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Private Lewis (Louis) Davey
117276   88th Machine Gun
Company,
88th Brigade, 29th Division

Died  26.11.17

      Private Louis Davey (named as Louis on the Commonwealth War Graves records but Lewis in the census returns) was born in 1899, the son of Sarah and Daniel Davey, a thatcher in Hollocombe.  It was a large family, with 7 children in 1901 living in a small 4 roomed cottage. Louis was their sixth child, and at age 12 in the 1911 census still at Hollocombe school, while Gilbert, an elder brother of 18 was working as a farm labourer for Richard Stevens at The Barton, Eggesford.  Two of their sisters, Bessie then 21 and Alice aged 19 might well have been married, but they certainly had left home, as had Augustus aged 16.  Family memories recall that at least one son had fought in the war having emigrated to Canada.  By the year of Louis’ death in 1917, his parents Daniel and Sarah were living in the High Street, Winkleigh.  Not all the 10 children survived. Amelia, aged 1 in 1901 has gone by 1911 and the fate of Augustus, Bessie and Alan is in doubt.

      Louis enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps, but we have no details of his service.  Towards the end of 1915 or early in 1916, Louis transferred to a newly formed branch of the army, the Machine-Gun Corps.  In 1914 the British army had less than 300 machine-guns in service, which amounted in fact to usually two guns per battalion.  Production of the Mark1 Vickers machine-gun was rapidly increased.  Between August 1914 and June 1915 1,800 guns were sent to France to replace losses and to increase the allocation of guns to battalions, since by December 1914 most guns had already been abandoned in the retreat from Mons or put out of action, and in any case the majority of the machine gun personnel were already dead.  By contrast, by the end of the war, some 75,242 guns were in use in France.  This rapid expansion could only be organised by the creation of the Machine-Gun Corps, a separate force with its own headquarters at Harrowby Camp, Grantham, Lincolnshire and a further training school at St Omer in France, and with each machine-gun company attached to the brigade in which it served.  On the 15th October 1915 Lord Kitchener had ordered the Machine-Gun Corps into existence, and from the very first it was considered to be an elite group selected from marksmen posted to join the Corps from many battalions, supplemented by many who also volunteered from other units.  Not the least of motives to join the Corps was the higher pay offered for what was called throughout the army ‘the suicide club’.  The reorganisation was rapid, and as the war progressed the Corps included infantry, cavalry, motor and heavy branches.  This latter became the origin of the Tank Corps.  When tanks were first introduced in September 1916 the crews were drawn from the Machine-Gun Corps, because although the ‘male’ tanks carried a gun the tanks were seen primarily as machine-gun mobile platforms to crush the defensive wire and fire directly onto the defenders in their trenches.  The infant Tank-Corps followed the organisation of the Machine-Gun Corps, formed by the end of 1917 into the Royal Tank Corps.  The Machine-Gun Corps, an elite force, itself had a short life, October 1915 to February 1919.  Casualties were heavy.  In all, between its formation and the end of the war 170,500 officers and men had served.  Of these the suicide club lost 13,791 officers and men, with 48,258 wounded.

      Between November 1915 and early 1916, all the remaining machine-gun crews within infantry battalions had been formed into Companies, each carrying the number of the brigade in which they served.  Brigade machine-gun companies were armed with 16 guns, so that each division of 3 brigades carried an establishment of 48 guns.  The Companies had three main tasks: to provide covering fire for units moving forward into front-line positions, to provide fire while in the line for a multitude of tasks preventing the build-up of enemy units, harassing the enemy during their relief operations, covering trench raids, eliminating snipers and enemy machine-gun posts, covering our own reliefs, as well as covering our own retreats or retirements from ground that had been won but was being abandoned.  The unofficial motto of the suicide club was ‘first-in, last-out’.  Each gun had an allocation of 6 men.  No1, a Cpl. or L/Cpl. fired the gun, decided the best site to locate and when on the move carried the tripod weighing 48 lbs.  No.2 carried the gun (42 lbs.) and 4 litres of water for the cooling system.  Nos.3 and 4 carried and fed the ammunition, No.5 was the scout spotting targets and No.6 was the range finder.  These tasks were interchangeable of course.  A gun could if necessary fire 600 rounds per minute, which meant that 33 lbs. weight of cartridges could be fired in 60 seconds, and in prolonged use 1,500 rounds per hour was normal, weighing one-third of a ton.  A Company of 16 guns could easily consume 5 tons of ammunition per hour.  Such prodigious amounts of ammunition, carried either by mules or by horse-drawn limbers meant that the transport section of a machine-gun company was larger than that of an entire infantry division.  The infantry were not at all pleased to be associated with the suicide club: it meant assisting with the wearing fatigue of handling the extra ammunition in the front line areas, and when in use in the line machine-gun fire would often bring down German counter-battery shell fire putting everyone at greatly increased risk.  In attack, however, machine-guns were invaluable life-savers.  Situated just behind the attacking infantry, and forward of the artillery creeping barrage, they could fire over the heads of the attacking force to fire direct into the enemy trenches to help neutralize the defence.  The Germans, of course, used the same tactics and moreover throughout the war had greatly superior numbers of guns.

