First Battle of Ypres 1914
- from the book
- From Mons to Ypres with General French
- by Frederic Coleman 1917
Fighting Along the Bloody Salient
A VISIT TO YPRES
While the fighting at Ploegsteert was growing daily fiercer, the Germans were pressing hard on our lines a few miles away at Messines.
On Thursday, October 22nd, the whole of the 1st Cavalry Division left Ploegsteert to the defence of Wilson's 4th Division. The Cavalry, with the Ferozepore Brigade of the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps in support, was assigned the task of holding the corner of the line that swung round Messines, where every day for a week and a half was sanguinary battle, culminating in the capture by the enemy of the Messines- Wytschaete ridge, and the consequent evacuation of Messines on November 1st.
In ten days of continual fighting against great odds in men and guns, one third of the 1st Cavalry Division was to fall, and the magnificent qualities of the British Cavalry were to be tried to the utmost. Tried in the fire they were with a vengeance, and never for a moment found wanting.
The closing days of October were well-nigh the bloodiest the world has ever seen. On the far right of Messines for six days Maud'huy at Arras held off an attack by Von Buelow in the hardest battle fought since the beginning of the war. Smith-Dorrien's 2nd Corps, facing La Bassée, was hurled back by the Bavarians in ten days of awful fighting, but held its new line in the face of hammering of a sort of which veterans of Mons and the Aisne had never dreamed. In front of Armentieres and Ploegsteert the Germans threw Battalion after Battalion in overwhelming numbers against our line. To the left of the Messines position Von Beseler and his Antwerp Army, on the coast, all but crumpled up the poor remnants of the Belgians, saved from utter destruction by the guns of British men-of-war, d'Urbal's 8th French Army, and by the flooding of the canalised Yser. To the south of the Belgians at Dixmude, Admiral Ronarc'h and his 8,ooo French marines saw fighting that was almost superhuman in its intensity and persistence. The Ypres salient at its northern re-entrant was held by part of Dubois' 9th French Corps, the tale of whose casualties in the combat for Bixschoote ran high. But Ypres, in front and on its right to where de Lisle held Messines, was to see the greatest conflict of all. Haig's 1st Corps, the 7th Division, and the 3rd Cavalry Division were to suffer casualties unheard of in the history of wars.
Thus the battle of those last October days, over one hundred miles of front, raged with unparalleled violence. One million German troops, well towards half of them of the first line, strove to break the thin ribbon of less than a fifth of their number of the soldiers of France, England, and Belgium co-operating as if units of one army.
There was heavy fighting all along the line on the 22nd. Early that morning Briggs, in Messines, told us of an attack at dawn, vigorously pressed and beaten off with equal vigour. Our line ran well in front of Messines, and the 2nd Cavalry Division took it on north in front of Oosttaverne, past Hollebeke to Klein Zillebeke. News was brought from Armentie'res of an unsuccessful enemy assault on that front, beginning at eleven o'clock the night before, continuing for a couple of hours, to be renewed at dawn. Before night 1,000 dead and wounded Germans lay in front of our line between Le Touquet and St. Ives.
An estaminet on the road from Wulverghem to Messines, about a mile from the latter town, was chosen as Divisional headquarters. The 1st Con-naught Rangers, part of Egerton's Ferozepore Brigade, were set digging reserve trenches not far from the inn. One of their officers ran to Messines to see the shell-fire, which was fairly hot that morning in the ill-fated town. He saw it. While he was in the square a shell lit on one side of it, killing four troopers of the 1st Cavalry Brigade. I stayed under the lee of a house wall near the square while he explored the town. I had no curiosity.
Coming from Wytschaete I met the first Indian troops I had seen in France. They were Wild's Rifles, North-West Frontier men, fine-looking soldiers. Their arrival on our front added to a motor driver's trials.
In Messines in the afternoon shells burst all about. A man who stood boldly in the streets, when cover was conveniently available, was foolish. He was likely to find a shell splinter mixed up with some part of his anatomy as a reminder of the proximity of German howitzers in considerable numbers. Spies were in the town. General Briggs was shelled from three houses in succession, finally repairing to a cellar to obtain peace and quiet. The manner in which the German gunners followed Brigade headquarters from one place to another could not have been due to coincidence.
Towards dusk I had another wait in Messines. I found the few troopers who were not in the trenches in front, or in reserve behind, were lying very close. A loose bull and an escaped canary were attracting marked attention. The bull was foraging and the canary apparently trying to find its home, perhaps also in search of food. M. Taurus was obviously ill-tempered, and was given a wide berth.
The General chose a spot at a corner near a barricade not far from the square, which we concurred was as good as any other in which to leave the car. Its good fortune during those days in Messines never wavered. Another headquarters car went by, its occupants continuing to the square, where two minutes later it was put hors de combat by a big shell. The passengers and driver had stepped from it and into safety but a moment before.
Machine-guns blazed away in front of Messines all the evening. As dark closed in the howitzers scattered huge "coal-boxes" all along the trench front, our guns flashing fitfully in reply. The 2nd Brigade relieved the 1st that night. At Gough's headquarters on our way to Neuve Eglise and a night's rest, I heard that during the day the enemy had launched strenuous attacks on FitzClarence' 51st Brigade at the extreme left of the British line near Bixschoote, on the 2nd Cavalry Division at Hollebeke and on the 3rd Corps front at Frelinghien. Smith-Dorrien had been fighting hard further south. The German struggle for a road to Calais had begun in earnest.
The interesting situation in front of Ypres so over-shadowed all else that I was glad to spend Friday, the 23rd, in touring the line. I ran to Ypres by way of Wytschaete and Voormezeele. The roads for the first part of the way were crowded with tall Indians, each group surrounded by its quota of admiring Belgians.
General Haig's and General Rawlinson's head-quarters were in Ypres, and the square by the great Cloth Hall was full of the flotsam and jetsam of armies. The town presented a busy scene. Bulfin was attacking towards Pilkem with considerable success. Near Langemarck the 1st Division was repelling a furious push forward by the enemy, and the 7th Division, by that time beginning to feel the strain of continued fighting and heavy casualties, faced a strong assault near Becelaere. Proceeding past Klein Zillebeke to General Makin's 6th Cavalry Brigade headquarters and to General Byng's headquarters not far beyond, I found the German pressure on the Hollebeke front, which Byng's 3rd Cavalry Division had taken over from Gough, had been so staunchly met the day before that nothing had been heard of it since.
As I passed Ypres, long lines of French infantry were marching through the streets of the town to the eastward. Splendid troops, the 17th and 18th Divisions of the famous French 9th Corps, they ambled on leisurely to relieve the 2nd Division, so that the hard- pressed 7th Division could in turn be given aid and its front shortened.
