The road to Gheluvelt, in essence, began to evolve in the early 1890s under the direction of the German Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Count von Schlieffen. His objective was simple. The conquest of France. But his plan to achieve that objective was not.
France and Russia, between whom Germany was effectively sandwiched, were allied against German aggression under the Dual Alliance of 1892, so Schlieffen’s plan had to avoid fighting both enemies at the same time.
According to German military intelligence estimates, the Russians would be unable to mobilise fully for six weeks after the beginning of a war. That gave Schlieffen his chance. If France were to be attacked first and defeated within six weeks, Germany could turn round and invade Russia. The challenge, then, was how to defeat France in six weeks.
Schlieffen’s answer was surprise – fool the French into keeping their major forces in the Alsace-Lorraine area, to counter an invasion directly from Germany around Metz, then attack from the north via neutral Belgium.
Ten German divisions were nominated to keep an eye on the Russians, while 62 would be assembled to take on the French, with five armies in a line facing west and stretching north from Metz to form what’s been described a door hinged on Switzerland.
This door would swing anticlockwise through Belgium with the very last soldier brushing the Channel with his sleeve.
Von Schlieffen’s deathbed plea in January, 1913, was simple: “Above all keep the right wing strong.” Within 18 months, his plan would be put to the test.
38 DAYS TO WAR
Sunday, June 28, 1914
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated at Sarajevo in Bosnia.
The Archduke was the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then ruled by the Emperor Franz joseph. He’d gone to Austrian-occupied Bosnia on a tour designed to bolster the empire, which was a hotbed of rising ethnic nationalism.
The assassins were Serbs. Austria immediately accused Serbia of harbouring the killers and was determined to seek revenge, and crush the growing strength of the Serbs.
Thursday, July 23, 1914
On July 23, an Austrian ultimatum to Serbia demanded an end to anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia and that arrest of the man behind the assassination. The Serbs agreed, but dismissed the idea of Austrian officials supervising the proceedings. Austria declared war on Serbia.
Over the next eight days, old loyalties, tribal relationships and treaties quickly dropped country after country into one armed camp or the other, and the dominoes began to fall.
Germany sided with Austria, Russia with Serbia. The French, still hurting from the defeat by Prussia in 1870 and determined to regain from Germany the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, saw a victorious war as a method of achieving that objective.
Friday, July 31, 1914
Russia ordered general mobilisation followed the same day by Austria, while British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey asked both France and Germany if they would observe Belgian neutrality. France agreed. The Germans remained silent and the Belgians ordered mobilisation to begin the next day.
Saturday, August 1, 1914
The French ordered mobilisation, Belgium announced her intention of remaining neutral and Germany declared war on Russia.
Sunday, August 2, 1914
German troops invaded Luxembourg and made small sorties into France. Belgium refused to allow German forces to cross her soil with the object of anticipating – as the Germans put it – a French attack and the King of Belgium appealed to King George V for help.
Monday, August 3, 1914
Germany declared war on France while, in Britain, the bright, bank holiday Monday sunshine warmed holiday crowds as Sir Edward Grey told Parliament that the nation could not issue a declaration of unconditional neutrality.
Tuesday, August 4, 1914
A day later, just before 8am on August 4, German forces crossed into Belgium. Von Schlieffen’s door had begun to swing. Britain mobilised and the British Ambassador in Berlin told the German Chancellor that, unless Germany withdrew her troops by midnight, the countries would be at war with one another.
The Germans did not withdraw. It was war.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Worcestershire Regiment were forged in the days of King William and Queen Anne from the rough metal of the English and Irish fields and hammered into shape during Marlborough's wars, then honed in the hands of Wellington during the Peninsular War.
But it was the aftermath of the Boer War that created the spirit and capability that would write the regiment’s most glorious chapter.
When the firing died down across the veldt in 1902, the dispersal of the British forces took months. Indeed, it wasn’t until the winter of 1904 that the 2nd Battalion went east to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to resume their long tour of foreign service. After two years, they moved to Bombay, where they sharpened the soldiering skills demanded by the Kitchener Test, the training regime introduced by Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchener in answer to the South Africa failings.
The Kitchener Test consisted of a long forced march in full kit by the whole battalion, followed by a practice march. The 2nd Battalion left India for home in 1913 with a reputation as a fighting unit that was second to none in the Army.
Back in Aldershot, after a tour of foreign service lasting more than 17 years, the Battalion continued the hard work in the 5th Brigade as part of the 2nd Division, under the command of General Sir Douglas Haig. It was widely known that the European situation was dangerous. Both Germany and France were passing new laws of military service, and increasing their forces. Although Britain at large shared no general belief in the certainty of war, Haig worked his men hard to perfect the little Regular Army in preparation for an emergency.
On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand brought it a step closer. At 4pm on August 4 the order for mobilization was flashed to every station of the British Army.
The streets of the Faithful City were seething a few days later when the Colours of the 2nd and 3rd battalions, the symbols of their history and of their loyalty, were brought to Worcester by special escort and handed to the Dean and Chapter to be preserved in the Cathedral.
Day by day, the 2nd were brought up to war strength with reservists and kept busy preparing equipment and stores.
Not all went smoothly, however. Every man should have had two pairs of boots. But the shortage of all equipment form the growing Army meant that the second pair were withdrawn from most units of the Expeditionary Force. The 2nd and 3rd Worcestershire left for France with only one pair per man. The consequence was almost catastrophic.
INVASION OF BELGIUM
The man in charge of putting the von Schlieffen plan into action was Helmut von Moltke. But he wasn’t cut from Schlieffen’s cloth. He was cautious. He lacked the ruthlessness on which Schlieffen’s plan depended, and he was frightened by the possibility of a strong French counter attack in Alsace-Lorraine.
So, instead, he strengthened the hinge end of the door, weakening the force at the other end that was to sweep through Belgium.
Nevertheless when the invasion began, von Moltke had almost 1.5m men forming his door and, at the far end of his extreme right wing, there was the 1st Army, led by General von Kluck.
