The German hammer comes down on the Yser again. They’re slowly expanding their bridgehead at Nieuport, and yet again they throw everything they have at Dixmude. It’s time to the Belgians to pull out their last card; deliberate flooding. Meanwhile, it’s time to take back Polygon Wood.
Flooding the Yser
The Germans open up on Dixmude with hours of artillery fire from their newly-arrived guns, firing across the Yser. Dixmude holds. They’re planning a significant redeployment, to shift men away from Ypres and onto the Yser. Some reports claim that thirty or more shells were falling on the town and the defensive positions around it every minute, for hours on end. Casualties continue mounting. To the north, the bridgehead in front of Nieuport continues to swell. The Germans have decided to redistribute their men both north and south of Ypres for the moment, to push around the edges of the salient and make it too deep to hold. The Belgians have reached their limit, and now it’s time to prepare the Big Red Button of last resort.
Much of Belgium lies below sea level. There’s a reason Belgium and the Netherlands are called the “Low Countries”. They exist in their modern form due to an extensive system of polders surrounded by dikes and canals. Nature does not want people to live there, but it is constantly being held back. Now, engineers are sent out to the locks and the earthworks and the floodgates. The Germans’ belt buckles may say “Gott Mit Uns”, but the Belgian flooding will challenge them to make like Jesus and walk on water.
The Northumberland Hussars are reinforced in Polygon Wood by a scratch force consisting of any unit who was lying around out of the line and couldn’t hide quickly enough. They may be tired, but they do have the advantage of knowing the terrain somewhat better than their opponents. The chance to exploit the broken line has gone. The British scratch force advances on the Germans and pushes them back to the edges of Polygon Wood. It pauses for breath, fixes bayonets, and then goes in again, led by a sword-brandishing officer.
Corporal Jack Cole, 2nd Worcestershires
It was cold, remorseless steel. Major Hankey led us in with his sword in his hand. There were hordes of these Germans! They were all fresh-faced boys. But they were tough youngsters. We were unshaven and haggard in comparison. We went into them, stabbing. Cold, remorseless steel. The heat soon went out of them.
The Germans are out of the wood, and the British are about out of men. The Engineers go forward once more in the night, and this time they go to Polygon Wood with rifles instead of shovels. For the moment, there’s nobody else to hold the line. Runners are dispatched back with reports, but they have an almost impossible time of it. They keep tripping over bodies. The unit that had held the line in front of Polygon Wood before the attack has almost been wiped off the face of the earth.
None of their officers have survived, from the Colonel down, all of them killed or wounded while leading counter-attacks, most of the wounded left to live or die in Polygon Wood. The NCOs have been similarly affected. Of the 172 survivors, 170 are private soldiers. They’re currently in the charge of one still-belligerent company sergeant-major. The battalion quartermaster had been away at the time, organising the stores. When he arrives with the rations and sees the situation, he immediately takes up a spare rifle.
And the Hussars are nearly lucky. They’re allowed to leave Polygon Wood to go back to their horses and take them to Divisional HQ at Hooge Chateau. There are no billets for the troopers, so they lie down for the night around the large lake in the chateau grounds. At about two o’clock in the morning, a frightfully rude German gunner drops a number of high-explosive shells into the water. The men awake immediately, to find themselves wearing the lake. Late-working staff officers in the chateau struggle on with their tasks, trying to ignore the voluminous swearing now rising over the grounds.
Elsewhere, the French are still eager to get stuck in, and make an advance towards Poelcappelle. Other British efforts are very limited. There’s a minor attack down the road to Roulers, to keep the left wing in touch with the French right.
Messines receives significant infantry reinforcements. The German cavalry has proved far less effective than the British when undertaking dismounted action. Unfortunately for the British, German infantry is now finally arriving in this betwixt/between sector as the German redeployment continues.
The weather is particularly foul at Armentieres, but this works to the tactical advantage of Headquarters, if not the immediate advantage of the men. They conduct a discreet retirement to new positions. By the later standards of the war, the breastworks are feeble; but most of them are a few feet off the ground and have barbed wire in front, and that’s an advantage worth giving up a few hundred yards for.
At Neuve Chapelle, the German infantry attacks also pause. Their guns continue firing, and the British artillery is now under orders to conserve ammunition. The weather has improved, and gives both sides an important chance to put recon aircraft into the sky again. The Engineers head off into the countryside, scrumping for barbed wire to put in front of their new trenches, and appropriate a pleasing amount of it. General Smith-Dorrien requests reinforcements for his sector. Once again the French scratch their heads for a few hours and with a resigned Gallic shrug, find yet more men to throw into the battle alongside their allies.
Sir John French is optimistic. The Germans have seemingly thrown everything they can manage at the Allies over a wide front. There have been wobbles, and there have been retirements, and there have been hairy moments. But the line has held, the Belgians are about to definitively secure the Yser, and now things are looking up. His allies are determined to take the offensive (in command of French forces, General Foch is equally optimistic), and he’s planning to take it alongside them. At the very least, the position around Ypres can be greatly improved in the month or so left before winter begins to set in in earnest. The Germans surely can’t have too much more to throw at him, can they?
He seems unaware of just how tired his men are. The word “exhaustion” is rearing its head, all along the front. This is a different kind of exhaustion from the primarily physical sensations felt on the Great Retreat. Most of the men still fighting have been in the line more or less constantly for the last week, with only a few hours of respite here and there. They’ve beaten off attack after attack. They’re taking casualties. Their effective strength is slowly but surely melting away.
And the reinforcements available are naturally deteriorating in quality. There’s a new 8th Division being formed up of Territorials, Indians and the last units to arrive back from foreign service, but the units already out there have to be reinforced as well. Francis Orme has only been in the Army since August. The officer training he’s recieved has been rudimentary at best. Now he’s warned to prepare for active service.
British junior officer casualties have been staggeringly high, and there’s nobody else left to send. There are many things that can be said against British officers during this war, but there is no question that the Army was very effective at instilling its junior officers with an overridingly strong sense of responsibility for their men. Junior officers were expected to lead by example; and time after time, that’s exactly what they did. First over the top, last back under cover. Orme may not have learned much in the past few months, but he has learned that.
Actions in Progress
No Daily Telegraph on Sundays. In its place, yesterday’s “News of the Week” editorial from The Spectator. Like Sir John French, the Spectator now professes confidence in the general situation. It has a pop the newspapers for making too much of the Russian victory at the Battle of the Vistula, while doing much the same thing itself; here is their assessment of the situation in the Ottoman Empire.
It will also encourage the resistance of the anti- German party in Turkey. Turkey is just tottering on the edge, and the Germans have been hourly expecting that their friend Enver Pasha would bring the Sultan in as their ally. They may now find that the Sublime Porte will think it wise to wait and see a little longer.
We’ll check back next week and see how that prediction is getting along! This editorial analysis remains an absolutely fascinating mix of “eerily accurate” and “complete bollocks” and is again well worth reading.
The History Press has a series of articles on the British, French and German commanders at Ypres, if you’re into reading about generals.