The Battle of Frezenberg

May 12 to 13th 1915



An account of the BCopy of notes written by RE Martin of what happened on ascension day May 13th 1915 when the Leicestershire Yeomanry defended the trenches near Ypres and met with heavy loss.


** Any insert by the typist is recorded between { }.


Wednesday May 19th 1915


As a result of my talks to Burkitt and the two NCO’s on Monday and Geoffrey Codrington (Whom I saw at the hospital at Hazebrouk shot through the lung yesterday) and young Fielding-Johnson and Simpkin, the two Subalterns who were not incapacitated. I have now a fairly clear notion of the main features of the action last Thursday the 13th.


The Regiment was, of course, in billets near Hezebrouck: about the 10th they sent up 267 N.C.O’s and men, the Colonel in command and 14 other officers with him, to the neighbourhood of Ypres: the whole of the 3rd Cavalry Division was of course, concerned in the operation, each regiment doing the same sort of thing. They remained in the same dugouts about a mile or so West of the town. On the evening of the 11th, Thomson, Turner and Fielding-Johnson were sent forward to see trenches, which the regiment was to occupy and to take over the stores and ammunition in them. Fielding-Johnson came back to guide the regiment the next day. The other two remained behind and were killed, it is believed in the dugout, in which they were sleeping, by a shell.


On the evening of the 12th the regiment went forward through Ypres to some trenches some little way East of the town: they arrived about midnight and relieved an Infantry regiment, who had been there for three days. B & C Squads were in the front line trench, B on the left the right of C abutted on the railway from Ypres to Roulers: beyond the line was another trench occupied by the 3rd Dragoon Guards. A Squad: were in support, about 300 to 350 yards in the rear left of B and 200 yards or so from a branch road {Cambridge Road} running south from the main road {Ypres to Zonnebeke} along which they had marched. None of the Trenches were in good order and the men were turned on to improve them, but the soil was sandy and not strong. Bill {Major. F W Martin}, as senior, was in command of the two front line Squadrons, C being his own Squadron) Major Liebert {attached 7th Hussar} being in command of B: Geoffrey Codrington commanded A: Percy Freke was in the Headquarter dugout near the branch road above mentioned: with him were Ricardo (second in command) and Charlie who was acting Adjutant. On the left of B at a certain interval, was a farmyard and house; the trenches occupied by the other two regiments of the Brigade began a little to the south of the farm and ran Northwards in front of it, the whole line faced East. The Enemy’s trenches were about 200 yards away from our front line. At about 3:45 a.m. the enemy began to shell them: the parapets were much knocked about but the men sat in the bottom of the trench, and there were not many casualties.


I will tell you first the story of B and C Squadrons, and afterwards about A.


The shelling continued until about 6 a.m., when it ceased: fearing that that the enemy intended to attack, the men were told to open fire on their trenches to keep them down.  At 6:15, or thereabouts, shelling began again, but this time was directed more exclusively at the front line: during the first bombardment the support trench had had sever punishment as well: this time a number of casualties occurred in the front line. At about 6:45 a.m. the enemy opened heavy rifle fire: our men stoop up to reply, and saw the enemy advancing in considerable numbers against the trenches on their left: at about 7 a.m. the Troops in these trenches were driven out or retired {1st & 2nd Life Guards}: the enemy moved on past the trenches forward toward the support trenches. Some of them also began to come out of the trench to the front of B & C: B Squadron were ordered to fire to their left front at the enemy advancing towards the other regiments, while C continued to shoot at the Germans to their front. Our men’s fire seemed effective and caused the enemy a good deal of loss. About now some of the men on the left of B {2nd Life Guards} seemed to have retired from their trench down through an avenue of trees which ran down a slight hollow from the left of B Squadrons trench towards the support trench. The retirement of the Troops on their left and the serious damage done to their own trench by the shells would go a long way to influence them in this direction. The remainder drew to their right, towards C. All the men were much dazed by the second bombardment (Fielding-Johnson said this) and had some difficulty in pulling themselves together to begin to shoot.


7 a.m. Sergt. Major Swain of B (Major Liebert must have been killed about now) went to the right of B, were he found Bill. The men I have said were much shaken. At this moment, however, a change came over the length of the trench where they were, and by the united testimony quite independently expressed of all those whom I have talked, this was due to Bill’s personal demeanour and example. Sergt. Major Swain and Fielding-Johnson both say the effect on the men was astonishing: he seemed absolutely cool and collected: Johnson said that he seemed even happy: both unite in expressing themselves as convinced that without his influence to rally them and to counteract the effect of the shelling and rifle fire, and the retirement of the troops on their left {1st & 2nd Life Guards}, the remains of the two squads must have inevitably given ground. He told Swain to set men to make a sandbag barrier in the trench, to stop the enemy who were now advancing along it from the Northern end.


