27th October-2nd November 1914
The triumph of the Worcesters
by David Hargreaves
WE CALL IT First Ypres, but this misses something. There was nothing homogeneous in this contest, but rather a series of local actions in which small groups of men felt frequently abandoned and always alone. As they were.
The battle on the Yser – which had morphed somehow from the siege of Antwerp and the dash to the coast – persisted. The Belgians, with French aid, had managed by 27 October to maintain unbroken the Nieuport-Diksenmuide front, but over the next two days the Germans retook Lombartzyde and then Ramscapelle. In desperation, the Belgians opened the sluices of the canal in order to try to slow down their advance and, albeit at terrible cost to man and beast, it worked. The next day, floods forced the Germans to retreat behind a lake, 8 miles long and 5 miles wide, the water waist-deep and impossible for animals and troops to traverse. Their attempt to take Pervvyse was halted and, the day after that, the French recovered Ramscapelle.
By the first days of November, the battle being fought simultaneously at Ypres had reached a pitch of such intensity that the Germans discreetly withdrew from nearly the whole of the left bank of the Yser, in order to concentrate their strength there. Ypres presented all protagonists this week with the crisis of an immense battle, and its prosecution was a merciless showcase of all that was best and worst in man. On 30 October, Army Group Fabeck advanced, with the specific purpose of achieving a breakthrough south of the town. Major General Fabeck’s Battle Orders that day were a veritable paean of bombast: ‘The breakthrough will be of decisive importance. We must and will conquer, settle for ever the centuries-long struggle, end the war and strike the decisive blow against our most detested enemy. We will finish the British, Indians, Canadians, Moroccans and other trash, feeble adversaries, who surrender in great numbers if they are attacked with vigour.’ Unfortunately for
him, the German assault began with a whimper rather than the loud and sustained bang for which his comrades-in-arms yearned. Veteran German infantrymen were appalled at its half-heartedness which illustrated (at terrible danger to themselves) Falkenhayn’s biggest worry – a national crisis in munitions. Still, by late morning, the Germans had taken the Zandvoorde ridge, after an assault which cost dearly the 1^st Welch Fusiliers, as well as themselves. They were thinly spread that day, not least since German commanders had also dictated yet another attack, as futile as those earlier, to take Langemarck.
The following day, 31 October, became for the British one of the most dangerous days in the entire war. In the morning, Fabeck’s men launched a devastating attack on Messines. A village of some 1400 souls, and presently defended by the 9^th Lancers and 11^th Hussars, it now became the site of savagery. Lacking the artillery to flatten the place, the Germans instead stormed its houses, one by one. The British, traumatised, withdrew. The London Scottish, a smart territorial outfit, received a true baptism of fire that day, after being decanted into Wytschaete (the Tommies called it ‘Whitesheet’, reasonably enough) in red double decker buses. These had hitherto been the property of the 1^st Coldstream, but most of them had now been killed. Having been issued with ammunition which jammed their rifles, their counter-attack on the Messines Ridge saw 394 of the London Scottish injured and 190 killed. It was an exercise in suicidal, futile bravery reminiscent of the Battle of
The main action of the day was concentrated on the German onslaught at Gheluvelt which proved ultimately irresistible. By lunchtime, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the Queen’s and the Loyal North Lancashires had all been driven out. Sir John French knew he had no reserves left. But then, Brigadier General Charles FitzClarence remembered that 368 men of the 2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment were recovering from severe fighting south of Ypres. He ordered them into the battle and at about 2pm they pressed forward over half a mile, all of it under a hail of artillery, attacking the 244th Saxon Regiment – and reaching Gheluvelt. Here they came under attack by the 242nd and 245th Saxon Regiments, but by sunset the German attacks had ceased, by which time only 140 of the 2nd Battalion were still standing. At 7pm FitzClarence sent a message to French: ‘My line holds.’
