London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Last of Kruisiek in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE LAST OF KRUISEIK

The next two days were days of comparative calm—the lull before the desperate storm which was preparing to break upon the British force. On the morning of the 27th, the 6th Brigade, on the left of our line, which had so successfully pushed forward its position on the 24th, made a still further advance, the 1st King's Royal Rifles (60th) on this occasion being the left-hand battalion, with the 1st S. Staffords on its right. The 1st Berks and the King's Regiment were in support. The movement was again a complete success, the brigade advancing as far as the Paschendael—Becelaere road and occupying the crest of the ridge along which this road runs. Here the King's Royal Rifles (60th) came under a very heavy shell-fire, and Prince Maurice of Battenberg and Captain Wells were killed, Captain Willis, Captain Llewellyn and 2nd Lieuts. Hone and Sweeting being wounded at the same time. The ground gained was, however, successfully held for the time being. The effect of this advance was to give a slightly concave formation to the eastern face of the Ypres salient, the two extremities now projecting beyond the centre trenches in the Polygon wood. This curious formation, however, was very temporary, both of the horns so formed having shortly to withdraw. The withdrawal of the southern horn was begun on the night of the 26th, during the events already narrated. We may now consider the subsequent events which led to its complete disappearance.

In the very small hours of the same morning on which the 6th Brigade advanced—before daylight, in fact—the 1st Scots Guards marched down the Menin road to resume its place in the 1st Brigade. At Gheluvelt the battalion deployed to the north of the road, and at once came under the blind shell-fire which ceased not night or day in this particular area. Captain Hamilton and Captain Balfour were killed, and Lieuts. Wickham and Roberts wounded. The battalion, however, worked its way up to its position on the left of the 1st Coldstream, and there awaited events. How dramatic those events were destined to prove was little suspected at the time.

A few hours later the 20th Brigade, returning from its one night's rest in the outskirts of Ypres, followed them down the same road, and filed into the shelter-trenches south of the road. Here they stayed till 5 p.m. on the 28th, when they continued their march down the high road through Gheluvelt, and took over the trenches just west and south of the Kruiseik cross-roads.

Here for the moment we may leave them in order to take a glance at the general situation.

The day which followed, that is to say October 29th, was the first of the five days during which the Kaiser was present in person with his troops opposite Ypres. He had arrived with the avowed intention of stimulating the army to one supreme, irresistible effort which would carry all before it, and open the coveted road to Calais to the mass of troops now concentrated at Roulers and Menin.

The occasion was signalized on the morning of the 29th by a grand assault along and on each side of the Menin road. This broad highroad was the most direct and obvious route to Ypres, and the Germans—as their way is—went straight for the shortest cut. There was no secret about the enterprise; it was, in fact, known among all ranks of the British Army, and even published in some of the general orders of the evening before, that the XXVII. German Reserve Corps would attack Kruiseik and Zandvoorde at 5.30 a.m. on the 29th.

In the light of this general knowledge, subsequent events are not wholly easy to understand. The attack came at the very hour which had been announced, and—as far as Kruiseik was concerned—at the very spot. Zandvoorde, as a matter of fact, was not implicated, and so can be left out of the discussion.

At Kruiseik our line of defence was just in rear of the cross-roads, about a quarter of a mile nearer Ypres than it had been on the 26th. The six regiments in the front line which came in the path of the attack were the 1st Grenadiers, 2nd Gordons and 2nd Scots Fusiliers south of the road, and the Black Watch, 1st Coldstream and 1st Scots Guards to the north of it. In reserve were the 2nd Scots Guards and the Border Regiment, the latter being in Gheluvelt, the former to the south of it.

At 5.30 then, with true military punctuality, the Germans made their advance under cover of a thick fog, and, as subsequent events proved, succeeded in getting past and behind our first line without opposition. It is said that they marched in column of fours straight down the main Menin road, which, for some reason only known to staff officers, does not appear to have been in the charge of any of the first line troops.

