It may be said that the First Battle of Ypres began on, or around, 15 October 1914 when the 7th Division fell back from Ghent and reached the medieval Flemish town. First Ypres consisted of many small battles and engagements fought around the ridges of Ypres and the most important of these is the Battle of Gheluvelt.
Gheluvelt has been largely forgotten about in the annals of military history but here was fought a battle that was as important as Waterloo and as bloody as Malplaquet. If Gheluvelt fell to the Germans, then the town of Ypres would fall and then quite possibly the channel ports, and so upon the loss of this small unremarkable village the outcome of the War would hang in the balance.
The weather was fine on the morning of 31 October 1914 and a little mist hung in the air. The British line stretched across the Menin Road just east of Gheluvelt on the forward slope of a slight rise and held a number of dwindling battalions. The 2nd Welsh Regiment covered the village from a position 400 yards from the church. To their left stretching to Polygon Wood were the 1st South Wales Borderers, 1st Scots Guards, 1st Cameron Highlanders and the 1st Black Watch. Southward of the Menin Road were three companies of the 1st Queens A&B companies of the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) followed by the remaining company of the Queens and two companies of the Loyal North Lancs and the Royal Welch Fusilliers who had fought the previous day at Zandvoodre. If these battalions were at full strength they would have totalled around 5 -6,000 men but they had been in action and were seriously depleted. Their reserve consisted of two companies of the Loyals and two companies (C&D) of the KRRC. This reserve should have totalled 1,000 troops but only amounted to 522.
The first attack against Gheluvelt and the whole of the line was launched following a large artillery bombardment at 6:00am. North of the Menin Road the German 54th Reserve Division attacked and south, the 30th Division. These divisions totalled 20 battalions with a further seven or eight in reserve but the assault was repelled thanks mainly to the rifle fire of the British infantry.
For one hour several attacks were held off until at last the Germans had some success. They had managed to get into a small orchard opposite a salient in the line held by companies of the Queens and KRRC. Despite several counter attacks the Germans proved hard to dislodge as more and more of their troops came forward. The Germans now began to enfilade the British line inflicting severe casualties to the two companies of the KRRC and the solitary Queens.
At 8:00am, an artillery bombardment of such violence and accuracy as had not been encountered by the British troops before rained down on them for two hours. The Welsh, holding the line on front of the village were quite literally ‘blown’ out of their trenches and forced to retire 500 yards north to a shallow depression in the terrain near Veldhoek. The Queens were annihilated and only 22 men and two officers of companies A and B of the KRRC managed to extricate themselves under the cover of their own machine guns which established themselves on the Menin Road and for an hour held back the enemy that were ten times their number. Eventually they withdrew leaving the machine gun tripods behind.
By 11:30am the village of Gheluvelt, or the rubble that it had been reduced to, had been captured. To the north of the village in the area of the Chateau the South Wales Borderers and Scots Guards were still holding out strongly but the remaining companies of the Queens, still in their salient, were doomed. Surrounded by the enemy they were ‘shot down from front, flank and rear’ and only two officers and 12 other ranks escaped. The Loyals now received the Germans full attention and fought to the death, containing the size of the gap in the British line.
News reached Haig’s headquarters in the White Chateau further back along the Menin Road that Gheluvelt had been lost and that the battle was now in the hands of his Divisional Commanders – Lomax (1st Division) and Monro (2nd Division). Lomax and Monro had consulted with each other earlier that morning and it was decided that the 2nd Worcesters should be put at the 1st Divisions disposal and held in reserve at Polygon Wood.
The loss of Gheluvelt was so serious that orders were issued for the British artillery to move back, in preparation for a general retreat. However, at the same time it was decided that a counter-attack should be made by the 2nd Worcestershire. Brigadier-General C. FitzClarence, V.C. who was in command of the front about the Menin Road sent for an officer of the 2nd Worcestershire to take orders. The Adjutant, Captain Senhouse Clarke arrived.