In fact, the Germans still held Gheluvelt, or at least most of it, but the Worcesters’ extraordinary assault had allowed the 7^th Division to gather in stragglers and redeploy. The Germans had lost the chance of making the breakthrough which had all along been the point. According to historian John Terraine ‘It was the last time that such a handful would be able to produce such an effect – the last flourish of the old British Regular tradition’. The Germans continued to harass the British overnight, but they did not dislodge them. Falhenhayn was utterly demoralised and, in time, the effects of this would do much to undermine Germany. On the 1 November, the Kaiser, having awaited a German victory in vain, returned to Berlin.
Paul Hub, a raw German recruit sent to the front after two months’ training, had been one of those now ordered with his regiment to capture the village of Gheluvelt, He wrote to his fiancée on 31 October ‘I have lived through such horrors recently, no words can describe it, the tragedy all around me. Every day the fighting gets fiercer and there is still no end in sight. Our blood is flowing in torrents. When I think of our 247th Regiment my eyes swim with tears. The first and second battalions only have 250 to 300 men left, so more than half gone….All around me, the most gruesome devastation. Dead and wounded soldiers, dead and dying animals, horse cadavers, burnt-out houses, dug-up fields, cars, clothes, weaponry – all this is scattered around me, a real mess. I didn’t think war would be like this.’
Hub no doubt spoke for most soldiers, but never for all. A dissenting voice came that week from Captain the Hon Julian Grenfell, in a letter written on 3 November: ‘I have not washed for a week, or had my boots off for a fortnight….It is all the best fun. I have never felt so well, or so happy, or enjoyed anything so much. It just suits my stolid health, and stolid nerves, and barbaric disposition. The fighting-excitement vitalizes everything, every sight and word and action. One loves one’s fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing him. And picnicking in the open day and night (we never see a roof now) is the real method of existence…’
The cost of holding back the Germans had been shattering: Sir Thomas Capper’s 7^th Division had lost 80 per cent of its strength in the three weeks it had been in action. Sir John French later described the afternoon of 31 October as the BEF’s worst crisis of the war. But it had weathered it: Ypres was not abandoned – and the war went on. The following day, battle continued with great violence: the Germans captured Messines, Hollebeke and Wytschaete. Not far away, Neuve Chapelle passed to and fro, expensively, between the British and Germans during the week, the latter finally reclaiming it on 2 November. Heavy fighting continued, simultaneously, round Festubert in La Bassee and the Germans pressed the French back along the River Aisne.
Indeed, it was the Russians who seemed, at this point, the most obviously successful of the allies – a perspective which came to be seen as incredible. By 27 October, they had secured a victory along the line Petrokov-Radom and the next day took Lodz, defeating the Germans at Bakalaryevo. On 30 October, Czernowitz was recaptured and three days later they re-entered Eastern Prussia for the first time since the rout at Tannenberg over two months earlier. It was a significant psychological blow for the Imperial Army, and a grave strategic diversion.
The exposure of the Royal Navy to danger had widened radically during the week after Turkey declared war on the side of the Central Powers on 29 October. The Times wrote, with magnificent disdain, on 31 October that ‘In dealing with the Turkish army we are never on safe ground…there are always immense deductions to be made on account of Turkish lethargy, want of money, intrigue and every other sort of embarrassment.’ The dangers of hubris had clearly bypassed this particular correspondent and, despite its reputation as the Senior Service, the Navy continued to accrue losses as the week progressed. A cruiser, HMS Hermes, was sunk on the last day of the month in the Straits of Dover- its proximity adding to the sense of humiliation. Much further afield in the Pacific, HMSS Monmouth and Good Hope were both lost in a fight with von Spee’s German squadron the very next day. The day after that, the Admiralty proclaimed the North Sea proclaimed to be wholly a military area. This
sounded merely tetchy, but was a serious warning aimed at any so-called neutral shipping and marked an escalation in the war.
