Henry Greer Cree



Henry Greer Cree


Henry Greer Cree, RIR


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Contributor: Terry Cree on his father’s cousin, Henry Greer Cree, 1894-1914

Henry Greer Cree was born on 17 April 1894 in West Street Bangor, the third child of Henry and Hannah Jane Cree, and he was baptised in Bangor Parish Church of Ireland Church, St Comgall’s. In the 1900s the Cree family moved from Bangor to Belfast, where they lived at 52 Chadolly Street. Henry’s father was a bricklayer with a growing family. In his early teens Henry would have witnessed the Belfast Dockers’ Lock-out Strike in the summer of 1907, when for a brief period the working class of both traditions managed to stand united in pursuit of goals for the benefit of all.

From 1909 his city’s skyline would be dominated by the huge 220 foot gantries for moving cranes and lifts in the construction by Harland and Wolff of the world’s biggest ships, the Titanic and the Olympic. Young Henry Greer Cree worked as a labourer in the city, perhaps for his father, before he joined the Army . He enlisted in Belfast with The Royal Irish Rifles, and served as a Rifleman with the 2nd Battalion, Service No. 10011. In August 1914 the 2nd Battalion was stationed at Tidworth, a garrison town in south east Wiltshire, from where the battalion proceeded to France, landing at Rouen on 14th August as part of the British Expeditionary Force under the Anglo-Irish Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French.
A letter has survived that gives a glimpse of Henry Cree in France, recording hints of his experience, courage, and sense of humour. In September 1914 he passed through Orléans, and at the station he met Madame Villeneue and her family from the department of Loiret. Mme Villeneue, obtaining his name and home address, thoughtfully wrote an encouraging letter to Henry’s mother, Hannah Jane, in Belfast.

"Dear Madame,
We had the pleasure some days ago of making the acquaintance of your son, Mr. Henry Cree. He was coming from Rouen, and passing through Orleans, with a number of French and English comrades on his way to Paris. It was on the station where he had several hours to wait, that we engaged in our conversation. I, as well as my son, knew some little English, and we were able to act as interpreters between your son and my husband. Mr. Henry was very friendly with us, and my husband offered to spend time with him, which he readily accepted. When he was leaving, we promised to write and give you all the news, which is very good.
He is jolly, and pleased to find himself in France, supporting the noble cause of the allied nation, with those who are fighting on our side. He does not doubt of the final success. His health is excellent, and he does not seem to feel the fatigues of the war, as temperament is so bright. He is already looking forward to the time when, covered with glory, he will return to his own country, near those who love him. It was with merry good humour that he told us the story of the first part of the campaign on the Belgian frontier, where he received his ‘baptism of fire.’ Also, how he escaped a German bullet which was intended for him. He is presently engaged working a machine gun. On leaving us, he gave us great pleasure by accepting some garden fruits, which he seemed to like very much, as well as some roses, which were not good for him at all. Knowing that you will be pleased to hear this good news of your son, be good enough to accept, Madame, our most cordial salutations-and good wishes."

It is a puzzle that these soldiers should have been travelling from Rouen near the northern French coast to Paris via Orléans, a city 68 miles to the south and west of Paris. Perhaps the soldiers did not disclose to strangers why they were in Orléans, or perhaps there was some mis-communication, or perhaps the soldiers had taken the opportunity of a few days’ leave to travel by rail, and see something of France. The letter implies that Rifleman Cree has been with the Royal Irish Rifles since the opening of the campaign. That means he must have signed up and been trained as a regular soldier before the outbreak of the First World War. Perhaps he had been in search of a better life than the grinding poverty he would have seen amongst the working classes of Belfast. He has told the Villeneue family ‘the story of the first part of the campaign on the Belgian border’, which he describes as ‘his baptism of fire’. No doubt Henry’s courage came across as he told his story ‘with merry good humour’, but the kindness of Mme.Villeneue is perhaps also at work seeking to offer reassurance to a naturally worried mother. The fact that her letter has survived for a century itself testifies how much the family back home valued it. The action Henry speaks of is known to history as the Battle of Mons in which Henry’s 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles played a central part .

Since their arrival in France in mid -August 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force, the 2nd Battalion had been in the thick of the action; they played a vital part in defeating the German effort to encircle Paris and bring about the defeat of France. The 2nd Battalion had awaited the Germans at the Mons-Condé Canal, close to the Belgian border, and had fought with heroic resistance holding their ground against a massive German infantry advance on the canal at Obourg and in defence of the railway line, essential for supplies. Casualties at the Battle of Mons, 22nd-24th August, were high: 1,600 of all ranks killed, missing or wounded, but practically half of these came from just two battalions, the 4th Middlesex, and from Henry Cree’s 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, where RIR casualties numbered three hundred. It had indeed been ‘a baptism of fire’. The battalion fought also in the rear guard action at Solesmes, in the desperate Battle of Le Cateau, and in the strategically critical First Battle of the Marne (5th to 12th September 1914) where the RIR occupied the centre of the British line. This engagement would prove a decisive victory for the Allies. Two German armies, separated and trapped in the valley of the River Marne were exposed to a counter-attack by massive French forces and by the BEF. On 9th September the British force fought its way across the River Marne against strong resistance, and by the 11th September the German armies were in full retreat, a remarkable reversal caused in part by the fact that the German troops were exhausted, having marched in their advance for more than 150 miles, their progress frequently disrupted by enemy attack. German troops also now had to contend with demolished bridges and railways, damaging their supply lines.

