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Gheluvelt (31st October 1914)
The crisis of the
Battle of Ypres hinged around the village of Gheluvelt.
Lying on a forward spur of the low ridge that covers the town of
Ypres, Gheluvelt was the last point retained in British hands from which
the enemy’s line could be dominated.
By noon on 31st October 1914, the Queens, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the
Welsh and the Kings Royal Rifles had been overwhelmed, while on the right
the South Wales Borderers had been rolled back.
Gheluvelt had been lost and a serious gap had been made in the
British line. So serious was
the situation that unless the gap could be closed, a breakthrough could
not be avoided. Indeed orders
had already been prepared for artillery to move back in preparation for a
On the evening of the
30th October, the Second Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment remained
uncommitted, all other units having been sent to reinforce the line.
Located in Polygon Wood, the Battalion, was commanded by Major E. B.
Hankey and the Adjutant was Captain B. C. Senhouse-Clarke.
At 13.00 hours on the 31st October, the Battalion received an order to attack and
retake Gheluvelt. Captain A. F.
Thorne of the Grenadier Guards was to act as a guide.
From Polygon Wood, the chateau which dominated the village could
not be seen but the nearby church tower rising amidst the smoke, was
visible. All around were
wounded and stragglers coming to the rear and batteries could be seen
limbering up and moving back. The
Worcestershires alone were moving towards the enemy.
The ridge was littered with dead and wounded, and along the crest,
German shells were falling fast. Hankey
decided that the only way to cross this dangerous area was at the double.
Gheluvelt 31st October
As the leading men
reached the ridge, they came in view of the German guns whose high
explosive shells were quickly directed on the charging soldiers.
Over 100 of the Battalion were killed or wounded but the rest
pushed on and, increasing their speed as they came to the downward slope
in sight of Gheluvelt, made the final charge through hedges and on to the
Chateau grounds. Here they met the remnants of the South Wales Borderers
who had made a heroic stand. The
meeting was unexpected, for the Worcestershires had believed no soldiers
were left. The 2nd
Worcestershires had gone into this action with about 370 men of whom 187
were killed or wounded. Gheluvelt
had been saved and the line restored.
It is rare that the action of one unit can exert such a profound
influence as did this now famous counter attack.
The Counter-Attack at
Gheluvelt (31st October 1914)
As a result of the
capture of Gheluvelt against terrific odds, and the consequent closing of
the gap in the British Lines, Ypres was held and the Channel Ports were
THE BATTLE OF GHELUVELT (2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment)
Daybreak of October 31st was calm and clear. The 2nd Worcestershire, in their reserve position west of the Polygon Wood, were roused early by the crash of gun-fire. The troops turned out, breakfasts were cooked and eaten, weapons were cleaned and inspected. Then for several hours the companies lay idle about their billets, listening to the ever-increasing bombardment and watching the German shrapnel bursting in black puffs of smoke above the tree-tops.
The 2nd Worcestershire were almost the last available reserve of the British defence. Nearly every other unit had been drawn into the battle-line or had been broken beyond recovery; and to an onlooker that last reserve would not have seemed very formidable. The Battalion could muster not more than five hundred men. Ten days of battle had left all ranks haggard, unshaven and unwashed: their uniforms had been soaked in the mud of the Langemarck trenches and torn by the brambles of Polygon Wood: many had lost their puttees or their caps. But their weapons were clean and in good order, they had plenty of ammunition, and three months of war had given them confidence in their fighting power. The short period in reserve had allowed them sleep and food. That crowd of ragged soldiers was still a fighting battalion, officers and men bound together by that proud and willing discipline which is the soul of the Regiment.
Hour by hour the thunder of the guns grew more intense. Stragglers and wounded from beyond the wood brought news that a great German attack was in progress. The enemy's infantry were coming on in overwhelming numbers against the remnants of the five British battalions, together mustering barely a thousand men, which were holding the trenches about the Menin Road.
Before midday weight of numbers had told. The Queen's and the Royal Scots Fusiliers had fought to the last, the Welch and the K.R.R.C. had been overwhelmed, the right flank of the South Wales Borderers had been rolled back. Gheluvelt had been lost, and a great gap had been broken in the British line. Unless that gap could be closed the British army was doomed to disaster.
