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Title: The Standard History of the War, Vol. II Author: Edgar Wallace * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1400071h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jan 2014 Most recent update: Jan 2014 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan from a donated text. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Introduction — After the Deadlock on the Aisne
Chapter I. — The Move to the North
The Fourth Despatch: Ypres-Armentières
Chapter II. — The Struggle for the Coast
The New Field of Battle—Typical Warfare—How the British Came North—How the Great Battle Began—Bridging the Dykes—How the Dorsets held Pont Fixe—A Murderous Battle in the Dark.
Chapter III. — The Long Thin Khaki Line
The Royal Irish at Le Pilly—Increased Violence of Battle—Trench Warfare- -"Holding on"—The British at Antwerp—How the 4th Corps came into Existence— Why the Germans Wanted Calais—Germans Occupy Ostend—How the Belgians Fought— A Battle on Land, Sea, and in the Air—Sir John French's Daring Decision—The Memorable Battle for Ypres.
Chapter IV. — Great Deeds That Made an Undying Story
The Work of the 1st Corps—Pulteney's Advance—Gallant Regiments—The Story of the Royal West Kents—Five Days' Fight at Neuve Chapelle—Critical Days— London Scottish—The Worcestershires' Great Fight—Realistic Description of Fighting—The Defeat of the Prussian Guard.
Appendix: The Naval Division at Antwerp
THE fourth despatch of Field-Marshal Sir John French, dealing with the operations of the army under his command from the time the British forces left the trenches on the Aisne, and took up new positions in Northern France and in Flanders, is necessarily a crowded one, filled with stories of surprising and absorbing interest. "The deeds of the troops in these days," Sir John French has said, "will furnish some of the most brilliant chapters which will be found in the military history of our time." For many days the left flank of the Armies was in an exceedingly critical condition, and it is easy to see from the despatches how near the Germans were to establishing themselves on the northern coast of France.
Such was the magnitude of the operations, however, that the Commander-in- Chief is obliged to dismiss in a few lines actions which in other times would have been given far more prominence.
As it is they will live in history as glorious and memorable achievements. "No more arduous task," Sir John French has testified "has ever been assigned to British soldiers, and in all their splendid history there is no instance of their having answered so magnificently to the desperate calls which of necessity were made upon them."
I propose in this volume to give in full the memorable despatch, and, because of the necessary brevity with which it deals with great and important events and heroic struggles, I shall devote the rest of the volume to setting out more fully the great story which is only outlined in Sir John French's despatch. From its official nature, the despatch omits, of necessity, a mass of information which has reached us in other ways in incomplete, fragmentary, and disconnected forms. In supplying this descriptive matter, in filling in the wonderful story of marches and counter marches, of strategical and tactical manoeuvres, in telling of the great combats which took place, and of the regimental and individual acts of heroism, I hope to get these great events into some kind of perspective, and to present a connected story of how the glorious work was accomplished.
It was a delicate operation to withdraw the British forces from their position on the Aisne (where we left them at the conclusion of the previous volume) and transfer them to new positions a long way off in Northern France and Flanders. The prolonged battle of Ypres-Armentières, or the battle for the coast, as it has sometimes been called, was a development of the continuous struggle which commenced on the Aisne after the Great German Retreat from Paris. After weeks of continual stalemate, when neither side could move the other from strong entrenched positions, the efforts of the Allies and Germans alike were directed to attempting to outflank each other. There came a time on the Aisne when General Sir John French made up his mind that he would force events elsewhere.
It was on October 3rd that Field-Marshal Sir John French began the series of operations which had for its object the moving of his army from the position it held on the Aisne to the northernmost part of France. The object of the German commander had become clear; from necessity he had to extend his line northward to preserve his right flank from the threatening Allies. They made a virtue of that necessity by moving large bodies of troops in the direction of the coast. General Joffre was endeavouring to bring his troops in order to outflank the enemy and to drive him in upon his own interior lines. It is at this point that the despatch of Sir John French, with the contents of which this volume deals, begins. The full text of the Commander-in-Chief's official account of events follows.
(From Field-Marshal Sir John French)
RECEIVED by the Secretary of State for War from the Field- Marshal Commanding- in-Chief British Forces in the Field:—
General Headquarters, November 20, 1914.
1. I have the honour to submit a further despatch recounting the operations of the Field Force under my command throughout the battle of Ypres- Armentières.
Early in October a study of the general situation strongly impressed me with the necessity of bringing the greatest possible force to bear in support of the northern flank of the Allies, in order effectively to outflank the enemy and compel him to evacuate his positions.
At the same time the position on the Aisne, as described in the concluding paragraphs of my last despatch, appeared to me to warrant a withdrawal of the British Forces from the positions they then held.
The enemy had been weakened by continual abortive and futile attacks, while the fortification of the position had been much improved.
I represented these views to General Joffre, who fully agreed.
Arrangements for withdrawal and relief having been made by the French General Staff, the operation commenced on October 3; and the 2nd Cavalry Division, under General Gough, marched for Compiègne en route for the new theatre.
The Army Corps followed in succession at intervals of a few days, and the move was completed on October 19, when the 1st Corps, under Sir Douglas Haig, completed its detrainment at St. Omer.
That this delicate operation was carried out so successfully is in great measure due to the excellent feeling which exists between the French and British Armies; and I am deeply indebted to the Commander-in-Chief and the French General Staff for their cordial and most effective cooperation.
As General Foch* was appointed by the Commander-in-Chief to supervise the operations of all the French troops north of Noyon, I visited his headquarters at Doullens on October 8 and arranged joint plans of operations as follows:—
* General Foch, to whose co-operation Field-Marshal Sir John French refers in such cordial terms, was, with General Joffre, decorated with the Grand Cross of the Bath on the occasion of H.M. the King's visit to the firing- line in December, 1914.
The 2nd Corps to arrive on the line Aire-Bethune on October 11, to connect with the right of the French 10th Army and, pivoting on its left, to attack in flank the enemy who were opposing the 10th French Corps in front.
The Cavalry to move on the northern flank of the 2nd Corps and support its attack until the 3rd Corps, which was to detrain at St. Omer on the 12th, should come up. They were then to clear the front and act on the northern flank of the 3rd Corps in a similar manner, pending the arrival of the 1st Corps from the Aisne.
The 3rd Cavalry Division and 7th Division, under Sir Henry Rawlinson, which were then operating in support of the Belgian Army and assisting its withdrawal from Antwerp, to be ordered to co-operate as soon as circumstances would allow.
In the event of these movements so far overcoming the resistance of the enemy as to enable a forward movement to be made, all the Allied Forces to march in an easterly direction. The road running from Bethune to Lille was to be the dividing line between the British and French Forces, the right of the British Army being directed on Lille.
2. The great battle, which is mainly the subject of this despatch, may be said to have commenced on October 11, on which date the 2nd Cavalry Division, under General Gough, first came into contact with the enemy's cavalry who were holding some woods to the north of the Bethune-Aire Canal. These were cleared of the enemy by our cavalry, which then joined hands with the Divisional Cavalry of the 6th Division in the neighbourhood of Hazebrouck. On the same day the right of the 2nd Cavalry Division connected with the left of the 2nd Corps which was moving in a north-easterly direction after crossing the above- mentioned canal.
By October ii Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien had reached the line of the canal between Aire and Bethune. I directed him to continue his march on the 12th, bringing up his left in the direction of Merville. Then he was to move east to the Laventie-Lorgies, which would bring him on the immediate left of the French Army and threaten the German flank.*
* At this time the Germans were engaged in a fierce battle with the French at Arras, and there were, apparently, no considerable number of troops available for the extension of the enemy line. But leaving von Kluck to hold an extended line from Soissons almost to the Argonne, first von Buelow's, then the King of Wurtemburg's, and finally the Crown Prince of Bavaria's Armies were moved northward, and it was against these latter, strengthened by certain Prussian Corps, that the British found themselves fighting.
On the 12th this movement was commenced.
The 5th Division connected up with the left of the French Army north of Annequin. They moved to the attack of the Germans who were engaged at this point with the French; but the enemy once more extended his right in some strength to meet the threat against his flank. The 3rd Division, having crossed the canal, deployed on the left of the 5th; and the whole 2nd Corps again advanced to the attack, but were unable to make much headway owing to the difficult character of the ground upon which they were operating, which was similar to that usually found in manufacturing districts and was covered with mining works, factories, buildings, etc. The ground throughout this country is remarkably flat, rendering effective artillery support very difficult.
Before nightfall, however, they had made some advance and had successfully driven back hostile counter-attacks with great loss to the enemy and destruction of some of his machine guns.
On and after October 13 the object of the General Officer Commanding the 2nd Corps was to wheel to his right, pivoting on Givenchy to get astride the La Bassée-Lille Road in the neighbourhood of Fournes, so as to threaten the right flank and rear of the enemy's position on the high ground south of La Bassée.
This position of La Bassée has throughout the battle defied all attempts at capture, either by the French or the British.
On this day Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien could make but little progress. He particularly mentions the fine fighting of the Dorsets, whose Commanding Officer, Major Roper, was killed* They suffered no fewer than 400 casualties, 130 of them being killed, but maintained all day their hold on Pont Fixe. He also refers to the gallantry of the Artillery.*
* A reference to the work of the Dorsets will be found in the accompanying narrative. The artillery has been so consistently good that there is a danger from the very level of its excellence we may be overlooking its superlative merit. From the moment the first gun was fired at Mons up to the end of the battle for the coast the Royal Regiment of Artillery accomplished marvels.
The fighting of the 2nd Corps continued throughout the 14th in the same direction. On this day the Army suffered a great loss, in that the Commander of the 3rd Division, General Hubert Hamilton, was killed.
On the 15th the 3rd Division fought splendidly, crossing the dykes, with which this country is intersected, with planks; and driving the enemy from one entrenched position to another in loop-holed villages, till at night they pushed the Germans off the Estaires-La Bassée Road and established themselves on the line Pont de Ham-Croix Barbie.
On the 16th the move was continued until the left flank of the Corps was in front of the village of Aubers, which was strongly held. This village was captured on the 17th by the 9th Infantry Brigade, and at dark on the same day the Lincolns and Royal Fusiliers carried the village of Herlies at the point of the bayonet after a fine attack, the Brigade being handled with great dash by Brigadier General Shaw.*
* A thrilling description of this fight will be found in the accompanying narrative, page 78.
At this time, to the best of our information, the 2nd Corps was believed to be opposed by the 2nd, 4th, 7th, and 9th German Cavalry Divisions, supported by several battalions of Jaegers and a part of the 14th German Corps.
On the 18th powerful counter-attacks were made by the enemy all along the front of the 2nd Corps, and were most gallantly repulsed; but only slight progress could be made.
From October 19 to October 31 the 2nd Corps carried on a most gallant fight in defence of their position against very superior numbers, the enemy having being reinforced during that time by at least one Division of the 7th Corps, a brigade of the 3rd Corps, and the whole of the 14th Corps, which had moved north from in front of the French 21st Corps.
On the 19th the Royal Irish Regiment, under Major Daniell, stormed and carried the village of Le Pilly, which they held and entrenched. On the 20th, however, they were cut off and surrounded, suffering heavy losses.
On the morning of the 22nd the enemy made a very determined attack on the 5th Division, who were driven out of the village of Violaines, but they were sharply counter-attacked by the Worcesters and Manchesters, and prevented from coming on.*
* The work of these two regiments has been uniformly excellent, and a further exploit of the Worcesters will be found on page 138.
The left of the 2nd Corps being now somewhat exposed, Sir Horace Smith- Dorrien withdrew the line during the night to a position he had previously prepared, running generally from the eastern side of Givenchy, east of Neuve Chapelle to Fauquissart.
On October 24 the Lahore Division of the Indian Army Corps, under Major- General Watkis, having arrived, I sent them to the neighbourhood of Lacon to support the 2nd Corps.
Very early on this morning the enemy commenced a heavy attack, but owing to the skilful manner in which the artillery was handled and the targets presented by the enemy's infantry as it approached, they were unable to come to close quarters. Towards the evening a heavy attack developed against the 7th Brigade, which was repulsed, with very heavy loss to the enemy, by the Wiltshires and the Royal West Kents.* Later a determined attack on the 18th Infantry Brigade drove the Gordon Highlanders out of their trenches, which were retaken by the Middlesex Regiment, gallantly led by Lieutenant-Colonel Hull.
* See page 125.
The 8th Infantry Brigade (which had come into line on the left of the 2nd Corps) was also heavily attacked, but the enemy was driven off.
In both these cases the Germans lost very heavily, and left large numbers of dead and prisoners behind them.
The 2nd Corps was now becoming exhausted, owing to the constant reinforcements of the enemy, the length of line which it had to defend, and the enormous losses which it had suffered.
By the evening of October 11 the 3rd Corps had practically completed its detrainment at St. Omer, and was moved east to Hazebrouck, where the Corps remained throughout the 12th.
On the morning of the 13th the advanced guard of the Corps, consisting of the 19th Infantry Brigade and a Brigade of Field Artillery, occupied the position of the line Strazeele Station-Caestre-St. Sylvestre.
On this day I directed General Pulteney to move towards the line Armentières-Wytschaete; warning him, however, that should the 2nd Corps require his aid he must be prepared to move south-east to support it.
A French Cavalry Corps under General Conneau was operating between the 2nd and 3rd Corps.
The 4th German Cavalry Corps, supported by some Jaeger Battalions,* was known to be occupying the position in the neighbourhood of Meteren; and they were believed to be further supported by the advanced guard of another German Army Corps.
* Light Infantry Regiments.
In pursuance of his orders, General Pulteney proceeded to attack the enemy in his front.
The rain and fog which prevailed prevented full advantage being derived from our much superior artillery. The country was very much enclosed and rendered difficult by heavy rain.
The enemy were, however, routed and the position taken at dark, several prisoners being captured.
During the night the 3rd Corps made good the attacked position and entrenched it.
As Bailleul was known to be occupied by the enemy, arrangements were made during the night to attack it, but reconnaissances sent out on the morning of the 14th showed that they had withdrawn, and the town was taken by our troops at 10 a.m. on that day, many wounded Germans being found and taken in it.
The Corps then occupied the line St. Jans Cappel-Bailleul.
On the morning of the 15th the 3rd Corps were ordered to make good the line of the Lys from Armentières to Sailly, which, in the face of considerable opposition and very foggy weather, they succeeded in doing, the 6th Division at Sailly-Bac St. Maur and the 4th Division at Nieppe.
The enemy in its front having retired, the 3rd Corps on the night of the 17th occupied the line Bois Grenier-Le Gheir.
On the 18th the enemy were holding a line from Radinghem on the south, through Perenchies and Frelinghien on the north, whence the German troops which were opposing the Cavalry Corps occupied the east bank of the river as far as Wervick.
On this day I directed the 3rd Corps to move down the valley of the Lys and endeavour to assist the Cavalry Corps in making good its position on the right bank. To do this it was necessary first to drive the enemy eastward towards Lille. A vigorous offensive in the direction of Lille was assumed, but the enemy was found to have been considerably reinforced, and but little progress was made.
The situation of the 3rd Corps on the night of the 18th was as follows:—
The 6th Division was holding the line Radinghem-La Vallée- Armentières- Capinghem-Premesques Railway Line 300 yards east of Halte. The 4th Division were holding the line from L'Epinette to the river at a point 400 yards south of Frelinghien, and thence to a point half a mile south-east of Le Gheir. The Corps Reserve was at Armentières Station, with right and left flanks of Corps in close touch with French Cavalry and the Cavalry Corps.
Since the advance from Bailleul the enemy's forces in front of the Cavalry and 3rd Corps had been strongly reinforced, and on the night of the 17th they were opposed by three or four divisions of the enemy's cavalry, the 19th Saxon Corps and at least one division of the 7th Corps. Reinforcements for the enemy were known to be coming up from the direction of Lille.
Following the movements completed on October 11, the 2nd Cavalry Division pushed the enemy back through Flêtre and Le Coq de Paille, and took Mont des Cats, just before dark, after stiff fighting.*
* The Mont des Cats is one of the few eminences in this somewhat featureless country. Only the most meagre description of this fight has been placed on record. The enemy had entrenched the slopes and held both flanks of the hill# and its capture by cavalry was a notable achievement.
On the 14th the 1st Cavalry Division joined up, and the whole Cavalry Corps under General Allenby, moving north, secured the high ground above Berthen, overcoming considerable opposition.
With a view to a further advance east, I ordered General Allenby, on the 15th, to reconnoitre the line of the River Lys, and endeavour to secure the passages on the opposite bank, pending the arrival of the 3rd and 4th Corps.
During the 15th and 16th this reconnaissance was most skilfully and energetically carried out in the face of great opposition, especially along the lower line of the river.
These operations were continued throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th; but, although valuable information was gained, and strong forces of the enemy held in check, the Cavalry Corps was unable to secure passages or to establish a permanent footing on the eastern bank of the river.
At this point in the history of the operations under report it is necessary that I should return to the co-operation of the forces operating in the neighbourhood of Ghent and Antwerp under Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson, as the action of his force about this period exercised, in my opinion, a great influence on the course of the subsequent operations.
This force, consisting of the 3rd Cavalry Division under Major-General the Hon. Julian Byng, and the 7th Division, under Major-General Capper, was placed under my orders by telegraphic instructions from your Lordship.
On receipt of these instructions I directed Sir Henry Rawlinson to continue his operations in covering and protecting the withdrawal of the Belgian Army, and subsequently to form the left column in the eastward advance of the British forces. These withdrawal operations were concluded about October 16, on which date the 7th Division was posted to the east of Ypres on a line extending from Zandvoorde through Gheluvelt to Zonnebeke. The 3rd Cavalry Division was on its left towards Langemarck and Poelcappelle.
In this position Sir Henry Rawlinson was supported by the 87th French Territorial Division in Ypres and Vlamertinghe and by the 89th French Territorial Division at Poperinghe.
On the night of the 16th I informed Sir Henry Rawlinson of the operations which were in progress by the Cavalry Corps and the 3rd Corps, and ordered him to conform to those movements in an easterly direction, keeping an eye always to any threat which might be made against him from the north-east.
A very difficult task was allotted to Sir Henry Rawlinson and his command.* Owing to the importance of keeping possession of all the ground towards the north which we already held, it was necessary for him to operate on a very wide front, and until the arrival of the 1st Corps in the northern theatre—which I expected about the 20th—I had no troops available with which to support or reinforce him.
* The circumstances which led to the formation of the 4th Corps will be found in the narrative on page 93.
Although on this extended front he had eventually to encounter very superior forces, his troops, both cavalry and infantry, fought with the utmost gallantry and rendered very signal service.
On the 17th four French Cavalry Divisions deployed on the left of the 3rd Cavalry Division and drove back advanced parties of the enemy beyond the Forêt d'Houthulst.
As described above, instructions for a vigorous attempt to establish the British Forces east of the Lys were given on the night of the 17th to the 2nd, 3rd, and Cavalry Corps.
I considered, however, that the possession of Menin constituted a very important point of passage, and would much facilitate the advance of the rest of the Army. So I directed the General Officer Commanding the 4th Corps to advance the 7th Division upon Menin and endeavour to seize that crossing on the morning of the 18th.
The left of the 7th Division was to be supported by the 3rd Cavalry Brigade and further north by the French Cavalry in the neighbourhood of Roulers.
Sir Henry Rawlinson represented to me that large hostile forces were advancing upon him from the east and north-east and that his left flank was severely threatened.