      So successful and necessary was the work of the machine-gun companies, that in 1917, in the months before the battle of Cambrai in which Louis Davey lost his life, the 3 machine-gun companies attached to each brigade were increased to 4, the additional company being regarded as ‘corps troops’ and acted as a reserve and reinforcements as required.  The crisis of near defeat in March 1918 and the advance of the allies in the last months of the war brought a further reorganisation.  All the machine-gun companies within each division were consolidated into machine-gun battalions.  Thus on 16th February 1918 the 88th Company within 29th Division became the 29th Battalion of the Machine-Gun Corps.

      The 88th Machine-Gun Company was formed only on February 21st 1916, attached to the 88th Brigade, 29th Division.  The 29th was indeed a famous ‘New Army’ Division that had taken terrible losses in Gallipoli, before being withdrawn to Egypt at the end of the Gallipoli campaign for rest and the re-training of new drafts in January 1916.  They returned to France in time to receive a further mauling on the first day of the Somme, 1st July 1916, and continued their magnificent record in the Arras offensive of 1917 and the in the same year 3rd Ypres, the battle of Passchendaele.  The 1917 battle of Cambrai was notable, not only because it was the first time in history that tanks were used to form the spearhead of a mass infantry attack, but all the experience gained by the Machine-Gun Corps up to that time was used to very good advantage, not only in the opening stages of the battle but in giving covering fire in the inevitable and successful German counter-attack which won back most of the ground that had been gained.  In spite of the casualties and in spite of the disappointments, the lessons learned at Cambrai were invaluable in the final breaking of the Hindenburg Line and the advance of 1918.

      In preparation for the battle, The 29th Division established its H.Q. in the chateau of Templeux-la-Fosse.  The Division was Part of IV Corps under the command of Lt-Gen Woollcombe.  The four infantry divisions that made up IV Corps totalled 72,000 men, together with their artillery, engineers and other units, plus the 2,200 men of the Tank Corps, making the total number 104,000.  Cambrai, a town in Belgium on the river Schelde, lies 37 miles from Lille.  The attack, led by the tanks after a short artillery bombardment, opened on a 8 mile front at 6.30 am on 20th November.  By 28th November the battle, never intended to be much more than a limited operation to capture the high ground and the town itself, was all over.  The enthusiasm created in England by an advance on the first days (so much so that the King ordered church bells to be rung for the first time since 1914) was a cruel illusion.  Morning fog assisted the first attack, and the tanks provided a way through the wire, at first terrifying the Germans, who, however quickly learnt how vulnerable these slow moving targets were to field-gun fire and the use they themselves could make of broken down tanks to provide cover for snipers.  Bad weather prevented night operations on 20th and though the advance continued on 21st the cavalry were unable to exploit the success by crossing the canal bridges and encircling Cambrai.  On 25th the Germans counter-attacked using gas and huge amounts of shrapnel and high explosive shells to support groups of storm-troopers trained for the assault, and by 30th the British were back to where the attack had started in most areas.

      In November 1917 the 88th Brigade, 29th Division, to which the 88th machine-gun company was attached, consisted of 4 battalions: the 4th Worcesters, 2nd Hampshires, 1st Essex and the Newfoundland Regiment.  We are fortunate that the 88th Company was commanded by Captain Pashkin who subsequently wrote a personal account of its activities at Cambrai, now preserved in the Imperial War Museum.  The orders issued to Captain Pashkin on 15th November designated the task allotted to 88th Brigade.  For the opening attack the 29th Division was held in reserve to exploit the original break-through in the area south-west of Masnieres, cross the canal and move on to higher ground at the junction of the 87th and 88th brigades on the Masnieres-Cambrai road.  Overall, the first objective for the 29th Division was the village of Les Rues Verts, then the village of Masnieres and finally to cover the river crossing at Les Rues Vertes for the cavalry to pass through. It was a vital area of the battlefield, crucial to the success of the whole operation.  The 88th machine-gun company consisted of 4 sections, each commanded by a subaltern or Sergeant.  Section 3 was allocated to support the 1st Essex, tasked with crossing the canal.  Section 4 was to support the 4th Worcesters, 2 guns across the canal, 2 guns south of it.  Section 1 supported the Newfoundlanders while Section 2 was divided, 2 guns together with the ammunition supplies remained with brigade reserve, 2 guns to the 2nd Hampshires.  Quaintly, the Company was to be warned of an imminent German counter-attack by a signal from an aeroplane, a smoke-bomb parachute flare.  Every man carried 2 day's rations, plus an iron-ration and a full water-bottle.

