Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

Corproral Dobson of the Coldstream Guards

The British Army is justly proud of its famous regiments of Guards. They have been described as the backbone of its infantry, and well do they deserve the title. A magnificent stand by the Guards on a hard-contested field has often saved the day. Future historians of the great war will do ample justice to the great deeds of the Coldstream, Grenadier, Scots, and Irish Guards. Each regiment has gained one Victoria Cross or more, and some of the deeds of valour were performed in circumstances of especial interest which entitle them to space in these pages.

One of the most popular heroes of the Guards is Frederick William Dobson, of the Coldstream Guards, who displayed 'conspicuous gallantry' at Chavanne, on the Aisne, September 28, 1914. At that time he was a private: he was afterward promoted to lance-corporal, and later to full corporal. The home of Corporal Dobson is at North Shields, where he formerly worked as a miner, a typical Northumbrian calling. When he left the coal mine Dobson joined the famous Coldstream Guards, a regiment which derives its name from the little Border town in Berwickshire, where it was formed by General Monck in 1650 from two of Cromwell's regiments. Later the name of the 2nd (Cold-stream) Foot Guards was adopted.

Corporal Dobson enlisted in 1906, and served for three years in the 1st Battalion. Then he returned to his former occupation, being employed at Backworth Colliery, near Whitley.

On the outbreak of war Corporal Dobson rejoined his old regiment, becoming attached to the 2nd Battalion, with which unit he proceeded to France. He landed at Havre on August 13, 1914, and from the first saw thrilling service. His battalion was one of many famous units that composed the original British Expeditionary Force. The latter was a marvellous body of fighting men, thoroughly prepared for any emergency. The men composing it presented such a smart appearance that the enthusiastic French people cheered the long line of khaki heroes as they marched through their towns and villages singing "Tipperary "on the way up to Mons. As trained soldiers they have never been surpassed: they were the picked troops of Europe, and among them the Coldstream Guards were conspicuous.

Before describing Dobson's great deed we may note a few facts about his life and work at the front prior to the battle of the Aisne.

From Havre his regiment went to Badincourt, whence they marched to Fesny, being inspected on the way by Sir John French. On the memorable Sunday of August 23 the Coldstream Guards arrived at Mons. For a few days Dobson's battalion rested. Then they marched forward, when Dobson got his first sight of actual war; he passed the first lot of British wounded being brought down from the terrible battle of Mons, which was then raging and in which he was about to participate. His regiment were soon in the thick of the fighting. Shelled out of a cornfield that night as they lay asleep, their gallant major formed up his men and marched them off in quiet order to a position which they gallantly held for a whole day. Dobson, along with the rest of his comrades, was disappointed at the order to retreat. They wanted to stand and fight, but their commanders were wiser. Then came a further retreat which brought the Guards into the famous town of Landrecies. Here Dobson got his first opportunity of closing with the Germans. "We were at grips," he says, "and we let 'em have it."

The retreat continued to Le Cateau, the famous breeding-ground of heroes. Here the Coldstream Guards, along with those doughty fighters, the Irish Guards, 'stuck it ' while the guns were being saved. By the time the retreat had ended at the Marne, Dobson considered that in eleven days he had covered 232 miles. Then came the sudden and dramatic change. Almost within sight of Paris, the French and British armies drove the Germans headlong back to the river Aisne.

At a little place called Chavanne Dobson formed one of half a dozen volunteers who shifted a barricade erected over a canal by the Germans. This was effected by cool daring, for throughout the operation the enemy had a machine-gun trained on the locality. During the greater part of his sojourn on the Aisne, Dobson was fighting in the trenches, for it was at the battle of the Aisne that both sides, finding progress impossible, started to dig themselves into the ground. Thus commenced the trench warfare which was to continue so many weary months on the West Front.

The incident at Chavanne was merely a precursor of the more thrilling deed at this little village which was to make Corporal Dobson famous.

The morning of September 28 was very misty. Three men of Dobson's battalion had been sent out on patrol duty, and when the haze cleared found themselves in the open about 150 yards from the German trenches. The Germans immediately opened a heavy fire. One of the patrol was successful in regaining the British trench, although he was hit in the arms and received five bullets in one leg. His comrades fared worse. One man was struck down at once, while the other's bold dash for life was soon checked and he, too, was hit and fell. Captain Follett saw what had happened to his men, and called for a volunteer to go out and bring in the wounded men who were lying helpless in the open.

"I volunteered," says Dobson, "and went out, although heavily fired at, but I had made up my mind to get at him."

