Researched and written by Anne Wright
L/Cpl H A Herbert
4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers
Killed in action, 23.8.1914
Henry Anthony Herbert was killed just nineteen days after Britain declared war on Germany and just nine days after he arrived in France; the earliest death commemorated on the Weybridge Memorial. He was not a native of Weybridge having been born in Witton, Middlesex in 1881, the third of Thomas and Charlotte (nee Drinkhouse) Herbert’s five children. His siblings were Thomas, Sarah, David and Jessie. The family home in 1881 was at 4, Downton Place, Isleworth and they subsequently moved to Sunbury where Henry’s father earned his living as a farm carter or as a labourer. Henry Jnr became a Weybridge resident after his marriage to Elizabeth Willis of Walton-on-Thames in 1909; they made their home in two rooms at ‘Bryher’ in Radnor Road. Their son, Henry George Thomas was born on 4 April 1910 and baptised on 29 May at St. James’ Church. Henry was a contracting carter.
He may well have had some military experience as the 4th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers was part of the Regular Army whose mobilisation was ordered on 4 August 1914; they were joined by 737 reservists over the next few days, Henry may have been one of them. They disembarked at Le Havre on 14 August. They then marched 7 miles to a rest camp, but this proved difficult for some of the reservists. Between the 17-20 August the 4th Battalion route marched 7 to 8 miles daily, followed by 10 miles on the 21st. As part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) their objective, along with the French, was to halt the German advance westwards. Their first contact with the Germans came on 22 August. The BEF had 70,000 men and 300 artillery guns; they had no idea that the German force confronting them had 160,000 men and 600 artillery guns.
In the afternoon of the 22nd Henry and his comrades arrived at Nimy, just north of Mons where they took up outpost positions guarding the road and railway bridges over the Mons – Conde Canal which they were told to hold for as long as possible. The weary men had to dig-in and fortify their positions; they passed a quiet night. The next day, a Sunday, dawned in rain and mist. The local population was largely innocent of the fact that their home was about to become a battlefield – the morning began, as usual, with the sound of church bells as people made their way to church. Unlike the static trench warfare that was to come, the Battle of Mons was a battle of movement.
The Germans started desultory firing on the 4th Royal Fusiliers and the 4th Middlesex Battalion before 9am from high ground which they held to the north of the Canal. Their serious attack began at around 11am with at least four battalions of infantry and cavalry, plus artillery. Initially, Henry and his comrades performed superbly; each fusilier could fire up to 30 armed rounds in a minute from their .303 Lee Enfield rifles, they decimated the advancing German troops leading the enemy to believe that they were facing concentrated machine gun fire. However, their position became increasingly risky as only one bridge across the Canal had been blown and once the Germans had reopened the swing bridge near Nimy they were able to pour across and get in among the British defenders there. At 1.40pm the order for the 4th Royal Fusiliers to withdraw was given to prevent their entrapment. They withdrew in ‘perfect order’. The heroic performance of their machine gun detachment led to the awarding of the first Victoria Crosses of the war to Lt Maurice Dease (posthumously) and Pte Sidney Godley. By 3.30pm they had retired to Mons. The battalion had sustained 112 casualties, most of who had to be left behind. Henry was one of them. He was reported missing on 23 August and subsequently believed to have died on that day. His body was never recovered.
Henry is commemorated on the La Ferté-sous-Jouarre Memorial on the south-west edge of the town of the same name, on the south bank of the River Marne, 66 km east of Paris. The Memorial contains the names of 3,740 men of the BEF who perished in the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the Aisne between August and October 1914 and who have no known graves.
Henry may have had more than one child by the time of his death; his widow remarried in 1916 to George E. Bridgeman.
Battle of Mons 1914, https://www.britishbattles.com
British Army WW1Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-20, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms 1813-1912, www.ancestry.co.uk
C. N. Trueman, “The Battle of Mons”, www.historylearningsite.co.uk
UK, De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour, 1914-1924, www.ancestry.co.uk
UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919, www.ancestry.co.uk