The numbers involved are staggering. Over two million men fought in the First Battle of the Marne, of whom more than 500,000 were killed or wounded. French casualties totalled 250,000, 80,000 of them dead, while British casualties were 13,000, 1,700 of them dead. The Germans suffered 220,000 casualties, and their defeat marked the end of the German army sweep into France. World War I did indeed begin with ‘a baptism of fire’.

The BEF and the French Army sought to advance northwards from the Marne to press home their advantage, but the retreating Germans began to dig in along the heights above the River Aisne. Between the 12th and the 15th September Henry Cree’s 2nd Battalion RIR was again in action (7th Brigade, 3rd Division, II Corps) in a determined attempt to storm the German positions on a well wooded high ridge 300-400 feet above the river valley, the so-called Chemin des Dames plateau. By contrast, the unfenced low-lying countryside extending a mile from both banks of the river offered no cover to the attacking British and French forces. In dense fog on the night of 13th September most of the British Expeditionary Force crossed the Aisne on pontoons, and under cover of the thick fog advanced up the narrow paths towards the top of the ridge. But in bright morning sunshine the mist evaporated and the soldiers, suddenly visible, were raked by gunfire, and those still in the valley fared no better. The advance could go no further, but neither would the Allies retreat. The Battle of the Aisne could best be described as a draw. The Germans failed to drive the BEF and the French back across the Aisne River, but the BEF and the French failed to take the plateau.

On 14th September Sir John French ordered the BEF to entrench, but few tools were available. Soldiers scouted nearby farms and villages for spades, pickaxes, and other useful tools. Without training in stationary warfare, troops dug shallow pits that could provide only some limited cover against snipers and artillery fire. Soon hard lessons taught the men to dig to a depth of seven feet, to explore ways of improvising camouflage, and to strengthen trench walls with timber. Trench warfare was new also for the Germans, whose training and equipment had prepared them for a mobile war, but they quickly adapted their weapons. Siege howitzers lobbed massive shells into the Allied trenches; trench mortars, hand and rifle grenades (first used against British troops on 27th September) all inflicted heavy losses, whilst a shortage of heavy weapons handicapped the British. The British regulars were excellent marksmen, but even their combined accuracy was no match for the German machine guns and grenades.

There is no exact date for this September encounter between Rifleman Cree and Mme Villeneue, but the mood of uplift and high morale implied by her re-telling of the conversation may suggest a date no later than the middle of the month, following the decisive victory of the First Battle of the Marne. Seeing the German Army in full retreat must have eased the fears and tension of battle for many an Allied soldier, including Henry Cree and his machine gun team of four to six men. Henry may have felt proud to operate a very modern weapon, the machine gun. The British had only a few hundred available to their troops in 1914, and allocated just one or two to each infantry battalion.

By the end of September, however, the fighting on the Aisne had reached a stalemate. To break the deadlock, the competing armies now embarked upon the so-called ‘race to the sea’. Fighting northward towards the Channel ports, vital to the supply of the British army, each side desperately tried to turn the flank of the other. Equally matched, neither proved capable of a decisive breakthrough. The British Expeditionary Force, including the 2nd Battalion, RIR began to move from the Aisne to Flanders on 5th October.

As the ‘race to the sea’ reached a climax, the Allies struggled to contain two fresh German armies that advanced from Antwerp (which fell on 9 October) and took Lille. Driving back the British, the Germans captured also the village of La Bassée and, to the north, were poised to attack the village of Neuve Chapelle. At this juncture, the twelve 3rd Division battalions, which included the 2nd Battalion RIR, were opposed by 13 German infantry regiments, 4 Jäger battalions and 27 cavalry regiments. The British succeeded in repulsing attacks from superior forces through endurance and fire discipline which multiplied the impact of significantly smaller numbers of troops. The German offensive was contained, but La Bassée was not re-taken. This was the context in which Henry Cree fought the last battle of his short but intense war.

