1914 saw the start of a conflict that was unlike any other up to the point in time. A war involving countries from around the world, pitting the largest European powers against each other. For the British, this manifested in the many months and years of fighting in France and Belgium, and other parts of the world. In 1914, the small, well-trained British Army found itself up against the vastly larger German Army and over the course of the remaining four months of the year, found itself fighting a defensive war, in an attempt to stop the German advance towards Paris, and subsequently the Channel Ports. One of these instances happened on 31st October 1914, where the 2nd Bn of the Worcestershire Regiment held off a German attack near to the village of Gheluvelt.
The village of Gheluvelt is approximately 9 kilometres east of the city of Ypres and sits on a low ridge, part of a wider group of ridges that surrounds the city. In October 1914, Gheluvelt was one of the last places in British hands from which the German positions could be dominated. Fighting came to a head around Gheluvelt at the end of October, with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Queen’s, the Welsh Regiment and the King’s Royal Rifles becoming overwhelmed, whilst on the right, the South Wales Borderers had been rolled back. The situation was becoming serious enough that unless the gap that had formed could be closed, a German breakthrough would be unavoidable, risking the security of the Channel ports. In fact, there were already orders ready in preparation for a general retreat.
On the evening of the 30th October, 2nd Bn Worcestershire Regiment were in reserve, being held in Polygon Wood, just to the north-east of Gheluvelt, where they were on essentially on their own, all other units having been sent to reinforce the tenuous position on the front line. Morning on 31st broke calm and clear, but the Worcesters were awoken by the crash of gun-fire. The battalion prepared themselves to move forward towards that gun-fire, in support of the troops in the front line, who were seriously struggling. It is worth noting that, at this point, the 2nd Worcesters were almost the last available reserve of the British defence. Nearly every other available unit were already involved in the fighting or had suffered casualty numbers that essentially made them ineffective. However, the Worcesters themselves were not in the best shape. The battalion was severely understrength, only mustering no more than five hundred men and an intense period of fighting during October had left the battalion in poor condition. Nevertheless, the short period of time the battalion had had in rest in the week prior to the action at Gheluvelt had allowed the unit to rest and recuperate. Throughout the morning of the 31st, stragglers and the wounded from the action were bringing news of a large German assault taking place, with overwhelming numbers of Germans forcing their advance against exhausted British troops. By mid-day, Gheluvelt had been lost under the sheer weight of numbers of German troops and the entire British sector could be at risk if Ypres fell to the Germans.
It was at this point that the 2nd Worcesters were ordered to counter-attack by Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence VC (a man who would be killed twelve days later near to Polygon Wood and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing). FitzClarence oversaw a different brigade to the one the Worcesters were included in, but they had been placed at his unit to stop the advance. The Worcesters were ordered forwarded to Gheluvelt, with ‘A’ Company being detached to an embankment north-west of the village in order to prevent the Germans from advancing up the Menin Road, which would give direct access to Ypres. ‘A’ Company held their position over the course of two hours, firing rapidly upon the advancing Germans.
At 1300, orders were given to Major Hankey – commanding officer of the battalion – to advance and regain the positions around Gheluvelt. Gheluvelt Church was pointed out as a landmark for the advance. The situation in Gheluvelt was dire, and speed was of the essence. At 1345, the battalion scouts set off under Lieutenant E. A. Haskett-Smith, to cut any wire fences across the line of advance. Extra ammunition was issued, and any kit that was not essential was left behind or lightened. At 1400, the battalion moved off, advancing through Polygon Wood, coming out near to the point now called ‘Black Watch Corner’ and across the freshly harvested open fields of Flanders. They were advancing towards a completely unknown situation, with just the spire of the village church guiding the way. The Worcesters were the only unit moving forward, surrounded by German shells exploding; with the wounded and stragglers retreating, it must have seemed a daunting task. Moving forward, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies were in the front line, with ‘B’ Company in the second line behind them. All in all, this totalled around 370 men, including eight officers. In front of them rose the slope of the Polderhoek ridge towards Gheluvelt. The ridge was littered with dead and wounded, and along the crested was being intensely shelled by the Germans. Major Hankey decided that the only way of crossing the deadly stretch of ground was in one long rush. The companies extended into line and advanced.
‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies advanced across the open, with the officers leading from the front and the men in one long line with bayonets fixed. This long line was sighted by German artillery as soon as the crested the ridge, bringing down a storm of shells on the Worcesters. Just in this short space, over a hundred of the Worcesters were killed or wounded, but the rest carried on. As the battalion moved on the downward slope, Gheluvelt Chateau came into view. The troops scrambled across a light railway, hedges and fences. Eventually found themselves in the grounds of the Chateau and face to face with the enemy, who were ill-prepared for this attack. The Germans were crowded in amongst the trees in the chateau grounds, resting or exploring the surrounding area and were not expecting a British counter-attack. Not only was the Worcesters attack unexpected, but British artillery were also firing from behind Polygon Wood on the German positions with a high rate of accuracy. ‘C’ Company charged across the lawn of the Chateau, forcing a German retreat through the rear of the chateau grounds. During this, the Worcesters managed to come into contact with the remnants of the South Wales Borderers, who had gallantly held their positions against the Germans, and were almost surrounded by the time the Worcesters arrived. This continued resistance that was provided by the South Wales Borderers delayed the German advance and there can be no doubt that the success of the Worcesters counter-attack could not have been achieved without this resistance. The Worcesters had not expected to meet up with any of the South Wales Borderers as it was unknown how many of them were still holding out. Major Hankey went over to their commander and found him to be Colonel H. E. Burleigh Leach, an old friend. With him was their second-in-command Major A. J. Reddie, brother of Major J. M. Reddie of the Worcesters. The story goes that the following exchange happened between the two officers “My God, fancy meeting you here,” said Major Hankey, and Colonel Burleigh Leach replied quietly “Thank God you have come.”
The enemy were hunted out of the hedges and across the open fields beyond the Chateau. ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies took up position in the sunken road, which runs alongside the grounds. “B” Company was brought up and prolonged and strengthened the line to the right. However, the village itself was still in enemy hands. Most had been drawn north of the village, but there was still in an element in the village itself, who then opened fire on the Worcesters in the sunken road. Patrols were sent forward into the village, successfully driving back the Germans and even taking some prisoners but it quickly became clear that until the whole village was secure, the position would be vulnerable. In order to secure the village, Major Hankey sent orders to ‘A’ Company to advance and help occupy the village. This was undertaken by the company in swift fashion and after intense fighting, the left flank of ‘A’ Company met up with the right flank of those in the sunken road. Further patrols were then sent forward to clear the village, moving from house to house until they reached the eastern end of the village. The permanent occupation of the village was not possible as it was still being bombarded by both German and British artillery. Nevertheless, the German’s main force had been driven out, and the potential collapse of the British defence about the Menin Road had been averted. The Germans made no further attempt to retake Gheluvelt, the reason for this is unclear. Maybe the swift action of the Worcesters led the Germans to believe there were more troops to come. Maybe it was because the British artillery continued to maintain a steady level of fire onto the German positions, possibly causing a state of confusion amongst the ranks. Maybe there were no experienced officers to organise a counter-attack. Whatever the reason for this lack of action, it meant that the 2nd Worcesters could hold firm onto the ground that they had won. Evening drew closer, and patrols were sent out on the right flank of ‘A’ Company to ascertain if there were any troops still in those positions, but this was without success.
Around 1800, Brig-Gen FitzClarence sent orders to the front line. He had decided to withdraw the remaining troops to a new defensive position, which was sheltered from direct observation of the German artillery. Along with the South Wales Borderers and under the cover of darkness, the battalion left the positions in Gheluvelt, one company at a time. The withdrawal was not observed by the enemy and so went on without interference. The next time that British troops were in the village, was four years later. The Worcesters were relieved, and then taken back into reserve positions. The fighting around Gheluvelt cost the 2nd Worcesters around a third of the battalion’s remaining strength – 187 killed or wounded. A high cost without question, but crucial at a moment that the Commander-in-Chief afterwards called ‘the worst half hour of my life.’ Of course, it must be stated that the success was not achieved by the 2nd Worcesters alone. Success would not have been possible if it were not for the brave defence of the South Wales Borderers, all the other units involved during the action and the supporting fire of the artillery. However, it is my belief, and that of others, that the action undertaken by the Worcesters was the key moment that prevented the capture of Ypres, and potentially saved the British army from defeat.