However that may be, the fact remains that the Germans did get past, without a shot being fired from either side, and established their machine-guns in the houses along the roadside in rear; with the result that the regiments next the road suddenly found themselves, without any warning, assailed by a murderous machine-gun fire from both rear and flank. To add to the unpleasantness of the situation, they were at the same time vigorously shelled by our own artillery. Under this combined attack the 1st Grenadiers next the road on the south side suffered very severely. Colonel Earle was wounded almost at the first discharge, and Major Stucley, who then took over command, was killed within a short interval. Owing to the thickness of the fog it was a matter of great difficulty to locate the enemy with any degree of accuracy, or to return a fire which appeared to come from the direction of our own reserves. Captain Rasch, who was now in command, accordingly decided to withdraw the battalion into the woods to the south, leaving the enemy to continue their fusilade at the empty trenches. With them went the left flank company of the Gordons, under Captain Burnett. "C" Company of the Gordons, which was on the right of Captain Burnett's company, was comparatively clear of the fire from the rear, and did not withdraw with the others. The subsequent exploits of this company were most remarkable, and will be described later on.

The fog now suddenly lifted, the sun came through, and the situation became comparatively clear to both sides. The Germans ceased their fusilade from behind at the empty trenches, and began to press southwards from the road, and westward from the direction of Menin, in great numbers. To meet this new movement, the 1st Grenadiers and Captain Burnett's company of the Gordons formed up and charged, driving the enemy back to the road in considerable disorder. In the moment of victory, however, they were heavily enfiladed from the trenches recently occupied by Captain Burnett's company, and numbers fell. They were again forced to withdraw to the south, the enemy following close on their heels. Once more the Grenadiers and Gordons reformed, and once more they drove the enemy back to the road, only to be themselves again driven back by weight of numbers. It was at this moment that Lieut. Brooke, of the Gordon Highlanders, who had been sent from the right flank with a message, arrived on the scene and—seeing the overwhelming superiority in numbers of the enemy—hurriedly collected a handful of men from the rear (servants, cooks, orderlies, etc.), and led them forward in a gallant attempt to do something towards equalizing numbers. He and nearly all his men were killed, but he was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for his action.

In the meanwhile the Grenadiers were fighting to a finish. Refusing to be beaten or to give way, they fought up to the moment when the order arrived for them to retire to Gheluvelt. This was about 10 a.m. By that time 500 out of the 650 men who had gone into action had fallen, and out of the sixteen officers only four were left. No. 4 Company—the heroes of the successful charge on the 24th—alone lost 200 men, or, in other words, were wiped out.

Of the officers, Major Stucley, Captain Rennie, Lord R. Wellesley, the Hon. W. Forester and the Hon. A. Douglas-Pennant were killed, in addition to which Col. Earle, the Hon. C. Ponsonby, Lieuts. Lambert, Kenyon-Slaney and Powell were wounded. Lieut. Butt, the medical officer attached, was killed while dressing Col. Earle's wounds. The casualties of the Gordons were between two and three hundred.

While this had been going on south of the road, an almost identical state of things prevailed on the north side where were stationed the Black Watch and 1st Coldstream. These two battalions similarly found themselves, without any warning, mowed down in the fog by machine-gun fire from their rear and right flank. Gradually they too were forced back, fighting every yard of the way, but powerless to stem the masses of the enemy opposed to them. Both these battalions were practically annihilated. The 1st Coldstream battalion, in fact, may be said to have ceased to exist, for the time being, after this day. The remnant was shortly afterwards absorbed into the 2nd and 3rd Battalions. That remnant consisted of 180 rank and file; no officers and no senior N.C.O.

The right flank company of the 1st Scots Guards shared the fate of the two battalions on its right. It became isolated, was surrounded by masses of the enemy, and ceased to exist.

At 11 a.m. the 2nd Scots Fusiliers, who had been on the right of the Gordons, and just outside of the pressure of the first attack, had in their turn to fall back, Col. Uniacke with two companies of the Gordons going forward again to aid them in their retirement.

About noon things were looking pretty serious; the Germans were pressing on towards Gheluvelt in great numbers, both on the main road itself and to the north and south of it, and it seemed doubtful whether their impetus could be checked.