Wednesday, August 12 to Thursday, August 13, 1914
The movement of the British Expeditionary Force to France began on August 9, with the 2nd and the 3rd Worcestershire both receiving their orders on August 12. Early the next morning, the 2nd marched to the Government siding at Aldershot and entrained for Southampton Docks, where the transports Lake Michigan and Herschel awaited them.
After nightfall, they steamed into the Channel. The next afternoon, the Lake Michigan entered the Boulogne harbour. Three hours later, the Herschel followed. The Battalion moved to a hillside camp until the evening, when the lines of the Battalion were visited by the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre and Field-Marshal Sir John French. Within 11 weeks, he would have cause to reflect with pride and gratitude on the men he'd seen.
Close on midnight, the battalion entrained again and moved east to the concentration areas. After a crawl to Wassigny, they marched six miles to Lesquielles St. Germain, where they were given a cordial reception ahead of four days of training, inspections, and practice marches. It was hot, very hot.
Sunday, August 16, 1914
Landing of original British Expeditionary Force (BEF), comprising four Divisions and one Cavalry Division, in France completed.
Wednesday, August 19, 1914
Belgian Army retreats from the Gette on Antwerp.
Mulhouse again taken by French forces.
Thursday August 20, 1914
Brussels occupied by German forces.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Friday, August 21, to Sunday, August 23, 1914
Early on August 21st, the 2nd Worcestershire marched via Etreux to La Groise and, the next morning, joined the 2nd Division as it progressed to Pont-sur-Sambre where the troops rested and bathed – the last chance to taste either luxury for many days.
At 1am on August 23rd, the Battalion was roused before the Division moved off across the Belgian frontier, arriving at Bougnies shortly after midday and hearing the distant thunder of guns for the first time.
While the British Expeditionary Force concentrated around Mons, the oncoming German armies were advancing rapidly west through Belgium towards the French frontier. Orders had been issued for the British Expeditionary Force to take up a defensive position along the line of the canal that runs east from Conde to Mons.
Early on the morning of Sunday, August 23rd, German artillery opened fire and, by the time the 2nd and 3rd battalions came up, the British front line was hotly engaged. From their position, the 2nd Battalion could see shells bursting over Mons, houses burning and flames lighting the dusk sky. Crowds of terrified inhabitants thronged south along every road and track, and rumours quickly passed down the line that the British were falling back.
Germans were reported in Mons itself. As darkness fell the British front line was withdrawn leaving a dangerous gap in the line by the villages of Paturages and Frameries. An urgent message was sent for reinforcements to close the breach and 5th Brigade, including the 2nd Worcestershire, were issued with additional ammunition and made ready for attack.
Dog-tired, bayonets fixed, the Worcestershire led the Oxfordshire Light Infantry and the Highland Light Infantry to meet the enemy, expecting to be engaged at any moment. But, when Frameries was reached and found to be unoccupied, they realised the Germans hadn't yet advanced.
Friday, August 21, 1914
Battle of Charleroi begins.
Saturday, August 22, 1914
Battle of the Ardennes begins.
Sunday, August 23, 1914
Battle of Mons.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Monday, August 24, 1914 to Monday, September 14, 1914
At first light on Monday, August 24th, however, the enemy's attack was renewed. Shrapnel burst along the British line and small groups of German infantry were seen among the slagheaps and cottages of Flenu and Cuesmes.
The increasing shell-fire caused several casualties among the 2nd Worcestershire, but the enemy's infantry remained at a respectful distance and, about 8am, orders came to retire. Away on the right at Charleroi, however, the picture was very different. The French Fifth Army had been driven from its position by overwhelming numbers so, to avoid destruction, orders for a withdrawal were issued.
As the companies of the 2nd Battalion and fell back through Frameries, the terror-stricken villagers poured out of their houses. In the streets all order was lost.
Runaway horses and shrieking, sobbing women broke up the ranks as houses were blown apart by the German shells. The legendary Retreat from Mons had begun.
For the three battalions of 5th Division, it was the start of a punishing, 15-day slog south, for much of it just a few miles ahead of the pursuing enemy.
On the 24th, they marched from Frameries to Eugies and reached Bavai about 10pm.
At dawn next morning, the 5th Brigade marched back to Pont-sur-Sambre. Dinner was nearly cooked when, about 5pm, orders came to retreat at once to Noyelles, a five-hour march.
The smell of cocoa and bully was rising through the late summer night air there when they were ordered back to Pont-sur-Sambre. In the midnight darkness, the weary Battalion, bayonets fixed, tramped slowly back. Leval was almost in sight when instructions came to wait and sleep till further orders.
As the light of dawn showed on the 26th, the Battalion fell in. They grabbed 30 minutes of sleep at Marbaix before being ordered to Barzy. On the way, the roads were crowded with terrified refugees and disordered columns of French infantry.
The weather was sultry and the men were tired and hungry. To the west they could hear a distant thunder of the battle of Le Cateau and, after many delays, they reached Barzy at dark and were joined by the Oxfordshire Light Infantry. Both battalions slept the sleep of exhaustion till midnight when reports warned that the enemy were closing in. There was no option but to move again.
At dawn on the 27th, the two battalions reached Boue and had two hours rest. Then on to Etreux, where they ate. They left again at 9.30am and marched into Mont d'Origny shortly after dark.
At 4am on the 28th, they were off again. The day was very hot. The ceaseless strain was telling and men fell out in hundreds. Through La Fere they struggled, through Danizy to Servais, where they halted for a day while, gradually, the stragglers came in.
The retreat south was resumed at three on the morning of the 30th, along rough roads through beautiful, wooded country, and finally came to rest at more than 14 hours later at the village of Terny.
On the 31st, it was a 5am start with Soissons the first target. There they saw the River Aisne for the first time. They spent a few hours in bivouac at Laversine but were moving again at 2am on September 1st through forest country to Soucy and Villers-Cotterets, where the leading troops of the German advanced guard came into action about 10am and a sharp fight followed.