Dobson, therefore, in volunteering left the safety of his trench for what appeared to be certain death, as the Germans were continuing their heavy fire. He showed no fear, however, but coolly crept over the parapet and crawled through the mangels in the field in front. He got safely through this field, but when he reached the open and raised his head to take his bearings the Germans saw him and fired. This warning made him cautious, and he 'ducked' his head, but not before he had noticed the exact spot where one of the patrol was lying. How to reach the man was the problem that now presented itself, for every time that Dobson raised his head the Germans poured a volley of bullets in his direction. Dobson says he argued with himself, and thought of one plan after another. Time was passing, and he realized that if he did not reach the fallen man quickly he would bleed to death. Our hero used his head as well as his arms and legs. He concluded at length that his best plan was to lie still on the ground in order to induce the enemy to believe that he was dead—struck by one of their bullets—and then to make a dash.

It was a hazardous proceeding, but fortunately the plan succeeded, for as long as Dobson lay still on the ground no further shots were fired. After several minutes' rest Dobson, having nerved himself for the great undertaking, leapt to his feet and making a desperate dash succeeded in reaching his man. He was shocked, however, to find that the poor fellow was past human aid. Of the two men who had been struck down he had missed the wounded and risked his life for the dead. The former was lying nearer our trenches and had not been seen by the hero. Before leaving the fallen soldier, Dobson took as many particulars as he could from his papers, etc. He tried to get possession of his rifle but could not, as the dead man was lying on it, and to raise him up would have been to court death from the vigilant Germans. Dobson says it is nothing short of a miracle how he regained the British trenches. He crawled back with his head toward the enemy as this lessened the target; it was a good thing he did so, for if he had crawled the other way he would have been shot through the head; as it was he received a bullet through his heel.

When he reached the mangel field Dobson waved his hand to let his chums know he was safe. They saw the signal and risked raising their heads. They peered at him over the parapet, and encouraged him to make the final spurt to safety. Climbing over the parapet as coolly as if he had just returned from a stroll, Dobson went at once to his Major and reported what he had done, giving the name and other particulars of the dead soldier.

The officer listened to the hero's story. He then asked Dobson what had happened to the other man, and it was not till then that Dobson realized that two of his comrades had been lying in the open.

The brave Tynesider reflected for a moment. He had just escaped death, and to venture out again would in all probability mean losing his life. Then he thought of his comrade lying in the open field at the mercy of the Germans, perhaps slowly bleeding to death. His mind was soon made up. Turning to his officer Dobson very quietly said that he would go out again and endeavour to bring in the stricken man. The officer, struck with the Guardsman's superb gallantry, decided that he would do all he could to make the journey as safe as possible. He gleaned from Dobson some important particulars about the range of the German guns, then arranged for the British artillery to play upon the German positions. Thus Dobson was covered during his second journey, which, all the same, was exceedingly risky.

Corporal Dobson adopted exactly the same plan as before when he proceeded on his second life-saving exploit. Creeping out of the trench, he crawled cautiously among the mangels, taking every care to conceal his movements from the Germans. He peered around and at length discovered the exact place where the wounded man lay. Then he braced himself for the final spurt and succeeded in wriggling his way to the stricken soldier. In dragging the man to our trench Dobson had the assistance of Corporal Brown, who, he says, "was brave, and never showed the least fear." This generous tribute is characteristic of Dobson. He wanted his chum to get some of the praise for the rescue work of that September morning. Corporal Brown was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but did not live to hear of this honour, for he died three days before it was officially announced.

In a letter written to his wife Dobson spoke very modestly of what he had done: "I only took my chance, and did my duty to save my comrades. It was really nothing, but I shall never forget the congratulations and praise I received from our officers, my comrades, and our Brigadier-General."

As will be remembered it was in response to Captain Follett's request for a volunteer that Corporal Dobson went out to rescue the wounded man. Lady Mildred Follett, the gallant officer's wife, received a letter from her husband in which the latter described Dobson's brave deed. She at once wrote to Mrs. Dobson, the hero's wife.

"You will be glad to know," she wrote, "that your husband is very well, and has behaved with great gallantry.

"I am sure this will make you very proud, and I do congratulate you on having such a gallant soldier for a husband, and it will give you confidence for the future to know that he is under Divine protection and will come back safely to you. I know how trying this time is.

After the battle of the Aisne Dobson fought in many other historic battles, including the terrible first battle of Ypres. About this time he actually had a spell of twenty-three days in the trenches without being relieved. Names that will live for ever in our annals—Givenchy, Festubert, La Bassée—were also notable in his experience, for at each place he saw hot fighting. He was wounded at Givenchy when helping to make a dug-out, and was invalided home.

When it became known that he was in London, King George expressed his desire to pin the Victoria Cross on the breast of the hero of Chavanne. Then ensued a search to find the hero. As an officer put it, "We just managed to catch him." Corporal Dobson, who was in mufti, was hurried off to the regimental head-quarters, supplied with full-dress uniform, and conducted to Buckingham Palace, two officers of the Coldstream Guards accompanying him.