London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Manoeuvring Westward in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

MANOEUVRING WESTWARD

General Foch, with his Head Quarters at Doulens, at this time commanded all the French troops north of Noyon, and the Flanders plan of campaign was arranged between him and the Commander in Chief as follows: The 2nd Army Corp was to occupy the canal line from Aire to Béthune, and the 3rd Army Corp on arrival was to extend that line northward. The road running from Béthune to Lille was to be the dividing line between French and British, and the aim of the British force was to be to wheel to the right and so menace the flank of the Germans facing the 21st French Army Corps under General Maistre. The 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division from Belgium were to co-operate in this general wheeling movement as circumstances permitted.

This scheme, as things turned out, was destined to be entirely upset by the fall of Antwerp on October 9th. For the first week it worked admirably, and the cavalry patrols and infantry outposts opposed to us fell back—as had been anticipated—before our advance. Then German reinforcements began to come up. Four Army Corps were railed up from the eastern frontier, to which were presently added some 90,000 troops released by the fall of Antwerp.

However, before these things happened, we had made some progress from our original line in an attempt to carry out the formulated scheme. On October 11th the detrainment of the 2nd Army Corp was completed and Sir Horace moved his two divisions into position between Aire and Béthune. On October 12th the 3rd A.C, under General Pulteney, arrived at St. Omer and moved forward to Hazebrouck. The moment this Army Corps was in position Sir Horace made the first move in the contemplated sweep by pushing forward the 3rd Division, which was on the left of the 2nd A.C, with orders to cross the Lawe Canal, which the enemy was reported to be holding in force. The advance was carried out with but little serious opposition, except in the neighbourhood of the locks at Etroa, where the 2nd R. Scots in the 8th Brigade met with a stubborn resistance, in the course of which Lieut. Trotter was killed and Captain Croker (in command of the battalion) and Captain Heathcote badly wounded. The battalion, however, in spite of losses, continued to advance with great gallantry to the line of the canal, which Captain Tanner and Lieut. Cazenove, with the leading company, eventually succeeded in crossing by the lock-gates, an exploit for which the former received the D.S.O. and the latter the Military Cross. The defenders thereupon at once gave way, suffering heavily in their retirement from the rifle fire of the 4th Middlesex on the right.

On the following morning the 3rd Division advance was renewed, the brigade chiefly concerned being once again the 8th, in the centre. This brigade set out at 6.30, the Middlesex being on the right, the R. Scots in the centre, and the 1st Gordon Highlanders on the left.
The country was dead flat, and the advance very slow owing to the innumerable water-dykes with which the country is intersected and which could only be crossed by means of planks or ladders borrowed from the farms.

About midday the Middlesex captured the village of Croix Barbée and the R. Scots performed the same office by Pont de Hem, but shortly afterwards further advance was checked, the enemy being found in considerable force and strongly entrenched, and the country offering no sort of cover. The brigade, however, though unable to advance, refused to retire, and very fierce fighting ensued, in the course of which the enemy made two most determined counter-attacks, one on Lieut. Henderson's Company on the left of the R. Scots, and one on Captain Passy's Company on the left of the Middlesex line. Both these attacks were repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy, but the casualties on our side were also severe, Lieut. Henderson—who was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour for the great gallantry which he displayed throughout these operations—being badly wounded, and Captain Passy's Company being reduced to the dimensions of a platoon. By nightfall the R. Scots had lost, during the day, 9 officers and close on 400 men. Second-Lieuts. Hewitt, Kerr and Snead-Cox had been killed, and of Captain Morrison's Company all the officers and 175 rank and file had been either killed or wounded.
The losses in the Middlesex were almost as severe, Lieut. Coles, among others, being killed and Major Finch and Captain Passy severely wounded. Both battalions, however, maintained their ground with the utmost determination.

