Gheluvelt a solider's account

The following account was written in 1922 by an N.C.O. who was with the 2nd Battalion at Gheluvelt.

By October 19th, 1914, the 1st Army Corps, brought up by train from the Aisne front, had concentrated west of Ypres, behind the screen formed by the 7th Division east of that city. On the 19th the forward movement began, and on the following day the 2nd Worcestershire, with its Brigade, moved out from Poperinghe; and marched by Elverdinghe and Bolsinghe over the rising ground to Pilckem. South of them the guns were already thundering along the Menin Road, and past them as they advanced streamed homeless refugees telling of the enemy following behind.

Next day (the 21st) the advancing Brigade met the German advanced guards, and for three days a fierce struggle raged among the hedges and little copses east of Langemarck. On the night of the 23rd the weary Brigade was relieved by French troops and drawn back into Divisional reserve.

At dawn on the 24th the Battalion reached its resting place a group of cottages west of the Polygon Wood. The men flung themselves down exhausted. All speculated as to how long the "rest" would last. Within one hour that rest had ended.

An orderly brought an urgent message that the line east of Polygon Wood was broken, that the enemy was pouring through the wood. The Brigade must counter-attack at once and drive them out. The tired Battalion fell in and pushed into the wood.

"We hadn't gone half-a-mile," said the Commanding Officer after wards, "when we found that we had lost touch with the H.L.I. on our flank. The wood was so dense that communication was very difficult. There was nothing for it but to fall back, re-form, and go in again. A most difficult operation at any time; but it was carried out like clockwork." A fine test that of training and discipline; let it be remembered that all were dog-tired.

2nd Battalion Worcestershire route to Polygon Wood (19th to 24th October 1914)

2nd Battalion Worcestershire route to Polygon Wood (19th to 24th October 1914)

Then, in the wood, the leading troops of the enemy. "We cheered and charged at once," said an officer, "and they ran back through the trees. We used to be taught that a charge should only be fifty yards, but that charge went on through the wood for half-a-mile."

On the far side of the wood the Battalion met the full blast of the enemy's shell fire. Under that fire they dug in, far in advance of the flanking battalions. Under that fire they remained all day and all the next day, when other troops went through them for a gallant but fore-doomed attack towards Becelaere. Only on the 26th was the Battalion withdrawn from the front line.

From the 27th to the 30th the Battalion remained in reserve or occupying supporting trenches, always shelled, always losing men. On the night of the 30th the Battalion mustered 11 officers and about 450 men. Such was the prelude to Gheluvelt.

* * * * * *

At dawn on the 31st the German guns opened along the whole front, opened a bombardment even more intense than those of the preceding days. Under it the forward trenches, hastily dug during the fighting of the previous week, crumbled and collapsed.

Sergt. Frederick Sutton (6551)
It is believed he wrote this account)

Towards noon the German infantry began to push forward along the Menin Road, forward towards the low ridge on which stands Gheluvelt. Young German battalions these, Prussian regiments newly formed, imperfectly trained perhaps, inclined to go forward in crowds, but fresh and full of fight, cheered by the presence of their Kaiser, confident that they were winning the battle, winning the war.

Opposite them the thinned remnants of the Battalions of the 1st and 2nd Divisions crouched in their smashed trenches, worn-out, desperate.

The 1st Division had no reserves left. One solitary Battalion of the 2nd Division remained in reserve, the 2nd Worcestershire.

Back in a map-strewn room at G.H.Q. the two Allied Generals were facing the situation. "II faut tenir," Foch had insisted,— "tenir-tenir" And the line had held—had held for ten days. Now, if it broke, it was the end. The Staff officers could see only too clearly how the shattered battalions would be rolled up in their trenches or huddled back down the railway to meet at Hazebrouck the tide of defeat crowding in from the south—how the break would mean that the flank of the whole Allied line would be turned, the Belgian Army surrounded, the Channel Ports doomed. The line must not break.

At about 1.0 p.m. the message came in that the line was broken. Gheluvelt was lost.

The Staff officers began preparations for the retreat. Dimly they wondered what it would be possible to save out of the inevitable disaster.

