Dorset County Museum and The Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, in conjunction with the Dorset Yeomanry Regimental Association have assembled a small exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous charge of the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry in 1916.
The highlight of the display is the painting on loan by the Dorset County Council recording the gallantry of the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry that was commissioned from the greatest, British, late 19th / early 20th century, military artist, Lady Butler.
During the First World War, following the defeat of an Anglo-French attempt to invade Turkey at Gallipoli, the Ottoman Empire, encouraged by Germany, determined to capture the Suez Canal in Egypt and disrupt the vital British supply route to India.
The Senussi, a religious sect of the Libyan Desert, who had previously fought the Italians, were encouraged by Ottoman envoys to attack Egypt and raised a force of some 5,000 men, accompanied by Ottoman and German officers and backed by Ottoman regular troops with artillery and machine guns.
The Senussi force would divide, with the main element, commanded by the Iraqi Ottoman General Ja’afar Pasha advancing along the Mediterranean coast from Mersa Matruh towards Alexandria. A second column was to advance along the band of oases further south.
An attack on Egypt at this point could well have succeeded, as the country was very thinly garrisoned owing to the Mesopotamian and Gallipoli campaigns. A Western Frontier Force (WFF) was hastily assembled to counter the threat, including surviving Officers and Men of the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry (QODY), returned from Gallipoli.
After a series of inconclusive engagements throughout December 1915 and January 1916, in late February 1916, a large force of Senussi tribesmen was located by aerial reconnaissance encamped at Agagia, near Sidi Barrani.
Led by Brigadier General H.T. Lukin, the WFF infantry staged a frontal attack on the Senussi, the QODY having been detailed to cut off any retreat. After a brief firefight, the Senussi began to withdraw. Lt. Col. H.M.W. Souter, Commanding Officer of the QODY, seeing that the Senussi were in retreat, charged the enemy over a mile of open desert. Despite machine gun and rifle fire, the charge of 196 Dorset Yeomen smashed a large enemy rear-guard and drove the Senussi into headlong flight.
Lt. Col. Souter and Lt. Blaksley, despite both having horses shot from under them, fought on foot and secured the surrender of the Ottoman General Ja’afar Pasha.
This achievement, one of very few successful cavalry charges of the First World War, is all the more remarkable for the regiment which carried it out; a Territorial unit of part time soldiers from the towns and villages of Dorset.
In late 1916, Colonel J.R.P. Goodden, a former commander of the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry and leader of Dorset County Council, proposed the idea of a painting of one of the gallant deeds performed by the regiment as a memento of their First World War service. He collected 110 subscribers, who paid £10 each to defray the cost of £1000 to commission a painting from Lady Butler.
Lady Butler chose to illustrate the moment when Lt. Colonel Souter’s horse was shot out from under him. Subsequently, he landed on his feet, unhurt, in front of the Senussi chief, Ja’afer Pacha, who immediately surrendered to him. Suffice to say that much artistic licence has been used, as Lady Butler had been instructed to include all the officers in the picture, which she knew was impossible whilst still maintaining historical accuracy.
In late 1917, the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The picture then toured the Dorset, being seen by about 6000 people who paid 8d each to see it.
On the 6th August 1918, the picture was presented by Lord Portman and was given to the Dorset County Council to be hung in the Shire Hall. The picture now normally hangs in the Members’ Room at Dorset County Council offices.
Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler was a world-famous battle artist of the late 19th and early 20th century. Born Elizabeth Thompson, in 1850, in Lausanne, Switzerland, she spent the winter months of her childhood in Italy and the summers in Kent. At 19, she enrolled in the South Kensington School of Art in London.
In 1873, aged 23, she first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London; a painting entitled, Missing. In the following year, she exhibited her most famous work: The Roll Call. It became a huge success and was designated ‘Picture of the Year’. In the next few years her exhibits at the Royal Academy included 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras (1875) and Balaclava (1876).
These paintings typified her unique approach to painting battles in that she “never painted for the glory of war, but portrayed its pathos and heroism” through depictions of the stoicism of the ordinary solider in response to the hardship and horrors of war.
In 1877 she married a gifted career soldier, Major William Butler. Partly because her moves, following her husband’s career, limited her ability to exhibit and partly because of a change in public taste to a more jingoistic style, glorifying battle, most of her subsequent paintings did not find favour with the public.
She was 67 at the start of First World War and her two sons soon joined troops fighting on the western front. As a result, her war paintings tended to hide its grimness and focussed on the heroism of the British soldier.The Dorset Yeoman at Agagia falls into this period. She continued to paint until her death in October 1933.
- Western Front Association: One of the last true cavalry charges: The Charge of The Dorset Yeomanry at Agagia, Western Desert, 26 February 1916
- The Keep Military Museum – The Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry
- BBC Your Paintings - The Dorset Yeomen at Agagia, 26 February 1916 by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler