London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Stand of the Fifth Division in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE STAND OF THE FIFTH DIVISION [5]

In the meanwhile, further south, at and around Givenchy, a situation was developing which in point of dramatic interest, and as a test of indomitable resolution, bid fair to rival the defence of Ypres. From Givenchy to Le Gheir the 2nd and 3rd Army Corp had now definitely assumed the defensive, and the story of how that defence was maintained in the face of overwhelming odds, and under conditions of extreme difficulty and fatigue, is one of which Britain may ever be justly proud.

The 21st French Army was, throughout these La Bassée operations, responsible for the ground up to the canal south of Givenchy. From that point the 5th Division took up the line; then came the 3rd Division, then the 6th, and finally, with its left resting on Le Gheir, the 4th Division. Behind the 5th and 3rd Divisions were the Indians.

Between Le Gheir and Zandvoorde, which we may take as the southernmost point of the arm of Ypres, was Allenby's Cavalry Corps.

In the case of the South Army, as with the Army of Ypres, the impetus of the first advance had carried our troops to a line which was only afterwards maintained under great strain, in the face of the masses of troops which the enemy were gradually concentrating in this particular area. La Bassée and Ypres became, for the time being, the two points on which German attention was specially riveted. With the avowed intention of breaking through to Calais by one or other of these routes, troops were being systematically railed up from the east and massed along the Belgian frontier. It was officially computed that by October 20th there were 250,000 German troops north of La Bassée, and that by the middle of November that number had been increased to 750,000.
The fact that it was the British Army which stood between this vast mass of armed men and its projected advance was in all probability not entirely a matter of chance. If the attempt to break through either at Ypres or La Bassée had succeeded, the little British force would either have been wiped out, or hopelessly disgraced in the eyes of its allies. In either case the prestige of England would have received a rude shock; and, with a German base established at Calais, she would have been in imminent danger of losing something more than prestige.

The fact, then, that the Kaiser's selected road to Calais or Paris, as the case might be, lay through the thirty miles of front held by the British troops, was in all probability part of a carefully-thought-out plan. One factor in the case, however, had been overlooked, or at least under-rated, viz.—the indomitable tenacity of the British soldier in the face of difficulties. Of this essentially British quality the Germans had as yet had no practical experience. At Mons and Le Cateau we had dropped back before their onslaughts—dropped back, it is true, in obedience to orders, and in conformity with a pre-arranged plan. Still, we had dropped back. At the Aisne there had been no serious attempt on the part of the enemy to break through our lines. Such had not been part of the German programme at the moment. It was therefore not wholly unnatural, that the very thin British line between Givenchy and Ypres, should have been reckoned at German Head Quarters as being penetrable at any point where sufficient pressure was brought to bear.

In the face of beliefs such as these, the stone-wall resistance put up by our three war-worn Army Corps must have been a source of equal astonishment and exasperation to the wire-pullers in Berlin. To the Britisher it must always bring a thrill of justifiable pride. Many of the regiments engaged were technically "annihilated." Their officers went; their senior N.C.O.'s went; they were worn to the last stage of mental and physical exhaustion by sleeplessness, and by unceasing digging and fighting. And still they held on. There were no "hands uppers" among these men from Britain. We gave ground, of course, both in the La Bassée area and at Ypres. In the latter case a withdrawal of some kind was dictated by every consideration of military prudence. The original bulge was a danger from every point of view, and with no compensating advantage. It thinned our line and laid us open at all times to the risk of enfilading attacks from north and south.
At La Bassée, too, we had got too far ahead, and from the military point of view we lost nothing by falling back a few miles. But from the three points in the line of vital strategical importance, Givenchy, Ploegsteert and Klein Zillebeke, we were never driven. Those points were held on to with a stubborn determination which nothing could break through; and to the battalions on whose shoulders fell the main weight of this burden is due the homage of all who stayed at home. It is not suggested that there was an entirely uniform standard of excellence throughout all the units engaged. Any attempt to make such a representation would be a gross injustice to those battalions which stand out, and which have for ever immortalized themselves, and the honour of British arms, by an indomitable resistance which can find few parallels in the history of war.

But at first we got too far ahead at La Bassée as at Ypres, and this soon became very clear. During a thick fog on the morning of the 21st, some of the 5th Division were driven out of their trenches; and in lieu of making any attempt to retake the trenches so lost, Gen. Morland—who on Sir Charles Fergusson's promotion had taken over command of the division—thought it advisable to readjust the entire line.
Further north, just east of Fromelles, the 19th Brigade had also to give ground. They fought all through this day with great gallantry, but their losses were very heavy, and, in spite of all efforts, by evening they had been forced back over a mile. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were specially conspicuous on this occasion; they fought with indomitable valour, and it was only with the greatest reluctance that in the end they obeyed the order to abandon their trenches. In Sergt. Ross's platoon eighty per cent. had been killed or wounded, but the gallant sergeant still refused to give way.

This succession of small reverses was, of course, disappointing in view of the anticipations of the week before, but they brought home to all concerned a thorough realization of the change of outlook. This was still further emphasized by the shifting northwards of the 3rd Army Corp, a step which was rendered necessary by the obvious inadequacy of the Cavalry Corps numbers for the frontage allotted to it. By this move that frontage was appreciably shortened, but the gap between the 2nd and 3rd Army Corp was correspondingly widened, and the difficulty of Conneau's gallant but highly tried corps of cavalry was proportionately increased. The effect on the Frenchmen was at once felt, these being driven out of Fromelles on the following afternoon with very heavy loss. On the same afternoon the 5th Division again suffered severely. The Cheshires were driven out of Violaines, and the Dorsets—terribly thinned though they had been by the fighting of the 13th—seeing them hard pressed, left their trenches and dashed up in support, but the odds were too heavy and both were driven back with loss. The Germans thereupon occupied Rue du Marais, a little village on the northern slope of the Givenchy ridge, but their advantage was short-lived, for they were promptly counter-attacked by the Manchesters and Worcesters and driven out again.