At Gheluvelt the attack had surged up against the ridge. The Queens and the Royal Scots Fusiliers fought to the last in their trenches and died game. The right company of the South Wales Borderers on the Menin road shared their fate. The remainder of that gallant battalion held their ground. Then it would seem that there was some check in the German advance. Possibly they may have been hampered by the fire of their own artillery. Perhaps the leadership was faulty in the new battalions. In part, certainly, the fire and stubbornness of the unconquered remnant of the old 24th must have caused the check. But the gap had been made, the line was broken.

In this extremity General FitzClarence of the 1st Division ordered the 2nd Worcestershire to advance and close the gap. The Battalion advanced.

On their way up parallel to the Menin Road the Battalion passed all the evidences of retreat. The artillery had been ordered to withdraw to the west of Ypres and take up positions to cover the retirement. They were limbering up. "We passed one battery disabled," said a sergeant, "the gunners were just taking the breech-block from the last gun. Everybody was clearing off to the rear." Stragglers limped past them, wounded men supporting each other, men demoralized by long days in the trenches, by the terror of the shell-fire. "Don't go on," they yelled, "you fools. It's Hell down there." . . . Along the crest-line in front shells were bursting. The Battalion pushed on.

One company was detached to hold a flanking line of old trenches. Behind a little wood deployed for attack the remaining three companies — seven officers and some 350 men.

The three companies moved forward up the slope in open order. As they neared the crest line they broke into a double and rushed some 200 yards across the open, over the crest of the ridge and down the slope. Shrapnel was rained on them as they ran. Over a hundred fell.

In front they saw the enemy—a Bavarian regiment reinforcing the young Prussian battalions—grey crowds pouring through the grounds of the chateau, pushing round the right of the indomitable 24th. Straight at them Major Hankey and his Adjutant (Captain B. C. S. Clarke, D.S.O. ) led the Battalion.

The moral effect of the charge—the sight of the racing khaki lines— was sufficient. Back crowded the enemy—back out of the grounds of the chateau—back into the hedgerows beyond it. Bayonet and bullet cleared the grounds, but the victory had been won before the bayonets crossed.

The front line of the Battalion found a convenient position in a sunken road beyond the chateau grounds. The reserve company was brought up on the right. The village was cleared.

The infantry fight was won. Subsequent weak assaults were easily repulsed. But for hours the shells rained down.

All day the line held. After dusk it was withdrawn to a stronger position on the reverse slope. At dawn German patrols crept forward into the shattered village.

* * * * * *

That night the Battalion was relieved. Dog-tired, the men staggered back down the Menin Road. On the way a great general came to speak warm words of praise to the Commanding Officer. The men in the ranks could not hear, and were impatient at being stopped. "What's the old blighter talking about?" they grumbled. They did not realise that they had done anything wonderful. "Personally," said an officer afterwards, "I thought the attack on the 24th was a much better show."

Heroism is, in fact, seldom recognized as such by the hero.

* * * * * *

There was no rest for them, heroes or otherwise. The struggle continued, rose again to intensity on November 11th. Other Battalions, their nerves shattered by the strain, gave way in places, and individual companies of the Worcestershires were thrown in to fill the gaps. "The Line-Repairers" they were nicknamed. The line held.

At last, on the 21st November, French troops took their place, and the Battalion marched 18 miles to Bailleul to rest.

* * * * * *

Sergt. Frederick Sutton (6551)

Sergt. Frederick Sutton (6551)
(Photo taken in 1961 at a reunion)

Gheluvelt was essentially a moral victory, a moral victory over a stronger enemy indeed, but an even more wonderful victory over weariness, nerve-strain, and infectious panic. It must always remain a grand example of the part which pride of Regiment can play in war.

As such an example it challenges comparison with that other proud deed of the Regiment, the great fight of Houghton's Brigade at Albuhera. Like that Brigade, the Worcestershires at Gheluvelt advanced past demoralised men of other Regiments to face what must have appeared in each case to be certain destruction in a lost battle. In each case sheer bravery turned defeat into victory. But Houghton's Brigade came fresh to the battle, they moved shoulder to shoulder, they had their Colours to form their rallying-point and to inspire their desperate resistance. The counter-attack at Gheluvelt was made by men exhausted by a fortnight of bitter fighting, with nothing to sustain them but their courage, their discipline, and their pride in the Regiment.

That pride saved Ypres.

Notes: It is believed the above account was written by Sergt. Frederick Sutton (6551) of 'C' Company in 1922. He had been awarded the D.C.M. for his bravery at Gheluvelt. He was later to receive a commission as an officer and finally ended his army career with the rank of Captain.