Reports of the operations were so confused and varied that I obtained permission to return to Ypres on Saturday, the 24th. Passing Messines, Mullins said his brigade had repulsed two attempts by the enemy to break through to the town, one at seven the night before, and the other at two in the morning. At Haig's headquarters Bulfin's 2nd Brigade success of the day previous was declared to have been splendid. Six hundred German prisoners, a field strewn with 1,500 German dead, and the relief of the Cameronians from an isolated position were among the fruits of his victory. Little runs to points of vantage disclosed that the new French troops were advancing on the Roulers road and the 7th Division being pushed back, with severe losses, to the west of Becelaere and past the soon-to-be-famous Polygon Wood. Wounded poured along the salient roads in streams.
Ypres had not echoed to the crash of its first shell. The townsfolk were busy supplying the needs of their martial visitors, little dreaming of the devastation that was soon to visit every home.
Hardress Lloyd was beside me on our return homeward as we crept through Wytschaete, winding round chaotic Indian transport, then - dashed on at a good pace towards Messines. Halfway, I heard a pop! behind. " Puncture," said Hardress. Pop! The second sound caused dismay. "Great Scott, another tyre," I groaned, as I released the clutch, and applied the brake. Pop-ping-g-g. Popping-g-g. Punctures, indeed! Punctures of a sinister sort. Someone was plugging away at us at close range. The last two bullets came alarmingly near. Pop-ping-g-g! One went between our heads, close enough to make us feel the swish of it in passing.
Ducking low we sped on. A dozen more bullets came over us, but in a few seconds we were out of range unharmed. Still speeding, we discussed the situation, which had its alarming features. The shots had undeniably come from our right. The Germans were on our left and a line of our trenches in between. Could the enemy have won the trenches and got over the road? If so, we were properly "done."
"Are you sure you are heading for Messines? asked Lloyd. "You don't suppose you are on the Warneton road by mistake?
Road is right," I answered. "For that matter there is the Messines church tower ahead.
Maybe the Huns have taken Messines."
"If so, we will know it soon enough," and Hardress grinned.
We were certain Messines could not have fallen and we not heard of it, but there was the disquieting fact that rifle-fire had come from the west of the road. Consequently, it was with some relief that we drew near the barricade in the edge of the town and saw a khaki-clad figure beside it.
Fresh Indian patrol, probably," laughed an officer from whom we invited a solution of the puzzle. "Tobk Hardress for a German, perhaps, from the red band on his cap. Seems their markmanship has gone off, though, since I knew the Punjabis. I don't quite see why they didn't get one of you."
We left this comforting person to his regrets at the deterioration of the Indian markmanship, thankful to be whole of skin.
By Sunday, the 25th, Briggs was again in Messines and Mullins in support. Sullen days had been succeeded by a morning of bright sunshine. A pleasant breeze drove white clouds across a sky of pale turquoise. Before night the clerk of the weather had regretted this lapse. Rain was descending in torrents, promising an unpleasant night in the trenches, particularly for the Indians, who felt the chill damp of Flanders keenly. Casual fighting was the order of the day, no great change taking place for better or for worse.
On Monday Wytschaete was given its baptism of German shell-fire. We passed through not many minutes after. The roads near at hand were lined with fleeing inhabitants. Four or five shells had come into the town, killing a four-year-old child and wounding Colonel Grey of the 57th Wild's Rifles.
I saw Captain Sadleir-Jackson of the 9th Lancers, signals officer of the Cavalry Corps, in Messines. He had endeavoured to utilise a quantity of fine German field telegraph wire. His men had run it through the square at Messines. Four times that morning zealous individuals had cut it, thinking it an enemy line. He had it put up for a last time, but had no better luck. In an hour a passing trooper had severed it at some point, and Jackson gave it up as a bad job.
That afternoon at three o'clock a big forward movement along the whole line was ordered. We were the pivot at Messines, and were to hold the trenches with Briggs' Brigade and the Inniskillings. Gough's 2nd Cavalry Division with the 129th Beloochis at his disposal, and the 57th Wild's Rifles and Connaught Rangers in support, were on our left. Houthem, two miles and a half east of Oosttaverne, was Gough's first objective. Byng's 3rd Cavalry was to push south-east from- Hollebeke and reach Kortewilde, just north of Houthem. The orders of the 7th Division, next to the left, directed their advance to the tenth kilometre stone on the Ypres-Menin road. Kruiseik, well in front of Gheluvelt, was the village they were asked to reach. Still further left, Haig's 1st Corps were to win Becelaere, after dislodging the enemy from the edge of the Polygon Wood. Had that advance succeeded as planned, a great change would have been made in the line.
The atmosphere was charged with tense anxiety. Eagerly we awaited news of the progress of the work as the afternoon wore away. From the failure of the line to advance on our immediate left, we knew something had gone awry; but not until the following day did we learn that from daybreak until noon the enemy had struck blow on blow at the 7th Division front near Kruiseik. All that saved Zandvoorde and a bad hole in the line was a brilliant counter-attack by the 7th Cavalry Brigade.
Advance against such overwhelming odds was futile. The Hun was hammering for a pathway to the Channel forts, and for the next three days we had no thought, on our front, save that of holding the line against his threatened onslaughts. No day was free from fighting on some sector of the front, but not until the 29th did the full fury of the storm break on the Ypres salient.
On the 3oth it was to spread to Messines. For seventy-two hours from the bursting of that tempest of mad fury, we lost all thought of operations on other battlefields. Each hour brought carnage and death; each minute was pregnant with action. All that could be done was hold the line intact, and that at times seemed well-nigh impossible, but never hopeless.
So the intervening days, viewed in the fierce light of that after-period of gigantic conflict, seemed tame indeed. Yet each bore its story.
Messines was becoming a death-trap. Shells had fallen in every quarter of the town, which had been cleared of inhabitants. One resident told me the village had surfeit of wars in bygone days, and was razed to the ground once in the eleventh century and again in the seventeenth. Its demolition in the twentieth bid fair to eclipse its former woes.
While waiting in Messines for de Lisle, who visited the town many times each day, I became quite accustomed to hot pieces of projectile falling within reach, and black, pungent shell-clouds drifting over and around me from the near-by explosion of a Black Maria. Experiences one afterwards deems narrow escapes are ludicrously plentiful in a town continually under bombardment. I have ducked nimbly round a corner to a doorway grown familiar as a shelter, and left intact but half-an-hour before, to find it choked with débris from the chaotic mass of wood and plaster to which a howitzer shell had reduced the interior of the dwelling. A walk across the square was never a leisurely procedure after I had seen a couple of shells light in it. But in reality no surer road to fatalism exists than work in such surroundings. The futility of haste or loitering is demonstrated a hundred times each day. A power far more potent than mere human gunners and the engines of their ingenuity guides shells. 'Tis just as well to leave it to Him.
