London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Pilkelm in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

PILKEM

Having now taken a permanent farewell of the fighting in the La Bassée area, with a view to following uninterruptedly the more exciting situation which had gradually been developing around Ypres it becomes necessary once more to pick up the thread of the northern doings where it was dropped.

It will be remembered that on Oct. 19th, 20th and 21st there had been very fierce fighting in and around Zonnebeke, where the enemy made persistent efforts to break through to Ypres—efforts which were frustrated by the timely arrival of the 1st Army Corp on the night of the 20th, This Army Corps during the night took over the entire line from Bixschoote to Zonnebeke, and on the 21st the Guards' Brigade, on the right of this line, was able to contribute largely to the repulse of the German attack.

On the 22nd the pressure was shifted to the left of the 1st Army Corp line, the 1st Brigade being attacked in great force at Pilkem from the direction of Staden. The Germans advanced to their attack with the utmost determination and with a complete disregard of danger, singing "Die wacht am Rhein" and waving their rifles over their heads. The focus-point of the attack was the position occupied by the Camerons, who eventually, by sheer weight of numbers, were driven back, but not before they had taken an appalling toll of the enemy, 1,500 of the latter being found dead upon the ground the following day.

General Lomax, commanding the division, had no idea of leaving the enemy in peace to enjoy this temporary triumph, and at nine o'clock on the same evening the 2nd Brigade, which was billeted some eight or nine miles to the south at the village of Boesinghe, received orders to retake the lost trenches. The R. Sussex regiment was left at Boesinghe, but the remaining three battalions, viz., the 1st Loyal N. Lancashires, the 2nd King's Royal Rifles (60th) and the 1st Northamptons, set out and marched all night to the little village of Pilkem, which was reached at 5 a.m.

The brigade, which had had no food all night, was given no time for rest or breakfast, but was ordered to attack the trenches at once. In the brigade order of October 28th, dealing with this action, General Bulfin, the Brigadier, singles out the 1st Loyal N. Lancashire Regiment for special praise. It may, therefore, be allowable to confine our description of the action to a brief review of the part played by this battalion, which, it will be remembered, had behaved with such remarkable gallantry at the battle of Troyon.
At 6 o'clock, in the dim light of an autumn morning, the brigade set out from Pilkem. The lost trenches lay more or less parallel to the Bixschoote to Langemarck road, a mile to the north of Pilkem. The attacking troops advanced in line, the King's Royal Rifles (60th) being on the left, the Loyal N. Lancashires in the centre, with the Northamptons on the right. The 2nd S. Staffords and the 1st Queen's (from the 3rd Brigade) were in support. In this order they advanced to within 300 yards of the trenches, where they began to come under a very heavy rifle fire. Major Carter, [7] commanding the L. N. Lancashires, decided to charge at once with the bayonet, and he sent a message to this effect to the King's Royal Rifles (60th) on his left, asking them to advance with him. This, however, they were unable to do, and Major Carter accordingly decided to attack alone. Captain Henderson, with the machine-gun section, pushed forward to a very advanced position on the left, from which he was able to get a clear field for his guns, and the battalion formed up for the attack. Captain Crane's and Captain Prince's companies were in the first line; the other two were in support. The order to fix bayonets was given; a bugler sounded the "Charge," and with loud cheers the battalion dashed forward, and in less than ten minutes had carried the trenches and cleared them of the enemy. Six hundred prisoners were taken, a number which might have been increased but that further pursuit was checked by our own artillery.
During this most gallant charge on the part of the Loyal N. Lancashires, the Queen's and Northamptons on the right advanced and occupied the inn at the cross-roads, where the road from Pilkem joins the main road to Langemarck.

The victory was now complete. The L. N. Lancashires lost 6 officers and 150 men killed and wounded. They won, however, very high praise from the Brigadier and from General Lomax, the Divisional General. Captain Henderson was awarded the Military Cross for
"conspicuous gallantry and ability on Oct. 23rd, when, with his machine-gun detachment, he performed most valuable services in the final attack and charge, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. He pushed his guns close up to a flank, and helped in a great degree to clear the enemy's trenches."

One cannot convey a sense of the really remarkable nature of this performance better than by quoting the words of General Bulfin in the G.O. already referred to. "In spite," it says, "of the stubborn resistance offered by the German troops, the object of the engagement was accomplished, but not without many casualties in the brigade. By nightfall the trenches previously captured by the Germans had been re-occupied, about 600 prisoners captured, and fully 1,500 German dead were lying out in front of our trenches. The Brigadier-General congratulates the L. N. Lancashires, the Northamptons and the King's Royal Rifles (60th) but desires especially to commend the fine soldierlike spirit of the L. N. Lancashires, which advancing steadily under heavy shell and rifle fire, and aided by its machine-guns, were enabled to form up within a comparatively short distance of the enemy's trenches. Fixing bayonets, the battalion then charged, carried the trenches, and then occupied them, and to them must be allotted the majority of the prisoners captured. The Brigadier-General congratulates himself on having in his brigade a battalion which, after marching the whole of the previous night, without food or rest, was able to maintain its splendid record in the past by the determination and self-sacrifice displayed in this action."