London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Prussian Guard Attack in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE PRUSSIAN GUARD ATTACK

From November 8th to 11th there was little fighting. It had been apparently realized at length by the German commanders that the troops they were at present employing were incapable of breaking the British line, but at the back of that admission there was evidently still the belief that the task was possible, provided the troops employed were sufficiently good. Accordingly the Prussian Guard was sent for. Pending the arrival of that invincible body there was a lull in the ceaseless hammer of battle; and in the meanwhile the weather changed for the worse. By the time the Prussian Guard was ready for its enterprise, that is to say by November 11th, it was about as bad as it could be. A strong west wind was accompanied by an icy rain, which fell all day in torrents. Luckily the wind and rain were in the faces of the enemy, a factor of no little importance.

The battle of November 11th may be looked upon as the last attempt but one of the Germans to break through to Calais during the 1914 campaign. The actual last serious attempt was on November 17th. On the 11th the cannonade began at daybreak and was kept up till 9.30. In violence and volume it rivalled that of October 31st. The entire front from Klein Zillebeke to Zonnebeke was involved, the enemy's design being—as on the 31st—to attack all along the front simultaneously so as to hamper and cripple the British commanders in the use of the very limited reserves at their disposal.

The newly-arrived troops were the 1st and 4th Brigade Prussian Guard, and some battalions of the Garde Jäger, in all fifteen battalions, and to these was entrusted the main attack on the key of the position, i.e., along, and north of, the Menin road.

The Prussian Guard attacked through Veldhoek, and in their advance displayed the invincible courage for which they have ever been famed. Such courage, however—though sufficiently sublime from the spectacular point of view—cannot fail to be expensive, and the losses among these gallant men were prodigious. It was afterwards said by a prisoner that they had been deceived by the silence in our trenches into thinking that the bombardment had cleared them, and so came on recklessly. However, in spite of their losses, by sheer intrepidity and weight of numbers, they succeeded in capturing all the front line trenches of the 1st Brigade, who were astride the Menin road between Veldhoek and Hooge. In three places large bodies of the enemy succeeded in breaking through, and in each case their success furnished a subject for reflection as to the why and the wherefore of battles. For, having succeeded in doing that which they had set out to do, they stood huddled together in the plainest uncertainty as to how next to act, a point which was speedily settled by the arrival of our reserves, who fell upon the successful invaders and promptly annihilated them. One party of some 700 were accounted for to a man by the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, led by Col. Davies.

Another party which had broken through in the Polygon wood was similarly dealt with by the Highland Light Infantry under Col. Wolfe-Murray, an operation during which Lieut. Brodie won the Victoria Cross for exceptional gallantry. This was the second Victoria Cross to fall to this battalion, [13] which had indeed never failed in any situation which it had been called upon to face. Gen. Willcocks, in subsequently addressing the battalion, alluded with pride to "the magnificent glory" with which it had fought, and concluded with the remarkable words: "There is no position which the Highland Light Infantry cannot capture."

The nett result of the day's fighting was that the enemy gained some 500 yards of ground, which, from the military point of view, advantaged them nothing, and the gaining of which had cost them some thousands of their best men. The barrenness of the advance made cannot be better illustrated than by the fact that it was the last step forward of the invading army, till the asphyxiating gas was brought into play in the spring of 1915.

On the 12th the 1st Brigade, which had borne the brunt of the Prussian Guard attack, was taken back into reserve. It will be conceded that it was about time.

This gallant Brigade, 4,500 strong in August, was now represented as follows:

1st Scots Guards: Captain Stracey and 69 men.
Black Watch: Captain Fortune and 109 men.
Camerons: Col. McEwen,
Major Craig-Browne,
Lieut. Dunsterville and 140 men.
1st Coldstream: No officers and 150 men.
The 6th Cavalry Brigade was now reinforced by the arrival of the North Somerset and Leicestershire Yeomanry Regiments. This strengthening was sorely needed, the brigade having been practically without rest since its arrival in Flanders. By the irony of fate the Hon. W. Cadogan, the Colonel of the 10th Hussars, was killed on the very day when these reinforcements arrived.

With this addition to its strength the brigade was now required to find 800 rifles for its line of trenches along the Klein Zillebeke ridge, and in addition to furnish a reserve of 400, who—when not required—lived in burrows in the railway cutting at Hooge. Within a week, however, the reserve became a luxury of the past, and the brigade was called upon to find 1,200 rifles for the trenches.

On November 17th we come to the last serious attempt of the enemy, during the 1914 campaign, to break through to Calais by way of Ypres. This final effort can be dismissed in a few words. It was made south of the Menin road by the XV. German Army Corps, and it took the form of two infantry attacks, one at 1 p.m. and another at 4 p.m.; and it failed utterly, the Germans leaving thousands of dead and wounded on the ground just in front of our trenches, to which they had been allowed to approach quite close.

The signal failure of this last spasmodic effort, and the subsequent passivity of the enemy, points with some significance to the conclusion that the position to which we had now been driven back along the Zillebeke—Zonnebeke ridge was impregnable, and was recognized as such by the enemy.

The 6th Cavalry Brigade and the 2nd Grenadiers were the most prominent figures in this victory of November 17th. In the course of the second attack the 10th Hussars and 3rd Dragoon Guards allowed the enemy to come within a few yards of their trenches before they opened fire and mowed them down in masses. The 10th Hussars, however, again suffered somewhat severely in officers, the Hon. A. Annesley, Captain Peto, and Lieut. Drake being killed. The newly-arrived North Somerset Yeomanry, under Col. Glyn, behaved with the coolness and steadiness of veterans, and contributed in no small degree to the repulse of the enemy's second attack.

The 2nd Grenadiers received the highest praise from Lord Cavan for their part in this day's fighting. This battalion had now lost 30 officers and 1,300 men since the beginning of the campaign, and on the following day it was sent back into reserve to recoup and reorganize.