Lieut. Norman Birtwistle (1897-1918)


Further to my recent post about finding great uncle Norman Birtwistle’s ceremonial cavalry sword, my cousin has sent me two accounts of the charge at Le Chateau where great uncle Norman was killed on 8th October 1918.

Lieut. Norman Birtwistle Cavalry Sword
Lieut. Norman Birtwistle Cavalry Sword

The first is from is the Daily Express of 27 January 1919 and written by a ‘cavalryman’. It is worth comparing this account with the starker and arguably more realistic one provided by Private A. Hannam in the letter below to the mother of the then missing Lieut. Scott Cockburn. In it he explains how they were ordered to charge a battery of field and machine guns where they met heavy machine gun fire on open ground, which resulted in the death of great uncle Norman, 10 other officers, and 103 men of other ranks. According to the notes accompanying the two accounts, it appears as if Lieut. Scott-Cockburn was found and later became a Brigadier, but didn’t recall making the hunting calls mentioned in the Daily Express account.

How the ‘Obsolete’ Arm came back
By a Cavalryman

There are people who still contend that the day of Cavalry in War is ended. The only thing that will end Cavalry is the end of war.

To say that the Allied Cavalry on the Westcm Front, came into their own’ during the two months’ fighting leading up to the armistice is no exaggeration of the facts. British, French and Belgian horse soldiers had their dearest wishes gratified time after time and with undisguised pleasure and delight they seized the opportunities that a benevolent Mars offered them.

Cavalry in war operate in two distinct ways and in two distinct bodies, either as ‘massed’ Cavalry (Brigades and Divisions), used with great vigour and speed to follow up and exploit the Infantry’s successes, or in small patrol flung out for in front of the Infantry in the attack and having as their sphere of action the ground from divisional headquarters upwards through the moving line and beyond it – their task being reconnoissance. The Allied Cavalry were used freely in both these formations.


The British Cavalry Corps consisted of 3 Divisions and just before the grand attack on the Hindenburg line in September, one of these was split up and one of each of its three Brigades allocated to an army to act as what is known technically as a ‘Corps Cavalry’ – the second of the two way mentioned above in which Cavalry may be used. remaining two Divisions formed the ‘Cavalry Mass’ and it is with them that we wii! deal first. They were kept together under the Corps Commander and placed behind the 5th Army, close at hand and ready to be bunched, as they were with such startling success in the Amiens victory on August 10th 1918. Their chance came every time they were brought up, and the fact that they did so well on the St. Quentin front in a country slashed with trenches and knotted with wire shows how splendidly alive the old and famous Cavalry Spirit’ has been kept.

Had we possessed no Cavalry the Germans would never have left their numerous lines of defence so quickly in such a state of demoralisation. As an instance of what the Cavalry Corps did, the action of the Nineteenth Hussars on October 8th in front of Le Catcau may be mentioned. Ordered to go through at all costs, they formed up under heavy machine-gun fire on open Ground, 3 Squadrons in line and Galloped towards a ridge on which was a battery of German Field Guns. The 19th went as British Cavalry went at Balaclava and, with their men cheering wildly and the Officers shouting hunting calls, they reached and captured the guns and gave the Gunners a taste of the sword ‘with the back of the hand up’ as every good Cavalryman should.

This gallant charge enabled the Infantry to get forward, and had a very demoralising effect on the German Infantry who were already rattled and ‘jumpy’. So much for the larger bodies, The corps Cavalry had little if any, of the glory and excitement, but far more work and opportunity for usefulness. The Regiments in each Brigade were attached to the different Army Corps and so on down the scale of a Squadron to an Infantry Division, often a Troop to a Brigade and an Officer’s Patrol to a Battalion. When the attack was started Patrols worked continuously to and from the rapidly moving line, keeping touch ‘,between it and the various Brigade headquarters. Infantry Brigadiers found that they had accurate news of the struggle and knew how far their troops had got, amazingly quickly, and consequently were able to keep the attack moving, at a faster rate and with a corresponding hurry and bustle on the enemy’s side.

In the four and half year of war we have heard a lot about the ‘obsolete Arm’. In, the year 1918 the Germans heard – and saw and felt – quite a lot of it too.

A squadron
19th Hussars

12th October 1918

Dear Madam,

I feel it my duty to write to you. I expect you will have heard about Lt. Scott Cockburn, I was his servant and with him all day. He took A Squadron through in the morning but had to withdraw again owing to machine-gun fire. In the afternoon he had the order to Charge a Battery of field guns and Machine-guns with the lst and 2nd Troop. We galloped up a valley about a mile long. We got in some wire and had to turn back. Mr. Cockburn took the 2 Troops right handed and charged the guns. What happened for a few minutes I can hardly say. I should say there were about 200 Germans there, and 4 of us left mounted and 7 or 8 dismounted. When the Germans saw us we had no support, they made it warm for us and we had to retire. When we came away Mr. Cockburn was sitting with his back against a gun where his favourite mare was shot and I think fell on his leg. I feel ‘Confident he is a prisoner. I’m sorry we couldnot get him away but it was madness to turn back again, against such odds. for we should either have been killed or taken prisoners. I was riding Punch another of Mr.Ceckburn’s horses; he was badly wounded in the head with Machine-gun bullets, and bled a good deal. The Regimentwanted to shoot him when I got back becapse he looks a bad case. I begged them not. I had him back and have him now. Captain Sir Digby Lawson told me this morning I could keep him to ride myself. The first chance I haveto get a photo of him I will send you one if I may. Sir Charles Cayzer and Mr. Birtwistle was in the Charge as well but dId not return. I went up again the next morning withCaptain Sir, Digby Lawson, We found several of our men and Mr. B!rtwistle dead, but could not find Mr. Cockbum or Mr. Cayzer, so they must be prisoners. If the Germans had killed them they would have left him, as they did Mr. Birtwistle. I hope you will soon have good news I am sure you would feel proud to have a son like Mr. Cock burn, if you couldonly hear what the men say and what they thought of him as a leader. Every man feels sorry that he is gone from the Squadron; he wouldn’t send a man where he wouldn’t go himself. Dunkley was groom, to Mr. Cockburn and has been with him a long time. We shall both look forward to news of him. I forgot to say this Charge took place on the 8th October. We lost 11 officers and 103 other ranks. The Colonel was killed – Colonel Franks.

I remain, yours truly,

256565 Pte A. Hannam

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