The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards.|
The 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards.
The 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards.
The 1st Battalion Irish Guards.
Mobilization was completed on August 8. Next day, being Sunday, the Roman Catholics of the Battalion paraded under the Commanding Officer, Lieut.Colonel the Hon. G. H. Morris, and went to Westminster Cathedral where Cardinal Bourne preached; and on the morning of the 11th August Field-Marshal Lord Roberts and Lady Aileen Roberts made a farewell speech to them in Wellington Barracks. This was the last time that Lord Roberts saw the Battalion of which he was the first Commander-in-Chief.
On the 12th August the Battalion entrained for Southampton in two trains at Nine Elms Station, each detachment being played out of barracks to the station by the band. They were short one officer, as 2nd Lieutenant St. J. R. Pigott had fallen ill, and an officer just gazetted—2nd Lieutenant Sir Gerald Burke, Bart.—could not accompany them as he had not yet got his uniform. They embarked at Southampton on a hot still day in the P.&0. S.S. Novara. This was a long and tiring operation, since every one was new to embarkation-duty, and, owing to the tide, the ship’s bulwarks stood twenty-five feet above the quay. The work was not finished till 4 P.M. when most of the men had been under arms for twelve hours. Just before leaving, Captain Sir Delves Broughton, Bart., was taken ill and had to be left behind. A telegram was sent to Headquarters, asking for Captain H. Hamilton Berners to take his place, and the Novara cleared at 7 P.M. As dusk fell, she passed H.M.S. Formidable off Ryde and exchanged signals with her. The battle ship’s last message to the Battalion was to hope that they would get “plenty of fighting.” Many of the officers at that moment were sincerely afraid that they might be late for the war!
The following is the list of officers who went out with the Battalion that night:
|Lieut.-Col. Hon. G. H. Morris||Commanding Officer.|
|Major H. F. Crichton||Senior Major.|
|Captain Lord Desmond FitzGerald||Adjutant.|
|Lieut. E. J. F. Gough||Transport Officer.|
|Lieut. E. B. Greer||M. Gun Officer.|
|Hon. Lieut. H. Hickie||Quartermaster.|
|Lieut. H. J. S. Shields (R.A.M.C.)||Medical. Officer.|
|Lieut. Hon. Aubrey Herbert, M.P.||Interpreter.|
|No. 1 Company.|
|Capt. Hon. A. E. Mulholland.||Lieut. C. A. S. Walker.|
|Capt. Lord John Hamilton.||2nd Lieut. N. L. Woodroffe.|
|Lieut. Hon. H. R. Alexander.||2nd Lieut. J. Livingstone-Learmonth.|
|No. 2 Company.|
|Major H. A. Herbert Stepney.||Lieut. J. S. N. FitzGerald.|
|Lieut. W. E. Hope.||Capt. J. N. Guthrie.|
|2nd Lieut. O. Hughes-Onslow.||Lieut. E. J. F. Gough.|
|No. 3 Company.|
|Capt. Sir Delves Broughton, Bart.
(replaced by Capt. H. Hamilton Berners).
|Lieut. Hon. Hugh Gough.|
|Lieut. Lord Guernsey.||2nd Lieut. Viscount Castlerosse.||Capt. Hon. T. E. Vesey.|
|No. 4 Company.|
|Capt. C. A. Tisdall.||Lieut. Lord Robert Innes-Ker.|
|Capt. A. A. Perceval.||Lieut. W. C. N. Reynolds.|
|2nd Lieut. J. T. P. Roberts.||Lieut. R. Blacker-Douglass.|
|Details at the Base.|
|Capt. Lord Arthur Hay.||2nd Lieut. Sir Gerald Burke, Bart.|
They reached Havre at 6 A.M. on August 13, a fiercely hot day, and, tired after a sleepless night aboard ship, and a long wait, in a hot, tin-roofed shed, for some missing men, marched three miles out of the town to Rest Camp No. 2 “in a large field at Sanvic, a suburb of Havre at the top of the hill.” Later, the city herself became almost a suburb to the vast rest-camps round it. Here they received an enthusiastic welcome from the French, and were first largely introduced to the wines of the country, for many maidens lined the steep road and offered bowls of drinks to the wearied.
Next day (August 14) men rested a little, looking at this strange, bright France with strange eyes, and bathed in the sea; and Captain H. Berners, replacing Sir Delves Broughton, joined. At eleven o’clock they entrained at Havre Station under secret orders for the Front. The heat broke in a terrible thunderstorm that soaked the new uniforms. The crowded train travelled north all day, receiving great welcomes everywhere, but no one knowing what its destination might be. After more than seventeen hours’ slow progress by roads that were not revealed then or later, they halted at Wassigny, at a quarter to eleven on the night of August 15, and, unloading in hot darkness, bivouacked at a farm near the station.
On the morning of August 16 they marched to Vadencourt, where, for the first time, they went into billets. The village, a collection of typical white-washed tiled houses with a lovely old church in the centre, lay out pleasantly by the side of a poplar-planted stream. The 2nd Coldstream Guards were also billeted here; the Headquarters of the 4th Guards Brigade, the 2nd Grenadier Guards, and 3rd Coldstream being at Grougis. All supplies, be it noted, came from a village of the ominous name of Boue, which—as they were to learn through the four winters to follow—means “mud.”
At Vadencourt they lay three days while the men were being inoculated against enteric. A few had been so treated before leaving Wellington Barracks, but, in view of the hurried departure, 90 per cent. remained to be dealt with. The Diary remarks that for two days “the Battalion was not up to much.” Major H. Crichton fell sick here.
On the 20th August the march towards Belgium of the Brigade began, via Etreux and Fesmy (where Lieutenant and Quartermaster Hickie went sick and had to be sent back to railhead) to Maroilles, where the Battalion billeted, August 21, and thence, via Pont sur Sambre and Hargnies, to La Longueville, August 22. Here, being then five miles east of Malplaquet, the Battalion heard the first sound of the guns of the war, far off; not knowing that, at the end of all, they would hear them cease almost on that very spot.
At three o’clock in the morning of August 23 the Brigade marched via Riez de l’Erelle into Belgian territory and through Blaregnies towards Mons where it was dimly understood that some sort of battle was in the making. But it was not understood that eighty thousand British troops with three hundred guns disposed between Condé, through Mons towards Binche, were meeting twice that number of Germans on their front, plus sixty thousand Germans with two hundred and thirty guns trying to turn their left flank, while a quarter of a million Germans, with close on a thousand guns, were driving in the French armies on the British right from Charleroi to Namur, across the Meuse and the Sambre. This, in substance, was the situation at Mons. It supplied a sufficient answer to the immortal question, put by one of the pillars of the Battalion, a drill sergeant, who happened to arrive from home just as that situation had explained itself, and found his battalion steadily marching south. “Fwhat’s all this talk about a retreat?” said he, and strictly rebuked the shouts of laughter that followed.1
The Brigade was first ordered to take up a position at Bois Lahant, close to the dirtier suburbs of Mons which is a fair city on a hill, but the order was cancelled when it was discovered that the Fifth Division was already there. Eventually, the Irish Guards were told to move from the village of Quevy le Petit, where they had expected to go into billets, to Harveng. Here they were ordered, with the 2nd Grenadier Guards, to support the Fifth Division on a chalk ridge from Harmignies to the Mons road, while the other two battalions of the Brigade (the 2nd and 3rd Coldstream Guards) took up position north-east of Harveng. Their knowledge of what might be in front of them or who was in support was, naturally, small. It was a hot, still evening, no Germans were visible, but shrapnel fell ahead of the Battalion as it moved in artillery formation across the rolling, cropped lands. One single far-ranging rifle-bullet landed with a phtt in the chalk between two officers, one of whom turning to the other laughed and said, “Ah! Now we can say we have been under fire.” A few more shells arrived as the advance to the ridge went forward, and the Brigade reached the seventh kilometre-stone on the Harmignies–Mons road, below the ridge, about 6 P.M. on the 23rd August. The Irish Rifles, commanded by Colonel Bird, D.S.O., were fighting here, and Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Irish Guards went up to reinforce it. This was the first time that the Battalion had been personally shelled and five men were wounded. The guns ceased about dusk, and there was very little fire from the German trenches, which were rather in the nature of scratch-holes, ahead of them. That night, too, was the first on which the troops saw a searchlight used. They enjoyed also their first experience of digging themselves in, the which they did so casually that veterans of after years would hold up that “trench” as a sample of “the valour of ignorance.” At midnight, the Irish Rifles were ordered to retire while the Irish Guards covered their retirement; but so far they had been in direct contact with nothing.
The Battalion heard confusedly of the fall of Namur and, it may be presumed, of the retirement of the French armies on the right of the British. There was little other news of any sort, and what there was, not cheering. On front and flank of the British armies the enemy stood in more than overwhelming strength, and it came to a question of retiring, as speedily as might be, before the flood swallowed what remained. So the long retreat of our little army began.
The large outlines of it are as follows: The entire British Force, First and Second Army Corps, fell back to Bavai—the First without serious difficulty, the Second fighting rear-guard actions through the day. At Brava the two Corps diverged, not to unite again till they should reach Betz on the 1st September. The Second Army Corps, reinforced by the Fourth Division, took the roads through Le Quesnoy, Solesme, Le Cateau, St. Quentin, Ham, Nesle, Noyon, and Crépy-en-Valois; the First paralleling them, roughly, through Landrecies, Vadencourt, La Fère, Pasly by Soissons, and Villers-Cotterêts.
At 2 o’clock in the morning of August 24 the Battalion, “having covered the retirement of all the other troops,” retired through the position which the 2nd and 3rd Coldstream Guards had taken up, to Quevy le Petit, where it was ordered, with the 2nd Grenadiers, to entrench another position north of Quevy le Petit (from the third kilometre-stone on the Genly–Quevy le Petit road to the tenth kilometre-stone on the Mons–Bettignies road). This it did while the whole of the Second Division retired through the position at 4 P.M., the Battalion acting as rear-guard. Their notion of “digging-in” was to cut fire-steps in the side of the handy bank of any road. At nine o’clock that night the Battalion “came out of Belgium by the same road that it had marched into Belgium” through Blaregnies, past Bavai where the First and Second Army Corps diverged, and through La Longueville to Malgarni, where they bivouacked in an orchard “having been forty-four hours under arms.” Here the first mail from England arrived, and was distributed by torchlight under the apple-trees in the warm night.
