London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Gheluvelt in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton


October 31st may be said to have witnessed the supreme effort of the enemy to break through to Ypres. The attack on this day was pressed simultaneously along the whole of our front from Messines to the Menin road, and lasted not only throughout the day but during the greater part of the night. This tremendous battle, covering as it did a frontage of twelve miles, can only be adequately described by cutting it up into three sections, the first of which deals with the fight along the Menin road, the second with the struggle at Klein Zillebeke, and the third with the attack on the cavalry corps at Wytschate and Messines.

We will deal first with the fight on the Menin road. Here, it will be remembered, our troops had been forced back on the 29th from a line just west of Kruiseik cross-roads to the Gheluvelt trenches, three-quarters of a mile further back, and on the higher ridge on which that village stands.

On the morning of the 31st the new position was in its turn attacked, and under conditions which in many ways recalled the fight of two days before. There was, however, this difference, that, while the attack of the 29th had been in the nature of a surprise in the fog, and had been unheralded by any previous cannonade, that of the 31st was preceded by a bombardment which, in point of violence, threw into the shade everything which the campaign had yet witnessed. The expenditure of ammunition must have been colossal. This terrific discharge of missiles commenced at daybreak, and gradually increased in volume up to eleven o'clock, when it ceased and the infantry attack commenced.

The shell-fire had been mainly focussed on the 3rd and 22nd Brigades in the neighbourhood of Gheluvelt. By the association of these two Brigades, the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Queen's (R. West Surrey Regiment) for the first time in history found themselves fighting side by side. The occasion was an historic one, but not without a strong note of tragedy, both battalions being in the direct track of the bombardment, and suffering very severely. Each battalion, too, lost its C.O. during the morning, Col. Pell of the 1st Battalion being killed and Col. Coles of the 2nd Battalion wounded.

The tactics of the enemy in these Menin road attacks almost always took the same form. All the batteries within the area would concentrate on the road and on the trenches immediately to right and left of the road, making these positions absolutely untenable. Then, when the troops in the track of the shell-fire had fallen back dazed into semi-unconsciousness by the inferno, they would drive a dense mass of infantry into the gap, and so enfilade—and very often surround—the trenches which were still occupied to right and left of the gap. By this method, companies, and sometimes whole battalions, which had stuck out the shell-fire, were overwhelmed and annihilated.

Such a fate on this occasion overtook the right flank company of the South Wales Borderers just north of Gheluvelt. This company formed the northern boundary of the gap caused by the bombardment, and the German wedge, spreading out towards the right, bore down on it from three sides. Major Lawrence, in command of the company, faced half the men about and kept up the fight to the bitter end, but it was merely a question of selling their lives as dearly as possible. The tide swept over them and they ceased to exist.

The remaining companies of the South Wales Borderers managed to maintain their ground till the line north of the road was re-established in the following way.

At 1.30 the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment, who were in reserve at the six cross-roads at the corner of the Polygon wood, a mile to the rear, were ordered to retake the lost position. This they did in the following very gallant manner, led by Major Hankey. They deployed in the woods just to the rear of Gheluvelt, and, advancing in a series of short rushes, charged right up to the line of the lost trenches. The last rush had to be made across 200 yards of open ground in the face of a terrific shrapnel fire. Over 100 of the Worcesters fell in this last rush, but the remainder charged home and drove out the Germans with heavy loss. The old trenches were found to have been filled in, but a sunken road just in rear provided fair cover, and this the Worcesters now lined, joining up their left with the right of the South Wales Borderers. The Germans, however, were still in the village itself and the position was at best a precarious one. They managed, however, to hold on till dark.

The Worcesters lost 187 men in this short, brilliant charge. The achievement was alluded to by the Commander in Chief as one of the finest in the whole campaign, and one which saved the army from a very awkward predicament.

The 1st Scots Guards, on the left of the South Wales Borderers again, as on the 29th, stood firm throughout the day, and contributed in no small measure to the ultimate repulse of the enemy. In the afternoon one company of this battalion was detached to co-operate in the counter-attack made by the Worcesters, and generally to re-establish the broken line north of Gheluvelt. This they succeeded in doing, with very able support from the 42nd Battery R.F.A., but in the doing of it lost Captain Wickham and Major Vandeweyer, the former of whom was killed.

Meanwhile another historic resistance was being put up south of the road by the 2nd R. Scots Fusiliers. This battalion formed the southern boundary of the gap, just as the South Wales Borderers formed the northern boundary; and when the German infantry wedge was forced in, it found its trenches very badly raked from the gardens of the château, where the enemy had installed some machine-guns. General Watt, the Brigadier, recognizing that the position of this regiment had now become untenable, telephoned through to them to retire. The wire, however, had been cut by shrapnel and the message did not arrive. Two orderlies were thereupon successively dispatched to order their retirement. Both were knocked over and again the order did not reach. In the meanwhile, Col. Baird Smith, having received no order to retire, continued to hold his ground with ever dwindling numbers, till in the end the German masses swept over them, and another gallant British battalion ceased to exist. Only seventy men, commanded by a junior officer, escaped the carnage of that day.

Five months later, General Watt, addressing the officers and men at Sailly, after another great performance by the same battalion, said with reference to this occasion: "Col. Baird Smith, gallant soldier that he was, decided and rightly to hold his ground, and the R. Scots Fusiliers fought and fought till the Germans absolutely surrounded them and swarmed into the trenches. I think it was perfectly splendid. Mind you, it was no case of 'hands up' or any nonsense of that sort; it was a fight to a finish. You may well be proud to belong to such a regiment and I am proud to have you in my brigade."

To the south of the R. Scots Fusiliers, and in the same brigade, were the 2nd Bedfords. This regiment, too, had suffered very severely during the day, both its senior officers, Major Traill and Major Stares, being killed, but the brigade order to retire had not failed to reach it, as in the case of the Scotchmen, and it had been able to effect its withdrawal in good order.

The Germans did not carry their advance beyond Gheluvelt. The ground they had gained had only been won by a prodigious expenditure of ammunition, followed by a reckless sacrifice of men, and their losses had been enormous. Their further progress, too, was barred by the troops which had been shelled out of the village in the morning. These were now formed up half facing the road between Gheluvelt and Veldhoek, and offered a successful bar to any further advance on the part of the enemy. The Germans, however, did not relinquish their attempts to push on to Veldhoek without further serious fighting, in the course of which the 2nd Queen's sustained still further losses, their three senior officers, Col. Coles, Major Croft and Major Bottomley falling wounded, as well as Captain Weeding and Lieut. Philpot. Night fell without any further advance on the part of the enemy. Gheluvelt itself, however, in spite of the gallant counter-attack north of the road, during the afternoon, may be considered as having been lost from this day on.