On the 14th some more of the actors in the approaching drama began to fall into their allotted places. The immortal 7th Division reached Ypres from Dixmude at midday and went into billets. The 3rd Cavalry Division arrived at the same time and from the same quarter, and split up, the 6th Cavalry Brigade going to Wytschate and the 7th Cavalry Brigade to Kemmel. The original Cavalry Brigades had now been re-organized, de Lisle taking over the 1st Division from Allenby, Gough retaining the second, and both divisions forming a "Cavalry Corps" under General Allenby. The 3rd Cavalry Division, on the other hand, had no part or parcel in this Cavalry Corps, being a separate and independent organization, under General the Hon. J. Byng.
During the day the Cavalry Corps captured the high ground above Béthune after some stiff fighting, while the 3rd Army Corp advanced and occupied Bailleul, which was found to be full of German wounded. The 9th Brigade on the left of the 3rd Division was still pushing ahead, but the 8th Brigade was found to have got too far in advance of the troops further north, who had the bigger sweep to make, and General Doran, the Brigadier, ordered the brigade to entrench where it was, the R. Irish Regiment under Major Daniell being brought up from reserve to fill the gaps made the previous day in the ranks of the 4th Middlesex and 2nd R. Scots.

Sir Hubert Hamilton, the Divisional General, shortly afterwards came along on foot to inspect the trenches, disregarding warnings as to the great danger he was running. He proceeded on foot down the Richebourg Road, which was swept by shell-fire, in company with Captain Strutt, commanding the R. Scots, and was almost immediately killed by a shell, Captain Strutt being at the same time rendered unconscious. The General's A.D.C., Captain Thorp, ran forward and knelt by Sir Hubert's body, trying to screen it from the shells which were now falling thickly on the road. Captain Strutt shortly afterwards recovered consciousness, but was almost immediately severely wounded by another shell, and the command of the R. Scots devolved on Lieut. Cazenove. This battalion had now lost 15 officers and over 500 men in the last three days' operations, but its casualties were to a certain extent repaired by the timely arrival of a draft of 180 men and several officers from home.

While the 3rd Division was thus pushing slowly ahead in the face of great natural difficulties, the 5th Division was being heavily engaged in the neighbourhood of Givenchy. Little forward progress was either asked for or expected from this division, the canal south of Givenchy having been, from the first, the selected pivot of the proposed wheeling movement. It was also a matter of common knowledge that the Germans were in far greater strength here than they were further north, the original idea of the wheeling movement having been, in fact, entirely based on the knowledge of the gradually diminishing strength of the German forces as they stretched northwards.

The first regiment to take a conspicuous part in the terrific fighting which for three weeks raged round Givenchy was the Dorsets. This was on the 13th, i.e., on the same day on which the 8th Brigade made its advance to Croix Barbée and Pont de Hem.
It was a miserable day, foggy and wet. The Dorsets were on the extreme right of our army, in a line of trenches on the low ground between Givenchy and the canal. The attack was pressed with great vigour by the enemy, and the 1st Bedfords, on the left of the Dorsets, were driven out of the village of Givenchy. The left flank of the Dorsets was now exposed to enfilading fire from the ridge on which Givenchy stands, and their position was distinctly precarious. Some of the left-hand trenches were all but surrounded, the enemy having pressed forward into the gap at Givenchy, and from thence bearing down on the flank of the Dorsets. That regiment, however, held on with the utmost tenacity and successfully defended its position against repeated and most determined attacks; but the position was distinctly critical, and it was felt to be essential that orders of some sort should be received from Brigade Head Quarters. The telephonic communication had unfortunately been cut and there was no means of getting a message through except by hand, which, in the circumstances, seemed an all but impossible undertaking. A private of the name of Coombs, however, volunteered to try, and on the outward voyage actually got through untouched, but on returning with the necessary orders he was shot clean through the chest, but continued running for another 200 yards till he had delivered his message.

The orders received were that the Dorsets were to hold on, and this they continued to do, and with such good results that about 10 a.m. a long line of Germans was seen advancing with hands up and a white flag. The Dorsets left their trenches to accept this surrender and were instantly raked from end to end by concealed machine-guns from beyond the canal. These machine-guns had evidently been trained on the Dorsets' position in anticipation of that which actually happened, proving beyond any question that the whole thing was one carefully thought-out piece of treachery. The Dorsets being got fairly in line, and fully exposed to the concentrated fire of several machine-guns, literally fell in hundreds. Major Roper was killed and Col. Bols was shot through the back and actually taken prisoner, but in the subsequent confusion he managed to crawl away and rejoin what was left of his battalion. The most unsatisfactory part of the whole affair was, that if the French Territorials on the south side of the canal, i.e., on the right of the Dorsets, had been where they ought to have been, that which happened never could have happened; but instead of being up in line, for some unexplained reason they were a quarter of a mile behind.
The loss, however, was limited—as a loss—to the treacherous massacre of several hundred gallant men, and the capture of two of the supporting guns. The Gunners, as usual, behaved with the utmost gallantry, but they too came under the same enfilading fire as the Dorsets and every man of the detachment except Captain Boscawen fell either killed or wounded. Two of the guns were captured, but, with this, the material advantage gained by the enemy began and ended, for the 1st Cheshires were brought up from reserve and, with their co-operation, the morning's line was re-occupied. The Cheshires, however, themselves suffered considerably, among their casualties being their C.O., Col. Vandeleur, who was killed while leading the attack. [3]