A deep approach trench in front of Messines enabled the change of troops in the front line to be effected with but very few casualties. The garret of a house at the outer edge of the town, close to the end of the approach trench, was used as an observation station for our gunners. I spent some time there, standing well back from the little gable window to escape the watchful eyes of the enemy. From the window I could see our own trenches, and the German ones not far beyond. Shells often came near, once setting the next house alight. One evening General Briggs was in the garret when a shrapnel came through it, passing both walls and entering the adjacent house before it exploded. He left the building, which was hit by eight shells in that many minutes, the first one coming as he walked out of the door.
On Monday afternoon German shells, which for days had battered the great square tower of Messines' eleventh-century church, fired the ancient pile. The eastern sky grew ominously black. The red flames licking at the roof were pictured fantastically against the sombre background. White smoke poured upward as the conflagration grew, a study for an artist.
In the trenches in front of Wytschaete that night, a farm on fire near by, the great Messines church blazing hard in the darkness, bursting German howitzer shells lighting up the line, and the sudden flash of our batteries behind us made a pyrotechnic display of unequalled magnificence.
A couple of days later I accompanied Generals de Lisle and Briggs to the ruins of the church and the adjoining convent.
Inside the doorway the bare, unroofed walls rose to a grey sky. The masonry and stone of the sturdy tower had withstood the storm of shell and the fiery ordeal it brought. At the far end, under the noble blackened arch, a heap of débris marked where the altar had been. The devastating conflagration had devoured all save the walls of stone, except one figure which the fingers of the fire had left strangely untouched.
On the facia of a column under the tower hung a life-size Christ on the Cross. But for a small hole in the side, made by a falling bit of masonry, it remained intact, unharmed. No single object in the ruins existed in its normal form save that figure.
A few townsfolk, allowed an hour in the town to collect belongings, stopped in the doorway. Their curious eyes were caught and held in awed homage. One group of garrulous women, chattering like magpies, stopped transfixed, on reaching the door, their voices hushed. Crossing themselves, they drew away whispering.
Major Hutchinson told us he stood as near the doorway as possible on the night of the fire. The interior was a seething mass. Shading his eyes with a bit of tin, he could see the figure of some saint of the church on the opposite facia, wrapped in smoke and flame, already almost indistinguishable. Across the floor, isolated on the bleak wall, the Christ on the Cross stood out in the clear light of the blazing fixtures that surrounded it, as if set aside by some hand that guided the tongues of flame away from it.
"Weird," the Major characterised it.
As I was standing in the doorway, knots of troopers, having heard the story, gathered to the ruins of the ancient church.
Pausing on the threshold, peering under the high, blackened stone arch above, each eye was raised to that commanding figure.
For a brief moment in the midst of turmoil, death and battle, many a mind was focused, all-devout, on one great thought.
I saw more than one soldier, his head bared in respectful silence before that fire-spared crucifix, who plainly felt the Mighty Presence of the King of Hosts and Lord of Battles, whose cause, the triumph of the Right, was that for which he fought.
A major of Connaught Rangers reported after his initial experience in the front line the night before that his men had taken three lines of German trenches. His report attracted immediate attention. Questioned, he said: "The enemy had gone back before we arrived. The first line we got to was only waist deep. The. second we fairly walked into. I noticed a funny thing about that line. The beggars had dug the trench just in front of a barbed wire fence. We had to cut through it. Devil of a job, too. The next line we had a bother with. Lot of sniping, though they got out of it as we came in. I didn't hold on to it; but went back into the second line, as it was a better position.
I listened attentively, wondering. Walking into abandoned German trenches sounded too good to be true. De Lisle said little, but grunted once or twice. Later developments led me to characterise the sound as a snort. Days later, I heard the correct version of the incident. The Connaught Rangers, in "taking over" had found three trenches not long vacated by the Tins. In his occupation of them the inexperienced major had cut up a most carefully arranged reserve wire entanglement. Just sufficient sniping had come his way to make him think the enemy were in the fore trench - a not unnatural error in the dark. The yarn went the rounds, gathering detail, until it assumed unique proportions, but it served to raise many a laugh where there was little enough over which to make merry.
A major of the Queen's Bays, in the trenches before daylight one morning, heard a party of Germans approaching. "Come here!" called out a voice from in front. "Come over here!
"Hands up," responded a trooper, though little could be seen in the darkness.
"Send on one man," was the shouted suggestion of another Dragoon Guardsman.
Unintelligible words were mumbled in reply. Curious, the major raised his head and looked over the trench parapet. A volley at close range missed him, and our men pumped bullets into the adventurous Huns in quick time. When day broke half a dozen Germans lay dead a few yards in front in witness to the accuracy of our fire.
The 2nd Cavalry Brigade was sent south to Smith-Dorrien on the 26th. The next day I ran de Lisle to Smith-Dorrien's headquarters at Hinges, behind the La Bassée line. On the 28th the newly-arrived Indian contingent attempted the capture of Neuve Chapelle, which had been taken by the enemy the day before. The Indians faced German shells for the first time. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade was in support. The 47th Sikhs bore the brunt of the work. The 9th Bhopal Infantry was in the fight, and two companies of the Indian sappers and miners.
The Sikhs charged magnificently. They got into the town, and the houses were the scenes of many a hand-to-hand fight. One big Sikh brought back three prisoners. He had cornered eight Germans in a room, he said, and went for them with the cold steel. Five of the enemy he killed outright. Asked why he stopped, he naively explained that his arm had tired, so he spared the remaining three and brought them back as evidence of his prowess.
Close-quarter fighting and individual conflicts in the buildings of the town scattered the Sikhs. Soon the Germans brought a couple of machine-guns into play at the end of a street, mowing down the big black fellows in squads as they came within range. Their officers were down, save one or two. No cohesive body could be formed to take the quick-firers, so back the Sikhs came, straggling and demoralised, the effect of their splendid charge largely nullified by their inexperience of this kind of warfare. Howitzer shells fell by the hundred. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade were sent into the scrimmage and fought hard till nightfall. They were relieved at daybreak next morning. Neuve Chapelle had been taken, lost, retaken and lost again. When night closed in the Germans were in possession of the greater part of the town. The cavalry suffered seventy casualties, a light list for that part of the world in those days.
Many of the 2nd Corps regiments on that front had lost all but a couple of hundred out of a full thousand. Men of that command had been four-teen days and fourteen nights in the trenches without respite, but the line had held, and the arrival of the Indians had greatly relieved the situation.