On the afternoon of August 25 the Battalion reached Landrecies, an unlovely, long-streeted town in closely cultivated country. The German pressure was heavy behind them, and that evening the 3rd Coldstream Guards on outpost duty to the north-west of Landrecies, on the Mormal road, were attacked, and, as history shows, beat off that attack in a night-fight of some splendour. The Battalion turned out and blocked the pavé entrance to the town with improvised barricades, which they lined, of stones, tables, chairs, carts, and pianos; relieved the Coldstream at 1.30 A.M., August 26; and once again covered the retirement of the Brigade out of the town towards Etreux. The men were very tired, so weary indeed that many of them slept by the roadside while waiting to relieve the Coldstreams at Landrecies fight. That night was the first they heard wounded men scream. A couple of Irish Guards officers, sleeping so deeply that only the demolition by shell-fire of the house next door waked them, were left behind here, but after twenty-four hours of fantastic and, at that time, almost incredible adventures, rejoined safely next day. It was recorded also that one of the regimental drums was seen and heard going down Landrecies main street in the darkness, strung on the fore-leg of a gun-horse who had stepped into it as a battery went south. A battalion cooker, the sparks flying from it, passed like a fire-engine hastening to a fire, and men found time to laugh and point at the strange thing.
At Etreux, where with the rest of the Brigade the Battalion entrenched itself after the shallow pattern of the time, it had its first sight of a German aeroplane which flew over its trenches and dropped a bomb that “missed a trench by twenty yards.” The Battalion fired at it, and it “flew away like a wounded bird and eventually came down and was captured by another division.” Both sides were equally inexperienced in those days in the details of air war. All that day they heard the sound of what they judged was “a battle in the direction of Le Cateau.” This was the Second Army Corps and a single Division of the Third Corps under Smith-Dorrien interrupting our retirement to make a stand against four or more German Army Corps and six hundred guns. The result of that action caused the discerning General von Kluck to telegraph that he held the Expeditionary Force “surrounded by a ring of steel,” and Berlin behung itself with flags. This also the Battalion did not know. They were more interested in the fact that they had lost touch with the Second Division; and that their Commanding Officer had told the officers that, so far as he could make out, they were surrounded and had better dig in deeper and wait on. As no one knew particularly where they might be in all France, and as the night of the 26th was very wet, the tired men slept undisturbedly over the proposition, to resume their retreat next day (August 27) down the valley of the Sambre, through Vénérolles, Tupigny, Vadencourt, Noyales, to the open glaring country round Mont d’Origny where the broad road to St. Quentin crosses the river. It was in reserve that day, and the next (August 28) was advance-guard to the Brigade as the retirement continued through Châtillon, Berthenicourt, and Moy to Vendeuil and the cross-roads west of the Vendeuil–La Fère road while the Brigade marched on to Bertaucourt. After the Brigade had passed, the Battalion acted as rear-guard into Bertaucourt. Here No. 2 Company, under Major Stepney, was sent to Beautor to assist a section of the Royal Engineers in demolishing a bridge across the river there—an operation performed without incident—and in due course joined up with the Battalion again. By this time, the retreat, as one who took part in it says, had become “curiously normal”—the effect, doubtless, of that continued over-exertion which reduces men to the state of sleep-walkers. There was a ten minutes’ halt every hour, on which the whole Battalion dropped where it stood and slept. At night, some of them began to see lights, like those of comfortable billets by the roadside which, for some curious reason or other, could never be reached. Others found themselves asleep, on their feet, and even when they lay down to snatch sleep, the march moved on, and wearied them in their dreams. Owing to the heat and the dust, many suffered from sore feet and exhaustion, and, since ambulance accommodation was limited, they had to be left behind to follow on if, and as best, they could. But those who fell out were few, and the Diary remarks approvingly that “on the whole the Battalion marched very well and march-discipline was good.” Neither brigade nor battalion commanders knew anything of what was ahead or behind, but it seemed that, since they could not get into Paris before the Germans and take first-class tickets to London, they would all be cut off and destroyed; which did not depress them unduly. At all events, the Battalion one evening forgot its weariness long enough to take part in the chase and capture of a stray horse of Belgian extraction, which, after its ample lack of manners and mouth had been proved, they turned over for instruction and reformation to the Transport.
From Bertaucourt, then, where the Battalion spent another night in an orchard, it marched very early on the 30th August to Terny via Deuillet, Servais, Basse Forêt de Coucy, Folembray, Coucy-le-Château, then magnificent and untouched—all closer modelled country and, if possible, hotter than the bare lands they had left. Thence from Terny to Pasly, N.W. of Soissons. Here they lay down by moonlight in a field, and here an officer dreamed that the alarm had been given and that they must move on. In this nightmare he rose and woke up all platoon-officers and the C.O.; next, laboriously and methodically, his own company, and last of all himself, whom he found shaking and swearing at a man equally drunk with fatigue.
On the 31st August the Battalion took position as right flank-guard from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. on the high ground near Le Murger Farm and bivouacked at Soucy: So far, there had been little fighting for them since Landrecies, though they moved with the comforting knowledge that an unknown number of the enemy, thoroughly provided with means of transportation, were in fixed pursuit, just on the edge of a sky-line full of unseen guns urging the British always to move back.
On the 1st September, the anniversary of Sedan, the Battalion was afoot at 2 A.M. and with the 2nd Coldstream Guards acted as rear-guard under the Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Colonel the Hon. G. Morris. There had been heavy dew in the night, followed at dawn by thin, miserable rain, when they breakfasted, among wet lucerne and fields of stacked corn, on the edge of the deep Villers-Cotterêts beech-forests. They fell back into them on a rumour of advancing cavalry, who turned out to be troops of German infantry running from stack to stack and filtering into the forest on their either flank. Their first position was the Vivières Puiseux line, a little south-west of Soucy village: the Battalion to the right of the Soucy–Villers–Cotterêts road, and the Coldstream to the left on a front of not more than a mile. Their second position, as far as can be made out, was the Rond de la Reine, a mile farther south, where the deep soft forest-roads from Soucy and Vivières join on their way to Villers-Cotterêts. The enemy ran in upon them from all sides, and the action resolved itself into blind fighting in the gloom of the woods, with occasional glimpses of men crossing the rides, or firing from behind tree-boles. The Germans were very cautious at first, because our fire-discipline, as we fell back, gave them the impression that the forest was filled with machine-guns instead of mere trained men firing together sustainedly. The morning wet cleared, and the day grew close and stifling. There was no possibility of keeping touch or conveying orders. Since the German advance-guard was, by comparison, an army, all that could be done was to hold back as long as possible the attacks on front and flank, and to retain some sense of direction in the bullet-torn woods, where, when a man dropped in the bracken and bramble, he disappeared. But throughout the fight, till the instant of his death, Lieut.-Colonel the Hon. G. Morris, commanding the Battalion, rode from one point to another of an action that was all front, controlling, cheering, and chaffing his men. And so that heathen battle, in half darkness, continued, with all units of the 4th Brigade confusedly engaged, till in the afternoon the Battalion, covered by the 2nd Coldstream, re-formed, still in the woods, a mile north of the village of Pisseleux. Here the roll was called, and it was found that the following officers were missing: Lieut.-Colonel the Hon. G. Morris, Major H. F. Crichton, Captain C. A. Tisdall, Lieutenant Lord Robert Inns-Ker, 2nd Lieutenant Viscount Castlerosse, Lieutenant the Hon. Aubrey Herbert, and Lieutenant Shields, R.A.M.C.
Captain Lord Desmond FitzGerald and Lieutenant Blacker-Douglass were wounded and left with the field-ambulance. Lieut.-Colonel Morris, Major Crichton, and Captain Tisdall had been killed. The others had been wounded and captured by the Germans, who treated them with reasonable humanity at Villers-Cotterêts till they were released on September 12 by the French advance following the first Battle of the Marne. Colonel Morris’s body was afterwards identified and buried with that of Captain Tisdall; and one long rustic-fenced grave, perhaps the most beautiful of all resting-places in France, on a slope of the forest off the dim road, near the Rond de la Reine, holds our dead in that action. It was made and has been religiously tended since by Dr. Moufflers, the Mayor of the town, and his wife.
The death of Colonel Morris, an officer beloved and a man noticeably brave among brave men, was a heavy loss to the Battalion he commanded, and whose temper he knew so well. In the thick of the fight during a lull in the firing, when some blind shellfire opened, he called to the men: “D’you hear that? They’re doing that to frighten you.” To which someone replied with simple truth: “If that’s what they’re after, they might as well stop. They succeeded with me hours ago.”
As a matter of fact, the men behaved serenely, as may be proved by this tale. They were working their way, well under rifle-fire, across an opening in the forest, when some of them stopped to pick blackberries that attracted their attention. To these their sergeant, very deliberately, said: “I shouldn’t mind them berries, lads. There’s may be worrums in ’em.” It was a speech worthy of a hero of Dumas, whose town Villers-Cotterêts is, by right of birth. Yet once, during their further retirement towards Pisseleux, they were badly disconcerted. A curious private prodded a hornets’ nest on a branch with his bayonet, and the inhabitants came out in force. Then there was real confusion: not restored by the sight of bald-headed reservists frantically slapping with their caps at one hornet while others stung them on their defenceless scalps. So they passed out of the darkness and the greenery of the forest, which, four years later, was to hide a great French Army, and launch it forth to turn the tide of 1918.
Their march continued until 11 P.M. that night, when the Battalion arrived at Betz, where the First and Second Army Corps rejoined each other once more. No supplies were received that night nor the following day (September 2), when the Battalion reached Esbly, where they bathed—with soap, be it noted—in the broad and quiet Marne, and an ox was requisitioned, potatoes were dug up from a field, and some sort of meal served out.
The Diary here notes “Thus ended the retreat from Mons.” This is not strictly correct. In twelve days the British Army had been driven back 140 miles as the crow flies from Mons, and farther, of course, by road. There was yet to be a further retirement of some fifteen miles south of Esbly ere the general advance began, but September 3 marks, as nearly: as may be, slack-water ere the ebb that followed of the triumphant German tidal wave through Belgium almost up to the outer forts of Paris. That advance had, at the last moment, swerved aside from Paris towards the southeast, and in doing so had partially exposed its right flank to the Sixth French Army. General Joffre took instant advantage of the false step to wheel his Sixth Army to the east, so that its line ran due north and east from Ermenonville to Lagny; at the same time throwing forward the left of his line. The British Force lay between Lagny and Cortecan, filling the gap between the Sixth and Fifth French Armies, and was still an effective weapon which the enemy supposed they had broken for good. But our harried men realized no more than that, for the moment, there seemed to be a pause in the steady going back. The confusion, the dust, the heat, continued while the armies manœuvred for position; and scouts and aerial reconnaissance reported more and more German columns of all arms pressing down from the east and north-east.
On September 3 the 4th Brigade moved from Esbly, in the great loops of the Marne, through Meaux to the neighbourhood of Pierre Levée, where the Battalion fed once more on requisitioned beef,, potatoes, and apples.
Next day (September 4), while the British Army was getting into position in the process of changing front to the right, the 4th Brigade had to cover a retirement of the 5th Brigade between Pierre Levée and Le Bertrand, and the Battalion dug itself in near a farm (Grand Loge) on the Pierre Levée–Giremoutiers road in preparation for a rear-guard attack that did not arrive. They remained in position with what the Diary pathetically refers to as “the machine-gun,” till they were relieved in the evening by the Worcesters, and reached bivouac at Le Bertrand at one o’clock on the morning of the 5th September. That day they bivouacked near Fontenay, and picked up some much-needed mess-tins, boots, putties and the like with which to make good more immediate waste.
