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An action at regimental level during first Battle of Ypres, before trench warfare established
The opening months of the First World War were a time of fluid manoeuvring, as each side sought to outflank the other; or so it now seems. We recall the 'race to the sea' and the subsequent stalemate that endured until the battles of 1918. But to those regiments of the BEF committed to action in August 1914, the picture was confused as they came to terms with the enormity of the forces ranged against them, writes Nick Watts.
Among many crisis moments in those early months, the action fought at Gheluvelt on 31st October 1914 by the 2nd Worcestershire regiment illustrates the nature of conventional warfare in 1914.
The 2nd Worcesters landed in France on 14th August 1914. They were part of 5th Brigade in the 2nd Division. Its war establishment was 30 officers and 992 other ranks. The regiment was involved in the battle of Mons and the retreat to the Marne and the battle of the Aisne. As part of Haig's l corps they were moved north to Flanders, arriving on 15th October.
Despite the deteriorating situation, Sir John French the British Commander in Chief attempted to outflank the Germans in the Lys valley by advancing towards Menin, by way of Ypres. This began on 20th October; the Worcesters were by this time in the Poperinghe area. It is indicative of the intensity of the campaigning up to this point that 5th Brigade was commanded by Lt. Col. Westmacott and the 2nd Worcesters by Major E Hankey.
The planned offensive by l Corps was halted by the enemy moving in the direction of Ypres. 2nd Division was warned to prepare for an enemy attack from the north east, and they dug in to shallow trenches. Here they endured probing attacks and very heavy shelling. This location subsequently became known as 'Hell-fire corner'. On 24th October 2nd Worcesters played a role in driving the enemy out of nearby 'Polygon wood', in hand to hand fighting. The Battalion dug in and was subjected to further artillery fire; the casualties that day numbered close to 200.
On 26th October the Brigade went into reserve, with the Battalion resting in the area of 'Polygon wood'. On 29th October 5th Brigade was broken up due to the effects of casualties. 2nd Worcesters were held as part of 2nd Division's reserve. By this time the Battalion numbered 12 officers and 450 men; roughly half strength.
The allied counter offensive had failed to make any headway during 26 – 28th October, but Sir John French the C in C of the BEF and his French counterpart Marshal Foch were still optimistic about their prospects of successfully pushing the enemy back.
During the afternoon of 28th October British signallers intercepted a German radio message ordering an attack for 05:30 the next morning. It was estimated that the enemy would attack in the direction of Gheluvelt. l Corps HQ was warned at 15:00 but the fog of war prevented the information being relayed to forward units until midnight. The British line held during the subsequent attacks on 29th and 30th.
The attack on 31st October began without any preliminary bombardment. This was repulsed. Most British units were by now much depleted. Enemy shelling began in earnest at 08:00 and infantry attacked at 10:00. Numerical advantage was with the Germans and by 11:30 the British position in Gheluvelt was lost. The road to Ypres was now open to the Germans.
The 2nd Worcesters had by now been placed under command of the 1st Division. The Brigade holding Gheluvelt was the 1st (Guards) Brigade. As reserve they had spent the morning dug in at the western edge of Polygon wood. The Battalion Adjutant described their condition: "Every single soul dog tired, cold, wet, and plastered with mud, had been unwashed and unshaved for days. Deficient of various articles of clothes and equipment, we still had our rifles and bayonets with plenty of ammunition, and we knew how to use them."
A counter attack had to be organised. The commanders and staff of both 1st and 2nd Division were co-located in the same building, a nearby chateau. As the two commanders were conferring in the HQ of 2nd Division, a shell burst in the room, killing almost all those present. General Munro commanding 2nd Division was only concussed but the commander of 1st Division was killed. The Brigade commander of 1st (Guards) Brigade sent a warning order to the Worcesters. Due to the effects of casualties no other unit was available to assist in the counter-attack.
'A' Company was positioned to protect a flank, leaving 3 weakened companies to carry out the attack. From their start point the Worcesters had to move a mile to reach Gheluvelt. The Battalion formed up short of the objective, a large chateau, and fixed bayonets; 'C' company on the left, 'D' company on the right with 'B' company in a second line. 360 all ranks started out.
As the regiment went into the attack they came under shell fire which claimed over 100 casualties. Caught off guard many of the enemy were looting the village or relaxing. 'C' company burst in among them and drove through them with the bayonet. The effect of this was to plug the gap in the line which had been created between the Scots Guards and the South Wales Borderers, and the situation was saved. The enemy made no attempt to retake the position, and British troops eventually withdrew to shorten their exposed position. The action on the 31st cost the Worcesters 187 casualties of whom 31 were killed. The First Battle of Ypres officially concluded on 22nd November 1914, by which time the 2nd Worcesters mustered some 240 all ranks.
The effect of the Ypres campaign was to prevent the German army reaching the channel ports which would have forced Britain out of the war. In 1940 a similar manoeuvre by German forces resulted in the evacuation from Dunkirk; but it didn't happen in 1914. In his despatch describing the actions of 31st October Sir John French said: "If any one unit can be singled out for special praise it is the Worcesters."
[With thanks to LTC C P Love TD "Gheluvelt 31st October 1914"; originally printed in 'Firm and Forester' October 1989]
Photographs : (l) Gheluvelt Chateau today (c) Graeme Cooper (r) Dai Havard MP at the Gheluvelt memorial to the South Wales Borderers, July 2014, during U K Defence Forum Great war battlefields study tour