The enemy's plan of attack on the long front from Arras to the sea never varied. His guns shelled hard, preparing the way for his infantry, massed, often deeply, on a narrow front. Battalion came behind Battalion, regiment behind regiment. The foremost body repulsed, the reserve stepped into the breach and continued the attack. Should the first onslaught prove successful, and a foothold be gained, reserves were brought up without delay to hold, and, if possible, widen the breach in the line.
Hurling back the initial attack and pounding to atoms each front line that pressed on was of vital importance in those tense days. Every foothold had to be torn loose, no matter what the bloody cost. Easier far to expend at first that strength which lay beyond what man had learned to term the limit of human endurance. No limit bounded the endurance and effect of the British soldier save death itself. The impossible was achieved 59 often in front of Ypres that its performance ceased to cause wonder, and hardly attracted attention.
Fighting became mechanical. Men lost their identity as men. Rank assumed less importance. Each atom fought, and fought, and fought, until to fight became as natural to the savaged Tommy as breathing. No explanation will ever be forthcoming as to 'why the Germans did not win through to Ypres. Time after time they won a hole in the line, blocked by no reserves, because there were none. Companies faced Brigades of the advancing enemy, and somehow held them off. Never had so much killing been done. The dead seemed to outnumber the living at times. Yet the line held, in some way. It was beyond comprehension.
The Menin road and Gheluvelt, on the 29th, was the scene of an all-day battle, to be renewed at daybreak on the 30th. The storm centre drifted our way. Gough was driven out of Hollebeke De Lisle sent the 4th Dragoon Guards and 18th Hussars to Wytschaete to aid Gough, if he found help necessary to hold the new position in front of St. Eloi, to which he had fallen back. The day was big with action all along the line. Reports came of stubborn resistance by the 7th Division at Gheluvelt, costly to us and trebly so to the enemy. New German units had been brought up, and the Kaiser was with them, we heard.
I noted a score of wounded Wild's Rifles, almost to a man shot in the left hand or arm. One of their officers told me this was due to the peculiar way the Indians shield their head with the left arm when firing. The Beloochis got home with the bayonet one morning, inflicting frightful execution and repelling a determined attack.
A message came from the 11th Brigade at St. Ives that the enemy was advancing in great numbers. The 11th line was broken that day, to be made good by the Somersets. With Gough on our left in need of reinforcements and Wilson's 4th Division on our right barely able to hold its own, the 1st Cavalry Division was faced with a grave situation at Messines, where showers of howitzer shells were followed by massed attacks hourly increasing in intensity.
Saturday, October 31st, was not two hours old when the German bugles were heard in a dozen places in front of the Messines line. Lanterns could be seen darting back and forth like glow-worms in the black night. Shouted orders were borne on the wind to the British trenches. The rythmical cadence of German soldiers' voices in loud marching chorus told of singing columns' moving forward to the attack.
The 9th Lancers were in the front trench. On their left were two short trenches facing the left front and left flank, occupied by the 5th Dragoon Guards. On the right of the 9th the trench line continued in a gradual curve to the southward, the 57th Wild's Rifles holding that section of the line.
The enemy reached the Indians before daybreak, pouring over their front like a flood, and driving the 57th back into the town in some confusion. Messines had been shelled all night long. Driven from their position by overwhelming hordes of singing Huns, whose ranks, mowed down, filled up with numberless others from the blackness beyond, the poor Indians found the path of their retirement led straight into an inferno of scattering earthquakes that spread death over the whole district like a mantle. The blinding flash and nerve-shattering roar of the big howitzer shells, ever punctuated by the dozens of wicked whirring shrapnel that searched every quarter of the town, might well have demoralised troops of much more experience of the new gun-cult of modern warfare.
In support of that part of the line was a reserve company of the 57th and a squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards. These two contingents went into the Germans with the bayonet most gallantly, but were hurled back by overpowering numbers.
Every European officer of the Wild's Rifles was killed, making a rally of that regiment impossible.
Also before dawn a column overran the 5th Dragoon Guards' position on the left. There pile on pile of German dead blocked the way of those who followed after, never wavering until the trenches were won and the gallant regiment forced back inch by inch, dealing death at every step.
The 9th Lancers beat oft the first attack on its front. As the night began to pale the German bugles were sounding and their lanterns flashing behind the 9th and towards the town on both right and left. With the first streaks of dull light began a fight on three sides of a square that was to cost the Germans dear. On came the enemy, steady as if on parade, a maxim at each end of the advancing grey line belching forth a stream of fire at every few yards. Every man in the 9th - cool as a cucumber and full of that glorious pride of regiment that makes the super-soldier-fired shot after shot into the oncoming mass, every bullet bringing down its mark. Once the pressure on a flank uncovered the end of the trench, but the enemy's brief advantage was won back by a hand-to-hand struggle.
Then the shells came. The air was one mass of rending flashes. Shock succeeded shock, and deadly missiles fell like hail-so fast and thick no living thing could remain long untouched beneath the torrent of metal that sprayed over the trenches.
Back came the 9th, firing as they retreated. Shrapnel followed them every inch of the way. The enemy's gunners never showed better markmanship.
At the edge of Messines, Francis Grenfell turned, and with some of his squadron started back down the approach trench. One trooper who went with him said to me an hour later, "I didn't know where the Captain was going, but he said, ' Come on.'
It looked to me as if he was starting oft to take the bally trenches back with a blommin' pistol." Grenfell had noticed the enemy were not advancing, and had heard a storm of fire from the trench ahead. He knew someone had been left behind and was still fighting hard, so back he went to get into the fight.
He found the lost trench momentarily re-won. A corporal in charge of one of the 9th machine-guns had placed a low bush above it to hide its position. When the regiment was ordered to retire by Colonel Campbell, the corporal had stayed in the trench by his gun. Waiting until the Germans were almost upon him-until some, indeed, were climbing the parapet not far on his left and piling into the trench - he loosed off his deadly quick-firer. He poured a thousand rounds into the enemy at such close range the execution was beyond realisation. Men were mowed down like grass. The surprise of the maneuver added to its effectiveness. Leaping back out of the death trap the Germans rushed rearward in a close crowd for cover, the machine-gun in the corporal's deft hands playing on them as they ran.
By the time Grenfell reached the trench the Germans had peppered the corporal and his bit of ordnance until the gun was pierced with a dozen Mauser bullets, six or eight of which had punctured its water jacket and rendered it useless. Not long afterwards the corporal passed me outside Messines. He was carrying the tripod of his abandoned gun and almost wept as he spoke of having to leave it, useless, behind him and in the hands of the adjectived Germans, who had again come on in force to the trench, not to be denied by the few of the 9th who were left to face them. The corporal was subsequently awarded a well-deserved V.C.
