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The Day the Exeter Territorials Went To War

On October 9, 1914 the troopships Nevasa and Galeka slipped from their berths at Southampton Docks carrying about 2,500 officers and men from three of the four Territorial Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment. They were bound for India, from where they would then move on to see action in Mesopotamia or Egypt and Palestine and, in the case of one Battalion, - four years later - to the battlefields of France and Flanders, to witness the final surrender of the mighty German Army.

Aboard the Nevasa that day were 31 officers and 801 other ranks from the 4th Battalion, which was formed back in 1852 as the 1st Devonshire Rifle Volunteer Corps – the most senior volunteer unit in the United Kingdom. It was raised in Exeter and, following a series of mergers with other Devon rifle corps and the Haldane Reform of the Army in 1908, became the 4th Battalion Devonshire Regiment (Territorial Force).

They were all volunteers: men from all walks of life and profession and all classes of society, who had enlisted, before the war was even envisaged, in their local Volunteer Force, to provide home defence to guard against enemy coastal invasion, thereby relieving the Regular Army for deployment overseas. In return for the princely sum of a shilling a day (5p) and a gratuity of £5 upon embodiment, a Private would undertake, for a minimum period of 4 years, to attend weekly drill sessions and an Annual Training Camp. (Rates of pay were substantially more for N.C.O.s and Officers.)  For many young men, particularly in agricultural or industrial areas of the country, the camp was the only respite from the field or the factory and provided them with a period of paid holiday, which their employers were constrained to permit. The minimum age was 17, although boys as young as 14 with parental permission, could be appointed as trumpeters, bugler or bandsmen and retirement age was 35. Physically they had to be taller than 5 foot 3 inches (161 cms) and their expanded chest measurement had to exceed thirty- two- and- a- half inches (81cms). A member of the Territorial Force could be called out for service in any part of the United Kingdom but not overseas.

Some two weeks earlier, on 25th July, all three Battalions, the 4th from Exeter, the 5th from Plymouth and the 6th from Barnstaple,   had assembled on a joint Summer Training Camp on Woodbury Common, near Exeter.  When war was declared on 4th August each was deployed in its allotted war station along the coast and, within days was under canvas on Salisbury Plain, getting fit and preparing for action. The War Office soon realised that Regular Forces would be insufficient to meet the requirements of the British Expeditionary Forces in France. It was therefore decided that Commanding Officers of all Territorial Battalions should encourage their men to volunteer for active service abroad. The response from each of the Devon Battalions was almost unanimously in favour, which prompted a congratulatory telegram from the Lord Lieutenant of the County, “Well Done, Devon Battalions! Fortesque.”

Much to the dismay of those who were relishing joining their brothers in 1st. and 2nd.battalions in France, orders were soon received that all three Battalions were to join the 43rd Wessex Division and head for India, where they were to replace British and Indian regular units, who were to be sent to the Western Front. In anticipation of their departure, the Division was inspected by the King. The Royal Household issued the following statement:   “His Majesty the King wishes to convey to the Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men of the 6th Battalion the Devonshire Regiment, his gracious approbation of their going to India, that by so doing they are helping him and his Kingdom as much as if they had gone straight to the front, and he should not forget it. His Majesty wishes the Battalion “God speed,” and hopes it will return safe and sound.”  It was widely reported at the time that the King specifically chose to address this message to the Battalions, as consolation for not being sent to France; had they done so they would have been the first Territorial units to join the British Expeditionary Force in Europe.

The Nevasa and HMT Galeka, carrying the other Devon Territorials sailed down Southampton Water bound for India, escorted by two British cruisers as far as Gibraltar and from there by French warships. The Nevasa docked in Karachi on 4th November; from there the Battalion entrained to Ferozepore, in the Lahore Divisional Area, where it took over the Internal Security role of the regular units that it had replaced and this continued for the whole of 1915.  But while the routine of training, interspersed with rigorous route marches worked wonders with their fitness and effectiveness, the men began to express frustration that “this was not what we volunteered for!” 

Amongst those yearning for action was Private Gilbert Burrows from Cullompton, who had enlisted in the 4th Battalion in April 1913, claiming to be 17 years old. He was in fact just 15! He would have attended the Annual Camp on Woodbury Common in July 1914 and had volunteered for service overseas. India must have seemed and exotic place after rural Devon but doubtless he was excited when, early in 1916 the Battalion, amongst other units from India, was   ordered to deploy to Mesopotamia, where General Townshend and his 10,00troops had come under siege at the town of Kut, having failed to capture Baghdad and been forced to retreat some 90 miles back to the Town of Kut.

On 23rd February 1916, 27 officers, 593 other ranks, 24 Indian followers, 14 riding horses and 12 mules set sail for Basra on the vessel Vita, with a battalion of Ghurkhas.  The ship docked on 2nd March and by the 23rd the battalion had embarked northwards up the Tigris to Sheikh Saad, arriving 1st. April. There it joined other troops of 39th. Infantry Brigade in manning a perimeter and scattered outposts and was subjected to numerous attacks from both hostile Arab and Turks.  In mid June the Devons moved to Twin Canals area, where for the first time in their war, the men experienced enemy shelling and the battalion was, for many months, constantly under threat. On 27th September 1916 the Battalion War Diary recorded:

   “Enemy commenced shelling Divisional Area about 4.45p.m. Fire was directed on MEGASIS FORT and 60pr. Battery with 5.9” H .E. shells. Lighter guns opened fire on Sappers & Miners Camp, 37th Brigade Headquarters Camp, 1st/4t Battalion Devon Regt. Camp. One man in the last named Camp was wounded. Shelling lasted about 2 hours and many shells failed to explode. No damage done in 1/4th Devon’s camp and no other casualties.”

