Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

The Undying Story of Captain F. O. Grenfell

In this chapter it will not be out of place to pay a well-deserved tribute to the brave British officers of whom Captain Grenfell is a conspicuous type. We all believe that the British officer has no equal, and we love to recall his many gallant deeds and chivalrous acts in this and former wars. The chief characteristic that appeals to the British soldier is the coolness of their officers in a tight corner. A soldier has described how his captain when leading a charge stopped to light his cigarette, although shells were bursting around him. Such fearlessness has a great effect upon our men. Time after time an officer has been hit, and in spite of his suffering has continued to direct operations and cheer his men on to victory. The best affection and loyalty exist between the British officer and his men, and the latter will follow their leader anywhere.

Tommy tells us he loves his officers because they are 'sports,' which is his expressive way of indicating their bravery and considerateness. Our officers never ask their men to do what they are not themselves prepared to do. Wherever danger lies the officer is present leading his men, and encouraging them by words and actions. The German soldiers are driven by their officers—ours are led. Herein lies one of the main reasons for the superiority of the British Army.

For young readers no finer example of pluck and chivalry can be imagined than the great deeds and heroic death of Captain Francis Octavius Grenfell. His story is one to cherish and profit by, and it is safe to predict that the noble life of this hero will ever stimulate young hearts. Grenfell stands for the best type of the British regimental officer, as soldier, gentleman and sportsman; while his enthusiasm for the cause, his splendid bravery, and untiring devotion to duty make him an ideal hero for young and old alike.

Captain Grenfell was the first officer in the British Army to win the Victoria Cross in the war. He gained the coveted reward on August 24, 1914, almost at the commencement of the British fighting in Belgium. In the official announcement of the award it is stated that he showed gallantry in action against the unbroken Germans at Andregnies, and on the same day gallantly assisted to save the guns of the 119th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, near Doubon.

Captain Grenfell's career may be briefly described.

He was the eighth son—hence his middle name Octavius—of the late Mr. Pascoe Du Pre Grenfell, of Wilton Park, Beaconsfield, and a nephew of Field-Marshal Lord Grenfell. He was born on September 4, 1880. He received his education at Eton, the cradle of so many brave soldiers. It is a well-known saying that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and in view of the present war we may alter the saying and remark that many a hard-fought victory in France, in Flanders, and in Gallipoli was won at the famous English public school. Grenfell was at Eton from 1894 to 1899, and as a schoolboy excelled in sport. He was in the College Eleven in his last year, and was Master of the Beagles. His brother, 'Rivy' Grenfell, who died a hero's death in France, was Whip at the same time, and they played an important part in the building of the present kennels.

On leaving Eton, Grenfell decided to be a soldier. He received a commission in the 3rd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders (Militia). Two years later he was gazetted second lieutenant in the King's Royal Rifles. With this famous regiment he served in the South African War, when he received the Queen's medal with five clasps. In 1905 Grenfell joined the 9th Lancers, the regiment to which he belonged when he won his V.C., becoming captain in 1912. During the intervals of soldiering he devoted himself to polo, at which he was the best player in the country. Along with his brother 'Rivy,' Captain Jenner, and the Duke of Roxburghe, he won the polo championship.

We have described elsewhere the great retreat from Mons. This battle was fought on Sunday, August 23, the Lancers rendering valuable service along with other cavalry units. A party of the 1st South Wales Borderers had been trapped in a neighbouring village and surrounded by a brigade of Uhlans, but were saved by the timely arrival of the Lancers and the Scots Greys, who put over a thousand of the Germans out of action in six hours, charging them through and through. During the retreat on the night of August 23 the 9th Lancers were continually in action. Our gallant little army was struggling desperately to escape from the superior force of Germans, who gave it no rest, and our cavalry was ordered to charge the enemy—to delay, head off and harass him as much as possible. Sir John French, in his dispatch of September 7, 1914, said that "The fine work done by the cavalry in the further retreat assisted materially in the final completion of this most difficult and dangerous operation." In this arduous work the Lancers were always to the fore.

