Tuesday, 6 January 2015

First Ypres - Part 2 Heroic action by the Worcesters

Among many heroes at Ypres 1, the
2nd Royal Worcester regiment took pride of place
Wellington's famous summary, 100 years earlier - "A damn close run thing" - certainly applied to the First Battle for Ypres. Amazing acts of tenaciousness, bravery and heroism featured in this all or nothing battle between overwhelming German forces and the dwindling numbers of the pre war British professional army, 'England's contemptible little army' (as dubbed by the Kaiser). In particular, the arrival of the 2nd Worcesters Regiment at Gheluvelt at a crucial moment in the battle, saved the day for BEF in its attempts to hold the salient.  

The 31st October provided the crisis point of the battle. The fighting began early along the Ypres-Menin road, and then in great force against Gheluvelt, which was being held just to the east of the town. The 1st Division was driven back westwards to the woods between Hooge and Veldhoek. In the South, Hollebeke and most of the Messines ridge were lost. Between 2-3pm was the most critical hour of the whole battle. The Germans were pouring through the Gheluvelt gap; and the whole salient was under heavy pressure. French sent an urgent message to Foch for reinforcements and was refused (this was because Foch had none to send – his losses were greater than the British). Haig ordered a retirement to the west of Hooge and to hold the line there, although apparently he did not believe it would hold, and was sure they would have to abandon Ypres. At this point almost by a miracle, it seemed, the German advance paused. The explanation was not clear for several months afterwards, but the reason was the arrival of the 2nd Worcesters Regiment, part of 2nd Division, who emerged from Polygon Wood to plug the gap between the right of the northern flank and the left of the 1st division on the southern flank. The Worcesters, under very heavy artillery fire, advanced in a series of rushes for nearly 1000yards to the northern edge of Gheluvelt. By nightfall, the German advance west of Gheluvelt had been halted, and the British line given breathing space to stabilise and strengthen. November brought more strong attacks, but the crisis had passed, and generally the British line was able to hold. The Germans broke through on the southern part to advance and take Wytschaete, with Messines and its ridge now firmly in German control. This made an ugly dent in the salient line, now running from Le Gheir to the west of Messines, west of Wytschaete, by St Elooi and Klein Zillebeke to the west edge of Gheluvelt. The following five days were mild in comparison – exchange of artillery fire and skirmishing, and on 5th November the line was adjusted to prepare for a further German onslaught, that was expected. This came on 11th November, when the Prussian Guard brigades were launched on either side of the Menin road. A massive attack on the Nonne Bosch wood area was convincingly repulsed by the Oxford and Bucks light infantry. This seemed to take the impetus out of any further attempts to break the point of the salient. On the left (northern) end of the salient the French armies to the left of Haig were holding the line Zonnebeke to Bikschote, and linked up to the battle of the Yser. The Germans attacked desperately along this line, but were unable to take Langemarck. By the 15th their attacks were waning. Similarly on the southern end, a great assault was made on 16th, and again on 17th, but these failed to break through. 
The shelling of central Ypres continued until the Cloth Hall and Church of St. Martin were in ruins. Presently, further French reinforcements did arrive, and at last the British troops were relieved from the trenches they had held for four stubborn weeks. The weather changed to high winds and snow blizzards, and First Ypres died away.

The 1000 strong 1st Queen's Royal Battalion
on mobilisation August 1914
(Buchan). Between Armentieres and the sea, the Germans had ranged  (apart from their cavalry, which was double that of the Allies) 31 Divisions and 32 Battalions, a total of 402 battalions as against 267 Allied battalions.
Against the part of this force that faced them, the British opposed 5 infantry Divisions, three of them very weakened by previous fighting. In the actual salient of Ypres they had 3 Divisions and some cavalry. For the better part of 2 days one division held a front against two army corps. When the division was afterwards withdrawn from the firing line to refit, it was found that out of 400 officers who set out from England, there were only 44 left, and of 12,000 men, only 2,336.

The remaining QRB members reviewed after Ypres 1
Only 17 survived to the Armistice.
These men were all that remained of the ‘old contemptibles’. Thereafter they would join and be part of the new and much larger volunteer British armies.
Ypres was a decisive victory that achieved its purpose, albeit at terrible losses. The Allied line stood secure from the Oise to the sea as the year drew to a close.

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