London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - The Second Advance in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE SECOND ADVANCE

The 2nd Brigade remained in the position it had captured for twenty-four hours, when it was relieved by the French. In fact during the night of the 23rd and the morning of the 24th the entire line from Bixschoote to Zonnebeke, which the 1st Army Corp had taken over from the 3rd Cavalry Division three days earlier, was in turn taken over from them by the French, a Division of the 87th Territorials relieving the 1st Division between Bixschoote and Langemarck, and the 18th Corps of the 9th French Army taking the place of the 2nd Division from Langemarck to Zonnebeke.
The 1st Division went into reserve at Ypres, whilst the 2nd Division moved down to its right across the Zonnebeke road, and took over the position of the 22nd Brigade, which also went back into reserve with its numbers sadly thinned by the fighting of the last three days.
On the following night the 1st Division came up on the right of the 2nd Division and took over the line from west of Reutel to the Menin road, thus relieving the 7th Division of any further responsibility north of that road.

This proved to be the final shuffle of the Ypres defence force, and the positions now taken over proved—broadly speaking—to be permanent. It will be well, therefore, for a thorough understanding of what followed, that these positions should be clearly fixed in the reader's mind. They were as follows: North of the Zonnebeke road the French had now taken over entire charge. From the Zonnebeke road to a point near the race-course in the Polygon wood, west of Reutel, was the 2nd Division; on its right, reaching to the Menin road, was the 1st Division, and from the Menin road to Zandvoorde the 7th Division, with the 3rd Cavalry Division in the Zandvoorde trenches. So far, so good. Our line was everywhere strengthened and consolidated. Between Zonnebeke and Zandvoorde three divisions now occupied the ground hitherto held by the three brigades of the 7th Division; but, on the other hand, fresh German troops were daily arriving in their thousands at Roulers and Menin, and though the line of our resistance might be stronger, the pressure of attack was correspondingly increased.

The shortening and thickening of our line was not, as events proved, accomplished one moment too soon, for on the morning of the 24th the British position was attacked all along its length with a determination which could hardly have been withstood by the attenuated line of a week before.

The 2nd Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment accomplished a fine achievement on this morning. At dawn they were marched away from Zonnebeke to retake the trenches south of Reutel out of which the Wiltshire Regiment had been shelled. The operation entailed an advance of a mile over ground which was constantly under fire. The final act was the rushing of the German position, the nucleus of which was a small detached farm-house in which were several machine-guns. Col. Loring, who had already been wounded, himself led this last charge and fell dead in the act. The house, however, was captured and the whole German position rushed and occupied, the enemy being driven out with very considerable loss. The Warwicks lost 105 men and several officers.

Almost at the same moment a very similar act, in many respects, was performed by Captain Dunlop's company of the 1st S. Staffords, which it will be remembered had been detached from its battalion on the 21st for the support of the Northumberland Hussars. Here again a farm-house bristling with machine-guns had to be rushed, and here again in the very moment of victory the leader fell dead.

These single company engagements were a special characteristic of the fighting at this period. Owing to our scarcity of men, it was seldom that an entire battalion could be spared for purposes of support, and single companies were consequently sent hither and thither to do the work of battalions—to fill gaps, strengthen weak spots, and even—as sometimes happened—to retake lost positions and drive back parties of the enemy which had broken through. A case in point on this very morning of October 24th was that of No. 4 Company 1st Grenadier Guards. The circumstances here were that the Germans had succeeded in breaking through the right flank of the 21st Brigade, and, as serious consequences threatened, a counter-attack was ordered to be made by Major Colby with No. 4 Company of the Grenadiers, who were at the time on the left of the 20th Brigade. The undertaking in this case was an extremely difficult and dangerous one, both on account of the numerical insufficiency of a single company for the task assigned it, and also because the attack entailed the negotiation of our own barbed wire entanglement. This entanglement, it need scarcely be said, was under a very constant fire from the enemy, making the undertaking, on the face of it, almost a hopeless one. However, it was done. The Grenadiers crawled through, over or under the wire, reformed on the far side, charged and drove the enemy back once more to their own lines. The losses of the Grenadiers were very severe, and, as in the case of the other two companies, the leader, Major Colby, fell dead at the head of his men. Lieut. Antrobus was also killed and Captain Leatham was severely wounded. In the meanwhile the 5th Brigade had been brought up from reserve and completed the rout of the enemy.

