August 4th. 2014 marks the 100th Anniversary of the First World War; this catastrophic period of the 20th Century is receiving widespread media coverage with the publication of a wide range of books and articles. At the Glamorgan archives we are fortunate to have within our collection many photographic and written records of the impact this “Total War” had on individuals and society in general. These records give the general public and research students the opportunity to gain an insight into subjects ranging from the effect on children (school log books) to war time measures on the home front (Local Authority Minutes). However, this short article looks at a unique item in the collection; the diary of Captain Mervyn Crawshay during the opening weeks of the War in Belgium. Crawshay gives a daily account of his experience commencing on 15 Aug until being killed in action on 31 Oct 1914.
Prior to discussing Crawshay’s diary it is reasonable to ask; “How did a member of one the wealthiest most powerful families in Wales find himself in action fighting German forces in Belgium?” Mervyn Crawshay was born on 5th May 1881 in Dimlands, Llantwit Major, the son of Tudor Crawshay, High Sheriff of Glamorgan (1887), and grandson of iron master William Crawshay of Merthyr Tydfil. The Crawshay family were the dominant power in the iron industry of north Glamorgan throughout a major part of the 19th Century. However, Mervyn choose to follow a career in the army and joined the Worcester Regiment in 1902, serving for two years in the South Africa war, gaining the Queen’s medal with two clasps. In 1908 Crawshay transferred to 5th Dragoon Guards (Princess Charlotte of Wales) and was promoted to captain in April 1911. Crawshay was a noted fine horseman and represented England in military tournaments held in America in 1913, winning the Gold Cup in the competition open to the world.
Mervyn Crawshay was a member of the comparatively small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) dispatched to assist the French in defending Belgium in the face of a German invasion. Belgium, a small country, offered a route by which either France or Germany could turn the other’s flank. However, under the Treaty of London 1839 Belgian neutrality was guaranteed by the five major European powers who all signed to defend Belgium neutrality in the event of invasion. German General Schlieffen had drawn plans up as early as 1905 to outflank the French Army by invading Belgium, giving an easier route to Paris and the capture of the channel ports. The growing tension in the summer of 1914, together with complex series of alliances, resulted in 3 million German and French troops facing each other. The refusal of the German Government to cease the invasion of Belgium led Britain and France to declare war on 4th. August 1914.
The speed of events is evident from Crawshay’s account; the entries of the 15/16 August describe leaving Southampton and arriving in Le Havre. A week later, after travelling through northern France and crossing the Belgian border, the BEF were in action close to Mons. To derive a greater understanding of Mervyn Crawshay’s diary entries, the events between the 21st and 29th August are classed as the Battle of Mons. The main feature of this battle was a retreat by the BEF in the face of overwhelming German forces: 70,000 opposed 160,000.
Aug 24…I cannot make out if friend or foe till a shot comes close to me … After we see them in their grey spiked helmets…Soon the village is ablaze with shells and fire…
Aug 26, Engagement at Le Cateau… We got food from the infantry as we are starving. Battle rages all day very heavy machine gun fire…
Aug 27, The infantry retirement; sight to have seen. The men were dead beat by exhaustion but were ready to fight at any moment…For five nights the regiment has not had two hours sleep a night.
During the rear guard action at Le Cateau the BEF suffered 8000 causalities; German losses were estimated to be 15,000.This fiercely fought rear guard action is graphically described in entries up to 6th September. The next 3-4weeks of entries in Crawshay’s diary describe his involvement in Battle of the Marne.
Sept 7… Sir John French (Commander of BEF) order issued to effect that British Army had had a bad time in retirement, but was now going to advance to co-operate with French Army…We passed wounded Germans and a few dead in the streets. At Choisy the whole place upside down, looted by Germans.
Following a month of fierce fighting the professionalism shown by the BEF together with the French had a number of important consequences. The German advance on Paris was stopped and the strategic objective of outflanking the French Army had failed.
Sept 27th, an eventful day for Crawshay…Shells about but not close except one; Saw Winston Churchill in a motor… My writing stopped by a coal box and order to go to billets. (coal box was WW1 slang for a 5.9inch. German shell)
The positive aspect of Mervyn Crawshay’s leg injury was him being granted leave from the Front and he took the opportunity to travel to Paris.
Oct 5th, Kavanagh and I go straight to the Ritz where we are taken in free, it has just reopened…Round Paris, to Chatham Champs Elysee and tea at Café de la Paix…Harvey of the 9th Lancers joins up, we go to Moulin Rouge.
All too soon recalled to report back to the Regiment, after managing to obtain petrol and a furious night drive… I motor on to the billet with Osborne, everyone surprised to see me back so soon, and sound.
The remaining entries for October describe the fierce fighting in the area of Messines, in official records known as the 1st Battle of Ypres or the Race to the Sea. As a consequence of the German defeat at the Battle of the Marne they launched a major offensive which led to both armies trying to gain the initiative to reach the coast of the North Sea. It was at a crucial point in this battle at the end October that Mervyn Crawshay became fatally wounded. Accounts indicate that Crawshay’s First Cavalry Division attempted to defend an impossible position at Wytschaete for 48 hours against overwhelming odds before being overrun.
By Mid-November the German offensive stopped but the BEF held on to a defensive salient at Ypres; British casualties were reported at 58,155. One significant feature clearly described by Crawshay in this period of the War was a mobile war of rapid movement. By the end of November Germany accepted it had failed in its strategic plan for a rapid victory in France and set the scene for both sides for the next four years by digging defensive trenches.
There’s a bitter irony in Crawshay’s death at Ypres in Oct 1914 in that three years later, following the deaths of many further millions of other brave soldiers, 1917 witnessed one of the most horrendous battles of the entire First World War also fought at Ypres; that of Passiondale.
Over the next few months Glamorgan Archives will be featuring each entry from Mervyn Crawshay’s war diary on our blog, so that his experience of the war can be followed one hundred years later.