London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Klein Zillebeke in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton


When we last took leave of the Klein Zillebeke section of the fighting line, on the night of October 30th, the cavalry position from Klein Zillebeke to the canal had just been taken over by Lord Cavan with the 2nd Grenadiers and Irish Guards, the former being on the canal. On the left of the Irish Guards were the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, with the Oxford Light Infantry in reserve, and beyond them the Sussex and Northamptons, with their left joining up with the 22nd Brigade. On the left of the 22nd Brigade was the 21st Brigade, with the 2nd R. Scots Fusiliers on its extreme flank just south of the Menin road at Gheluvelt. The 20th Brigade was in reserve.

During the morning the 3rd Cavalry Division was kept at Verbranden Molen ready for emergencies, but about 1 p.m. orders were received for it to go to the support of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade at St. Eloi. Contradictory orders were, however, afterwards received, and in the end the brigade joined up with the 4th Hussars, and together they held the two bridges over the canal at the bend just north of Hollebeke till nightfall. In this action Sergt. Seddons, of the 4th Hussars, showed great gallantry during the defence of the eastern bridge and was deservedly awarded the D.C.M. In the meanwhile the 6th Cavalry Brigade was sent along the Menin road so as to be ready to co-operate with the 7th Division or the 1st Army Corp in case of need. That need—as will presently be seen—very quickly arose.

The original plan for this day had been to attack and retake the Zandvoorde ridge, together with the trenches which had been lost the day before, but the enemy's extreme activity rendered this impracticable, and we were in the end forced to act purely on the defensive.

We are now, be it remembered, dealing with the morning of October 31st, the day on which the cavalry were driven out of Wytschate and Messines and the 1st and 7th Divisions out of Gheluvelt. The terrific bombardment of that morning has already been described. It was chiefly concentrated on the Menin road, but the whole line from Gheluvelt to the canal was involved.

The 2nd Brigade, which was between the two Guards' battalions and the 7th Division, had a curious experience during the morning. It survived the bombardment, and when this slackened to allow the German infantry to advance, it was still in its trenches and prepared to remain there. About eight o'clock, however, General Bulfin summoned the four C.O.'s of the brigade, and ordered a general retirement of the brigade to the cross-roads at Zillebeke, about a mile in rear. This was duly carried out, and without much loss on the part of the Sussex and Northamptons, who were able to retire through the Zwartelen woods without coming under observation. The 2nd Gordon Highlanders, however (attached temporarily to the 2nd Brigade), were less fortunate. Their trenches were in the open, running north-eastward from Klein Zillebeke farm along the edge of the country lane known as the Brown Road, and, in retiring, they had to cross a considerable tract of exposed ground, during which they suffered very severely from machine-gun fire, Captain McLean's company being practically wiped out.

It was afterwards freely rumoured that this order to retire had been delivered to General Bulfin, as a Divisional Order, by a German dressed in the uniform of a British Staff officer. Some colour is given to this rumour by the extreme improbability of such an order having been officially given after Sir Douglas Haig's ultimatum of the day before, that the line which this apocryphal order caused to be abandoned was to be held at all costs. In any event, it is a matter of history that those concerned did not accept the retired position as a permanency, and a counter-attack was quickly organized. The 6th Cavalry Brigade, which had been waiting in reserve on the Menin road, was brought up as far as the Basseville brook, where they deployed to the south, and, partly mounted and partly dismounted, charged through the Zwartelen woods. Simultaneously the Gordon Highlanders, now reduced to 300, and under the command of Major Craufurd (Col. Uniacke having been knocked out by a shell earlier in the day), charged on the right of the cavalry, with the Oxford Light Infantry extending the line again on their right. Before this united movement the Bavarian troops in the woods turned and ran, but, true to their principles, continued to cover their retreat with a heavy machine-gun fire. Two of these machine-guns were successfully located, and the 6th Cavalry Brigade menhandled a gun into the firing line and knocked them both out in fine style. This broke the back of the resistance. The Bavarians started surrendering, and the Gordon Highlanders took a number of prisoners up to the time when Lieut. Grahame was shot dead by an officer who had surrendered to him; after that they took fewer.

The enemy losses were very heavy. Eight hundred and seventy prisoners were taken during the day, and the number of killed and wounded in the woods ran into several hundreds.

This charge—successful though it had been in clearing the Zwartelen woods of the enemy—had not yet reinstated the 2nd Brigade in the line which they had occupied in the morning, before the much-discussed order to retire had arisen. General Bulfin therefore decided to try during the night to regain the morning position. Accordingly at midnight, under the full moon, and at the same time that the desperate battle was raging round Messines and Wytschate eight miles to the south-west, the 2nd Brigade made their second counter-attack. This, as far as it went, was a complete success. The trenches were carried and occupied, and the Germans driven out. Unfortunately, however, the 22nd Brigade, on the left, found themselves unable to get up into line, and, owing to their left being unprotected, the 2nd Brigade battalions had one after the other—in succession from the left—to fall back again.

These two attacks, i.e., the afternoon charge through the woods and the midnight assault on the trenches, had now reduced the Gordons to 3 officers and 110 men, and these were for the time being amalgamated with the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, who were on their right. The Irish Guards remained in their original position, on the right of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, but the 2nd Grenadiers were relieved by French Territorials and went back into reserve.

The nett result of this terrible day's fighting was that our line was pushed back everywhere, except at Klein Zillebeke and Zonnebeke, the two points which marked the northern and southern limits of the Ypres salient. The effect of the recapture of the Gheluvelt position by the 2nd Worcesters and 1st Scots Guards was neutralized by the cave in the line south of that place, which rendered Gheluvelt untenable. It had therefore to be abandoned. The loss of that place, however, was of no material importance, as its abandonment had long been recognized as a necessary step in the gradual straightening out of the Ypres salient. The only serious effect of the new line was that Klein Zillebeke, which for long had been the re-entering angle, so to speak, of the position, now, by the retirements to right and left of it, was pushed forward into a species of salient, and its vulnerability was thereby appreciably increased. This increased vulnerability at once transformed Klein Zillebeke into the centre of interest as far as this zone was concerned, this little village being—for reasons already given—a spot which at any and all costs had to be kept from the enemy. To Klein Zillebeke and neighbourhood, then, we may not unreasonably look for early developments.

One of the many unhappy incidents of this day's costly fighting was the landing of a shell in the Divisional Head Quarters at Hooge, by which General Lomax received wounds from which he subsequently died, General Munro was rendered unconscious, and Col. Kerr and five staff officers were killed.