London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Relief of the Seventh Division in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE RELIEF OF THE SEVENTH DIVISION

All through the 31st and morning following, the Irish Guards on the right of the Gordon Highlanders were subjected to a relentless shelling, and their casualties were considerable. On the morning of November 1st both their machine-guns were knocked out, and at 3 p.m. news came that they were retiring. Lord Cavan sent word for them to hold on some 200 yards to the rear, and also for the French Territorials between them and the canal at Hollebeke to hold on to their position at all costs. This the French managed to do, with very great credit to themselves, at the same time throwing back their left so as to keep in touch with the new position.

The Germans at once occupied the Irish Guards' trenches, but luckily did not realize the position sufficiently to pursue their advantage further, otherwise the consequences might have been serious. As it was, sufficient time was given for the 2nd Grenadiers and 7th Cavalry Brigade to come up in support, and with this stiffening the new line was held for the rest of the day. But there was a cave at Klein Zillebeke.

The Irish Guards had 400 casualties during this and the previous day's fighting, including 11 officers: Major Stepney, the Hon. A. Mulholland and Lieuts. Coke and Mathieson being killed, and Col. Lord Ardee (attached from the Grenadiers), the Hon. T. Vesey, the Hon. A. Alexander, Lieuts. Fergusson, Gore-Langton, Lord Kingston, and Lord Francis Scott (attached from Grenadiers), wounded. The last named officer and Captain Orr-Ewing (attached from Scots Guards) were each awarded the D.S.O. "for gallant and persistent attempts to rally the battalion."

On the morning of November 2nd there was a renewal of the regulation attack along the Menin road. This time the attack took the form of a high-explosive bombardment of the barricade across the road at Veldhoek. This was soon demolished and an infantry attack on the 1st Brigade ensued, as a result of which that skeleton brigade yielded 300 yards of ground, but held on to the trenches in rear till nightfall.

Further south, about 11.30 on the same morning, a tremendous attack was delivered against the 2nd Brigade, in the course of which Gen. Bulfin was wounded and part of the line driven in. An urgent appeal for support was sent to Lord Cavan, upon whom it now devolved to take over command of Gen. Bulfin's four battalions, in addition to his own two. He made his way with all speed to the scene of action, with a view to discovering the extent of the mischief. This proved to be (so far) that the Northamptons had been driven in, and that the enemy—following up—had broken through in numbers into the Hooge woods. Beyond the Northamptons, that is to say, on the left of his new command, the R. Sussex were still standing firm. This regiment, however, was greatly reduced in numbers, its casualties during the last four days having averaged over a hundred per day. On the 30th Col. Crispin had been killed; on the following day his successor, Major Green, had been killed, and the regiment was at the moment under the command of Captain Villiers. Lord Cavan found it in an extremely precarious situation, owing to its weak numerical condition, and the envelopment of its right flank, consequent upon the Northamptons' retirement. He thereupon hurried up the 2nd Grenadiers from reserve as far as the Brown Road, where he ordered them to leave their packs and go straight through the wood towards the south-east with the bayonet.

These Ypres woods have all the appearance of an English copse wood, that is to say, they are formed of some six years' growth of hazel and ash, with standard oaks dotted about here and there. Incidentally they were at this time full of pheasants, destined to be shot in normal times by the Lords of the Châteaux of Hooge, Gheluvelt and Heronhage. Precisely in the manner of a line of beaters driving game, the Grenadiers now pushed through the thick undergrowth, and while the pheasants rose before the advancing line, so did the Germans run. By 4.30 the wood was cleared and the morning line restored. The Northamptons thereupon re-occupied their trenches, but they were not destined to be left there in peace. About six in the evening the Germans again attacked the same part of the line, this time advancing with discordant yells, thinking, no doubt, to repeat their performance of the morning. If so, the event must have come to them as something of a surprise, for the Northamptons—profiting possibly by their previous experience—coolly waited till the attacking party was within fifty yards of the trenches, and then mowed them down. Not a German reached the trenches, and over 200 dead were left on the ground.

