From Wandsworth to the Western Front

The 23rd (County of London) Battalion – The London Regiment

On Sunday August 2nd 1914 the men of the 23rd (County of London) Battalion The London Regiment marched out of their St John’s Hill Drill Hall  in order to board the troop train waiting in Clapham Junction Station that would take them  to Perham Down Salisbury Plain for their annual camp, well, that was the plan.

Events were proceeding well in that the Advance party  had already established itself in the camp and were waiting for the Battalion to arrive. However, between Willesden Junction and Acton the train was stopped and drawn back to Clapham Junction. Like many other Territorial Force  units, there would be no Annual Camp this year.

A black and white image of the old St John's Hill Drill Hall
The Drill Hall interior at St Johns Hill in 1912 from which the men of the 23rd (County of London) Battalion The London Regiment were mobilised in 1914

Once back at the drill hall the men were sent home with orders to be prepared to report back at short notice. In the meantime, the officers, Permanent Staff and NCOs at once started to complete all the administration in readiness for mobilisation. They did not have to wait long. War was declared on the 4th August with the order to mobilise 8 days later.

On the 14th of August with mobilisation complete the 23rd London again marched out of the St John’s Hill drill hall but this time to  Hyde Park where they would join the other units that constituted the 6th  London Infantry Brigade  who with the 4th and 5th  Brigades composed the infantry of the 2nd London Division later known as the 47th London Division.

Soldiers marching with their rifles
23rd London Regiment arriving in St Albans on the 16th August 1914

From Hyde Park the Brigade marched to Edgware and bivouacked for the night before marching on to St Albans, Hertfordshire the following morning. It was in the countryside around St Albans that the 23rd would complete their obligatory 6 months training before they would join the British Expeditionary Force in France. In the meantime, a second battalion had been raised back at St John’s Hill changing the title of the original battalion to 1/23rd.

The obligatory training period complete, on March 14th 1915, two trains conveyed the 1/23rd  to Southampton Docks where it embarked on the SS Copenhagen for LE Havre. There then followed a further six-month period of training and preparation before taking their place in the front line on the 11th April and taking part in the attack on Givenchy on the evening of May 19th.

At this stage it is worth recalling that the 1/23rd like most of the Territorial battalions of that time were not well served when it came to  personal weapons and equipment, the latter being the 1903 issue worn by their Rifle volunteer predecessors and they were still issued with the Long Lee Enfield rifle with its associated short supply of ammunition of American manufacture that on occasion caused the rifles to jam.

At one stage after the battle of Givenchy every man in the 1/23rd procured for himself  the new No 4 Short Lee Enfield Rifle on issue to the Regular army and the new Kitchener Battalions. The modern rifles could be found either in no-man’s land or at casualty clearing stations discarded for whatever reason by there original owner. The problem arose when the Battalion Quartermaster applied for bayonets to fit the newly acquired rifles only to be told that the Territorial Force were not entitled to the new rifles and those now in the battalion’s possession must be handed back and the old rifles re-issued.

A wooden memorial with the year 1914 - 1919
The Memorial to the fallen of the 23rd (County of London) Battalion The London Regiment is located within the front entrance hallway of the Army Reserve Centre at 27, St John’s Hill, Battersea and takes the form of a memorial book encased on the memorial board

After 6 months of active service, Territorial Force Infantry Battalions were still equipped with outdated equipment  whilst the new Kitchener battalions, being classed as Regular Soldiers, had priority over the Territorials  in pay, weapons and equipment. This situation remained until the months leading up to the battle of the Somme in July 1916 when all British infantry  battalions were armed and equipped to Regular Army Standards.

On the 27th September 1915 the 1/23rd were in the forward trenches  of  the major offensive to be remembered as the Battle of Loos and it was here that the men from Wandsworth were involved in a little-known act of collective bravery that never really got the recognition it deserved. It should be remembered that the trenches in this early stage of the war were crude in construction. There were no communication trenches to speak of and those that had been constructed were nearly always waist deep in water.

The newly formed Guards Division that up until now had been held in reserve was to attack the German positions entrenched on a feature to the front of the British line known as Hill 70.

The advance of the newly-formed Guards Division to attack Hill 70 will be remembered by all the 23rd men who took part in the Battle of Loos. Attention was first drawn to them by the sharp increase in the number of German shells passing overhead; then bodies of troops, at whom these shells were directed, were seen advancing over the crest of the high ground about Moroc into the valley.

More and more came over the crest by platoons in artillery formation, and the intensity of the shelling increased. Quite quickly the opposite slope took on the appearance of a gigantic moving chess-board as the platoons approached with intervals between them. The steadiness of their march was impressive, and those who thought the Guards were only ornamental soldiers revised their opinion speedily.

So inspiring was their site that scores of 23rd men of their own accord clambered out of their trenches and, under machine-gun fire, pulled aside wire entanglements and threw duckboard bridges over the ditches to facilitate the way for the Guards when it was seen that they had to pass through their lines

Captain G.A. Brett of the 1/23rd wrote of the incident in the Regimental History

The attack made considerable headway, but failed to capture Hill 70.

Thus ended the first 8 months of active service for the 1/23rd Battalion The London Regiment. Thereafter they would be involved in most of the major actions on the Western Front The Regiment raised 3 battalions in  the First World war and over 1176 officers and men were killed in action.

Unusually the  Commonwealth War Graves Commission Headstones of the fallen of the 23rd London do not carry the badge of the regiment but the battalion regimental crest with the motto ‘Loyalty Unites Us’

The building that is now the Army Reserve Centre at St John’s Hill was built in 1882 and became Headquarters of the 4th Battalion the East Surrey Rifle Volunteers. In 1887 this unit became the 4th Volunteer Battalion of The East Surrey Regiment. In 1897 Lord Wandsworth purchased the land for the development of a new drill hall.

He became Honorary Colonel of the Battalion in 1889. In 1908 the building was handed over to the Territorial Association becoming the Battalion Headquarters of the new 23rd (County of London) Battalion The London Regiment. Lord Wandsworth’s Coat of Arms can still be seen over the front entrance.

27 St Johns Hill the drill hall of the 23rd London Regiment in 1914
The front Entrance to the ARC St Johns Hill with the Coat of Arms of Lord Wandsworth still over the archway

By coincidence a later connection between the Guards Division and the 23rd London Regiment is that their original St John’s Hill Drill Hall and Headquarters in 1908 would 110 years later become the Battalion Headquarters of the 1st Battalion the London Guards.

Major (retired) Derrick Harwood MBE TD

Author and GL RFCA Historian

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