Why were they also called the First Fifty?
It is regularly asked why these men were called the First Fifty. It is often assumed, and reported, that they were the first fifty volunteers to go from the Coalville area to fight in WW1. Obviously, there were likely to be men from the area who were already in the regular army, or who had signed up as territorials, so they were clearly not the first to go. They also weren’t the first territorials to land in France. This honour goes to the London Scottish Messines who were fighting in 1914.
The First Fifty were not pre-war territorials. They were civilians, who were still working in local mines and local industries – mainly Wooton Bros Engineers and Stableford Wagon Works when the British army began fighting on declaration of war in August 1914. The army had been met by millions of German soldiers and very soon 80,000 of their 100,000 strong became casualties. The 4th and 5th Leicestershire Battalions were at their training camp in Bridlington when war was declared on 4th August. They immediately received orders to return to the Magazine in Leicester. All of the regular army and reservists were in a state of mobilisation. The Territorial Force was founded in 1908 with the aim of attracting men keen on the idea of military service but, for whatever reason, (age or profession) they were limited by circumstance to defend the homeland only.
On August 13th, a proposition was put to the 5th Battalion to fight abroad and over 90% declared availability for frontline service. This left the 1/5th short of 50 men. On 15th August, the remaining 1/5th battalion left for Luton. Within days, recruitment for the war began. This involved the usual medicals and inspection of physical ability. In Coalville, recruitment took place during late August and early September at the Olympia Picture House (previously a skating rink) in Marlborough Square.
Some of the men who were too young (or looked too young) went to recruitment halls in Ashby de la Zouch and Loughborough where they would not be known. Around 200 men enlisted and senior officers from the Leicestershire Regiment came to Coalville and personally selected 50 of them for their 1/5th battalion. Those chosen were mainly miners and engineering workers and a number of the Fifty became part of Aubrey Moore’s tunneling party in spring 1915. The remaining recruits were eventually allocated to other battalions. The 1/4th and 1/5th were a Territorial Force and were originally part of the Lincolnshire and Leicestershire Brigade, but on the 12th May 1915 they became the 138th Brigade of the 46th North Midland Division. These men were the first fifty civilian volunteers in the country to land in France.
The men chosen did little training before they arrived in Luton in October 1914 – two months later than the established battalion. They had been stationed at High Tor, a rocky outcrop overlooking Coalville. Here they received basic training and part of their drill practice involved marching to various churches on a Sunday for the morning service and then back again. Other training took place at the Drill Hall in Loughborough and the Institute in nearby Thringstone. They left for Luton in uniforms they had received just two days previously and without their territorial cap badges (no Hindoostan bar included).
Drill practice for the Fifty
High Tor overlooking Coalville
Why did they become known as the Famous Fifty?
When they landed in France, their officers called them the Famous Fifty as they were the first to arrive from that August recruitment and they led the way for the thousands of civilians that were to follow. When one of them came home on leave or was reported killed or missing, the local newspapers referred to him as ‘one of the Fifty’.
On Sunday, 30th October 1914, the Fifty, along with their three officers marched from High Tor to Hugglescote's St John Baptist Church for a short service. Most of the Fifty were from Coalville or Hugglescote with a few residing in the surrounding area. Their families were aware this might be the last time they saw them. As they left the church, the bells rang and they were led to Coalville Train Station by the Hugglescote and Ellistown brass band. The streets were lined with families and well-wishers of what surely must have been a Pals battalion.
St John Baptist Church, Hugglescote
A read through their biographies will show their close relationships to each other through marriage, place of work, attendance at school and church and proximity of their homes. At least four sets of brothers were amongst them with others of the same surname. The vicar, curate and many leaders of the town saw them off.
Coalville Train Station
The Fifty on the platform
The Fifty had received chocolates and cigarettes for their journey and the crowds sang popular songs such as ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. The soldiers sang too. At 9.00am the doors of the carriages closed and the steam train left. Pride turned to sadness as the crowds dispersed. The Battalion Diary reported ‘Fifty men have been added to our strength’.
Their Journey to war
Every day, the full battalion would march from their billets to the training areas north of Luton. At Luton Hoo, they were saluted by the King. On 16th November, they received orders to march to Ware in Hertfordshire some 25 miles away. Every hour they would halt for 10 minutes. The journey took almost 12 hours. The march itself had its own challenges. There were insufficient harnesses for the horses so some had to carry double loads which proved too much for a few. Carts had to be obtained from
The 1/5th march through Luton
anywhere to carry the supplies and, due to this lack of harnesses, some cooks carts and water carts were left behind. Progression of the war was fast and the battalion was not ready.
