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Webmatters : The First Battle of Ypres, 1914: 7th Division

Ypres 1914

7th Division

19th October 1914

On the front of the British 7th Division, Major General Thomas Capper’s men were to advance to the town of Menin (Menen), a road that so many British soldiers would take that, after the war, it was considered only fitting that the Empire’s Memorial should be placed at the Menin Gate.

The 22nd Brigade with 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the lead advance a couple of kilometres towards the German lines south-east of Dadizele and by noon were only a few kilometres short of Menin.

As they had been advancing the Germans had begun bludgeoning the Belgians with two Army Corps and two more were advancing on the French and British cavalry covering the 7th Division’s left flank near Roulers (Roeselare).

Behind Dadizele the XXVII Reserve Corps were marching towards the British whilst the German Sixth Army had begun advancing from the south-west of Menin. Thankfully, much of these troop movements were noted by RFC patrols and orders were rushed out to halt the attack on Menin.

Further south, in France, the Germans appeared to have been stopped and were effectively falling back near Armentières, and at this stage, there was no understanding at Headquarters level (French or British) that the Germans had been able to reinforce their active strength in front of Ypres.

This illusion of having the upper hand was behind orders that in retrospect seem to take no account of reality. Considering that 7th Division would hold its line Sir John French ordered Sir Douglas Haig to take his newly detrained I Corps to the north of Ypres and from there :

“The I Corps will advance via Thourout with the objective of attacking Bruges. The enemy is to be attacked and driven on Ghent”.

20th October 1914

To the south of Armentières the German Fourth and Sixth Armies attacked the front of the British III Corps (Major General William Pulteney) causing the loss of a few villages that day and then continuing on through Fromelles and Radinghem over the next few days creating the front that would be involved in the Battle of Aubers on 9th May 1915.

On the right flank of the BEF was General Allenby’s Cavalry Corps and he had realised very early in the day that something had changed. His Divisions covered the area in front of Ploegsteert (in the south) as far as Zandvoorde where it joined 7th Division.

7th Division along with the 3rd Cavalry Division formed IV Corps.

Advancing with six cavalry Divisions and four battalions of Jäger the Germans managed to cross the Lys River at Pont Rouge and Warneton and pushed the British Cavalry back. Not far, but the numbers opposing him caused Allenby to be seriously enough concerned that he requested infantry to be sent to Hill 63 (just north of Ploegsteert).

IV Corps sent out a two battalion reconnaissance from 7th Division towards Menin in an effort to ascertain how active the Germans were on their front. Within an hour of having set out it became evident that large columns of German troops were approaching from the north-east.

In the area to the north of Houthulst Forest, Général de Mitry’s French Cavalry Corps was being pushed back by superior numbers and this had caused the French Territorial units to fall back from Passchendaele (Passendale). This in turn forced the British 3rd Cavalry Division to fall back to a line from Poelkapelle to Zonnebeke where it joined the 7th Division who by mid-afternoon were under attack along the length of their line.

In the midst of this German offensive Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps was marching up on the left of Ypres towards Pilkem and St Julien (Sint Juliaan). Streams of refugees were cluttering the roads as civilians made their way towards Poperinge.

The 2nd Division were billeted in a line behind the 3rd Cavalry Division from Wieltje to Steenstraat. Although the French Territorials had dug some meagre trenches around the north-east of Ypres, it should be understood that in October 1914 the war was still very much one of manoeuvre. British soldiers did have entrenching tools but they were far from robust and they would often seek out agricultural tools to aid their endeavours. Barbed wire was almost impossible to get hold of.

Despite prisoners from numerous regiments having been captured there was still a heartfelt belief in the Allied camp that these newly formed reserve divisions had to be of inferior quality. Although some ground had been given up, the British despite their inferior numbers had pretty much managed to repulse all attempts to push them back.

21st October 1914

Despite the belief at British GHQ that advancing was possible; the Germans would soon be on the run; the day’s events would show that the Germans were far from beaten, quite the contrary.

The Allied offensive on the coast which had been intended to repulse the Germans back to the German frontier, had become lost in the dust of a determined effort by the German High Command to take the Channel ports.

During the day the German Sixth Army continued its attacks on Allenby’s Cavalry Corps and although some ground was lost the line held. The greater test was to be endured by troops facing the German Fourth Army.

The British IV Corps stretched from Zandvoorde up to the Menin Road in front of Geluveld, then, in a line to the east of Polygon Wood to Broodseinde and Zonnebeke. From the early hours of the morning the German artillery began pounding the line before attacking with the 52 Reserve Division against the 22nd Brigade holding Zonnebeke.

Coming down from the Passchendaele Ridge the Germans were close to breaking through as their 54 Reserve division began its attack up the Menin Road towards Geluveld. At the same time the Bavarian Cavalry succeeded in forcing the 2nd Cavalry Division out of Hollebeke creating a gap on the 7th Division’s right at Zandvoorde.

Everyman available was rushed to plug the hole, cyclists, the Divisional cavalry (Northumberland Hussars) and two companies of the 2nd Bn Scots Guards. For the moment the line held and with the arrival of Haig’s I Corps on their left the situation calmed sufficiently for the transfer of the 6th and 7th Cavalry Brigades to the right flank.

The removal of the 7th Cavalry Brigade on the left did not go unnoticed and the Germans continued their enfilading fire on the 22nd Brigade at Broodseinde from the Passchendaele Ridge. The 1st Bn Welch Fusiliers had already suffered heavy casualties in the abortive advance along the Menin Road and now suffered a further 250 reducing it to six officers and 206 men. 2nd Bn Queen’s Regiment on their left suffered over 180 casualties.

With their trenches caving in, Zonnebeke on fire and the German infantry getting ever closer the decision was taken to pull back to a line connecting with I Corps at Zonnebeke and then running across the top of Polygon Wood.

All of these places would see fighting in the summer and autumn of 1917 and are better known for those battles, yet without the stubborn stand in 1914 the war would have already been lost.

In between 7th Division and the French was the newly arrived 2nd Division who were formed up along the Zonnebeke-St Julien Road with orders to await the arrival of the 1st Division before continuing their advance on Brugge !

At 0920 hours the 3rd Brigade came up on the left of the 5th Brigade and the advance began. Enemy fire became increasingly heavy as they mounted the ridge at ‘s Graventafel (The New Zealand Division have their memorial here for taking the heights back again three years later almost to the day).

Langemark was still held by French Territorials who stated that Houthulst forest on their left was still held by de Mitry’s Cavalry. That was not to be the case for much longer as two German Corps were attacking the Belgian-French line to the north.

French Territorial units were made up of older men at the end of their conscription service. The title should not be confused with the British Territorial units recruited initially to defend the mainland.

As the 3rd Brigade advanced towards Poelkapelle, it realised that the German shelling in the forest was advancing — in other words the French cavalry must be falling back. At about the same time General Haig received news from IV Corps of the events on the eastern side of Ypres. He immediately ordered a halt to his own advance and ordered 1st (Guards) Brigade to form a protecting flank between Langemark and Steenstraat.

At last, GHQ began to take seriously the idea that Haig was opposed by more than just one Corps.

The following day brought much of the same. The German infantry pressed their attacks but were repulsed with heavy casualties. The fighting never seemed to stop, with rifle and artillery fire continuing throughout. Fighting in discontinuous trenches, hardly a metre deep, the British were vulnerable to infiltration during the night. The men had had little rest and despite their success in fighting off the German infantry, it was clear that the thin red line stretched out over sixty kilometres was far too thin.

It was good news therefore to hear of the arrival of the French 42e Division d’Infanterie to assist the Belgians at the coast, the French IX Corps arriving at Poperinge and the Indian Corps’ Lahore Division having reached Bailleul (just across the French border).