100 years since Huj: The story of the last classic cavalry charge in the history of the British Army
One hundred years ago today Black Country troopers carried out the last classic cavalry charge in the history of the British Army. PETER RHODES tells the story of Huj
Before the First World War even began, the Worcestershire Yeomanry was the pride of the Black Country.
Raised in 1794 to face the threat of invasion by France, the volunteer regiment of part-time cavalrymen had provided an escort for Queen Victoria and been rewarded with the grand title The Queen's Own Worcestershire Hussars.
In 1902, having volunteered and served with distinction in the Boer War, the regiment was presented with the Faberge jewel recently revealed on Antiques Roadshow and valued at £1 million.
But it was in the First World War that the Worcestershire Yeomanry carved its name in military history.
On November 8, 1917 the Turks, allies of Germany, had been beaten at Gaza and were withdrawing toward Jerusalem. As the 60th (London) Division advanced on the small town of Huj, they found the way blocked by a mixed force of Turkish and German gunners. Unable to move, the Londoners called for the cavalry.
The scene was set for the last classic cavalry charge in the history of the British Army. On a dusty ridge in the Holy Land, outnumbered 10 to one, the riders faced the blazing muzzles of field guns.
It was a scene that had hardly changed since the Charge of the Light Brigade 63 years earlier. Even the distance of half a league, or 1.5 miles, was the same.
The difference was that this charge was carried out not by the cream of the regular cavalry but by ploughboys and factory hands who learned their sword and saddle skills on drill nights and weekends around Dudley and Stourbridge as part of the Territorial Force, later to become known as the Territorial Army.
At the word of command, this force of 12 officers and 158 men drew their swords and galloped against the guns and a mass of 2,000 Turkish soldiers.
Darcy Harold Jones, the last survivor of the charge who died in 1997 recalled an officer shouting: "It's the guns we're after, lads!"
The Express & Star's report a few days later told how the Midland horsemen attacked: "With a full-throated cheer."
The Turks, with German and Austrian officers, stood their ground, firing shells at point-blank range. One group of the Worcestershire Yeomanry rode straight at the main Turkish infantry force. The rest, joined by the Warwickshire Yeomanry and spurred on by their officers' hunting horns, thundered into the artillery lines, scattering the gunners
One eye-witness recalled: “Serving their guns rapidly, the artillerymen constantly shortened the range, until, as the shouting Yeomanry dashed sword in hand up to the batteries, shells were bursting and scattering widely as they left the muzzles. While they were ploughed by the shells, the horsemen also rode through a whirl of machine-gun fire. But they spurred right home, sabred the gunners as they served their pieces, and then dashed at a nest of machine-guns and killed the crews.”
The only officer of the Worcestershire Yeomanry to escape uninjured, Lieutenant Mercer, described the charge.
He said: "Machine guns and rifles opened up on us the moment we topped the rise behind which we had formed up. A whole heap of men and horses went down 20 or 30 yards from the muzzles of the guns. The squadron broke into a few scattered horsemen at the guns and seemed to melt away completely. For a time I, at any rate, had the impression that I was the only man left alive. I was amazed to discover we were the victors.”
It was all over in 20 minutes. Twenty-six yeomen died in the charge and 40 were wounded. One hundred horses perished, some killed by shells that passed straight through them before exploding. Yet the attack succeeded. And even in the blood-lust, mercy was shown. Seventy prisoners were taken, together with eleven guns, one of which has pride of place in the Warwickshire Yeomanry Museum, Warwick.
The Worcestershire Yeomanry was attached to an Australian force whose official history recorded: "This charge had taken place in full view of the Australians who were quick to appreciate the fact that the British Territorial horsemen could no longer be estimated lightly as campaigners."
The Charge at Huj was not the last cavalry action of the war. Some Australian cavalry later charged, brandishing bayonets. Some British riders harassed the Germans in France right up to the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
But Huj was the last occasion when British cavalrymen, without any supporting fire, charged enemy guns and took them at swordpoint. It was a decisive moment in the liberation of Palestine and the creation, 30 years later, of the state of Israel.
Today, the traditions of the Worcestershire Yeomanry are continued by the Dudley-based Army Reserve unit, B (S,WWY) Squadron of the Royal Yeomanry.
Their leader Major Will Mawby said today: "The Charge at Huj is an incredibly important part of our history. It is extremely important that we learn the lessons of our forbears. We honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice."