London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Birth of the Ypres Salient in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE BIRTH OF THE YPRES SALIENT

It is necessary now to turn for the moment to the scene further north, where a mild interest was beginning to be displayed in England in the war-clouds which were gathering round the picturesque and historical Flemish town of Ypres. It will be remembered that, on the 14th, Sir Henry Rawlinson, with the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division, had reached Ypres from Dixmude. On their first arrival, the 3rd Cavalry Division had been sent south of Ypres, the 6th Cavalry Brigade going to Wytschate and the 7th Cavalry Brigade to Kemmel; but as the Cavalry Corps under General Allenby gradually drew up from the direction of Béthune, the 6th and 7th Cavalry Brigade (3rd Cavalry Division) were withdrawn to the north side of Ypres, where they worked the ground between Zonnebeke and the Forêt d'Houlthust, filling, in fact—as well as might be—the gap between the French Cavalry to the north and the left of the 7th Division. This latter division, since its arrival, had pushed forward with little or no opposition to a convex position some six miles east of Ypres, which embraced the villages of Zonnebeke, Kruiseik and Zandvoorde. South of Zandvoorde there was a considerable hiatus, Allenby's Cavalry Corps, which had unexpectedly found itself opposed by the XIX. Saxon Corps and three divisions of German Cavalry, having not yet got into proper touch with the right of the 7th Division. This, however, in view of the fact that the 7th Division was on the outside of the wheeling movement, and had therefore the bigger sweep to make, was a matter of little moment, and one which would have speedily righted itself at a later stage, had the original plan been successfully carried through. A matter of more moment at the time was that the 22nd Brigade, on the left of the 7th Division at Zonnebeke, was considerably in arrear of the 20th Brigade at Kruiseik, whereas the converse should have been the case. Accordingly, in the early morning of the 19th, the 22nd Brigade was ordered to advance from Zonnebeke in the direction of the straight road connecting Roulers and Menin, so as to bring the left shoulder of the 7th Division well forward. When this had been done, the 20th and 21st Brigade were to join in the general advance.

The main idea on the extreme left of our line, at the moment, was to seize the bridge over the River Lys at Menin, and so impede the further advance of the German reinforcements which were being steadily railed up from the direction of Lille. In the event it turned out that the manœuvre was impracticable owing to the insufficiency in numbers of the British force operating east of Ypres. This force, it will be understood, consisted, at the time, of the 7th Division alone, supported by two cavalry brigades on its left flank, whereas the Germans had by the 19th concentrated on the spot a force of five or six times this magnitude. However, in the intention lies the explanation of the subsequent Ypres salient. The original idea was strategically sound, but it was frustrated owing to the difficulty and consequent delay in concentration which accompanied the transfer of the British force from the Aisne to its new field of operation in Flanders. It was a race as to which army could concentrate with the greatest rapidity, and the Germans—having by far the easier task and by far the shorter road to travel—got in first.

At 5 a.m., then, on the 19th, the 22nd Brigade set out from Zonnebeke on its forward movement, the 2nd Queen's on the left, the 1st R. Welsh Fusiliers in the centre, and the 2nd Warwicks on the right, the 1st S. Staffords being in reserve.

This 22nd Brigade, as it turned out, was the only one in the 7th Division which was destined to do any fighting this day. The 20th Brigade, which was at Kruiseik, some couple of miles in advance of the 22nd, never really came into action. As a matter of fact, they were in the act of deploying for an attack on Ghelowe about 11 a.m., when news was brought by an airman that two fresh German Army Corps had suddenly made their appearance, moving up from the direction of Courtrai. As far as this brigade was concerned, then, the original order to advance was cancelled, it being clearly impracticable for one division to take the offensive against four. By this time, however, the 22nd Brigade had advanced some six miles from Zonnebeke to the neighbourhood of the straight road and the parallel railway which connect Roulers and Menin. The news of the unexpected reinforcement of the enemy in front was duly communicated to General Lawford, commanding the brigade, and he at once ordered the retirement of his four battalions. This order reached the Queen's and the Warwicks about 11.30, but did not penetrate through to the R. Welsh Fusiliers, who accordingly pressed on towards Ledeghem, quite ignorant of the new development, or of the fact that they were unsupported by the battalions on either flank. Ledeghem was found to be very strongly occupied, and on reaching the high road from Roulers to Menin, just short of the railway, the battalion found itself not only attacked in force from in front, but at the same time enfiladed from the direction of the main road on the left, and very heavily shelled from Keselburg on the right front. To this artillery fire there was no response whatever from our own gunners, who, it is to be presumed, were in ignorance of the single-handed advance of the R. Welsh Fusiliers, and had withdrawn with the rest of the brigade. The German artillery accordingly had it all its own way, and their shrapnel played havoc in the ranks of the gallant Welshmen. Nine officers [4] had already fallen when at 1.20 the order to retire reached the C.O. The order now was that the battalion was to withdraw to a ridge in rear, near the windmill at Dadizeele, and there act rear-guard to the rest of the brigade. This order was carried out without any great further loss, the enemy showing no disposition at the moment to advance, and eventually the brigade reached Zonnebeke in the dusk of the evening.

Throughout that night a constant stream of refugees passed through Zonnebeke on their way westward from Roulers, which was burning. These were all subjected to examination, but their number was too great to make close examination possible, and that many spies got through among them is unquestionable.

It very soon became apparent that the newly-arrived German troops had no intention of letting the grass grow under their feet. During the night they had put behind them the six miles which separate Ledeghem from Zonnebeke, and at eleven o'clock on the morning of the 20th they started bombarding the latter place. Once more fate elected that the R. Welsh Fusiliers should stand in the path of the attack. They were now on the left of the 22nd Brigade, and they were attacked not only from the direction of the road, but from their left flank, which was very much exposed, the line of the cavalrymen north of the road being even more extended than that of the 7th Division. However, in spite of everything, they held their ground with great determination throughout this day and the next. Their losses, however, were again very severe indeed. This was, in fact, the first of the 7th Division battalions to undergo that gradual process of annihilation which was destined in time to be the fate of all. The extreme tension of the situation at Zonnebeke was in some part relieved by the arrival on the scene, during the night, of the 4th (Guards) Brigade, who took over the ground north of the Zonnebeke road from the cavalry. This brigade formed part of the 1st Army Corp which had arrived at St. Omer from the Aisne on the 17th and 18th, and had been billeted outside Ypres on the night of the 19th.

The question as to how best to dispose of this 1st Army Corp was an extremely delicate one. The numerical weakness of the Cavalry Corps, holding the Wytschate and Messines line, suggested strongly that it would be of the greatest use in that area. On the other hand was the very grave danger of the Allies' left flank being turned by the sudden advance of fresh German forces north and east of Ypres, of sufficient strength to break through the very thin line guarding that quarter. In this dilemma, the Commander in Chief, with consummate judgment, decided to send Sir Douglas Haig's Army Corps to the northern side of Ypres. The wisdom of this step became apparent on the very next day, that is on the day when the 22nd Brigade advanced to the Roulers-Menin road, and were forced back by the unexpected appearance of two Army Corps whose presence was unknown to our air-scouts. These fresh German forces as we have seen, pursued the 22nd Brigade as far as Zonnebeke, and there attacked our line with the utmost determination on the 20th and 21st. On the first of these two days, the brigade, as already described, managed to hold its own—though at great sacrifice—but the German attacking force was all the time being augmented, while our defensive force, owing to continuous losses, was getting weaker; and it is hardly conceivable that the enemy's advance could have been checked for another twenty-four hours, except for the timely arrival of the 1st Army Corp

As soon as the destination of this corps had been decided on between the Commander in Chief and Sir Douglas Haig, the latter hurried forward the Guards' Brigade to the assistance of the 7th Division, and these—as has already been explained—came up into line on the left of the R. Welsh Fusiliers on the night of the 20th, and were unquestionably very largely instrumental in preventing something in the nature of a débâcle on the 21st.

On that morning the enemy renewed the attack in great force at daybreak, and kept up a succession of violent assaults till four in the afternoon. The Welsh Fusiliers were again in the very path of the attack, but the presence of the Guards' Brigade on their left, north of the Zonnebeke road, just made the difference. With this backing, they successfully held out from daybreak till 4 p.m., by which time their trenches had been wholly annihilated and a retirement became necessary. Their difficulties were increased by the giving out of their ammunition, but the situation was to some extent saved by the gallantry of Sergt.-Drummer Chapman, who brought up fresh supplies under a very heavy fire. Another Welsh Fusilier who won great distinction during the day was Pte. Blacktin, who was awarded the D.C.M. for the continued heroism with which he attended to the wounded throughout the two days' fighting. Of these there were now, unfortunately, only too many, the Welsh Fusiliers having—in three successive days' fighting—lost 23 officers and 750 men. Their retirement in the evening was assisted by the 2nd Queen's, who (with the exception of one company, which was away to the right, supporting the Northumberland Hussars between the 22nd and 21st Brigade) were in the second line. This battalion too suffered severely during the operations, Lieuts. Ingram and Ive being killed, and Major Whinfield, Lieuts. Heath, Haigh, Williams and Gabb wounded. They effectively, however, checked the further advance of the enemy. By a piece of good fortune the S. Staffords, on the right of the Welsh Fusiliers, were also in a position to give the advancing Germans a very bad time. They had a body of expert shots posted in the upper windows of St. Joseph's school, from which point of vantage they were able to get the Germans in flank. The school was being shelled all the time, but was not hit. During the night which followed, however—a night of exceptional darkness—the Germans found an opportunity of pushing forward round the left flank of the S. Staffords, but without succeeding in dislodging them, till an order arrived at four o'clock in the morning for their retirement, as they were ahead of the line.

In the meanwhile the Guards' Brigade, north of the road, had not been idle, and it is not too much to say that, except for the arrival of this brigade in the very nick of time, the position would have been very nearly desperate. As it was, however, their presence at once made itself felt. The fire of the S. Staffords from the right, the Guards' Brigade from the left, and the 2nd Queen's from in face, was more than the German advance was prepared at the moment to push forward against, and it came to a standstill. The Guards' casualties were considerable, especially in the case of the 3rd Coldstream, who had the Hon. C. Monck and Lieut. Waller killed, and Colonel Feilding, Lieut. Darrell and Lieut. Leese wounded. Lord Feilding was given the D.S.O. for conspicuous gallantry on this occasion. The 52nd Oxford Light Infantry, acting with the Guards' Brigade, proved in every way worthy of the association, and fully lived up to its great fighting reputation. Amongst those who particularly distinguished themselves in this regiment during the fight were Lieut. Spencer, Corpl. Hodges and Pte. Hastings.

In the events of these three days is to be found the origin of the singular bulge, or—in military parlance—salient, which throughout October characterized the disposition of our forces east of Ypres. By the unexpected appearance to our front of 80,000 fresh German troops, our contemplated progress eastward had perforce to be replaced, on the spur of the moment, by a grim determination to hold on as long as possible to the ground we had already won. This was, no doubt, a natural desire, but its fruit was unsound.

On the evening of October 21st the position was that the 21st Brigade at Becelaere and the 20th at Kruiseik and Zandvoorde were still very considerably ahead of the 22nd, which, as we have seen, had been driven back to Zonnebeke. North of Zonnebeke the line of the 1st Division fell still further back, facing, in fact, very nearly due north, while south of Zandvoorde there was no line at all, the 7th Division here ending in space, for reasons already given. Later on the 3rd Cavalry Division—when released from its duties north of Zonnebeke—were detailed for the duty of keeping up the communication between Zandvoorde and the Cavalry Corps far back at Hollebeke, Wytschate and Messines, but even so, the line they occupied fell back almost at right angles from our true front, and was a constant source of anxiety. For a General voluntarily to relinquish ground already won is probably the supreme act of renunciation, at the same time it is obvious that three sides of a square are longer than the fourth side, and therefore require more men for their defence, and it is no exaggeration to say that between October 20th and 26th the Ypres salient bore a perilous resemblance to three sides of a square.

The timely arrival of the 1st Army Corp had undoubtedly saved the situation for the moment, as far as the German attempt to break through at Zonnebeke was concerned, but the position was still one for the very gravest anxiety. Even with the addition of the 1st Army Corp we had only three infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades with which to defend the entire front from Bixschoote, due north of Ypres, to Hollebeke, nearly due south of it. From Bixschoote to Hollebeke, as the crow flies, is a matter of some eight miles, but, as our front at that time jutted out as far as Becelaere, six miles east of Ypres, it may be reckoned that the frontage to be defended was not less than sixteen miles in length. The strength of the enemy—that is to say, of the force which was immediately pressing forward at this moment on the Ypres frontage—may be approximately reckoned at 100,000; and had the German General at this juncture pushed his forces along all the main avenues to Ypres, it is difficult to see how he could have been held back. The line of defence was ridiculously extended—extended indeed far beyond the recognized limits of effective resistance, and there were no reserves available with which to strengthen any threatened spot. Every fighting man was in the long, thin line that swept round in that uncomfortable curve from Bixschoote to Hollebeke. The 89th French Territorial Division was, it is true, in general reserve, at Poperinghe, but this division was composed entirely of untried troops who could in no sense claim to be comparable to the French regulars. The 87th French Territorial Division, again, had as much as it could do to attend to its own affairs north of Ypres, and was not to be counted on as a source of reinforcement.

From this time on, the whole of our line north of the Zonnebeke road was gradually taken over by the 1st Army Corp, the 6th and 7th Cavalry Brigade, who had so far been responsible for that section of the front, being thereby released and retiring to Hooge, from which point, for the time being, they acted as a kind of mobile reserve—the fan-like arrangement of roads which branches out eastward from Ypres enabling them to be sent with the least possible delay to any threatened point on the front.

For purposes of descriptive clearness, it may perhaps be pardonable, even at the risk of labouring the point a little, to call attention once more to the fact that the British force in Flanders now consisted of two distinct and separate armies, which we may call the North and South Army. The South Army was made up of the 2nd Army Corp, the 3rd Army Corp, and the 19th Brigade, and was supported by Conneau's cavalry, which operated between these two Army Corps, and by the Lahore Indians in rear. The line of this army extended as far north as Le Gheir, or, rather, let us say, Ploegsteert, to which place the left of the 3rd Army Corp shortly withdrew.

The North Army consisted of the 1st Army Corp and the 7th Division, supported by the 3rd Cavalry Division, and the southernmost point in its charge at the moment was Hollebeke, or, to be more precise, the canal which turns off sharply towards Ypres just north of Hollebeke. The eight miles gap between the North Army and the South Army was held by the Cavalry Corps under Allenby.

The terrific fighting, then, of the end of October and beginning of November may be considered as taking place in three distinct sections, viz.—the South Army, the Cavalry Corps, and the North Army. The latter, it may be added, had the 89th French Territorial Division in support, and Gen. Bidon, with the 87th French Territorial Division, on its left, north of Ypres.

The fact that the 1st Army Corp had arrived on the scene absolutely at the psychological moment in order to avert disaster, was made abundantly clear, not only by the effective support which the 2nd Division of that Army Corps was able to lend north of the Zonnebeke road on the 21st, but also by the immediate demand which arose further south for the services of the released 3rd Cavalry Division. These two Cavalry Brigades, it will be remembered, had been replaced on the night of the 20th by the 2nd Division, who had taken over their position north of the Zonnebeke road.

At 1 p.m. on the following day, that is, at the same time that the Welsh Fusiliers were being so fiercely attacked along the Zonnebeke road, news arrived that Gough's 2nd Cavalry Division was being very hard pressed, and had been forced to fall back on Messines. This left a gap, or—to be more accurate—widened the gap on the right of the 7th Division at Zandvoorde, and the 6th Cavalry Brigade (10th Hussars, Royals, and 3rd Dragoon Guards) were sent off to fill it, as well as might be, by occupying the two canal crossings north of Hollebeke. This they did with success, and the 10th Hussars and 4th Hussars (from the 3rd Cavalry Brigade) even attacked the Château de Hollebeke itself, but were unable to take it, on account of its being still under fire from our own artillery. Later on in the evening, however, it was felt that the line south-west of Zandvoorde was dangerously open, and the 6th Cavalry Brigade was shifted in that direction, the 10th Hussars at 3 o'clock in the morning taking over the Zandvoorde trenches from the 2nd Scots Guards in the 20th Brigade. The 7th Cavalry Brigade went into reserve at St. Eloi, where it remained for the night. In the meanwhile the Commander in Chief had sent up the 7th Indian Brigade to help support Gough.

This transfer of the Zandvoorde trenches into the keeping of the 3rd Cavalry Division was the first abridgement of the immense frontage (from Zonnebeke to south of Zandvoorde) held by the 7th Division. From this time on, till the moment when they were permanently abandoned, it will be found that these Zandvoorde trenches were in the occupation either of the 6th Cavalry Brigade or the 7th Cavalry Brigade They formed the most dangerous position in the whole line of defence, being in the form of a promontory which jutted out defiantly into the enemy's country. The 3rd Cavalry Division suffered very severely during its nine days' defence of these deadly trenches, the 10th Hussars, who were perhaps the worst sufferers, losing on the very first day of occupation Col. Barnes, Major Mitford and Captain Stewart.

Footnotes

[4] In this engagement Captain Kingston, Captain Lloyd, Captain Brennan and Lieut. Chance were killed, and Major Gabbett, Captain St. John, Captain Skaife and Lieuts. Jones and Naylor were wounded.