He set Fielding-Johnson to ******* the men shooting forwards at the enemy advancing towards the front of the trench; he himself having emptied his mauser pistol took a rifle and lay down behind the trench, and began picking off the enemy as they came along. Sergt. Major Swain, who is a good shot, was beside him, and they encouraged each other and applauded each other’s hits.


When the sandbag barrier was finished, they moved into the trench and with 3 or 4 men stood behind it, and continued to keep the enemy off by rifle fire. Two or three times Bill went round the Traverse to see how Fielding-Johnson was getting on. I have not made out exactly when Teddie Brooks and Colin Peake (shell fire before 6 a.m.) were killed, but it must have been about now or earlier. At about 7:35 or so Bill was standing beside Swain, both having rifles: a bullet hit him on the right side of his head and he fell back in the trench: he was killed instantly and without pain. Fielding-Johnson was now the only surviving officer of the two squads in the trench. He and Swain consulted together: the men were falling pretty quickly and the enemy getting nearer and stronger, and they decided to move to their right towards the railway and erect another barrier there. I may say here that Swain said that a certain number of C squad men who had crossed the line into the 3rd Dragoons trench earlier on when they saw their own trench was being held by the remainder under Bill came back. The mixed force of B & C retired along the trench and built another barrier; the enemy about now began to come forward on the front and to dig themselves in about 80 yards off in a slight dip: the rifle fire continued all the time. About 9 o clock Fielding-Johnson came to the conclusion that the trench was no longer tenable: he spoke across the railway to the 3rd Dragoon Guards officer who sent 5 men over the line to help them: 2 of these were hit, in crossing, but the other three did very good work. They then dug out a little trench through the hedge of the railway and piled up some sand bags beyond it, so as to make a screen on the left, when they got through, and give them some cover from bullets coming along the line. One or two of the C squad men (Martin Wigg among them) did the same on the other side to meet them: this I am told by Sergt. Major Swain.


About this time the enemy had brought up a trench mortar to their firing line and began to throw bombs into the trench. There were left of our men 16, including the 3 DG’s and Fielding-Johnson in command. Finally they wriggled through the hole and over the line: Fielding –Johnson last: one man was hit in the hand, but no more: the enemy had some machine guns firing down the line, so their escape was remarkable.


It was now noon. The enemy were digging themselves in in front of the support trench (A Squad), which you will remember was 300 yards in the rear of the left of B, and also round its northern end: they were therefore well behind the original front.


Our men under young Fielding-Johnson now set to work to build a sandbag barrier at the end of the 3rd Dragoon Guards trench, to prevent the enemy from following them over the line and enfilading them. The enemy however shelled them: Swain was stunned once and I believe also Hanbury, who was in the trench, having crossed over earlier in the day. Also the 3rd Dragoon Guards trench was very wet (up to the knees) at that end: so they moved further along (12 yards or so) and there built a good barrier commanding the line. I may say here that it had rained all day: the men’s rifles were covered with mud and many of them very hard to use: the men had in many cases left their haversacks and water bottles in the old trench and had nothing to eat all day. Everyone was soaked.


The enemy kept moving forward “in large numbers” over the line of the original trench beyond B & C trench down towards A sqd. They also began to shoot from behind at our men in the 3rd DG trench, so the 3rd DG slewed their machine guns around and engaged them with good effect. About 2:30 p.m. the Reserve Cavalry Brigade (Blues, 10th Hussars and the Essex Yeomanry) were brought up from behind and delivered a counter attack: the enemy immediately fled, without waiting for our men to close with them and retired beyond to their original trenches. I may mention here that the remains of A sqd joined that charge as it passed them: pretty good proof of the right spirit, after nearly 10 hours continuous shelling.


Hence forward until dark our men remained in the front trench, A on the left, B & C in the 3rd DG’s exchanging rifle fire under ordinary conditions. They were engaged for some time, hunting for our wounded men, and were eventually relieved about 2 a.m. on the 14th.


So much for B & C squads. I must now return to A, who were in the support trench behind; under the command of Geoffrey Codrington. They worked from midnight until 4.a.m improving their trenches, which were very bad. At the time the shelling began and went on until 6 a.m. Then the lull and at 6:15 it was resumed. About 7 or so Codrington was wounded, as he was looking at the enemy coming down towards them on their left front. Young Simpkin went out to tell the Colonel, who was you will remember was in the dugout by the road: he met him coming up with Major Ricardo and Charlie. The Colonel sent Ricardo to command A and told Simpkin to take 7 A sqn men, and more from a number of B & C men who were coming back from the front line (about 18 in all) to the east end of the hollow avenue of trees which ran forwards towards the front line in rear of the left of B trench, so as to prevent the enemy from coming forward between the trees along the hollow. They went forward altogether, Charlie being with the Colonel acting as Adjutant, to the end of the trees: Simpkin and his men stayed there, and the Colonel went back to Brigade Headquarters {6th Brigade HQ} which were in a dugout near to his own to get information as to the general situation. When he came back he told Simpkin to hold on there at all costs. Charlie was hit here, in the shoulder, and went back to the resting station. At about 8:30 Lieutenant Best signalled from A sqn that that Ricardo was hit: Simpkin told Percy Freke who said that he must go to see how Ricardo was: as he went over to the 20 or 30 yards between the trees and the support trench, he was hit once in the arm and then through the heart: he fell five yards from the trench: some men ran out and carried him in, and he died in the trench. After dark his body was taken back and they buried him in a little graveyard about a mile on the other side of Ypres. I have seen the grave, and the doctor at a neighbouring dressing station, has promised to have a photograph sent to Mrs Freke. Percy had previously given particular orders that the support trench, must on no account whatever be given up. So there is every reason to feel that the Regiment was fortunate in its higher command.