At this critical moment, a succession of incidents, small in themselves, but powerful as a combination, brought about a marked change in the fortunes of the day. It has already been mentioned that "C" Company of the Gordons, under Captain R. S. Gordon, had remained throughout the morning in its original trenches, the order to retire not having reached it. Curiously enough, another small detachment to its right was in a very similar position. This detachment consisted of a platoon of the 2nd Queen's, and about a hundred men of other units, under the command of Major Bottomley of the Queen's. The party had been sent forward to reinforce the 20th Brigade, and, at the time of the retirement, was in some dug-outs in a very advanced position on the high ground near Kruiseik. As in the case of "C" Company of the Gordons, the order to retire did not reach them, and they were left. Here then were two distinct and quite independent detachments, completely isolated, and cut off by a good half mile from the rest of the brigade. It seemed as though their destruction was a foregone conclusion. In the event, however, not only were they not destroyed, but they were able, from their unsuspected positions, to work very considerable havoc in the ranks of the enemy. It so happened that Major Bottomley's party contained an unusual number of marksmen, including Lieut. Wilson of the 2nd Queen's. These—quite regardless of their own perilous position, or of the fire which they were sure to draw upon themselves by their action—now laid themselves out to take advantage of their advanced position to pick off the Germans to right and left. The very audacity of the proceeding proved their saving, the enemy finding it very hard to properly locate a fire which seemed to come from their very midst. There was, however, some retaliation, and Lieut. Wilson was eventually shot through the head and killed.

It cannot well be claimed that sniping such as this—however effective—had any appreciable influence on the tide of battle, but this claim can be justly made in the case of "C" Company of the 2nd Gordons. This company's presence was equally unsuspected by the enemy, and, soon after midday, a German battalion proceeded to mass in close column within 300 yards of its position. Such a target was of course unmissable, and within five minutes the German battalion was annihilated, 850 dead and wounded being afterwards found on the spot where it had concentrated.

It is satisfactory to be able to record that both these gallant detachments successfully withdrew. Captain Gordon remained in his position till dusk, when, by exercising great care, he succeeded in rejoining his battalion. Major Bottomley actually remained in his position till the night of the following day, i.e., the 30th, when he succeeded in safely extricating his party from their perilous position—a truly astonishing performance in view of the fact that the Germans were not only round him, but were in actual occupation of the trenches to right and left.

While this was taking place south of the road, the 1st Scots Guards, north of the road, were gradually bringing about a change in the aspect of the fight. It will be remembered that the two battalions between them and the road, viz., the Black Watch and 1st Coldstream, had been engulfed and overwhelmed in the German advance, a fate which had also overtaken Captain de la Pasture's company of the 1st Scots Guards, which was on the right of that battalion. In this crisis—for it was undoubtedly an extremely critical moment—Captain Stephen, with a quick grasp of the situation, brought up the reserve company of the Scots Guards, together with some stragglers from the 1st Coldstream who had escaped the carnage on the right. Facing his command half right, he proceeded to pour volley after volley into the flank of the Germans pressing forward between him and the road. Some of the Germans turned to face this new attack, but the Guardsmen, fighting with superb courage, held them off throughout the afternoon. During this memorable performance on the part of Captain Stephen's company, the company commander himself and Sir G. Ogilvy were killed, and the Hon. G. Macdonald and Sir V. Mackenzie wounded. The 1st Scots Guards had now lost 10 officers and 370 men since they had marched down the Menin road two days before. [9] The battalion received great praise in high quarters for the part it had played at this critical moment in the fortunes of the day, and there can be little doubt that the tremendous losses they had inflicted on the enemy had appreciably checked the German advance.

Captain Gordon's attack had taken the enemy on the left flank, and Captain Stephen's on the right flank. They were yet to meet a still more severe check from in front. In partial reserve on the hill on which Gheluvelt stands, were detachments of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, 2nd Scots Guards, 2nd Queen's, S. Wales Borderers and the Border Regiment. It was about midday when the Germans, having forced their way as described through the regiments next the Menin road, began pushing forward towards Gheluvelt, the main body marching in column of fours along the road from Gheluvelt itself, where the main road passes through the village, the head of the advancing column was out of sight, owing to a bend in the road at the foot of the hill. Captain Watson, however, who was in charge of the machine-gun section of the Border Regiment, managed to get a couple of maxims through a ploughed field into some turnips on the north slope of the hill. From here there was a clear view of the road stretching away to Kruiseik, with the head of the German column about 1,200 yards distant. On to this column both machine-guns were now trained. The position was ideal for working execution on the enemy, but it was in no way entrenched, and fully exposed to the enemy's fire. The head of the enemy's column was soon knocked to pieces, and, on the other hand, one of the Border Regiment machine-guns was knocked out, but the other kept going till all the ammunition was expended. In the meanwhile the German infantry advancing south of the road had become visible to the several detachments afore-mentioned, of whom Major Craufurd of the Gordons had assumed temporary command, and these now opened a galling fire on the advancing ranks, which they succeeded in throwing into considerable confusion.