I was aware of the threats from that direction, but hoped at this particular time there was no greater force coming from the north-east than could be held off by the combined efforts of the French and British Cavalry and the Territorial troops supporting them until the passage at Menin could be seized and the 1st Corps brought up in support.
Sir Henry Rawlinson probably exercised a wise judgment in not committing his troops to this attack in their somewhat weakened condition, but the result was that the enemy's continued possession of the passage at Menin certainly facilitated his rapid reinforcement of his troops and thus rendered any further advance impracticable.
On the morning of October 20 the 7th Division and 3rd Cavalry Division had retired to their old position extending from Zandvoorde through Kruiseik and Gheluvelt to Zonnebeke.
On October 19 the 1st Corps, coming from the Aisne, had completed its detrainment and was concentrated between St. Omer and Hazebrouck.
A question of vital importance now arose for decision.
I knew that the enemy were by this time in greatly superior strength on the Lys, and that the 2nd, 3rd, Cavalry, and 4th Corps were holding a much wider front than their numbers and strength warranted.
Taking these facts alone into consideration, it would have appeared wise to throw the 1st Corps in to strengthen the line, but this would have left the country north and east of Ypres and the Ypres Canal open to a wide turning movement by the 3rd Reserve Corps and at least one Landwehr Division which I knew to be operating in that region. I was also aware that the enemy was bringing large reinforcements up from the East which could only be opposed for several days by two or three French Cavalry Divisions, some French Territorial troops, and the Belgian Army.
After the hard fighting it had undergone the Belgian Army was in no condition to withstand, unsupported, such an attack; and unless some substantial resistance could be offered to this threatened turning movement, the Allied flank must be turned and the Channel Ports laid bare to the enemy.
I judged that a successful movement of this kind would be fraught with such disastrous consequences that the risk of operating on so extended a front must be undertaken; and I directed Sir Douglas Haig to move with the 1st Corps to the north of Ypres.
From the best information at my disposal I judged at this time that the considerable reinforcements which the enemy had undoubtedly brought up during the 16th, 17th, and 18th, had been directed principally on the line of the Lys and against the 2nd Corps at La Bassée; and that Sir Douglas Haig would probably not be opposed north of Ypres by much more than the 3rd Reserve Corps, which I knew to have suffered considerably in its previous operations, and perhaps one or two Landwehr Divisions.*
* Throughout the campaign after the first onslaught, Field-Marshal French has been very well informed by his scouts and "agents" as to the disposition and strength of the enemy.
At a personal interview with Sir Douglas Haig on the evening of October 19 I communicated the above information to him, and instructed him to advance with the 1st Corps through Ypres to Thourout. The object he was to have in view was to be the capture of Bruges and subsequently, if possible, to drive the enemy towards Ghent. In case of an unforeseen situation arising, or the enemy proving to be stronger than anticipated, he was to decide, after passing Ypres, according to the situation, whether to attack the enemy lying to the north or the hostile forces advancing from the east; I had arranged for the French Cavalry to operate on the left of the 1st Corps and the 3rd Cavalry Division, under General Byng, on its right.
The Belgian Army were rendering what assistance they could by entrenching themselves on the Ypres Canal and the Yser River; and the troops, although in the last stage of exhaustion, gallantly maintained their positions, buoyed up with the hope of substantial British and French support.*
* The battle for the coast brought out the fine staying qualities of the Belgian Army, to which a tribute is paid in the narrative.
I fully realised the difficult task which lay before us, and the onerous rôle which the British Army was called upon to fulfil.
That success has been attained, and all the enemy's desperate attempts to break through our line frustrated, is due entirely to the marvellous fighting power and the indomitable courage and tenacity of officers, non-commissioned officers, and men.
No more arduous task has ever been assigned to British soldiers; and in all their splendid history there is no instance of their having answered so magnificently to the desperate calls which of necessity were made upon them.
Having given these orders to Sir Douglas Haig, I enjoined a defensive role upon the 2nd and 3rd and Cavalry Corps, in view of the superiority of force which had accumulated in their front. As regards the 4th Corps, I directed Sir Henry Rawlinson to endeavour to conform generally to the movements of the 1st Corps.
On October 20 they reached the line from Elverdinghe to the cross-roads, one and a half miles north-west of Zonnebeke.
On the 21st the Corps was ordered to attack and take the line Poelcappelle-Passchendaele.
Sir Henry Rawlinson's Command was moving on the right of the 1st Corps, and French troops, consisting of Cavalry and Territorials, moved on their left under the orders of General Bidon.
The advance was somewhat delayed owing to the roads being blocked; but the attack progressed favourably in face of severe opposition, often necessitating the use of the bayonet.
Hearing of heavy attacks being made upon the 7th Division and the 2nd Cavalry Division on his right, Sir Douglas Haig ordered his reserve to be halted on the north-eastern outskirts of Ypres.
Although threatened by a hostile movement from the Fôret d'Houthulst, our advance was successful until about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, when the French Cavalry Corps received orders to retire west of the canal.
Owing to this and the demands made on him by the 4th Corps, Sir Douglas Haig was unable to advance beyond the line Zonnebeke-St. Julien-Langemarck- Bixschoote.
As there was reported to be congestion with French troops at Ypres, I went there on the evening of the 21st and met Sir Douglas Haig and Sir Henry Rawlinson. With them I interviewed General de Mitry, Commanding the French Cavalry, and General Bidon, Commanding the French Territorial Divisions.
They promised me that the town would at once be cleared of the troops, and that the French Territorials would immediately move out and cover the left of the flank of the 1st Corps.
I discussed the situation with the General Officers Commanding the 1st and 4th Army Corps, and told them that, in view of the unexpected reinforcements coming up of the enemy, it would probably be impossible to carry out the original role assigned to them. But I informed them that I had that day interviewed the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, who told me that he was bringing up the 9th French Army Corps to Ypres, that more French troops would follow later, and that he intended—in conjunction with the Belgian troops—to drive the Germans east. General Joffre said that he would be unable to commence this movement before the 24th; and I directed the General Officers Commanding the 1st and 4th Corps to strengthen their positions as much as possible and be prepared to hold their ground for two or three days, until the French offensive movement on the north could develop.
It now became clear to me that the utmost we could do to ward off any attempts of the enemy to turn our flank to the north, or to break in from the eastward, was to maintain our present very extended front, and to hold fast our positions until French reinforcements could arrive from the south.
During the 22nd the necessity of sending support to the 4th Corps on his right somewhat hampered the General Officer Commanding the 1st Corps; but a series of attacks all along his front had been driven back during the day with heavy loss to the enemy. Late in the evening the enemy succeeded in penetrating a portion of the line held by the Cameron Highlanders north of Pilkem.
At 6 a.m. on the morning of the 23rd a counterattack to recover the lost trenches was made by the Queen's Regiment, the Northamptons, and the King's Royal Rifles, under Major-General Bulfin. The attack was very strongly opposed and the bayonet had to be used. After severe fighting during most of the day the attack was brilliantly successful, and over six hundred prisoners were taken.*
* These three regiments have done consistently well throughout the campaign. Some idea of the pressure exerted against the Camerons may be gathered from the fact that it was necessary to send three battalions to retake the position from which they were driven by overwhelming numbers.
On the same day an attack, was made on the 3rd Infantry Brigade. The enemy advanced with great determination, but with little skill, and consequently the loss inflicted on him was exceedingly heavy; some fifteen hundred dead were seen in the neighbourhood of Langemarck. Correspondence found subsequently on a captured German Officer stated that the effectives of this attacking Corps were reduced to 25 per cent, in the course of the day's fighting.
In the evening of this day a division of the French 9th Army Corps came up into line and took over the portion of the line held by the 2nd Division, which, on the 24th, took up the ground occupied by the 7th Division from Poelzelhoek to the Becelaere-Passchendaele Road.
On the 24th and 25th October repeated attacks by the enemy were brilliantly repulsed.
On the night of the 24th-25th the 1st Division was relieved by French Territorial troops and concentrated about Zillebeke.
During the 25th the 2nd Division, with the 7th on its right and the French 9th Corps on its left, made good progress towards the north-east, capturing some guns and prisoners.
On October 27 I went to the headquarters of the 1st Corps at Hooge to personally investigate the condition of the 7th Division.
Owing to constant marching and fighting, ever since its hasty disembarkation, in aid of tin Antwerp Garrison, this division had suffered great losses, and were becoming very weak, therefore decided temporarily to break up the 4th Corps and place the 7th Division with the 1st Corps under the command of Sir Dougla Haig.
The 3rd Cavalry Division was similarly detaile for service with the 1st Corps.*
* There was only one infantry division in this weak corps and the task assigned to it had been a very heavy one.
I directed the 4th Corps Commander to proceed with his Staff, to England, to watch and supervise the mobilisation of his 8th Division, which was then proceeding.
On receipt of orders, in accordance with the above arrangement, Sir Douglas Haig redistributed the line held by the First Corps as follows:—
(a) 7th Division from the Château east of 510 Zandvoorde to the Menin Road.
(b) 1st Division from the Menin Road to a point immediately west of Reytel Village.
(c) 2nd Division to near Moorslede-Zonnebeke Road.
On the early morning of October 29 a heavy attack developed against the centre of the line held by the 1st Corps, the principal point of attack being the cross-roads one mile east of Gheluvelt. After severe fighting—nearly the whole of the Corps being employed in counter attack—the enemy began to give way at about 2 p.m.; and by dark the Kruiseik Hill had been recaptured and the 1st Brigade had re-established most of the line north of the Menin Road.
Shortly after daylight on the 30th another attack began to develop in the direction of Zandvoorde, supported by heavy artillery fire. In face of this attack the 3rd Cavalry Division had to withdraw to the Klein Zillebeke ridge. This "withdrawal" involved the right of the 7th Division. Sir Douglas Haig describes the position at this period as serious, the Germans being in possession of Zandvoorde Ridge.
Subsequent investigation showed that the enemy had been reinforced at this point by the whole German Active 15th Corps.
The General Officer Commanding 1st Corps ordered the line Gheluvelt to the corner of the canal to be held at all costs. When this line was taken up the 2nd Brigade was ordered to concentrate in rear of the 1st Division and the 4th Brigade line. One battalion was placed in reserve in the woods one mile south of Hooge.
Further precautions were taken at night to protect this flank, and the 9th French Corps sent three battalions and one Cavalry Brigade to assist.
The 1st Corps communications through Ypres were threatened by the advance of the Germans towards the canal; so orders were issued for every effort to be made to secure the line then held and, when this had been thoroughly done, to resume the offensive.
An order taken from a prisoner who had been captured on this day purported to emanate from the German General, von Beimling, and said that the 15th German Corps, together with the 2nd Bavarian and 13th Corps, were entrusted with the task of breaking through the line to Ypres; and that the Emperor himself considered the success of this attack to be one of vital importance to the successful issue of the war.
Perhaps the most important and decisive attack (except that of the Prussian Guard on November 15) made against the 1st Corps during the whole of its arduous experiences in the neighbourhood of Ypres took place on October 31.*
* A description of this fight is to be found on page 115 of the narrative.
General Moussy, who commanded the detachment which had been sent by the French 9th Corps on the previous day to assist Sir Douglas Haig on the right of the 1st Corps, moved to the attack early in the morning, but was brought to a complete standstill and could make no further progress.
After several attacks and counter-attacks during the course of the morning along the Menin-Ypres road, south-east of Gheluvelt, an attack against that place developed in great force, and the line of the 1st Division was broken. On the south the 7th Division and General Bulfin's detachment were being heavily shelled. The retirement of the 1st Division exposed the left of the 7th Division, and owing to this the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who remained in their trenches, were cut off and surrounded. A strong infantry attack was developed against the right of the 7th Division at 1.30 p.m.
Shortly after this the Headquarters of the 1st and 2nd Divisions were shelled. The General Officer Commanding the 1st Division was wounded, three Staff Officers of the 1st Division and three of the 2nd Division were killed.* The General Officer Commanding the 2nd Division also received a severe shaking and was unconscious for a short time. General Landon assumed command of the 1st Division.
* This was an extraordinary circumstance, and shows not only how close up were the Staffs, but the result of German espionage, because there can be no doubt that the enemy received exact information as to the positions the Staffs occupied.
On receiving a report about 2.30 p.m. from General Lomax that the 1st Division had moved back and that the enemy was coming on in strength, the General Officer Commanding the 1st Corps issued orders that the line, Frezenburg-Westhoek-bend of the main road-Klein Zillebeke bend of canal, was to be held at all costs.
The 1st Division rallied on the line of the woods east of the bend of the road, the German advance by the road being checked by enfilade fire from the north.
The attack against the right of the 7th Division forced the 22nd Brigade to retire, thus exposing the left of the 2nd Brigade. The General Officer Commanding the 7th Division used his reserve, already posted on his flank, to restore the line; but, in the meantime, the 2nd Brigade, finding their left flank exposed, had been forced to withdraw. The right of the 7th Division thus advanced as the left of the 2nd Brigade went back, with the result that the right of the 7th Division was exposed, but managed to hold on to its old trenches till nightfall.
Meantime, on the Menin road, a counterattack delivered by the left of the 1st Division and the right of the 2nd Division against the right flank of the German line was completely successful, and by 2.30 p.m. Gheluvelt had been retaken with the bayonet, the 2nd Worcester Regiment being to the fore in this, admirably supported by the 42nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.* The left of the 7th Division, profiting by their capture of Gheluvelt, advanced almost to its original line; and connection between the 1st and 7th Divisions was re- established. The recapture of Gheluvelt released the 6th Cavalry Brigade, till then held in support of the 1st Division. Two regiments of this brigade were sent at once to clear the woods to the south-east, and close the gap in the line between the 7th Division and the 2nd Brigade. They advanced with much dash, partly mounted and partly dismounted; and, surprising the enemy in the woods, succeeded in killing large numbers and materially helped to restore the line. About 5 p.m. the French Cavalry Brigade also came up to the cross-roads just east of Hooge, and at once sent forward a dismounted detachment to support our 7th Cavalry Brigade.
* This desperate and bloody battle for the village of Gheluvelt is described on page 137.
Throughout the day the extreme right and left of the 1st Corps' line held fast, the left being only slightly engaged, while the right was heavily shelled and subjected to slight infantry attacks. In the evening the enemy were steadily driven back from the woods on the front of the 7th Division and 2nd Brigade; and by 10 p.m. the line as held in the morning had practically been reoccupied.
During the night touch was restored between the right of the 7th Division and left of the 2nd Brigade, and the Cavalry were withdrawn into reserve, the services of the French Cavalry being dispensed with.
As a result of the day's fighting eight hundred and seventy wounded were evacuated.
I was present with Sir Douglas Haig at Hooge between 2 and 3 o'clock on this day, when the 1st Division were retiring. I regard it as the most critical moment in the whole of this great battle. The rally of the 1st Division and the recapture of the village of Gheluvelt at such a time was fraught with momentous consequences. If any one unit can be singled out for especial praise it is the Worcesters.
In the meantime the centre of my line, occupied by the 3rd and Cavalry Corps, was being heavily pressed by the enemy in ever-increasing force.
On October 20 advanced posts of the 12th Brigade of the 4th Division, 3rd Corps, were forced to retire, and at dusk it was evident that the Germans were likely to make a determined attack. This ended in the occupation of Le Gheir by the enemy.
As the position of the Cavalry at St. Yves was thus endangered, a counter- attack was decided upon and planned by General Hunter-Weston and Lieutenant- Colonel Anley. This proved entirely successful, the Germans being driven back with great loss and the abandoned trenches reoccupied. Two hundred prisoners were taken and about forty of our prisoners released.
In these operations the staunchness of the King's Own Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers was most commendable. These two battalions were very well handled by Lieutenant-Colonel Butler, of the Lancashire Fusiliers.
I am anxious to bring to special notice the excellent work done throughout this battle by the 3rd Corps under General Pulteney's command. Their position in the right central part of my line was of the utmost importance to the general success of the operations. Besides the very undue length of front which the Corps was called upon to cover (some 12 or 13 miles), the position presented many weak spots, and was also astride of the River Lys, the right bank of which from Frelinghien downwards was strongly held by the enemy. It was impossible to provide adequate reserves, and the constant work in the trenches tried the endurance of officers and men to the utmost. That the Corps was invariably successful in repulsing the constant attacks, sometimes in great strength, made against them by day and by night, is due entirely to the skilful manner in which the Corps was disposed by its Commander, who has told me of the able assistance he has received throughout from his Staff, and the ability and resource displayed by Divisional, Brigade, and Regimental leaders in using the ground and the means of defence at their disposal to the very best advantage.
The courage, tenacity, endurance, and cheerfulness of the men in such unparalleled circumstances are beyond all praise.
During October 22, 23, and 24 frequent attacks were made along the whole line of the 3rd Corps, and especially against the 16th Infantry Brigade, but on all occasions the enemy was thrown back with loss.
During the night of October 25 the Leicestershire Regiment were forced from their trenches by shells blowing in the pits they were in; and after investigation by the General Officers Commanding the 16th and 18th Infantry Brigades, it was decided to throw back the line temporarily in this neighbourhood.
On the evening of October 29 the enemy made a sharp attack on Le Gheir, and on the line to the north of it, but were repulsed.
About midnight a very heavy attack developed against the 19th Infantry Brigade south of Croix Maréchal. A portion of the trenches of the Middlesex Regiment was gained by the enemy and held by him for some hours till recaptured with the assistance of the detachment from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from Brigade Reserve. The enemy in the trenches were all bayonetted or captured. Later information from prisoners showed that there were twelve battalions opposite the 19th Brigade. Over two hundred dead Germans were left lying in front of the Brigade's trenches and forty prisoners were taken.
On the evening of the 30th the line of the 11th Infantry Brigade in the neighbourhood of St. Yves was broken. A counter-attack carried out by Major Prowse with the Somerset Light Infantry restored the situation. For his services on this occasion this officer was recommended for special reward.
On October 31 it became necessary for the 4th Division to take over the extreme right of the 1st Cavalry Division's trenches, although this measure necessitated a still further extension of the line held by the 3rd Corps.
On October 20, while engaged in the attempt to force the line of the River Lys, the Cavalry Corps was attacked from the South and East. In the evening the 1st Cavalry Division held the line St. Yves-Messines; the 2nd Cavalry Division from Messines through Garde Dieu along the Wambeck to Houthem and Kortewilde.
At 4 p.m. on October 21 a heavy attack was made on the 2nd Cavalry Division which was compelled to fall back to the line Messines-9th kilo stone on the Wameton-Oostaveme Road-Hollebeke.
On the 22nd I directed the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade, less one battalion, to proceed to Wulverghem in support of the Cavalry Corps. General Allenby sent two battalions to Wytschaete and Voormezeele to be placed under the orders of General Gough, Commanding the 2nd Cavalry Division.
On the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, several attacks were directed against the Cavalry Corps and repulsed with loss to the enemy.
On October 26 I directed General Allenby to endeavour to regain a more forward line, moving in conjunction with the 7th Division. But the latter being apparently quite unable to take the offensive, the attempt had to be abandoned.
On October 30 heavy infantry attacks, supported by powerful artillery fire, developed against the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Divisions, especially against the trenches about Hollebeke held by the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. At 1.30 p.m. this Brigade was forced to retire, and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, less one regiment, was moved across from the 1st Cavalry Division to a point between Oostaveme and St. Eloi in support of the 2nd Cavalry Division.