For two hours, the troops lay in a wood north-east of Villers-en-Potees, listening to the firing. Then orders came to retreat again to Betz. At Cuvergnon the Brigade was halted and ordered to take up a defensive position on which the hard-pressed Guards might fall back. The Oxfordshire Light Infantry and the Worcestershire waited for the attack to come with orders that the rearguard must hold on at all costs until the main body had cleared the bridge at Betz.
But no attack developed. The previous day's fighting had taken the sting out of the German advanced guard and, at 8am on September 2nd, the two battalions withdrew through Etavigny, Vincy and Etrepilly to Barcy, then on through Penchard to Chauconin, where – at 3pm – the 2nd Battalion went into bivouac. The heat had been appalling, and the troops, tired by the previous night of strain, were distressed.
Another 3am start welcomed September 3rd. The Brigade headed east to close a gap between the British right and the left flank of the nearest French Corps. They passed through Meaux at 4am and pushed on to Trilport where, shortly before 6am, the Marne was crossed on the slog, first to Monceaux, then Petit Couiois, where they bivouacked.
The 4th was another day of oppressive heat. The 2nd Worcestershire left at 10.15am as rear-guard. Late in the evening, between 8 and 10pm, the Brigade moved south-west past the Bois de Morillas to Le Villeneuve. The night was one of considerable anxiety.
Orders to retire didn’t reach the battalion the next morning until more than two hours after the rest of the Army was on the move. It marched back alone as the rearguard through La Celle, across the Grand Morin river, through Mortcerf and La Houssaye to Maries before catching up with the rest of the Brigade.
THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE
While the grim Retreat from Mons continued, the French Higher Command had been organising a counter-attack. On September 6th, fresh French forces turned on the advancing German columns and broke the front of the German battle-line. The Worcestershire initially heard little of the success, far less that the Germans had outrun their supplies and were in no shape to repel the French.
But, after the long days of retreat, the order to advance at dawn on a hot autumn morning brought joy. At 7.15am, the 2nd Battalion left Maries to march three miles east to a defensive line near Champlet that soon came under long-range artillery fire. That proved to be the high-water mark of the German advance.
About 2.30pm, the shelling ceased and word ran down the line that the enemy were retiring. At 4pm the 5th Brigade advanced to Pezarches.
What had happened?
On the ground, the British were uncertain. What soon became clear was that, believing the Allies were done, General von Kluck had altered the main thrust of his attack to come from the east of Paris. This change of direction exposed his right flank and the French 6th Army had struck with 150,000 men. The remainder of the Allies – including the BEF – turned round and drove the Germans 40 miles back to the Aisne. The Schlieffen Plan, steadily weakened by General von Moltke, was finished.
By sunrise on September 7th, the enemy was in full retreat with the British hard on their heels. At 7am, 5th Brigade moved forward to Mauperthuis, paused for three hours of rest, then pushed on again through Bertheuil, La Touche and Chailly-en-Brie to St. Simeon.
Early on September 8th, the advance continued. The enemy's cavalry were fighting a delaying action. To assist the Guards, the 5th Brigade sent the 2nd Worcestershire forward. The banks of the Petit Morin were steep and thickly wooded. A and B Companies found covered positions on the wooded slopes and took on the hostile machine-guns, while C and D Companies moved left to make a crossing.
The two companies pushed up the slope through the woods, and the German defenders gave way. By nightfall on the 9th, the battalion was north of the River Marne. At dawn on the 10th the Brigade left Domptin but was checked at Cupru because the advanced guard, 6th Brigade, was engaged with the enemy. The 5th Brigade deployed for attack and advanced north. Shell-fire briefly pinned them down, without casualty, and they reached Monnes at 2pm.
By evening, news came that the Battle of the Marne had been won. The Germans were in full retreat.
At five the next morning, the advance continued through Neuilly-St. Front and Oulehy-le-Chateau to billets in Beugneux.
There was sterner work to do on the 12th. The enemy were reported to be holding the line of the Rivers Vesle and Aisne. It was dull and showery as 5th Brigade left Beugneux, again at 5am, and pushed on through Arcy and Jouaignes towards the River Vesle near Braine with the 2nd Worcestershire in the vanguard. Shortly before 9am, the Battalion advanced on Courcelles and came under fire from the German cavalry on the far bank.
The bridge had been blown up, just one narrow girder remained. Volunteers swung hand over hand then swiftly scaled the north bank. By 4pm, after a short skirmish, the remainder of the Brigade had come up, and the passage of the Vesle was secured. With the enemy nowhere in sight, the push continued in pouring rain to Vieil Arcy.
The 2nd Worcestershire were sent forward to the wooded slopes above Pont Arcy where they joined the 3rd Worcestershire on outpost duty on the wooded slopes south of the Aisne. It was a terrible night. In high wind and driving rain, the men crouched in any shelter they could find while rolls of artillery fire lit the sky to the east and west. From Soissons to Reims, on a 30-mile front, the Germans had turned to make a final stand. The Battle of the Aisne had begun, but the 2nd weren’t immediately aware what the enemy intended.
Having ignored von Schlieffen’s deathbed plea to keep the German right wing strong, on September 14th, General Von Moltke was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn.
The same day, General Joffre began an attack on the German positions beyond the Aisne with the BEF and the French 5th and 6th Armies.
Monday, August 24, 1914
British Army retreats from Mons.
Battle of Charleroi ends.
Battle of the Ardennes ends.
Tuesday, August 25, 1914
Valenciennes taken by German forces.
Maubeuge invested by German forces.
Wednesday, August 26, 1914
Battle of Le Cateau.
Thursday, August 27, 1914
Lille occupied by German cavalry.
Mezières occupied by German forces.
Friday, August 28, 1914
Battle of the Meuse ends.
Saturday, August 29, 1914
Arras evacuated by the French forces.
First Battle of Guise begins.
Laon, La Fère, and Roye occupied by German forces.
First Battle of Guise ends.