In the meanwhile the Devons had been forced to fall back some two miles from Canteleux, which they had now occupied for three days, to Givenchy, the former place having been formed into an untenable salient by the withdrawal of the troops on either flank.

In the evening General Morland told Sir Horace that the 5th Division was completely worn out with constant digging and fighting, and that he doubted whether they could withstand another attack. The 2nd Army Corp had already in the last ten days lost 5,000 men, to which the 5th Division had contributed more than its share. This division had, in fact, from first to last had a most trying time. It had borne the brunt of the fighting at Le Cateau, and at the Aisne it had struck what proved to be by far the most difficult crossing. It had subsequently throughout the Aisne fighting been forced to occupy trenches in the low ground by the river, which were throughout dominated by the German artillery on the heights beyond. Then, within one week of leaving the Aisne trenches, they were once more engaged in ceaseless battling day and night against superior numbers, for on the several battalions of this division in turn devolved the paramount duty of holding the Givenchy position at all costs.

That night Sir Horace motored twenty-five miles over to St. Omer to explain the situation to the Commander in Chief, who was most sympathetic and promised that he would send all that he could spare of the Lahore Indians to be at Estaires at eight o'clock next morning, with a rider to the effect that they were not to be used except in emergency, as they were destined for other work. As a matter of fact they were not used, the 5th Division proving equal to the occasion without foreign assistance.

Throughout the 23rd, 24th and 25th the Germans continued to attack Givenchy with the utmost persistence, but without succeeding in dislodging the Devons. That gallant regiment, however, was becoming very weak in officers. During their three days at Canteleux, Captain Chichester and Lieut. Ridgers had been killed, and Col. Gloster and Lieut. Tillett wounded. Then on the 24th, Lieut. Ainslie was killed, and on the following day Captain Besley and Lieut. Quick were killed, the latter while running to the next regiment to tell them that the Devons meant holding on and that they must do the same. On the 20th they relieved the Manchesters at Festubert. The latter regiment, during its occupation of Festubert, had held its difficult position with magnificent determination and had won two Victoria Crosses, 2nd Lieut. Leach and Sergt. Hogan being each awarded the Cross for valour.

On the following day, the whole line in the neighbourhood of Festubert was subjected to a particularly infernal shelling, every known species of missile being hurled against it. The Devons stood firm through it all, but the regiment on their left—an Indian regiment for the first time in the firing line—found it too much for them, and after having lost most of their officers they retired, their trenches being at once occupied by the enemy. This made the position of the Devons very precarious. With as little delay as possible the reserve company of the regiment under Lieut. Hancock and Lieut. Dunsterville was brought up, and with great gallantry the company attacked and drove the Germans out of the right-hand section of the lost trenches, the 58th Vaughan Rifles at the same time retaking the left-hand section. Both Lieut. Hancock and Lieut. Dunsterville were killed during the charge, and Lieut. Ditmas thereupon took over command of the company, but he himself was subsequently killed, after displaying conspicuous gallantry. On the 31st, as a part of the general process of transfer, the Devons were at length relieved, after sixteen days of almost continuous fighting. They received a great ovation from the other troops on their withdrawal. Lieut.-Col. Gloster was given the C.M.G. and Lieut. Worrall the Military Cross. Other officers who showed conspicuous ability and daring were Lieuts. Lang, Prior and Alexander. Sergt.-Major Webb, who on several occasions had given proof of remarkable courage and coolness, got the D.C.M., as also did Lance-Corpl. Simmons and Pte. Worsfold, the latter of whom greatly distinguished himself by carrying numerous messages at Festubert after the telegraphic communication was cut.

We have now, however, got considerably ahead of the general situation, from which we digressed on October 22nd in order to keep in touch with the position at and around Givenchy. We must therefore once more take up the thread at that date.

During the 23rd, 24th and 25th there was no movement of marked importance in the southern area, but continuous attacks all along the line still further reduced the number and vitality of the 5th Division, and by the evening of the 25th it was rapidly becoming evident to all concerned that the condition of that division, and indeed of the entire 2nd Army Corp in greater or less degree, was extremely serious. The casualties of this Army Corps since its arrival in Flanders now amounted to 350 officers and 8,204 men, and those that survived were in a state of extreme exhaustion both mental and physical.

Sir Horace summoned General Maude, Col. Martyn (who had taken over the command of the 13th Brigade when Col. Hickie had been invalided home on October 13th), and Count Gleichen, the three Brigadiers of the 5th Division, to meet General Morland, and all agreed that the situation was very grave indeed, and that human endurance was nearly at the breaking point. General Maude (14th Brigade), however, reported that Col. Ballard was determined to hold the canal trenches with the Norfolks to the last gasp, and that the Devons next the Norfolks at Givenchy were equally resolute, though terribly thinned by casualties. All, however, agreed that however willing the spirit might be, the flesh was too weak to make any prolonged resistance. The Generals themselves were well-nigh worn out with the ceaseless strain, and with want of sleep, their nights being largely occupied in motoring hither and thither for purposes of consultation with other commanders. Two or three hours' sleep in a night was a luxury. Luckily the Germans—accurate as their information usually was—seem to have failed to realize the extreme exhaustion of the troops facing them at this part of the line, otherwise the history of events might have been different.

Footnotes

[5] 13th, 14th and 15th Brigades.