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Trooper Benjamin Clouting, 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards
The Last to witness the first shot of the Great War
Benjamin Clouting was born on 15th September 1897 in Littledene, a village near Lewes in Sussex. The son of an estate groom, Ben dreamed from childhood of being a soldier.
Growing up in the countryside, he learnt to ride from the age of six, making service in the artillery or the cavalry an obvious option when he left school.
In 1913, aged just 15, he was given permission to join the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards by a regimental officer who often visited the stables on the estate.
On the outbreak of war, Ben was still only 16 years old. As he was too young to serve overseas, his Squadron Officer tried to leave him behind but Ben refused to be omitted when the Regiment left for overseas service on a transport ship, HMT Winifredia.
Just a week after setting foot in France, Ben took part in the British Army’s first engagement near the Belgian town of Mons. Two days later, he took part in one of the last great cavalry charges in history.
Ben remained on the Western Front for almost the entire war, being wounded twice. In 1919, he accompanied the victorious Allied forces to Germany to take part in the Occupation of the Rhineland.
He left the army in 1921 and set up a window cleaning business in Reading, where he worked until shortly before his death in August 1990, aged nearly 93.
He married in 1923 and had two children.
Although Ben died considerably younger and earlier than the other veterans in this collection, he is included because he was the last witness to the first shots fired by the British Expeditionary Force in the Great War.
“All four Troops of C Squadron were on outpost that night, 21st August, with two troops on standby, saddled up, ready to move at a moment’s notice. Our Troop was in a cornfield, along the back of which ran a wood. A screen of sentries was sent out, allowing those not on standby to eat something or catch up on some sleep.
Everything was quiet; everyone was tense. We tied the horses’ reins round our wrists, while those too nervous to rest talked to each other in whispers. We were warned that for all we knew we might already be surrounded and that we mustn’t speak to anyone. A few of us slackened our horses’ girths to let them breathe freely.
But silence was the order and, as horses were prone to play with their loose bit bars, we held or tired handkerchiefs around the bars to muffle any sound.
At about 6.30am, we arrived at a farm on the corner of a staggered crossroads and began watering our horses in a trough. There were already a few people about and as we waited, a farm worker came in saying he’d seen four German cavalrymen coming down the road.
Once this was confirmed, there was a flurry of action, and a plan was hatched to capture the patrol as it passed. Four men from 4th Troop were dismounted and ordered to fire a volley of shots into the patrol at close quarters.
This would be followed by the 2nd Troop charging forwards and bagging the remainder. I, along with the rest of the 4th Troop, was placed out of sight, mounted, waiting with drawn sword.
I believe a man was sent out behind a hedge to signal when the Germans were about to arrive, but in his excitement he ran to grab his horse and gave the position away. The German suddenly stopped, turned round and went back the way they had come.
The 1st Troop with Captain Hornby at their head went after them, and the rest of the Squadron followed on in support, with drawn swords. Our troop officer led the men at a fast canter, everyone was highly excited and I recall looking round to find our saddler sergeant major, not with a sword, but with a cocked revolver in his hand.
As the Germans retired into the village they met up with a larger group of cavalrymen, and, owing to the congestion, were soon caught by the 1st Troop. A fight immediately broke out.
However, we arrived after the Germans had scattered, with the main body splitting off and carrying on up the main road. We continued to give chase, our horse slipping all over the place as we clattered along the square-set stones.
Our chase continued for perhaps a mile or more, until we found ourselves flying up a wide rising road, tree-lined on both sides. The Germans reaching the road’s crest, turned and, though mounted, began firing back down the hill.
‘Action front, dismount,’ rapped Hornby, ‘Get the horses under cover!’
In one movement the Troop returned their swords, reached for their rifles and dismounted, dashing for cover, lying flat on their stomachs behind the trees.
Glancing up the hill, I saw several Germans filling the road. They made a perfect target, and Thomas, the first into action, shot one from his horse.
The Troop’s rapid fire sent bullets swarming up the road, but as a designated horse holder, I did not come into action. Before dismounting, the Troop had been riding in fours, and being number three, it was my job to take the reins of the two horses on my left and those of the one on my right.
Spurred on by Hornby’s command, I made for a high redbrick garden wall that surrounded the grounds of a château and which, because it stood at right angles to the road, offered us suitable protection. A gate was rushed open into the neighbouring field and I, along with the other horse holders, rode through to comparative safety.
It is not an easy job to bring four horses through a narrow opening; even in battle, each of us had to ensure our horses didn’t catch their hips on the gate. However, we almost accomplished our minor feat without problems when the very last horse through got a bullet in her stomach.
Under fire our troop officer simply went to pieces. He was sitting on his horse shaking like a jelly, totally unable to pull himself together. Hornby was furious and seeing that the officer was of no further use, turned on him shouting:
‘Get back with the led horses, you cowardly bastard!’
Hornby was barely able to control his disgust at our officer’s behaviour; the first action of the war, and he had been left looking completely hopeless in front of the men he was supposed to lead. He joined us, disgraced in front of the whole Troop.”