Monday, August 31, 1914
Amiens entered by German forces.
Tuesday, September 1, 1914
Soissons taken by German forces.
Saturday, September 5, 1914
End of the Retreat from Mons.
Reims taken by German forces.
Lille evacuated by German forces.
Sunday, September 6, 1914
Battle of the Marne begins.
Monday, September 7, 1914
Maubeuge capitulates to German forces.
Tuesday, September 8, 1914
Second Battle of Lemberg begins.
Wednesday, September 9, 1914
German retreat from the Marne begins.
Thursday, September 10, 1914
Battle of the Marne ends.
Friday, September 11, 1914
British Government issue orders for the raising of the second New Army of six divisions.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Monday, September 14, 1914 to Sunday, September 2, 1914
THE BATTLE OF THE AISNE
5th Brigade moved down to the banks of the Aisne, ready for another day of marching. Night patrols sent forward by the 2nd Worcestershire had found no enemy on the north bank and, at dawn, they were withdrawn to Vieil Arcy for a much-needed rest while the remainder of the Brigade crossed the twisted ironwork of the shattered bridge at Pont Arcy under fire from snipers, and Royal Engineers worked feverishly to build a pontoon bridge.
The 2nd Battalion eventually crossed the bridge under intermittent shell-fire and joined the rest of the 5th Brigade on the road from Chavonne to Bourg. The advance had been checked. The enemy were in strength on the heights north of the river. To the east and west, the crash of gun-fire was continuous. By dusk, however, the villages of Verneuil and Moussy were occupied.
The 2nd Worcestershire were detailed to occupy the sharp spur of Tilleul. The companies advanced up the wooded slope, reached the crest about at 10pm and established a defensive line in the darkness.
Dawn of the 14th ushered in a day of heavy and confused fighting for the 2nd Worcestershire. Assuming the enemy were still in retreat, at about 8.30am, two companies of the 60th Rifles climbed the hill held by the 2nd Worcestershire and advanced along the spur towards Courtecon.
The Worcestershire stood fast behind them, but the advance came to a standstill, and about noon the Germans pushed the Rifles back on the Worcestershires' position. True to its Regimental motto, the Battalion held firm and the counter-attack withered in the face of rapid rifle-fire.
The fighting continued through the middle of the day, with heavy shelling and several small attacks and counter-attacks. About 3pm, it became apparent that the enemy were withdrawing and orders were issued for the advance to resume. The Worcestershire, the Highland Light Infantry and the two companies of the 60th Rifles advanced slowly along the spur as evening came on.
The ground was littered with dead and wounded. Darkness fell, but the advance continued with men moving in fours, bayonets fixed, advancing 400 paces, then halting until the road was reached.
The British crossed the fabled Chemin des Dames, but found themselves isolated, lacking mutual support and flanked by strong forces of the enemy. So they withdrew to the south end of the Tilleul spur. About midnight, the 2nd Worcestershire reached Moussy again. It had been a costly day. Thirteen men had been killed and 58 wounded.
At dawn on September 15th, the 2nd Worcestershire again took up a position on the Tilleul heights. All day, they were heavily shelled. Two men were killed and among the many other casualties was the Brigade commander, General Haking. He handed command to Lieut-Colonel Westmacott, of the 2nd Worcestershire. In his place, command devolved upon Major E.B. Hankey. Forty-four days on, his name would be written in British history.
The heavy shelling continued on the 16th killing three. The Battalion was relieved at 7pm by the Connaught Rangers and withdrew into reserve near Verneuil where they dug trenches for the first time and lay up till the following evening, when they again climbed the Tilleul slopes and relieved the HLI.
The following morning, the 18th, the Battalion was heavily bombarded once more. In the three days of occupation, flimsy shelters had been constructed, the first dugouts. Trench warfare had begun. At 7pm, A and B Companies were relieved and went back to Verneuil.
September 19th was the first of three days of continuous strain and heavy fighting. About 2pm, the enemy's shell-fire against the positions of the 2nd Division developed into a huge bombardment across the front.
Orders then came for A and B Companies of the 2nd Worcestershire to move to support 6th Brigade. The remainder of the 2nd remained all night on stand-by.
A fresh shell storm greeted dawn on the 20th and German infantry began pushing into the wooded, western slopes of the Tilleul spur. At 11am, A and B Companies were sent in with two HLI platoons to drive them back. The task was tough. The woods were dense and 30 men fell from enemy fire.
Beyond the wood, they met a company of German infantry. The Worcestershire companies fixed bayonets and drove the enemy from their trenches. But, as they spread out over the open, the German trenches opened murderous fire. The losses were heavy and the ragged remains were chased through the dense wood and became hopelessly scattered.
Eventually, Captain C.E.L. Porter, though wounded, gathered a handful of the two companies, and established a position on the near edge of the wood. The day had been costly. Thirty men were dead. Many, many more were wounded.
Next day, the 21st, at dawn A and B Companies were withdrawn into reserve. At 5pm, the 2nd Worcestershire handed over their positions to the 1st Coldstream Guards and 5th Brigade recrossed the river. After a two-hour march, the weary troops reached the village of Dhuizel and found billets.
They stayed there until the night of the 24th, when they marched back to Augy and joined the 3rd Battalion to rest, refit and clean their weapons.
During the night of the 24th/25th, 5th Brigade moved out from Dhuizel to entrench a reserve position on the southern bank of the Aisne where they stood by for two days, ready to reinforce the line beyond the river, where heavy firing could be heard.
After 17 days of hell, the last fighting in the Aisne valley took place on September 27th. After that, gunfire occasionally echoed among the wooded hills, but there were no further attacks. The opposing forces stood fast in their trenches, the Allies with a precarious foothold on the heights beyond the river, while the crest line was in German hands. Both sides had learned the defensive power of modern weapons. Neither was willing to sacrifice fresh troops in a direct attack when they could be more usefully employed attempting to find a way round the enemy's outer flank.
The French commander, General Josef Joffre, began moving forces to the northwest in an attempt to do just that. His opposite number, General Erich von Falkenhayn, responded.