The 1st Cavalry Division in the neighbourhood of Messines was also threatened by a heavy infantry column.
General Allenby still retained the two Indian Battalions of the 7th Indian Brigade, although they were in a somewhat exhausted condition.
After a close survey of the positions and consultations with the General Officer Commanding the Cavalry Corps, I directed four battalions of the 2nd Corps, which had lately been relieved from the trenches by the Indian Corps, to move to Neuve Eglise under General Shaw, in support of General Allenby.
The London Scottish Territorial Battalion was also sent to Neuve Eglise.*
*It was this village that, after three desperate charges, the distinguished Territorial regiment drove back the enemy with great loss.
It now fell to the lot of the Cavalry Corps, which had been much weakened by constant fighting, to oppose the advance of two nearly fresh German Army Corps for a period of over forty-eight hours, pending the arrival of a French reinforcement. Their action was completely successful. I propose to send shortly a more detailed account of the operation.
After the critical situation in front of the Cavalry Corps, which was ended by the arrival of the head of the French 16th Army Corps, the 2nd Cavalry Division was relieved by General Conneau's French Cavalry Corps and concentrated in the neighbourhood of Bailleul.
The 1st Cavalry Division continued to hold the line of trenches east of Wulverghem.
From that time to the date of this despatch the Cavalry Divisions have relieved one another at intervals, and have supported by their artillery the attacks made by the French throughout that period on Hollebeke, Wytschaete and Messines.
The 3rd Corps in its position on the right of the Cavalry Corps continued throughout the same period to repel constant attacks against its front, and suffered severely from the enemy's heavy artillery fire.
The artillery of the 4th Division constantly assisted the French in their attacks.
The General Officer Commanding 3rd Corps brings specially to my notice the excellent behaviour of the East Lancashire Regiment, the Hampshire Regiment, and the Somersetshire Light Infantry in these latter operations; and the skilful manner in which they were handled by General Hunter-Weston, Lieutenant- Colonel Butler, and the Battalion Commanders.
The Lahore Division arrived in its concentration area in rear of the 2nd Corps on October 19 and 20.
I have already referred to the excellent work performed by the battalions of this Division which were supporting the Cavalry. The remainder of the Division from the October 25 onwards were heavily engaged in assisting the 7th Brigade of the 2nd Corps in fighting round Neuve Chapelle. Another Brigade took over some ground previously held by the French 1st Cavalry Corps and did excellent service.
On October 28 especially the 47th Sikhs and the 20th and 21st Companies of the 3rd Sappers and Miners distinguished themselves by their gallant conduct in the attack on Neuve Chapelle, losing heavily in officers and men.
After the arrival of the Meerut Division at Corps Headquarters the Indian Army Corps took over the line previously held by the 2nd Corps, which was then partially drawn back into reserve. Two and a half brigades of British Infantry and a large part of the Artillery of the 2nd Corps still remained to assist the Indian Corps in defence of this line. Two and a half battalions of these brigades were returned to the 2nd Corps when the Ferozepore Brigade joined the Indian Corps after its support of the Cavalry further north.
The Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade arrived in the area during the 1st and 2nd November, and the Jodhpur Lancers came about the same time. These were all temporarily attached to the Indian Corps.
Up to the date of the present despatch the line held by the Indian Corps has been subjected to constant bombardment by the enemy's heavy artillery, followed up by infantry attacks.
On two occasions these attacks were severe.
On October 13 the 8th Gurkha Rifles of the Bareilly Brigade were driven from their trenches and on November 2 a serious attack was developed against a portion of the line west of Neuve Chapelle. On this occasion the line was to some extent pierced and was consequently slightly bent back.
The situation was prevented from becoming serious by the excellent leadership displayed by Colonel Norie, of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles.
Since their arrival in this country and their occupation of the line allotted to them, I have been much impressed by the initiative and resource displayed by the Indian troops. Some of the ruses they have employed to deceive the enemy have been attended with the best results and have doubtless kept superior forces in front of them at bay.
The Corps of Indian Sappers and Miners have long enjoyed a high reputation for skill and resource. Without going into detail I can confidently assert that throughout their work in this campaign they have fully justified their reputation.
The General Officer Commanding the Indian Army Corps describes the conduct and bearing of these troops in strange and new surroundings to have been highly satisfactory, and I am enabled, from my own observation, fully to corroborate his statement.
Honorary Major-General H.H. Sir Pratap Singh Bahadur, G.C.S.I., G.C.V.O., K.C.B., A.D.C., Maharaja-Regent of Jodhpur; Honorary Lieutenant H.H. the Maharaja of Jodhpur; Honorary Colonel H.H. Sir Ganga Singh Bahadur, G.C.S.I., G.C.I.E., A.D.C., Maharaja of Bikanir; Honorary Major H.H. Sir Madan Singh Bahadur, K.C.S.I., K.C.I.E., Maharaja-Dhirai of Kishengarh; Honorary Captain the Honourable Malik Umar Hayat Khan, C.I.E., M.V.O., Tiwana; Honorary Lieutenant Raj-Kumar Hira Singh of Panna; Honorary Lieutenant Maharai-Kumar Hitendra Narayan of Cooch Behar; Lieutenant Malik Mumtaz Mahomed Khan, Native Indian Land Forces; Resaldar Khwaja Mahomed Khan Bahadur, Queen Victoria's Own Corps of Guides; Honorary Captain Shah Mirza Beg, are serving with the Indian contingents.
While the whole of the line has continued to be heavily pressed, the enemy's principal efforts since November 1 have been concentrated upon breaking through the line held by the 1st British and 9th French Corps, and thus gaining possession of the town of Ypres.
From November 2 onwards the 27th, the 15th, and parts of the Bavarian 13th and 2nd German Corps, besides other troops, were all directed against this northern line.
About the 10th instant, after several units of these Corps had been completely shattered in futile attacks, a division of the Prussian Guard, which had been operating in the neighbourhood of Arras, was moved up to this area with great speed and secrecy. Documents found on dead officers prove that the Guard had received the Emperor's special commands to break through and succeed where their comrades of the line had failed.
They took a leading part in the vigorous attacks made against the centre on the 11th and 12th; but, like their comrades, were repulsed with enormous loss.
Throughout this trying period Sir Douglas Haig, ably assisted by his Divisional and Brigade Commanders, held the line with marvellous tenacity and undaunted courage.
Words fail me to express the admiration I feel for their conduct, or my sense of the incalculable services they rendered. I venture to predict that their deeds during these days of stress and trial will furnish some of the most brilliant chapters which will be found in the military history of our time.
The 1st Corps was brilliantly supported by the 3rd Cavalry Division under General Byng, Sir Douglas Haig has constantly brought this officer's eminent services to my notice. His troops were repeatedly called upon to restore the situation at critical points, and to fill gaps in the line caused by the tremendous losses which occurred.
Both Corps and Cavalry Division Commanders particularly bring to my notice the name of Brigadier-General Kavanagh, Commanding the 7th Cavalry Brigade, not only for his skill but his personal bravery and dash. This was particularly noticeable when the 7th Cavalry Brigade was brought up to support the French troops when the latter were driven back near the village of Klein Zillebeke on the night of November 7. On this occasion I regret to say Colonel Gordon Wilson, Commanding the Royal Horse Guards, and Major the Hon. Hugh Dawnay, Commanding the 2nd Life Guards, were killed.
In these two officers the Army has lost valuable cavalry leaders.
Another officer whose name was particularly mentioned to me was that of Brigadier-General FitzClarence, V.C., Commanding the 1st Guards Brigade. He was, unfortunately, killed in the night attack of the 11th November. His loss will be severely felt.*
* Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence, V.C., Commander of the Irish Guards before the outbreak of war. He won his V.C. in South Africa.
The 1st Corps Commander informs me that on many occasions Brigadier- General the Earl of Cavan, Commanding the 4th Guards Brigade, was conspicuous for the skill, coolness, and courage with which he led his troops, and for the successful manner in which he dealt with many critical situations.
I have more than once during this campaign brought forward the name of Major- General Bulfin to your Lordship's notice.* Up to the evening of November 2, when he was somewhat severely wounded, his services continued to be of great value.
* Major-General Bulfin entered the army in 1885 and served in Burma and South Africa.
On November 5 I despatched eleven battalions of the 2nd Corps, all considerably reduced in strength, to relieve the infantry of the 7th Division, which was then brought back into general reserve.
Three more battalions of the same Corps, the London Scottish and Hertfordshire Battalions of Territorials, and the Somersetshire and Leicestershire Regiments of Yeomanry, were subsequently sent to reinforce the troops fighting to the east of Ypres.
General Byng in the case of the Yeomanry Cavalry Regiments and Sir Douglas in that of the Territorial Battalions speak in high terms of their conduct in the field and of the value of their support.
The battalions of the 2nd Corps took a conspicuous part in repulsing the heavy attacks delivered against this part of the line. I was obliged to dispatch them immediately after their trying experiences in the southern part of the line and when they had had a very insufficient period of rest; and, although they gallantly maintained these northern positions until relieved by the French, they were reduced to a condition of extreme exhaustion.
The work performed by the Royal Flying Corps has continued to prove of the utmost value to the success of the operations.
I do not consider it advisable in this despatch to go into any detail as regards the duties assigned to the Corps and the nature of their work, but almost every day new methods for employing them, both strategically and tactically, are discovered and put into practice.
The development of their use and employment has indeed been quite extraordinary, and I feel sure that no effort should be spared to increase their numbers and perfect their equipment and efficiency.
In the period covered by this despatch Territorial Troops have been used for the first time in the Army under my command.
The units actually engaged have been the Northumberland, Northamptonshire, North Somerset, Leicestershire, and Oxfordshire Regiments of Yeomanry Cavalry; and the London Scottish, Hertfordshire, Honourable Artillery Company, and the Queen's Westminster Battalions of Territorial Infantry.
The conduct and bearing of these units under fire, and the efficient manner in which they carried out the various duties assigned to them, have imbued me with the highest hope as to the value and help of Territorial Troops generally.
Units which I have mentioned above, other than these, as having been also engaged, have by their conduct fully justified these hopes.
Regiments and battalions as they arrive come into a temporary camp of instruction, which is formed at Headquarters, where they are closely inspected, their equipment examined, so far as possible perfected, and such instruction as can be given to them in the brief time available in the use of machine guns, etc., is imparted.
Several units have now been sent up to the front besides those I have already named, but have not yet been engaged.
I am anxious in this despatch to bring to your Lordship's special notice the splendid work which has been done throughout the campaign by the Cyclists of the Signal Corps.
Carrying despatches and messages at all hours of the day and night in every kind of weather, and often traversing bad roads blocked with transport, they have been conspicuously successful in maintaining an extraordinary degree of efficiency in the service of communications.
Many casualties have occurred in their ranks, but no amount of difficulty or danger has ever checked the energy and ardour which has distinguished their Corps throughout the operations.
As I close this despatch there are signs in evidence that we are possibly in the last stages for the battle of Ypres-Armentières.
For several days past the enemy artillery fire has considerably slackened, and infantry attack has practically ceased.
In remarking upon the general military situation of the Allies as it appears to me at the present moment, it does not seem to be clearly understood that the operations in which we have been engaged embrace nearly all the Continent of Central Europe from East to West. The combined French, Belgian, and British Armies in the West and the Russian Army in the East are opposed to the united forces of Germany and Austria acting as a combined army between us.
Our enemies elected at the commencement of the war to throw the weight of their forces against the armies in the West, and to detach only a comparatively weak force, composed of very few first-line troops and several corps of the second and third lines, to stem the Russian advance till the Western Forces could be completely defeated and overwhelmed.
Their strength enabled them from the outset to throw greatly superior forces against us in the West. This precluded any possibility of our taking a vigorous offensive, except when the miscalculations and mistakes made by their commanders opened up special opportunities for a successful attack and pursuit.
The battle of the Marne was an example of this, as was also our advance from St. Omer and Hazebrouck to the line of the Lys at the commencement of this battle. The rôle which our Armies in the West have consequently been called upon to fulfil has been to occupy strong defensive positions, holding the ground gained and in inviting the enemy's attack; to throw these attacks back, causing the enemy heavy losses in his retreat and following him up with powerful and successful counter-attacks to complete his discomfiture.
The value and significance of the rôle fulfilled since the commencement of hostilities by the Allied Forces in the West lies in the fact that at the moment when the Eastern Provinces of Germany are in imminent danger of being overrun by the numerous and powerful armies of Russia, nearly the whole of the active army of Germany is tied down to a line of trenches extending from the Fortress of Verdun on the Alsatian Frontier round to the sea at Nieuport, east of Dunkirk (a distance of 260 miles), where they are held, much reduced in numbers and moral by the successful action of our troops in the West.
I cannot speak too highly of the valuable services rendered by the Royal Artillery throughout the battle.
In spite of the fact that the enemy has brought up guns in support of his attacks of great range and shell power ours have succeeded throughout in preventing the enemy from establishing anything in the nature of an artillery superiority. The skill, courage, and energy displayed by their commanders have been very marked.
The General Officer Commanding 3rd Corps, who had special means of judging, makes mention of the splendid work performed by a number of young artillery officers, who in the most gallant manner pressed forward in the vicinity of the firing line in order that their guns may be able to shoot at the right targets at the right moment.
The Royal Engineers have, as usual, been indefatigable in their efforts to assist the infantry in field fortification and trench work.
I deeply regret the heavy casualties which we have suffered; but the nature of the fighting has been very desperate, and we have been assailed by vastly superior numbers. I have every reason to know that throughout the course of the battle we have placed at least three times as many of the enemy hors de combat in dead, wounded, and prisoners.
Throughout these operations General Foch has strained his resources to the utmost to afford me all the support he could; and an expression of my warm gratitude is also due to General D'Urbal, Commanding the 8th French Army on my left and General Maud'huy, Commanding the 10th French Army on my right.
I have many recommendations to bring to your Lordship's notice for gallant and distinguished service performed by officers and men in the period under report. These will be submitted shortly, as soon as they can be collected.
I have the honour to be,
Your Lordship's most obedient servant,
(Signed) J. P. D. FRENCH, Field-Marshal,
The British Army in the Field.
The New Field of Battle—Typical Warfare—How the British Came North—How the Great Battle Began—Bridging the Dykes—How the Dorsets held Pont Fixe—A Murderous Battle in the Dark
IF you can picture a great stretch of land, flat and featureless, save in one or two remarkable exceptions, and in your imagination lay out upon this drab, unattractive country a number of bad roads, a light railway or two, along which in normal times a conveyance which is half tramcar and half railway train plies a leisured service; if you can imagine something of Holland, with great windmills, innumerable thrifty waterways, canals and minor rivers, with here and there a straggling village possessing a name which even Baedeker does not record, and small towns that were the scene in other days of remarkable and sanguinary combats; if you can imagine a certain squalor, a certain sordidness— when you are approaching the manufacturing and mining districts—and also a certain charm, you are imagining south- west Belgium, in which has been fought the great Battle for the Coast.
Farther down, in the north of France, Arras and La Bassée played their parts, and played them worthily; but since for the moment our minds and our thoughts are concentrated upon the performances of our own Army, it will be well if we think only of the country west of the Yser, and that little strip of France which lies between Bethune, Hazebrouck, and the Belgian frontier. On these uninspiring fields, amidst gaunt hop poles and rotting beet fronds, in ugly little roads, by gaunt white farmhouses, most unlovely, in straggling copses and chilly plantations; in all the most unlikely settings has the heroism of the British Army been proved. In this war there are no longer battlefields; there are battle countries, and battle lines which stretch half across the Continent, which take in the waste and the wood, the town and the meadow, the river and the railway; but battlefields in Waterloo sense are of the past.
Let us picture for ourselves one of those fights, the extraordinary character of which is peculiar only to this war. A great stretch of countryside, more undulating than usual, a hill covered with woods, a dim and blue background of trees and ridge, farmhouses dotted here and there, telegraph posts that stalk across the middle distance, a dilapidated railway with its rails twisted and wrecked, and its culverts shattered by dynamite, a row of humble cottages where the peasants have been living now a sand-bagged fort hastily painted a dull grey and streaked with green by the handiest of engineers; and nothing else on the face of the earth—no sign of life, of human being, of soldier or gun, transport or horse.
Within hail there are perhaps 50,000 men. The aeroplane which comes buzzing overhead at a tremendous height can see what the observer on the ground could not detect—the long streaks of trenches where men stand to arms; the gun emplacements hidden by the boughs of trees; the rifle pits of the snipers; the defended farmhouses; the ditches and sunken roads packed with infantry pressed tight against the banks to avoid attracting the attention of the aerial observer. Seldom would it be possible for us to see without hearing, for all night long the guns have been booming on both sides, and the air has been filled with the whine of shells, rent with the crash of exploding shrapnel, fired, it may seem, carelessly, yet with good reason, for every shell is timed to burst above one of those scars in the surface of the earth, where men are waiting, deadly weapon in hand, ready to fling back the too daring attack of its enemy.
German grey coats springing up from the earth rush across the fire zone, and are annihilated by the close fire which is poured upon their flank.
For it is to the flank of the advancing infantry that the British soldier directs his attention, firing steadily by sections at the right- or left-hand man, and those who watch the German advance marvel as it whittles to the centre; its progress marked by a great broad arrow of dead and dying, the point towards the British trenches.
Then comes a scramble of the British to the earth, the quick flash and thud of bayonets, the wild yell which invariably accompanies an infantry charge, the scattering of Germans who go blundering back to their trenches, the shrill whistle that recalls the infantry to a safer formation, and again both sides disappear into their trenches, and there is nothing to mark the failure save the dead that both sides have left on the field.
You might tell of such a scene a hundred, a thousand times, and in very little different language describe almost every fight in which the British have been engaged. It is because of the sameness, the very monotony of heroism, that the historian will discover his greatest difficulty in dealing with this extraordinary campaign.
In the middle of October you would have seen the British cavalry columns feeling their way cautiously toward Armentières. Day by day, the cavalry of the opposing masses were whirling and manoeuvring in the difficult country which lies to the north of the Lys. Day by day the British guns were searching every likely position before them, and driving out crowds of Germans hastily flung forward from Lille to cover the work which the German army, not yet in full force on this front, was carrying out. Very steadily the progress went on; you would have seen the convoys passing up the ill-paved roads from the coast towns; you would have seen the stained and weather-worn motor cars and motor transports; you would have met knots of soldiers, a mounted orderly or two, streams of refugees retiring from shell-swept villages, and perhaps now and again you might hear the far-off murmur of the guns. The army had already passed this way in the wake of the cautious cavalry, had shelled a village or two, had had its aerial scouts sweeping through the air at a dangerous level to discover the character of the resistance which might be expected.
Eastward of Hazebrouck, the advancing British, in thickened formation, had come across the first serious opposition. Yet that also melted away, and these splendid columns went on. Each side was sparring for an opening, seeking for a battle front which the accident of war would reveal. North and south of the river Lys the British advance continued in the direction of Menin. Bad roads, intersecting waterways, canals, all the tiny arteries of commerce that feed town and village, that empty coalfields of their produce and bring merchandise in return; marsh and fen lands and treacherous bogs, all helped to make the progress a slow one. And there were many little clustering villages perched upon whatever rise of ground lifted the people of the countryside from the mist of the fens—points of vantage whence an enemy's artillery could concentrate its fire upon the advancing force.