On the 6th they marched through Rozoy (where they saw an old priest standing at the door of his church, and to him the men bared their heads mechanically, till he, openly surprised, gave them his blessing) to Mont Plaisir to gain touch between the First and Second Divisions of the English Army. Major Stepney, the C.O., reported to Headquarters 1st Brigade at 9 A.M. half a mile north-east of Rozoy. At the same moment cavalry scouts brought news of two enemy columns, estimated at a thousand each, approaching from the direction of Vaudoy. Nos. 3 and 4 Companies were ordered forward to prolong the line of the First Division, while Nos. 1 and 2 Companies “with the machine-gun” entrenched themselves on the Mont Plaisir road.
In the afternoon Lieutenant the Hon. R. H. Alexander, reconnoitring with a platoon in the direction of the village of Villeneuve, which was to be occupied, reported a hostile battery at Le Plessis had fired on the Battalion and killed 4 men and wounded 11. One of these, Sergeant O’Loughlin, died later. This was the Battalion’s first fighting since Villers-Cotterêts, and they went into action while the bells of the quiet countryside rang for church. The battery was put out of action by our guns in half an hour, Villeneuve occupied without further opposition, and the Battalion bivouacked at Tonquin on the night of the 6th September. The enemy had realised the threat to their flank in General Joffre’s new dispositions, and under cover of rear-guard and delaying actions were withdrawing north all along their line.
On the 7th September the Battalion made a forced march from Tonquin to Rebais, where there was a German column, but the advance-guard of the Brigade was held up at St. Simeon till dark and the Battalion had to bivouac a couple of miles outside Rebais. The German force withdrew from Rebais on the afternoon of the 7th, and on the 8th the Brigade’s advance continued through Rebais northward in the direction of Boitron, which lay just across the Petit Morin River. Heavy machine-gun fire from some thick woods along the rolling ground, across the river, checked the advance-guard (the 3rd Coldstream) and the two companies of the Irish Guards who supported them. The woods, the river valley, and the village of Boitron were searched by our guns, and on the renewal of the attack the river was crossed and Boitron occupied, the enemy being heavily shelled as he retired. Here the Battalion re-formed and pressed forward in a heavy rainstorm, through a flank attack of machine-guns from woods on the left. These they charged, while a battery of our field-guns fired point-blank into the thickets, and captured a German machine-gun company of six guns (which seemed to them, at the time, a vast number), 3 officers, and 90 rank and file. Here, too, in the confusion of the fighting they came under fire of our own artillery, an experience that was to become familiar to them, and the C.O. ordered the companies to assemble at Ferme le Cas Rouge, a village near by where they bivouacked for the night. They proudly shut up in the farm-yard the first prisoners they had ever taken; told off two servants to wait upon a wounded major; took the parole of the two other officers and invited them to a dinner of chicken and red wine. The Battalion, it will be observed, knew nothing then except the observances of ordinary civilized warfare. 2nd Lieutenant A. Fitzgerald and a draft arrived that day.
This small affair of Boitron Wood was the Irish Guards’ share of the immense mixed Battle of the Marne, now raging along all the front. Its result and the capture of the machine-guns cheered them a little.
The next five days—September 9 to 13—had nothing but tedious marching and more tedious halts and checks, due to the congestion of traffic and the chaos in the villages that had been entered, sacked, defiled and abandoned by the enemy. The Marne was crossed on the 9th at Charly, where—the inhabitants said that the Germans detailed for the job had been too drunk to effect it—a bridge had been left ready for demolition, but intact, and by this means the First and Second Divisions crossed the river. The weather turned wet, with heavy showers; greatcoats had been lost or thrown aside all along the line of retreat; billets and bivouacs made filthy by the retreating Germans; and there was general discomfort, enlivened with continuous cannonading from the front and the appearance of German prisoners gathered in by our cavalry ahead. And thus, from the Marne the Battalion came by way of Trenel, Villers-sur-Marne, Cointicourt, Oulchy-le-Château, Courcelles and St. Mard to the high banks of the Aisne, which they crossed by the pontoon bridge at Pont d’Arcy on the morning of September 14 and advanced to Soupir in the hollows under the steep wooded hills.
That day, the 2nd Grenadiers formed the advance-guard of the Brigade, followed by the 3rd Coldstream, the Irish Guards, and the 2nd Coldstream. After they had cleared Soupir village, the force was shelled and an attack was made by the 3rd Coldstream, the Irish Guards in support, on a steep ridge near La Cour de Soupir farm, which stood on the crest of the bluff above the river. The heavily wooded country was alive with musketry and machine-gun fire, and the distances were obscured by mist and heavy rain. The 3rd Coldstream, attacking the farm, found themselves outflanked from a ridge on their right, which was then attempted by three companies of the Irish Guards. They reached to within a couple of hundred yards of a wood cut up by rides, down which, as well as from the trenches, heavy rifle-fire was directed. Here Captain J. N. Guthrie (No. 2 Company) was wounded and Captain H. Hamilton Berners killed, while Lieutenant Watson, R.A.M.C., was shot and wounded at close quarters attending a wounded man. Here, too, the Battalion had its first experience of the German use of the white flag; for Lieutenant J. S. FitzGerald with No. 8 Platoon and a party of Coldstream under Lieutenant Cotterel-Dormer found some hundred and fifty Germans sitting round haystacks and waving white flags. They went forward to take their surrender and were met by a heavy fire at thirty yards’ range, which forced them to fall back. Lieutenant E. B. Greer, machine-gun officer, now brought up his two machine-guns, but was heavily fired at from cover, had all of one gun-team killed or wounded and, for the while, lost one gun. He reorganized the other gun-team, and called for volunteers from the Company nearest him to recover it. After dark Corporal Sheridan and Private Carney of No. 3 Company and Private Harrington, a machine-gunner of No. 1 Company, went out with him and the gun was brought in. A further advance was made in the afternoon to the edge of the wood in order to clear out the snipers who held it and commanded the cultivated fields outside. Towards dusk, Captain Lord Guernsey, who was Acting Quartermaster, reported himself to the C.O., who posted him to No. 2 Company, then engaged in clearing out the snipers, in place of Captain Guthrie, who had been wounded. He went forward to assist Captain Lord Arthur Hay in command, and both were immediately shot dead.
The Battalion bivouacked in battle-outpost formation that night on the edge of the wood, and got into touch with the 60th Rifles on their right and the 2nd Grenadiers on their left. Here, though they did not know it, the advance from the Marne was at an end. Our forces had reached the valley of the Aisne, with its bluffs on either side and deep roads half hidden by the woods that climbed them. The plateaux of the north of the river shaped themselves for the trenchwarfare of the years to come; and the natural strength of the positions on the high ground was increased by numberless quarries and caves that ran along it.
On the 15th September patrols reported that the enemy had fallen back a little from his position, and at daylight two companies entrenched themselves on the edge of the wood. Judged by present standards those trenches were little more than shallow furrows, for we did not know that the day of open battle was ended, and it is curious to see how slowly our people broke themselves to the monotonous business of trench construction and maintenance. Even after they had dug the casual ditch which they called a trench, it cost some time and a few lives till they understood that the works could not be approached in the open as had been war’s custom. Their first communication-trench was but three hundred yards long, and it struck them as a gigantic and almost impossible “fatigue.”
The enemy had not fallen back more than a thousand yards from the Cour de Soupir farm which they were resolute to retake if possible. They fired on our burying-parties and shelled the trenches all through the 16th September. Patrols were sent out at dawn and dusk—since any one visible leaving the trenches was fired upon by snipers—found hostile infantry in full strength in front of them, and the Battalion had to organize its first system of trench-relief; for the Diary of the 18th September remarks that “Nos. 1 and 4 Companies relieved 2 and 3 Companies in the trenches and were again shelled during the day.”
Sniping on Hun lines was a novel experience to the Battalion. They judged it strange to find a man apparently dead, with a cloth over his face, lying in a hollow under a ridge commanding their line, who turned out to be quite alive and unwounded. His rifle was within short reach, and he was waiting till our patrols had passed to get to his work. But they killed him, angrily and with astonishment.
On the morning of the 18th September Lieut.-Colonel Lord Ardee, Grenadier Guards, arrived and took over command from Major Stepney. The following officers—the first of the long line—also arrived as reinforcements:
Major G. Madden; Captain Norman Orr-Ewing, Scots Guards, attached; Captain Lord Francis Scott, Grenadier Guards, attached; Captain the Hon. J. F. Trefusis, Lieutenants George Brooke, L. S. Coke, R. H. Ferguson, G. M. Maitland, C. R. Harding, and P. Antrobus.
The Battalion reorganized as follows after less than four weeks’ campaign:
|Lieut.-Colonel Lord Ardee||C.O.|
|Major Herbert Stepney||Senior Major.|
|Capt. the Hon. J. Trefusis||Adjutant.|
|Lieut. E. J. Gough||Transport Officer.|
|Lieut. C. A. S. Walker||Quartermaster (acting)|
|Capt. Hon. A. E. Mulholland||O.C. No. 1 Company.|
|Capt. N. Orr-Ewing||O.C. No. 2 Company.|
|Capt. Lord Francis Scott||O.C. No. 3 Company.|
|Major G. Madden||O.C. No. 4 Company.|
The trench-war was solidifying itself; for the Diary of that same day notes that the enemy “shelled the trenches and the two howitzer-guns which were in position below.” Ours was an army, then, which could count and place every gun that it owned. As many as three howitzer batteries per division had accompanied the Expeditionary Force, and more were being sent from home.
The night of the 19th was very wet. They were relieved by the 3rd Coldstream, and went into billets at Soupir, “having been in the trenches for five days.” There was an alarm in the afternoon, and the machine-guns and 100 men of No. 1 Company were sent to help the Coldstream in the trenches, whilst the rest of the Battalion marched at 6 P.M. to be ready to assist the 2nd Grenadiers on the left of Cour de Soupir farm. Only “the machine-guns,” however, came into action, and the Battalion returned to its billets at 10 P.M.
Much the same sort of thing occurred on the 20th—a furious fusillade from the trenches, the despatch of reinforcements up a “muddy lane,” not yet turned into a communication-trench, to help the 3rd Coldstream, while Nos. 2 and 4 Companies went out to reinforce the Oxfordshire Light Infantry and to hold the road at the back of it “in case of a retirement,” and the rest of the Battalion with the machine-guns stayed as a reserve in Soupir market-square. But beyond shrapnel bursting over the village and the wounding of two men by stray machine-gun bullets, there were no special incidents. Major G. Madden this day had to return to England, ill.
