A Brief History of the East Riding Yeomanry
(1903-1918) by Dr. David Marchant
The Boer Wars in South Africa (1899-1902) exposed the British Army's lack of good quality mounted troops both for home defence and service abroad. It was to remedy this shortage that the ERY and other yeomanry regiments were set up. Yeomanry were volunteer cavalry units, first raised for home defence during the Napoleonic wars. The term "Yeoman" originally meant a moderately prosperous independent farmer.
Initial recruitment was by public meetings at Beverley, Driffield and Hull in 1902, at which Lord Wenlock (of Escrick, near Selby) was the speaker. He became the unit's first Colonel - hence the nickname "Wenlock's horse" that the ERY acquired. The strength of the regiment was set at 30 officers and 566 other ranks. A few regular officers and non-commissioned officers were drafted in to provide some initial professional support, as all of the men were volunteers and in most cases would have had no previous military experience.
The ERY was divided into four squadrons, designated A, B, C and D, along with a machine gun section. They were based at Hull, Beverley, Fulford (near York) and Bridlington respectively. In 1907 the ERY became part of the Territorial Force (later renamed the Territorial Army) and from then on all equipment was supplied by the War Office.
When they signed up (for a minimum of four years), Yeomen committed to a period of 16 days of training each year. This took place at a different location each year (for example Scarborough in 1907, Pocklington in 1908). Initially, men had to bring their own horses, it is assumed that those in rural areas would have easy access to horses - men recruited in Hull probably faced more difficulties, although familiarity with horses was more widespread than it is in Britain today.
In autumn 1915, at the final camp at Costessey near Norwich, there was a call for volunteers to go on active service (this was required at the time, as Territorials had not originally signed up for service overseas). Those men who did not volunteer were retained for home service in what became the 2/1st ERY. For a time it seemed that the ERY might be sent to Gallipoli. The regiment's horses were taken away and infantry training was hastily brought in - including digging trenches. Luckily this decision was soon reversed and although the unit's destination was not revealed at this time, the issue of tropical service uniforms might well have given the troops a strong hint that they were bound for the Mediterranean theatre of war.
After a sea voyage from Southampton to Alexandria in Egypt, via Gibraltar and Malta), the ERY was destined to spend most of 1916 in the Fayoum oasis, guarding against possible attacks on caravan routes by a troublesome local tribe - the Senussi - who had pro-German sympathies.
The ERY's existence in the Fayoum, particularly for those on desert patrols was hot, uncomfortable and probably very dull. Only when they got back to base camp in August 1916 was it possible to enjoy a plentiful supply of water and hot food - including bacon and eggs! Considerable numbers of men left the ERY in this period, partly because their periods of service had expired. Although new recruits did trickle in via the reserve units (the 2/1st and 3/1st ERY), the 1/1st undoubtedly suffered from losing many of its experienced NCO's and men at this time. Others transferred into different regiments in search of more active service. A large contingent joined the newly formed Imperial Camel Corps and some of these later served with Lawrence of Arabia in his "Army of Arabs".
The Turks had made attempts to reach the Suez Canal in 1915/1916 but had been repulsed. The British remained on the defensive initially, but steadily built up forces, before advancing across Sinai to the Egypt/Palestine border. Here they came up against heavily defended positions around the town of Gaza. During the course of 1917, the British made three attempts to force this position. In the 1st battle (March 1917) the ERY passed around Gaza to attack it from the rear, but were forced back by Turkish shelling. In the 2nd battle (April 1917) the British lost 6400 men in frontal attacks against numerically superior forces. Harold Lyon's squadron of the ERY was bombed by enemy planes during this action. Finally, with the arrival of General Allenby as British commander, the third assault on Gaza (in October/November 1917) by 88,000 troops was successful.
During this 3rd battle, the ERY was involved in outflanking manoeuvres to the east of Gaza and then cutting the railway to Jerusalem, trying to prevent the Turks from withdrawing. At El Mughar on 13th November, the ERY was involved in one of the last cavalry charges of the British army, galloping over two miles of open ground, seizing a Turkish position on a ridge and capturing 70 prisoners, along with two machine guns. Several hard weeks of campaigning in the stony, waterless Judean hills followed, during which the regiment had to dismount, as the terrain was completely unsuitable for horses.
The British marched into Jerusalem on 11th December 1917. By then, the ERY had already been withdrawn from the front line for a rest and was subsequently re-trained as part of a new Machine Gun Corps battalion (brigaded with the Lincolnshire Yeomanry).
The Machine Gun element of the 1/1st ERY remained in the Middle East for the duration of the war as part of the Machine Gun Corps (Cavalry), whilst the rest of the regiment was transferred to the Western Front in France in May 1918. There they served as something of a fire fighting force, supporting a number of assaults on German lines in the Cambrai/Valenciennes area until the Armistice in November 1918. Most of the ERY were demobilised and sent home within a few months of the end of hostilities. In all, perhaps around 225 ERY men had died or were killed during the war, including those who had transferred to other regiments and some deaths at home. Of these, around 35 deaths occurred in the Middle East theatre and nearly 30 as a result of the sinking by German U-boats of the HMT Arcadian in the Aegean (in 1917) and the RMS Leinster in the Irish Sea (in 1918). The regiment had certainly 'done its bit' and proved as tough as any regular army unit.
Dr. Marchant is employed by East Riding of Yorkshire Council as museums registrar and archaeology curator. He has produced a detailed study of the men of the East Riding Yeomanry and has a long-standing interest in military history in general.