In recording such events as go to the making up of a history of such a war as this, there is always a danger that one's perspective may shift, and that vivid patches of colour may dazzle us from following the road, and cause us to stray into those splendid fields of individual heroism and accomplishment which so attract and entice the wayfarer. This instance of courage, that example of fortitude, lead us from left to right, to pause in amazement and pride before the wonder which brave men inspire.
The scale of operations has been so extensive that were I to devote adequate space to dealing with detached events, scattered battles, and heroic deeds in the extensive field in which the Allies have been engaged, I should require several volumes. In this narrative I propose to gather up the threads of the story, to summarise into a connected whole the happenings and the great battles which have taken place from the date when operations on the Aisne came to a deadlock, to the middle of November, when the British Army, transferred from the region of the Aisne, had already for over a month in the north defied all efforts of the enemy to break through to Dunkirk and Calais. In this way I hope to give a broad view of the conflict. This summary will exhibit in a more definite form than would otherwise be possible the strategy pursued by Sir John French, the extraordinary cleverness of his plans, and the wonderful bravery of his troops in the face of formidable odds and amazing difficulties.
The prolonged battle of Ypres-Armentières, as I have said, was a development of the continuous struggle which commenced on the Aisne after the great German retreat from Paris. The efforts of the Allies and the Germans alike were directed to attempting to outflank each other. There came a time on the Aisne when it seemed to Sir John French that he would be warranted in withdrawing the British Forces from the positions they then held, and he took counsel with General Joffre to that end.
Field-Marshal French, with a large and cheerful army, growing somewhat impatient because of the block which the German had put upon further progress by his defence of the Aisne, importuned the French General to such good effect that one night the German watchers heard strange sounds from the British trenches. These they dismissed carelessly as a usual happening, for every night the men in the trenches were relieved by fresh troops, and that relief was not to be accomplished without a certain amount of noise. But in the morning, when the German aviators flew over the Allies' position, behold! the British were gone, so far as could be seen.
It was no easy business to withdraw the British forces from their position on the Aisne and transfer them to new positions a long way off in Northern France and Flanders; when the nightly reliefs were carried out French territorials took their places in the British trenches and the British Army withdrew quietly by train and road to the field of operations. For many days the left flank of the Armies was in an exceedingly critical condition, and it is easy to see from the despatches how near the Germans were to establishing themselves on the northern coast of France.
It was, as General French tells us, on October 3rd that Gough's Cavalry Division moved from Soissons, and passed northward to get upon the French left and begin a movement which was to outflank the German's right. It was not known at this moment how far the enemy was prepared to extend his line in order to cover his exposed flank; and perhaps it was not realised that he would move so immediately to mass troops in the threatened area. As likely as not—and time will prove the truth of this contention—the General Staff knew something of the intention of the German to move on Calais. At any rate, the German cavalry was dangerously near the main line which extends from Calais-Boulogne to Paris. There had been some raiding; a section of the line had been blown up; a culvert or two smashed, and naturally a certain number of reprisals, for the French cavalry are not wanting in enterprise or dash.
Lille was known to be occupied by enemy troops. La Bassée, one of the strongest positions on the line, was equally well held. There were even reports that the enemy in strength lay somewhere between Lille and the coast, and Sir John French, in conjunction with General Joffre, made his plans with due caution, realising the possibility of an unpleasant set-back, and taking no risk of incurring disaster at the enemy's hands.
Already the French line, in endeavouring to outflank the enemy, had extended practically up from Soissons to beyond Arras, when the English moved up to take their place upon the left of the French line. Sir John French took a margin of safety, and none too much as it proved, though he formed his line within a few miles of the coast. First to go was the 2nd Army Corps under Sir Horace Smith- Dorrien. This Corps, composed of some of the finest units in the British Army, was ordered to hold the line of a canal which runs between Bethune and Aire. Aire is a little south of St. Omer, and Bethune farther south- east.
The 2nd Corps was due to take up its position on the 12th of October, and to the minute it arrived on that day. The cavalry which had been on the French left now came up in front of the 2nd Corps, clearing the ground of any stragglers, and keeping touch with the enemy, and took up its position on the left of Smith-Dorrien's Corps. In the meantime the 3rd Army Corps had trained up to St. Omer, and fell in so that its right touched the left of the 2nd Corps.
Necessarily brief, almost laconic, Field-Marshal French conveys very little of the atmosphere of that trying period, nor does he greatly assist the earnest student of the war to realise the conditions under which those series of battles were fought by General Smith-Dorrien's Corps. We must draw very largely upon the excellent material which is supplied from time to time by "Eye- Witness."
Here, however, since the narrative of "Eye-Witness" largely covers the ground which is also covered by Sir John French, it will only be necessary for us to take a few of the more striking illustrations which he gives of the conditions of the fighting and the methods by which our men met the dangers and hardships which came to them in the course of this new phase of the war.
"Eye-Witness" pointed out that, although the struggle in the northern area naturally attracted more attention, fighting on the Aisne still continued, without any great change in the general situation. Save that the enemy had altered the position of some of his heavy artillery, to the discomfort of certain of our troops who hitherto had been immune from shell fire, and to the relief of others, who now found themselves in a position of comparative safety, there was little or no change. The withdrawal of the British had been so gradual that they were actually fighting on two fronts at the same time, the British cavalry being in touch with the enemy north of Arras before the British had fired their last shot upon the river Aisne.
There were many things to remind our men that a great change had occurred and that a new phase of warfare had begun. The weather had grown suddenly cold and wet, and the summer campaign had ended with almost dramatic suddenness. We had left behind us, too, the open, almost rural, character of the fighting on our earlier battlefields, and were now engaged in a country which was not wholly unfamiliar, but which we had seen under totally different conditions. The British Army had come through the south of Belgium and the towns of northern France under a blazing sky, battling too hard, perhaps, to appreciate the beauties of the scene, but nevertheless experiencing subconsciously the comfort of the pleasant conditions under which they fought; now they came, mostly in cold and rain, into a land, which, though it was to some extent agricultural, was largely industrial.
The plateaux and broad river valleys east of Paris were now memories. The British Army was fighting in an industrial region—the French Black Country, grimy cities and dull, drab villages, where stretches of fenland, and where the tall chimneys of mines—now smokeless and lifeless—and gaunt, high factories, and the long, sordid, ugly streets of the factory workers, supplied a touch of cheerlessness, which had been absent from the pleasant landscapes which the British had before known.
Such of the country as was cultivated was very much like our own small holdings—considerably enclosed by ragged, untidy hedges, and a most difficult country for operations.
The country near the coast is a reclaimed marshy tract, drained by innumerable canals and dykes. The whole district is gently undulating or quite flat, with one or two notable exceptions, to which reference will be made; and so obstructed by hedges and frequent belts of trees was the view that cavalry reconnaissances led to frequent surprises and close hand-to-hand fighting. To add to the difficulties of the British, most of the communications were bad. The roads, though straight, were narrow, with a strip of bad paving in the centre—a peculiar construction which is only to be found in the north of France and in Belgium—and the winding by- roads were more or less useless for military purposes.
The British had come to a new country—a country which was chequered with enemy and friend. In some cases these small villages were held strongly by our opponent, and since he did not advertise the fact that he was lying in wait to receive the advance guards feeling a cautious way through the country, scouting was a matter of considerable danger, and contained all the elements of difficulty and surprise. Sometimes the advance-guard would be welcomed by a deputation of villagers who decked them with flowers and who hugged them and kissed them as they advanced, to their no small embarrassment.
Sometimes the contrary would happen, and the first intimation of the character of the reception would come in the shape of a rattle of musketry and the staccato note of a machine gun. Trenches would be cut across the road, gun emplacements, cunningly concealed under green boughs, would threaten all advance, and only by a continuous shelling and a determined advance with the bayonet could the village be cleared.
Too frequently the Allies' advance was marked by scenes of desolation. Many once prosperous homesteads and hamlets were literally tom to pieces; the walls still standing, pitted by shrapnel balls, and in some of the villages the churches were smouldering ruins. Dead horses, cows, and pigs, which had been caught in the hail of shrapnel, littered the village streets, and among the carcases and débris wandered the wretched inhabitants, who had returned to see what they could save from the wreckage. Here, blocking up a narrow side street, was a dead horse still harnessed to a trap; beside it stretched the corpse of a Jaeger (German Light Infantry). Close by, in an enclosure where a shell had found them, lay thirty cavalry horses; a little further on was laid out a row of German dead for whom graves were being dug by the peasants.
The work of burial fell to a great extent on the inhabitants, who took pains in marking the last resting place of their countrymen, either by little wooden crosses or else by flowers.
Amidst the graves scattered all over the countryside were the rifle pits, trenches, and gun emplacements which those now resting below the sod helped to defend or to attack. From these the progress of the fighting could be traced, and even its nature; for they varied from carefully constructed and cunningly placed works, to the hastily shaped lair of a German sniper; or the roadside ditch with its side scooped out by the entrenching implements of our infantry.
At this time it was very clear that the German was superior in strength to the attacker, and it says much for the personal ascendency that the British soldier had established over his enemy that from the moment Sir Horace Smith- Dorrien's Corps advanced, no whole-hearted counter-attack, though by superior force, was successfully made. Counter-attacks and the heavy weight of German opposition were felt on all parts of the line, but until we had reached those positions which it would have been impossible to have taken without a great loss of life, and without incurring the risk of defeat, the advance of the British was not seriously checked. Even operating from the prepared positions, the German did not succeed in thrusting back the 2nd Army Corps to the coast.
It is probable that at this time the Generalissimo of the German forces was throwing troops northward with feverish activity, in the hope of opposing what was at that moment thought to be the extreme left of the Anglo-French line with an overwhelming force; but, as we shall see, they only arrived to discover that the enveloping movement had shifted farther north, and the troops they had intended to concentrate at one point for a final determined effort to break through, were needed to hold back the turning operations still farther on their right.
In these operations of the British the greatest heroism was displayed. Once more the British artillery showed their desperate courage no less than their good marksmanship. The infantry surpassed themselves in valour, and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was only able to accomplish the very difficult operations which were entrusted to him through the individual bravery of his men.
The great battle of the north of France, so far as the British were concerned, began when the 2nd Cavalry Division, moving along to the north of the Bethune canal, came into touch with the enemy's cavalry, which was then holding some woods to the north. In the misty light of dawn the dark bodies of horsemen moved up through the smoking countryside, and amidst the thin plantations the British cavalry swept forward, flinging back in confusion the massed Uhlans who opposed their passage.
The woods were cleared of the enemy, and joining hands with the divisional cavalry which had come up from Hazebrouck, General Gough went still further forward to reconnoitre the position. General Smith-Dorrien, who had orders to sweep forward and force in the flank of the enemy, was already on the move; and on the same night that the woods were cleared, the 2nd Cavalry closed on the 2nd Army Corps which was passing slowly toward Lille.
Smart as had been the work which General Joffre gave the British, the enemy had been sharper. He had at his disposal a whole network of strategic railways, with the centre at Laon, and division after division was hastily entrained and sent northward to meet the new danger.
The opposition upon the front of the 2nd Army Corps became more and more marked. Smith-Dorrien, who had anticipated a fairly easy movement as far as Merville, found himself with a pitched battle on his hands, able to make little or no progress.
He was endeavouring to pivot on Givenchy to get astride of the La Bassée- Lille road. The strength of the reinforcements which had come to Lille was unknown. It was, however, clear that La Bassée was amply garrisoned, and that the enemy lay between La Bassée and Lille in large numbers, and that he did not entirely depend upon the Lille fortifications, but had constructed emplacements and field works covering the left between Lille and La Bassée. So firmly established were the Germans at La Bassée that they defied all efforts to remove them, either by the British or French.
The line was not yet established, but on La Bassée the German had concentrated a force which enable him to defy every effort to dislodge him. Entrenched on rising ground, his guns well concealed and placed so that often it was almost impossible to locate them, French and British alike tried in vain to move him from his stronghold. North and south we were able to make some progress, but never such as would threaten his security, and indeed it was not until after the Battle for the Coast had all but finished that the French, by a most heroic charge and an assault which was made with a great sacrifice of life, succeeded in establishing themselves in a position which to some extent gave them a dominating foothold.
The country was of a most difficult character. Here, in the Pas de Calais, which is practically the Black Country of France, coal mines—some of the largest in the world—manufactories, huge conversion plants, hamper all progress, and the country is intersected by innumerable canals and waterways. Add to this the physical character of the country about Lens and Bethune, Lille and the neighbouring towns—flat land with scarcely a tree to break the monotony of the landscape, land infinitely unsuitable for artillery work and scarcely habitable when entrenchments are made.
There is small doubt that the British Commander did not at first fully realise the extent of the task which had been set him, and every day, and almost every hour, revealed the impossibility of forcing a way past Lille without a very much stronger force than he possessed.
Upon the 3rd Division of the British 2nd Corps fell the brunt of the first few days* fighting. The men carried planks in order to bridge the narrow dykes which cut up the whole of the front. It was a case of fighting their way from position to position, and from entrenchment to entrenchment, driving the enemy fifty or sixty yards at a time. It was now that the Dorsets displayed singular heroism, losing the greater portion of the battalion and most of the officers, including the Commanding Officer, Major Roper. They had established themselves at Pont Fixe, one of the small but important bridge heads which offered some tactical advantage; and though they were assailed by clouds of German infantry and were battered from morning till night by the concentrated fire of all the German batteries, the Dorsets stood their ground, losing 130 killed.
Along the line which the 3rd Division occupied, the thunder of guns, the rattle of musketry, and the quick rushes of khaki-clad infantry across the sodden ground told of the fury of the attack. The enemy, bringing up their guns, made a desperate attempt to move the Dorsets, and the shrapnel burst over the hastily entrenched troops throughout a long day. No attempt on the part of the infantry to the left and right of the Dorsets could draw the attention of the enemy from a position which, rightly or wrongly, he regarded as being one which it was essential he should take and hold.
The Dorsets' counter-attack kept their front clear. Hastily digging themselves in, they formed at the shortest notice trenches from which, shallow as they were, the German failed to dislodge them, though he sent regiment after regiment to the task and preceded each charge with a desperate, nerve-rending cannonading.
It was one of those innumerable incidents which have glorified the war, of a British force, faithful to its traditions, and confident in its powers, holding back a superior force. Every step of the advance had to be paid for. Through little villages, broken and shattered so that it was impossible to tell the very topography of the place without a map, the Germans retired, firing the houses as he went, smashing the roads with his dynamite cartridges, and casting his firebrands left and right in a very orgy of destruction.
The Germans covered the bridge head with a great barricade of wood, loop- holed at the bottom so that men could fire from a lying position. Against this the advanced cavalry could make no progress. It was impossible to bring artillery into action on that narrow front; but, unharnessing the horses, willing hands dragged a gun forward until it was in an advantageous position, and then, training it upon the high palisade, sent shell after shell crashing into the obstruction.
It was dark now, and they were in the narrow danger of a town, with little to guide them save such local help as they could procure; but the business in hand was too serious to wait for daylight, and the intrepid cavalry dismounted and, acting as infantry, moved cautiously forward from street corner to street corner, firing steadily at every shadowy figure that crossed the street. They flocked into the byways of the town, and more by instinct than judgment kept some sort of rough line as they surged forward, seeking their enemy. They came to the centre of the town, the great place, or market square, with very little resistance, but scarcely had the advance guard of the British reached this great darkened void when one of the houses exploded in a sheet of flame, and a shower of star shells made the place as light as day. Then, as at a signal, every building in the place belched flame. From windows, from doors, from roofs, the stabbing pencils of light came flickering down toward the heroic attacker, and the cobble-stones of the market place were splattered with British blood. Machine gun and rifle beat a ceaseless tattoo upon the paved place, and yet the cavalry who had carried out this heroic reconnaissance were able to extricate themselves with a loss of only one officer wounded, and nine men killed and wounded.
Retreating before this hail of fire, the men called a little council of war, determining to rescue their comrades whom they had left behind from the tender mercy of the enemy. A number of them, removing their boots and puttees, stole* back in their stockinged feet, lifted their fallen friends, and bore them to safety under the very noses of the German troops.
The left made greater progress, and found itself on the 16th before the village of Aubers. This tiny little hamlet had been converted into a formidable position by the enemy, and throughout the day a ding-dong battle went on, which bore no result until, on the 17th October, the 9th Infantry Brigade rushed the village at the point of the bayonet.
On another section of the line the village of Herlies had been holding out against a combined attack by the 7th Royal Fusiliers and the Lincolnshire Regiment. The British held a position which enabled them to pour their fire into the village, but which rendered any attempt to advance nearer to their objective a matter of considerable danger, for between the British trenches and the village defences was a clear stretch of ground, affording no cover whatever and rendering any attempt at shock tactics foredoomed to annihilation. As it was more and more evident that this village must be taken, Brigadier-General Shaw decided upon taking the desperate step of charging the enemy's position in the dark and endeavouring to turn him out at the point of the bayonet.
Only those who have had experience of warfare and who know the risk of such a movement can appreciate the daring and the extraordinary character of such an operation. Night fell and the moon had not risen, when the Lincolns and the 7th Fusiliers moved quietly out of their trenches and formed up upon the ground which was still being swept by shell and rifle fire.
Very silently, under the lead of their company officers, the two battalions stole forward without a sound, making no reply to the rifle fire which was poured into them. At a distance of fifty yards the men fixed their bayonets, and with a wild yell the two battalions crashed through the barbed- wire entanglements into the enemy's trenches, and in ten minutes after the first impact the position was taken with scarcely a shot fired from the British side. So dark was it, as one of those who took part in the charge subsequently narrated, that some of the men removed their bayonets, and slung their rifles, using the long, sharp blade as a dagger, and groping blindly with the left hand to feel the heads of the men they were going to kill.
In the dark this murderous fight went on through the barbed wire; in the dank pits men struggled desperately hand-to-hand, neither asking nor giving quarter. How long that fight lasted, that first shocking grappling of men, none can agree, but in the end the 7th and the Lincolns triumphed, driving their enemy before them in full retreat and occupying by night the village which had been impregnable in the day.
At this time it did not seem that the German was prepared to make anything in the nature of a big stand, and the canal which connects the Yser with Ypres and the Lys was safely crossed and the enemy driven back, so that his right rested on the village of Becelaere. Thereafter came fighting of a fierce and determined character. The British must have found no good foothold so far north, and we find them back again south and west of the canal, near the four cross roads of Messines. Messines was a good position on rising ground, and a village to be fought for. When the aviators and the cavalry scouts and the infantry reconnaissances had done their work, it was clear that Messines was the safest of the forward positions. There had been a constant drizzle of war over this country; shattered homesteads, burning farms, gaunt walls standing where happy homes had been, a dead horse or two on one side of the road, and a dead man or two on the other, spasmodic bursts of inquiring shrapnel, a monotonous "klick-klock" of Mauser rifles—all these are normal sounds to which infantry march and counter-march, dig and delve great trenches in the yellow earth, and go weaving shelter places, whistling all the time as though these bursting steel cases, the pieces of which come whizzing about their ears, were so much wind amongst the sheets on a laundry drying ground.
You may have had that experience—a high wind and the flip-flap, incessant and menacing, of drying linen. Magnify that a million times, make the flapping so loud as to deafen you and so continuous that you scarcely can tell where the thunder of one explosion ends and the other begins, and you have the noise of battle as it develops.
No sign of life save that which the yellow lines of trenches indicate; only a curious blue haze in the far distance, and the "frick-kkkk-kkkk!" of an aeroplane speeding overhead; and, in some miraculous fashion, audible even above this incessant pandemonium of sound.