Sunday, September 12, 1914
Battle of the Aisne 1914 begins.
Monday, September 13, 1914
Soissons and Amiens reoccupied by French forces.
British Government issue orders raising third New Army of six divisions.
Tuesday, September 14, 1914
Reims evacuated by German forces.
General von Moltke resigns as Chief of the General Staff of the German Field Armies, and is succeeded by General von Falkenhayn.
Wednesday, September 15, 1914
Battle of the Aisne 1914 ends.
Monday, September 21, 1914
Noyon retaken by French forces.
Tuesday, September 22, 1914
First Battle of Picardy begins.
First Battle of Albert begins.
The ‘Race to the Sea’, outflanking the enemy.
Thursday, September 24, 1914
Péronne taken by German forces.
Friday, September 25, 1914
Noyon retaken by German forces.
First Battle of Albert ends.
Saturday, September 26, 1914
Bapaume occupied by German forces.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Sunday, September 27, 1914 to Friday, October 16, 1914
While the defensive lines on the Aisne heights were strengthened, every available Division of the two opposing Armies was sent west and north. During the last weeks of September, the opposing French and German commanders threw fresh Army Corps into the battle on their open western flanks. They marched, clashed and became close-locked in an ever-extending battle-line stretching north beyond the Aisne across the uplands of Picardy and Artois to the lowlands of Flanders.
The fabled ‘race to the sea’ would end when the Allies hit the coast at Nieuwpoort in Belgium, in the first week of October.
As the fighting moved nearer and nearer to the coast, the Allied commanders decided to move the British Expeditionary Force from the Aisne valley to a position that would shorten the communications of the British forces and allow them to guard the vital Channel ports.
On, October 1st orders were issued. As part of 5th Division, the 2nd Worcestershire marched after dark, crossing the Aisne south of Chavonne and relieving the 1st Irish Guards in trenches east of the farm of La Cour de Soupir while arrangements had been completed for the relief of the remainder of the British Army on the Aisne by French Divisions.
That began on the night of October 12th, but it wasn’t until shortly before midnight on the 13th that French troops the 2nd Battalion handed over their trenches and marched through Soupir to Vauxcere, which they reached at dawn on the 14th. They lay hidden all day until evening, when the move resumed.
5th Brigade marched through Perles to Fismes and there, at 9pm, the Battalion entrained, destination unknown. In the small hours, they passed through the outskirts of Paris. By dawn on the 15th, they were near Amiens heading down the Somme valley to Abbeville. Dusk brought the pine trees and sand dunes by Etaples, then Boulogne, with a glimpse of the sea in the dawn light at Wimereux and again at Calais before the line turned inland once more, through St. Omer to Hazebrouck where the Battalion detrained at sunset on October 16th and marched to billets at Morbecque through the level countryside of Flanders. This is where the 2nd Worcestershire would change the course of history.
Sunday, September 27, 1914
Siege of Antwerp begins.
Monday, September 28, 1914
Malines taken by German forces.
Wednesday, September 30, 1914
Arras reoccupied by French forces.
Thursday, October 1, 1914
First Battle of Arras begins.
Saturday, October 3, 1914
Ypres occupied by German cavalry.
British army begins to leave the Aisne and to move northwards.
Sunday, October 4, 1914
Lens and Bailleul occupied by German forces.
First Battle of Arras ends.
Thursday October 8, 1914
General Foch appointed to command Allied forces (less Belgians) defending the Flanders coast.
Friday, October 9, 1914
Merville, Estaires, Armentières and Hazebrouck taken by German forces.
Menin occupied by German forces.
Last forts of Antwerp taken by German forces.
Saturday, October 10, 1914
Antwerp capitulates to German forces.
Hazebrouck and Estaires captured by British forces.
Battle of La Bassée begins.
Sunday, October 11, 1914
Merville retaken by British forces.
Monday, October 12, 1914
Battle of Messines 1914 begins.
First Battle of Artois ends.
Ostend and Zeebrugge evacuated by Belgian forces.
Lille capitulates to German forces.
Ghent evacuated by Belgian forces and occupied by German forces.
Tuesday, October 13, 1914
Battle of Armentières begins.
Ypres reoccupied by Allied forces retreating from Ghent.
Wednesday, October 14, 1914
Bailleul occupied by British forces.
Bruges occupied by German forces.
Thursday, October 15, 1914
Belgian coast-line reached by German forces.
Zeebrugge and Ostend occupied by German forces.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Friday, October 16, 1914
While they were moving, Commander-in-Chief Sir John French had made his choice. He could either send I Corps further north to join 7th Division and the thinly stretched French forces in maintaining their hold on Ypres and contact with the Belgians on the coast. Or he could enforce reinforce II Corps at la Bassee. He sent I Corps to Ypres.
THE FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES, 1914
In an attempt to break through the rapidly stabilizing Allied line and reach Calais, General von Falkenhayn launched the 4th and 6th German armies against the British Expeditionary Force at Ypres on October 18, 1914.
The toe-to-toe fighting would stagger on with no significant territorial advantage gained by either side until heavy rains brought the contest to an end on November 11 after 24 days of slaughter that would leave the blood of a quarter of a million soldiers soaking a line of trenches stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea. By then, the British would lose 2,350 officers and 55,800 soldiers. German losses would be more than 130,000.
The Battle of Le Cateau – in which the 3rd Worcestershire fought with courage and distinction on August 26 – had been the last of the old-style one-day battles. After that, the fighting was never so simple. The name ‘First Ypres’ suggests something clear-cut. But, by this time, the victor was no longer the army that held the ground but the one with the will to fight, a will that depended on many things, including the number of men each nation could throw into battle, because killing the enemy was no longer just a tactical requirement but a strategic necessity.
The First Battle of Ypres is generally accepted to have started on October 18, when the Germans launched three weeks of repeated mass attacks against the British positions.
