Herbert James Button
Served with Essex County Constabulary from Jan 7, 1913 and died on Nov 1, 1914.
Herbert Button was born in Chelmsford on December 13, 1890. His parents James David, a carman, and Sarah Jane lived at 3, Marriages Square, Chelmsford. Herbert was baptised at the Church of St. Mary, St. Peter and St. Cedd, which is now Chelmsford Cathedral, on January 10, 1891.
Having completed his education Herbert served with the Grenadier Guards before joining Essex Constabulary on January 7, 1913. He was stationed at Dovercourt where, just before the outbreak of war, he managed to halt a runaway horse that had bolted along the High Street, but only after he had been dragged some considerable distance.
With the declaration of war on August 4, 1914, Herbert was recalled to the colours and rejoined his colleagues with the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards at Chelsea Barracks. Two other Essex policemen, Percy Battle and Stapleton Hollett, were also reservists with the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards and were recalled at the same time.
Six Battalions of Guards went to France with the original British Expeditionary Force (total strength of 150,000), which crossed the Channel between August 12 and 17, 1914.
The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions Coldstream Guards and the 1st Battalion Irish Guards constituted the 4th (Guards) Brigade under the command of Brigadier-General R Scott-Kerr (Grenadier Guards).
At midday on August 23, 1914, Sir John French's Army was holding the line Binche-Mons-Conde in an attempt to stop the German advance south from Belgium towards Paris. Early in the afternoon of the 23rd the 4th (Guards) Brigade, which had been held in reserve, was pushed forward to extend the line north-westward towards Mons.
Under sustained German attack, facing far superior numbers, a retreat was ordered, with the 4th (Guards) Brigade forming the infantry rear guard. On reaching Landrecies on August 26 the Brigade went into billets with the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards providing the outposts.
The History of the Guards Division records:
'About 7pm. the Germans, who contrived to make their way close up to the Coldstream piquets by answering the challenge in French, attacked with the bayonet and succeeded in the first moments of surprise in capturing the machine gun. But the Coldstream, effectively assisted by the machine-gun section of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, quickly regained control of the situation. The piquets were reinforced, and, although the fighting continued until midnight, the enemy made no progress and withdrew about 1am. after a howitzer of the 60th Battery, RFA., had succeeded in silencing his guns.'
The retreat was resumed the following day, August 27, and for the remaining days of that month The Guards were not called to do any fighting, but the hard and continuous marching in the dust and heat, and the short time available for rest and sleep, severely tested their powers of endurance. They reached Soissons on August 30.
On September 1 the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards and the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, who had been posted in the open south of Soucy to check the enemy's advance, were withdrawn to a line of defence around Rond de la Reine in Villers Cotterets Forest.
'The Germans attacked with a heavy force and about 10.45am. succeeded in entering the wood and attacked the line held by the Grenadiers and the Coldstream Guards. Owing to the density of the trees and the undergrowth the companies of the two battalions were widely extended and the Germans penetrated through the intervals between them. Fierce and confused fighting at close quarters ensued, but the two battalions held to their ground with great pertinacity and were still in their positions when at length the Irish Guards, who had again been heavily attacked, were forced back through the forest. Officers and men of all three battalions behaved with the utmost steadiness and determination, and succeeded in fighting their way back to Villers Cotterets, which they reached about 2pm.'
During the action Brigadier-General Scott-Kerr was severely wounded and 2nd Battalion Grenadiers lost 4 officers and 160 other ranks. One of the casualties was Percy Unsworth Battle, the former police colleague of Herbert Button. The 4th (Guards) Brigade had checked the advance of a considerably superior force of the enemy and inflicted serious casualties.
The retreat continued, but the 4th (Guards) Brigade were not engaged in action during the following days.
On September 6 the Allied Armies returned to the offensive and on 8th of that month the 4th (Guards) Brigade, forming the infantry of the advanced guard of the 2nd Division, helped to force the passage of the Petit Morin, overcoming considerable opposition from the enemy. The following day the Marne was crossed and on September 14 the 4th (Guards) Brigade was the last of the 2nd Division units to cross the river Aisne under vigorous shelling from the enemy. They reached their objective in the neighbourhood of La Cour de Soupir Farm about 10. 30 am. and were almost immediately attacked by the Germans advancing in dense masses across the open. They held their ground and with support from the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards checked the German advance.
