London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Fighting at Kruiseik in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE FIGHTING AT KRUISEIK

While four of the Guards' battalions were thus pushing their way through the Polygon wood near Reutel, the two Guards' battalions in the 20th Brigade were enacting a small drama of their own at the village of Kruiseik, south of the Menin road. Here two companies of the Scots Guards, and the King's Company, 1st Grenadiers, had been posted in some advance trenches east of the village in the direction of the country road running from the village of Vieux Chien to Werwick. About 8.30 at night these advance trenches were attempted by peculiarly German methods. Through the intense darkness that reigned that night, and through the torrential rain, the enemy crept up close to our lines with the aid of every device known to twentieth century warfare. Some said they had come to surrender, others said they were the S. Staffords, and others again called appealingly for Captain Paynter, who was, in actual fact, in command of the right-hand of the two Scots Guards companies. That officer's response, however, took the form of a well-directed fire, and the friendly inquirers departed with some haste. Lord Claud Hamilton (1st Grenadiers), who was in charge of the machine-gun section, was also undeceived by the friendliness of the visitors, and his maxims contributed to the haste of their departure. This officer had now been seven days and nights, unrelieved, in the machine-gun trenches, and the coolness and resource which he displayed during that period gained for him the D.S.O. He was relieved early on the morning following this night attack by an officer of the Scots Guards, who was killed the same day.

The inhospitable reception of the enemy above described made the night attack a distinct failure as far as Captain Paynter's company was concerned. The left-hand trenches were less fortunate. It may be that they were more unsuspecting, or perhaps the British accent of the figures advancing through the darkness was purer on the left than on the right. In any event a report reached the battalion headquarters in rear about nine o'clock that these trenches had been rushed and all the occupants killed. On receipt of this news the two reserve companies of the Scots Guards were sent up under Major the Hon. H. Fraser to investigate, and if necessary to retake the lost trenches. These two companies filed silently through the main street of Kruiseik, keeping close under the shadow of the houses on either side. Not a light was burning, and not a sound was to be heard.

At the far end of the village Major Fraser halted the column, and went forward alone to try and get in touch with Captain Paynter in the right-hand forward trenches, and find out from him what the truth of the matter really was. He managed after a time to find that officer, who assured him that not only were his own trenches still uncaptured, but that he had every intention of keeping them so. As to the trenches on his left he knew nothing. With this information Major Fraser made his way back to the east end of the village, where he had left his men. He decided to investigate for himself the truth as to the left-hand trenches, and, accordingly, accompanied by Lieut. Holbeche, in the capacity of guide, and forty men, he crept down the cinder track which led from the road to the trenches in question. The trenches were in absolute silence, and he was beginning to doubt the story of their occupation, when suddenly a flashlight was turned on to his party, a word of command rang out, and a volley broke the stillness of the night. Major Fraser gave the word to charge, and the little party dashed forward with fixed bayonets, but they were shot down before the trenches were reached. Major Fraser was killed and Lieut. Holbeche severely wounded, and of the whole party only four returned.

In the meanwhile the rest of the two companies which had been waiting at the end of the village street noticed a light in a house standing by itself in the fields. Lord Dalrymple and Captain Fox held a consultation and decided to surround it. When this was done, Sergt. Mitchell, with great courage, went up to the door and knocked. It was flung open and he was at once shot dead. The house, however, was well surrounded, and all within it were taken prisoners. They numbered over two hundred, including seven officers, and they were promptly sent to the rear under escort. Further back, however, the prisoners were transferred to the custody of some of the 2nd Queen's, and the Scots Guards escort rejoined the two companies at the end of the village, whereupon the lost trenches were attacked and re-captured, and connection once more established with Captain Paynter. [8] This was not effected without considerable further loss. In addition to those already mentioned, Lieuts. Gladwin and Dormer were killed, and Col. Bolton, Lord Dalrymple, Captain Fox, Lord G. Grosvenor, and the Hon. J. Coke were all wounded, and, in the darkness of the night, fell into the enemy's hands. The 2nd Scots Guards in all lost nine officers during this night's fighting. On the following day the battalion was ordered to abandon the Kruiseik trenches, and was taken back into reserve, mustering only 450.

The withdrawal of the 2nd Scots Guards from the trenches east of Kruiseik, which it had cost them so dearly to hold, marks the first step in our retirement from the advanced position we had taken up, following the forward movement of October 19th, and consequently the first step in the straightening out of the salient bulge. They were not replaced, and this ground passed permanently out of our hands.

The King's Company, 1st Grenadiers, which, it will be remembered, were also posted in the advance trenches east of Kruiseik, by some means failed to receive the order to withdraw, with the result that, on the afternoon of the 26th, they found themselves absolutely isolated, and cut off from their army by the better part of half a mile. The position, on the face of it, appeared absolutely hopeless, as the Germans were by this time in occupation of the village of Kruiseik itself. However, as the Guards, like the Samurai, do not surrender while yet unwounded, they faced the situation, and actually fought their way back through the main street of the village. The Germans had machine-guns in the windows of the houses, but for once in a way these weapons were less effective than usual, and in the evening the company rejoined its battalion, considerably thinned in numbers, but triumphant. Lieut. Somerset was the only officer killed during this retirement.

The night of the 25th was a bad one in every way for the 20th Brigade, and the wastage of life owing to the darkness, and the rain, and the impossibility of distinguishing friend from foe, is not good to think upon. Here is another instance.