Simpkin and his men held on at the end of their spinney : at 9:30 or so a Major of the 10th Hussars came forward from the Reserve Brigade to see what was going on. He said “Hold On” and went back. Rifle and shell fire was continuous from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The enemy kept coming on in the front and left front of A, digging themselves in 200 yards or so in front. They brought up one or two machine guns also. Major Ricardo was hit three or four times but continued crawling about the trench as long as it was physically possible for him to move, encouraging the men.  He finally had to be taken back and for a time there was no officer in A trench. At 12;30 Simpkin was knocked out by a shell : he crawled back down the avenue and over the road, very much dazed and stunned, he lay there until evening and then went back.


At 1 p.m. the Brigade Major (Captain Tollemache 7th Hussars) came to A again and said “Hold on at all costs”, At 2:30 p.m. the Reserve Brigade counter attack came up: our guns began shelling the enemy, who soon got up and ran: they seemed to be in great numbers: but had no intention of waiting for hand to hand fighting. As I have described previously, the remains of A joined in as the counter attack came up and charged forward with them.


Lt. Best was wounded during the forward rush. The survivors remained in the original front trench until dark: then withdrew, relieved eventually by an infantry Brigade.


The stand made by A squad in the support trench was due to Percy Freke’s action. They were actually, I believe, out of the trench and a considerable distance in the rear of it. Owing to the retirement of the regiments on their front left {1st & 2nd Life Guards} and to the severity of the shell fire. Percy met them as he came up from headquarters dugout and ordered them to go back at once: he had grasped the situation and saw it of vital importance of the retention of the line: and his influence with the men was enough to turn them and make them go again into their trench, indifferent as it was, and there stand out the 8 or 9 hours of shell and bullets which followed. I hope very much that Mrs Freke will hear the full story of his keen perception and courage and determination, they exercised a decisive influence on the day.


Such in barest outline and very incomplete, is the story of a gallant feat of arms as any Corps could wish to have to its credit. The general nature of the action may be gauged from the figures of causalities. 15 Officers and 267 N.C.O’s and men went up on the night of the 12th (including the three who went to take over): of these 12 officers and 179 N.C.O’s and men were killed, wounded and missing on May 14th.


Officers Killed

Colonel Freke                       Lt. Brooks

Major Martin             Lt. Peake

Major Liebert                        Lt. Thomson

                        Lt. Turner



Major Ricardo                      Capt. C H Martin

Capt. Codrington                Capt. Hanbury

                        Lt. Best


Stunned and bruised by shellfire:-

Lt. Fielding-Johnson

Lt. Simpkin


I give these particulars with the careful proviso that I have not seen any of the Brigade Staff and that my information is derived from the conversation with the two Subalterns and three N.C.O’s only. I believe however that the main facts are actually set out and that the general character of the action was that I have described. General Byng who commands the whole Cavalry Force, said to me on Monday morning, “The Regiment behaved MAGNIFICENTLY”, with great emphasis. General Kennedy the Brigadier (he succeeded Kavanagh) spoke in terms just as warm.


Young Fielding-Johnson, when he had told me his story yesterday said that he could not tell me what he felt of admiration and reverence for Bill’s conduct of affairs in the front line: that every N.C.O and man was of the same mind. Sergt. Major Swain said Bill put such heart into all the men that his example made them all feel after he had gone, that they must carry on as he would have wished. They were talking about him all the next day. I cannot tell you how much I mourn your brother, or the reverence and respect I have for his memory.


Swain is an essentially quite and self-possessed man and the last man to say anything for effect.


I saw Sergt. Major Green yesterday. He was back with the horses, and had not been up: He spoke very nicely and said he had written to you. It was quite impossible to reach the trench where Bills body and those of Teddie Brooks and Colin Peak lay: the fire was too great, and the trenches were much blown about by shelling all day. So they lie there and I am sure that Bill would be well content to do so, among the men who knew what he was and loved him and whom he led so gallantly.


You may rest assured that they have borne as noble a part in this war of heroic deeds as any men could, and that the memory of their example will never die in the minds of those who fought with them.