De Lisle was worried. He left headquarters for Messines that morning at an early hour. On the way he called on General Hunter Weston, of the - th Brigade, at Ploegsteert. Weston ordered two companies of Inniskilling Fusiliers to be so placed at once that his line would extend its left to near Messines. This gave de Lisle his own Division and four Battalions of 2nd Corps troops that arrived in Neuve Eglise during the night for the defence of the town and that part of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge which our line covered.
Reinforcements, without which the line could not be held much longer, were coming. Second Corps troops from the south and the French 16th Corps from the north, with Conneau's French cavalry as well, were on the way. The need was sore, and their prompt arrival a matter of more than life or death.
As we sped on from Ploegsteert, we tarried a moment by McCarthy and his guns. He nodded his grizzled head when asked to help. McCarthys were rare in any army. Oh, for a dozen of him in that war of guns!
As we came in sight of Messines, smoke-clouds rose from every quarter of the town. A dozen houses were ablaze, the flames leaping high in the light breeze.
Swinging up to our reserve trenches, narrow, deep, and so placed as to be well concealed, turbanned heads peeped above the level of the unharvested beet-field, for all the world like khaki cabbages in a row.
Straggling Indians were all along the road, many of them wounded. At one point a procession of the poor fellows were rapidly filling a convoy of horse ambulances gathered at the roadside. A big Punjabi, covered in blood, came up, pale and tottering, supported by a comrade. Most of the wounds were in head or arm, allowing the men to navigate rear-wards under their own power. One passed, insensible, borne on a door by four of his fellows. The next was in a motor-car, half lying on the front seat, huddled with pain, a blanket between his set teeth: a brave chap, horribly wounded, but holding on with sublime courage and never a groan to tell of his awful agony. Many a hero tramped by among those black soldiers of the King so far from their own land. Their stretcher-bearers, with their incessant gabble, gabble, gabble, sounding like a flock of excited turkeys, did yeoman work in their own Oriental way.
As we entered the town, a German war balloon loomed high in the near distance, a line of gaily coloured flag-signals suspended from it.
The black cross showed clear from the under wing of a German aeroplane droning above.
I saw Basil Blackwood, attached to the 9th Lancers, taken past, shot through the shoulder. Francis Grenfell, an ugly bullet-hole in his thigh, was also sent back. The 9th had suffered heavily. Seventy-five per cent. of their officers and a third of their men had been hit that morning.
A moment in the edge of Messines, where the fighting had reached the barricades at the eastern edge of the town, and we were speeding back to our own headquarters' inn a mile behind.
A squadron of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry arrived that morning, and went up towards the front, a splendid looking lot. They were to take their places in action with the finest cavalry in the world, and to make a record of which the oldest veterans would be proud.
Coal-boxes began to search the country round more persistently. A dozen dropped on a ridge not far on the right of our estaminet. They were feeling for McCarthy's guns, and coming close to him at times. As I was watching the ridge I saw a waggon, loaded full of men, women, and children, leave a spacious farm and start for the rear. A sharp flash, a great black column rising, rising, and the double rumph-rumph of the howitzer shell, told of a hit in the road in front of the fleeing farm folk. Two seconds later another flash, again the mounting, twisting column of black, right over the waggon. Out from the shell-cloud galloped a horse. One or two scurrying forms dashed from the lane, and scattered like frightened rabbits over the fields. I turned from the sight with a shudder.
Clatter, clatter over the cobbles, the remainder of the Oxfordshire Hussars went up at a trot.
A dirty, cheery, devil-may-care motor-cyclist pulled up with a message from Briggs's headquarters in the burning town.
How is it up there?
But the Germans had not won the town. They were in an edge of it, but there they stuck, every sally thrown back at heavy cost. Every minute the firing grew heavier. More shells rained on the blazing buildings. The rattle of small arms rose to a high continuous note and hung, piercing the booming din of the howitzers and the racking fury of their bursting shells. At times the " coal-boxes " burst so fast, it seemed a fierce thunder-clap had spread itself over minutes which imagination lengthened into miniature ages of nerve-tension.
"Looks up there as though most everyone is hit or scratched," said the cyclist as he started back. "Absolutely bloody, that damned Messines. So long!" A grin, a nod, and oft he dashed, straight into the thick of it.
Ambulances full of wounded wheeled slowly back to Wulverghem, dumped their shattered freight at the dressing-station, and returned at a trot into the zone of shell- fire.
A couple of wounded troopers bumped and jolted about on a bundle of straw in the narrow box of an empty limber that rattled rearwards for a fresh supply of ammunition. An officer came slowly down the road, supported by his subaltern. He was shot through the shoulder. "Only a scratch," he said, with an attempt at a smile as he staggered on.
News reached us from Weston's headquarters of Germans massing in front of Frelinghien and Le Touquet for an attack in force. Too much was going on in Messines to allow even a passing thought of what might transpire elsewhere.
Two armoured cars, attached to the Oxfordshires, moved up, to retire discreetly shortly afterwards. Messines was no place for an armoured car. A healthy, full-grown Black Maria would scatter one to the four winds.
By ten o'clock the six-inch howitzers went slowly back, their attendant transport waggons following soberly. A couple of days before those howitzers had come up fresh from the base, the gunners eager to "get into it." The change in their position to the region of the Kemmel road meant that the enemy had come too close for the sixes to be used effectively.
The 9th Lancers filled the trenches of the reserve line not many yards in front of headquarters. If we fell back from Messines those trenches would mark the new line.
A hurried dash to Messines and back in the car was found to be unwise, and a stop was ordered at the bottom of the hill leading into the town. Bullets were singing overhead. The struggle for each street was a battle in itself.
Colonel Ludlow drove up. Two Battalions of Worcesters were in Neuve Eglise, he said, and the Scots Fusiliers, Northumberland Fusiliers and LincoIns had pushed on half an hour before for Kemmel. Good news that. Seventh Brigade and 9th Brigade troops of the well-tried 3rd Division. Reinforcements from Smith-Dorrien's hardened lot, well worth having, every man of them.
I chatted with Colonel Campbell and Major Beale-Browne of the 9th for a few minutes, then strolled back towards the headquarters estaminet. By dint of great persuasion we had induced the proprietress to send away her four-year-old daughter in charge of an elder sister that morning. The woman herself, her husband, and a girl of sixteen remained, though repeatedly advised to take up safer quarters.
I passed Pat Armstrong in the road. "Where away?" he queried. "Only to the car to sit and scribble," I replied.