Or imagine a great storm with lightning darting down to left and right, with terrific and monstrous crashes of thunder that shake the very earth. Picture yourself cringing before this infernal attack. You may gauge something of the feeling of men who come up to the trenches and fill them. More men will come in the face of heavy fire, and disappear into the earth; yet more men, deploying left and right, going to work methodically with their spades, they too will vanish; and more and more and more, till the whole of the country side is scarred and seamed with tiny trenches like yellow streaks from a painter's brush. And the great arc of bursting shell spreads outwards to the wings, as the German brings battery after battery into action to check the danger before him.
Now both sides have seen where the attack is going to be developed. Both generals are equally aware of the value of Messines. One will hold it, another will take it. A new note, a crushing and a booming from the British rear, the guns have come into action; they seem to be firing all at once, as at some preconcerted signal. These, too, are grouping their fire, and four, five, ten little white puff-balls burst almost within a dozen yards of one another.
Battery after battery has come into action until it seems as though the supply of guns on both sides is inexhaustible. For hour after hour shrapnel breaks over the field—day and night, night and day.
The shelling was indeed beyond all experience. The volume of sound, the crashing, deafening terrorising character of the explosions were paralysing. "Men came out of the trenches incoherent," said an officer in a letter which was published. Yet they did not come out until they were relieved. They stood this racket in tense silence, every nerve strained, every sense alert, and yet with a paralysed sense of values. An eminent psychologist said that it was impossible to exaggerate the monstrous horror of the shell fire. "The noises were even more distressing to me than the risk of death. It was terrifying in its tumult. One could see the sudden flashes from some of the enemy's guns, and a loud and unceasing roar came from them with regular rolls of thunderous noise, interrupted by sudden and terrific shocks, which shot up into one's brain and shook one's body with a kind of disintegrating tumult. Courage is annihilated in the face of it. Something else takes its place—a philosophy of fatalism, sometimes an utter boredom with the way in which death plays the fool with men, threatening but failing to kill; in most cases a strange extinction of all emotions and sensations, so that men who have been long under shell fire have a peculiar rigidity of the nervous system, as if something had been killed inside them, though outwardly they are still alive and untouched."
The Royal Irish at Le Pilly—Increased Violence of Battle—Trench Warfare—"Holding on"—The British at Antwerp—How the 4th Corps came into Existence— Why the Germans Wanted Calais—Germans Occupy Ostend—How the Belgians Fought— A Battle on Land, Sea, and in the Air—Sir John French's Daring Decision—The Memorable Battle for Ypres.
The full weight of the German attack was now massed against the British line. To each corps which General French put into the field the German was opposing four, and in front of the 2nd Corps alone were the 2nd, 4th, 7th, and 9th German Cavalry Divisions, six battalions of Jaegers, and the 14th Army Corps. With such opposition it would have been understandable had the 2nd Corps fallen back before the vigorous counter-attacks which were delivered against them; but it stands everlastingly to the glory of British arms that each of these attacks was repulsed with heavy loss, and the ground gained by the British was held despite the most violent efforts of the enemy to regain it.
The advance of the line was not an even one. There were advantages gained and positions lost. Heroic endeavour was crowned with success only to suffer defeat in the hour of triumph. The Royal Irish Rifles, after a most gallant fight, carried the village of Le Pilly, on October 19th, which they held and entrenched, beating off a succession of attacks designed to drive them westward.
The Royal Irish held only one portion of the line thus formed, and from the very start it was seen that their position was a precarious one. Nevertheless, with a courage beyond all praise, these men, who saw their danger and knew the risks they were taking, held on to their trench line. A wide expanse of broken ground was before them, hamlet and farm buildings gave cover to their enemy, from one little wood to their right front the batteries of the enemy poured an unceasing fire upon the devoted battalion. There was never any question of their attempting to escape from the inferno in which they found themselves. It was a case, for the Royal Irish, of holding on to the last, and even when they saw the rest of the line falling back, they themselves, maintaining their position in the face of what looked to be certain destruction, gave back shot for shot.
The enemy worked left and right of them, amazed that these men should still resist when they knew, as they must have known, that resistance was useless. Enfiladed to left and right, fired at from both flanks and from the rear, the Royal Irish stuck to their position until resistance at last was suicidal. They were surrounded and cut off, suffering heavy loss.
So far from diminishing in violence, the German attacks increased, and there were moments when it seemed as if nothing could stay the almost irresistible rush of the German infantry. Our 5th Division were opposed in the village of Violaines by a corps of the enemy reinforced by a further division, and after a most heroic defence were thrown back. The enemy debouched from the village, satisfied that the resistance was at an end, with shattered forces falling back left and right before them and the British dead testifying to the success of the German attack. Then of a sudden they received a check which was entirely unexpected. The Worcester Regiment and the Manchester Regiment had been hurried up in support, and now the German came upon two battalions which had already distinguished themselves in the war, and which, strengthened rather than weakened by their losses, were perhaps the most formidable troops on the ground.
In vain the German division threw itself at the barring line. It did not waver, but standing firm, shot back the opposition with cool judgment. Then, taking the offensive, these two fine corps moved forward, driving a vanquished enemy before them, and the position which had been lost a few hours before was regained, whilst yet the German general was congratulating himself upon his triumph.
Once more the campaign resolved itself into trench warfare. The disappointment of our soldiers can readily be imagined. They had come north in the joyous expectation of having finished for the time with trenches and of pushing their way through to the open fighting dear to their hearts. They were quickly undeceived. In this new theatre of war they found that trench warfare was still to be their lot. They had merely exchanged the trenches of the Aisne for the trenches of the Pas de Calais.
Very cheerfully, though, they went to work, dug themselves in once more, and from the 19th to the 31st of October, the 2nd Corps hurled back attack after attack of the German hordes opposed to them. Picture life as the men in the trenches found it: a great slit in the grey-brown clay, three feet broad and three feet deep, banked up on each side with soil and earth and such turf as there was left, with holes cut in the front wall, with pillars on either side. In these holes cut in the clay the men slept on straw where they could get it, on waterproof sheeting where they could not. Every dozen feet or so a traverse ran, banked high lest the enemy attempt to enfilade the trench.
The British soldiers entered into their new habitations with a wealth of knowledge which they had acquired on the Aisne. Some of them smuggled in little spirit stoves, mysterious little wooden boxes were found on which a man could sit, undreamt of comfort appeared as if by magic. In these trenches the men had to live, often under a terrific fire. They were well supplied with food and twice a week a tot of rum was ladled out to them.
Behind the firing-line trenches were found the shelters for the men holding the line and those for the supports. These were more elaborate and comfortable than the fire trenches, usually were roofed over, and contained cooking places and many conveniences. Some of these underground quarters were almost luxurious and contained windows. Communication between the firing line and the various shelters in rear and with the headquarters of units was kept up along approach trenches, all zig-zagged to prevent being enfiladed, and liberally partitioned into compartments by traverses so as to localise the effect of shell fire.
For some time the character of the artillery fire was such as to force both combatants even for some distance behind the firing line to burrow into the earth in order to obtain shelter and to conceal their works as far as possible, thus to gain protection both from guns and aeroplanes.
This was carried on to such an extent that behind the front-fire trenches of British, French, and Germans are perfect labyrinths of burrows of various types. The principal feature of the battlefield, therefore, as "Eye-Witness" pointed out, was the absence of any signs of human beings.
Where resort was had to siege methods, the earthworks of both sides became still more complicated, though there was a definite system underlying their apparent confusion. It is permissible to describe how the enemy was carrying on the close attack at some points.
From the last position attained they sapped forward in two ways already mentioned. The approaches were excavated by pioneers working at the head, the German pioneers being technically trained troops which correspond to our sappers. Owing to the close range at which the fighting was conducted and the fact that rifles fixed in rests and machine guns were kept permanently directed upon the crest of the trenches, observation was somewhat difficult, but the "head" or end of the approaching sap could be detected from the mound of earth which was thrown up. This could not be done, however, where the advance was being conducted by a "blinded" sap. In executing this type of sap a horizontal borehole about a foot in diameter and some three or four feet below ground was bored by means of a special earth borer worked by hand. It was then enlarged by pick and shovel into a small tunnel, whose roof was one or two feet below the surface.
Several of these saps having been driven forward, their heads were connected by a lateral trench, which became the front line and could be used for stormers to collect for an assault. In some cases, usually at night, a sap was driven right up to the parapet of the hostile trench, which was then blown in by a charge. Amidst the confusion caused, and a shower of grenades, the stormers attempted to burst in through the opening and work along the trench. As in their ordinary infantry attacks, machine guns were quickly brought up to any point gained in order to repel counter-attacks.
Most of this fighting took place at such close range that the guns of either side could fire at the enemy's infantry without great risk of hitting its own men. The role of artillery projectiles, however, was well played by bombs of all descriptions, which are used in prodigious quantities.
The larger ones projected by the "Minenwerfer," of which the Germans employ three sizes, corresponded to the heavy howitzer shell of the distant combat, and have much the same effect. They had a distinctive nickname of their own, but they may be termed the "Jack Johnsons" of the close attack of siege warfare.
The smaller bombs or grenades were thrown by hand from a few yards' distance, perhaps just lobbed over a parapet. They were charged with high explosive, and detonated with great violence; and, since their impetus does not cause them to bury themselves in the earth before they detonate, their action, though local, is very unpleasant in the enclosed space between two traverses in a trench. These grenades of various types were being thrown continuously by both sides, every assault being preluded and accompanied by showers of them. In fact, the wholesale use of these murderous missiles was one of the most prominent features of the close attack.
Under conditions which to the Briton at home must seem appalling, these cheery fellows of ours lived in their trenches, repelling at all hours of the day and night the unexpected attacks which came upon them, and living with their dead and their wounded when the fire was so hot that the ambulance men found it impossible to come up by daylight to relieve the men of their terrible burdens.
On October 24th, new and welcome reinforcements came to the British in the shape of the Lahore division of the Indian Army Corps. These were put in and did most excellent work. Full of fun as our soldiers were, there were tragedies about which men spoke in low voices, tragedies outside of the ordinary risk of war. Once a regiment held a line of trenches when two other corps, one on either side, had retired. Nothing daunted, the gallant men held on throughout the day with all its officers killed save two second lieutenants, and then, to add to the horror of the situation—they were being fired on from three sides— the British artillery, thinking that their trenches also had been abandoned and were in the occupation of the enemy, opened an appalling artillery fire upon the infantry. For twenty minutes they endured this, until one gallant fellow of the regiment made his way back under heavy fire, and conveyed to the officer commanding the artillery the truth of the situation.
In spite of all they had suffered, the regiment held on for another twelve hours, when it was relieved and brought back into the reserves with a loss of 400 killed and wounded.
All this time the fighting went on in the neighbourhood of La Bassée and to a point south-east of St. Omer, and developed with extreme ferocity in some parts of the field, so that even a crack corps like the Gordon Highlanders was driven out of its trenches, which were retaken by the Middlesex Regiment. It was give and take all along the line. On the British left was a French corps, and on their left, as has been stated, the 3rd British Army Corps, which had detrained at St. Omer and had begun its move toward Armentières. The 3rd Corps in rain and in fog pursued a remorseless course, pushing on to Bailleul and attacking and holding the line of the Lys from Armentières to Sailly. Gradually the British line was moving northward and westward. The cavalry reconnaissances along the banks of the Lys had been successful, and now it seemed that the 4th Corps which had been engaged in covering the retirement of the Belgian Army from Antwerp, might be successfully employed in carrying out the original objective of the British force, namely, turning inward and backward the German line.
It was with this object that not only the British force but the French reinforcements had come northward; it was this object which had induced the advance from Bethune towards La Bassée and to Armentières; but the plan had failed, because the German, working with the advantage of his interior lines, had massed troops at every point where the British appeared.
It seemed just possible, however, that the 4th Corps would accomplish that which the others had failed, through no fault of their own, to achieve.
And here it may be permissible to sketch briefly the events which had brought the 4th Corps into existence.
Only a few days before General French had begun his move, the objective of the new German forces gathering in Belgium became apparent. Antwerp was to be taken, and the menace to the German right for ever removed, in preparation for an advance upon the coast and the cutting of the British lines of communication which connected our Army in the field with their true base.
The need for moving rapidly and for advancing this line from Soissons up to the coast became every day more urgent. The day that General French moved, the Belgians had retired across the Nethe, blowing up the Waelhen Bridge, and the British Admiralty and War Office, recognising that it was imperative for the safety of the Anglo-French lines that the German should be kept out of Antwerp as long as possible, collected together a scratch force of naval reservists and marines, and put them across the Channel as fast as possible.
Already there had been an advance guard of Marines at Ostend, and these with their reinforcements moved up to Antwerp, the first party arriving on the 4th. The British plan of campaign, as I have said, was to delay as long as possible the fall of Antwerp, which would release a very large German army to operate against the rapidly extending Anglo-French lines. Remembering that our men in this field were only partly trained, and that they were engaged in holding at bay an army which probably consisted of 120,000 men, the seriousness of the task before them cannot be over-estimated, nor can either the foresight of the British Government or the valour of the men who carried the Government's plan into execution.
It was a move made with the full approval not only of the War Office but of the active chiefs of Armies in the field. It was indeed a very important and a very necessary move, and one which contributed largely to the successes which the British were subsequently able to achieve.
The German object was not only to capture Antwerp but effectively to contain and surround its garrison. The British were there to afford the Belgian Army a safe exit, to hold up the German advance, and to give the Belgian the relief which would allow him to resist the repeated attempt of the enemy to break across the Scheldt with the object of cutting off the road to the coast and to safety.
The British, as we have seen, were pressing north with all haste from the Aisne, passing the rear of the line where the French on the Oise were engaged in violent battle. Those were fateful days for the Anglo-French force. More fateful, indeed, for the Belgian Army, which was beginning its evacuation of Antwerp. To assist in this General French formed a 4th Army Corps with a base at Dunkirk, consisting of the 7th Division and a division of cavalry. The task allotted to this scratch corps was to assist in covering the Belgian retirement. Though a large portion of the Belgian Army and 2,000 British marines and sailors, by a deplorable error, passed into Holland and were promptly interned, the retirement was carried out in safety.
Sent to the aid of the Naval Division at Antwerp, the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division did splendid work from the time they were landed early in October. They found themselves faced with a most serious and critical situation, the enemy largely outnumbering them. Compelled to retire, from Ghent to Ypres they fought a rearguard action with such tenacity and valour that it covers them with glory.
Through day and night, continually pursued by the far superior forces of the enemy, they held doggedly to position after position, and eventually at their final stand before Ypres it fell to them to hold off the German Army for several days, while the British forces were being hurried up from the Aisne. They held on, though the odds against them were nearly ten to one. When at length they were withdrawn from the firing line to rest and re-fit, in the infantry there were only 44 officers left out of the 400 who set out from England, and 2,336 men out of their original number of 12,000. A special order by General Sir Douglas Haig marked their glorious achievement.
"In forwarding the attached order by G.O.C. 1st Corps, I desire to place on record my own high appreciation of the endurance and fine soldierly qualities exhibited by all ranks of the 7th Division from the time of their landing in Belgium. You have been called to take a conspicuous part in one of the severest struggles in the history of the war, and you have had the honour and distinction of contributing in no small measure to the success of our arms and the defeat of the enemy's plans.
"The task which fell to your share inevitably involved heavy losses, but you have at any rate the satisfaction of knowing that the losses you have inflicted upon the enemy have been far heavier.
"The 7th Division have gained for themselves a reputation for stubborn valour and endurance in defence, and I am certain that you will only add to your laurels when the opportunity of advancing to the attack is given you."
The fall of Antwerp was inevitable when the German succeeded in battering to silence one of the greater forts which commanded the passage of the Nethe. But by the time the triumphant enemy marched into the streets of the town, the extending line had reached beyond Arras, and the British Army was forming up to protect Calais from the invader.
Who began this race northward, which started on the Aisne on October 4th, and continued in an incessant, violent and terrible battle until it reached its climax on the sand dunes of Belgium?
Many are the explanations which will be offered, and many are the claims which will be put forward on behalf of either side, but to the outsider, watching these tragic and terrible events from a distance, it would seem that the line northward was an accident. It was a line, extended slowly at first, to prevent the envelopment of the German right, and it progressed with such fury, and gained so in importance, that the whole battle front was shifted, and what had been the German right became the German left, so far as the Allied Armies which were working in the wrest of France were concerned.
Who shall say how this great idea of Calais and its capture came to be part of the German general scheme? Who invented the phrase "To Calais!" as a poor substitute for the cry "To Paris!"?
Was it perhaps in order to give to the dispirited people of Germany some hope which had a reasonable chance of realisation, that Calais, with its empty and barren possibilities, should be offered as a goal?
To the strategist it will always seem, whatever may be the explanation and however plausible, that the attempt to take Calais was an afterthought. The German had enough troops at hand to have attempted the capture of this important fort before he tackled the business of his advance on Paris. He had enough troops released by the fall of Maubeuge to have advanced, at any rate to Boulogne, which was an open town. He did, indeed, capture Lille and demand a fantastic ransom and indemnities. But Calais and the seaports, even Dunkirk, he had no immediate use for, saw no possibilities in their capture, and could afford to leave them to his leisure. He was fulfilling his proper business when he advanced with every soldier he could muster to the destruction of the armies which waited him east of Paris. Therein one can find no fault with German strategy; he was carrying out the very simple plan which was laid down by Napoleon, of discovering his enemy in his greatest strength and destroying him.
After Paris, and the retirement from the Marne, the German was on the defence. If he did not know it in the first week following his occupation of the heights above the Aisne, he had plenty of time to make the discovery. He was on the defence when he switched round to face the west, and when the Prince of Wurtemberg's army and von Buelow's, and the Crown Prince of Bavaria's, were sent to assist von Kluck on that defensive line.
The British troops had been withdrawn from Soissons with remarkable ability. They had occupied trenches facing the whole German line for twenty miles, and these trenches were regularly relieved every twenty-four hours, the men taking up their own food and water sufficient to last them that time, because owing to the exposed position it was quite impossible for any help to get to them during the day.
On the night when it was decided to rush the British north, French regiments were brought up and the regular business of relieving went on—as far as the Germans knew, the ordinary routine which was enacted every night. Beyond firing a few shots for luck in the direction from which the noises came, they were perfectly satisfied that nothing untoward was happening. Very stealthily the British left their trenches and were replaced by the French. Swift trains carried them to where the German was preparing the strongest of his defensive lines.
He was on the defensive all the way up as far as the Belgian frontier, defending the communications of the armies, defending the right of the German line, and establishing for himself a clear way out if the worst came to the worst.
Calais then was an afterthought; it is not known who invented that cry, which brought an end to 100,000 German lives, which frittered and squandered the most precious material of war upon a false objective, and in a movement which had no serious military value. It may have been invented to excuse a defensive—German military authorities are sticklers on such little matters as words.
Whatever was the reason, this much is certain: the great German General Staff decided that the effort to reach the coast was well worth a huge sacrifice of life. Soldiers of every age and in every stage of efficiency were thrown into the firing line—old men and young boys mingled with the finest of the German fighting force, and attacks more vigorous than any the war has yet produced were delivered against the Allied line.