Lancers are mounted soldiers carrying lances. They were introduced into European warfare by Napoleon, and adopted by Britain in 1815. Two forms of lance are used in the British Army—with staves of ash and bamboo respectively. The German lance carried by the Uhlans has a stave of tubular steel. There are many regiments of Lancers. The 9th—to which Grenfell belonged—is known as the Queen's Royal, and dates from 1715. Its battle-honours are numerous, and include the Peninsular War and the Indian Mutiny (in which they gained twelve Victoria Crosses). The 9th Lancers accompanied Lord Roberts on his famous march to Kandahar. At Klip Drift, near Kimberley, during the South African War they made a great charge, similar to the one we are about to describe.

The 12th Lancers also date from 1715, and rode through Napoleon's finest cavalry at Waterloo.

During the famous charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman a brother of Captain Grenfell's was killed. On this occasion the regiment gained three Victoria Crosses.

The 9th Lancers, which fought at Andregnies, where Captain Grenfell performed the first of the exploits which brought him the V.C., lived up to its past record, if it did not actually surpass it. The main body of our army was very hard pressed on the day following the opening battle at Mons. The German guns caused terrible execution. The German infantry came on in dense columns—like peas thrown out of a sack, as one soldier described it. Veterans who had fought in South Africa said the German fire was the worst they had ever experienced—that the South African War was a picnic compared with the terrible conflict in which they were then engaged. Orders were given to the 9th Lancers to charge the enemy in order to relieve the 5th Division, which was very hard pressed.

The Lancers immediately went into action: they were let loose, as it were, at the German guns, and, although all knew they might be going to certain death, not one of the gallant men faltered. They sang and shouted like schoolboys as their horses thundered over the ground. They treated the charge in the spirit of sport. These dashing cavalrymen, as they rode straight at the German guns, presented one of the finest sights of the whole war. There has been little opportunity to engage in cavalry charges since. Grenfell rode at the head of his men, encouraging them by his coolness. One who took part in the charge has said that our hero was the life and soul of the squadron, shouting the loudest, always in the front, setting an example to his comrades by his fearless riding.

At first all went well. Few of the Lancers had fallen, and the dashing cavalrymen were looking forward to a real fight at close quarters with the German gunners, who were playing such havoc among our troops. The men were in excellent spirits, although they knew their danger.

Suddenly a murderous fire from the enemy pulled them up. Grenfell's cheery voice rose above the awful din of bursting shells, urging his men to continue the charge. They recovered, and followed their leader. Then the enemy's fire became hotter. It was like riding into the jaws of death. Twenty concealed German machine-guns rained death on the horsemen at a distance of not more than 150 yards. Even then the gallant 9th did not waver, for they were led by a hero. Standing up in the stirrups and brandishing his sword Captain Grenfell called to his men to ride straight on. They cheered and obeyed: it now seemed as though nothing could stop this wild charge. Both men and horses had become infuriated.

Grenfell himself seemed to bear a charmed life, while all around him empty saddles told their terrible tale. He did not come through the charge unscathed, but his wounds were not serious.

The Lancers continued to sweep forward until finally held up by the enemy's barbed wire, cunningly concealed in the long grass. The German trap had succeeded. To proceed farther was impossible, and in order to escape total annihilation the gallant horsemen reluctantly turned their horses' heads and rode back. Of the 9th Lancers not more than forty came out of the ordeal.

While this charge of the 9th Lancers, which has been likened to that of the famous Light Brigade at Balaclava, failed in its object, it will live for ever in our military annals. It proved to all the world that the British cavalry was as dashing and brave as in days of old, that in it still lived the fearless gallantry of the Scots Greys who charged Napoleon's Guards at Waterloo, led by their officers shouting "Scotland for Ever." All were heroes in this desperate charge at Andregnies, but the greatest was Captain Grenfell. He came out of the action the senior officer.

Grenfell's second great exploit, on the twenty-fourth day of August 1914, was equally as brave as that we have just recited.

When the survivors of the 9th Lancers rode off the field they found themselves at a place called Doubon. Captain Grenfell, although not seriously wounded, was greatly in need of rest, but this was denied him through his self-sacrificing devotion.