The car stood by the inn.
"Bang!" went a Black Maria sixty yards from us. General de Lisle was in the roadway. "How far from us was that one?" he asked. Pat and I turned to him to reply, both laughing as each paused, waiting to criticise the other's estimate.
Before the answer, a crash that beggars description came without warning, sudden as a thunderbolt. A howitzer shell had struck the house fifteen to eighteen feet from where we were standing.
I distinctly felt the shock of the concussion. Others by me did so and others, even closer, said they felt no shock.
My head was driven violently downwards.
I jumped the roadside ditch as I recovered my balance and ran for the shelter of a haystack a few yards away. I think my idea was to avoid a possible second shell. I hardly knew what had happened. My chin was bleeding, grazed by some flying bit. The air was choked with dust and débris. A black, stinking pall hung over the estaminet, a farm across the road, and all between.
Women's screams came shrill and high from the thick bank of smoke. I could not, at first, see the outline of the inn or what, if anything, remained of it. No voices could be heard for a second or two, save the heartbreaking shrieks from the women.
Leaping back to the road I saw the General standing on the bank. As I joined him the smoke drifted. The house showed dim, then clearer. Its eastern end was torn away. A skeleton4ike frame of rafters remained where the roof had been. The interior was a confused heap of débris.
Major Davidson, of the R.A.M.C., who stood in the road a few yards beyond the inn, said it opened up like a stage house blown asunder by an explosion in melodrama, tumbling inwards and collapsing as a house of cards falls.
The screaming women were extricated. Though badly hurt they could both walk and were led off toward the dressing station. The aged owner of the estaminet was severely wounded.
Corporal Smallman, one of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade motor-cyclists, was in the kitchen. Both his legs were blown away, and he died in terrible pain on the way to the field hospital. His grim pluck never failed, though when he knew that both limbs were gone and no chance of life remained, he asked through set teeth for a release from the warping, frantic agony in the shape of a kind bullet to hasten the inevitable end.
Smallman was one of the very best of our motor-cyclists. No finer epitaph could be given him.
We lost another motor-cyclist by that shell, killed in the road close to where I was standing.
When the shell came the largest of the two rooms in the front of the house was empty, for the first time any member of the staff could recollect. An occupant of that room would have met instant death. Colonel Home and Percy Hambro were in the smaller, further room. Both were buried in the falling débris, but clambered from the window unhurt after digging themselves from under a pile of bricks and mortar.
A chair Hambro had adopted as his own stood in the larger room. The explosion hurled it high in the air. Alighting on the ruined roof it hung there on a splintered rafter, mute evidence of the fate that would have met one who had been its occupant a few minutes before.
Captain MacFarlane, of the Queen's Bays, was the Divisional signals officer. As the black cloud over the scene lifted, MacFarlane came from the farm gates, black from head to foot. I thought some new form of Hun explosive had dyed him. "What's happened to you?" I asked in amaze. "I jumped out of the signals office in the barn to see what was up," said Mac. "I couldn't see a foot ahead of me in the muck, and stepped plump into the centre of that stinking stagnant pond in the farmyard. However, I'm none the worse, bar looks."
I turned to my car. The raised hood was smashed under a load of brick and splintered beams, about which were wound a woman's bodice and odd bits of feminine headgear. Jagged holes in the panels showed where pieces of shell had torn their way through the sides. Pulling my muffler and Burberry from under débris that covered the front seat, I found each had been pierced in more than one place by shell-splinters.
The car was equipped with a self-starter, a mysterious device that sometimes started, sometimes not. Eager to get away, still fearful of another shell, a movement of the starting lever proved that it was to be a case of sometimes not. I went to the starting handle and gave it a swing. As I did so I heard a shout of warning, and involuntarily ducked my head. Close under the mud-guard I crouched. Swish, swish, swish came the shell. I strained forward, bracing myself for the crash. But swish, swish, swish was all that came. In a twinkling I realised that the half-hearted efforts of the self-starter were turning the engine slowly and jerkily. No shell was near. Guiltily I peeped under an arm and saw Ludlow, across the 4road, bent double in laughter. "That look of anticipation on your face, President," said he, "was certainly the real thing."
I moved my load of brick to Wulverghem, where I took stock of damage and cleaned the car. I strapped the broken hood, but otherwise the cars usefulness was unimpaired. A mud-guard was splintered and its general appearance marred, but it would run.
From Wulverghem I could hear the incessant din of the never-flagging battle.
A couple of German prisoners were brought back. Their uniforms were dirty and faded, but the men looked sound and fit. One captive said he had had no food for three days, but his appearance went ill with the story. Another German taken during the day told of orders received direct from the Kaiser that Ypres must be taken by Sunday, November 1st. A prisoner stated that his contingent had come from Verdun, via Lille. He told of eighteen German howitzers that he had seen in front of Messines operating in lots of three.
What a difference eighteen howitzers at our disposal would have made!
By early afternoon Briggs reported the Germans holding the eastern part of Messines, while he held the west side with his 1st Cavalry Brigade. The Inniskillings had regained their trenches on the right, and were within half a mile of Messines, firm as a rock. On the left, toward Wytschaete, the 4th Dragoon Guards and the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry held the southern part of the ridge, with the London Scottish, lately arrived, in the fields behind in reserve.
The heaviest of the street fighting fell to the lot of the Queen's Bays and 11th Hussars.
The wounded poured through Wulverghem in a never-ending stream. One complete convoy of ambulances was filled with troopers of the Bays and a couple of their officers.
I asked one of them if he had seen any Germans.
"Loads of 'em," was the reply. " Brave beggars, that lot. Three of us were in a house facing the square. Close behind us, a few yards down the street, was our barricade. We saw the Germans start another charge from clear across the open. We pumped a few rounds into 'em, and as they came on we hooked it for the barricade. When those chaps came round the corner where we could get a pot at 'em, how many do you think they was? Just eight! It seemed a pity to kill the plucky mugs. Eight of 'em! Just think of it! Charging like as if they was a whole damn army. I wouldn't minded takin' 'em, but we couldn't. It wouldn't 'a done. Besides, maybe they wouldn't. So we wiped 'em off."
But" - he shook his head sagely as he climbed aboard the ambulance - they was plucky beggars, if they was Germans. I don't want to see no pluckier. They've been killed off like pigs up there, in that town, and they keep on comm'. They fight stiff, that lot-they fight damn stiff!