On the 21st the Battalion relieved the 2nd Grenadiers on the left at Soupir farm at 3.30 A.M.—the safest hour, as experience was to prove, for reliefs. Nos. 2 and 3 Companies were in trenches, and Nos. 1 and 4 about 300 yards in the rear, with the Headquarters in one of the caves, which are a feature of the country. The word “dug-out” had not yet been invented. The nearest approach to it is a reference in a private letter to “a shelter-recess in the side of the trench to protect one from shrapnel.” The Diary marks that the “usual alarms occurred at 6.30 when the patrol went out and the enemy fired a good deal of shrapnel without effect.” Soupir, like many French villages, was full of carefully planted spies of singular audacity. One was found in an officer’s room. He had appeared from a cellar, alleging that he was an invalid, but as the Gunners’ telephone-wires near the cellar had been cut and our movements had been reported to the enemy with great regularity, his explanation was not accepted, nor were his days long in that land.
Patrols, too, were elastic affairs. One of them, under Lieutenant R. H. Ferguson, went out on the night of the 21st, came on the enemy’s trenches half a mile out, lay down to listen to the conversation there, were all but cut off by a wandering section of snipers, and returned to their lines unmolested, after the lieutenant had shot the leading pursuer with his revolver.
On the 22nd September the Battalion—both entrenched and in reserve in the caves behind—experienced four hours’ high-explosive howitzer fire, which “except for the effect on the nerves did very little damage.” (They had yet to learn what continuous noise could do to break men’s nerve.) This was followed by a heavy fusillade, varied by star-shells, rockets, and searchlights, which lasted intermittently throughout the night. The rocket-display was new to the men. Searchlights, we know, they had seen before.
On the 23rd a telephone-line between Battalion Headquarters and the advanced trenches was installed (for the first time). Nos. 2 and 3 Companies relieved Nos. 1 and 4 in the trenches, and a man bringing back a message from No. 4 Company was killed by a sniper. The Battalion was relieved by the 3rd Coldstream in the evening and returned to its billets in the barns and lofts of Soupir village, where next day (September 24 ) the Diary observes they spent “a quiet morning. The men got washed and shaved, and company officers were able to get at their companies. There are so many new officers who do not know their men that any rest day should be made use of in this manner.” They relieved the 3rd Coldstream again that evening, and “digging operations to improve existing trenches and make communication-trenches were at once begun.” (Here is the first direct reference in the Diary to communication-trenches, as such.)
Snipers were active all through the 25th September. The trenches were heavily shelled in the afternoon, and “one man was hit in the leg while going to fetch water.” They returned to Soupir in the evening and spent the 26th standing to, in anticipation of enemy attacks which did not develop into anything more than an artillery duel, and in digging trenches for the defence of Soupir village. This work, however, had to be stopped owing to heavy shell-fire brought to bear on the working-parties—presumably through information from the many spies—and after a wearing day relieved the 3rd Coldstream in the trenches at night. The Diary gives no hint of the tremendous strain of those twenty-four hours’ “reliefs” from being shelled in a trench to being shelled in a village, nor of the inadequacy of our artillery as it strove to cope with the German guns, nor of the rasping irritation caused by the knowledge that every disposition made was reported almost at once to the enemy.
On September 27—a Sunday—the enemy’s bands were heard playing up and down the trenches. Some attempt was made by a British battalion on the right to move out a patrol covered by the fire of No. 2 Company, but the enemy shells and machine-guns smothered every movement.
On the 28th September (their day in billets) stakes were cut out of the woods behind Soupir, while the Pioneers collected what wire they could lay hands on, as “the Battalion was ordered to construct wire entanglements in front of their trenches to-night.” The entanglements were made of two or three strands, at the most, of agricultural wire picked up where they could find it. They heard heavy fighting throughout the night on their right—“probably the First Division.” Both sides by now were feeling the strain of trench-work, for which neither had made preparations, and the result was an increasing tension manifesting itself in wild outbursts of musketry and artillery and camp rumour of massed attacks and breaks-through.
On the 30th September, F.-M. Lord Roberts’s birthday, a congratulatory telegram was sent to him; and “a great quantity of material was collected out of which huts for the men could be built.” These were frail affairs of straw and twig, half dug in, half built out, of the nearest banks, or placed under the lee of any available shelter. The very fabric of them has long since been overlaid with strata of fresh wreckage and the twig roofs and sides are rotted black under the grass or ploughed in.
The month closes with the note that, as it was a very bright moonlight night, the Battalion’s usual relief of the Coldstream was “carried out up the communication-trenches.” Some men still recall that first clumsy trench-relief.
October 1 was spent in perfecting communication-trenches and shelters, and “the Brigadier came up in the morning and was taken round the trenches.” Two officers were sent to Chavonne to meet the 5th Brigade—one to bring the Worcesters to the Battalion’s trenches, the other to show the Connaught Rangers their billets in Soupir. The 3rd Coldstream marched out of Soupir and took up the line to the left of the 2nd Grenadiers near Vailly, and next day, 2nd October, No. 1 Company of the Irish Guards dug a connecting-trench between those two. Otherwise, for the moment, life was smooth.
It may be noted for the instruction of generations to come that some of the Reservists grumbled at orders not to talk or smoke in the trenches, as that drew fire; and that a newly appointed platoon-officer, when he had admonished them officially, fell them out and informed them unofficially that, were there any more trouble, he would, after the C.O. had dealt with the offenders, take them on for three rounds “boxing in public.” Peace and goodwill returned at once.
On the 3rd October, a platoon was despatched to help the Royal Engineers in the construction of a road across a new bridge they had put up between Soupir and Chavonne. The Battalion relieved the 3rd Coldstream in its new position three-quarters of a mile east of Vailly, and next day “quietly improved trenches and head-cover,” which latter is mentioned for the first time. It was all casual timber picked up off the country-side.
On the 5th October a patrol explored through the wood, in front of the right trenches, but found only dead Germans to the number of thirty and many half buried, as well as five British soldiers killed in some lost affair of a fortnight before. Private O’Shaughnessy, No. 1 Company, was shot dead by a sniper when on observation-post at the end of this wood. He had only arrived that morning with a draft of one hundred men, under Lieutenant Gore-Langton, and had asked to be allowed to go out on this duty. In the afternoon three shells burst on the road near Battalion Headquarters, and fatally wounded Lieutenant G. Brooke, who was on his way to Soupir to take over the transport from Lieutenant E. J. Gough. He was sent in to Braisne, where he died on the 7th October. The Diary notes “he would not have been found so soon had not the shells broken the telephone-wire to Headquarters. A message was coming through at the time and when communication was stopped the Signalling Sergeant sent two men to repair the wire and they found him.” He was brought in to the A.D.S. at Vailly-sur-Aisne by his own men, who made the R.A.M.C. stretcher-bearers walk behind as they would allow none but themselves to carry him. They bade him farewell before they returned to their trenches, and went out openly weeping. When he was sent to Braisne that evening, after being dressed, his own men again got an ambulance across the pontoon-bridge, which had been hitherto reckoned impassable, for his convenience. His last words to them were that they were to “play the game” and not to revenge his death on the Hun.
On the afternoon of the 6th October, which was cold and misty, the Germans pushed a patrol through the wood and our standing-patrol went out and discovered one German under-officer of the 64th (Imperial Jager Guards) dead, and the rifle of another man.
The enemy sent out no more patrols. Men had grown to be cunning among the timber, and noticed every tree they moved under. When the Coldstream relieved the Battalion that night, one of our patrols found a felled tree had been carefully placed across their homeward path by some unknown hand—it might have been the late Jager under-officer—who had expected to attack the patrol while it was climbing over the obstacle.
On the 7th the Battalion rested in Soupir all day, and on the 8th Lieutenant G. Brooke’s body was brought in from Braisne and buried in Soupir cemetery.
The 9th was a quiet day except for an hour’s shelling, and a good deal of cheering from the German trenches in the evening, evidently in honour of the fall of Antwerp. It annoyed our men for the reason that they could not retaliate. Our guns had not a round to throw away.
The opposing lines had been locked now for close upon a month and, as defences elaborated themselves, all hope of breaking-through vanished. Both sides then opened that mutually outflanking movement towards the west which did not end till it reached the sea. Held up along their main front, the Germans struck at the Flanders plain, the Allies striving to meet the movement and envelop their right flank as it extended. A British force had been sent to Antwerp; the Seventh Division and the Third Cavalry Division had been landed at Zeebrugge on the 7th October with the idea of helping either the Antwerp force or co-operating with the Allied Armies as circumstances dictated. Meantime, the main British force was being held in the trenches of the Aisne a hundred and twenty miles away; and it seemed good to all concerned that these two bodies of British troops should be consolidated, both for purposes of offence, command and, by no means least, supply, on the Flanders flank covering the Channel.
There were obvious dangers in moving so many men from high ground across a broad river under the enemy’s eye. It could only be effected at night with all precautions, but as the western pressure developed and was accentuated by the fall of Antwerp, the advantage of the transfer outweighed all risk. Our cavalry moved on the 3rd October by road for Flanders, and a few days later the infantry began to entrain for St. Omer. The Second Corps was the first to leave, the Third Corps followed, and the First was the last.
Orders came to the Battalion on Sunday, October 11, to be prepared to move at short notice, and new clothes were issued to the men, but they did not hand over their trenches to the French till the 13th October, when they marched to Perles in the evening and entrained on the 14th at Fismes a little after noon, reaching Hazebrouck via (the route is worth recording) Mareuil-sur-Ourcq, Ormoy, St. Denis, outside Paris, Epluches, Creil, Amiens (10.15 P.M.), Abbeville (3.15 A.M.), Etaples, Boulogne, Calais and St. Omer, every stone of which last six was to be as familiar to them as their own hearths for years to come.
At 5 P.M. on the 15th the Battalion went into billets at Hazebrouck. It was a sharp change from the soft wooded bluffs and clean chalky hills above the Aisne, to the slow ditch-like streams and crowded farming landscape of Flanders. At Hazebrouck they lay till the morning of the 17th, when they marched to Boeschepe, attended church parade on Sunday the 18th, and marched to untouched Ypres via St. Kokebeele, Reninghelst and Vlamertinghe on the 20th with the Brigade, some divisional troops and the 41st Battery, R.F.A. The Brigade halted at Ypres a few hours, seeing and being impressed by the beauty of the Cloth Hall and the crowded market-place. The 2nd Coldstream and the 2nd Battalion Grenadiers being eventually sent forward, the remainder of the Brigade billeted in St. Jean, then described impersonally as “a small village about one and a half kilometres east of Ypres.” They halted at the edge of the city for dinner, and the men got out their melodeons and danced jigs on the flawless pavé. Much firing was heard all day, and “the 2nd Coldstream came into action about 4 P.M. and remained in the trenches all night.”
That was the sum of information available at the moment to the Battalion—that, and orders to “drive the enemy back wherever met.” So they first were introduced to the stage of the bloody and debatable land which will be known for all time as “The Salient.”
The original intention of our Army on the Flanders flank had been offensive, but the long check on the Aisne gave the enemy time to bring forward troops from their immense and perfectly prepared reserves, while the fall of Antwerp—small wonder the Germans had cheered in their trenches when the news came!—released more. Consequently, the movement that began on the Allies’ side as an attempt to roll up the German right flank before it could reach the sea, ended in a desperate defence to hold back an overwhelmingly strong enemy from sweeping forward through Belgium to Calais and the French sea-board. Out of this defence developed that immense and overlapping series of operations centring on Ypres, extending from the Yser Canal in the north to La Bassée in the south, and lasting from mid-October to the 20th November 1914, which may be ranked as the First Battle of Ypres.