So serious was the situation caused by the loss of Gheluvelt that orders were issued for the British artillery to move back, in preparation for a general retreat, At the same time it was decided that a counter-attack against the lost position should be made by the 2nd Worcestershire. Brigadier-General C. FitzClarence, V.C. (Commanding the 1st (Guards) Brigade. Technically the 2nd Worcestershire, belonging to the 2nd Division, were not under his orders. General Lomax, commanding the 1st Division, had directed General FitzClarence to order the Worcestershire into the fight), was in command of the front about the Menin Road. Soon after midday he sent for an officer of the 2nd Worcestershire to take orders. Major Hankey sent his Adjutant, Captain B. C. Senhouse Clarke.
Twenty minutes later Captain Senhouse Clarke returned, bringing word that the Battalion would probably be wanted for a counter-attack, and that meanwhile one company was to be detached to prevent the enemy from advancing up the Menin Road. "A" Company was detailed for the latter duty. Led by Captain P. S. G. Wainman, the company advanced at 12.45 p.m. (the other officers of " A " Coy. were Lieut. E. C. R. Hudson and 2/Lieut. G. A. Sheppard) to a position on the embankment of the light railway northwest of Gheluvelt. The company held the embankment during the following two hours, firing rapidly at such of the enemy as attempted to advance beyond the houses.
About 1 p.m., Major Hankey was summoned by General FitzClarence, and was given definite orders. The 2nd Worcestershire were to make a counter-attack to regain the lost British positions around Gheluvelt. General FitzClarence pointed out the Church in Gheluvelt as a landmark for the advance, explained that the situation was desperate and that speed was essential, and ordered his Staff Captain, Captain A. F. Thorne of the Grenadier Guards, to guide the Battalion on its way.
At 1.45 p.m. Major Hankey sent off the Battalion scouts, under Lieutenant E. A. Haskett-Smith, to cut any wire fences across the line of advance. Extra ammunition was issued, and all kit was lightened as much as possible, packs being left behind. Then bayonets were fixed, and at 2 p.m. the Battalion moved off in file, led by Major Hankey and Captain Thorne, along under cover of the trees to the south-west corner of Polygon Wood (Afterwards known as " Black Watch Corner.").
From that corner of the wood the ground to the south-eastward is clear and open, falling to the little valley of the Reutelbeek and rising again to the bare ridge above Polderhoek. That ridge hid from view the Chateau of Gheluvelt, and the exact situation there was unknown; but further to the right could be seen the Church tower rising amid the smoke of the burning village.
The open ground was dotted with wounded and stragglers coming back from the front. In every direction German shells were bursting. British batteries could be seen limbering up and moving to the rear. Everywhere there were signs of retreat. The Worcestershire alone were moving towards the enemy. But the three companies tramped grimly forward, down into the valley of the Reutelbeek.
Beyond a little wood the Battalion deployed, "C" and "D" Companies in front line, with "B" Company in second line behind—about 370 all told (Including eight officers—Major E. B. Hankey (commanding), Captain B. C. Senhouse Clarke (Adjutant), Captain E. L. Bowring, Captain H. C. Grimley, 2/Lieut. F. C. F. Biscoe ("C" Coy.), Captain R. J. Ford ("D" Coy.), Captain E. G. Williams ("B" Coy.) and 2/Lieut. C. H. Ralston. Lieut. E. A. Haskett-Smith,, the Battalion Scout Officer, had preceded the three companies). In front of them rose the bare slope of the Polderhoek ridge. The ridge was littered with dead and wounded, and along its crest the enemy's shells were bursting in rapid succession. Major Hankey decided that the only way of crossing that deadly stretch of ground was by one long rush. The companies extended into line and advanced.