Weeks afterwards I read a letter, written by a German officer to a friend in Zurich, which paid a counter-tribute to that trooper and his comrades. It read as follows
On November 1st, Messines was stormed by our troops, with great losses on our side, for the English had erected wonderful barricades, which defied all attempts to break down. As we went to the attack we were told to spare the village as much as possible, but this order proved easier to give than to obey, for the English had so ingeniously hidden themselves on all flanks that they were able to shoot down our men as they approached without our being able to locate their whereabouts. On finding that it was impossible to oust the enemy in this manner, we brought our heavy artillery to bear on the village, thus clearing the path somewhat and enabling us to move forward with less molestation from the enemy's deadly snipers. Still, even after two hours' bombardment, every house had to be stormed singly, and it was well into the evening before the place could be deemed anything like safe.
If we Germans were given to understand formerly that the English soldiers were not to be feared, then that idea may now be banished from our minds, for the general opinion of those who have fought against them in these districts is that one Englishman is more dangerous than any two of the Allies.
After a luncheon of bread and black coffee, the best fare procurable in the Wulverghem inn to which headquarters I had been shifted, de Lisle took the car to General Briggs's headquarters' in the hollow behind Messines. As we reached the cover of the little valley a company of the King's Own Scottish Borderers trudged past and started up the hill toward the inferno above. The short distance to the scene of the conflict was emphasized by the frequent "Sing-g-g" of a Mauser' bullet.
At dusk de Lisle had a talk with Mullins, whose 2nd Brigade was to relieve Briggs's 1st Brigade at dark. With the depleted 9th Lancers, 18th Hussars, and 4th Dragoon Guards, Mullins was to have the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. General Allenby wanted the position held at all costs, even if it became necessary to give up the town. "De Lisle could evacuate Messines, for that matter," said Allenby, " if he held the ridge from Messines north to Wytschaete." But to lose Messines, said de Lisle, would be to lose the ridge with it, so the town must needs be held.
The situation was bad. The Germans had a strong position on the eastern side of the town. A night attack was planned, the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry on the right, the Cavalry in the centre and the King's Own Scottish Borderers on the left. Pulling up a field-gun to within a few yards range of a German barricade was discussed, and the idea abandoned. Curiously enough the Germans adopted that very procedure during the night, blowing away an old barricade behind which, luckily, only a couple of men were posted. Neither of them was hurt.
To the north of Messines the London Scottish carried the line along the ridge from the left of the 4th Dragoon Guards to the right of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, a part of Gough's 2nd Cavalry Division. The 4th Brigade consisted of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, the "Tins" (Composite Regiment of Household Cavalry) and the 6th Dragoon Guards (the Carabineers). The last-named regiment was on the extreme right, next to the London Scottish. The keeping of the centre of the precious ridge was chiefly in the hands of these two regiments.
Oh our return to Wulverghem we heard that the 1st and 2nd Division headquarters had been shelled near Hooge that day, Generals Lomax and Monro being wounded, and half a dozen Staff officers killed. Three Divisional headquarters struck by enemy shells in one day was certainly a record. During the morning I had overheard a Staff officer joking about Staff school teaching, that Divisional headquarters should be well out of range of interruption and distraction of thoughts from the work in hand. A grim joke in the light of the day's events.
The line in front of Gheluvelt had been lost by the 1st Division, and regained by the 2nd, said the news from the Ypres salient. The 7th Division was holding on by the skin of its teeth. The French in front of Zillebeke were in like case.
Twice that night I ran to. General Allenby's headquarters at Groote Vierstraat, and was greatly cheered by the sight of long lines of Conneau's Cavalry on the road. Reinforcements were close at hand. A French officer of cuirassiers told me of thirteen Battalions of the 16th French Corps well on the way to join hands with us on the morrow. Nevertheless, I went to sleep on a bundle of straw in a house in Dranoutre that night with anything but a light heart.
Could we hold the line? What price could Germany pay to break it? I was not the only one to ponder those questions that night in Flanders.
We rose at daybreak on Sunday, November 1st.
General de Lisle was at breakfast when General Allenby and Colonel Barrow came in.
"I hear things are much the same in Messines this morning as they were last night," said the Corps Commander.
"The night attack was only partially successful," de Lisle admitted. "We gained part of the convent, but could make no headway on the left. We have bettered our position in the town, though we were unable to drive the enemy from it."
Well," I said to myself, "things might be worse."
The French were attacking in two places that morning between St. Eloi and Wytschaete to relieve the pressure. The 32nd Division of the 16th Corps, containing some of the finest soldiers of France, were pressing forward to the attack. The sacrifice of the past days had not been in vain. The line had held, and help was in sight-at least, so it seemed.
By six o'clock I had started for Wulverghem, de Lisle alongside and Colonel Home in the tonneau.
As we pulled into the town a grey-haired colonel, without a cap, ran into the road ahead.
Is this General de Lisle ?" he asked. "To whom do I report? I am Colonel Malcolm, of the London Scottish. The Germans are through," he went on, speaking with some excitement. "They are through the 4th Brigade. They came across the Messines- Wytschaete road, and broke through. My lot out there have stood an awful shelling - Black Marias, shrapnel, every kind and sort of shell we had - all outside any trenches, for we had no trenches to get into. We drove them back twice, and got into them with the bayonet; but they came on the third time in such numbers we could not stop them again. I lost my two majors and I don't know how many of my poor men."
"Where have the Germans got to?" de Lisle broke in.
"They are right out there a little way," said Malcolm, pointing beyond the church to the northeast.
From the din of small-arm fire I thought he was right, and that they were "out there, but a very little way.
The General ordered me to push on sharply. He chose a lane by the church too narrow to allow the passage of the car. Leaping to the ground he seized a near-by horse and galloped across the field, sending Colonel Home post-haste to Neuve Eglise to bring up the good old reliable 1st Cavalry Brigade. No matter how battered Briggs's lot might be, it was a host in itself. In a short time we had finished that job, and had come back hot-foot to Wulverghem.
De Lisle returned. He had found a fair-sized contingent of the London Scottish, who had been driven well back by the heavy shell-fire, but were eager to take a further hand in the fray. They had seen severe fighting. While they inflicted heavy losses on the Germans at close quarters, accounting .for many of the enemy when they "got in" with the bayonet, the rush of overwhelming numbers, their unfamiliarity with the position, the darkness and the awful storm of shell to which they were subjected at dawn, had pressed them back some distance from the line.
They rallied like veterans when de Lisle called on them. One of their number told me afterwards a wave of quiet laughter went over those of his comrades who heard their Major say: "The men have had no breakfast, sir." De Lisle replied: "They will find plenty of breakfast over that ridge in front. They look the sort that would thrive on that kind of food."
As they started off with two squadrons of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, dismounted, to give the enemy a further taste of their mettle, the Major said to de Lisle, "The Colonel and the other Major are dead, sir, I'm afraid."