It will be remembered that the Second and Third British Army Corps were the first to leave the Aisne trenches for the west. On the 11th October the Second Army Corps was in position between the Aire and Béthune and in touch with the left flank of the Tenth French Army at La Bassée.
On the 12th of October the Third Army Corps reached St. Omer and moved forward to Hazebrouck to get touch with the Second Army Corps on its right, the idea being that the two corps together should wheel on their own left and striking eastward turn the position of the German forces that were facing the Tenth French Army. They failed owing to the strength of the German forces on the spot, and by October 19, after indescribably fierce fighting, the Second and Third Army Corps had been brought to a standstill on a line, from La Bassée through Armentieres, not noticeably differing from the position which our forces were destined to occupy for many months to come. The attempted flank attacks had become frontal all along the line, and in due course frontal attacks solidified into trench-warfare again.
North of Armentieres the situation had settled itself in much the same fashion, flank attacks being outflanked by the extension of the enemy’s line, with strenuous frontal attacks of his daily increasing forces.
The Seventh Division—the first half of the Fourth Army Corps—reached Ypres from Dixmude on the 14th October after its unsuccessful attempt to relieve Antwerp. As the First Army Corps had not yet come up from the Aisne, this Division was used to cover the British position at Ypres from the north; the infantry lying from Zandvoorde, on the south-east, through Zonnebeke to Langemarck on the north-west. Here again, through lack of numbers and artillery equipment, the British position was as serious as in the south. Enemy forces, more numerous than the British and Belgian armies, combined, were bearing down on the British line from the eastward through Courtrai, Iseghem, and Roulers, and over the Lys bridge at Menin. Later on, it was discovered that these represented not less than five new Army Corps. The Seventh Division was ordered to move upon Menin, to seize the bridge over the river and thus check the advance of further reinforcements. There were, of course, not enough troops for the work, but on the 18th October the Division, the right centre of which rested on the Ypres–Menin road, not yet lined throughout with dead, wheeled its left (the 22nd Brigade) forward. As the advance began, the cavalry on the left became aware of a large new German force on the left flank of the advance, and fighting became general all along the line of the Division.
On the 19th October the airmen reported the presence of two fresh Army Corps on the left. No further advance being possible, the Division was ordered to fall back to its original line, an operation attended with heavy loss under constant attacks.
On the 20th October the pressure increased as the German Army Corps made themselves felt against the thin line held by the Seventh Division, which was not amply provided with heavy batteries. Their losses were largely due to artillery fire, directed by air-observation, that obliterated trenches, men, and machine-guns.
On the 21st October the enemy attacked the Division throughout the day, artillery preparations being varied by mass assaults, but still the Division endured in the face of an enemy at least four times as strong and constantly reinforced. It is, as one writer says, hardly conceivable that our men could have checked the enemy’s advance for even a day longer, had it not been for the arrival at this juncture of the First Army Corps. Reinforcements were urgently needed at every point of the British line, but, for the moment, the imminent danger lay to the north of Ypres, where fresh German forces, underestimated as usual, might sweep the Belgian army aside and enter the Channel ports in our rear. With this in mind, the British Commander-in-Chief decided to use the First Army Corps to prolong the British line, already, as it seemed, nearly worn through, toward the sea, rather than to strengthen any occupied sector. He posted it, therefore—until French reinforcements should arrive—to the north, or left of the Seventh Division, from Zonnebeke to Bixschoote.
Our front at that date ran from Hollebeke to Bixschoote, a distance, allowing for bends, of some sixteen miles. To protect this we had but three depleted Infantry Divisions and two Cavalry Brigades against opposed forces of not less than a hundred thousand. Moreover, the ground was hampered by the flight, from Roulers and villages in German possession, of refugees, of whom a percentage were certainly spies, but over whom it was impossible to exercise any control. They carried their goods in little carts drawn by dogs, and they wept and wailed as they straggled past our men.
The orders for the Guards Brigade on October 21 to “drive back the enemy wherever met” were not without significance. All their news in billets had been of fresh formations coming down from the north and the east, and it was understood that the Germans counted with confidence upon entering Calais, via Ypres, in a few days.
The Brigade, less the 2nd Coldstream, “assembled in a field about four kilometres along the Ypres–Zonnebeke Road, and after a wait of three hours No. 4 Company of the 1st Irish Guards advanced to the support of the 2nd Grenadiers, who had been ordered to prolong the line to the right of the 2nd Coldstream. This company and both the advanced battalions suffered somewhat severely from shell-fire and occasional sniping.” Thus coldly does the Diary enter upon what was in fact the first day of the First Battle of Ypres, in which companies had to do the work of battalions, and battalions of brigades, and whose only relief was a change of torn and blood-soaked ground from one threatened sector of the line to the next.
It was not worth while to record how the people of Ypres brought hot coffee to the Battalion as it passed through, the day before (October 20); and how, when they halted there a few hours, the men amused their hosts by again dancing Irish jigs on the clattering pavements while the refugees clattered past; or how it was necessary to warn the companies that the enemy might attack behind a screen of Belgian women and children—in which case the Battalion would have to fire through them.
On the evening of the 21st October the Battalion was ordered up to the support of what was left of the 22nd Brigade which had fallen back to Zonnebeke. “It came under a heavy burst of artillery fire and was forced to lie down (in a ploughed field) for fifteen minutes”—at that time a novel experience. On its way a hare started up which was captured by a man of No. 2 Company to the scandal of discipline and the delight of all, and later sold for five shillings. At Zonnebeke it found No. 4 Company already lining the main road on the left of the town and took up a position in extended order on its right, “thus establishing the line into Zonnebeke.” The casualties, in spite of the artillery fire, are noted as only “one killed and seven wounded,” which must have been far under the mark. The night was lit by the flames of burning houses, by which light they hunted for snipers in haystacks round the village, buried stray dead of a battalion of the Seventh Division which had left them and, by order, did a deal of futile digging-in.
The next day the 22nd Brigade retired out of Zonnebeke about a kilometre down the main road to Ypres, the Battalion and half the 2nd Coldstream conforming to the movement. This enabled the Germans to enter the north of Zonnebeke and post machine-guns in some of the houses. None the less, our patrols remained in the south end of the town and did “excellent work”; an officer’s patrol, under Lieutenant Ferguson, capturing three mounted orderlies. One man was killed and 8 wounded in the Battalion that day.
On the 23rd October “the enemy brought up more machine-guns and used them against us energetically all the day.” A platoon of No. 1 Company, under Lieutenant the Hon. H. Alexander, attempted an outflanking movement through Zonnebeke, towards the church, supported by a platoon of No. 4 Company, under Lieutenant W. C. N. Reynolds, in the course of which the latter officer was wounded. The trenches were shelled with shrapnel all the afternoon, and a German advance was sprayed down with our rifle-fire. In the evening the French made an attack through Zonnebeke helped by their .75’s and established themselves in the town. They also, at 9 P.M., relieved the Battalion which moved at once south-west to Zillebeke and arrived there at 2 A.M. on the morning of the 24th, when it billeted “chiefly in a brick-yard” ready to be used afresh.
The relieving troops were a division of the Ninth French Army Corps. They took over the line of our Second Division, while our Second Division in turn took over part of the front of the Seventh Division. At the same time French Territorials relieved our First Division between Bixschoote and Langemarck, thus freeing us of all responsibility for any ground north of the Ypres-Zonnebeke road. Our Army on the 24th October, then, stood as follows: From the Zonnebeke road to a point near the race-course in the historic Polygon Wood west of Reutel was the Second Division; on its right, up to the Menin road, lay the First Division; and from the Menin road to Zandvoorde the Seventh Division with the 3rd Cavalry Brigade in the Zandvoorde trenches. Our line had thus been shortened and strengthened; but the enemy were continuously receiving reinforcements from Roulers and Menin, and the pressure never ceased.
In the early morning of the 24th October, and before the transfer of all the troops had been effected, the British Ypres front was attacked throughout in force and once more the shock of the attack fell on the remains of the Seventh Division. Reserves there were none; each battalion stood where it was in the flood and fought on front, flank, and rear indifferently. The Irish Guards had a few hours’ rest in the brick-fields at Zillebeke, where, by some miracle, it found its mail of home-letters and parcels waiting for it. Even before it could open them it was ordered out from Zillebeke2 along the Ypres–Menin road to Hooge to help the 20th Brigade (Seventh Division), which had been attacked on the morning of the 25th October, and parties of the enemy were reported to have broken through into Polygon Wood.
That attack, however, was repulsed during the day, and in the evening the Battalion was despatched to act in support of the 5th Brigade near Race-course (Polygon) Wood, due north of Veldhoek, where the Battalion bivouacked for the night in a ploughed field. This was the first time it had marched up the Menin road or seen the Château of Hooge, of which now no trace remains, sitting stately among its lawns.
On the 25th October, after a heavy bombardment, as bombardments were then reckoned, the whole Division was ordered at dawn to advance against Reutel; the 2nd Grenadier Guards and the Irish Guards being given the work of clearing out Polygon Wood, of which the enemy held the upper half. They were advancing through the woods, and the trenches of the Worcester Battalion there, when a big shell burst in Lieutenant Ferguson’s platoon, No. 3 Company, killing 4 and wounding 9 men, as far as was known. Ferguson himself, knocked down but unwounded, went back to advise No. 2 Company coming up behind him to deviate a little, “for the ground was a slaughter-house.” The Battalion fought its way to a couple of hundred yards north of Reutel and was then brought under heavy rifle-fire from concealed trenches on a ridge. The 2nd Grenadiers on the right had, earlier, been held up by a German trench on their left, and, as dark came on, touch between the battalions there was lost, and the patrol sent out to regain it only stumbled on the German trench. The left of the Battalion lost touch by nearly a quarter of a mile with the 5th Brigade, and as the wet night closed in they found themselves isolated in darkness and dripping autumn undergrowth, with the old orders “to hold ground gained at all costs.” Meantime they hung with both flanks in the air and enemy patrols on either side. The nearest supports of any kind were the trenches of the Worcesters, six hundred yards behind, through the woods; so the Battalion linked up with them by means of a double front of men, back to back, strung out tail-wise from their bivouac to the Worcesters. The manœuvre succeeded. There was sniping all night from every side, but thanks to the faithful “tail” the enemy could not get round the Battalion to make sure whether it was wholly in the air. The casualties this day were reported as 4 killed and 23 wounded.
