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Illingworth House: 15 - In the 'Contemptible Little Army'

...They peered over the bank. Two of his men were lying in the open. "Give me rapid fire!" yelled Abe to the men on his left, and immediately they began pumping bullets into the copse were the German troops were entrenched. They fell silent under the hail of bullets, which gave Abe and his sergeant time to rush out and drag back the wounded men...

Abe Illingworth goes off to war, and soon finds himself in the thick of the action.

To read earlier chapters of John Waddington-Feather's novel about a Yorkshire mill-owning dynasty please click on Illingworth House in the menu on this page.

Three ineffectual cousins, a king, a kaiser and a czar, led Europe into its bloodiest war. The kaiser, a little strutter with a large moustache, sent a message to his generals once the war had begun:

"It is my royal and imperial command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present, upon one single purpose, and that you address all your skill and all your valour to exterminate first the treacherous English and to walk over General French's contemptible little army."

Three days earlier Lieutenant Abe Illingworth and Sergeant Henry Johnson had landed at Le Havre as part of the "contemptible little army" and were on their way to Marouilles in Belgium. Like their leaders, they were convinced they could roll back the invading German army and that the war would be over by Christmas.

It was the end of August and the land was heavy with harvest. Fields glowed golden as they disembarked and marched up-country to Hornu. But so bad was English intelligence, nothing was known of the German troop movements, or their strength. Even less was known about the troop positions of their French and Belgian allies. As well as a bloody one, it was a blundering war from start to finish.

As Abe Illingworth's battalion assembled in front of the Town Hall at Hornu, German shells began dropping round the village, taking them by surprise. The battalion was deployed at once to face the Germans, Abe's unit going north to dig in near St Ghislain.

That done, he sent out Henry Johnson with a recce section to pinpoint
the enemy. They'd only a general idea where the Germans were located and moved forward cautiously up a slope through a cornfield so that they had a good view of the main road. As they peered over the ridge, they were astounded to see large numbers of German troops marching briskly down the road straight for Hornu.

They ducked out of sight and Johnson raced back, barely in time to warn Abe Illingworth and the rest of the battalion that the Hun were upon them. Even as they raced back through the cornfield, mortar shells whined over their heads and began exploding round the battalion. Abe's section crawled into a ditch and hid there till the mortaring ceased.

When the shelling stopped, Abe asked if there were any casualties. Johnson's corporal reported that one of the section had been hit. "Who?" asked Johnson.

"Holmes, sarge," came back the reply. "About twenty yards back... in the cornfield."

Johnson followed the corporal back the way they'd come till they reached the wounded man. He'd been hit in the side and head by chunks of shrapnel and was barely conscious. It was the first time both Johnson and the corporal had seen action, seen death in battle.

"How bad am I, sarge?" asked the dying man.

Johnson looked at the sodden wound and gaping flesh. He grasped the youngster's hand and felt his grip tighten as waves of pain passed through him.

"You'll be all right, Holmes. We'll get you back as soon as possible," said Johnson and held his hand till it went limp and his head dropped lifeless on his chest.

Johnson never forgot that first death. It was to be one of many he saw before the war was over.

The corporal had turned white and was throwing up, as Johnson took the dead man's identity discs. He searched through his pockets for any personal effects, removing his wallet, which contained a photograph of his wife. Then he told the corporal to pick up Holmes's rifle and kit before they hurried back to their company position and informed Abe Illingworth what had happened.

Minutes later, the order came through to advance and they moved warily up a nearby road to a canal. There they dug in to await the Germans, but barely were they in place when heavy rifle fire hit them from their right.

"Hell!" said Illingworth. "We must have been given the wrong position. We're pinned down!"

He glanced back. The canal bank fifty yards away gave better cover and he ordered his platoon to pull back there. Ducking and weaving they scurried back, bullets spurting all around them. As he dashed back, from the corner of his eye Abe Illingworth saw two of his men fall. He flung himself behind the small rise and was relieved when Johnson crawled over to him.

They peered over the bank. Two of his men were lying in the open. "Give me rapid fire!" yelled Abe to the men on his left, and immediately they began pumping bullets into the copse were the German troops were entrenched. They fell silent under the hail of bullets, which gave Abe and his sergeant time to rush out and drag back the wounded men.

While they were being given first-aid, Illingworth focussed his glasses on the wood. "My God! There must be a whole company in there. How did they manage to get in unseen?"

The same question was being asked by all the platoon commanders along the road. Their superiors had no idea what the strength of the German army was and had sent them into a death trap. On Illingworth's flank a company of West Kents was already being shot to pieces and once they were finished, the Germans switched the attack to his own company.

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