On the 15th, as though in fury at the loss of their gallant General, the 3rd Division, now under the command of General Mackenzie, fought with a dash and determination which were irresistible. Their advance was continually checked by the country dykes, but, in spite of these hampering obstacles, the Germans were everywhere driven back with heavy loss. The 4th Middlesex and the 2nd R. Scots again did particularly good work, and, further north, in the 9th Brigade, the R. Fusiliers and the Northumberland Fusiliers gained high praise from the Army Corp Commander for the vigour and activity with which they pushed forward in the face of strong opposition.
Conneau's cavalry, filling the eight-mile gap between the two Army Corps, also made good progress, as did the 3rd Army Corp, on the left. In the case of the latter Army Corps the 6th Division succeeded in reaching Sailly without encountering serious opposition, while the 4th Division got as far as Nieppe. The 2nd Army Corp, in its attempt to wheel, had so far advanced its left flank three miles in the last four days at a cost of 90 officers and 2,000 men. It had, however, inflicted very heavy losses on the enemy.

On the 16th the 3rd Division continued the wheeling movement with little opposition till it reached the village of Aubers, which was found to be strongly held, and where it was brought up short.
So much for the present as regards the general movement forward of the four divisions of infantry working south of Le Gheir. The attempt to drive the enemy back was destined to prove abortive, but this was not generally recognized by October 17th, and the idea was still to push our troops forward. This general desire to advance soon communicated itself to the 15th Brigade, on the extreme right of the British line at Givenchy, which had so far been looked upon as the pivot on which the left was to sweep round, and on the morning of the 17th the brigade was ordered to push ahead. During the night of the 16th the 1st Devons had taken over the trenches just north of the canal in which the Dorsets had suffered such terrible casualties three days earlier. The 1st Bedfords were on their left, and on their right, of course, were the French Territorials south of the canal.

At 5 a.m. on the morning of the 17th a great bombardment was concentrated upon Givenchy, and the Germans were soon shelled out of that place, which had been in their possession since the 13th. A general advance was thereupon ordered.

As a precaution against the calamity which had overtaken the Dorsets, the Devons put one company on the south side of the canal. This company was in touch with the French Territorials—so long as these latter kept up in line, which, as it proved, was not for long. The advance was made under considerable difficulties, as the country afforded no natural cover, and the enemy was found to be in far greater force than had been anticipated. However, in spite of a most continued and stubborn resistance, the Devons, in obedience to orders, succeeded in advancing their position 1,000 yards, and held on there till dusk, waiting for the French Territorials on their right and the regiment on their left to come up into line. These, however, failed to arrive, and it soon became clear that for the Devons to remain isolated at the point to which they penetrated could only result in the capture of the entire battalion. Their retirement, however, in the circumstances, was a matter of extreme difficulty, the country being quite flat and entirely destitute of cover. The enemy were favoured by an exceptionally clear field for their fire, and all their attention was naturally focussed on the one battalion which had dared to push so far ahead. The men were sheltering as best they could in ditches and behind haystacks, of which there was fortunately a fair sprinkling. When the order came to retire some crept away under shelter of the hedges; others had not even this cover, and had to take their chance in the open.

One detachment of some forty men were sheltering behind a large haystack in the open. They were quickly located, and shrapnel and machine-gun fire was concentrated on the haystack, which soon began to dwindle under the hail of missiles. Lieut. Worrall, who was one of the party, thereupon set fire to the haystack, and told the men to make a bolt for it singly, under cover of the smoke. This they successfully did, and with few further casualties—all but Sergt. Harris and another man, who were wounded and could not move. The haystack was now beginning to blaze fiercely and it was clear the men could not be left. Lieut. Worrall picked up Sergt. Harris and carried him 400 yards across the open to the shelter of the canal bank, where he left him. Then he went back for the other man.