At 4 A.M. on the 26th October, just after the night’s rain had ceased, word came from Brigade Headquarters that the 3rd Coldstream were to be expected on the Battalion’s right. They arrived an hour and a half later and the Battalion attacked, again to be held up in a salient heavily enfiladed from every angle by machine-guns, and though No. 2 Company carried a couple of farm-houses outside the woods, they were forced to retire from one of them and lost heavily. An attack by the 6th Brigade in the afternoon relieved the pressure a little, and helped the Battalion to get in touch with, at least, its brigade. Lieutenant Shields (R.A.M.C. attached) was killed here while attending our wounded. He had been remonstrated with only a few minutes before for exposing himself too much, and paid as much heed to the rebuke as did the others who succeeded him in his office. The casualties for the day were 1 officer and 9 men killed and 42 wounded. The night was memorable inasmuch as the Battalion, which had had no food for forty-eight hours, was allowed to eat its emergency rations.
There was a German attack on the night of the 27th October, lasting for less than an hour, but the advance of the 6th Brigade on the Battalion’s left, together with the advance of the French still farther to the left, threatening Passchendaele, kept the enemy moderately quiet till the Battalion was relieved in the evening of the 27th by the 3rd Coldstream, and went into bivouac just west of Race-course Wood. It was shelled while settling down here and at intervals throughout the night. Major Herbert Stepney was slightly wounded in the back by a bullet when at supper in a farm-house; 2 men were killed and 3 wounded. Captain A. H. L. McCarthy, R.A.M.C., joined for duty, replacing Lieutenant Shields.
Next morning (October 28) the 5th Brigade was attacking and the Battalion was ordered to support. It was heavily shelled again in the wood and dug itself in north-west on the race-course, where it stayed all day ready to support the Coldstream, and had a quiet time. The C.O. (Lord Ardee) went to hospital with a bad throat; Lieutenant Greer was wounded while serving his machine-gun, which had been lent to the 3rd Coldstream, and a couple of men were wounded. Drill-Sergeant A. Winspear joined the Connaught Rangers as 2nd Lieutenant—one of the earliest of the army officers promoted from the ranks.
The enemy at that date were so sure of success that they made no attempt to conceal their intentions, and all our spent forces on the Ypres front were well aware that a serious attack would be opened on them on the 29th. Rumour said it would be superintended by the Kaiser himself. But, so far as the Battalion was concerned, that day was relatively quiet. The 2nd Brigade had been ordered to retake the trenches lost by the 1st Brigade east of Gheluvelt, and the Battalion’s duty, with the 2nd Grenadiers, was to fill up whatever gaps might be found in a line which was mainly gaps between the left of the 2nd and the right of the 1st Brigade near Polderhoek. It reached the light railway from Gheluvelt to Polderhoek, discovered that the gap there could be filled up by a platoon, communicated with the C.O’s of the two brigades concerned, sent back three companies to the 4th Brigade Headquarters, left one at the disposal of the 1st Brigade, and at night withdrew. For the moment, the line could be held with the troops on the spot, and it was no policy to use a man more than was necessary. The casualties to the men for that day were but 4 killed and 6 wounded, though a shell burst on the Brigade Reserve Ammunition Column, west of Race-course Wood, and did considerable damage.
The 30th October opened on the heaviest crisis of the long battle of Ypres. The Battalion, to an accompaniment of “Jack Johnsons,” dug trenches a quarter of a mile west of Race-course Wood in case the troops at the farther end of it should be driven back; for in those years woods were visible and gave good cover. German aeroplanes, well aware that they had no anti-aircraft guns to fear, swooped low over them in the morning, and men could only reply with some pitiful rifle-fire.
In the afternoon orders came for them and the 2nd Grenadiers to stop digging and move up to Klein Zillebeke to support the hard-pressed Seventh Division on whose front the enemy had broken through again. When they reached what was more or less the line, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies were sent forward to support the cavalry in their trenches, while Nos. 3 and 4 Companies dug themselves in behind Klein Zillebeke.3 A gap of about a quarter of a mile was found running from the Klein Zillebeke-Zandvoorde road north to the trenches of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, and patrols reported the enemy in force in a strip of wood immediately to the east of it. Whether the gap had been blasted out by concentrated enemy-fire, or whether what the guns had left of our cavalry had retired, was never clear. The Battalion was told off to hold the place and to find out who was on either side of them, while the 2nd Grenadiers continued the line southward from the main road to the canal. Beginning at 11 P.M., they dug themselves in till morning light. A burning farmhouse blazed steadily all night in a hollow by Zandvoorde and our patrols on the road could see the Germans “in their spiked helmets” silhouetted against the glare as they stormed out of the woods and massed behind the fold of the ground ready for the morning’s attack. Two years later, our guns would have waited on their telephones till the enemy formation was completed and would then have removed those battalions from the face of the earth. But we had not those guns. During the night the Oxfordshire Light Infantry came up and occupied a farm between the Battalion and the Gordon Highlanders and strengthened the situation a little. Company commanders had already been officially warned that the position was serious and that they must “hang on at all costs.” Also that the Kaiser himself was in front of them.
On the 31st, after an attack by the French towards Hollebeke which did not develop, the full storm broke. The Battalion, backed by two R.F.A. guns, was shelled from seven in the morning till eleven o’clock at night in such trenches as it had been able to construct during the night; while machine-gun and infantry fire grew steadily through the hours. The companies were disposed as follows: No. 4 Company immediately to the north of the main wood; then No. 3 with No. 1 in touch with the Oxfordshire Light Infantry at a farm-house, next to the Gordons; No. 2 was in reserve at a farm with Headquarters.
On the afternoon of the 31st October, Lord Ardee arrived from hospital, though he was in no state to be out of it, and was greeted by the information that the Gordons on the left, heavily shelled, had been driven out of their trenches. The Oxford L.I. and also No. 1 Company of the Battalion which was in touch with them had to conform to the movement. The section of R.F.A. had to retire also with the Gordons and, after apologies, duly delivered among bursting German shell, for “having to look after their guns,” they “limbered up and went off as though it were the Military Tournament.” There was a counter-attack, and eventually the enemy were driven back and the line was re-established before night, which passed, says the Diary “fairly quietly.” The moonlight made movement almost impossible; nor could the men get any hot tea, their great stand-by, but rations were distributed. The casualties among officers that day were Lieutenant L. S. Coke killed, and buried in the garden of the farm; Captain Lord Francis Scott, Lieutenant the Earl of Kingston, and Lieutenant R. Ferguson wounded. There were many casualties in the front trenches, specially among No. 3 Company, men being blown to pieces and no trace left. The depressing thing, above all, was that we seemed to have no guns to reply with.
Bombardment was renewed on the 1st November. The front trenches were drenched by field-guns, at close range, with spurts of heavy stuff at intervals; the rear by heavy artillery, while machine-gun fire filled the intervals. One of the trenches of a platoon in No. 3 Company, under Lieutenant Maitland, was completely blown in, and only a few men escaped. The Lieutenant remained with the survivors while Sergeant C. Harradine, under heavy fire, took the news to the C.O. It was hopeless to send reinforcements; the machine-gun fire would have wiped them out moving and our artillery was not strong enough to silence any one sector of the enemy’s fire.
In the afternoon the enemy attacked—with rifle-fire and a close-range small piece that broke up our two machine-guns—across some dead ground and occupied the wrecked trench, driving back the few remains of No. 3 Company. The companies on the right and left, Nos. 4 and 1, after heavy fighting, fell back on No. 2 Company, which was occupying roughly prepared trenches in the rear. One platoon, however, of No. 1 Company, under Lieutenant N. Woodroffe (he had only left Eton a year), did not get the order to retire, and so held on in its trench till dark and “was certainly instrumental in checking the advance of the enemy.” The line was near breaking-point by then, but company after company delivered what blow it could, and fell back, shelled and machine-gunned at every step, to the fringe of Zillebeke Wood. Here the officers, every cook, orderly, and man who could stand, took rifle and fought; for they were all that stood there between the enemy and the Channel Ports. (Years later, a man remembering that fight said: “’Twas like a football scrum. Every one was somebody, ye’ll understand. If he dropped there was no one to take his place. Great days! An’ we not so frightened as when it came to the fightin’ by machinery on the Somme afterwards.”)4 The C.O. sent the Adjutant to Brigade Headquarters to ask for help, but the whole Staff had gone over to the 2nd Brigade Headquarters, whose Brigadier had taken over command of the 4th Brigade as its own Brigadier had been wounded. About this time, too, the C.O. of the Battalion (Lord Ardee) was wounded. Eventually the 2nd Battalion Grenadiers was sent up with some cavalry of the much-enduring 7th Brigade, and the line of support-trenches was held. The Battalion had had nothing to eat for thirty-six hours, so the cavalry kept the line for a little till our men got food.
A French regiment (Territorials) on the right also took over part of the trenches of our depleted line. Forty-four men were known to have been killed, 205 wounded and 88—chiefly from the blown-up No. 3 Platoon—were missing. Of officers, Lieutenant K. R. Mathieson had been killed (he had been last seen shooting a Hun who was bayoneting our wounded); Captain Mulholland died of his wounds as soon as he arrived in hospital at Ypres; Lieut.-Colonel Lord Ardee, Captain Vesey, Lieutenant Gore-Langton and Lieutenant Alexander were wounded, and Lieutenant G. M. Maitland, who had stayed with his handful in No. 3 Company’s trench, was missing. Yet the time was to come when three hundred and fifty casualties would be regarded as no extraordinary price to pay for ground won or held. One small draft of 40 men arrived from home that night.
On November 2 the Battalion was reduced to three companies since in No. 3 Company all officers were casualties and only 26 men of it answered their names at roll-call. They were heavily shelled all that day. They tried to put up a little wire on their front during the night; they collected what dead they could; they received several wounded men of the day’s fight as they crawled into our lines; they heard one such man calling in the dark, and they heard the enemy turn a machine-gun on him and silence him. The regular work of sending forward and relieving the companies in the front line went on, varied by an attack from the enemy, chiefly rifle-fire, on the night of the 3rd November. On that date they received “a new machine-gun,” and another draft of sixty men (under Captain E. C. S. KingHarman) several of whom were killed or wounded that same afternoon. The night was filled with false alarms as some of the new drafts began to imagine crowds of Germans advancing out of the dark. This was a popular obsession, but it led to waste of ammunition and waking up utterly tired men elsewhere in the line.
On the 4th November there was an outburst of machine-gunning from a farm-house, not 300 yards away. One field-gun was brought up to deal with them, and some of the 2nd Life Guards stood by to help in event of an attack, but the enemy contented themselves with mere punishing fire.
On the evening of November 5 they located our one field-gun which was still trying to cope with the enemy’s machine-guns, shelled it for an hour vigorously, blew up the farm-house that sheltered it, but—clean missed the gun, though it had been firing at least one round every ten minutes. One of our wounded of the 1st November managed to crawl into our lines. He had been three days without food or water—the Germans, who thought he would die, refusing him both. There was heavy shelling and about thirty casualties in the line “as far as known.”