This action, with the stand by the Germans, brought the war of movement to a close and was the start of a period of trench warfare which was to last for so many months. For the next three weeks the Guards remained in position in the area of Soupir and sustained high casualties from German artillery fire. Slowly trenches were improved and, as a consequence, casualties decreased.
In the beginning of October the 4th (Guards) Brigade moved north to Flanders in time for the opening of the first battle of Ypres on October 19, 1914. On October 21 the 4th (Guards) Brigade moved forward from Zonnebeke towards Passchendale, taking up a defensive position a little to the east of the Zonnebeke-Langemark Road. The following day under heavy fire an advance was attempted but with little success.
On October 23 the Guards were relieved in the line by the French but, after a tolerable night's rest, were back in the line on 25th with orders to take the Reutel spur. The 1st Battalion Irish Guards led the attack, but their advance was fiercely opposed and they were checked about 200 yards north of the village of Reutel. The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards made even less progress and German machine-gun and artillery superiority kept the Guards at bay. The 27th was quiet and provided an opportunity to improve trenches.
The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards were withdrawn from the line and were being held in reserve when, on October 29, the Germans launched a heavy attack in the area of the cross roads south-east of Gheluvelt. The Grenadiers were deployed in support of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade close to the wood that was later known as Shrewsbury Forest. They came under heavy artillery fire on October 31 and were withdrawn from their position in the early hours of November 1. Later the same day the Grenadiers mounted a counter attack which brought them back into the line. They experienced heavy shelling throughout the days that followed and were not relieved until November 10. The first battle of Ypres continued until November 22, 1914.
The War Diary of the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards records:
'1st November, 1914.
Relieved from trenches near KLIEN ZILLEBEKE by French troops at 3a.m.. Sent back about two miles and bivouacked for two or three hours, ordered to march to support 2nd Brigade which was hard pressed and had line broken. Sent to clear wood of KLIEN ZILLEBEKE and to restore line, cleared wood and entrenched at Southern edge, close up to enemy. No food till very late. All very tired and short of sleep. 10 killed, 29 wounded, 8 missing.'
Herbert Button was killed in the action close to Shrewsbury Forest. He died on November 1, 1914
Lord Cavan, who commanded the 4th (Guards) Brigade during this action later wrote:
'No words can ever describe what the devotion of the men and officers has been under the trials of dirt, squalor, cold, sleeplessness and perpetual rain for the last three weeks...
We came into this theatre 3,700 strong, and we shall go back about 2,000, but nothing finer to my mind has ever been done by human men.'
Before his death Herbert Button had written to his Inspector in Harwich. The letter was published in the Essex Weekly News on October 16, 1914.
"I am quite well and alive for the present, although perhaps not very safe. As I write, shells are whizzing over and bursting near. We are right in the thick of it here, and it's hot stuff... .I have had some narrow escapes but have been lucky, although one never knows who may be next."
A further letter written by Herbert to Sergeant Borrer was published in the Essex County Chronicle on November 6, 1914, five days after his death.
"We are having a lovely time, been engaged in a battle here for a month. My first time under fire, a poor fellow in front of me got a piece of shell through his stomach that would have had me...I hope I may be lucky and come back again. They are fighting hard now, but are a dirty lot. They dress in our uniforms and come right up to our trenches and hoist the white flag and when we go to fetch them they open fire. Our battalion have lost heavily, my company alone has lost 180 now."
News of his colleague's death inspired Police Constable Layton from Harwich police station to compose some poetry as a farewell to his friend. Sadly we have not been able to trace a copy of what was written.
Herbert left behind his widowed mother who was then living at 74, Rainsford Road, Chelmsford
Herbert Button is commemorated together with 54,895 others who fell in or around Ypres on the Menin Gate in Ypres. Every evening The Last Post is played by members of the local fire brigade as a tribute to those who gave their lives.
He is also commemorated on a memorial inside Chelmsford Cathedral to all parishioners who fell during The Great War.
On March 3, 1915 the Chief Constable reported to the Police Authority:- 'the death of Constable Button, a bachelor.' The matter was referred to the sub-committee on Police Pay and Conditions.
On December 6, 1916, it was decided that a payment of £2. 08 09 be paid to Mrs S J Button, the mother of Herbert Button, being the rateable deductions made from pay whilst he was a member of the County Police Force.
If you want the old battalion, I know where they are,
They're hanging on the old barbed wire,
I've seen 'em, I've seen 'em, hanging on the old barbed wire.
(First World War)