A MONOGRAPH ON THE LIFE, TIMES AND MILITARY SERVICE OF COLONEL SIR FRANCIS WHITMORE KCB, CMG, DSO, TD, JP. 1872-1962
|by George K. Newark|
Francis Whitmore's military career began at the age of 20 when he received a commission as lieutenant in the 1st Essex Volunteer Artillery in 1892. This unit, with its headquarters in Southend, had a battery at Grays and gained remarkable achievements over the years in the National Artillery Association's meetings at Shoeburyness, winning well over a hundred prizes including the prestigious Cinque Ports Challenge Cup three times. At that time Essex was without a yeomanry regiment. County landowners and farmers with a desire for volunteer cavalry service in Essex had to content themselves by joining the Essex Troop of the Duke of York's Own Loyal Suffolk Hussars. Major (later Brigadier General. Sir Richard) R.B.Colvin, then of Stratford St. Mary, had raised the Essex Troop within that regiment in 1889. When the Boer War broke out ten years later, Colonel Colvin went to South Africa in command of the 20th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry (Rough riders ). On returning to Britain in 190 I, he was given the task of raising and commanding a volunteer cavalry unit in the county, to be titled the Essex Imperial Yeomanry and based on the concept of the mounted infantry units which had been so successful in countering the hit and run tactics of Boer Commandos. The county was already conveniently divided into districts of the four hunts of Essex and a squadron was raised in each area. Major F.H.D.C.Whitmore was appointed Officer Commanding D Squadron (Essex Union Hunt) with headquarters at Southend. Over the next thirteen years the various Troops of D Squadron were located at Orsett, Grays, Southend, Brentwood, Romford, Ilford and Stratford. Although extremely busy running the Orsett Estate, Major Whitmore devoted a great deal of time and money raising the Squadron to a high pitch of perfection. His tireless efforts recruiting local men into the Essex Imperial Yeomanry (and maybe some gentle arm-twisting in his capacity as Orsett's lord of the manor!) led many of his tenants and estate workers to enlist in the regiment. This harked back to ancient times, in which feudal lords and landowners would raise and arm soldiers from their estates when the realm was threatened, usually commanding them in person. Training nights for the Orsett and Grays Troops were often held at Orsett Hall instead of the Drill Hall at Grays, the estate surrounding the Hall being ideal country for mounted infantry training.
When the Territorial Army replaced the volunteer movement in 1908, 'Imperial' was dropped' from the title and became simply the Essex Yeomanry. The new regiment was classed as Dragoons, which qualified it to carry a guidon, a richly embroidered swallow-tailed cavalry standard. Major Whitmore was in command of the Colour Party which received the guidon from King Edward VII at Windsor Castle in 1909. Two years later the Essex Yeomanry provided a detachment to line the route of the coronation procession of King George V. At the Orsett Agricultural Show of 1912, a 'Musical Ride' was performed by a mounted party from the Orsett and Grays Troop of D Squadron. The men were dressed in the resplendent green full dress uniform of the Essex Yeomanry, which included brass dragoon helmets with scarlet horsehair plumes. The 'Ride' carried bamboo cavalry lances, adorned with fluttering red and white pennons, privately purchased by Major Whitmore for the occasion. It is interesting to note that every man on parade, except for two, were tenants or employees of the Whitmore estate.