On the 6th after an hour’s preparation with heavy-, light-, and machine-gun fire, the enemy attacked the French troops on the Battalion’s right, who fell back and left the flank of the Battalion (No. 2 Company) open. The Company “in good order and fighting” fell back by platoons to its support trenches, but this left No. 1 Company practically in the air, and at the end of the day the greater part of them were missing. As the Germans occupied the French trenches in succession, they opened an enfilade fire on the Irish which did sore execution. Once again the Adjutant went to the Brigadier to explain the situation. The Household Cavalry were sent up at the gallop to Zillebeke where they dismounted and advanced on foot. The 1st Life Guards on the left were detailed to retake the Irish Guards’ trenches, while the 2nd Life Guards attacked the position whence the French had been ousted. A hundred Irish Guardsmen, collected on the spot, also took part in the attack, which in an hour recovered most of the lost positions. Here Lieutenant W. E. Hope was killed, and a little later, Lieutenant N. Woodroffe fell, shot dead in the advance of the Household Cavalry. Two companies, had these been available, could have held the support-trenches after the Household Cavalry had cleared the front, but there were no reinforcements and the unceasing pressure on the French drove the Battalion back on a fresh line a couple of hundred yards behind the support trenches which the cavalry held till the remains of the Battalion had re-formed and got some hot tea from the ever-forward cookers. In addition to Lieutenants Hope and Woodroffe killed, Captain Lord John Hamilton and Lieutenant E. C. S. King-Harman, who had come out with the draft on the 1st November, were missing that day.
On November 7 the Battalion relieved the cavalry at one in the morning, and dug and deepened their trenches on the edge of the wood till word came to them to keep up a heavy fire on any enemy driven out of the wood, as the 22nd Brigade were attacking on their right. That “Brigade” now reduced to two composite battalions—the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, with the 2nd Queens and the Warwicks with S. Staffords—both commanded by captains, did all that was humanly possible against the pressure, but in the end, as the Diary says, “having failed to get the line required, withdrew under heavy shell-fire.” Their attack was no more than one, of many desperate interludes in the desperate first battle of Ypres—a winning fight against hopeless odds of men and material—but it diverted attention for the moment from the Battalion’s particular section of the line and “the enemy did not shell our trenches much.” Early in the day Major Stepney, commanding, went out from the support trenches and was not seen again alive. His body was found late in the evening between the lines. The command of the Battalion now fell to Captain N. Orr-Ewing.
Since October 31 6 officers had been killed, 7 wounded, and 3 were missing. Of N.C.O.’s and men 64 were dead, 339 wounded, and 194 missing. The total casualties, all ranks, for one week, were 613.
The remnant were made into two shrunken companies next day (the 8th) which was a quiet one with intermittent bursts of shelling from French .75’s on the right, and German heavies; the enemy eighty yards distant. Captain A. Perceval, who had been blown up twice in the past week, and Lieutenant J. S. N. FitzGerald were sent to hospital.
On the night of the 9th November the Battalion of four platoons, three in the firing line and one in reserve, was relieved by the S.W. Borderers; drew supplies and men at Brigade Headquarters, moved back through Zillebeke and marched into bivouacs near a farm south of the Ypres–Zonnebeke road, where they settled down with some Oxford L.I. in deep trenches, and dugouts which had been dug by the French.
They spent the 10th in luxury; their cookers were up and the men ate their first hot meal for many days. Blankets also were issued, and a draft of about two hundred men arrived under Lieutenant Hon. W. C. Hanbury-Tracy, which brought up the strength of the reorganized two-company Battalion to 360 men. Major Webber, “S.R.” (this is the first time that the Diary makes mention of the Special Reserve), arrived the day before and as Senior Officer took over from Captain Orr-Ewing. The other officers who came with him were Captain Everard and Lieutenant L. R. Hargreaves, both Special Reserve, with Lieutenant St. J. R. Pigott, and, next day, 2nd Lieutenant Straker, Machine-gun Officer, with “two new guns.” All these reinforcements allowed the Battalion to be organized as two companies instead of four platoons.
On the morning of the 11th November, they were moved out by way of the Bellewaarde Lake and under cover of the woods there, in support of the Oxfordshire L.I. who cleared the wood north of Château Hooge and captured some thirty prisoners of the Prussian Guards. This was the first time, to their knowledge, that they had handled that Corps. Though heavily shelled the Battalion lost no men and spent the rest of the day behind the O.L.I. and the Grenadiers, waiting in the rain near the Headquarters of the First Division (Brigadier-General FitzClarence, V.C.) to which it was for the moment attached.
It was here that one of our officers found some enemy prisoners faithfully shepherded under the lee of a protecting haystack while their guard (Oxford L.I. ) stood out in the open under casual shrapnel. A change was made at once.
At 9 P.M. the Battalion was told it might go back and get tea and supplies at some cross-roads or other in the darkness behind it. The cookers never came up and the supplies were not available till past midnight on the 12th. As their orders were to return to 1st Brigade Headquarters at 2 A.M. to take part in an attack on a German trench, the men had not much sleep. The trench had been captured by the enemy the day before, but they had abandoned it and dug another, commanding, in the rear, whence they could deal with any attempt at recapture on our part. The composite force of the 2nd Grenadiers, Munster Fusiliers, Irish Guards, and Oxfordshire L.I. discovered this much, wading through mud in the darkness before dawn, at a cost to the Battalion of Major Webber and Lieutenant Harding and some twelve men wounded. They were caught front and flank and scattered among the shell-holes. General FitzClarence was killed by enemy fire out of the dark, and eventually the troops returned to 1st Brigade Headquarters where a company of the Grenadiers were told off to dig trenches in a gap which had been found in the line, while the remainder, the Irish Guards and the Munsters, were sent back to the woods near Hooge Château which was full of fragments of broken battalions, from Scots Guards to Zouaves.
The Battalion reached its destination at 6 A.M. of the 12th. Three-quarters of an hour later it was ordered up to the woods on the Gheluvelt road. They occupied “dug-outs”—the first time the Diary mentions these as part of the scheme of things—on the north side of the road near the end of the wood west of Veldhoek; sent a platoon to reinforce the Scots Fusiliers who were hard-pressed, near by; and were heavily shelled at intervals all day, besides being sniped and machine-gunned by the enemy who commanded the main road towards Hooge. None the less, they were fed that night without accident. Captains Everard and Hanbury-Tracy, Lieutenant Pigott were sent to hospital, and 2nd Lieutenant Antrobus rejoined from hospital. This left to the Battalion—Captain Orr-Ewing, Captain the Hon. J. Trefusis, Adjutant R.M.C. Sandhurst who had joined a day or so before, Lieutenant L. R. Hargreaves, and 2nd Lieutenant Antrobus, who was next day wounded in the arm by a shell. Lieutenant Walker, Acting Quartermaster, was sick, and Captain Gough was acting as Brigade Transport Officer. At that moment the strength of the Battalion is reported at “about” 160 officers and men. A draft of 50 N.C.O.’s and men arrived on the 13th November.
On November 14 they were ordered to return to 4th Brigade Headquarters and take over trenches near Klein Zillebeke from the S.W. Borderers who had relieved them there on the 9th. “The day passed much as usual,” it was observed, but “the shelling was fairly heavy and the enemy gained some ground.” Lieutenant and Quartermaster Hickie returned from a sick leave of two months. The Sussex Battalion relieved the Battalion in their dug-outs on the edge of the Veldhoek woods at 11 P.M.; the Battalion then moved off and by half-past three on the morning of the 15th had relieved the South Wales Borderers in their old trenches. Here they received word of the death of their Colonel, FieldMarshal Lord Roberts, from pneumonia while on a visit to the Indian troops at the front. C.S.M. Rogers and Pte. Murphy were selected as representatives of the Battalion to attend the funeral service at St. Omer. The Battalion spent the day under constant shell-fire in improving trenches, “but there was some difficulty as snipers were busy, as they had been all day.” One officer wrote: “Our men are very tired and the rifles are in an awful state. It rains continuously, and it is very hard to get any sort of rifle-oil.”
The 16th November, a day of snow and heavy firing, ending in an attack which was suppressed by rapid fire, was grimly enlivened by the appearance of one German deserter with two fingers shot off who announced that he “had had enough of fighting.”
On the 17th November, Brigade Headquarters were blown in by shell-fire, both of the Irish Guards orderlies on duty were injured, and both of the Battalion’s “two new machine-guns” were knocked to pieces. There was five hours’ heavy shelling from 7 A.M. till noon when the enemy came out of their trenches to attack in force, and were dealt with for an hour by the Battalion, the Grenadiers on its left and the cavalry on its right. It was estimated that—thanks to efficient fire control and good discipline—twelve hundred killed and wounded were accounted for in front of our trenches. Our only man killed in this attack was C.S.M. Munns who had been just recommended for his commission. He was a born leader of men, always cheerful, and with what seemed like a genuine love for fighting. A second attack, not pressed home, followed at three o’clock; another out-break of small-arm fire at half-past nine and yet another towards midnight, and a heavy shelling of the French on our right. “Then all was quiet,” says the easily satisfied record.
They endured one day longer, with nothing worse than a “certain amount of heavy shelling but not so much as usual,” and on the 18th their battered remnants came out. They were relieved by a company of the 3rd Coldstream (Captain H. Dawson) and marched off to billets at Potijze on the Ypres–Zonnebeke road, where the men got plenty of food. Hard frost had followed the soaking wet and downpour of the previous days; snow succeeded, but there were hot meals and the hope of rest and refit at Meteren behind Bailleul, fifteen miles from Potijze.
They reached that haven on the 21st November—eight officers and 390 men in all—“desperately tired” in a cold that froze the water in the men’s bottles. Not a man fell out. Captain Lord Desmond FitzGerald, recovered from his wound, arrived on the same day and took over the Adjutancy.
The Battalion had been practically wiped out and reconstructed in a month. They had been cramped in wet mud till they had almost forgotten the use of their legs: their rifles, clothing, equipment, everything except their morale and the undefeated humour with which they had borne their burden, needed renewal or repair. They rested and began to clean themselves of their dirt and vermin while the C.O. and company officers went round billets and companies—to see that the men had all they needed—as is the custom of our Army. It was a comprehensive refit, including everything from trousers to ground-sheets, as well as mufflers and mittens sent by H.I.H. the Grand Duke Michael of Russia. Steady platoon and company drill, which is restorative to men after long standing in dirt, or fighting in the dark, marked the unbelievably still days.
On the 23rd November the Reverend Father Gwynne, the beloved R.C. Chaplain, arrived to take up his duties; and on the 24th they were inspected by the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French.
On the 28th a draft of 288 N.C.O.’s and men reached them, under command of Captain P. L. Reid with the following officers: Lieutenant G. Gough; 2nd Lieutenants H. S. Keating, H. Marion-Crawford, Hon. H. A. V. Harmsworth, A. C. Innes, and L. C. Lee. With this draft the strength of the Battalion stood at 700 men and 15 officers. Of the latter the Diary notes that nine are in the Special Reserve, “seven of them having done no sort of soldiering before the war.” Mercifully, men lived but one day at a time, or the Diarist might have drawn conclusions, which would have fallen far short of what the future was to bring, from the fact that as many as twelve machine-gunners were kept at the base by the order of the authorities. There was need to train machine-gunners, and even greater need for the guns themselves. But the Battalion was not occupied with the larger questions of the war. They had borne their part against all odds of numbers and equipment in barring the German road to the sea in the first month-long battle of Ypres. They knew very little of what they had done. Not one of their number could have given any consecutive account of what had happened, nor, in that general-post of daily and nightly confusion whither they had gone. All they were sure of was that such as lived were not dead (“The Lord only knows why”) and that the enemy had not broken through. They had no knowledge what labours still lay before them.