The British occupied the now legendary Ypres Salient, which bulged into the German line like a sore thumb. The heart of the salient, with its 16-mile perimeter, was Ypres, defended by I Corps. The attacks were concentrated along the axis of the Menin Road, which enters Ypres from the east. Just outside, barely eight miles from Ypres Cathedral, is the village of Gheluvelt.
The 2nd Worcestershire had spent four days in billets around Hazebrouck when, at dusk on October 19th, 5th Brigade marched north to Poperinghe.
Early the next morning, they crossed flat wooded country through Elverdinghe to Boesinghe. As they marched, they could see the spires and towers of Ypres. Their first task was the occupation of the low Pilckem Ridge. They entrenched along its crest to the drum of gunfire south. As evening turned into a chilling, drizzly night, the increasing swarm of homeless refugees spelt the approach of strong hostile forces.
The British advance from Ypres towards Menin was being met by a counter-thrust from Menin to Ypres. At the same time, other German forces were advancing on Ypres from the north-east, forcing a change in orders. The 2nd Division would now advance towards Roulers to meet the oncoming Germans.
Friday, October 16, 1914
Battle of the Yser begins.
Saturday, October 17, 1914
Armentières recaptured by Allied forces.
Monday, October 19, 1914
First Battle of Ypres 1914 begins.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Wednesday, October 21, 1914 to Saturday, October 24, 1914
THE BATTLE OF LANGEMARCK
At dawn on the 21st, that advance began. But a long halt while 1st Division came up into line allowed the enemy time to push forward almost to within touching distance. The leading platoons of the Worcestershire had advanced only a few hundred yards when they were checked by sharp bursts of fire from hedges in front. Advance became more and more difficult, and the platoons were forced to dig in. Thirty men were dead, many more were wounded.
Away to the left, the advance of 1st Division had also been held up around Langemarck. Fighting lasted all day, and the platoons in front line suffered severely. By nightfall, all four companies of the 2nd Worcestershire had been drawn into the firing line among the hedgerows about a mile north-east of St. Julien. In that action, two more men were killed, four were wounded and one was missing.
At dawn on the 22nd, the reinforced enemy opened a furious bombardment and made several attempts to press forward, but each time they were beaten back by the musketry of the British battalions firing so rapidly that – not for the first time – the Germans thought they were facing machine-gun fire.
The constant concussion of bursting shells made the defence of the position hard. As darkness fell, the enemy's infantry swarmed from their trenches and charged. But they met stern resistance. The Oxfords and the Highland Light Infantry held their ground, and the Worcestershire drove the enemy back with head-on fire. Night fell, but the bombardment and the attacks went on. Three more men were killed.
The next morning dawned to a storm of shell-fire. The troops, worn out by lack of sleep, and crouched in the battered trenches, were stunned by the concussion of bursting shells. Sixteen men were killed, 22 were wounded and 10 went missing, almost certainly buried by the shells. But their fighting spirit was unimpaired, and Private Lively earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal for fearlessly carrying messages across the open, despite the bombardment.
The relief of 5th Brigade started during the night of the 23rd, but the 2nd Worcestershire covered the withdrawal of the British guns and didn't leave their trenches until the dim dawn on the 24th, a column of utterly weary men, unwashed, unshaven and caked with mud. They plodded to the halt east of Ypres where the railway crosses the Menin Road, a place soon to be dubbed Hellfire Corner.
They were told to expect three days’ rest. They had 20 minutes.
Wednesday, October 21, 1914
Battle of Langemarck 1914 begins.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Saturday, October 24, 1914 to Saturday, October 31, 1914
Breakfasts were being cooked when urgent orders came to move forward immediately. East of Polygon Wood, 7th Division had been overwhelmed by a massed attack. The enemy were pouring into the wood.
The shattered troops fell in and led the Brigade along the Menin Road to Hooge, and then the sloping western edge of Polygon Wood where they lined up for the counter-attack.
No one knew what awaited them in the wood, or on its far side. Many British troops were thought to be in the wood as well as the enemy attackers. So the platoons fixed bayonets, spread into line and then took their first steps through the thick maze of pine. The undergrowth of oak, beech and chestnut was so dense from the start it was difficult for the companies to keep formation. The line quickly broke and the two battalions separated until Major Hankey eventually ordered the companies to fall back out of the wood to reform. Then he led the Battalion back into the wood.
Without warning, they came upon the leading German troops. A swift, murderous, hand-to-hand fight followed through the brambles until a clutch of Worcestershires charged and began cheering until the whole line was racing onward, yelling, plunging bayonets, forcing the Germans back for more than half-a-mile. But, as the wood thinned and sharp bursts of fire brought the advance to a halt.
The companies took up the best position they could on the eastern edge of the wood and dug in until night fell, but the day's price had been high with around 200 casualties ripping a hole in the battalion's ranks. More than a hundred Germans had been cut down, most by bayonet.
During the evening, it was decided that, next day, the 2nd Division should attack the enemy's position east of the wood. That didn't happen until dusk on the 25th. Throughout the day, 5th Brigade held their new positions under heavy fire. The Guards' advance reached no further than the western slope of the Reutel spur. Nightfall brought heavy rain, soaking the 2nd Worcestershire as they looked on from their trenches.
At 11am on the 26th, 5th Brigade were ordered to withdraw back through Polygon Wood. Progress was difficult. The wood was full of dead lying in the thick undergrowth, British and German. Further north, the French Divisions had been pressing their attack on Passchendaele. Believing the enemy were close to collapse, at 4pm 6th Brigade were ordered forward with 5th Brigade in support. By the time the 5th arrived in position north-east of Polygon Wood, at 5.30pm, it was dark and the attack had failed. So they marched back to their bivouac near Veldhoek.
The same happened on the 27th. The Brigade lay undisturbed but for the burst of a few shells in their vicinity until orders to attack were issued at 11am. At 2.30pm, the Brigade retraced their boot-steps to the previous position. Again, the attack was cancelled and they trudged back.
