London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Messines and Wytschate in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

MESSINES AND WYTSCHATE

In order to avoid the confusion inseparable from a constant change of scene, it will be best to deal briefly now with the doings at Messines and Wytschate, after which the Klein Zillebeke section can monopolize our attention up to the close of this little chronicle. In order to pick up the thread where it was dropped, it will be necessary to go back to the 30th. On that day General Allenby wired to Head Quarters that his numbers were too weak to hold his position from the canal at Hollebeke to the La Doune stream, south of Messines, for long unaided, and the Commander in Chief at once responded by sending up four battalions from the 2nd Army Corp under General Shaw to his assistance. These, as will presently be seen, arrived in the very nick of time to save the situation. Pending their arrival, the cavalry had a truly colossal task before them. They were absurdly outnumbered; they had opposed to them, in the XXIV. and II. Bavarian Corps, some of the finest fighters in the German Army, stimulated by the presence of the Kaiser himself, and they were engaged in a form of warfare to which they had never been trained. French reinforcements were being hurried up, it is true, but it was reckoned that, at the earliest, they could not arrive in less than forty-eight hours. During these forty-eight hours, could the cavalry, with the assistance which had been sent up from the 2nd Army Corp, successfully oppose the pressure of two army corps? This was the problem of the moment. We know now that it did succeed in doing so, but even with this fact behind us as a matter of history, we may still—in view of the extraordinary disparity in numbers—wonder as to how it was done.

First let us deal with Messines, which was almost on the southern boundary of the Cavalry Corps position. Here we find posted the 1st and 2nd Cavalry Brigade, or, to be more exact, these two brigades were in the trenches to the east of that town, the Bays being on the north side, then the 9th Lancers and 4th Dragoon Guards, with the 5th Dragoon Guards to the south. In reserve, in the second line, were the 18th and 11th Hussars. The latter regiment had suffered severely from the bombardment on the previous day, their trenches being completely blown in and many men buried and killed. Amongst the officers, Lieuts. Chaytor and Lawson-Smith had been killed, and Lieut.-Col. Pitman, Major Anderson and the Hon. C. Mulholland wounded. Again, on the following day, the regiment lost a very fine athlete, and a champion boxer, in Captain Halliday, who was killed by a shell near the Convent.

In spite of an appalling bombardment, the regiments in the front line held on all through the night of the 30th, and up to midday on the 31st. Then they began to be gradually driven back, and by 2 p.m. they were all in the town. The retirement was effected in perfect order. Corpl. Seaton, 9th Lancers, behaved with extraordinary courage during this movement and was recommended for the Victoria Cross. With the idea of helping the withdrawal of his regiment, he remained absolutely alone in his trench working his machine-gun till the enemy were within twenty yards. Incredible as it may appear, he then managed, thanks to great coolness and presence of mind, to rejoin his regiment unwounded.

Once in the town, the cavalry lined the houses of the main street from end to end, and there awaited developments. These took the form of a cessation of the shelling and a very determined attempt on the part of the Bavarians to take the town. They failed, however, to get across the square, being shot down in numbers from the windows of the houses opposite. A second and more carefully thought-out attack followed later, and it is doubtful how this might have ended but for the opportune arrival of the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, one at each end of the town. This reinforcement once more turned the scale against the Bavarians, and for the second time they were driven back. Both the infantry battalions engaged, in the words of General Allenby to Sir Horace, "fought magnificently," but the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry lost its CO., Col. King, who was killed while leading that regiment to the attack. The respite of the cavalry was short. The enemy was in over-powering force and they were not to be denied. They now proceeded for five solid hours to shell the place with every conceivable species of projectile known to warfare. At 2 a.m. on the 31st the infantry attacked for the third time.