The 1st S. Staffords were attached for the moment to the 20th Brigade, to which brigade they were acting reserve. Before the Scots Guards had recovered the lost trenches, that is to say, while these and the buildings in rear of them were still in the occupation of the enemy, Captain Ransford was ordered up with a platoon of the S. Staffords to reinforce the firing line. In carrying out this order he came under fire both from the Germans in front and from our own troops in rear, and the whole detachment was practically wiped out. Captain Ransford himself, with great courage, went forward alone through the impenetrable darkness to try and sift the position, and discover who was who, but he fell in the attempt and was seen no more. There is consolation in the probability that losses owing to mistaken identity were not confined to our side.

The 1st S. Staffords during the confused and sanguinary fighting of these two days, that is to say, the 25th and 26th, lost 13 officers and 440 rank and file. As has so often happened in this war, the battalion in reserve was called upon for much of the most strenuous work, and in this particular case the S. Staffords had at one time or another to support each of the four units of the 20th Brigade. Much of this work was of a particularly difficult and dangerous nature, and in the darkness and confusion that prevailed the various units were apt at times to get very greatly mixed up, and to lapse into the condition of sheep without any accredited shepherd.

At one very critical moment in the ebb and flow of battle, it happened that the C.O., Col. Ovens, who was at the time in an advanced position with two companies of the S. Staffords, noticed a mob of some 300 men of these mixed units retiring on his left. He sent off Captain White, the Quarter-Master of the regiment, to find out the cause. The reply was that an order had been received to retire. Captain White—suspecting German methods, or, at any rate, suspecting that the order originated with someone who was interested in its fulfilment—by super-human efforts succeeded in rallying the men and leading them back into the firing line, an act which beyond any question had a marked effect on the fortunes of the day, or, rather, of the night.

The desperate fighting of this period at and around Kruiseik will always be associated with the 20th Brigade. The other two brigades in the 7th Division were shifted about, as occasion required, to various points between Zonnebeke and Zandvoorde; but from October 19th to the 29th, the 20th Brigade operated at Kruiseik alone. The gradual annihilation of this splendid brigade—possibly the finest in the whole army—forms a story which is no less stirring than it is tragic. The tragedy is obvious, but it is relieved by the thought of the superb devotion of each of the battalions that formed the command of General Ruggles-Brise. Each battalion, in its own allotted sphere, fought to a finish. Each battalion in its turn furnished an example of unflinching heroism which is an epic in itself. They not only fought till there were no more left to fight, but they fought up to the very end with success. It must have been a consolation to their gallant Brigadier, when in the end he was carried off the field with a shattered thigh, to feel that he had survived long enough to share in a glory which will never be excelled.

The worst sufferer in the early days of the Kruiseik fighting was the 2nd Battalion of the Border Regiment. The experiences of this regiment are of the highest interest, as being typical of the hold-on-at-all-costs spirit which animated the British force during the period of the German advance, and which was responsible for the miscarriage of all the desperate efforts of the enemy to break through. On October 22nd the battalion was posted along the road from Zandvoorde, at the point where it cuts the Kruiseik—Werwick road. Their trenches formed an ugly salient, which was commanded on three sides by the enemy's artillery, and at which particularly accurate practice could be, and was, made by the German batteries posted on the America ridge, about a mile to the south-east. Their instructions were to hold on to these trenches at all costs till relieved. They did hold on, and on the 27th they were relieved—at least, those of them that were left. Their relaxation during those six days consisted in counting the shells directed at them, and speculating as to the accuracy of the next shot. The constant prayer of every officer and man was for an infantry attack of some sort—German or British. The prayer was not answered. Their orders were to hold on at all costs till relieved. They were not relieved, so they held on. On the 24th, 25th and 26th the shells fell in or around their trenches at the rate of two per minute from dawn till dark. Their casualties from this shell-fire averaged 150 a day and the enemy's guns fired unchallenged and unmolested by our own artillery. In those days the numerical superiority of the German artillery was overwhelming, and, as an inevitable consequence, our infantry afforded them passive but diminishing targets. In the case of the Border Regiment the target diminished rapidly. On the 23rd Captain Gordon and 2nd Lieut. Clancy were killed; on the 25th Major Allen and Lieut. Warren were killed, and Lieut. Clegg wounded; on the 26th Captain Lees, Captain Cholmondeley, Captain Andrews and Lieut. Surtees were killed, and Major Bosanquet and Lieut. Bevis were wounded. On the 27th the 300 men that remained were relieved—for the moment.

On the afternoon of the 26th the pressure against this battalion became so severe, and their casualties were so high, that at two o'clock General Kavanagh was ordered to make a demonstration with the 7th Cavalry Brigade in the direction of Zandvoorde, with a view to diverting some of the pressure. The 1st Life Guards were already in occupation of the Zandvoorde trenches, and the demonstration was entrusted to the Blues, who were, at the time, the reserve regiment to the brigade. The Blues were at Klein Zillebeke when the order arrived, and they at once got mounted and galloped along the road that connects that place with Zandvoorde. Lord Alastair Ker's squadron, which was leading, rode right through the 1st Life Guards trenches, and, turning to the right at the top of the ridge, dismounted and opened fire. Their squadron immediately came under a heavy fire and its casualties were considerable. In the meanwhile the other two squadrons of the Blues (Captain Brassey's and Captain Harrison's), dismounted behind the Life Guards, and advanced to the top of the ridge on foot, supporting the fire of the leading squadron. The demonstration was kept up till darkness fell, when the regiment, having carried out its orders with complete success, retired to a château between Klein Zillebeke and Hollebeke, where it billeted for the night. Lord Alastair Ker and Trooper Nevin were both decorated for their gallantry on this occasion.

The continuation of the Zandvoorde trenches further south was still in the occupation of the 10th Hussars. These were heavily shelled all through the day, and the casualties among their officers continued to be on a high scale, Sir F. Rose and Lieut. Turnor being killed, and Major Crichton wounded.

Footnotes


[8] Captain Paynter and Captain Fox got the D.S.O. for their share in the night's work.