Amongst personal items which Pte. Gilbert Burrows brought back after the war  was a metal box containing a small New Testament, bearing  the marks of a shell fire damage, which, according to a note attached, occurred at Magasis Fort on that very date. We shall probably never know whether the damagedTestament was actually being carried by Gilbert at the time or whether he was the man wounded, but he clearly treasured it as a memento of his service. Shelling was bad enough but in fact climate was a greater enemy and in the period from May to August, there were 400 hospital admissions and the C.O. recorded, “The physique of the Battalion had seriously deteriorated during the past fortnight owing to the adverse climate and other conditions viz. Excessive heat, heavy fatigues, the inability of men to eat rations, also the use of single fly 160 lb. Tents.”

As a consequence the decision was made in October to withdraw the battalion from the front and to place it in reserve, giving more opportunity for recuperation, but also training, particularly in gas warfare.

After a period in reserve the battalion returned to the front in December, in time to join the 37th. Division on the Hai Bridgehead raid, launched to relieve General Townshend and his 10,000 troops besieged at the town of Kut.  On 3rd February 1917, after heavy bombardment of the Turkish positions, the 4th and the 2nd Battalion Ghurkhas launched into action, with orders to capture and consolidate the double line of trenches ahead. The men advanced in 8 waves at 30 paces interval past the heaped bodies of Sikhs, who 48 hours earlier, had been cut to pieces by the Turks. By next morning the Devons had advanced about a quarter of a mile, capturing not only 2 lines of trenches, but also a third, which had not previously been identified. The hand to hand fighting in the trenches had been savage but when orders came to be relieved, the men asked to be allowed to continue!

The battle of Hai Salient was responsible for the eventual recapture of Kut. But this gallant and successful action had cost the battalion dearly; 15 officers and 403 other ranks went in and only 5 officers and 186 men came out unscathed .The Brigade Commander, commenting  on the Devons,  referred to “their unfailing cheerfulness and unsparing effort.” and ended by saying, “This was the day when Exeter Territorials made history”.

On the Anniversary of the Hai battle, “cordial greetings” are exchanged between the Devons and the 1/2nd Gurkhas. The battle of Hai Salient was responsible for the eventual recapture of Kut and from that date, General Maude never looked back until he had broken the Turks.  But this gallant and successful action had cost the battalion dearly; 15 officers and 403 other ranks went in and only 5 officers and 186 men came out unscathed. The Battalion was relieved and returned to Twin Canals on 8th February.  For the first time in 8 months, they were out of the range of enemy fire. Within weeks they were again relieved by their brothers of 6th Battalion and marched to Sheikh Saad, eventually arriving at Amara on 25th February, where they undertook defence and mobile column duties. The battalion remained there until September 1918, missing the eventual capture of Baghdad. There and later at Baquba, north east of the capital, the battalion  engaged in building roads and infrastructure, guarding Prisoners of War, and administering refugee camps.

 During his time in Mesopotamia Gilbert saw much of the country and regularly corresponded with his family sending Christmas Cards and numerous photos of places he visited. But like most of his colleagues he hated the country, particularly the climate and all that came with it. Among the many items still treasured by his family is a handwritten poem on which someone has added, “written by G.B. 11/5/18 “  It is entitled  “Fiction and Reality  - A disillusionment of the Garden of Eden” (attached) which clearly expressed what most of those who served in Mesopotamia, must have felt.

Gilbert Burrows was one of those who survived the war and stayed with the Battalion, returning to India in April 1919 and arrived back in Plymouth on 26th August before being welcomed back at the Guildhall in Exeter. He was discharged in November 1919 and returned to civilian life and died in March 1972 at the age of 77.

Although the 1/4th was engaged in only one major action, at the Hai Salient on 3rd. February 1917, its contribution to the campaign in Mesopotamia was immeasurable. It also distinguished itself by the very high calibre of draftees sent from India in 1915 to the Dorset Regiment who were embroiled in the Siege of Kut and also by the tenacity and bravery displayed by its members at the Hai Salient. The success of this one action undoubtedly led to the relief of Kut and the eventual capture of Baghdad.  In common with the the 6th Battalion, who also served in Mesopotamia, the 4th witnessed   the full horrors of war, losing 67 in action and a further 21 subsequently from wounds  but it  also fell victim to the unimaginably oppressive climate and resulting diseases, which claimed a further 48 lives.   

It cannot be denied that in the course of the Great War the Territorials, often disparagingly referred to as “Saturday Soldiers” played an immense role in the eventual Victory, which could not have been achieved without them. Statistics can be very misleading but it is worth recording that 86 officers and 2,403 N.C.Os and men from the Devon Regiment set sail for India in October 1914.  Over the following four years the Battalions sent innumerable men to supplement other front line units and were regularly replenished from home but the simple fact is that in total, during the course of the war, the Devon Territorials lost 50 officers and 718 other ranks to enemy action and disease.