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Webmatters : The First Battle of Ypres: Geluveld 29th October 1914

Ypres 1914

The Battle of Gheluvelt

29th October 1914

Town names have undergone a number of changes since the war and at times it is hard to know just what to use. For the most part I have tried to stick to the modern ‘what you get on your GPS name. There are a few however, such as Ypres and Passchendaele that feel more correct in their old versions.

At 1500 hours on 28th October 1914 British GHQ, at St Omer, telephoned General Haig warning him of the contents of an intercepted message which suggested that the Germans would attack towards Geluveld at 0530 hours the following morning.

With this in mind it was decided that the 7th Division holding the village and Menin Road would stand fast whilst the 2nd Division, supported by the 1st Division would continue their offensive alongside the French in the area of Broodseinde.

The junction on the Menin Road (N8 out of Ieper) between 7th Division (on the southern side) and the 1st Division was situated at the Kruiseke-Beselare crossroads (today it is a roundabout). On the northern side of the road the 1st Coldstream Guards were by now a very weak unit of about 300 men and had been reinforced by a Company (nominally about 250 men) of 1st Black Watch. Between them they had approximately a kilometre of front to hold.

To further assist the Coldstreams a platoon of 1st Gloucesters with its Machine Gun Section was sent up and these were scattered here and there amongst the Guardsmen in an attempt to fill-in the gaps.

The trenches were rarely joined together, had been hastily constructed as support trenches and were protected by a single stand of wire upon which had been attached tins filled with pebbles. In front of that wire the ground had been little touched and farms, houses, hedges and fences were scattered across the countryside. The barren wasteland that we see in later photographs had yet to be created.

These features meant that it was difficult for the defenders, in their sometimes isolated positions, to get a good view of what was going on about them.

To the south of the Menin Road in 7th Division’s area the trenches were little better and Haig wanted them much improved — but there was no time to carry out the work.

 

The Germans attack

For some reason the British had convinced themselves that the attack would come from the southern side of the Menin Road. Everybody was ready and waiting on what turned out to be a foggy morning.

When the 16 Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment launched its assault it fell, not upon 7th Division but the already understrength Coldstream Guards on the northern side of the road.

A German regiment like its French counterpart generally consisted of three battalions which fought together as a unit.

Making their way through the fog the Bavarians managed to get within fifty metres of the Guardsmen before being spotted. When all hell broke loose, the British found themselves the victims of defective cartridges which didn’t properly fit their rifles; then machine guns jammed. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened and Bavarians managed to seep through here and there.

Now outflanked the Coldstreams and Black Watch were slowly rolled up along the line. British artillery fire was almost non-existent as the guns were limited to about nine rounds each, even so and despite the attacks elsewhere along the line it was only at the crossroads that the line had been infiltrated.

With communications to the rear in a poor state it was over an hour before news of the German breakthrough became known and the 1st Gloucesters were sent forward to secure the crossroads.

It hardly seems credible but on the right of the beleaguered Coldstreams the 1st Grenadier Guards were completely unaware of what was going on. In the fog they could see little and the noise of the fighting hadn’t carried. As news of the breakthrough was being received 7th Division were under the impression that the entire story of an intended attack was a false alarm !

The two reserve battalions (2nd Scots Guards and 2nd Border Regiment) were recalled but had hardly moved when the Grenadiers came under a heavy bombardment at about 0730 hours. The fog was beginning to thin but was still patchy enough as German Infantry appeared in dense formations in front of and on the Grenadiers’ left flank.

Numbers began to tell and the Grenadiers were forced back to just east of Geluveld. Here they were joined by the 2nd Border Regiment and a Company from the 1st Gloucesters. A stand was made and the position held for the remainder of the day.

That night the Grenadiers could muster five officers and just under two hundred men. The Coldstreams had been reduced to similar numbers : about a hundred and ninety men under the command of the Quartermaster.

Poor communications were not a solely British problem and it was not until 1000 hours that the Germans realised that they had managed to make a breakthrough. By then the rolling up of the Coldstream Guards and Black Watch had reached the 1st Scots Guards on their left who were now almost surrounded.

With patches of fog persisting the Scots Guards were coming under fire from front and rear but hung on and even regain their lost trenches but at a cost of a third of their effective numbers.

For a small professional army, casualties of this order were something that could not be maintained — especially amongst trained officers and NCOs.

 

Counter-attack

In an effort to recover the lost trenches Haig ordered a counter attack by 3rd Brigade along the Menin Road. Augmented by units from other areas as well as the Gloucesters who were still holding the line in front of Geluveld they made some progress but it was soon discovered that the Germans had entrenched themselves at the crossroads and any attempt to remove them came under heavy flanking fire.

At 1600 hours the British held a conference at Geluveld ch√Ęteau and decided that they were too few in numbers to be able to achieve anything more. It was also on their minds that the Army was almost out of reserves.

In the area of the Menin Road units had become mixed up, some had almost ceased to exist, new trenches needed to be dug (though with what was another matter). During the night the British front line was slowly reorganised. The previous evening Haig could count on four full Brigades as a reserve, by the end of the days fighting he was down to half that and most of the battalions had been sorely tried.