A considerable army had been released by the fall of Antwerp on October 9th. There was yet another army occupying Brussels, though this could not have been any considerable force, otherwise the Belgian Army would never have made its escape from Antwerp as it did. Some 30,000 to 40,000 Belgian soldiers under their heroic king had succeeded in reaching the coast and moved on, first to Ostend, and then, when the seat of government was transferred to Havre, to the little fishing town of Nieuport, some nine and a half miles south-west of Ostend. On October 16th the German Army, which, as I say, had been released by the fall of Antwerp, was moving to Ghent and Bruges. These towns were effectively occupied, and then Ostend came into the hands of the enemy without any resistance on the part of the Belgian Army. The Belgians knew too well what resistance would mean to this beautiful town—the Queen of Plages. They had seen the blackened ruins of Termonde, of Louvain, and Malines, and they took no risk with this pride of the Belgian coast, but retired along the sand dunes and encamped themselves at Nieuport, on the banks of the canalised Yser.
The German came into Ostend in full force, established himself in the town, and felt cautiously along the coast to see how far he might progress in his march to join the right wing of the German Army. At the same time the German evidently brought his reserve corps, and all the auxiliary troops he could lay his hand on, to the left of the Ostend force, and felt no less cautiously towards Dixmude. The main German Army had now reached Ypres.
Few people realise the importance of this little place. Very few perhaps had ever heard of it until this war brought it into prominence. It is a very ancient town, and goes back a thousand years in its history. Indeed, in the year 1200 Ypres was the wealthiest and most powerful town in Flanders. It was burnt by the English in 1383, again in 1566 by Alva, was taken four times by the French and twice by other races. It is a veritable centre of trouble. All the sorrow and the rapine that have swept over Flanders have invariably concentrated at Ypres. The town, which is happily not yet in ruins, is filled with ancient edifices, some of the greatest of the buildings being 700 years old. Its magnificent Cathedral of St. Martin dates from 1221.
It was easy to understand how Ypres became the centre of some of the fiercest fighting witnessed in the war—fighting in which thousands of Britons and Germans and Frenchmen and gallant Belgians laid down their lives.
Roulers is only 14 miles in one direction, Fumes 20 miles in another. Hazebrouck is 19¼ miles, and Dixmude a very little distance. It was in this district, and upon this field of operations, that the bloodiest battle of the war was fought.
But let us return to Ostend for a moment.
Between Ostend and Nieuport is a long road bare of houses or habitation; to the right lies the sea and the golden level stretch of beach for which this part of Flanders is renowned; on the left the uneven hummocks of the dunes, sparsely covered with dark green and stunted vegetation, rolling like the sea which gave it its existence. Between Ostend and Nieuport are two notable villages, both of which have raised themselves to the dignity of townships by their proximity to the seashore. The first of these is Middlekirk, consisting of a number of hotels and private villas built along the seashore; the second is Westende. The German did not expect to take Nieuport without a struggle. The Yser, stretching from here to Dixmude, offered a natural barrier to the advance along the coast, and it was not to be supposed that the Belgian, fagged and war- worn as he undoubtedly was, would yield passage without a tremendous struggle. Nevertheless, the German hoped by massing enormous forces to press his way across the Yser, and incidentally turn the left of the Allied force which was now advancing on Ypres, and had pushed in on the border as far as Armentières.
To a large extent the Allies' left was covered by Dunkirk, the most northerly of the fortified French coast towns. But the German was in sufficient strength to mask that fortress and to exercise such pressure upon the Allied left as would cause it to 'fall back from the north of Lille, and uncover a way for the Germans, who were now on the west of the town, to advance on Calais with little or mo difficulty.
Whatever plans*'the Great General Staff had were shattered by a force which they might reasonably suppose had no coherent existence—the Belgian Army. It had been loudly proclaimed in Berlin that the Belgian Army as a force had ceased to exist, that its heroic King had established himself at Havre, "safe from the sound of the guns." So far from being in Havre, the King was with his magnificent men—a mere handful as armies go in these times, but full of wondrous courage, and determined to fight to the death for this last little corner of their beloved land—established indeed in the "final angle."
It was the Belgian Army which beat back every attack that was made on it, the Belgian infantry who with guns and rifles and bayonets hurled back the invader again and again, till the sand dunes between Nieuport and Westende were covered with German dead. Reinforcements in some strength were hurried up; trenches were prepared and positions taken, which must result in the retreat of the plucky little army which opposed the pioneers of German culture. At that moment there came a new force on the field. Three monitors, shallow-draft vessels originally built for the Brazilian Government to cover their great waterways, and now commissioned as the "Mersey" the "Severn," and the "Humber," sailed close inshore on October 18, and by means of observation balloons began a bombardment of the German trenches. This was a surprise which the German did not expect. He went through these operations on the coast without any fear of an attack from the sea. He depended upon one very important consideration. Between Ostend and Dunkirk the shore slopes so gradually that there is scarcely a dozen fathoms of water two miles from the shore. It would be absolutely impossible to bring in ships with big guns to such a proximity to the land that their guns would be of any service. Other nations than Belgium, however, have difficulties of shallow draught rivers, and one of these is Brazil, who had ordered the building of these monitors, which could negotiate the shallows of their great rivers, and, if need be, ground on sandbanks without greatly affecting the structure of the boat. Just before war broke out these monitors, armed with heavy guns, were being got ready to proceed to Brazil. With commendable promptitude the Government stepped in and purchased the ships, with an eye to such a contingency as now existed. They were commissioned and made ready not a moment too soon. On the day that the German reached the coast the monitors were already in position, and under cover of the darkness, the leadsmen in the chains feeling every fathom of the way, the monitors put into shore and cleared their decks for action.
It was a tense moment when dawn broke and the day revealed the new enemies one to the other—the German on land, a little perplexed and perhaps a little frightened, the sailors at sea, curious and keen. A signal from the Commodore's ship, and the first monitor's gun flashed forth. From that moment there came into the din of battle a newer and more sinister sound. To the quick crash of bursting shrapnel which the Belgian artillery were flinging above the trenches came a deeper and more ominous note. It was the note which high explosive shell, carrying an enormous amount of shrapnel, makes upon explosion. And now the action was general, the licking flames from the four big guns of the monitors shot out scarcely without an interval, save the little lull which came when the fire directors were conferring with their observer in the balloon. The fight and its incidents was invisible from the sea, save for dim moving figures and the haze of smoke which hung over the battlefield, save for the bursting of Belgian shrapnel, which indicated to the watchers on the sea the direction their own fire might take; there was no arrest of hostilities, and even when night fell the glare of the British searchlights revealed their objective.
They were not to remain in undisputed possession of their vantage place. First the German brought two guns to bear along the dunes to Westende; these were destroyed. Then an unexpected submarine flotilla came stealing along the coast. Aeroplanes dispatched from the shore to drop bombs upon the monitors fared no better. As for the unfortunate submarines, one at least was chased by the torpedo-boat destroyer "Badger" and rammed by her.
In the air, under the sea, and on the surface of the water this strange four- cornered fight went on, and as the German line shifted, so did the monitors steam slowly to take up a new position. So far as the enemy's plans for advancing along the dunes were concerned, he was as far off Calais as ever.
The demoralising effect of this fire cannot be overestimated. There is no doubt whatever that the monitors enabled the slender Belgian force to hold the Yser. Confused fighting was going on all along the line practically from Nieuport to Lille. The British operating in the Lens district on October 15-16 had been hastily summoned from the south, and a first detachment, opposed as they were by overwhelming numbers, succeeded in entrenching themselves under fire, and in holding their position until the main body of the British Army came to support them. Villages on the outskirts of important centres were taken and retaken until not one stone was left upon another. Some of the unfortunate inhabitants had no time to get away, and terrible scenes were enacted in the midst of this inferno.
The morning had dawned peaceably for the inhabitants of the village—old men and women and children—save that in the dark of the night there had been strange glows on the horizon.
There had come to them a distant rumbling like thunder; yet that morning brought no sign of war, for the village lay off the beaten track, and the people who gathered to gossip in the little market-place which stood at the top of a slight rise and commanded a view of the plains below*, spoke of war as though it were something vastly remote, something in another world, even as the people in London discuss it, without ever expecting to feel its terrible effects.
After the fall of Antwerp the Germans marched on Bruges and Ostend, which they occupied in the latter half of October. And now the cry was "to Calais."
The 4th Army Corps (the 3rd Cavalry Division under Major-General the Hon. Julian Byng, and the 7th Division under Major-General Capper) had materially assisted the successful operation of bringing the Belgians to the Allied line. It was decided by Sir John French, who had been given command of the forces operating in the north of France, to employ the Belgian Army on his left.
The 4th Army Corps was necessarily weak, consisting as it did only of one cavalry division and one infantry division; but with these Sir John French decided to thrust through, supported as the 4th Corps was by the 87th French Territorial Division in Ypres and by the 69th French Territorial Division at Poperinghe.
There were, therefore, three effective infantry divisions and a cavalry division for employment, which, taken together, recompensed Sir John for the weakness of the 4th Corps. Any step which the British Commander might take was necessarily hampered by the fear of the unknown quantity of German troops which were reported to be approaching from the north-east. The line the 4th Corps and the French reserve divisions held was greatly and dangerously attenuated. It had to be spread out over a wide front in a desperate and daring attempt to cover a ground which from its size it was not competent to cover.
It was the old Colesberg tactics over again. It was French in his most daring and gallant mood. He knew he had very wide gaps to cover, he knew the possibility of a tremendous onslaught upon this thin khaki line in the north, and he knew, too, that he had in reserve one Army Corps (the 1st), and that even if he put this in he could not hope effectively to bar the way to Calais unless a miracle happened.
But would he put the 1st Corps into the line? To take such a step, to fight a battle along an enormous front with absolutely no reserves whatever, would be taking what most strategists would condemn as an unnecessary risk. He had to decide very quickly. Sir Henry Rawlinson, moving forward to take possession of Menin, found himself opposed by very strong forces, and his thin left flank very badly threatened.
"It was a very difficult task that was allotted to Sir Henry Rawlinson and his command. Owing to the importance of keeping possession of all the ground towards the north which we already held, it was necessary for him to operate on a very wide front, and until the arrival of the 1st Corps in the northern theatre—which I expected about the 20th—I had no troops available with which to support or reinforce him," Sir John French writes in his despatch.
"Although on this extended front he had eventually to encounter very superior forces, his troops, both cavalry and infantry, fought with the utmost gallantry and rendered very signal service.
"I hoped that at this particular time there was no greater force coming from the north-east than could be held off by the combined efforts of the French and British cavalry and the Territorial troops supporting them until the passage at Menin could be seized and the 1st Corps brought up in support.
"Sir Henry Rawlinson probably exercised a wise judgment in not committing his troops to this attack in their somewhat weakened condition, but the result was that the enemy's continued possession of this passage at Menin certainly facilitated his rapid reinforcement of his troops and thus rendered any further advance impracticable."
The main result of the failure to secure Menin resulted in the rapid concentration of German troops and the retirement of the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division (of the 4th Corps) to a line farther west.
It was here that Sir John made his decision as to the disposition of the 1st Army Corps. To throw it in to strengthen the line meant leaving the country north and east of Ypres and the whole line of the Yser canal open to a wide turning movement. The gallant Belgian Army was battered and stale.
To quote Sir John French's despatch again:—"The Belgian Army were rendering what assistance they could by entrenching themselves on the Ypres canal and the Yser river; and the troops, although in the last stage of exhaustion, gallantly maintained their positions, buoyed up with the hope of substantial British and French support.
"After the hard fighting it had undergone the Belgian Army was in no condition to withstand, unsupported, such an attack; and unless some substantial resistance could be offered to this threatened turning movement, the Allied flank must be turned and the Channel ports laid bare to the enemy."
As we know, Sir John took the risk. He directed Sir Douglas Haig to move with the 1st Corps to the north of Ypres, gambling on the fact that the reinforcements which the Germans were bringing up were being directed toward the line of the Lys and against the 2nd Corps farther south of La Bassée. He gambled, too, on his knowledge of the composition of the Corps which were operating against him, and that the 3rd Reserve Corps, which was most likely to direct the attack upon the new forces, had been badly battered in a previous operation.
It was a Napoleonic decision. Let none doubt how much hung upon that movement and what a vast difference the success of Sir John French's strategy entailed.
The fighting now began to develop about Ypres. Here attack after attack was delivered, trenches were taken and retaken at the point of the bayonet, regiments and brigades were shelled with a ferocity which was unparalleled during the war, and the flower of the German Army was brought up with the object of attaining the occupation of the town, only to be thrown back by the steel wall of the Allied line. One section of trenches, after a tremendous fight, was taken by the enemy and the British driven out with loss; but scarcely had the German settled himself in his new quarters before there advanced across the contested ground the Northamptons, the King's Royal Rifles, and the 2nd Queen's West Surrey Regiment.
It was the same tale over again. The British reserves, patient and enduring, watching for the first signs of a weakening line ahead and moving toward it swiftly and remorselessly. Here the composition of the Brigade which pushed forward to undo the mischief which the German had done was a notable one- -three crack infantry corps, two of them recruited in London, as so many of our best regiments are.
The horizon was a circle of thundering guns. Shrapnel burst all over the ground to be covered, and the brown earth was sent spurting upward in tiny fountains where the enemy's bullets were striking. Yet into this hail of death the three battalions advanced, met their astonished enemy half way, and with bayonet and machine gun combed his ranks to such purpose that what had been a brigade in the morning was only a few companies that night.
Again that long and deadly bayonet of ours had proved too much for the German. Again the tireless infantry had achieved the impossible. It was such a charge these men delivered as one would have thought could never have been witnessed in these days of high velocity rifle fire. But it was with the bayonet that this fine brigade charged; hand to hand in the trenches, battling desperately for mastery, driven out and back, shot down as they crossed the open space and reforming to come back again and yet again at the wire-entangled trenches, they succeeded at last in recovering the lost ground.
Ypres itself was in the occupation of the Allies. The wonderful old Flemish town, with its cathedral and its most beautiful halls, was alive with British and French infantry. Every gun the German could muster was trained upon this city and its entrenched defenders. Again and again fierce infantry charges were repulsed; again and again a great crowd of khaki figures scrambled out from their earthy home, and went swinging across the fields to meet the onrush of the élite of the Prussian Army. Again and again men were locked together in a hand-to-hand struggle. Once the enemy penetrated almost to the town itself, and were driven out again. Once so critical was the situation that a French general formed up his bodyguard Cuirassiers, and gathering together a mixed force of Army Service Corps men and camp followers armed with any weapons they could get, threw themselves with desperate courage upon an advancing German regiment and turned the scale in favour of the Allies.
The heroism of that defence is one of the most memorable chapters in the history of the British Army. But our French comrades on the left had no less a deadly business in hand.
Dixmude, a heap of ruins battered beyond recognition by Allies and German alike, was a scene of such slaughter that the mind sickens at its contemplation. The closeness of the fighting and its desperation may be gauged by the fact that so near up were the divisional commanders that they were under shell fire most of the time. The General Officer Commanding the 1st Army Corps was wounded, and three staff officers of the division and three of the second division were killed, whilst the General Commanding the 2nd Division of the 1st Army Corps was knocked out by a shell and was unconscious for some time.
Slowly the 1st Corps was being forced back. The Germans seemed to come up from the ground, so huge were their numbers. Nothing, it seemed, could stand against them, and on that critical day, October 31, when the order from the Kaiser had gone out that Ypres should be taken at all costs, and the whole weight of the Bavarian and Prussian Corps were being thrown at the British line, only the individual bravery of our splendid men retrieved what promised at one time to be disaster. The order went out that the main road to the bend of the canal was to be held at all costs. The 1st Division rallied on the line of the woods east of the bend of the road, the German advance by the road being checked by enfilade fire from the north. The 2nd Brigade fell back under the onrush and because its flank was exposed, but the right of the 7th Division was brought up, and though under a terrific fire held on to its trenches till nightfall.
The line, ragged and in places broken, was now closing up. The French at Bixschoote, the Belgians and French at Dixmude, the French marines at Dixmude, the British north and south of Ypres, were gradually consolidating the line which they had won with such bravery.
The Work of the 1st Corps—Pulteney's Advance—Gallant Regiments—The Story of the Royal West Kents—Five Days' Fight at Neuve Chapelle—Critical Days— London Scottish—The Worcestershires' Great Fight—Realistic Description of Fighting—The Defeat of the Prussian Guard.
THE 1st Corps, which had battled so splendidly upon the Aisne, had achieved even greater things in this new phase of the campaign, and the 2nd Corps, under Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, had won for itself a place in the immortal story of the Empire.
The 3rd Corps had done every bit as well, from the time it was quietly "slipped in" before the battle of the Aisne. Though it did not cover so wide a front as the 1st Corps, yet it stretched from twelve to thirteen miles, and had against it from time to time great concentrations of the enemy. At St. Yves two battalions of the Corps, the King's Own Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers, covered themselves with glory in a successful attempt to save the cavalry from serious menace.
It was one of those Homeric fights with which the war has abounded. Dogged infantry pelted forward through a hail of nickel, leaving the shelter of their trenches in an heroic effort to achieve what for the moment seemed impossible. With set teeth the men flung themselves upon their overpowering enemy and swept him back.
These infantry advances, made in the face of heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, shelled desperately and unceasingly by far-off batteries, and themselves unprotected by artillery, formed a feature of Pulteney's operations. Too often the 3rd Corps had to adapt itself to the extraordinary conditions under which it was fighting. Resolute, resourceful, untiring, the grimy, unshaven battalions, so caked with mud as almost to be indistinguishable from the soil into which they dug themselves, rose obedient upon occasion to the moment's need, and went about their heroic business in that spirit of cheerfulness which is the British soldier's peculiar characteristic.
It might seem impossible to electrify these plodding units to energy, and yet at one sharp word of command, at the thrill of a whistle, the slow moving line would sweep across the uneven fields of Belgium toward the yellow line of trenches which spat death at the advancing men, and would carry their purpose to a successful issue, come what may. The exhilaration of the bayonet charge and the grand assault was afforded only in rare instances. For the most part the battle rapidly developed into shell fire against entrenchments.
On October 25th the shelling was so violent that the Leicestershire Regiment were forced from their trenches by these heavy projectiles blowing up the pits they were in. There was scarcely a regiment that did not cover itself with glory in that surging backward and forward of the 3rd Corps. We know how the Middlesex were driven from their trenches, and aided by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders—curiously enough, old comrades who have lain together in various garrisons from time to time—the trenches were regained. The incidents of that fight have come to us in scraps. Cockney and Scot in one grand rush across the sodden field drove home with fist and bayonet.
We know how the Somerset Light Infantry saw the line of the 11th Brigade broken in the neighbourhood of St. Yves, and how, led by Major Prowse, of the Somersets, this regiment moved forward to the attack, and though opposed by numbers three times greater in strength, succeeded in restoring the line.
This regiment, with the Hampshires, and the East Lancashire Regiments, was commended for its gallantry. In the share of praise the Indian troops take, as they deserve, a foremost place. The Gurkhas were driven from their trenches by the strength of one attack, only to be regained by these little men from Nepal, who went through the barbed-wire entanglements and killed their enemy in his trench.
If it was a point of honour to the British to defend Ypres and the line about, no less did it seem a point of honour to the Prussian that he should take this battered city; and whether it was because he desired to proclaim from this last town of Flanders his annexation of the country or whether he attached a greater significance to the securing of the cross-roads which Ypres represented, is not certain. But certainly against the British trenches he sent the best of his army. Inspired by the hatred of the Crown Prince of Bavaria, who issued from time to time proclamations of a particularly bitter character, the Bavarians advanced to the attack, only to share the fate of the earlier detachments which had been put at the British to crush them.