The ground underfoot was rank grass or rough stubble. The two leading companies broke into a steady double and swept forward across the open, the officers leading on in front, and behind them their men with fixed bayonets in one long irregular line. As they reached the crest,the rushing wave of bayonets was sighted by the hostile artillery beyond. A storm of shells burst along the ridge. Shrapnel bullets rained down and high-explosive shells crashed into the charging line. Men fell at every pace: over a hundred of the Battalion were killed or wounded: the rest dashed on. The speed of the rush increased as on the downward slope the troops came in sight of Gheluvelt Chateau close in front. The platoons scrambled across the light railway, through some hedges and wire fences, and then in the grounds of the Chateau they closed with the enemy.
The enemy were ill-prepared to meet the charge. The German infantry were crowded in disorder among the trees of the park, their attention divided between exploring the out-houses and surrounding the remnant of the British defenders; for the musketry of the defence still swept the lawn in front of the Chateau. The enemy's disorder was increased by a sharp and accurate fire of shrapnel from British batteries behind Polygon Wood.
The Germans were young troops of newly-formed units (The 244th and 245th Reserve Regiments and the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment). Probably they had lost their best leaders earlier in the day, for they made no great attempt to stand their ground and face the counter-attack. They gave way at once before the onslaught of the British battalion and crowded back out of the grounds of the Chateau into the hedgerows beyond. Shooting and stabbing, "C" Company ("C" Company were led by Captain E. L. Bowring, closely followed by 2/Lieut. F. C. F. Biscoe) of the Worcestershire charged across the lawn and came up into line with the gallant remnant of the South Wales Borderers.
The South Wales Borderers had made a wonderful stand. All day they had held their ground at the Chateau and they were still stubbornly fighting although almost surrounded by the enemy. Their resistance had delayed and diverted the German advance, and the success of the counter-attack was largely due to their brave defence.
The meeting of the two battalions was unexpected. The Worcestershire had not known that any of the South Wales Borderers were still holding out. Major Hankey went over to their commander and found him to be Colonel H. E. Burleigh Leach, an old friend. With him was their second-in-command Major A. J. Reddie, brother of Major J. M. Reddie of the Worcestershire. "My God, fancy meeting you here," said Major Hankey, and Colonel Burleigh Leach replied quietly "Thank God you have come."
The routed enemy were hunted out of the hedges (Among those specially distinguished for gallantry in that fighting were Sergts. G. Ellis and A. E. Kemp : both received the D.C.M.) and across the open fields beyond the Chateau. "C" and "D" Companies of the Worcestershire took up position in the sunken road, which runs past the grounds. "B" Company was brought up and prolonged the line to the right.
But the village of Gheluvelt, on the slope above the right flank, was still in the enemy's hands. Most of the German troops in the village seem to have been drawn northwards by the fighting around the Chateau; but a certain number of Saxons of the 242nd Regiment had remained in the village, whence they opened a fire which took the sunken road in enfilade. To silence that fire Major Hankey sent fighting patrols from the front line into the village. Those patrols drove back the German snipers and took some prisoners (In that fighting Sergt. P. Sutton showed great bravery. Attacking a German machine-gun single-handed he captured one of its team and put the gun out of action. Sergt. Sutton was subsequently awarded the D.C.M. During that patrol fighting in the village, Lieut. Haskett-Smith was severely wounded and Sergt. G. F. Poole was killed): but it became clear that the position in the sunken road would be unsafe until the village was secured. Accordingly Major Hankey sent orders to Captain Wainman that "A" Company were to advance from their defensive position and occupy the village. Captain Wainman led forward his company and, after some sharp fighting among burning buildings and bursting shells, occupied a new line with his left flank in touch with the right of the position in the sunken road and his right flank in the village, holding the church and churchyard. Thence he sent forward patrols to clear the village. Those patrols, led by a tall young subaltern, 2nd Lieutenant G. A. Sheppard, worked forward from house to house till they reached the cross-roads at the eastern end of Gheluvelt. It was not possible permanently to occupy the centre of the village, for it was being bombarded by both the German and the British artillery. On all sides houses were burning, roofs falling and walls collapsing. The stubborn Saxons still held some small posts in the scattered houses on the south-eastern outskirts. Nevertheless the enemy's main force had been driven out, and the peril of a collapse of the British defence about the Menin Road had been averted.