The ubiquitous SS Emden, which had already inflicted extensive damage upon British and French shipping, appeared at Penang on 28 October, destroying a Russian cruiser Zhemchug. The following day, the Turkish fleet, which was suspiciously well placed to inflict maximum damage on the same day it had declared war on the side of the Central Powers, attacked Odessa, Novorossisk, and Theodosia, and sank at least one Russian destroyer. On 3 November, The Daily Express claimed that The Grand Vizier of Turkey had apologised to Russia for these naval assaults in the Black Sea. This was nice of him, but also supremely irrelevant since by now Enver Pasha was in charge.
The Navy was also in the public eye that week, after the resignation of the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, was announced on 28 October. It was suggested that his German antecedents had meant he was mistrusted. Churchill, his political master, later spoke bitterly but disingenuously about how a fine man had been hounded from office. For the Prince himself, a former lover of Lillie Langtry by whom he had fathered a daughter, losing his job was merely the second disaster of the week, having lost his nephew at Ypres a few days earlier.
On 29 October, a small item in The Times caused a few eyebrows to be raised: ‘Lord Fisher, former First Sea Lord, called upon Mr Winston Churchill for about half an hour yesterday.’ George V was distressed at his relative Battenberg’s effective dismissal and alarmed at the appointment of the veteran Lord Fisher as his replacement. In a memo to the Prime Minister later that day, the King wrote: ‘I cannot help feeling that his presence at the Admiralty will not inspire the Navy with that confidence which ought to exist’. He was not wrong either. Jacky Fisher and Churchill were men both imbued with genius, but also with (at least two of its) less attractive concomitants –egoism and impetuosity. Both were fascinated by each other, for a few months anyway, like a pair of star-crossed lovers.
Spy mania was a feature of both World Wars, especially in the first months of war and at those moments when the public perceived acute danger. In Britain it enjoyed open season during the week, largely a consequence of the trial of the German agent Karl Hans Lody which opened in London on 30 October. Lody, a naval reservist recruited by German intelligence, had been in Scotland at the start of war, where he had been observing fleet movements. Having been equipped with an American passport, (purloined by the German Foreign Ministry which pretended it had been lost) and speaking English with a rich transatlantic drawl, he had moved freely until spy panic had gripped the country. As he had written to his control in Berlin ‘Fear of espionage is very great and one smells a spy in every stranger.’ In an effort to pre-empt arrest, he then fled to Ireland. Unbeknownst to him, however, the British Intelligence Service, MO5(g) had discovered his identity early on. They moved to arrest
him when he began to acquire sensitive material. They had, for instance, been only too glad to allow his despatch of 4 September to reach his employers in which he had claimed that ‘great masses of Russian soldiers have passed through Edinburgh on their way to London and France’. This was the kind of nonsense which the British Government was happy to have disseminated among the enemy.
Arrested in Killarney, Lody was put on public trial. The government was determined to prove to the British public that German espionage was a serious threat. An article in The Times on 28 October also tried to make the point, with an eyewitness from Brussels asserting that ‘It was no uncommon sight to find the German troops led into a village by a German who had been so long established there that people had quite forgotten his nationality’. On trial for treason, Lody’s calm demeanour and patriotism made a strong impression upon those who witnessed it. As a matter of honour he refused to name his German controllers and all the while insisted on his love of the Fatherland. The final day, according to The New York Times, was attended by ‘many leaders of London society as well as by prominent jurists, politicians, and military and naval men’. On 2 November Lody was found guilty and sentenced to death.
The Lody trial brought the enemies face to face on home shores in a way which was unusual in the Great War. The German socialist paper, Vorwurts, warned readers that taking reprisals against British prisoners of war in Germany would be wholly unacceptable and this was pertinent, given that the fate of POWs was much in people’s minds. The Times reported on 2 November that there was widespread German concern that German troops now in England were being mistreated, but that the American Ambassador in London had made a series of visits to their holding centres and compiled encouraging reports on their welfare.
