Webmatters Title
Webmatters : Méteren 1914, the First Formal Attack by the BEF

Méteren 1914

The First Formal Attack by the BEF

Just to the west of the border town of Bailleul is the village of Méteren.

Following their repulse on the Marne in September 1914, the German Army was now engaged in a Race to the Sea against the British and the French, each side trying to outflank the other.

The soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force had been marching almost consistently from the moment that they had arrived in France. In October, they were still on the go but morale had picked up : they were going forwards again.

The infamous pavés or cobbled roads played havoc for the marching soldiers but from time to time they were given transport either by train, or on buses, the famous London double-deckers painted green or simple French ones. It was by the latter form of transport that the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers arrived in Hazebrouck on 12th October 1914.

They were part of 10th Brigade, who were themselves, the Advance Guard of 4th Division. From Hazebrouck they set out on foot for the small village of Flètre about three kilometres north west of Méteren.

News had filtered through that the Germans were now in possession of Méteren and were digging in on a line north-south through the village.

The British III Corps was ordered to take it as well as the villages of Merris and Outtersteene to the south. 4th Division would attack an area to the north of Méteren up to a farm at Fontaine Houck about two kilometres to the north. This entire line sits along a ridge which at that time was used for growing hops in fields bordered by hedges.

Brigadier General Wilson issued his orders at 1315 hours with instructions that the Corps would attack at 1330 hours. This was always going to prove impossible and in fact the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers only received their orders at 1425 hours. Zero Hour was set for 1515 hours.

The British Official History describes this attack as the first formal attack launched by the BEF. Up to this point in the war it had been a matter of rear guard defence and counter attacks.

The Royal Irish Fusiliers were in theory in the centre of 4th Division’s assault with the 2nd Seaforths on their right and the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers on the left. However, in the midst of getting to their positions the Dubs managed to receive some very poor directions from a cavalry unit and got lost.


The vantage point in the church

The German’s had wasted little time in preparing the village for defence and made great use of the village church which provided an excellent vantage point for both observers and machine gunners. Trenches had been dug in front of the buildings giving little indication as to their location.

The slope up which the men would be attacking was open to view and rises about fifteen metres or so to the ridge.

As the attack commenced a thick mist shrouded the terrain which made life difficult for the attackers who could not see where the enemy were. For the Germans it mattered little as they simply had to pour their fire down the slope towards the advancing line of khaki.

The 4th Division suffered heavy losses getting across the field in particular amongst the 1st Royal Warwickshire’s who were the Divisional Reserve.

As the Irish Fusiliers and the Seaforths mounted the crest they broke into a bayonet charge which drove the German’s from their trenches.

The German Machine Gun crews in the church tower slipped away quietly having caused considerable casualties amongst the British battalions.


Bailleul given up

The German’s rather surprisingly decided to give up not only Méteren but also Bailleul, preferring to retire behind the River Lys.

Bailleul was occupied by the British and would remain an important base throughout the war.

The 1st Royal Warwickshires lost 44 men killed that afternoon, the 2nd Seaforths, 18 men and the Irish Fusiliers just the one officer. Lieutenant Arthur Samuels was hit leading his men in the advance up the slope. He is buried in Méteren Military Cemetery


Captain Charles Paget O’Brien Butler and Prince Maximilian von Hesse at the Mont des Cats 1914.

The 10th Brigade march north as reinforcements during the gas attacks of 1915.