The 1st Army Corps on the left and the 9th French Corps on the right effectively held back the attack. It was on November 10, after the 27th, the 15th, the 13th Bavarians and the 2nd German Corps had been thrown back from the British line, that a division of the Prussian Guard, which had been operating farther south in the neighbourhood of Arras, was brought up to this area by night, secretly detrained, and moved forward to take up a position which would enable them to attack to the best advantage.
It is often asked by those who are unacquainted with the conditions under which this war is being fought—and there are many such, despite, or because of, the quantity of literature on the subject—in what manner can a General judge the merit of a regiment which calls for extraordinary recognition. It is not by the brilliant achievement of some deed, by the grasping of some opportunity which chance has offered, that a regiment gains its laurels. It is by consistent good work under all and every disadvantageous condition, and by its brilliant consistency that a corps comes to a condition which enables the General to say: "I can depend upon this battalion in every circumstance."
There are certain regiments which hold meritorious records stretching back to the very beginnings of the British Army. In the great battles of Flanders we have seen again and again how our famous regiments have confirmed the fame their fathers won.
"The courage, tenacity, endurance, and cheerfulness of the men in such unparalleled circumstances are beyond all praise."
One regiment, entrenched before Ypres, was subjected to the heaviest shell fire. Again and again the great projectiles burst on the edge of the trenches, burying their occupants under three or four feet of earth. Again and again our intrepid men dug themselves out and re-made the trench which the German artillery had shattered. Again would come the whine of the shell, the terrific explosion as it detonated, and again would be seen the terrifying spectacle of heaving earth as men strove again to win out to the light of day.
On one occasion the trench was much deeper, and the men buried under the earth could not clear themselves without assistance. Volunteers were called for from an adjoining trench to the work of rescue. The whole platoon which occupied that particular trench volunteered, but only a section was allowed to go. Carrying spades, these men raced across the ground under an unceasing fire, and working coolly and calmly, with every weapon in the German arsenal directed against them, they rescued the living and succoured the wounded before they came back in triumph to their places.
The remarkable part of this story is that the men they rescued alive immediately set themselves to the task of reconstructing the works which the German shells had destroyed, and establishing themselves again within the trench in which they had been thrice buried.
One officer related to the writer how he was rescued three times from such a living grave, and how on each occasion he found himself half conscious, lying on the body of another officer. The heavy losses incurred by the commissioned ranks make a splendid testimony to the fearlessness of the British officer. Officers and men apparently form a mutual admiration society. The officers can say nothing too much for the men; the men cannot speak too well of the bravery of their officers.
In one British battalion—the Royal West Kents—about the behaviour of which General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien made a speech which is perhaps without parallel in the history of the Army, there had been lost during the war 29 officers, 19 of whom had been killed. After its great fight at Neuve Chapelle, the battalion was brought out of action by a 'lieutenant! All the other officers had been killed or wounded, and it fell to Lieutenant White and his comrade, 2nd Lieutenant Russell, to bring out this splendid battalion which had gone to the war with a complement of 30 officers. The two young officers received the Distinguished Service Order.
How do these battles develop? Here is the story of the West Kents and their defence.
Towards the evening of Oct. 26th the West Kents were being subjected to a very heavy shrapnel fire in the support trenches.
Up to 2 p.m. on the 27th all had been comparatively quiet, when suddenly a hail of bullets was showered on A and B Companies' support trenches and some other British troops, having fallen back from the line which they held, were seen coming through our lines. Thereupon, the supports were taken out of their trenches and moved to a position about 50 yards away, lining a road at right angles to the general line of our trenches in order to cover the left which was now exposed. Some crawled forward, but it was impossible to get very far owing to the heavy fire of the enemy they were under the whole time. On arrival at the road the enemy could be seen collecting in masses about 250 yards away. The Queen's Own opened fire and they did not advance.
It is difficult to state the Germans' action, movement by movement, but it is clear that they wished to get round to the back of our trenches, but owing to the determined manner in which our men held the road with odds roughly of four to one against them, the enemy were frustrated in their attempt.
Now, as the enemy saw that the road was denied them, they decided to extend their right and so overlap our flank, but, further down the road, D Company, who were then in reserve, conformed to the first movement, so extending the British line. This was still insufficient, and the Germans got into a village (Neuve Chapelle) on our left flank, having thus completely broken through the British front line. Dusk was beginning to fall, and owing to a request by the Royal West Kents for reinforcements, they learnt that the 9th Bhopal Infantry were coming to their help; in the meantime there was a small incident worth recalling. On one occasion a couple of men appeared round a house, and when challenged, replied "We are English," which reply was greeted by a volley from our men, as such a reply deserved, as it is a well-known trick of the enemy to reply to a challenge in English. Just before the 9th Bhopal Infantry came up, the men in the trenches could hear the Germans collecting preparatory for a charge, calling out "Deutsche hier," but on the arrival of native troops they withdrew. That night the regiment had to readjust its line temporarily. The 9th B.I. prolonging our left, bending the line back from the left flank as the trenches formerly held by British troops were now occupied by the Germans.
The following conversation was overheard by an officer in the 9th B.I. passing behind one of our trenches:
Pte. A.—Hallo! Who's that passing behind the trench?
Pte. B.—That? Why, that's an officer.
Pte. A.—But we ain't got no officers left now.
Pte. B.—That's a British officer of the native troops.
Pte. A.—Thank Heaven. I'm glad to know there are still some officers about.
On October 28 the regiment was told that a combined force of British, French, and Native troops were going to make an attack and re-take the trenches lost the previous day, consequently our artillery started shelling Neuve Chapelle very heavily. But in the meantime the enemy were also shelling our trenches preparatory to an attack. They were beginning to develop their attack, and when the Allies discovered this, they devoted their efforts to attempting to shell the hostile infantry, but unfortunately, their shots fell short and the men in the fire trenches were subjected to both shrapnel and heavy artillery fire from friend and foe.
About 2.45 p.m. the German attack having developed more quickly than our own, they were enabled to push a force of about 400 men through the gap which had yet to be filled. From the point of view in the fire trenches, it was impossible to do anything beyond getting two men to fire over the left traverse of the left trench. Shortly after this the West Kents had a number of shots in their backs, but these ceased in about 15 minutes. The narrator of this description was in the fire trenches, and consequently can give no actual account of what went on in the support and reserve trenches. But at dusk, he took a small party to visit the headquarter and reserve trenches, and found the Germans had been there but had departed. Thus ended five days of very severe fighting, and the regiment had managed to hold the line allotted to them, without once having been compelled to withdraw, although at times the enemy had completely turned their flank and were behind them*.
"On October 28, the orders for the day were as follows:—
"The trenches which had been vacated on the 27th were to be re-taken and the village of Neuve Chapelle occupied. At 11 a.m. a general bombardment of the enemy's position would be undertaken by our brigade of guns, assisted by nine French batteries, and at 11.15 a.m. the line would commence its advance. As the battalion had not vacated its trenches on the 27th it had no advance to make, but the advance was to be supported by our fire. However, soon after 12 noon B and C Companies reported that the Germans were attacking in front of their trenches. This attack apparently developed all along the line, for soon after two o'clock the enemy again broke through on our left flank, and again we were heavily enfiladed. While endeavouring to get what remained of D Company out of the reserve trenches," writes Lieut. Palmer, "I caught an enfilade bullet, which broke my leg, and left me on an open field which was apparently the target for the artillery and infantry of both sides, for it was swept by a very heavy fire for a considerable period. From my position I could see little of what was going on, but as there was rifle fire on both sides of us, I imagined our companies had been compelled to withdraw, especially as at about 5 p.m. a party of Germans came within 100 yards of me from the direction of our firing line. However, at 9 p.m. I was picked up by a patrol from C Company, who, to my intense delight, told me that the Battalion had never moved from its trenches."
The story of that unflinching defence is carried on by Lieut. White, who received the D.S.O. for his services. The value of this narrative lies in the fact that it gives the minutiae of battle—the battle as it were under the microscope.
"About 7 p.m. on the night of October 28, Captain Moulton-Barrett, who was wounded in the head, came to me and said that Second Lieutenant Russell and I were the only officers left, and that owing to the retirement of the regiments on our left, the Germans had broken through the line, and that we were in danger on that flank, and also on the left rear, about a quarter of a mile off. C Company was then on the right of the firing line and B Company on the left. A and D Companies, who were in support, had retired, owing to a mistaken order, having no officers with them. I was in command of C Company and Second Lieutenant Russell of B Company.
"Captain Moulton-Barrett then had to leave owing to his wound, and I communicated the situation to the headquarters of the 7th Brigade. The strength of the two companies in the firing line was about 200, each company having one platoon in support. The Yorkshire Light Infantry were still holding their trenches on our right, which made that flank safe.
"Having posted the night sentries, I went to find some staff officer, and after some trouble I found Captain B, Staff Captain of the Brigade.
He informed me that about 90 men of A and F Companies were coming up to support me, that the Duke of Cornwall's were advancing to support the Yorkshire Light Infantry on our left and two companies of the Bedfords and one of the Cheshires on our left. At about 11 o'clock, after a consultation between Major Allason, commanding the Bedford Companies, Captain Blake and myself, it was decided that C Company should hold the trenches, but that B Company should be thrown back almost at right angles to C Company, facing the village, which the Germans had now occupied, the two companies of the Bedfords, and the one company of the Cheshires prolonging to the left. At about 11.30 p.m. B Company, in spite of a most arduous day, dug fresh trenches, and were warmly complimented by the Staff Captain at a later date. About 12 midnight the remnants of A and D Companies, about 100 strong, came up under Acting Company Sergeant-Majors Mockford and Duffield respectively. I then detailed a fatigue party from them to go and draw rations and teas, the remainder assisting B Company to dig their trenches.
"By dawn on the 29th these trenches were completed, B and C Companies being in the firing line, with A and D Companies in support in a ditch behind B Company, which had been improvised into a support trench.
"During the day we were under hot shell and machine-gun fire, otherwise the day was uneventful. At 2 a.m. on October 30 the Seaforth Highlanders relieved us and we marched to Tauret, where we picked up the transport and had dinner."
North and south of the Lys the same scenes were being enacted. Remember that the Germans outnumbered the British in some cases by three to one, and you will realise how justified Sir John French was when he claimed a complete ascendancy for the British over the enemy. When it was man to man, and bayonet to bayonet, the British character told. Relieved from the support of his siege gun and his heavy gun, and depending only upon his strong right arm and his leading, the German was hopelessly outclassed. He fought with a courage beyond praise; he endured assaults almost beyond description in their murderous character. But he never had a chance man for man. The fighting was not all one- sided. Sometimes the British were driven back, but there was a point, and a fixed point, beyond which they could not be driven. Day by day and night by night this see-saw combat went on. Ypres was isolated, surrounded, and seized again.
The enemy were pressed back to Becelaere and, reinforced, drove back their pursuers. They were the days when it was touch-and-go as to whether the British would break. Huge German reinforcements had been suddenly sprung upon them; an immense army, nerved by hate, carefully inspired by the Crown Prince of Bavaria, made what seemed to be an irresistible attack upon the thin line, now spread out to a dangerous extent, and with reserves reduced to a minimum. Two regiments were forced to give way. Fortunately, the regiment in reserve was one of the finest line regiments in the British army—the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. They came up at the double, took the place of the two regiments which had retired, and drove back the enemy. What the gallant West Kents lost in that action we have since seen. It came out of that action with four junior officers. Elsewhere, when the British line bulged threateningly, there was only a Territorial regiment in reserve. It is fortunate that that Territorial regiment was one which has the proudest name in the British army— the London Scottish. The London Scottish had gone to France at the beginning of the war, to everybody's amazement, save those who knew that it was the first of the Territorial regiments to volunteer for active service en masse—and had been engaged on lines of communication and particularly in Paris, in police work, and in the necessary but monotonous task of defending important points on the railways from possible attack.
Some of them had been stationed at Rouen, guarding bridges and watching the roads. But as the attack north of Armenti&res developed, and as the seriousness of the situation became apparent, and it was clear to Generals Joffre and French that every soldier capable of bearing arms was needed in that critical area, the London Scottish were mobilised at St. Omer. They came from their little wayside stations, from their roads, from their bridges and culverts, elated with a sense that they were going to see action at last.
Motor-'buses were waiting to take them, and they travelled through France across the border and were deposited at Ypres. They came by night; none knew of their coming. The men slept as best they could in the jolting 'buses, and daylight found them within the sound of the guns. Slowly they advanced; they marched out to the British position and from the rearmost trenches advanced slowly, shelled all the way. In that baptism of fire, the London Scottish proved themselves as good as trained soldiers, no better, but as good. They had not the regimental training which keeps a fine battalion together; they were all good comrades and good friends, and knew one another, possibly were members of the same club. But the indefinable something which consolidates the trained line soldier was not yet there. It was to come, however. In sections they marched under fire to a village, and joined the cavalry reserves, and were ordered to fill the gaps in the trenches which the dismounted horsemen were holding. With them was the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Yorkshire Light Infantry. The enemy would not allow them to take their place in the trench line without making an effort to stop them. Heavy machine-gun fire was opened which swept through the ranks, but the men neither faltered nor did they quicken their pace.
With the same long, swinging stride which distinguishes all Scottish regiments they moved up in open order to their places.
The place of the encounter was Hollebeke, which is midway between Ypres and Messines, and a little east of these places. From trench to trench they fought their way till the enemy came out to meet them with fixed bayonets. Then with a glad yell the gallant London Scottish, fixing their bayonets and not waiting for the attack, went straight for their enemy. On the first shock the men recoiled; they would have been pardoned if they had scattered. But the recoil was only temporary; redressing their lines, they re-formed and charged again and again, till the German infantry broke before the impetuous rush of the kilted men of London.
Throughout it has been a subaltern's war. The junior officer has distinguished himself to an extraordinary extent. And what may be said of the junior regimental officer can be said also of the junior staff-officer. It was Major Cater of the Scots Guards, who, after the Brigadier of the 10th Brigade had been wounded, and the Brigade itself badly cut into, took command, and for five days fought his Brigade in the face of overwhelming odds, and by his cheerfulness and his optimism pulled together the shattered forces under his command. It was Lieutenant Viscount Feilding, a young officer called from the Reserves to take his place in the firing line, who worthily upheld the tradition of his house—his father is the Earl of Denbigh, who commands the Honourable Artillery Company. For two days he held an advance post under heavy shell fire, and in the affair of October 21 it was he who held a platoon of the Coldstream Guards with conspicuous gallantry, driving back a superior force of the enemy.
It was Lieutenant Hancock, of the Devonshire Regiment, who left his trench under a heavy fire, and going back fifty yards over an absolutely bare ground, picked up a corporal who had fallen whilst coming with a party of reinforcements.
Carrying his heavy burden, he made his way to the cover of a haystack and placed the man in security, and then returned to his trench. Lieutenant Hancock was subsequently killed in action.
Lieutenant Dudley Turnbull, of the Gordon Highlanders, worked his maxim gun when the detachment were all wounded, and he himself was struck in two places and his gun damaged by a shell. Nevertheless he recovered the gun, carrying it away on his shoulder.
It was a Second Lieutenant of the Royal Scots who led the 12th Lancers to a position which enabled them to make a counter attack, in which he took part, accounting for eleven of the enemy himself. This was in the fighting about Messines.
It has been impossible to name every village and every field in which British troops displayed their valour. At Messines and Neuve Chapelle, at Le Touquet— one could adduce a score of names to testify for the valour of British arms— officer and man alike added lustre to their service. The official despatch takes no cognisance of the terrible character of some of the fighting, of wild charges that were made and hurled back, only to be made again; of struggling men and horses in barbed wire entanglements, facing a terrific fire which swept the field clean. At Gheluvelt the 1st Division were swept back by an enormously overwhelming force of the enemy, and the Worcesters were told to take a village which the enemy had captured.
This gallant regiment splendidly distinguished itself. Covered by a wood, the Worcesters waited for the order. When it came there were 90 yards of open space to cross. From trench, from church tower, and from the vantage places which roof and window gave, the German poured a terrible fire upon the devoted band, as marching with the same phlegm and resolution which had characterised its every advance in action, it moved towards its objective.
A small village set about a great chateau—a straggling street with the inevitable cafe where the gossips met at nights, a shop or two inscribed with Flemish lettering, blank walls plastered with advertisements, the paved road, the dead gardens.
Now there is no sign of life save the grey-coated figures which crouch behind wall and parapet, who have fixed rough barricades and shelters, and from the security of these keep up an unceasing fire upon the advancing khaki line. It did not seem possible, remembering the numbers of the Germans who held the village, that the attacker could succeed—remembering, too, that the defenders had natural breastworks and barriers and commanded a large amount of dead ground. The German dispositions had been made earlier in the day. Men had received their orders to proceed to certain places of vantage from whence they could command every approach.
Clear of the village and screened by farm buildings, the enemy batteries had established themselves and had been engaged all that morning in shelling the advance British trenches. Nevertheless, the thin khaki line debouched from the wood, appeared as if by magic over the distant rise, men marching steadily forward at set intervals, crouching low, making use of every scrap of cover, and despite every attempt to check them, moving steadily forward.
The end came with dramatic suddenness. Almost before the German realised what was happening, the advance companies of the attackers had reached the edge of the village, destroyed one line of defenders and had swept irresistibly forward until it was in the main street.
And now ensued one of these terrible scenes which none but a Zola could describe. You may picture knots of yellow-coated men hammering away at closed doors, or more summarily blowing in the obstructions, and imagine the scene which followed the disappearance of the khaki coats into these little houses. Wild and fierce yells, the screams of the wounded, the quick succession of shots which rang out from stair and bedroom. Merciless fighting in homely Flemish kitchens, and red-tiled passages redder with the blood of the slain.
Here is the description of that fight, supplied me by a man who took part in it. It has never yet appeared in print. In this story the horror of war is shown plain:—
"I went into a house and saw nothing. It was full of thick cordite fumes, blue with smoke. There was a little stairway to my left, and I dashed up, my bayonet outstretched and my finger on the trigger. I saw a man leaning out from a room with his rifle raised, and shot him dead. He fell sprawling across the threshold of the room and I leapt across his body and came face to face with three Jaegers. Their faces were white and drawn; they were more like trapped animals than human beings, but they made no sign of surrender and lunged at me together, and only by a miracle did their bayonets escape me. I stabbed the first through the face, and he fell down writhing at my feet. At the same time the second Jaeger fired and the bullet went through my neck. I stabbed back at him viciously and caught him in the throat. Then the third bayoneted me. All I felt was as if a sharp, hot iron had suddenly passed through my shoulder. I jerked myself free and smacked at him with my rifle. Somehow I didn't remember to fire at him. Then I fell backward down the stairs into the arms of a Worcester sergeant, who took a file of men up to finish the work I had begun. I am happy to think that the man surrendered.
"I wandered about the village street aimlessly. I knew I was wounded; I thought possibly I was wounded to death, but somehow I had no desire to lie down or to seek out the medical staff, the R.A.M.C. men, who you may be sure were up there almost as quickly as we were.
