at Rifle Wood, Somme

In 1999 a friend showed me some of his internet research into a relative who had died in the Great War. This intrigued me as I too had a relative who had been killed then: my uncle Clarence, my father's brother.

I had always known that my father had no information on the whereabouts or circumstances of his brother's death. All he knew was that Clarence was serving in the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars; he had been killed on April 1st 1918; and he was commemorated at Pozières Military Cemetery. Of course, with what I know now it would have been quite a simple matter for my father to have discovered the details that had for so long eluded him. For example, there is a comprehensive history of the Regiment in the Great War written by Adrian Keith-Falconer, one of its officers, in which all is revealed about where Clarence had died and in what action. Or he could have contacted the descendant Regiment itself, unless like me, he had thought it long ago disbanded. But the fact is he didn't, and it was left to me to find out what happened, long after my father himself had died. And so I embarked upon a journey of discovery - a journey full of interest, of excitements and frustrations, and a journey of research that is still continuing. This is the story of part of that journey, and it deals with the memorial that was dedicated in 2004 to the men of the Oxfordshire Hussars who were killed in the battle for Rifle Wood, or who died shortly afterwards from the wounds they received there.

Rifle Wood, known to the French then and now as Bois d'Hourges, lies immediately to the south of the D934 southeast of Hourges and Domart-sur-la-Luce, and about eight miles from Amiens. It sits high on a ridge and militarily provides a commanding position over the city.

To begin with let me very briefly describe some of the events of those days in early 1918. The German army generals were aware that many thousands of American troops and weapons had already started arriving in France, and if they were to succeed against the Allies at all, they had to strike in the Spring of 1918, before the opposition became overwhelming. The Germans were fortunate in being able to bring huge numbers of troops and armaments including aeroplanes back from the Eastern front, following the Russian capitulation in 1917. They knew too that the British forces had been starved of adequate reserves and replacements by Lloyd-George and his government, leading to in parts a very weakly defended Front Line. This was particularly the case on the southern flank where General Gough's Fifth Army was very thinly spread over an extended distance. So this is where the Germans decided to place the main thrust of their attack. A vigorous assault here, in the region of St Quentin, and directed towards the strategically vital city of Amiens, would hit the allies where they were weakest and would separate the British from the French armies to the south. This, the Germans thought, would enable them then to turn south towards Paris and north towards the Channel ports, thus trapping the British armies in Flanders.

The German offensive around St Quentin - Operation Michael - began on March 21st 1918 and succeeded in driving back the allied forces some forty miles in ten days before their advance was halted. The Oxfordshire Hussars were among many regiments who fought valiantly but to begin with unsuccessfully to stop the German advance. Eventually the enemy were brought to a halt 'at the gates of Amiens'. Two battles were especially important in stopping the Germans and preventing them from seizing the city: the battle of Moreuil Wood on March 30th, and the battle for Rifle Wood on Easter Monday, April 1st. Both battles were carried out almost entirely by cavalry regiments. Moreuil Wood was fought mainly by the three regiments of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade; Rifle Wood was fought by the survivors of these three regiments plus three British Cavalry units: Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, 3rd (King's Own) Hussars, and 20th Hussars. The Oxfordshire Hussars, about 120 men in total, and the 3rd Hussars about 80 strong, formed the First Wave of the three waves of the attack formation. (20th Hussars formed the Second Wave and the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was the Third Wave). The Oxfords suffered fifty percent casualties, killed and wounded.

We go on now to the year 2000. I make no apologies for this being a highly personalized document, for the story of my research into the death of my uncle Clarence is by its very nature a personal one, originally intended to try to uncover the facts for family history reasons. That it became a story inseparable from the history of the Oxfordshire Hussars and from the activities and interests of today's Squadron is almost a happy accident. That I was able to play a part, indeed an active role, in the commissioning of the Regimental memorial just adds to the personal pleasure I and my family get from the results of my 'journey of discovery'.

Early in 2000 I discovered through buying Keith-Falconer's history of QOOH that my uncle Private Clarence Maasz, of 'A' Squadron, had been killed during the battle to take Rifle Wood from the occupying Germans. The book gives a very detailed description of all the events to do with the battle, including a map, and my uncle is listed in an Appendix as one of those who died. As I have mentioned previously, this was completely new information and came like a shaft of light. How I wished that my father had been still alive to learn where his brother had been killed. By this time I was reading extensively about the Great War and the battles of Spring 1918 in particular. I pored over maps trying to visualize where events had occurred; where the men had dug in; where the enemy attacks were coming from. I spent hours trying to correlate War Diary map references with modern IGN maps. This visualization is, for me, one of the most interesting aspects of following a battle from the written word, but as several forays to the battlefields of France and Flanders have shown me, the understanding so obtained can in no way compare with walking the ground itself, if necessary with book and map in hand. So this time I decided I actually had to visit Rifle Wood and see for myself where the battle had taken place. Furthermore, I did so on the 82nd anniversary of the action, April 1st, 2000. In my mind my visit was a commemoration of my long-dead uncle and his pals.