Another trial that week seemed a footnote by comparison. On 28 October, verdicts were passed on Gavrilo Princip and those deemed his accomplices in the murder of Franz Ferdinand and his wife back on 28 June. Princip, being under 20 at the time of the crime, was among those sentenced to between three and 20 years imprisonment with hard labour, although he himself would die of tuberculosis in prison in April 1918. Others faced the hangman’s noose. The slight interest shown in the trial betrayed the extent to which the immediate background to the war had passed into an irrelevance through the sheer force of events unleashed by it.
In Britain, the point was now to kill Germans or, if that option were not open to you, to hate them. Hating felt patriotic, important – and also involuntary. The British Ambassador to the United States Sir Cecil Spring Rice (he who later wrote the words of the hymn ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’) was reported in The Times on 29 October as having complained that ‘many Germans are getting passports from Germany to England through the American Embassy and Consulate’. Tricky blighters, Germans, one can hear him saying, and most people reading the paper would have wholeheartedly agreed with him. On 3 November, it reported that Mr Donald Thompson, a photojournalist for the New York World had been assaulted in Antwerp by a German officer. Thompson had refused to remove his hat in the presence of the German flag. He had later received an apology and was very well-treated – but, the message implied, even so – really! The Morning Post had commented three days earlier, following peace
proposals made to France by Germany, ‘The Germans …have very frequently proved themselves to be poor judges of the character of foreign people.’
Meanwhile, we fought – and we hated. Hating hard was an instrument of war. The Frankfurter Zeitung essayed a kind of ‘sticks and stones’ riposte on 29 October, but what comes across, chiefly, is hurt. ‘The greatest mistake we could make’, it insisted, ‘would be to reply in kind to the impotent hatred which spits at us everywhere. The fight we are fighting is too splendid. We have better things to do.’
Pity had not died, however, although it often took cover. The Times reported on 30 October, right at the height of Ypres, that a young German soldier with a ‘bloodless, intellectual face’ had been taken off a train to a makeshift first-aid unit in Northern France. Attached to his blanket, a note read: ‘he saved the lives of seven French soldiers’. A small group of nurses gathered around him, some of them in tears.
The impulses of common humanity could never be entirely suppressed, nor for now the allusions to peacetime. Shackleton and his crew left Buenos Aires for the Antarctic on 28 October, The Times reported. It also mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury’s exhortation to soldiers of the BEF to embrace temperance for the duration of hostilities. He was echoing the plea made by Lord Kitchener’s sister the previous week, but this did not diminish the widespread derision with which his words were heard. Indian troops were also training in the New Forest by the end of the month and The Times suggested that ‘their presence has given to the usually quiet and sedate country road the appearance of Derby Day’. On 3 November, The Daily Express told its sentimental readers that the only animals still left in Antwerp Zoo were elephants, and they had a military purpose. In Buenos Aires, meantime, the new must-have was a badge which proclaimed no me habla dela guerra. Don’t mention the war, in
They wished. All this while Yser and Ypres raged. The Times carried news on 28 October of a man in Texas, who wished to bring to Canada 5,000 Texans, for the purposes of enlistment – ‘all of whom, he declares, are of British descent’. By this point, Britain was grateful for any help it could get. The Daily Express dropped casually on 2 November the news that Your King and Country needed another 100,000 men.
From the press of the day
* Why Women Dislike Kipling (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/why-women-dislike-kipling) · Century Magazine · 2nd November 1914
* "Sparing Germany" (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/sparing-germany) · Saturday Review · 1st November 1914
* The Functions of the Fleet (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-functions-of-the-fleet) · The Tablet · 31st October 1914
* Will Russia "make good"? (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/will-russia-make-good) · North American Review · 30th October 1914
* The War and Credulity (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-war-and-credulity) · The Nation (New York) · 29th October 1914
* Hindsight (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/hindsight) · The Atlantic · 28th October 1914
* Mr Roosevelt's dream of peace (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/mr-roosevelts-dream-of-peace) · The Spectator · 27th October 1914