At 1.20pm on the 28th, they repeated the march. But, this time, they didn't turn back. The Connaught Rangers led the attack at 3pm with the HLI in close support and the Worcestershire and Oxfordshire Light Infantry in reserve under cover in a clearing in the wood. But the attack was hit by devastating shell-fire and was abandoned.
The Brigade attacked again on the 29th, but the enemy's gunfire was so overwhelming that the Rangers and the HLI couldn't even leave their trenches. While those abortive attacks were in progress north of Polygon Wood, the enemy had been massing fresh forces further south near the Menin Road. The German artillery fire was steadily increasing in intensity. For ten days, the British front line battalions had suffered heavy losses. The survivors were in no shape to face a fresh attack. If the Germans came up the Menin Road, the British line needed reserves. So, in the afternoon of October 29th, 5th Brigade was temporarily broken up.
The HLI and Connaught Rangers, already in the front line, were placed under the orders of 6th Brigade with a simple instruction – maintain your position at all costs. The Worcestershire and Oxfordshire Light Infantry were brought back into Divisional Reserve, west of Polygon Wood.
Within a day, the Oxfordshire Light Infantry were sent to reinforce the line further south, leaving the 2nd Worcestershire alone in reserve, listening to the rolling thunder of gunfire until night fell.
Saturday October 24, 1914
Battle of Langemarck 1914 ends.
Thursday, October 29, 1914
Battle of Gheluvelt begins.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Saturday, October 31, 1914
THE BATTLE OF GHELUVELT
The battalion were woken early on Saturday, October 31st, by the crash of gun-fire, but the troops ate breakfast, weapons were cleaned and – for several hours – they lay idle watching shrapnel burst in black clouds above the tree-tops.
The 2nd Worcestershire were the last available reserve of the British defence. Every other unit had been drawn into the battle-line or were broken beyond recovery.
In reality, that meant no more than 500 men standing in the path of catastrophe. And in an appalling state, too. Ten days of battle had left all ranks haggard, unshaven and unwashed. Their uniforms caked with the mud of the Langemarck trenches and torn by the brambles of Polygon Wood. But their weapons were clean and in good order. They had plenty of ammunition. Most importantly, three months of war had forged belief in their power as warriors, and the short period in reserve – mercifully – had allowed them sleep and food.
In short, miraculously, that crowd of ragged soldiers was still a fighting battalion – albeit at half-strength – that was bound by a proud and willing discipline that was the soul of the Regiment.
Hour after hour, the thunder of the guns intensified. Stragglers and wounded brought alarming news. Thirteen German battalions – around 13,000 men – were heading their way, six of them fresh and at full strength. Barely a thousand men, the remnants of the five British battalions, were holding the trenches along the Menin Road.
Before midday, weight of numbers told.
The Queen's and the Royal Scots Fusiliers had fought to the last. The Welch and the King's Royal Rifle Corps had been overwhelmed. The right flank of the South Wales Borderers had been rolled back. Gheluvelt had been lost. And a gaping hole had been punched in the British line. Unless it could be closed, the British Army was doomed.
The loss of Gheluvelt prompted orders for the British artillery to roll back, ready for a general retreat. But the crisis had been anticipated, and the British command had a final plan, a last throw of the dice, a counter-attack against the lost position. By the 2nd Worcestershire.
Brigadier-General FitzClarence VC was in command of the front along the Menin Road. Soon after midday, he sent for an officer of the 2nd Worcestershire to take orders. Captain Senhouse Clarke went and, 20 minutes later, returned with the news. A Company was to detach to halt the enemy's advance up the Menin Road. They set off at 12.45pm to a position on the embankment of the light railway northwest of Gheluvelt and spent the next two hours firing rapidly at any German who dared to advance beyond the houses.
About 1pm, Major Hankey was given definite orders. The rest of the 2nd Worcestershire would counter-attack to regain the lost British positions around Gheluvelt. The village church would be the landmark for the advance. Hankey was under no illusions. The situation was desperate. Time was running out.
At 1.45pm, Hankey sent scouts to cut wire fences across the line of advance. Extra ammunition was issued, kit was lightened, packs were ditched, bayonets were fixed and, at 2pm, the Battalion moved off in file, led by Hankey, under cover of the trees to the south-west corner of Polygon Wood.
From there, the ground to the south-east was clear and open, falling to the little valley of the Reutelbeek and rising again to the bare ridge above Polderhoek that hid Gheluvelt Chateau. On Saturday, October 31st, the situation there was unknown. But, to the right, the Church tower rose amid the smoke of the burning village. The open ground was dotted with wounded and stragglers returning from the front. German shells were bursting everywhere. And, everywhere, there were signs of retreat. Only the Worcestershire were moving towards the enemy.
The three companies tramped grimly down into the valley of the Reutelbeek. Beyond a little wood, the Battalion deployed, C and D Companies in front, with B Company behind. About 370 men, all told. In front of them rose the bare slope of the Polderhoek ridge. It was littered with dead and wounded. Along its crest, the enemy's shells were bursting in rapid succession.
Major Hankey decided the only way to cross that deadly stretch of ground was one long rush. The companies extended into line and advanced across the rank grass and rough stubble. The two leading companies broke into a steady double and swept on, officers leading, the men behind, bayonets fixed, in one long irregular line.
As they reached the crest, the wave of men was sighted by the German artillery beyond and a storm of shells burst along the ridge. Shrapnel rained down, and high-explosive shells crashed into the charging line. Men fell at every step. More than a hundred men were killed or wounded. The rest rushed on, faster and faster down the slope until Gheluvelt Chateau loomed in front. The platoons scrambled across the light railway, through hedges and wire fences, then entered the chateau grounds.
The Germans weren't ready to meet the charge. Beneath a fire of shrapnel from British batteries behind Polygon Wood, they were crowded among the trees, exploring the out-houses for the ragged remnants of the British defenders whose musketry still somehow swept the lawn in front of the chateau.
The Germans were young troops of newly-formed units and quickly buckled, fleeing the chateau grounds and into the hedgerows. C Company charged after them, shooting and stabbing, and suddenly came upon something totally unexpected – the gallant remnant of the South Wales Borderers.