      Before the battle, the 29th Division was in rest at Bienvillers-au-Bois.  The 88th Brigade moved forward to Baupaume, then on to Moislains and from there to Sorrel.  Beyond Sorrel only pack transport could be used for the machine-guns and ammunition, and each mule was burdened with a gun, tripod, spare parts case, 2 spare belts of ammunition in sand-bags and 8 boxes of belts.  The remaining belt boxes together with a further 10,000 rounds were held in the reserve dump.  Expectations for success were high, buoyed by the sight of the tanks (for some their first view of these incredible monsters) the dry hard ground undamaged by shell fire and the ground very favourable for giving direct overhead fire to the attacking infantry.  Infantry attacks in the First World War were usually meticulously planned with elaborate timing for the creeping barrage and definite lines defined to be taken and held, but once the battle began, communication with the forward troops could be maintained only by runners, liable to be killed by retaliatory shell fire.  Telephone cables were destroyed, flags and pigeons useless, and in the days before portable short-wave radio communication there was simply no way in which modifications to the original plans could be adapted to the prevailing circumstances.  On this occasion, thanks to the tanks, all was well and the 88th infantry brigade was successful in reaching their destinations, in what could be seen as a classic and successful plan of attack.

      The 4 sections of the machine-gun company had joined their battalions at Sorrel and moved to their assembly positions west of Gouzencourt.  Zero hour was 6.20 on 20th November. Held for a time in reserve, the 88th brigade moved forward over the German front line already taken: the ‘brown’ line.  Advancing through the German ‘blue’ support line and on to ‘red’ reserve line, the 88th were able to push forward towards the canal and the higher ground beyond it.  The 1st Essex took up a position to command the bridge, already broken but still available to be crossed by infantry, and the machine-guns were sited accordingly.  See photgraph on the right of the bridge taken after the war.  The section 3 commander, 2nd Lt. Lys M.C., having completed this task, went back to Battalion H.Q. to report the situation.  During the night section 3 ‘mopped up’ the north-west corner of the village of Les Rues Verts.  Section 3 was then relieved, replaced by the reserve guns of the Newfoundlanders.  Section 4, supporting the 4th Worcesters on the first day, had pushed on, crossing the canal at the lock gates and taking up positions on the higher ground before nightfall, where the guns were sited to defend a rapidly dug defensive line.  On the left flank of the first day‘s advance, 2 guns in section 1 had advanced with the Newfoundlanders while the other 2 had been allocated to the 2nd Hampshires as they crossed the German old front line.  The Newfoundlanders had come under intense fire from German guns situated on the rising ground on the far side of the canal, but the section 1 guns gave very effective covering fire to support their advance.  Once the broken bridge and the lock gates had been rushed and secured, the Newfoundlanders together with their two guns could advance to the higher ground and silence the German guns and the remaining snipers.  Meanwhile, the sub-section of 2 guns supporting the 2nd Hampshires, who had been the first to discover that they could cross the canal via the lock gates, had somehow become separated from the infantry at the ‘brown’ line.  As a result the sub-section was transferred by brigade H.Q. to add further support to the 4th Worcesters and to section 4, now in the most forward position.  While carrying this out, one gun was immobilised by a sniper, the crew becoming casualties.  The remaining gun rejoined the Hampshires and dug in.

      Now that Les Rues Verts was secured the reserve ammunition could be brought up to the Machine-Gun Company H.Q. by sub-section 2, arriving at 4.00 pm.  I mule had to be shot on the way, having fallen into a trench and broken a leg.  As the second day dawned, the attack continued.  Section 4 with the 4th Worcesters crossed the canal and took up a position on the right of the sugar factory.  Having come up with the ammunition, the sub-section reserve of section 2 moved to the broken bridge to defend it as the right-flank guard, giving covering fire to units of the 20th Division, attempting to cross the bridge.  In particular, a local German counter-attack beyond Mon Plaisir Farm was effectively stopped.  Having finally cleared Les Rues Verts, No.3 section with the 1st Essex advanced across the canal, but the advance was now checked by German snipers who had taken up positions on the west side of the Masnieres road.  The general advance of the 88th Brigade could now go no further.

