London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Royal fusiliers in the Great War - REVEILLE

The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919


At the outbreak of the war there were four regular and three special reserve battalions of Royal Fusiliers, besides the first four (City of London) battalions, the London Regiment (Territorials), who are affiliated to the regiment. Before the armistice forty-five battalions had been raised, thirty-five of which served overseas ; the Territorial battalions had thrown off numerous duplicates, and there had been formed the ioth Cadet Battalion, also a Royal Fusiliers unit. Omitting the last mentioned, there were formed in all before the armistice fifty-nine Royal Fusilier battalions.

Even so summary a survey gives one pause. It is obvious that already more battalions have been enumerated than took part in the first battle of the British Expeditionary Force ; and the regiment does not diminish, but grows, as the inquiry into its numbers and services is prosecuted. At the battle of the Somme there were a greater number of Royal Fusiliers engaged in France than the total allied force at Inkerman. The depot dealt with a body of men (153,000) exceeding the whole of the original Expeditionary Force, and although not all of them were necessarily drafted to the regiment, the total number of Royal Fusiliers must have exceeded the total number of combatants in any of the great battles of the nineteenth century, with the exception, perhaps, of half a dozen.

It is a difficult matter to give the exact number of men who passed through the regiment during the war.* Clearly the number was very considerable. Apart from the City of London Regiment, a rough f estimate would give about 195,000. This may be taken, at any rate, as a first approximation. The 29th Londons numbered about 3,681, and the 30th about 2,807. ^ we a ^d these and also the number attributable to the 1st (c. 9,408), 2nd (c. 8,133), 3rd (c. 9,199), and 4th (c. 7,248) Londons, we get a total of 235,476 men who wore the badge of the Royal Fusiliers during the war. It is a great number ; and, even with the changed regard for numbers which the war insensibly produced, it is impossible to think of it but as amazing.

So great is the roll of the regiment that it may be taken to be the British Army, or indeed the British race, in little.
If you seek men of leisure, you may find them here ; if sportsmen, here they are ; if bankers, accountants, stock-brokers, lawyers, men of science, administrators, poets, writers or 100,000 cockneys grousing in a characteristically hearty manner and concealing a wealth of heroism and kindliness under a proper protective irony — here they are. In fine, here is the British race in frieze and fustian.

For the first year of the war large numbers of recruits for the regiment arrived at the depot, were given a few hours of squad drill and, if time allowed, a little elementary musketry. They were then sent off in batches as soon as the various battalions could receive them. At times the nucleus of a whole battalion was despatched in one day. At first clothing and necessaries presented considerable difficulties, and in many cases recruits were sent off in their civilian suits. A little later a plain blue serge uniform and a field service cap were issued ; and, when the cold weather set in, civilian overcoats of various shapes and colours were provided. At this time there was a serious shortage of blankets ; but, as the result of appeals, a number of sympathetic civilians brought upwards of 1,000 blankets and rugs to the barracks. Later on, when these were no longer required for the troops, they were distributed among a number of hospitals.

In the early days the task of dealing with the large number of recruits devolved upon a very limited staff, composed for the most part of old Royal Fusiliers, either over military age or unfit for active service. Towards the end of 1914 twelve metropolitan policemen were lent to the depot, and for the months they remained at Hounslow they proved a very efficient help in the training of the recruits. Sometimes the accommodation was strained almost to the breaking point, when large bodies of men were sent to the depot at very short notice. " Labour " recruits from all over the country were the first to test the depot in this way. Later on, numbers of men for substitution from various units arrived at the barracks and stayed for some time as " the Substitution Company." Bodies of men discharged from hospital were also quartered at Hounslow and put through a course of ' hardening " before being returned to their reserve units. There were also agricultural companies ; and, towards the end of the war, several thousands of " Imperial recruits," nominally British subjects, recruited in U.S.A. and South America, had to be accommodated at the barracks. It is hardly necessary to say that the work represented by all these activities was immense.

The first four battalions were Regular battalions which served with great distinction throughout the war. Two of them, the 2nd and the 4th, each gained two Victoria Crosses. The 5th and 6th were Reserve battalions. Both of them mobilised at Hounslow and went to their war stations a few days after the declaration of war, the 5th under Lieut. -Colonel Vivian Henry and the 6th under Lieut. -Colonel R. C. Batt, M.V.O. There they formed part of the Dover defences and, fully equipped for the field, manned defensive positions. Drafts were prepared for the Expeditionary Force, and within a few weeks began to arrive in increasing numbers. The work became very strenuous. Instructors had to be improvised, the battalions at times being over 4,000 strong, with numerous recruits under training. Before the end of June, 1915, 80 officers and about 3,000 men had been sent to the front by the 5th Battalion alone. Sent to Carrickfergus, Ireland, at the end of 1917, the 6th Battalion had the pleasure of entertaining for three days about 600 N.C.O.'s and men of the American Expeditionary Force who had been rescued from the S.S. Tuscania, torpedoed off the Irish coast early in 1918.