The Essex Yeomanry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Deacon of Halstead, with Major F.H.D.C.Whitmore as Second-in-Command, mobilised for war service on August 7th 1914 and proceeded to France to join the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues) and the 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales's Own) in forming the 8th Cavalry Brigade of the 3rd Cavalry Division. The Essex Yeomanry received its baptism of fire in Flanders in February 1915, when the regiment left its horses behind the lines and entered the trenches as infantry at Zillebeke, south-east of Ypres. On May 13th 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Colonel Deacon was ordered to make a dismounted counter-attack - at all costs - against a position 1000 yards to their front, which had been taken by the enemy. As the regiment moved forward to the start line, Major Whitmore was severely wounded and evacuated to a casualty clearing station. The Essex men advanced with the 10th Hussars on their left and the Blues on their right. They fixed bayonets, and, with a resounding cheer, the Essex Yeomanry charged across 400 yards of unbroken ground and up a steep slope to capture the position known as Frezenberg Ridge. In this fierce engagement five officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Deacon, and 46 men were killed, and 5 officers and 86 men wounded. Major Whitmore, recovered from his injuries, rejoined the Essex Yeomanry in September 1915 and took over command. Further action followed among the slag heaps of Loos in late September 1915 and in a feature known as the Hohenzollern Redoubt, near Amiens, in January 1916
At 8.30am on April 11th 1917. Lieutenant Colonel Whitmore, at the head of the Essex Yeomanry rode into Monchy-Le-Preux, near Arras, a recently captured town which had been an important German headquarters. The enemy was determined to recapture it - 8th Cavalry Brigade's task was to stop them. Whitmore's men were immediately subjected to a prolonged barrage of intense artillery fire which reduced the town to ruins, while incessant machine gun and rifle fire took its toll of men and horses. Enemy aircraft, unmolested except for small arms ground fire, strafed the defenders with their machine guns, killing many of the led horses. At 11.10 am Colonel Whitmore sent a message to Brigade Headquarters: 'Have sent several messages conveying all information on E. Y. and X R.H. What remains of those regiments are holding on to North-East, East and Southern exits of the village. Require both MGs and ammunition. Am afraid we have had many casualties. Counter attack expected. Reinforcements required as reserve. Majority of horses casualties '. All through the day and into the night the Essex men held on despite mounting casualties, lack of water, and no reinforcements. Just after midnight an exhausted, and again wounded, Colonel Whitmore handed over to a relieving column and led the remnants of the Essex Yeomanry and 10th Hussars out of Monchy-Le-Preaux. One officer and 18 men had been killed, and 12 officers and 94 men wounded. Lance Corporal Harold Mugford from Chelmsford, a machine gunner in the Essex Yeomanry, who, with the entire Machine Gun Section of the regiment, had recently been transferred to the newlv formed Machine Gun Corps, received a Victoria Cross for his gallantry in action in support of the Essex Yeomanry at Monchy-Le-Preux.
Resting behind the lines after their gallant defence of Monchy-Le-Preux, Colonel Whitmore presided at a banquet in the ruined Chateau of Courcelles on the evening of the 4th of June for Old Etonians of the 8th Cavalry Brigade. We can imagine the scene in the shattered dining room as glasses clinked and cutlery rattled to a background of rumbling gunfire from the distant trenches. The thought must have passed through the colonel's mind as his cigar smoke drifted along the table; how many of the young officers before him, now engaged in animated conversation, would be at the next Old Etonian Banquet. Colonel Deacon of Halstead, Major Roddick of Waltham Abbey and Lieutenants Johnston, Swire, Reid, Tower and Lingeman of the Essex Yeomanry, had already. made the supreme sacrifice. Colonel Whitmore rose, stubbed out his cigar, tapped the table, and called for the final toasts of the evening. Solemnly, the soldiers raised their glasses to: 'Absent Friends '. After a moment's silence, Colonel Whitmore proposed, with gusto, 'Floreat Etona!'
A sad day dawned in April 1918 when the Essex Yeomanry, Whitmore' s beloved regiment, was broken up and the squadrons dispersed to reinforce other cavalry regiments. Lieutenant Colonel Whitmore was given command of the 10th Royal Hussars, now in the 6th Cavalry Brigade, which he led with distinction from the desperate moments of the great German spring offensive of 1918, through to the ultimate defeat of Germany in November 1918 and the occupation of the Rhineland. Apart from the British Military Mission, Colonel Whitmore and a colleague were the first two British officers to enter Berlin in March 1919, arriving shortly after the Spartacist riots in the city. During The Great War, Francis Whitmore won the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1917, was awarded the Territorial Decoration (TD) in 1918, and was made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1919. He was Mentioned in Despatches on four separate occasions, and wounded twice. Other than being a brave, efficient, and well loved commanding officer, he was also a stickler for 'spit and polish', even in the most trying conditions. During a conversation with Anthony Forbes-Whitmore in 1999, Albert 'Smiler' Marshall, then 102 years old and a Great War veteran of the Essex Yeomanry, referred, with due deference, to his former Commanding Officer as 'Colonel Brasso!' Colonel Whitmore had been a perfectionist all his life and expected everyone he came into contact with to strive for the same goal.
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