The German forces made no further effort that day to retake Gheluvelt. The reason for the enemy's inaction is not clear. It is possible that the very boldness of the counter-attack may have given the impression that the Battalion was but the first wave of a stronger force, and possibly the enemy may have stood on the defensive to meet that imagined attack. Furthermore the British artillery maintained throughout the afternoon a heavy fire on the low ground east of Gheluvelt, a fire which may have disorganised the enemy and which probably hampered the transmission of information and orders : indeed the vagueness of most German accounts of the fighting at Gheluvelt suggests that the position in the village was not ascertained. In such circumstances, with the situation obscure, young troops discouraged and hostile shell-fire unsubdued, it is no easy matter to organise a fresh attack. Perhaps some commander of importance was disabled or some vital line of communication severed. Whatever the reason, the result was that the enemy's action during the rest of the day was limited to a violent bombardment, which fortunately caused but little loss. The 2nd Worcestershire held firm on the ground they had won, 'while behind them General Fitz-Clarence reorganised his troops and made preparations for further resistance.
Evening came on. From his position in the village Captain Wainman sent out patrols to the right to gain touch with any troops who might be there. But no communication with any other unit could be established, nor did any other British troops come forward to the position held by the Battalion.
About 6 p.m. came fresh orders from General FitzClarence. The General had decided to withdraw his defensive line from the forward slope of the ridge at Gheluvelt to a new position further back at Veldhoek where the trenches would be sheltered from direct observation of the German artillery.
The order was sent along the line. Arrangements were made in conjunction with the South Wales Borderers and the retirement was begun. One by one, at intervals of ten minutes, the companies withdrew from their positions. In the darkness they assembled under cover and then tramped back along the Menin Road to Veldhoek. The withdrawal was not realised by the enemy, and was carried out without interference, save for the intermittent bombardment which continued throughout that night (The evacuation of Gheluvelt was not discovered by the enemy until dawn next morning (November 1st). Then the village and the Chateau were occupied by the 242nd Reserve Regiment, who drove out a few remaining British stragglers). As the last company of the 2nd Worcestershire marched back out of the village, several of the houses were still burning, and the darkness was torn at intervals by the blaze of bursting shells. Four long years were to pass before the bayonets of the Regiment were again to sweep through the ruins of Gheluvelt.
At Veklhoek the Battalion halted in the darkness, deployed facing east and began to entrench the new position. Presently troops of the 1st Brigade relieved the Worcestershire, and the Battalion drew back into reserve. Officers and men lay down where they halted, and slept the sleep of exhaustion.
The day's fighting had cost the 2nd Worcestershire a third of the Battalion's remaining strength, for 187 of all ranks (including three officers wounded—Captain E. G. Williams, Lieut. E. C. R. Hudson, Lieut. E. A. Haskett-Smith.) had been killed or wounded; but their achievement had been worthy of that sacrifice. Their counter-attack had thrown back the enemy at a moment, which the British Commander-in-Chief afterwards called "the worst half-hour of my life." In all probability that counter-attack had saved Ypres from capture and the British army from defeat. It had been a desperate measure to retrieve a desperate situation; and no one could have foretold its extraordinary success in paralysing the German advance.
That success was not achieved by the 2nd Worcestershire alone. Success would hardly have been possible but for the brave defence of the South Wales Borderers and the supporting fire of the artillery. Nevertheless it stands to the perpetual credit of the Regiment that at the darkest hour of that great battle, when all others around them were in retreat, our war-worn officers and men went forward unflinching to meet unknown odds, and by their devotion saved the day.
* * * * * *
" 1914," by Lord Ypres, . In recognition of the gallantry shown at Polygon Wood and
Gheluvelt, the following' awards were made :—Major E. B. Hankey to be Brevet Lt.-Colonel, Captain B. C. Senhouse Clarke to be Brevet Major. Captain E. L. Bowring, the
D.S.O., and the M.C. to Captain R. J. Ford, Lieut. G. A. Slaughter and Lieut. E. W. Carrington,
2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment men killed in action on the 31st October 1914 (Gheluvelt)