At night the R. Sussex were brought back into reserve and the remnant of the Gordons went back to the 20th Brigade, which brigade was at the time in the grounds of the Hooge Château. In addition to their previous losses, the Gordons had during the day lost their C.O., Major Craufurd, who was wounded in the early morning. The position of Lord Cavan's command was then, as follows: the Northamptons on the left, in touch with the R. Welsh Fusiliers in the 7th Division; then the Oxfordshire Light Infantry and the 2nd Grenadiers, who had become very much mixed up, and on the right the Irish Guards. Beyond were the French Territorials.

With the fall of night on the 2nd of November the acuteness of the five days' crisis may be said to have passed. The all-highest War Lord had come and gone; the supreme effort of the enemy to break through to Ypres had been made, and had failed; the British force had come out of the ordeal reduced to a shadow, and battered out of recognition, but unconquered. The Kaiser's forces had fallen back sullen and—for the time being—disheartened, realizing at last the hopelessness of the task they had been set to accomplish. Their losses had been prodigious, and though their repeated attacks had—at great sacrifice—forced back the face of the Ypres salient some two miles, the only military effect resulting therefrom was that the British force was at last in occupation of the true line of defence dictated by military prudence and the natural features of the country. From this line, that is to say, the ridge some 150 feet in height which runs from the corner of the canal at Hollebeke to Zonnebeke, they were never afterwards dislodged.

The 3rd, 4th and 5th were in the main uneventful. November 5th was chiefly memorable in this year, not for anti-Popish demonstrations, but as the day on which the 7th Division—after three weeks' incessant fighting—was temporarily relieved. During the three weeks in question it had lost 356 officers out of a full complement of 400, and 9,664 rank and file out of a total of 12,000. Battalions had been reduced to the dimensions of platoons, and had, in some cases, lost every combatant officer.

The 7th Division's performance, during its three weeks east of Ypres, will go down to history as one of the most remarkable achievements in the records of war. Many other units had, by the second half of November, lost as heavily in officers and men as had the twelve battalions of the 7th Division—in one or two cases even more heavily; but the losses of these had been distributed over three months; those of the 7th Division were concentrated into three weeks. They had been suddenly pitchforked into a position of the most supreme responsibility. They found themselves more by chance than by design standing in the road along which the War Lord had elected to make his most determined efforts to reach Calais. These efforts came as a succession of hammer-blows, which gave the defending force neither rest nor respite, and to cope with which their numbers were ludicrously insufficient. Their failure, however, would have spelt disaster to the cause of the Allies, and—realizing this—they actually achieved the impossible. There is something particularly stirring in the thought of this small force beaten back step by step, as fresh and fresh troops were hurled upon it day after day, and yet never turning its back to the foe, never beaten, never despondent, and never for a moment failing in the trust which had been imposed upon it. The most remarkable feature about the 7th Division was that it had no weak spot in its composition. Each one of its twelve battalions lived up in every particular to the high standard of duty and efficiency which the Division set itself from the beginning. The troops were mostly veterans from abroad, who had been summoned back from foreign service too late to take part in the earlier stages of the war, and they may therefore in a sense be considered as picked troops. [12]

The 7th and 15th Brigades from the 2nd Army Corp, who relieved the 7th Division, were themselves sadly thinned in numbers. The 7th Brigade, which took the place of the 20th Brigade, had, in fact, lost seventy-four per cent. of its numbers during the fighting round La Bassée, and was in almost as bad a plight as the 20th Brigade, which it relieved. The 15th Brigade, which replaced the 22nd, was rather stronger, having received drafts from home.

The 20th Brigade went back to Locre, and the 22nd to Bailleul. The 21st—which perhaps had suffered rather the least of the three—remained for the time being in the trenches.

At night the 6th Cavalry Brigade took over the trenches at Heronhage Château from the 3rd Brigade, who had been having a rough time during the preceding days, and these went back into reserve.