On the same morning the 6th Brigade, which had taken over the position of the 22nd Brigade south of the Zonnebeke road, began pushing forward with the ambitious view of re-occupying the advance trenches originally held by the 7th Division along the Paschendael—Becelaere road. The 1st Berkshire Regiment, under Col. Graham, was on the left of the brigade next the road, with the King's Regiment on its right, the other two battalions being in support. In this formation the brigade now advanced with such dash and vigour as completely to outstrip the troops to right and left. The woods in front were full of Germans; every yard gained had to be fought for, and there were considerable casualties, Col. Bannatyne, of the King's, being amongst those killed. However, the brigade made its point and got into the old trenches, but as the French on the north side of the road had not succeeded in making the same progress, the position was a precarious one, and two companies of the Berkshire Regiment had to be thrown back almost at right angles, that is to say, parallel with the road, in order to cover the half mile which separated them. The performance of this regiment was a distinctly meritorious one, several guns being captured as well as prisoners, and it was duly recognized as such in high quarters, Lieut. Nicholson and Lieut. Hanbury-Sparrow getting the D.S.O. for their conduct on this occasion, while Sergt.-Major Smith, Sergt. Taylor and Pte. Bossom were awarded the D.C.M.

The push and enterprise of this regiment on the 24th roused the activity and emulation of the whole division, which, on the following morning, was ordered to advance against Reutel. The attack opened with a furious bombardment of that place by our artillery, and in the afternoon the 4th Brigade was ordered to clear the Polygon wood, the object now being to bring up the 4th and 5th Brigades in line with the 6th.

The 4th Brigade advanced with the Irish Guards and 2nd Grenadiers in the front line, the two Coldstream battalions being in support. Night fell before any great advance could be made. The night was one of torrential rain, which the troops passed in the extremity of misery waiting for the dawn. The attack was then resumed, the 2nd Coldstream coming up into line between the Irish Guards and the Grenadiers. Later on the 3rd Coldstream were also brought up into line on the right of the Grenadiers. The 5th Brigade was on the right of the 4th. Good progress was made, and the line with the 6th Brigade having been established, the men dug themselves in at dusk. This wearisome but highly necessary step had hardly been completed before a furious counter-attack was made at 10 p.m. It was, however, repulsed with loss, and the 2nd Division, cold, wet and weary, remained unmolested for the rest of the night.

This successful advance on the 26th was—as far as this chronicle is concerned—the last act of the 4th (Guards) Brigade as an integral unit. From this time on, the 2nd Grenadiers and the Irish Guards will be found acting quite independently in another part of the field, under the command of Lord Cavan, while the 2nd and 3rd Coldstream remained in the Polygon wood trenches under Col. Pereira. Later on these two Coldstream battalions were joined by the remnant of the 1st Battalion from the 1st Brigade, so that the regiment was, in fact, consolidated. It is important in view of subsequent events to keep this clearly in mind. The Coldstream—with the exception of the 1st Battalion—will not again appear in these pages as actors in the great Ypres drama. But though not directly under the limelight, the rôle allotted to them henceforth was probably as trying as that to which any regiment could be subjected. For twenty-two consecutive days from the date of the advance they occupied the Polygon wood trenches. In the case of the 3rd Battalion these trenches zig-zagged along the eastern edge of the wood, while the 2nd Battalion trenches ran through the wood itself and were straight. In each case the general lie was north and south, in contrast to the trenches of the 6th Brigade on their left, which faced north-east, making, in fact, the first bend back in the Ypres salient. These Polygon wood trenches proved most abominably wet even for Flanders, the neighbourhood abounding in springs which kept them half full of water even in dry weather. Here the Coldstreamers stayed unrelieved for over three weeks, up to their knees in water, under ceaseless shell-fire, and sniped at with horrible precision on every occasion when they raised their heads. To add to the unpleasantness of the position, the woods in front were thick with unburied Germans, from which the whole atmosphere was polluted. Luckily during the whole of their tenure the wind blew from westerly quarters, which while it brought abominably wet weather, nevertheless blew the tainted air in the direction of the enemy.