Army Reservists of The Royal Wessex Yeomanry are preparing to commemorate the centenary of one of the most extraordinary feats of the First World War – the victorious cavalry charge of the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry at Agagia.
The action near Sidi Barrani in Egypt is credited with thwarting Turkish attempts to break British power in the Middle East.
Famed as the last charge by a British cavalry regiment, it was also the only time in British military history that a Reserve force – Territorial soldiers drawn from farms, villages and towns throughout Dorset – achieved a decisive battle success virtually on their own.
The Royal Wessex Yeomanry share many battle honours with the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry (QODY).
Although the QODY was disbanded in 1967, Reservists of A (The Dorset Yeomanry) Squadron continue to commemorate the battle of Agagia.
The charge was an amazing feat of arms, unaided and unsupported, says James Selby Bennett, a former Commanding Officer of the Royal Wessex Yeomanry and now chairman of the trustees of the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry (QODY) and the Dorset Yeomanry.
To this day, it is viewed with enormous pride throughout Dorset, as he explained: “Families of people who served in the regiment still live and work here and serve in the Dorset Yeomanry. And of course an existing sub unit still bears the name of Dorset as part of the Royal Wessex Yeomanry.”
Altogether, 184 mounted Dorset Yeomanry took part in the charge on 26 February 1916 with sabres drawn across 1,200 yards of open desert and under heavy fire from a 500-strong Regular force of Turkish and Senussi tribesmen armed with machine guns and rifles.
The Territorials included cooks brandishing their cleavers as well as farriers with branding irons.
The Senussi, who had been threatening British supply lines through the Suez Canal, were routed, with an estimated 300 dead and many taken prisoner. The QODY lost four officers, 27 other ranks and 85 horses. It could have been worse, but the Turks failed to adjust the sights on their machine guns as the horsemen approached.
Also killed was 2nd Lieutenant J C Bengough, of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, who was attached to the Dorsets as aide-de-camp to the Commanding Officer, Lt-Col Hugh Souter.
Souter, a pre-war Indian Army officer, later wrote of Bengough: “As we galloped to the charge, he said ‘Isn’t this splendid’ – and I replied, ‘Yes, I have waited 24 years for this.’ He replied: ‘I always was a lucky fellow’.”
Several events are planned to mark the centenary, including:
- QODY and its Regimental Association remember the fallen and celebrate the victory at a private reception, Minterne House, 27 February.
- On the same day, the current Dorset Yeomanry sub unit – Bovington-based A Squadron, Royal Wessex Yeomanry – hold their annual Agagia breakfast at Dorset County Museum.
- A special exhibition at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester (open to 3 June), which for the first time in many years offers Dorset people easy access to view the famous painting of the charge by military artist, Lady Elizabeth Butler.
- A complementary display of military ephemera at The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester.
The heroism of the Agagia charge created such an impression in Dorset at the time that the County Council raised a public subscription to commission the Lady Butler painting.
Says James Selby Bennett: “The fact that this should have occurred at a time when the German army’s spring offensive had very nearly won the war – and morale here was so low after four years’ warfare and casualties – tells its own story.”
The Royal Wessex Yeomanry, which has other Squadrons in Devon, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, is the only Armoured Reinforcement unit in Britain, working closely with the Army’s three Regular armoured units.
The Regiment’s role is to supply the Regulars with full four-man crews for the Challenger 2 main battle tank, including the tank commander.
It means that it is one of few Reserve units to be part of the British Army Reactive Forces, which are held at a state of higher readiness, prepared to deploy anywhere around the world.
A (The Dorset Yeomanry) Squadron, The Royal Wessex Yeomanry, continues to attract new recruits. For more information call 01929 402013, or to find out about opportunities as an Army Reservist visit www.army.mod.uk/join/20237.aspx