Thanks to the detailed descriptions of the battle contained in the history, it was easy to locate the battlefield. I walked around the boggy ground beside the River Luce (it was boggy in 1918), and still showing many shell craters. Although it is now a plantation of young trees, there are many old and half-rotten stumps of trees that must be those from the time of the Great War and which provided some cover to the men massing for the attack. I found my way to where I knew from the history that the regiments had 'jumped-off' for their advance into battle. They had to advance across an open field to their target, Rifle Wood, clearly visible about 600 metres or so away on the skyline. As the history describes, the bravery of those men was outstanding, walking as they did across open ground into enemy machine-gun fire, mostly in enfilade from the edge of the wood. Even the weather on the day of my visit was similar to 1918: grey and overcast. During my explorations I discovered the remains of an old brick wall half buried in the field bank at the edge of the boggy ground near the river. From its position and the description in the history I knew that this had to be part of the walled garden beside which the First Wave of the attack, which included QOOH, waited until the signal to go was given. I knew then that I really was at the jumping-off point. It was a very poignant moment, knowing that I was the first member of my family ever to stand where Clarence had stood, looking across the same ground to his attack objective up there on the hill. I pinned to a fence post nearby a notice which I had prepared remembering my uncle and fourteen other men of the regiment who had died, and I also attached a poppy. This later turned out to be a very significant act on my part.

After finishing my battlefield walk, I visited the nearby Hourges Orchard Cemetery where I looked for any graves that might have said 'a soldier of the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars' and which possibly could be my uncle, but I found none. I confess to being quite disappointed. There were some unknown graves, but all the graves except a few were men, mostly Canadians, who died in August 1918, when the ground was fought over once more. (The OYT archives have a record of an Oxfordshire Hussars trooper who went back to Rifle Wood that August and found the dead, including his own cousin, still lying where they fell, but the Germans had taken their boots). I wrote an entry in the Visitors' Book, remembering my uncle and the other QOOH men who had died.

Several days after returning home, I was surprised to receive a phone call from France. The caller introduced himself as Marc Pilot, a local Lycée teacher and historian who was very interested in the Rifle Wood battle. He told me how, with local people and Canadian cavalry veterans, he had founded the Luce/Maple Leaf Association. This was an organisation devoted to the history and memory of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade who had fought the battle at nearby Moreuil Wood on 30th March 1918, and who had also fought in the Rifle Wood attack two days later. He told me that he had been taken by an old man who lived nearby, and who had been out looking for mushrooms, to see the notice I had pinned to the fence post. The man could not read the notice but knew it was connected with the war because of the attached poppy. Marc Pilot had the wisdom to look in the Visitors Book at the local cemetery and had found my entry. He was able to trace me quite easily because of my unusual name. It became clear that Marc and I had very similar and equally keen interests in the Rifle Wood battle, and we agreed to exchange information from our researches.

Around this same time I wrote a letter to the 'Oxford Times' about Rifle Wood, mentioning the names of those killed, and expressing interest in hearing from any relatives. I received a reply from a member of the Hawtin family, Sergeant Alfred Hawtin being one of the dead. I also had a letter from a Mr 'Tiggy' Morgan advising me of the existence of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry Association (OYA) and giving me contact details. I was surprised to find that the regiment still existed as a TA Signals Squadron. I was able to join the OYA as an associate member.

Over the ensuing months Marc Pilot and I spoke and corresponded often, discussing various aspects of the battles and the regiments that took part. During one of these conversations, in early 2001, I asked Marc if his Association had ever thought about erecting a memorial to those killed in the two battles. He replied that yes, one was being considered by the Canadians. I then raised with him the possibility of the Oxfordshire Hussars sharing in the memorial, and this suggestion was received very favourably. We mutually speculated that a memorial could perhaps comprise a stone block with one face towards Moreuil Wood commemorating the Canadians and one face towards Rifle Wood commemorating the Oxfordshire Hussars. I told him I would raise the subject with the OYA, and Marc said he would do the same with his Canadian associates. I therefore wrote to my OYA contact telling him about the possibility of a Canadian memorial near Moreuil, that QOOH might share in. A little later I heard that the Oxfordshire Yeomanry Trust, who would be the source of any funds made available, were very interested in the idea. By July I was able to advise them that Marc Pilot had located a piece of land very close to Rifle Wood that would be a suitable place for a memorial.

