Well, this is it. Today the Prussian Guards are going into action at Ypres to spearhead the offensive. Behind the defenders is the artillery; behind them is Headquarters; and behind them is the sea. The “official” name given to today is “Battle of Nonneboschen”. They’re attacking once more, along nine miles of front; but again, it’s the Menin Road where the critical action will occur.
It begins with the barrage. The guns had fallen silent during the night. On the British side, Gunner Charlie Burrows in his diary writes hopefully “Expect they are fed up attacking…” No such luck. Before daybreak they’ve opened up again, with a bombardment widely considered to be even more ferocious and intense than any they’ve had to endure before now. And then it lifts, and under cover of mist, the Germans advance.
Messines & Zillebeke
But they don’t advance everywhere. A push had been planned against Messines, and Plugstreet. The British guns have been answering as best they can; and on the morning of the 11th, they’re able to answer in enough force to break up the German infantry and leave it in no condition to move forward. On the south edge of the salient the Germans do advance against the French in front of Zillebeke, behind St Eloi, and are forced to fight tooth and claw for every yard. The defenders well know what will happen to the rest of the salient if they break. Everyone goes into the line, and they fight the Germans to a standstill.
The heaviest bombardment has fallen on the Menin Road. BEF artillery fire has been entirely suppressed. The Germans here are able to attack in as much strength as possible; and the line breaks. Fighting alongside the BEF is a battalion of Zouaves, arrived in the line last week to plug a gap, and left there because there’s nobody to replace them, just north of the road. A battered Grenadier Guards battalion falls back next to them. The Zouaves fall back as well. The Germans advance as well; and the line is broken.
Everyone falls back from Gheluvelt, and then through another town, going past Polygon Wood, fighting all the way, desperately trying to re-form the line. Some units can’t get out quickly enough, and are surrounded and liquidated. They need a counter-attack to come from somewhere, and from someone.
And it’s from Nonneboschen (or Nun’s Copse, a small tree-filled area too small even to be a wood, just south of Polygon Wood) that it comes. Just behind Nonneboschen have massed the Engineers, the drivers, the quartermasters, the signallers, the cooks, the walking wounded. Gunners who’ve been forced away from their guns have now taken up rifles. The German attack is faltering slightly. They need to pause and reorganise before they can make one more push through the line.
They’re joined by the 2nd Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshires (Ox & Bucks), and just as the Germans take their pause for breath, they counter-attack through Nonneboschen. German reinforcements are trying to reach their mates, but they’re being enfiladed by the remnants of the Cameron Highlanders as they come up the road. How many more reinforcements will Tommy bring up? Too many for them. More than they can resist. They break off the attack, retire a few hundred yards to a less exposed position, and begin digging in again. The BEF looks to counter-attack them before they can settle in, but take heavy friendly fire from French artillery further round the salient.
In the evening, it begins to rain; and as the sun sets, the rain turns to hail. The mud is ankle deep in places. Shell-holes, trenches, and craters begin rapidly filling with water. The Germans have not yet given up all hope of taking Ypres, but they’ll not be able to attack in this kind of force again. The official end of the First Battle of Ypres is another week away, but the line has been re-established. The line holds.
And as night falls, the sappers put down their rifles and take up their shovels again. The ditches on the edge of the salient begin spreading out to meet their fellows. The final piece in the puzzle is being put into place. Soon the trenches will stretch all the way from Belgium to Switzerland.
The Russians have spent the past three weeks chasing the Germans away from Warsaw. In the fast-becoming-familiar pattern of the Eastern Front, it’s now their turn to be over-extended and vulnerable. The Germans have reorganised and counter-attack west of Lodz, splitting the Russian First and Second Armies apart.
More bad news for the Russians down in the Caucasus. Today the Turks counter-attack Koprokuoy, down the slopes of Cakir Baba. For a moment it seems as though they might get in behind the Russians and cut off their withdrawal, but orders are quickly sent out for a hasty advance to the rear. They escape, General Bergmann signalling for reinforcements.
British forces advancing up the Shatt-al-Arab towards Basra are attacked in their camp at dawn. The attack achieves surprise, but it soon becomes apparent that there aren’t that many of the enemy, and they’re easily beaten off.
Actions in Progress
The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Great laments for the loss of Emden, and the paper’s editorials practically write a love letter to Captain Muller. Page 5 has another full-page advert for the famous Kutnow’s Powder, David Lloyd George goes on the recruiting circuit (page 6), the King opens Parliament for an unprecedented “War Session” (page 8), and the report of casualties has once again expanded to fill a full page (14).