All day, despite being almost surrounded, they'd resisted the Germans and delayed the advance. Without their remarkable courage, the Worcestershires' counter-attack would have faced even greater odds, perhaps even failed.
Major Hankey strode over to their commander – and came face to face with an old friend, Colonel H.E. Burleigh Leach. With him was Major A.J. Reddie, brother of Major J. M. Reddie, of the Worcestershire.
"My God, fancy meeting you here," Major Hankey said.
Colonel Burleigh Leach replied quietly: "Thank God you have come."
The routed enemy were hunted out of the hedges and across the fields as C and D Companies occupied the sunken road running past the grounds. One of the many heroes was Sgt. F. Sutton, who took out a machine-gun single-handed. But the village itself was still in the hands of the 242nd Regiment, who opened fire on the sunken road.
To silence them, Major Hankey sent men in from the front line to drive the snipers back, but it was clear the sunken road would be unsafe until the village was secured. So A Company moved from their defensive position and between the burning buildings until, amid bursting shells, they occupied a new line from which the village could be cleared as far as the crossroads at the east edge of Gheluvelt.
The constant shelling of the German and British artillery made it impossible to occupy the centre of the village permanently. The stubborn Saxons held small posts in the scattered houses on the south-east outskirts, but their main force had been driven out. The collapse of the BEF's defence of the Menin Road had been averted.
The Germans responded with a violent, day-long bombardment, but made no further effort that day to retake Gheluvelt. The reason was a mystery to the British.
As evening came on, more patrols were sent to make contact with the British lines to the right. At around 6pm, when none were found, and no other British troops came forward to the position held by the Battalion, Gen FitzClarence withdrew his defensive line from the forward slope of the ridge at Gheluvelt to a new, safer position further at Veldhoek.
One by one, at intervals of ten minutes, the companies of the South Wales Borderers and the Worcestershire moved from their positions and left the burning village. In the darkness, unobserved by the Germans, they assembled under cover and then tramped back along the Menin Road to Veldhoek.
Four long years would pass before the bayonets of the Regiment – this time the 4th Battalion – swept through the ruins of Gheluvelt again on 27th September, 1918.
At Veldhoek, the Battalion halted and deployed facing east – and began digging new trenches. When the troops of 1st Brigade relieved them, they 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 its remaining strength. Thirty-one men of the 500 were dead. Another 146 were wounded. But their sacrifice against unknown odds had been immeasurable. They’d repulsed the enemy in a moment later described by British Commander-in-Chief Sir John French as "the worst half-hour of my life”.
Had they and the South Wales Borderers failed, the Germans would have marched up the Menin Road and outflanked the BEF. Ypres would have fallen, leaving a free run to the Channel ports. The war would have been over.
Saturday, October 31, 1914
Critical day of First Battle of Ypres: British line broken and restored. Battle of Gheluvelt ends.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Sunday, November 1, 1914 to Tuesday, November 10, 1914
The survivors rested the next morning, the first day of November. Dawn brought the sound of heavy gunfire that continued throughout the day. When they finally realised the British had gone, German infantry occupied the ruins of Gheluvelt and pressed forward until they met fire from the new British position, which was then fiercely bombarded. But the enemy made no attempt to come to close quarters along the Menin Road....
The wearied Worcestershires were roused to assist 7th Division against a German attack during the day, but weren’t needed after marching first to Hooge Chateau and then south to a farm east of Zillebeke.
Next day, November 2nd, a heavy bombardment from dawn to midday preceded a second attack and the Germans broke the line. A Company moved forward and delivered a counter-attack through woods, driving the enemy back and coming up into line with the Border Regiment, which – thought reduced to a quarter of their strength and almost surrounded – held their ground. A Company stayed in the frontline until, about midnight, they were relieved.
They stayed there for three anxious days under deafening, intermittent shell-fire until the arrival of French and Indian troops set the British brigades in the Lys Valley free to relieve the worn-out battalions at Ypres.
On November 6th, the Worcestershire were replaced by the Duke of Wellington's and returned to their own Division. From their position east of Zillebeke, they marched back to the west corner of Polygon Wood. On the way, the column came under shell-fire and suffered 20 casualties.
On the 8th, they moved forward again at nightfall and relieved the Connaught Rangers in the front line trenches north-east of the Polygon Wood. Exhausted by three weeks of battle, the men stayed there until November 15th under day and night bombardment.
Sunday, November 1, 1914
Messines taken by German forces.
Monday, November 2, 1914
Battles of Messines and Armentières end.
Battle of La Bassée ends.
WHERE WERE THE WORCESTERS?
Tuesday, November 10, 1914 to Wednesday, November 11, 1914
THE BATTLE OF NONNE BOSSCHEN
The night of November 10th-11th was quiet, by comparison. But, just before dawn, the enemy's artillery opened a horrifying fire that signified the Battle of Nonne Bosschen, Nuns’ Wood. Twelve-and-a-half divisions attacked cross a nine-mile front, pitting almost 18,000 men against 8,000. The 2nd Worcestershire manned their trenches and awaited attack, but none materialised. Then word came that the enemy had broken the line near Veldhoek and been thrown back by the Oxford Light Infantry.
The night that followed was pitch black, wet and freezing. Eventually, the firing died away altogether. Then, for the first time in three weeks, the guns fell silent.
The battle of Nonne Bosschen was the Germans’ last throw of the dice in 1914, the last great attack of the First Battle of Ypres. It wasn't enough. Bitter, driving rain marked the start of a miserable winter. The trenches filled with mud and water, and the worn-out troops suffered to excess. The salient perimeter had shrunk to 11 miles, but Ypres had not fallen. It never would.
Tuesday, November 10, 1914
Battle of the Yser ends.
Dixmude stormed by German forces.
Wednesday, November 11, 1914
Battle of Nonneboschen. Attack by German Guard repulsed. End of the First Battle of Ypres.