maxim company were shot; his Captain was wounded, that their escort of cavalry had deserted them, and that they had lost a lot of men. I then went on with him and saw the captain, who was shot through both legs, and another youth.

We got six Maxims beautifully mounted on wagons, with spare parts so complete as to contain even a duplicate set of harness. Any amount of automatic pistols, of which I am now the proud possessor of one, and about seventy-five men. We afterwards found a wounded Prussian officer in the wood. It was most pathetic, and some of the horses were badly wounded. The Lieutenant asked me to shoot his horse, which was badly hit, and sobbed aloud when I did it. I was then put in charge of all the prisoners of the day, some thirty-five more coming in from various parts of the field, to say nothing of the wounded, and my Company had to look after them for the night; three out of fifteen wounded actually with me died in the night, and were buried.

We put the officers on parole, and fed them at our mess. The Captain was Capt. Franz von Radowitz, and the senior Lieutenant was Siegfried Gans Edler Herr zu Putlitz, both of the Garde Schützenmachine Gewehr Corps. I told them that they were captured by the English Guards, and they smiled, and said that was some consolation. You would have been much impressed had you heard me giving 'Am Rechts marschieren, vorwarts!', and Hugo Gough, who is good at German, was splendid, and the men obeyed him just like one man. Their discipline is all forced, one can easily see that, and they all seemed glad to be captured. I gave them up to the Provost-Marshal next morning.

This brings me to the 9th when I saw Fitz and Watt. Since then nothing fresh. Reggie Woods has been hit in the calf with one of our own shells, but it is not at all bad. Please send me some matches, small boxes – Bryant & May’s – with a tin cover for one of them, not the very small size, but about two inches by one and a half. You might send me six every fortnight!

Background to the letters

Captain Berners was killed on 14 September 1914 is buried in Soupir Communal Cemetery, France (Dep.Aisne). The village was cleared by the Brigade of Guards on 14 September 1914 and on the same day, and for some days later, heavy fighting took place at La Cour de Soupir farm, near the head of the valley north-west of the village. Dressing stations were established at Soupir Chateau and at the farm. The village was in German hands again between 2 and 6 November 1914 and for much of the war it remained very close to the front line. Soupir Communal Cemetery contains 16 Commonwealth burials of the First World War. All date from September-October 1914 and were brought in after the Armistice from a position near the north-west corner of the village of Vailly. [ MAP ]


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