On this day some 105 years ago, British Army Cpt. Francis Octavius Grenfell– aged 33 and a noted polo player– led the 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers into combat against the Germans at Audregnies, a small village west of Mons in Northern France. The Germans were advancing on the far west flank of the British Expeditionary Force during the Battle of Mons and threatened to encircle the Old Contemptibles of the 5th Division. Grenfell and his lancers were busy that day, both charging the on-coming Germans and later pulling back some abandoned British field guns, keeping them from being captured.
Richard Caton Woodville later immortalized the action at Audregnies in the below painting, from the National Army Museum collection.
As noted by the NAM:
Although not the first action of World War One (1914-1918) for which the Victoria Cross was awarded, Grenfell was the first to be gazetted, that is, officially listed in ‘The London Gazette’ as a recipient. The citation was for ‘gallantry in action against unbroken infantry at Audregnies and for gallant conduct in assisting to save the guns of the 119th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, near Doubon the same day’.
Notably, the 9th later took part in the final “lance-on-lance” action by British horse-soldiers when, on 7 September 1914 at Montcel à Frétoy, Lt. Col. David Campbell led a charge of two troops against a squadron of lance-armed Prussian Guards Dragoons.
After service in the Great War and as a tank unit in WWII, the 9th was amalgamated with the 12th Royal Lancers to form the 9th/12th Royal Lancers in 1960. They were later further amalgamated with the Queen’s Royal Lancers in 2015 to form the Royal Lancers, which today is an armored recon battalion equipped with Scimitar vehicles. They are the only “lancers” still in the British Army although they officially retired the weapons for field use in 1928.
However, they still use the famous skull and crossbones badge that is one of the most recognizable in the British Army with the motto: ‘Death or Glory’.
As for the heroic Capt. Grenfell, he later fell in action near Ypres in 1915, as did his twin brother, Riversdale.
Buried in the Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery in Belgium, his VC is in the regimental museum of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers in Derby.