Ninety-eight years ago, less than a month into the fighting of The Great War, on 1st September 1914, a young Derby soldier distinguished himself during an action that has been claimed by some historians to have changed the course of the First World War.
Frederick Alick Osborne was born on 1st November 1894 and though not yet 20 years old was already a Driver in “L” Battery, Royal Horse Artillery. Up to 1906 he had lived with his parents Herbert and Agnes and younger brothers and sisters at 69 Allestree Street, Crewton, Alvaston, Derby and attended Brighton Road School and was a member of the Wesley Brotherhood.
By 1st September 1914 “L” Battery had already distinguished itself a few days earlier at Audregnies, on the France/Belgium border, covering the retreat of the Cheshire and Norfolk Regiments from the front line near Mons. “L” Battery rode into battle in support of 1st Cavalry Brigade as part of the British Expeditionary Force and on the evening of 31st August encamped at the village of Néry, about 33 miles north-east of Paris.
The intention was to continue the retreat at 4.30 the next morning but a dense fog had formed during the night so any movement was delayed until 5.30. To the east of the village was a deep ravine and beyond that a plateau which overlooked the village. Unknown to the British, the German 4th Cavalry Division had spent the night just beyond the plateau, about two miles from Néry. German patrols discovered the British at first light and an immediate attack from both flanks was ordered.
The effect was devastating, men and horses, mostly in the open and closely packed together, were shot down in great numbers with the wounded horses breaking loose and stampeding. “L” Battery was closest to the enemy on the east side of the village and so received the full weight of fire from the twelve guns at a range of eight hundred yards. The first shell killed Driver Osborne’s horse and inside three minutes only six out of 236 horses remained. The Battery Captain, Edward Kinder Bradbury and some NCOs were standing in a corner of the field when the action began and saw the Battery being shot to pieces in front of their eyes. Shouting for volunteers Bradbury raced for the guns together with Sergeant David Nelson and other men, including Driver Osborne, and between them managed to unlimber three guns and get them firing.
One gun was disabled immediately wounding Driver Osborne in three places with shrapnel wounds in his cheek, shoulder and chest. A second gun soon followed but the third managed to continue firing for a further hour and a half. Alick Osborne, though wounded, continued in action, running 50 yards each way to bring up ammunition for the gun under intense fire, until wounded again in the knee from a shell that exploded a few feet away, putting him out of action.
Bradbury's gun remained in action reinforced by some of the survivors and soon after Battery Sergeant Major George Thomas Dorrell returned from watering the horses. The remaining gun bore a charmed life and despite a constant flow of casualties, Bradbury kept in action against three hostile batteries under a thousand yards away. As the numbers dwindled Bradbury was mortally wounded bringing ammunition to the gun leaving a detachment of just BSM Dorrell and Sgt Nelson. As the available ammunition was expended the gun fell silent at last and “L” Battery was finally relieved by men of the Middlesex Regiment, moving forward into the line.
Driver Osborne was sent to Paris to recover, but nearly died at Le Mans when he caught a chest infection and was given only 10 minutes to live. He survived and wrote home to tell his parents that he was to be awarded the “Medaille Militaire”, which he called “the French VC”, but also thought he might be put forward for the British Victoria Cross. Sergeant Major Dorrell was later interviewed and commended Driver Osborne and Gunner Darbyshire for keeping the Battery supplied with ammunition throughout the “Action at Néry”.
Driver Osborne did not receive his VC and it is not known if he got the French equivalent, which apparently carried with it pension of 100 francs a year. There were three Victoria Crosses awarded that day, posthumously to Captain Bradbury, who is buried in the Churchyard in the village where he fell, and to Sergeant David Nelson, who was killed in action later in the War. The third recipient was Sergeant Major George Thomas Dorrell, who stayed in the Army, achieving the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He died, peacefully, in 1971, aged 90.
If anyone knows anymore about Driver Frederick Alick Osborne I would be pleased to hear from them, from the accounts of his bravery it seems he deserves recognition, even after all this time. The original account of Driver Osborne’s exploits was published in The Derby Mercury on 30 October 1914.