A day later they arrived in Much Hadham for a two-night stay before reaching Bishops Stortford where they practiced field exercises and night-time manoeuvres. Bishops Stortford was overwhelmed with troops and there were long queue for billets. The Fifty reported that they were happy to be leaving there.
On November 26th, they marched into Sawbridgeworth where they were billeted. At this point, the town had been allocated just the 1/5th battalion. Here, they trained but also had the opportunity for recreation in the form of football, boxing, concerts and the odd dance evening. Some of the Fifty found themselves bullied by members of the existing 1/5th which was soon resolved when the excellent boxers amongst them dealt with the issue! Others enjoyed a spell of leave during this training period. There were always complaints about the lack of uniforms available which were hurriedly having to be made and sent out to camps. Sawbridgeworth was held in great esteem by the battalion. It was to be their home until the following February and the people of the village had welcomed and supported them. At least one marriage took place - that of a Captain and a local girl. Christmas was spent there and J.D.Hills reports that ‘never was there such a fine feed’. They were well looked after by their officers. When training, one thing they learned was the importance of creating the half-company trench, a complete system of trenches with wash houses, cookhouses, fire trenches, and inspection trenches. So important was this design that handkerchiefs were printed with the layout and precise dimensions to enable them to be dug quickly and correctly.
The King of Prussia Public House the 1/5th’s local
Within the ranks of the Sawbridgeworth 1/5th battalion, the anti-German feeling was running high, and the Inn’s name was causing problems. Indeed, in March 1915, having failed to close the Inn, it was placed ‘out of bounds’ by the military due to soldiers’ drunkenness. It was because of this that another name change was mooted. It was suggested that the Inn be called the ‘King George the Fifth’. This was rejected though because it was too similar to the existing ‘King George the Fourth’. However, in early 1916, the name formally reverted to the ‘King’s Head’.
Information and photograph courtesy of Douglas Coe.
The 1/5th outside the King William IV
On the 25th February, orders were received to entrain at midnight at Harlow Station and the following morning the battalion arrived at Southampton Docks.
Soldiers wait to leave Southampton Docks
Half of the Leicestershire Battalion embarked aboard the SS Duchess of Argyle and the other (with the Fifty) on the SS Atalanta. Both were old Clyde River Steamers and they left to an accompaniment of ships sirens blowing a farewell. The weather was atrocious with a howling gale whipping up the treacherous seas. Everyone aboard was terrified. Feeling so ill, they fell asleep and, on awakening, they saw the harbour walls out of the portholes. They rushed out to see their first glimpse of France only to discover they had turned back for Southampton and so had to endure the journey yet again.
Jabez Emmerson writes in his diary ‘Arrived at Southampton at 9.00am. Eight of us per carriage, very cold. Left port at 9.30pm on ‘Atalanta’ had to return after ten hours, sea too rough. Seasick. No sleep. 27th February: left port again at 8.00pm. Seasick. No sleep.’ Charlie Hatter also reported that the waves were so rough that when they hit the boat, they thought they were being hit by torpedos.
On 28th February, the Fifty arrived at Le Havre. From the quay, they had to crawl up a steep cliff to their camp where all they wanted to do was sleep again. Here, they received a sheepskin coat and some extra socks – a gift from HM the Queen. A long wait ensued whilst the French put a train together to carry them all to the next destination. J D Hills reports that they would have starved all day had it not been for some kind English ladies who fed them an endless supply of tea and buns.
By early March, the Fifty, along with the rest of the battalion, had undergone trench warfare training in Le Bizet near Armentieres. They had learned the art of throwing stick grenades and had experienced supervised time in the frontline trenches. They were somewhat experienced soldiers by the time the rest of the brigade arrived and, on 1st April, they moved the short distance to a sector known as the Messines Ridge. Several of the Fifty perished here and it was around this time that they had their first acquaintance with gas.
A 'Tiger' in sheepskin coat
Soldiers were seen walking in single file, trying to support one another as they stumbled coughing, wheezing, eyes weeping and blind. The Fifty were now at war.