In the meanwhile the only available reserve was being hurried up from Neuve Eglise, as fast as motor-buses could bring it. This was the London Scottish, which had arrived at the front the day previous, after having been employed for some weeks at the base. They reached Messines during the preliminary bombardment on the night of the 30th, and, before going into action, were split up, half of the battalion joining up with the King's Own Scottish Borderers at one end of the town, and the rest with the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at the other. There was a full moon and a clear sky, and it was as light as day, and it has been said that for picturesque effect no incident in the war has equalled that night attack on Messines. An additional interest was lent to the scene by the fact that the London Scottish were the first Territorial battalion to be in action, and there was some speculation as to how their conduct would compare with that of the Regulars. It is now a matter of history that they acquitted themselves as well as the most tried troops, and that under exceptionally trying circumstances. If it be true that casualties in killed and wounded are the barometer of a regiment's intrepidity, then they indeed register high in the scale, for they lost 9 officers and 400 men in that first night's fighting. In any event they rendered very valuable service in an acute emergency, and it is on record that in a hand to hand bayonet encounter with the Bavarians, they actually drove those noted warriors back. The odds, however, were altogether too great against the little British force, and on the morning of November 1st Messines passed into the hands of the enemy.

A feat so remarkable as to rival the deeds of Shaw, the Lifeguardsman, was performed by Sergt.-Major Wright, of the Carabineers, during this defence of Messines. This N.C.O., while carrying a message to Head Quarters, found his path blocked by a part of the enemy. Without a moment's hesitation he charged them and cut his way through, killing five. Another Carabineer who behaved with repeated gallantry during these operations was Pte. Meston, and both he and Sergt.-Major Wright were given the D.C.M.

On the same night, i.e., the night of October 31st, Wytschate shared the fate of Messines.

The 4th Cavalry Brigade had succeeded in holding this place throughout the day, but during the course of the night they found themselves very hard pressed, and were gradually forced back. In this emergency the Northumberland Fusiliers and Lincolns were ordered up to the support of the cavalry.

These two 9th Brigade battalions had arrived at Kemmel during the afternoon, having marched that day from Estaires, a distance of some twelve miles. They were in billets, resting after their hard day's work, when the message arrived, about one o'clock in the morning, to the effect that they were required. Within an hour from the receipt of the message both battalions were on the road, the Lincolns being the first to arrive on the scene of action. The country was totally unknown to the newcomers, but a cavalry sergeant was met who volunteered to lead them to the position occupied by the enemy. Under his guidance they entered the cutting through which the light railway, which runs along the edge of the road from Kemmel to Wytschate, passes just before it reaches the town. Here they became aware of a number of men moving in their direction, who called out in excellent English and Hindustani that they were British cavalry and Indians. Before the actual identity of these men could, in the gloom of the night, be ascertained for certain, the newcomers opened fire, both from the end of the cutting and from the sides; and the Lincolns, who were closely packed in the narrow defile, fell in numbers before they could be extricated. After getting clear, they met the Northumberland Fusiliers advancing from the direction of Kemmel, and together the two battalions formed up, and with great gallantry once more attacked the entrance to the town. The inequality in numbers, however, was too great. The Germans were literally swarming in the town, and it was clear that General Shaw's two battalions had been set to an impossible task. They retired to the outskirts of the town, where they held on till daylight, lying in the open fields. When dawn broke the London Scottish could be seen on their right, but no troops on their left. The unpleasantness of the situation was not in any way relieved by a heavy fire which our own artillery now opened upon the two battalions, under the mistaken impression that they were Germans. Many men were killed and wounded by this fire. In conformity with the general plan of retiring to the Wulverghem road, the Lincolns and Northumberland Fusiliers were now withdrawn, and Wytschate went the way of Messines. The Lincolns lost 400 men and all but 4 officers during this short night attack. Col. W. E. Smith was specially commended for the great personal courage which he showed during the attack, and for the skill with which he ultimately withdrew his regiment. Lieut. Blackwood was awarded the D.S.O. for very gallantly continuing to lead the attack after every officer senior to himself had fallen. The losses of the Northumberland Fusiliers were not quite so heavy, but were still very severe, especially in officers.

The dismounted cavalry line now retired to the Wulverghem to Kemmel road, where they entrenched themselves, but their numbers were quite inadequate for the frontage to be held. Pending the arrival of the French, Sir Horace was ordered by the Commander in Chief to send up to their assistance every available man from the 2nd Army Corp, which was recouping at Pradelles. The Dorsets and Worcesters were accordingly sent to Neuve Eglise, and the remaining seven and a half battalions—all skeletons—were sent up to east of Bailleul under General Morland. Such was the position on November 1st.