Captain Senhouse Clarke returned and informed Major Hankey, commanding the Worcesters, that the battalion would probably be wanted for a counter-attack, and that one company was to be detached to stop the enemy from advancing up the Menin Road. “A” Company was detailed for this duty. They left and positioned themselves on the embankment of the light railway, northwest of Gheluvelt, and held the position for the following two hours, firing rapidly at the enemy as they attempted to advance beyond the houses. About 1:00pm, Major Hankey was summoned by General FitzClarence, and was given definite orders. The 2nd Worcestershire was to counter-attack and regain the lost British positions around Gheluvelt. General FitzClarence pointed out the Church in Gheluvelt as a landmark for the advance and explained that the situation was desperate and that speed was essential. Staff Officer Captain Thorne of the Grenadier Guards guided the battalion on its way.
Major Hankey sent battalion scouts to knock down any fencing and cut any wire that would impede their progress. Packs where dropped, extra ammunition was issued and bayonets were fixed and at 2:00pm they moved off in file from Black Watch Corner on the corner of Polygon Wood. Beyond the wood the 370 men they deployed into three companies and crested the Polderhoek Ridge. The ridge was littered with dead and wounded. From the ridge they could see the church tower of Gheluvelt and the smoke rising from the village. Major Hankey decided that the only way of crossing that deadly stretch of ground was by one long rush and so companies extended into line and advanced.
The leading companies moved forward at the double and swept across the open ground their officers leading in front. The wave of bayonets was sighted by German artillery and shells burst among the charging line. Over a hundred of the Battalion were killed or wounded but the rest dashed on. Their speed increased on the downward slope as the Gheluvelt Chateau came into view and they got ever closer. They scrambled across the light railway, through some hedges and wire fences and were then in the grounds of the Chateau. Once here they closed with the enemy. The Germans were ill-prepared to meet such a charge. They were crowded in some disorder among the trees of the park and their attention was divided between exploring the out houses and surrounding the remnants of the British defenders whose rifle fire swept the lawn in front of the Chateau. The Germans were young troops of newly-formed units, had lost their best leaders earlier in the day and made no great attempt to stand their ground. They gave way at once and retreated out of the grounds of the Chateau into the hedgerows beyond. The Worcesters charged across the lawn and came up into line with the gallant remnant of the South Wales Borderers.
The meeting of the two battalions was unexpected as the Worcesters had not known that any of the South Wales Borderers were still holding out. Major Hankey went over to their commander, Colonel H. E. Burleigh Leach, who was an old friend, “My God, fancy meeting you here,” said Major Hankey, and Colonel Burleigh Leach replied quietly “Thank God you have come.”
The Germans were driven from the hedges and a company of Worcesters were sent into what remained of the village to flush out the remaining Germans. They then established a firing line in the sunken lane that stretched along the side of the Chateau’s grounds. The British line had been re-established. The Germans must have thought that the British had many men in reserve to commit to such a charge and never counter attacked for the remainder of the day. Later that evening the British withdrew from Gheluvelt to a more secure line.
The day’s fighting had cost the 2nd Worcesters a third of its remaining strength, 187 of all ranks 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 this 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 Worcester alone. Success would hardly have been possible but for the brave defence of the South Wales Borderers. Nevertheless it stands to the perpetual credit of the Regiment that at the darkest hour of that great battle, a group of war-worn officers and men met unknown odds, and by their devotion saved the day. Two memorials now stand at Gheluvelt. One remembers the South Wales Borderers and their stand and the other commemorates the 2nd Worcesters.
The battle of Gheluvelt is close to me as my Grandfather, Rifleman William James Eden of the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps, was killed with “D” Company on the Menin Road in the defence of this small village and the Empire as we then knew it. He is remembered on the Menin Gate and by me with great pride.
Our Ypres Tours and our popular Somme and Ypres Tour visits this site and never fails to move our tour party when the action of these gallant regiments is told to them.
Lest we Forget