"I saw a man of the Regiment dashing wildly into a house and he called me. ''My officer's being murdered,' he shouted, and I went in after him. We heard shots and groans coming from an inside room. It was a big vaulted kitchen. The table had been overturned, and a fire which the Germans had evidently lighted had been scattered over the floor and was smoking and smouldering. The officer himself was standing with his back to the wall. The wall itself was smothered with his blood, but he was still erect, his empty revolver in one hand and his sword in the other, slashing and striking at four Jaegers who were attempting to bayonet him. I was so weak with loss of blood that I could hardly raise my rifle, and all I remember was falling on to the back of one of the Jaegers and throwing my arms round his neck and pulling him to the ground. I heard afterwards the officer had died before they could get him out of the house, and that our man had killed his three opponents and had himself fallen dead at the feet of his officer. I and the man pulled down were the only two taken from that house alive.
"In another house two British soldiers found themselves trapped and shut in with a dozen of the enemy and had fought until they and five of their opponents were killed, and the remainder were so desperately wounded that they were unable to leave the house without assistance. It was the most murderous and bloody affair that I shall ever see, please God!
"'Nothing that any regiment ever did at Waterloo is comparable with your achievement to-day," said General French, addressing the regiment; and he, as an earnest student of the Napoleonic wars, and usually moderate in his praise, paid the Corps the finest compliment that it was possible for a commander to pay any regiment."
At Pilkem, the Royal North Lancashire Regiment earned the commendation of Sir John French. It was here that Major Aubrey Carter, D.S.O., was killed. Major Carter, a remarkably fine type of Englishman, standing six feet three, was the fifth commanding officer which the Royal North Lancs, had lost. He had gone out from the trenches to direct a machine gun which was playing on large forces which were advancing against his line. In this he succeeded, but fell shot dead in the moment of his triumph.
In that same fight, a major, who had strained his foot, led forward a portion of the battalion with a chair in one hand and a stick in the other. Whenever it was necessary to halt and direct the advance, he planted his chair down squarely and seated himself, and though shell and bullets flew around him and he was wounded, he, too, achieved his object. The spectacle of that gallant officer, sitting in one of the most exposed positions on the field, with his bandaged ankle and his crutch stick, still urging forward his men "in the spirit of laughter," is one which will not readily be forgotten.
It must have been extremely difficult for General French to have chosen the regiments for distinction, because they all behaved so finely, and none perhaps more so than the Brigade of Guards—a Brigade especially dear to the Londoner. When they departed from the battle-front to reorganise and refit, they left the line they held intact, and in spite of great loss and untold suffering and hardship, they fought the battle of November 17 with as good a nerve as the battle of the Aisne. They had perhaps the hardest time of the four battalions in the Brigade, for even their rest days were entirely taken up with marching and making counter-strokes in various parts of the line.
Lord Cavan, in addressing the men before they left for their well-earned rest, said: "I can never express what I think of the great courage and endurance shown by officers and men during the defence before Ypres; and I should like to put on the regimental records not only my sense of pride at being their Brigadier, but my debt to the battalion for their great devotion to their duty."
General French himself recognised the difficulty of singling out regiments where so many had been so brave, and he overcame this obstacle by addressing a general Army Order, in the course of which he said: "I have made many calls upon you, and the answer you have made to me has covered you, your regiment, and the Army to which you belong with honour and glory. Your fighting qualities, courage and endurance have been subjected to the most trying and severe tests, and you have proved yourselves worthy descendants of the British soldiers of the past who have built up the magnificent traditions of the regiment to which you belong. You have not only maintained those traditions, but you have materially added to their lustre. It is impossible for me to find words to express my appreciation of the splendid services you have performed."
Unstinted praise for unstinted effort is a fair exchange. The trench work had tried the nerves of our men until the banging of a door was sufficient to make officer and man (relieved from duty and resting at the rear) jump to their feet tense and shaking. Yet these men went back to their trenches, back to the horror of this nerve-wracking warfare, cheerfully and without complaint. The enemy, whose spies were everywhere, expected demoralisation and brought new troops to the attack. Against "the shaken British" he conspired to make one vast and overwhelming effort which should shatter the resistance and finally and effectively destroy the force which had been a thorn in his side from the day he first touched their advance guard on the Condé-Mons Canal.
This is in a country grim and black, where the smouldering red of burning villages shows against the grey dawn of a coming day. There is no indication of a coming battle. The British trenches are alive and busy; even before dawn comes little curls of smoke are blown left and right above the trenches, where the cooks are preparing the first meal. All night long the shelling has gone on- -intermittently, fitfully, irritably. The sentry posted every hour at each end of the trench has been watching through the darkness, searching the front for any signs of life. Once in the middle of the night a sentry, more jumpy than others, had thought he had seen a figure moving stealthily toward the barbed wire entanglements, had loosed off his rifle, and had been cursed by his comrades for arousing them from their sleep—they had dug little rooms in the clay well out of shell range—and now, as the day breaks slowly, the maligned sentry points triumphantly to a motionless figure lying stark and stiff, a grenade still in his stiffened hand.
The ground was of the usual character. On the left a ruined farm, its discoloured walls blackened, its roof gone, the wreck of a farm wagon or two in its littered yard, a dead cow, stiff-legged and malodorous, near a burnt byre.
On the right a little wood, skirted by trenches—fire trenches, support trenches, rough scars in the surface of the unoffending earth, scarcely visible in the early light. If it were not for these cautious fires, where kettles are singing and where the company cook goes about his work in the same condition of picturesque greasiness as distinguishes army cooks the world over, you would not realise that 20,000 men were almost within call.
With light comes rifle fire, growing brisker as the day advances, and about the trenches the shells are now falling nearly every minute. There is no sign that the enemy contemplates anything unusual or that the colourless drab front at which the British have been staring for the past six days hides anything more violent than the big, lazy guns which send their huge shells into the trenches.
But behind that front many things were happening. The night had seen train- load after train-load of soldiers moving northward. The long, dark trail of loaded trucks had moved into sidings, and discharged their thousands of grey- coated soldiers that had passed on to make room for others.
Tall men, stiffer than any of the wondering, admiring Landsturm who stood about to watch the arrivals.
It was the Prussian Guard who had come so secretly—a division of the Invincibles leavened by the pride of the army, that shattered remnant which had fallen back before the French attack. The citizens of Roulers were ordered indoors and threatened with the direst penalties if it dared so much as lift a blind to spy upon the miracle which was happening in the very heart of the town, heard the close tramp of iron shod feet, and the more daring may have seen the grey columns winding out through the outskirts of the town towards the west.
Here was the supreme effort which the Germans had hinted at, whispered about, and were now to see carried into triumphant effect.
The German artillery in full strength moved out, to make ready the way.
Great traction engines hauling the fat, clumsy howitzers on caterpillar wheels, puffed and tugged their unwieldy charges along the country roads, slipping and skidding on the strip of pavement which crowns the country roads of Belgium.
Landsturm regiments, stout, middle-aged, and a little breathless, went out left and right, proud of the task which had been set them—the task of supporting these grey invincibles who were to be hurled without warning upon the English trenches and were to crumble up the puny army which barred a way to the coast.
It was one of the great military events of the year—it might have been some grand fete to judge by the lines of grey motor cars which took the side roads to avoid hampering the advance of the troops. These cars carried illustrious passengers. Kings of smaller States, ministers of the Empire, great and favoured journalists ready to describe with vivid phrase and sonorous period the master-stroke of the War Machine.
Unconscious of the nature of the attack, the men in the British trenches sat sipping the inevitable mug of tea or pulling at the as inevitable cigarette. Shell and machine gun trained on the crest of the earthy defences worried them not at all. It was part of the day's work neither to be wondered at nor feared.
Then of a sudden the shelling increased in violence. It could have only one significance—an infantry attack was forming.
Behind the British line our artillery became frantically active. The air was filled with throbbing, whining sound as shell followed shell in its destructive flight.
There was little to be seen from the trenches. A grey mist shrouded all objects from the middle distance. It was upon the mist that the Prussian Guard, now deployed into line, depended for the completeness of its surprise.
The Guard moved forward silently in long, stiff lines. They might have been moving across the parade ground at Potsdam, so orderly was the advance.
The British, firing blindly into the mist, began to drop their men; the shrapnel of the artillery in the wood to our right began to search the line, which now showed as a grey phantom mass. The German artillery fire had ceased, the crucial moment of the struggle was now at hand.
Along the British trenches ran the order, "Pick off the flank men..." It was the grim technique of the slayer that worked the havoc.
Rifle and machine gun played upon the flank of the first line—it shrank as a paper burning at both ends will shrink—until there was only a knot of men in the centre. But the other lines came on . . . It was the bayonet now in the foremost trenches ... a whistle sounded and the field was alive with men in khaki, who hurled themselves forward at the advancing enemy. Back went the Prussians in disorder, to re-form and return again in the dark hours to avenge their defeat with no greater success. The heroism of the Guard found its counterpart in the magnificent courage of the outnumbered British.
The line of the German checked and broke a little, but the flanks swept on, leaving a swaying, battling group in the centre—a silent, desperately fighting confusion of yellow coat and grey. Along the whole line the trenches were flinging fiery defiance at the attacked; trench after trench sent men bayoneted—rifle in hand—to the carnival of slaughter.
The Prussian Guard, shattered but undaunted, pressed through the trench line and gained the wood on the left.
Here was a heavy battery and a field battery, but the flower of the German Army, nothing daunted, swept up to the very guns.
For a moment it seemed that the guns were in danger, but every man of the battery, the cook, the scribe, the very trumpeter, came out to form a defending line, and the batteries, aiming point blank, carved lanes through the stiff mass of the enemy. Even whilst this desperate fight in the wood was in progress- -a fight in which the Guard battled to the last, the bulk of their comrades, decimated and beaten, were moving back under a terrific shell and rifle fire to the security of their own lines.
And this is what the German Staff saw, who came out to witness the crushing of the thin khaki line—a sorry wreck of a division which came back with half its strength, sullen, defeated men who had essayed the impossible. This they recognised, for when they had been re-formed for a new attack they had said "Nein" to "Vorwärts!"
Once again the British Army had evidenced its marvellous fighting power against terribly heavy odds, and never did our soldiers better deserve the tribute they won from their Commander.
"I fully realised the difficult task which lay before us, and the onerous role which the British Army was called upon to fulfil.
"That success has been attained, and all the enemy's desperate attempts to break through our line frustrated, is due entirely to the marvellous fighting power and the indomitable courage and tenacity of officers, non- commissioned officers, and men.
"No more arduous task has ever been assigned to British soldiers; and in all their splendid history there is no instance of their having answered so magnificently to the desperate calls which have been made upon them.
"The courage, tenacity, endurance, and cheerfulness of the men are beyond all praise."
This then was the end of the second phase, the effort to hack a way through to the coast. It culminated in the terrific attempt of the Prussian Guard to do what every other German Corps had failed to. It was failure again.
The growl of the passing storm was still heard for a few weeks more, but its fierce intensity died away, and men on both sides exhausted by the effort glowered from trench to trench—the one in sullen anger that his mighty sacrifices had been in vain, the other in triumph at his success. Well might that triumph be expressed, for against odds sometimes of four to one the British Army had thrown back the enemy and twice thwarted him in his dearest desire.
Summing up the situation at the end of November, the "Eye-Witness" wrote:- -
"On the 20th of November the thin khaki line in this quarter was finally relieved by the French, and our weary men vacated the battered trenches they had so gallantly held for a month.
"This, then, is the modification of the rô1e now being played by the British Army; its front has been considerably shortened by the extent taken over by the French, and has in addition been reinforced. The lull in activity of about a week in the operations, also, has enabled us to readjust our forces, strengthen their position, and to bring up reserves. There has, therefore, been a great general improvement in the conditions under which we are carrying on the fight; and the time has arrived when it becomes possible— for the first time—without danger of giving away information that might enlighten and encourage the enemy to refer to what our troops have done in one quarter of the small portion of the whole battle line which they have been holding, and to explain broadly why the stand made by them during the month after the 20th of October, 1914, forms one of the most glorious chapters in our military history.
Special attention is drawn to this quarter of our front because it was that most highly tried.
"It may be that the story of that month will never be fully told. Many of those who could have supplied essential details are dead, and the nature of the fighting was such as to preclude any chance of careful records being kept. But it can be said that the dogged pluck of the troops and the individual acts of gallantry and devotion on the part of regimental officers and men again and again retrieved a situation that was at times critical; and that it has been due solely to their resource, initiative, and endurance that success has lain with us.
"As the struggle swayed backwards and forwards through wood and hamlet, the fighting assumed a most confused and desperate character. Units became inextricably mixed, and in many cases, in order to strengthen some threatened point or fill a gap in the line, officers had to collect and throw into the fight what men they could, regardless of the units to which they belonged. In one trench a subaltern was perhaps in charge of a detachment composed of Scotch, Irish, and English regiments. Here, a brigadier commanded a few companies. There, another has been in control of a division. One officer of that rank at one time had 13 battalions under his command which were much below strength owing to casualties and the disintegration inseparable from hand-to- hand fighting.
"Our casualties have been severe, but we have been fighting a battle, and a battle implies casualties. And heavy as they have been, it must be remembered that they have not been suffered in vain. The duty of the French, Belgians, and British in the Western theatre of operations has been to act as a containing force, in other words, to hold on to and to keep occupied as many of the enemy as possible whilst the Russians were attacking in the East. In this we have succeeded in playing our part, and by our resistance have contributed materially towards the success of the campaign. Moreover, our losses have not impaired our fighting efficiency. The troops have required only a slight respite in order to be able to continue the action with as much determination as ever. They are physically fit and well fed, and have suffered merely from the fatigue inseparable from a protracted struggle such as they have been through. The severest handling by the enemy has never had more than a temporary effect on their spirits, which have soon recovered owing to the years of discipline and training to which officers and men have been accustomed.
"The value of such preparation is as noticeable on the side of the enemy as on our own. The phenomenal losses suffered by the German new formations have been remarked, and they were in part due to their lack of training. Moreover, though at the onset these formations advanced to the attack as bravely as their active corps, they have not by any means shown the same recuperative power. The XXVIIth Corps, for instance, which is a new formation composed principally of men with only from seven to twelve weeks' training, has not yet recovered from its first encounter with British infantry round Becelaere, to the north-east of Ypres, a month ago. On the other hand, the Guard Corps, in spite of having suffered severely in Belgium, of having been thrown headlong across the Oise at Guise, and of having lost large numbers on the plains of Champagne, and on the banks of the Aisne, advanced against Ypres on the 11th of November as bravely as they did on the 20th of August.
"It is well that the services of those who he dead on the slopes and in the woods along the Franco-Belgian frontier should be realised, even though the realisation of their performances must at present of necessity be imperfect. Theirs it has been to defend against tremendous odds a line that could only be maintained if they were prepared to undergo great sacrifice. And that they have done."
The following is the text of the despatch of Field-Marshal Sir John French relating to the operations of the Naval Division at Antwerp, and covering a despatch from Major-General Paris, who was the General Officer Commanding-in- Chief of the Royal Naval Division.
From Sir. J. D. P. French, Field-Marshal, Commanding-in-Chief, to the Secretary of the Admiralty.
In forwarding this report to the Army Council at the request of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, I have to state that, from a comprehensive review of all the circumstances, the force of Marines and Naval Brigades which assisted in the defence of Antwerp was handled by General Paris with great skill and boldness.
Although the results did not include the actual saving of the fortress, the action of the force under General Paris certainly delayed the enemy for a considerable time, and assisted the Belgian Army to be withdrawn in a condition to enable it to reorganise and refit, and regain its value as a fighting force. The destruction of war material and ammunition—which, but for the intervention of this force, would have proved of great value to the enemy—was thus able to be carried out.
The assistance which the Belgian Army has rendered throughout the subsequent course of the operation on the canal and the Yser river has been a valuable asset to the Allied cause, and such help must be regarded as an outcome of the intervention of General Paris's force. I am further of opinion that the moral effect produced on the minds of the Belgian Army by this necessarily desperate attempt to bring them succour, before it was too late, has been of great value to their use and efficiency as a fighting force.
J. D. P. French, Field-Marshal, Commanding-in-Chief.
From Major-General A. Paris, C.B., Commanding Royal Naval Division, to the Secretary of the Admiralty.
Oct. 31, 1914.
Regarding the operations round Antwerp from October 3 to 9, I have the honour to report as follows:—
The brigade (2,200 all ranks) reached Antwerp during the night October 3-4, and early on the 4th occupied, with the 7th Belgian Regiment, the trenches facing Lierre, with advanced post on the River Nethe, relieving some exhausted Belgian troops.
The outer forts on this front had already fallen, and bombardment of the trenches was in progress. This increased in violence during the night and early morning of October 5, when the advanced posts were driven in and the enemy effected a crossing of the river, which was not under fire from the trenches.
About midday the 7th Belgian Regiment was forced to retire, thus exposing my right flank. A vigorous counter-attack, gallantly led by Colonel Tierchon, 2nd Chasseurs, assisted by our aeroplanes, restored the position late in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, an attempt made by the Belgian troops during the night (October 5-6) to drive the enemy across the river failed, and resulted in the evacuation of practically the whole of the Belgian trenches.
The few troops now capable of another counterattack were unable to make any impression, and the position of the Marine Brigade became untenable.
The bombardment, too, was very violent, but the retirement of the brigade was well carried out, and soon after midday (October 6) an intermediate position, which had been hastily prepared, was occupied.
The two Naval Brigades reached Antwerp during the night October 5-6. The 1st Brigade moved out in the afternoon of the 5th to assist the withdrawal to the main second line of defence.
The retirement was carried out during the night, October 6-7, without opposition, and the Naval Division occupied the intervals between the forts on the second line of defence.
The bombardment of the town, forts, and trenches began at midnight, October 7-8, and continued with increasing intensity until the evacuation of the fortress.
As the water supply had been cut, no attempt could be made to subdue the flames, and soon 100 houses were burning. Fortunately there was no wind, or the whole town and bridges must have been destroyed.
During the day (October 8) it appeared evident that the Belgian Army could not hold the forts any longer. About 5.30 p.m. I considered that if the Naval Division was to avoid disaster an immediate retirement under cover of darkness was necessary. General De Guise, the Belgian Commander, was in complete agreement. He was most chivalrous and gallant, insisting on giving orders that the roads and bridges were to be cleared for the passage of the British troops.
The retirement began about 7.30 p.m., and was carried out under very difficult conditions.
The enemy were reported in force (a division plus a reserve brigade) on our immediate line of retreat, rendering necessary a detour of fifteen miles to the north.
All the roads were crowded with Belgian troops, refugees, herds of cattle, and all kinds of vehicles, making inter-communication a practical impossibility. Partly for these reasons, partly on account of fatigue, and partly from at present unexplained causes large numbers of the 1st Naval Brigade became detached, and I regret to say are either prisoners or interned in Holland.
Marching all night (October 8 to 9), one battalion of 1st Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, and Royal Marine Brigade, less one battalion, entrained at St. Gillies Waes, and effected their retreat without further incident.
The Battalion (Royal Marine Brigade) Rear Guard of the whole force also entrained late in the afternoon together with many hundreds of refugees, but at Morbeke the line was cut, the engine derailed, and the enemy opened fire.
There was considerable confusion. It was dark, and the agitation of the refugees made it difficult to pass any orders. However, the battalion behaved admirably, and succeeded in fighting its way through, but with a loss in missing of more than half its number. They then marched another ten miles to Selzaate and entrained there.
Colonel Seely and Colonel Bridges were not part of my command, but they rendered most skilful and helpful services during the evacuation.
I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,
A. Paris, Major-General, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief.
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