ONE hundred years ago, as the early daffodils turned their faces to the spring sunshine in Worcestershire, the officers and men of the county regiment were fastening their greatcoats against the cold and preparing to fight and die for King and Country in France.

And die they did. The battle of Neuve Chapelle, which began on March 10, 1915 and lay midway between Bethune and Lille in northern France, lasted for three hellish, dark and confused days. It was the first major engagement of the First World War and a bloody portent of what was to come.

The 1st Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment went into action with 26 officers and 870 rank and file. By the battle's end there were just seven officers and 450 men left. Most of the ground gained during a successful early push had been abandoned and a real chance to puncture the German lines had been lost. History advances several reasons for the failure, but a prime cause was the breakdown in the British communications systems, which couldn't cope in the heat of what was then, a new form of warfare.

The battle had started with the heaviest bombardment yet seen in any war. For half an hour the massed British artillery, some five hundred guns, pounded the German lines, before the infantry. which had been ordered to fight in pinned-back greatcoats because of the freezing temperatures, clambered from their trenches and began the assault.

The attack of the morning had taken the enemy by surprise and actually effected the break in the German defence for which the British staff had hoped, but because of poor communications there was no concerted follow-up. Nevertheless through the confusion the Worcestershire's 1st Battalion pressed on, until the morning of March 12, when through the mist a dense mass of counter attacking infantry came surging forwards against the battalion's trenches. Two battalions of the 21st Bavarian Reserve Regiment were in close formation, with a mounted officer riding in their midst. "On they came in a great mass," wrote a subaltern of the Worcestershire, "their officers in front waving swords, then a great rabble followed by a fat old blighter on a horse". All along the line the men of the 1st Worcestershire gripped their rifles and awaited the order to open fire. After two days of muddle and failure the moment for which they had trained had come at last.

"There was a most extraordinary hush for a few seconds as we held our fire," said an officer, "while they closed in on us." The Germans came on to within seventy yards. Then at last from flank to flank the whole line of the Worcestershire broke into the crackling roar of rapid fire, the "mad minute" so assiduously practised, "We brought them down in solid chunks," wrote one subaltern. "Down went the officers, the sergeant-majors and the old blighter on the horse." Then, as the German battalions reeled under the storm, the Worcestershire broke from their trenches and charged with the bayonet. "We counter-charged and back the rabble went, full tilt for their own trenches 400 yards away".

The Times correspondent wrote: " The Worcesters had a fine scrap with the Germans in an orchard round a farmhouse. They had their tails up with a vengeance. They chased the Germans up and down that muddy field like terriers after rats. They pursued them with the bayonet round the trees."

If other troops had been available to support that isolated company the German defensive front might have been broken, but they weren't and as the Worcesters returned to their lines they were shot to pieces by murderous machine gun fire.