He had espied a railway embankment, and quickly made for it with the men under his charge. When they arrived at the shelter they found a number of men of the 119th Field Battery, which had been put out of action and abandoned. There was the danger of the guns being captured by the enemy and turned against our men. It had been a great day for our artillery no less than for the cavalry. This battery had been in action earlier in the day with the object of delaying the German advance and relieving the terrible pressure on our harassed infantry, who were being driven back from Mons by superior forces. The 119th Battery had given and received a terrific fire. One German battery had been silenced by our heroic gunners, who were afterward attacked by three of the enemy's batteries from different directions. The unequal contest was very fierce while it lasted. All the brave gunners had been killed by shrapnel, and the survivors of the battery were ordered to seek safety.

Up till now it had been found impossible to attempt the rescue of the guns. They remained exposed to the German shells and would have been captured but for the gallantry of Captain Grenfell. A brave officer of the 119th Battery, Lieutenant Geoffrey Blemell Pollard, who had been trying to devise means to save his guns, came to where the Lancers were resting, and put the matter before them. Would they assist him to get the guns away?

Captain Grenfell, who happened to be a little distance off, had heard the lieutenant's request. He carefully climbed to the top of the embankment, surveyed the position, and returned. He had seen that the Germans had now captured the guns.

Grenfell then determined upon a bold course. He had made up his mind to get the guns, regardless of the cost. That he, who had that morning been right into the jaws of death, should again be willing to face fearful odds shows the sort of stuff he was made of. He was a real hero if ever there was one.

Turning to his men he quietly remarked, "We've got to get those guns back. Who's going to volunteer for the job?" Hardly had he done speaking than two dozen Lancers had given in their names. They did not need to be told that Grenfell was to lead them —they had been in the charge with him and knew that he would not send others to do his work. They would have followed him anywhere.

Grenfell led his little party of troopers into the open. Bullets were flying around, shrapnel was bursting near. "He was as cool as if he was on parade," said a corporal who took part "He said to us, 'It's all right, lads, they can't hit us. Come along!'"

Captain Grenfell rode his men right into the hurricane of shot and shell. Every few minutes they stopped for breath, then on again. Advancing at a rapid rate they reached the guns. So unexpected was the charge of Grenfell's squadron that the Germans, taken by surprise, fled in panic. Grenfell gave quick directions; rapidity of action was essential, for the Germans in the rear of the guns were pouring in a rapid fire. One gun was safely man-handled out of action. Grenfell was not the man to leave a task half-finished, and, braving the shells, he galloped back to the guns. By the time he reached them some of the battery's horses had been brought up, and Grenfell assisted to hitch them to the guns. This done, the latter were galloped off the field. Not one gun of the 119th Battery was lost, and most of the wagons were recovered. Only three men were hit during the rescue operations. Thus ended one of the quickest and most gallant gun-saving exploits of the war.

Captain Grenfell


Later in the day Captain Grenfell was wounded. A bullet struck him in the thigh, and two of his fingers were injured. He was brought back from the firing-line, and an ambulance was sent for.

While awaiting the ambulance a motor-car dashed along. "That's what I want," said Captain Grenfell. "What's the use of an ambulance to me? Take me back to the firing-line." He entered the motor-car and went back to fight.

Captain Grenfell was twice invalided home, but on each occasion curtailed his rest in order to get back to the firing-line. He was killed while in command of the left section of the 9th Lancers on May 24, 1915. The Germans had broken through the line, but Grenfell held, and in the words of his Commanding Officer, Major Beale Browne, "saved the day."

Thus died one of the greatest heroes of the war, a soldier to his finger-tips, a born leader, and a true British gentleman. His devotion to his regiment made him one of its greatest assets, and the men adored their gallant captain. As he had lived, so he died—fighting for the Right in the service of the country he loved so well.

In his will, dated May 6, 1915, Captain Grenfell bequeathed his Victoria Cross to his regiment—"to whom the honour of my gaining the V.C. was entirely due, thanks to the splendid discipline and traditions which exist in this magnificent regiment."