On this day the anxiously awaited 16th French Army began to arrive, the troops being railed up at the rate of eighty train loads a day, and at 11 a.m. on the 2nd, both Messines and Wytschate were retaken by the French with some assistance from our cavalry. Some of the 12th Lancers, led by 2nd Lieut. Williams, of the Scots Greys, made a very brilliant bayonet charge during the recapture of the latter town. The above-mentioned officer was officially reported to have himself killed eleven Germans on this occasion, and was awarded the D.S.O.

The French now officially took over from us the line from Messines on the south to the canal on the north. It is interesting to note that, between October 27th and November 11th, some 200,000 French infantry, twenty regiments of cavalry and sixty pieces of heavy artillery reached Ypres, Poperinghe, and Bailleul. It is difficult to conceive of any more eloquent tribute to the astonishing performance of the thin little khaki ribbon, which had for a fortnight wound round Ypres, than the fact that this great force was found none too strong to hold one fourth of the front over which our handful of men had so far successfully resisted all the attempts of the enemy to break through. In calling attention to these figures, it is not intended in any sense to draw invidious comparisons between the relative merits of the French and British soldier, or even to suggest that the British troops accomplished a task of which the French would have been incapable. It is generally admitted by all our commanders at the front that the Frenchman as a fighter is unsurpassed, though his methods of fighting are not the same as ours; and, allowing for the fact that, in cases where the entire manhood of a nation fights, the average of individual excellence must obviously be lower than when only a select body of volunteers is engaged, for explanatory purposes with regard to the disposition of troops, one may safely reckon a French and British regiment as being of equal fighting value.

All that is aimed at, then, is to try and bring to the mind of the reader, by a comparison of figures, some grasp of the immensity of the performance of our troops east and south of Ypres, during the desperate efforts of the enemy to break through in the last fortnight of October and the first fortnight of November. It is worthy of note, too, that in spite of the huge reinforcements brought up, no material advance was made on the position taken over from us on November 1st. It is true that on the day following, the newly-arrived French troops re-took Wytschate and Messines, from which we had been driven, but they were unable to hold those places, and the line along which they had found us facing the enemy was never perceptibly advanced. The new line at the beginning of November, held jointly by the French troops and British cavalry, ran—roughly speaking—from Klein Zillebeke to Ploegsteert, with a concave face which skirted Hollebeke, Wytschate, and Messines. Our 1st Cavalry Division, supported by some units from the 2nd Army Corp, was withdrawn to Wulverghem, and the 2nd Cavalry Division went into reserve at Bailleul. Neuve Eglise became our advanced base for that part of the line, and was very quickly packed with British troops.

We have now taken a permanent farewell, as far as these pages are concerned, of all occurrences south of the canal at Hollebeke. We have seen the 2nd Army Corp relieved by the Indians, and the Cavalry Corps relieved by the French, and, with this change of guardianship, we have seen two of the most important points in the line of defence pass out of the keeping of the original Expeditionary Force.

Of that force the 1st Army Corp alone (with the 7th Division, which it had absorbed) still remained unrelieved east and south-east of Ypres. The force, however, which now stood between the enemy and the possession of Ypres, had by this time lost many of its distinctive characteristics. The actual battalion units had become in most cases reduced to a mere shadow of their original strength. The 7th Division had become part of the 1st Army Corp, and several battalions of the 2nd Army Corp were acting in concert with this already mixed corps. Many of the brigades had been broken up from their original constituents, and the fragments consolidated into new and temporary brigades. Sir Horace was for the moment an Army Corp commander without an Army Corp, the remnants of his six heroic brigades being scattered here and there along the whole front.

The first, and perhaps the most interesting, because the most strenuous, epoch in the war—as far as it concerned the British Force—was nearly closed; but not quite. Before that can be written of it, some great deeds had yet to be done, and were done. The Germans were still making continuous and determined efforts to break through to Ypres by way of Klein Zillebeke, and to that particular zone of the fighting our attention can henceforth be confined.