BATTLE OF GHELUVELT
31 OCTOBER 1914
Daybreak of October 31st 1914 was calm and clear. The 2nd Worcestershire Regiment; in their reserve position west of Polygon Wood, were roused early by the crash of gunfire. The troops turned out, breakfasts were cooked and eaten, weapons were cleaned and inspected. Then for several hours the companies lay about their billets listening to the ever-increasing bombardment and watching the German shrapnel bursting in black puffs of smoke above the tree tops.
The 2nd Worcestershire Regiment were almost the last available reserve of the British defence. Nearly every other unit had been drawn into the battle line or had been broken beyond recovery and to an onlooker that last reserve would not have seemed very formidable. The Battalion could muster no more than 500 men. Ten days of battle had left all ranks haggard, unshaven and unwashed - their uniforms had been soaked in the mud of the Langemarck trenches and been torn by the brambles of Polygon Wood. Many had lost their puttees or their caps, but their weapons were clean and in good order, they had plenty of ammunition and three months of war had given them confidence in their fighting power. The short period in reserve had allowed them sleep and food. They were still a fighting Battalion, officers and men bound together by that proud and willing discipline which is the soul of the Regiment.
Hour by hour the thunder of the guns grew more intense. Stragglers and wounded from beyond the wood brought news that a great German attack was in progress. The enemy's infantry were coming on in overwhelming numbers against the remnants of the five British battalions, mustering barely a thousand men, which were holding the trenches about the Menin Road. (13 German battalions took part in this attack, of which six were fresh and at full strength).
Before midday, weight of numbers had told. The Queen's and the Royal Scots Fusiliers had fought to the last, the Welch and the KRRC had been overwhelmed, and the right flank of the South Wales Borderers had been rolled back. Gheluvelt had been lost and a great gap had been broken in the British line. Unless that gap could be closed the British Army was doomed to disaster. So serious was the situation caused by the loss of Gheluvelt that orders were issued for the Artillery to move back, in preparation for a general retreat. At the same time, it was decided that the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment should make a counter-attack against the lost position.
At 12:45 pm 'A' Company was detached to prevent the enemy from advancing up the Menin Road taking up position on the embankment of the light railway northwest of Gheluvelt. The company held the embankment during the following two hours, firing rapidly at such of the enemy as attempted to advance beyond the houses.
At 1 pm definite orders were received by 2nd Worcestershire Regiment to make a counter-attack to regain the lost positions around Gheluvelt.
At 1:45 pm the Battalion scouts were sent off to cut any wire fences across the line of advance. Extra ammunition was issued and all kit was lightened as much as possible, with packs being left behind. Then bayonets were fixed and at 2 pm the Battalion led by Major Hankey moved off in file under cover of the trees to the southwest corner of Polygon Wood.
From that corner of the wood, known as Black Watch Corner, the ground to the south eastward is clear and open, falling to the little valley of the Reutelbeek and rising again to the bare ridge above Polderhoek. That ridge hid from view the Chateau of Gheluvelt and the exact situation there was unknown, but further to the right could be seen the Church tower rising amid the smoke of the burning village. The open ground was dotted with wounded and stragglers coming back from the front. In every direction German shells were bursting. British batteries could be seen limbering up and moving to the rear. Everywhere there were signs of retreat. The Worcestershires alone were moving towards the enemy and the three companies tramped grimly forward, down into the valley of the Reutelbeek.
Beyond a little wood, the Battalion deployed "C" and "D" Companies in front line and "B" Company in second line behind. In front of them rose the bare slope of the Polderhoek Ridge, littered with dead and wounded and along its crest the enemy's shells were bursting in rapid succession.
Major Hankey decided that the only way of crossing that deadly stretch of ground was by one long rush. The ground underfoot was rank grass and rough stubble. The companies extended into line and advanced. The two leading companies broke into a steady double and swept forward across the open with fixed bayonets, the officers leading on in front.
As they reached the crest, the hostile artillery sighted the rushing wave of bayonets and a storm of shells burst along the ridge. Shrapnel bullets rained down and high explosive shells crashed into the charging line. Men fell at every pace; over a hundred of the Battalion were killed or wounded but the rest dashed on. The speed of the rush increased as on the downward slope the troops came in sight of Gheluvelt Chateau close in front. The platoons scrambled across the light railway; through some hedges and wire fences and then in the grounds of the Chateau they closed with the enemy. Shooting and stabbing they charged across the lawn and came up into line with the gallant remnant of the South Wales Borderers.
All day the South Wales Borderers had held their ground at the Chateau and were still stubbornly fighting although almost surrounded, their resistance having delayed and diverted the German advance. The meeting of the two Battalions was unexpected, as the 2nd Worcestershire had not known that any of the South Wales Borderers had been holding on.
The routed enemy were hunted out of the hedges and across the open fields beyond the Chateau. "C" and "D" Companies of the 2nd Worcestershire took up position in the sunken road, which ran past the grounds. "B" Company was brought up and prolonged the line to the right. But the village of Gheluvelt, on the slope above the right flank, was still in enemy hands. Most of the German troops in the village had been drawn northwards by the fighting around the Chateau; but a number of Saxons in the 242nd Regiment had remained in the village, from where they opened fire on the sunken road. To silence that fire, fighting patrols were sent forward into the village where they drove back the German snipers and took some prisoners.
It soon became clear that the position in the sunken road would be unsafe until the village was secured and "A" Company were ordered to advance from their defensive position and occupy the village. After some sharp fighting among burning buildings and bursting shells "A" Company occupied a new line, with the left flank in touch with the right of the position in the sunken road and the right flank in the village holding the church and churchyard. Patrols were sent forward to clear the village and they worked from house to house until they reached the crossroads at the eastern end of Gheluvelt. It was not possible to permanently occupy the centre of the village for it was being bombarded, both by the German and British artillery and on all sides houses were burning, roofs falling and walls collapsing, with the stubborn Saxons still holding some small posts in the scattered houses on the south-eastern outskirts. Nevertheless the enemy's main force had been driven out and the peril of a collapse of the British defence about the Menin Road had been averted.
"Let it never be forgotten that the true glory of the fight at Gheluvelt lies not in the success achieved but in the courage which urged our solitary battalion to advance undaunted amid all the evidences of retreat and disaster to meet great odds in a battle apparently lost".
Field Marshal Sir Claud Jacob GCB KCSI KCMG