On the 3rd December, after an issue of new equipment and a visit from Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the First Army Corps, they lined the road from Meteren towards Bailleul for the visit of the King who walked down the lines of the 4th (Guards) Brigade and, after shaking hands with the four Commanding Officers of the Brigade, said: “I am very proud of my Guards and am full of admiration for their bravery, endurance, and fine spirit. I wish I could have addressed them all, but that is impossible, so you must tell them what I say to you. You are fighting a brave and determined enemy, but if you go on as you have been doing and show the same fine spirit, there can be only one end, please God, and that is victory. I wish you all good luck.”
D.S.O.’s had been awarded to Captain Orr-Ewing and Captain Lord Francis Scott; and the Distinguished Conduct Medal to Company Sergeant-Major Munns, who, it will be remembered, was killed in action just after he was recommended for a commission: to Sergeant M’Goldrick, Brigade Orderly, who was one of the orderlies injured when the Brigade Headquarters were blown up on the 17th November; Corporal Riordan (wounded), Private Russell (Brigade Orderly), and Private Glynn (since wounded and missing). The King decorated Sergeant M’Goldrick with the D.C.M. that afternoon. The others named were, from various causes, absent. It was the first of many such occasions where those honoured could not be present to receive their valour’s reward.
The Diary notes the issue of cardigan waistcoats and goat-skin coats for each man, as well as of a new American pattern boot, with a hard toe which, it conservatively fears, “may not stand the wear of the old ammunition-boot.” Route-marches increased in length, and the men marched as well as they ate. Indeed, they volunteered to the Brigadier, who came round once to see the dinners, that they had never been so well fed. It kept them healthy, though there were the usual criticisms from officers, N.C.O.’s. and surviving veterans of the Regular Army, on the quality of the new drafts, some of whom, it seems, suffered from bad teeth and had to be sent away for renewals and refits. As a much-tried sergeant remarked: “A man with a sore tooth is a nuisance an’ a danger to the whole British Army.”
On the 9th December Sir Douglas Haig came over to present the Medaille Militaire, on behalf of the French Government, to certain officers, N.C.O.’s, and men of the Guards Brigade. Drill-Sergeant Rodgers of the Battalion was among the recipients. Captain Orr-Ewing was ordered to rejoin the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards (his own battalion), to the regret of the Battalion whose lot he had shared since September—the most capable of officers as the most popular of comrades.
A party from the Brigade was sent to Headquarters of the 11th Engineering Company “to be taught how to throw bombs made out of jam-pots, which apparently are used against the enemy at close quarters in the present trench-warfare.” There were at least half-adozen more or less dangerous varieties of these handmade bombs in use, before standard patterns were evolved and bombing took its place as a regular aid to warfare. The “jam-pot” bomb died early but not before it had caused a sufficiency of trouble to its users. The others will be mentioned in due course.
“Aeroplane duty” was another invention of those early days. A company was told off daily to look out for aeroplanes and, if possible, to bring them down—presumably by rifle-fire. The war was still very young.
F.-M. Earl Kitchener’s appointment to Colonel of the Battalion in succession to F.-M. Earl Roberts was marked on the 12th in the following telegram from Earl Kitchener:
|His Majesty the King, having been graciously pleased to appoint me to be Colonel of the Irish Guards, I desire to take the first opportunity of expressing to you and through you to all ranks how proud I am to be associated with so gallant a regiment. My warmest greetings and best wishes to you all!|
The C.O. replied:
|All ranks, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, greatly appreciate the honour conferred on them by His Majesty the King, and are proud to have such a distinguished soldier as Colonel of the Regiment.|
On the 13th December a further draft of 100 men and three officers arrived under Captain Mylne; the other officers being Lieutenant Antrobus who was wounded exactly a month before, and Lieutenant Hubbard. This brought the Battalion’s strength to 800 with the following officers: Major the Hon. J. Trefusis, C.O.; Captain Lord Desmond FitzGerald, Adjutant; Lieutenant C. A. S. Walker, Transport Officer; 2nd Lieutenant L. Straker, Machine-gun Officer; Captain A. H. L. McCarthy, Medical Officer; Captain Rev. Father Gwynne, Chaplain; Lieutenant H. Hickie, Quartermaster. No.1 Company, Captain E. J. Gough, Lieutenant L. Hargreaves, 2nd Lieutenant A. C. Innes. No. 2 Company, Captain E. Mylne, 2nd Lieutenant H. S. Keating, 2nd Lieutenant F. H. Witts. No. 3 Company, Captain P. L. Reid, 2nd Lieutenant P. H. Antrobus, 2nd Lieutenant Hon. H. V. Harmsworth, 2nd Lieutenant H. Marion-Crawford. No. 4 Company, Lieutenant G. Gough, Lieutenant G. Hubbard, 2nd Lieutenant Lee.
Lieutenant C. A. S. Walker had to go to hospital with bronchitis and Lieutenant Antrobus took over from him.
Major Arbuthnot (Scots Guards) arrived on the 14th December with Queen Alexandra’s presents to the Battalion which were duly issued to selected officers, N.C. O.’s, and men, but at the time, the Battalion was under two hours’ notice to move either to support an attack then being delivered by the Third Division upon the wood at Wytschaete, or “for any other purpose.” The attack was not a success except in so far as it pinned the enemy forces to one place, but the Battalion was not called upon to help. It lived under “short notice” for a week which naturally interfered with extended route-marches or training. Companies were sent out one by one to dig in the water-logged soil and to extemporise means of keeping their feet out of the water by “blocks of wood made in the form of a platform at the bottom of the trenches.” Thus laboriously is described the genesis of what was later to grow into thousands of miles of duck-board, plain or wired.
Meantime, between the 20th and 22nd of December the fierce and unsatisfactory battle of Cuinchy, the burden of which fell heavily on our devoted Indian troops, had been fought out on a front of half-a-dozen miles from south of the Béthune Canal to Festubert. Nothing had been gained except the all-important issue—that the enemy did not break through. There was a long casualty-list as casualties were then counted, and the Indian Brigades were withdrawn from their wrecked and sodden trenches for a little rest. The Guards Brigade was ordered to relieve them, and on the 22nd marched out from Meteren. The Herts Territorial Battalion (to be honourably and affectionately known later as “The Herts Guards”) led that first march, followed by the 2nd Coldstream, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, the 3rd Coldstream, and the 2nd Grenadiers. They billeted at Béthune where, on the 23rd December, the 2nd Coldstream in support, they took over their share of the Indian trenches near Le Touret between Essars and Richebourg L’Avoué, and on Christmas Eve after tea and the distribution of the Christmas puddings from England, the Battalion, with the Hertfordshires relieved the 4th Dogras, 6th Jats, and 9th Gurkhas. It is recorded that the Gurkha, being a somewhat shorter man than the average Guardsman, the long Irish had to dig their trenches about two feet deeper, and they wondered loudly what sort of persons these “little dark fellas” could be.
The Christmas truce of 1914 reached the Battalion in severely modified form. They lay among a network of trenches, already many times fought over, with communications that led directly into the enemy’s lines a couple of hundred yards away. So they spent Christmas Day, under occasional bombardment of heavy artillery, in exploring and establishing themselves as well as they might among these wet and dreary works. In this duty Lieutenant G. P. Gough and Lieutenant F. H. Witts and six men were wounded.
Earl Kitchener, their Colonel, sent them Christmas wishes and the King’s and Queen’s Christmas cards were distributed. Their comfort was that Christmas night was frosty so that the men kept dry at least.
Boxing Day was quiet, too, and only four men were wounded as they dug in the hard ground to improve their communications with the 2nd Coldstream on their left. Then the frost broke in rain, the clay stuck to the spade, the trenches began to fill and a deserter brought news of an impending attack which turned out to be nothing more serious than a bombing affair which was duly “attended to.” Some of our own shells bursting short killed one man and wounded six. Princess Mary’s gifts of pipes, tobacco, and Christmas cards were distributed to the men and duly appreciated.
The impossibility of keeping anything free from mud forced them to reduce their firing-line to the least possible numbers, while those in support, or billets, made shift to clean rifles and accoutrements. The days went forward in rain and wet, with digging where water allowed, and a regular daily toll of a few men killed and wounded.
On the 30th December Captain Eric Gough was killed by a stray bullet while commanding his Company (No. 1) and was buried next day in a cemetery a few miles along the Béthune–Richebourg road. He had been Transport Officer since the Battalion left London in August, but had commanded a company since the 21st November, and was an immense loss to the Battalion to which he was devoted. Lieutenant Sir G. Burke and 2nd Lieutenant J. M. Stewart came from England on the same day and were posted to No. 1 Company now commanded by Lieutenant L. Hargreaves.
The Diary ends the year with a recapitulation more impressive in its restraint than any multitude of words
|The country round this part is very low-lying, intersected with ditches with pollarded willows growing on their banks. No sooner is a trench dug than it fills with water. . . . The soil is clay, and so keeps the water from draining away even if that were possible. In order to keep the men at all dry, they have to stand on planks rested on logs in the trenches, and in the less wet places bundles of straw and short fascines are put down. Pumping has been tried, but not with much success. The weather continues wet, and there does not seem to be any likelihood of a change. Consequently, we may expect some fresh discomforts daily.|
1. About this time, on a distant flank of the war, there was a very young French Lieutenant of Artillery who, in his first action, when evening came, telephoned to his superior officer as to dispositions for the night, in the sincere belief that, following the custom of all wars up to date, the guns would stop as the darkness closed. His answer was: “This will be a war in which no one ever goes to bed.” [back]
2. “. . . and the next time I saw Zillebeke it was a deserted ruin, and the small house whose inmates had been so kind to my subalterns and me was a heap of debris.”—Extract from a Company Commander’s Diary. [back]
3. “At the cross-roads near Klein Zillebeke we halted, lying down on each side the road as shells were coming over. In the centre of the road lay a dead trooper of some British Cavalry Regiment, his horse also half dead across him. A woman passed by. . . . She had all her household treasures strapped on her back and held the hands of two very small children. She took no notice of any one, but I saw the two little children shy away from the dead man.”—Diary of a Company Officer. [back]
4. Their Brigadier, Lord Cavan, wrote on the 20th November to Captain N. Orr-Ewing, commanding the Battalion: “I want you to convey to every man in your Battalion that I consider that the safety of the right flank of the British section depended entirely upon their staunchness after the disastrous day, Nov. 1. Those of them that were left made history, and I can never thank them enough for the way in which they recovered themselves and showed the enemy that the Irish Guards must be reckoned with, however hard hit” [back]