His battalion at Neuve Chapelle was in an impossible situation. On 22nd October, the Ulstermen occupied ill-prepared trench works, and over the next few days withstood severe bombardments and nocturnal infantry attacks, some of which were repulsed at the point of the bayonet. The attackers too suffered heavy losses. These were inexperienced Bavarian conscripts who panicked under the stress of the rapid fire of the RIR. The events of 25th October disclose the stress and confusion of battle:

During the attack of the previous night the enemy succeeded in establishing themselves in the houses near the left flank of the trenches and in the morning rushed the end trench on the left. They succeeded in capturing the field gun there, but only fired one round out of it and then overturned it. With the remains of ‘B’ Company, in reserve, (the remainder having replaced casualties in the firing line), and a platoon of the Lincolnshire Regiment the enemy were eventually driven out, but the trench could not be re-occupied as our own artillery were shelling it and the ground in rear. In fact this day our artillery shelled the trenches held by this Battalion causing several casualties and it was some time before they could be stopped as the telephone line was cut by shell fire and orderlies took a long time getting back. The enemy's bombardment this day was more severe and our casualties heavy. The two machine guns were put out of action, the water jackets being damaged by rifle fire.

On 24th and 25th October the following casualties occurred among the officers. Captain REYNOLDS, Lieutenant REA killed. Captain KENNEDY died of wounds, Lieutenant LOWRY, 2nd Lieutenant LAVILLE Leinster Regiment (attached) wounded, Major DAUNT concussion. The Battalion which was previously very short handed was now left practically without officers.

On 26th October while the Rifles' two rear companies were withdrawn from the line for a short rest, there occurred yet another heavy German attack, which overwhelmed the two forward companies.

B’ Company in trenches, ‘D’ Company in support. ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies were ordered back into billets at RICHEBOURG ST-VAAST. Enemy broke through the line in the vicinity of ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies (Commanded by Lieutenant FINLAY and Lieutenant INNES-CROSS) no further trace of these Companies or the officers commanding them could be obtained. In the afternoon, ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies were ordered up into the firing line from RICHEBOURG ST-VAAST. That night the enemy was driven back and ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies re-occupied the trenches.
At the end of that disastrous day, men of all ranks were posted as missing. One of the fallen was young Henry Cree, killed in action on 26th October, aged 20. The two resting companies returned to the battle forthwith, along with other British units. There then followed a confused mêlée of house to house fighting in the battered ruins, as each side struggled for control of Neuve Chappelle, but by 27th October it was clear that the defence of Neuve Chapelle was a lost cause; the Irish Rifles were ejected from the village, having sustained heavy losses. A series of drafts from Belfast replenished the losses, but these men too succumbed in fierce fighting near Hooge, which lay further east along the Menin Road towards Ypres, where in November the RIR would fight in the First Battle of Ypres, to protect the city from German occupation. When the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles finally withdrew to the rear on November 19, only 40 men from an earlier 700 presented at the battalion muster. The losses were terrible, but the communication routes to the Channel ports were secured, and remained so throughout the war.

A month later, on the 25th November The Irish Times reported the action at Neuve Chapelle in these very limited terms:
The Irish Times says that the officer commanding No. 11 District, Dublin, has received a copy of the following order by the Corps Commander, relating to the Royal Irish Rifles, through the General Officer Commanding 7th Infantry Brigade:-
During an attack by the enemy on the 7th Infantry Brigade last night the enemy came to close quarters with the Royal Irish Rifles, who repulsed them with great gallantry with the bayonet, and made several prisoners. The Corps Commander wishes to compliment the regiment on its splendid feat, and directs that all battalions of the corps shall be informed of the circumstances and of his high appreciation of the gallantry displayed.

Little wonder that a gulf grew between soldiers with their bitter first-hand knowledge and the civilians back home.

Rifleman Cree (No. 10011) has no known grave. His sole legatee was his mother, Hannah Jane. No doubt she cherished that letter from a mother in France which gave her a glimpse of her son enjoying a brief moment of autumn sunshine and telling her how he had been welcomed into a French home. She may have imagined him speaking modestly of his part in actions that a friendly French family admired; and been glad that his friendliness and evident courage had met with the gift of hospitality, and a parting offering of fruit and flowers. After that encounter, in the remaining brief weeks before his death in action at Neuve Chapelle, may be Henry thought again, and with longing, about going home to Belfast, and how he would tell the story of this pleasant encounter to his family and friends.

Rifleman Cree (No. 10011) is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial (Panel 42 and 43) in France and in the Belfast Book of Honour (Page 128).

By the time of the famous Christmas Truce, December 1914, the Western Front had already claimed circa 1,600,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing), a figure that would not be matched in any other comparable period of the war. The proportional cost to the British Army was particularly high. At Ypres alone the BEF lost 58,000 men, whilst total British losses for 1914, including a conservative estimate of 8,000 Irishmen, exceeded 85,000.




France, Orleans, Neuve Chapelle


Terry Cree

Collection Day

November 3 2018 Menston

This item was submitted on February 6, 2019