Although by this time the prime contacts on the memorial project were between the OY Trust, Marc Pilot and the Canadians, I continued with my research into the Rifle Wood battle, reading the regimental histories of the other regiments involved, searching the internet for useful information, and visiting the National Archives at Kew to copy War Diaries and photograph trench maps. In the expectation that if the Oxfordshire Hussars did succeed in having a place on any memorial we would be able to include the names of all the men who died in the battle, I continued to pursue this area of 'digging'. I wanted to make sure that we had all the names of those who died, and they were spelled correctly. I was able to identify several new names. They were men who were not listed in Keith-Falconer's Appendix A as having been Killed in Action at Rifle Wood, but they were listed in his Appendix B as having been wounded, and I was able to determine that they died later of these wounds and therefore they merited a place on the memorial. At this stage I had a total of nineteen names, later increased to twenty.

Here I must make a short diversion. There is a well-known report from Trooper H. Ward, QOOH, which is quoted by Lyn Macdonald in her book 'To the Last Man - Spring 1918' and repeated by several other authors of WW1 histories, in which Ward describes a 2nd Lieut. Dove being killed at Rifle Wood while the attack was in progress. I was aware of this story at the time I was compiling my list of memorial names. However, although Keith-Falconer's Appendix lists Dove (who was actually Bedfordshire Yeomanry, attached to QOOH) as dying of wounds on the same day as the Rifle Wood battle, the accompanying note reads 'DW near Amiens. With Carey's Force.' The author makes clear that this means he died of wounds received near Amiens and if he had been 'DW - Rifle Wood' that is how his death would have been recorded. I interpreted this, and the 'with Carey's Force' reference as clear indication that Dove was not in fact at Rifle Wood. Furthermore K-F records in his text all the officers who took part and Dove was not one of them. Consequently I omitted Dove from my list of memorial names. Some time after the memorial had been completed I had doubts whether excluding Dove was right. It concerned me that maybe I had been wrong to leave him out, given the apparently positive words of Trooper Ward. I even went as far as wondering if his name could be engraved on the memorial plaque 'in situ'. I therefore spent a lot of time researching further into both Dove and Carey's Force. I discovered that this force was a stop-gap group of some 2 - 3000 men and officers, cobbled together by General Gough commanding 5th Army and taken from a wide variety of units, later put under the command of General Carey, to fill a weak point in the defensive front near to Villers-Brettoneux. Their area of operations was some distance to the north of Rifle Wood. I also undertook a step-by-step analysis of Ward's story, comparing the events he mentions with the known facts of the Rifle Wood battle. Some did not correlate, such as his mention of the use of pack-horses which I knew QOOH did not have present, and this led me to the firm conclusion that Ward's memory of events as quoted by Lyn Macdonald et al was mistaken: Dove was not at Rifle Wood, and it was right to omit his name from our memorial. (Note: later research shows that Ward should have been recorded as Machine Gun Corps and not QOOH. This has made some of his memories more understandable but still does not equate to Lieut, Dove being the officer who was killed.)

By February 2002 the OY Trust had received from Canada some preliminary sketches of what the memorial might look like and it was confirmed that the Trust wanted to participate in it and to support it financially. The interest of the Squadron and the OYT and the OYA in the memorial was now firmly established, and in April of that year a Squadron training and education exercise took place ('Salient Canter'). It included a visit to Rifle Wood and a tour of the battleground conducted by Marc Pilot. We were conducted through the wood itself, which I had not ventured into on my visit in 1999. (Later I was to discover that my uncle had been killed actually in the wood, and buried there.) Traces of the battle are still clearly visible: bullets, complete shells and shell fragments, dugouts; it is hard to believe that it was more than eighty years ago.

Progress with the memorial project over the next months was slow: there were complications arising from new roads being built near the selected memorial site, and it is not until May 2003 that we learned that the Canadians had reached the final design and site negotiation stages. We were advised that British units were to be 'mentioned' in the intended text on the memorial. We were also told that the Canadians hoped to dedicate the memorial in the summer of 2004. In September a party from OYT travelled to Rifle Wood to inspect the proposed site. I was by this time increasingly concerned that based on the earlier advice we had received, it did not appear that it was intended to allow us to have actual names inscribed on the memorial. I had a particular and very personal interest in this: I really wanted to see my uncle - and his pals - commemorated by name, and I raised my concerns with the Trust.

It was not until March 2004 that pictures of their memorial were sent from Canada. The Canadian memorial (for that is how it should be described) was going to be in the form of a triangular stone obelisk on a stone plinth. On each face of the obelisk there was to be a coloured panel made from synthetic resin describing in detail the battles of Moreuil Wood and Rifle Wood, and featuring prominently a Canadian officer who had received a posthumous VC after the Moreuil battle. But again it was clear that British units would only be 'mentioned.'