This moment proved the turning-point in the day's battle. The frontal fire from the Border Regiment's machine-guns and the above-named detachments, coupled with the enfilading fire from the 1st Scots Guards to the north of the road, brought the advancing force to a standstill, which—when the reserves from Gheluvelt were advanced—quickly developed into a retreat. The Germans fell back to Kruiseik, which they occupied, and which from this date on remained in their hands. The 3rd Brigade was brought forward to occupy the place of the Black Watch and 1st Coldstream north of the road, the 1st Scots Guards and the Camerons retaining their original morning position.

This battle of the Kruiseik cross-roads had cost us very dear, some of the finest battalions in the British Army being practically annihilated, but there can be no question but that the losses of the attacking forces were incomparably greater. It must be borne in mind that the British forces which actually took part in this fight numbered at the outside 5,000, while the attacking force consisted of an entire Army Corps, that is to say, approximately, 24,000 infantry.

It may be interesting at this point, at the risk of forestalling matters a little, to explain the gradual process of retirement by which our line was straightened, and the bulge eliminated from our defensive position. It is less easy to explain why the process was so gradual. We may take our furthest advance east to have been on the 19th. On that date the 22nd Brigade pushed forward as far as the Roulers-Menin railway. There, however, they encountered very strong opposition, and withdrew to Zonnebeke—a distance of six miles—on the same day. The 20th Brigade, however, did not take part in this retirement, and entrenched themselves at the point to which they had advanced, east of Kruiseik.

On the 24th the 6th Brigade made a second advance south of the Zonnebeke road; and on the following day the Guards' Brigade fought its way up into line on the right of the 6th Brigade, while the 5th and 1st Brigades filled the gap between the Guards' Brigade and the 20th Brigade at Kruiseik. These several advances resulted in a line of defence which jutted out from Zonnebeke to Reutel, and then—after passing east of Kruiseik and Zandvoorde—fell back quite suddenly, and in an all but straight line, to Klein Zillebeke. Klein Zillebeke, and Zonnebeke, then, were the starting-points to north and south of the bulge, and it is significant that these two points have never been lost; nor has our ultimate middle-of-November line, which ran along the high ridge connecting these two places, ever been forced. But till this obvious line of defence was reached, we lost ground on each occasion that the enemy attacked in force.

On the 26th we were driven back from east of Kruiseik to a position west of Kruiseik; on the 29th we lost Kruiseik and were driven back to Gheluvelt; on the 30th we lost Zandvoorde; and on the 31st we lost Gheluvelt, and were driven back to a new position nearer Veldhoek. On November 2nd we were driven from this position, and our line was retired another 300 yards towards Hooge. Here it remained till November 11th, when the Prussian Guard captured this position, but was unable to drive us from the Veldhoek ridge. This ridge has, from that date to the present moment, proved the ne plus ultra of German advance, and it is fairly safe to predict that it will so remain to the end, unless voluntarily relinquished for sanitary or strategic reasons. This in itself is a cause for congratulation and even triumph, but not so is the thought of the many good men who laid down their lives between Kruiseik and Veldhoek in the defence of the indefensible.

In reckoning up these successive retirements from the point of view of military failure or success, or from the, perhaps, more interesting point of view of the relative fighting merits of those who retired and those who advanced, it is well to realize, from the start, the tremendous disparity in numbers and freshness of the opposing forces. The British commanders had, throughout this defence of Ypres, to ring the changes, as between reserve and firing line, with battalions, and sometimes even with companies. The German commanders could afford to do it with Army Corps.

Day after day, the same British battalions, jaded, depleted of officers, and gradually dwindling into mere skeletons, were called upon to withstand the attacks of fresh and fresh troops. It was not merely that the Germans had the superiority in numbers on each occasion when they attacked. This, of course, must always be the privilege of the attacking side; but they had also the unspeakable advantage of being able at any time to direct a stream of fresh troops against any given part of our thin, weary, battered line. Thus on October 29th the XXVII. Reserve Corps attacked Kruiseik; on the 30th the XV. Army Corps attacked Zandvoorde; on October 31st and November 1st we had the XIII., XXIV., and II. Bavarian Corps attacking the line from the Menin road to Messines, to which on November 2nd must be added the XXVI. Army Corps. By this time, however, the 16th French Army had come up, and did something towards equalizing matters.

But again on November 11th, fifteen fresh battalions of the Prussian Guard were brought up, and all that Sir Douglas Haig had to put in their path were the remnants of the same unconquerable battalions that had now been fighting, without intermission, for close on three months.