Sir John French would, in later life, rate the 31st of October 1914 as being the worst day of his life, containing the worst half an hour of his life, between about two o’clock and half past. His line is melting away. He has no reserves left. News has just reached him that General Lomax and seven staff officers are dead. He spends that half an hour with General Haig, and the pair desperately to come up with some great war-saving plan. They conclude that the only thing to do is to contact General Foch as quickly as possible, and tell him that they’re done for unless he can send yet more men, and send them two days ago.
So how did we get here?
The attacks began for the day before dawn, with the Germans shifting the main thrust of their southern offensive towards Messines and Wytschate instead of towards Zillebeke. Messines holds out for five hours before the defenders begin to retire, and they go house-by-house through the town. The only reserves available are men from II Corps who’ve just come out of the line at Armentieres. Back in they go, to the line of the Ypres-Messines road that runs atop Messines Ridge.
The fighting goes on without a break all day, and then into the night. The BEF is outnumbered six to one, eight to one, ten to one, twelve to one. As the last night of October bleeds into the first morning of November, they start to fall back from Messines and Wytschaete. Orders are rare, brief, and confusing. They have no idea what’s happening anywhere else, only that they can’t take any more. Again, the casualties are overwhelming.
Although the main force of the offensive has shifted south-west, the Germans are still pushing forward, and the cavalrymen can’t take any more. They’re given permission to retire back towards Zillebeke. They make it most of the way before they find out what’s been going on to the north.
And now we’re back at Gheluvelt. By 11am, the line has ceased to exist. The last scrapings of reserves and walking wounded have been sent up; most of them take grievous casualties from artillery-fire long before they come into contact with the enemy’s infantry. Now the generals start robbing Peter to pay Paul, transferring men from Zonnebeke south towards Gheluvelt. The risk of a broken line in the north, where the French are close enough to offer immediate assistance, is worth it to do something about the known-to-be-broken line in the south.
“Fall back” is the order again, but it’s almost impossible for Headquarters to exert any kind of command and control. A frantic conference is held all the morning in Hooge Chateau, selected as HQ when it was thought that the front line would be somewhere between Roulers and Menin. It hasn’t been evacuated, because where would they go to? And at the end of the conference, a shell falls in the chateau. Officers hurry to the window to see what the noise was. Then another shell falls in exactly the same place. The windows are blown in, directly into the faces of the room.
And yet, it could have been even deadlier. General Monro had stepped away to deal with a minor matter, and escaped with severe shock. In a seperate incident, another chateau a little further down the road was shelled, and one of the explosives hit above the room that General Haig had been using as an office. The chandelier above his table had come down on it with murderous force. As fate would have it, he was away, seeing the situation at the front for himself. If you’re looking for a point of divergence to write some alternate history on the First World War, you could do a lot worse than “Haig killed at the White Chateau, 1914”.
When Haig returns to his office, he writes an order for everyone to retire again, and to establish a line of last resort, from Frezenberg to Zillebeke via Hooge, and to throw everyone into it. The order returns to him unread, with news of the disaster. That’s when Sir John French arrives, for the worst half an hour of his life.
But while all this was going on, the most unlikely thing has happened. The 2nd Worcesters had been in reserve near Polygon Wood, expecting to go to Zonnebeke, if anywhere. Then orders had reached them to march to Gheluvelt. When they arrived in the vicinity, at about midday, the situation was plain to see. Germans everywhere, behind Gheluvelt, around Gheluvelt, in it, starting to head cautiously up the Menin Road. The battered remnants of the town’s defenders setting up another hopeless line, aware they couldn’t escape, to make their last stand.
The Worcesters are a battalion in name only; at the moment there are 387 of them, led by a major and a couple of subalterns. There are nearly two thousand Germans, pausing to reorganise and re-arm themselves, waiting for the latest artillery barrage to lengthen so they can advance again. Some of them may have been conducting informal resupply exercises in the town, and as luck would have it, they’ve taken particularly high casualties in officers.
The Worcesters charge, with nothing to cover them but fixed bayonets. They pile across the mile of open ground separating themselves from the Germans. Though taken by surprise, the German guns begin to fire on them, and over a hundred of the Worcesters never reach Gheluvelt. But more of them do. And then the remnants of the other British units in the area stick their heads up to see why the guns aren’t shelling them any more. They join the counter-attack.
How many more bloodthirsty British reserves are hiding in the woods and valleys, waiting to launch a counter-attack? The Germans aren’t hanging around to find out. They retire quickly to one of the trench-lines west of Gheluvelt, sending frantic requests for reinforcement and resupply. The Worcesters have their own message for Sir John French, with the most unlikely of news. The line has held. Not contented with this, General Bulfin puts his head together with several field officers and decides to take advantage of this wherever possible. Another counter-attack. Another very surprised German retirement follows.
When the sun finally begins to set over Gheluvelt, they’ve pushed halfway back to the cross-roads from where the BEF was evicted on the 29th. Of the 84 infantry battalions currently in the field between Zonnebeke and La Bassee, 18 of them have fewer than 100 men remaining. 31 have between 100 and 200 men. 26 have a full company’s worth of 200 to 300, and nine have 300 to 450. Almost none of them have their original commanding officers. Some of them have no officers at all.
Gheluvelt is saved. The gap in the line is filled. The BEF continues to fight. The First Battle of Ypres is not over yet. The flooding on the Yser has now prompted a general German withdrawal, and the Allied left flank is secure as houses. But this is a double-edged sword. The Germans will now be able to transfer yet more men south…
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The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: a sensational spy trial on page 7, a rousing and extensive article on patriotic songs on Page 4; and it’s Saturday today! Of course that means the return of the ever-generous “A Page for Women”, in the stewardship of Mrs Eric Pritchard. Page 14 today has lots of lovely information about jam, and the latest word on “New Modes in Headgear”. God forbid anyone should be stuck with an unfashionable hat during wartime.