On 12 March Colonel May, Chairman of the OY Trust wrote to the Canadians saying that the Trust had hoped for more specific mention of QOOH on the memorial and suggesting we take a half-share of one face of the monument, or perhaps have our own plaque on the lower plinth. The dedication ceremony was now planned for June: the Canadian party intended to combine the dedication ceremony with a visit to remember the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Time was by then of the essence, there being now less than three months before the planned dedication. It was then acknowledged by the Canadians that they would allow us a plaque on the base of their monument, the allotted space being 25 x 25cms. This news was gratefully received and a financial contribution from the OY Trust was confirmed.

Colonel May then contacted me inviting me to suggest a text for our plaque. I replied noting that because of limited space the wording on the plaque would need to be kept very simple. I found the best way for me to work out what to say and how to present it was to draft an actual design. I sent to Colonel May a complete design drawn full size for consideration by the Trust committee. It included nineteen names of men (soon increased to twenty) that I had identified as having been killed in the action or who died later of their wounds. With minor modifications the design was approved. The first three weeks of April were busy times, as every effort was made to confirm the size, material, location and text for our plaque. Attempts were made to obtain a bigger plaque space but they were unsuccessful. At this stage it was thought the plaque would be made in the same synthetic resin material that the Canadians were using for their plaques, pictures of which had been sent to us. One of these included a diagram of the Rifle Wood attack and I noted it was incorrect in respect of the jumping-off points for the 1st and 2nd waves, and of more concern, in respect of the objectives to be taken by QOOH. The diagram did not show that QOOH had been directed to take the NE corner of the wood and defend it. This was an important detail because QOOH suffered casualties there (including my uncle Clarence). Shortly afterwards it was confirmed by the Canadians that our plaque was to made of engraved black granite, and it should be ready to be installed in time for the dedication ceremony. Black granite was the same material as was used to form the small maple-leaf inserts on the two other sides of the plinth. It was a very satisfactory choice, and in my view superior to the use of the synthetic resin that the Canadians had employed, presumably in order to obtain the pictorial details they wanted to present.

Time was now running out. Discussions were being held now about the format and composition of the official parties to be present at the dedication. The Squadron was planning to send twenty soldiers plus a trumpeter. There would also be OYT and OYA members and families present. (But to my dismay, now that the date of the dedication had been finally decided, I was committed to being abroad on holiday.) A press release was drafted, and on 5 May we were sent a photo of our completed plaque (which looked exceedingly good) and it was confirmed that it would be fixed in place in time for the ceremony. Planning for the ceremony and the parade resulted in frequent correspondence with the Canadians during May, and arrangements were made to transmit the OYT contribution to the memorial. I am happy to say that several members of my family gave to the memorial fund.

The dedication ceremony took place on 9th June, 2004 attended by around twenty serving members of the Squadron, a party of Canadian soldiers, and a considerable number of local French people, mayors and veterans. The memorial stands West of the D23 from Démuin to Moreuil near its crossing of the D934. Co-ordinates are 49º48'18" N and 2º31'7" E.

Thus my journey of discovery that had begun some four years before had come to a very satisfactory and personally gratifying conclusion. It was good to know those twenty brave men were remembered and commemorated very close to their final resting place. Only one of those killed in the battle has a known grave: Private French, buried in Moreuil Cemetery, although four others (plus Lieut. Dove) who died in a field hospital of wounds received in the battle are buried at Namps-au-Val.

Since that time two formal visits have been made by the Trust, the Squadron, OYA members and families to re-dedicate the memorial. The first was in 2005; the second was this year 2008 to remember the 90th anniversary of the battle. I am confident that April 1st 1918, one short day in the Regiment's long and distinguished history, will be remembered for many years to come.

Revision November 2010

The original plaque installed in 2004 had twenty names on it. In 2009 new information was found that enabled two more names to be added, and minor spelling corrections to be made. Because of this the OYT decided that amending the plaque was not possible and a new plaque would be commissioned. It was installed and dedicated in May this year.

The names of the men commemorated on the new Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars memorial plaque are:

Pte. J Anthony

Pte. B Atkins

Saddler G Avery

L/Corp. DC Carter

Pte. EW Didcock


Pte. WJ Dunn

Pte. RG Farmbrough


Pte. E Ford

Pte. HA French

Sergt. A Hawtin

Pte. HG Hicks

Pte. FG Hunnisett

Pte. WF Jacques

Sergt. J Johnston MM

Lieut. JP Higgs

Pte. CWC Maasz

Pte. AP Miles

Pte. WJ Mortimore

Pte. HN Parker

Pte. CJ Partridge

L/Corp. FJ Rouse

Corp. RN Webb

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Peter Maasz

Further information on the Oxfordshire Hussars' history both before and after the Great War,
and on individual soldiers, can be obtained via the Soldiers of Oxfordshire website

Copyright © Peter Maasz, 2008 with revisions November, 2010.

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