In the meanwhile the line further north was still making a certain progress. At Lorgies a party of the King's Own Scottish Borderers Cyclists, under Corpl. Wheeler, rode right into the enemy outposts. They promptly dismounted, and, opening fire, held the enemy for half an hour till the brigade (the 13th) arrived on the scene and captured the place. Still further north again Gen. Shaw and his 9th Brigade was as usual fairly active. About 4 p.m. the R. Scots Fusiliers and the Northumberland Fusiliers attacked and carried the village of Aubers with the bayonet, completely routing the occupying troops; and a little later the R. Fusiliers and Lincolns performed the same office by the village of Herlies.

Aubers stands on the crest of the ridge which faces Neuve Chapelle. Herlies, on the other hand, lies at the foot of a long, gradual slope of open, cultivated land. The village was defended on the west side by a semi-circular line of trenches, protected by barbed wire entanglements. The defenders had also a Horse Artillery Battery and—as usual—a great number of machine-guns posted here and there in any suitable buildings. The two attacking battalions, on the other hand, were supported by a R.F.A. battery and a section of howitzers. These did admirable preliminary work, and at dusk the two regiments—Lincolns on right, R. Fusiliers on left—charged the trenches, carried them hot-handed and pursued the Germans into the village. Here further pursuit was unfortunately checked by the too great activity of our own artillery, but the position won was occupied and held for six days. The Lincolns, who were the chief sufferers, lost seventy-five men and two officers during this attack.

Further north, Conneau's cavalry added their share to the day's work by capturing Fromelles, so that there was an appreciable advance all round, which would have been greater still had not the 7th Brigade, which was on the right of the 3rd Division, failed to take the village of Illies.

The position then at night on the 17th was that the pivot point remained on the canal, south of Givenchy. From that point the line of the 2nd Army Corp curved round behind La Bassée and through Violaines, after which it zig-zagged towards the north-east in an irregular salient, the 3rd Army Corp being thrown back on its left.
Such was still the state of things on the morning of the 18th, when the Germans—having been reinforced during the night by the XIII. Division of the VII. Corps—made counter-attacks all along the line of the 2nd Army Corp All these were repulsed with loss to the enemy, but our own line made no advance, the stumbling-block being still Illies, which continued to defy capture by the 7th Brigade.
At dusk the undefeated 9th Brigade stormed and took the trenches one mile north-east of Illies, but as they were unsupported on either flank, they had to abandon the position and fall back. The 1st R. Scots Fusiliers did particularly good work on this occasion, and suffered correspondingly, Captain Burt and Lieuts. Cozens-Brooke, the Hon. J. Doyle, and Fergusson-Barton being killed, and six other officers wounded. In the meanwhile Conneau had advanced from Fromelles and attacked Fournes, but this attack failed.
Meanwhile, in the Armentières district, the 3rd Army Corp was making great efforts to play up to its allotted part in the wheel to the south, the 4th Division being north of Armentières, the 6th Division south of it. The centre of interest was still to the south of Armentières, the concentration of German troops north of that town being still only in process of development. For the moment, then, we can neglect affairs further north, and follow the attempted wheeling movement of the troops south of Armentières to its furthest point east.

On the afternoon of the 18th the 16th Brigade captured Radinghem, the two battalions chiefly concerned being the 2nd Lancs. and Yorks. and the 1st Buffs. These two battalions, who were on the right of the 6th Division, gallantly stormed and carried the village and then—in the impetuosity of success and enterprise—followed on beyond after the retreating Germans. Here, in pushing forward through an impenetrable wood, they suddenly found themselves swept from all sides by concealed machine-guns, which literally rained bullets on them. The casualties here were very high, the Lancs. and Yorks. alone losing 11 officers and 400 men. Col. Cobbold and Major Bailey, however, who displayed the greatest coolness and courage throughout, succeeded in withdrawing the remains of the battalion in good order and getting it back to Radinghem.
The two battalions, in spite of their heavy losses, retained possession of this village throughout the night, though—had the Germans counter-attacked in force—things might have gone badly with them, as they were two miles ahead of the rest of the division.

Footnotes

[3] Col. Vandeleur, while leading the Cheshires at Givenchy, was not killed as originally reported, but was wounded, fell into the hands of the Germans and finally escaped to England.