      On the third day, 22nd November, all that could be achieved was to consolidate the positions on the far side of the canal and at the bridge and wait for the inevitable German counter-attack.  Although the bridge was securely held, the cavalry could not pass through, and the whole plan of the battle on the right flank now became impossible and unalterable.  German snipers were extremely efficient.  The section 3 guns with 1st Essex were able to give some relief by raking the houses on the east side of the Cambrai road. On the fourth day, 24th November, the 4th Worcesters consolidated further by digging in north-east of Mon Plaisir Farm, with covering fire from their section 4 guns.  At nightfall the 88th brigade, together with the 88th Machine-Gun Company were relieved by the 29th machine-gun company and moved into divisional reserve at Marcoing. Astonishingly, casualties had been very light for the 4 sections. All the officers survived, 3 other ranks were killed, 6 wounded and 3 missing (i.e. blown up by shell fire).

      There is no doubt that the part played by the 88th brigade in their 5 days battle was a minor classic of the war.  The attack had gone well according to plan, and small adjustments to the advance had been made as required.  However, the general advance had been stopped by lack of further reserves, the accidental destruction of the bridge and the German snipers who had made the most of the opportunities provided them.  After 5 days the 88th were exhausted, hungry and badly needing a relief.  There was nothing further that could be done. Meanwhile there were lessons to be learned for the future.  The value of direct overhead covering fire was proven beyond doubt, while the tanks, hugely important in crushing the wire, could achieve only limited success, vulnerable as they were to shell fire.  Successful as they were, communications in the 29th Division between battalion and company H.Q.s had as usual broken down almost immediately, although in the Machine-Gun Company communications by runner had luckily worked well, while in spite of the loss of a mule, the pack saddlery system worked well, the ammunition could be brought up and no loads were lost.

      Louis Davey had survived and was now able to enjoy some sleep and better rations.  However, his luck was soon to run out.  While in so-called ‘rest’ troops were called on for endless carrying parties in bringing up rations, water, ammunition and all sorts of supplies, both by night and day.  These fatigues often proved much more dangerous than time spent in the front, support or reserve lines themselves, where troops had at least some protection in the trenches from the constant shell-fire.  Between 24th and 30th November, while in Divisional reserve, the war diary of the 88th Machine-Gun Company was either not kept or more likely was lost, but we can be sure that it would have contained little apart from details of the fatigue parties and the resulting casualties that were incurred.  Louis Davey was killed on 26th November, certainly while carrying out a fatigue, and certainly killed by shell-fire.  There is no known grave.  The war diary, picking up again on November 30th reports that over the 5 days of the Divisional ‘rest’, the Marcoing area was subjected to very heavy bombardment, preparatory to the inevitable German counter-attack which was launched on 29th November in the Southern zone on troops exhausted after 10 days of battle.  The 88th Machine-Gun Company returned on the 29th to the area of Marcoing and Masnieres, with the 29th Divisional H.Q. in the quarry at Gouzeaucourt on the Villers-Guislain road.  The attack on Marcoing developed from the south-east, and the 88th moved out to try and deal with it.  The retreat began and by the end the ‘brown’ line south-west of Marcoing (the old German front line) became the main line of defence at the final end of the battle.

      Casualties as a whole in the battle of Cambrai were severe.  Between the 20th and the 29th November, 8 divisions were used, suffering 23,057 casualties out of 160,000 troops (about 15% of forces used).  From 30th November, when the German counter attack began, 9 Divisions took 18,548 casualties out of a force of 180,000 (10% of troops).  On the other hand, in the first three days of the attack, success on this scale had never been seen since 1914.  Thanks to the use of tanks the infantry could pass easily through the huge belts of wire defending the Hindenburg line, though because the wire was only trampled rather than buried, it was much more difficult for horses and mules to move forward.  Across a wide front of 72,000 yards 10 divisions penetrated to a depth of 10,000 yards in 12 hours, and captured 8000 prisoners and 100 guns.  Machine-guns, seen up to now as primarily a defensive weapon were tested for the first time as weapons of offense - a role they were to play with great effect in the advance in 1918.  In some Divisions the machine-gun companies were not pushed forward with such boldness, taking up their positions and moving only rarely, far too far behind the attack.  In the 88th this was certainly not the case, proving that in spite of their boldness, and providing the guns were well sited, casualties could be reduced to a minimum, both for themselves and for the infantry.  Once the counter attack had begun on 30th November, the machine-guns proved to be invaluable, defending the ground won, giving covering fire to the infantry in their retreat, and eliminating snipers and enemy machine-guns.  Many see Cambrai as the last battle of the old war and the first battle of the new, a war of mobility, of blitzkrieg, of co-operation between all arms of the services including aircraft, lessons indeed that were fully understood by the Germans and used at the start of World War II.

      117276 Private Louis Davey is commemorated on the Cambrai memorial at Looverval, 16 kilometres west of Cambrai, where the names of 7042 casualties who fell in the battle of Cambrai, and who have no known grave, are recorded.

19 November 2010

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Remembering Louis Davey


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CAMBRAI 1917