No, no," answered the General; "they will show up all right."
But," insisted the Major, "the Colonel is gone. I have reported him dead."
"Now, Major," laughed de Lisle, "you will find it will take a lot more than that to kill him. I have just left him in Wulverghem, sound as a drum."
The London Scottish and the Oxfordshires were in support of the Lincolns and Northumberland Fusiliers for most of the day, and both acquitted themselves nobly.
At 7.30 the General decided to go towards Messines and find General Mullins. We lost no time on the journey. I bumped at good speed past the ruined inn that had been our headquarters. Just beyond we flashed past the 9th Lancers, grim and determined, in the reserve trench which was soon to be the front of the battle line.
When we reached the brow of the hill which stood across the dip in the ground on the western edge of Messines, the road was so swept by bullets that de Lisle ordered me to back quickly behind a heavily foliaged tree. Dismounting, he walked down the slope to Mullins' headquarters, where we had visited Briggs the day before.
That was a warm corner. Turning the car in the narrow road with bullets singing over me in dozens, was a nervous business. I could see the Germans coming over the ridge not far away on the left. The enemy held the north part of the town. Having broken our line on the ridge further to the north, they were starting to come westward past Messines, while our troops were still fighting hard in the south-west corner of the town.
The Mauser bullets came so fast and furious, it was not difficult for me to imagine I was the target, though more than likely I was merely sitting in the line of fire, unnoticed by an enemy busy with far more important game.
The whizzing pellets came lower. A I took to the ditch and from it watched couples and trios of wounded and stragglers trickling rearward along the ditch across the road from me. Sing-g-g.! singg-g! went the little devils. Zip-p-p-zipp! as one cut its way through the leaves. Pawk! One hit the tree trunk. A sharp slap from across the road and a quick "Hi!" from a passing' Tommy told of a bullet that had found a billet. The boy who was hit was helping a wounded comrade. He fell when hit, but rose and hurried on. He would not stop and let me bind his wound.
Still lower the fire came. One or two hit the cobbled road-bed. I lay on my back in the damp ditch. Twigs and leaves cut off above me floated down lazily. Of all that stream of fire only two bullets hit the car.
It was only 7.35 when the General walked up the hill to the car. It seemed as if he had been gone three times as long. I jumped into the seat in a hurry.
No rush," said de Lisle. "Wait for the Colonel." A tall figure in khaki was coming easily up the rise, unaware of our delay on his account. I longed to shout an invitation to him to quicken his pace.
At last we were off, and soon back safely in Wulverghem. Divisional headquarters was moved at eight o'clock to the Station Inn, on the Kemmel-Neuve Eglise road, beside which, in a field, a battery of 6-in. howitzers was making a deafening row.
I stayed in Wulverghem with Colonel Home until nearly nine o'clock. The wounded poured through the village. Many fine London Scottish lads were among them. An i8th Hussar officer went by, his jaw tied with a reddening bandage. He made as if to speak, spat out a mouthful of blood, then shook his head and waved his hand as he rode on. Two old Belgians made useful trips to the edge of the town, to return supporting tottering soldiers to the ambulances.
Indians appeared in twos and threes at intervals. Unable to speak English the poor fellows knew not where to go. One lay dead on a bank outside the town, a worn-out comrade crouching huddled beside him.
Crean, V.C., the R.A.M.C. officer with the 1st Cavalry Brigade, one of the bravest men who ever won the cross, was doing the work of a dozen.
Thinking Wulveighem would soon become unhealthy he started moving the wounded from a temporary hospital in an estaminet which faced the end of Wulverghem's main street. Inspired by some intuition, he hurried the ambulances up and filled them in unusual haste. The last wounded man was out of the house and the last ambulance fifty yards down the road toward Neuve Eglise when crash came a howitzer shell, crushing the estaminet like an egg-shell.
Major Wilfred Jeff, who had succeeded Colonel Drake as our Divisional C.R.A., did a good piece of work that morning stopping the fire of a battery of our guns that were hurling lyddite into a part of Messines occupied by the King's Own Scottish Borderers.
At 9.15 the General went up to the line again. McCarthy's 'batteries had been hard at it all the morning and the German gunners were searching madly for them. The enemy were within rifle-range of the left of our reserve line. Between the shells and the spent bullets no place held much security.
The ridge was gone. The enemy's success in breaking our line between the London Scottish and the 2nd Cavalry Division could not be gainsaid. Holding on to Messines meant a useless sacrifice of men's lives, for the town had been held only to make the ridge secure, so at 9.30 de Lisle ordered our troops back from the edge of the town. We had to content ourselves thenceforth with holding our strong reserve line.
Wytschaete had been captured by the Germans when the ridge was taken. The Beloochis on the left suffered heavily and fought like demons. A barn along the line became a point of vantage. The enemy drove the Indians from it. They rallied, charged, and retook the building, killing or wounding every German in it.
The 3rd Cavalry Brigade relieved the 4th Brigade, in turn to be relieved by the French troops.
Wytschaete that day saw a charge of the 12th Lancers, supported by the 3rd Hussars, in which scores of Germans were put to the bayonet.
There, too, the Lincoins and Northumberlands were caught by a tornado of German shell, which cost them many casualties.
The French attack, after one abortive effort, won the town at midday, and cleared it of the enemy. The place was rendered untenable by howitzer fire, and once more it was evacuated and a line taken to the west of the town.
Our new line of defence, since the incessant bombardment of Messines, Wytschaete, and the ridge between had won the ground to the enemy, ran from the west of Wytschaete, past a hill known as Hill 75 (from its designation on our maps), to our carefully prepared position to the east of Wulverghem. From there it circled round St. Ives and the Ploegsteert Wood to Le Gheer, and thence beyond to the trenches in front of Frelinghien.
At eleven the General took another spin to the line. En route we met General Allenby's car, and behind it General Wilson of the 4th Division. The three commanders held a roadside conference. When we arrived at the ruined estaminet, the enemy's shrapnel was bursting in dozens over the 9th Lancers in the trench line.
Germans could be seen digging in the open near a windmill on the Messines ridge. 'Major Hambro jumped into the car and told me to hurry him over to McCarthy, whose guns were provided a splendid target by the busily-entrenching enemy.
I dropped down the hill outside Wulverghem like a shot, and piled through the town at a rate of knots.
I did not expect to meet another vehicle in Wulverghem, but as I swept toward the corner a big car came toward me at good speed.
I tried to swerve to the right, but the slippery cobbles threw me round. The space between the houses on the left and the approaching car seemed small indeed, but no alternative existed save a smash. I dived left and through, winning the passage by a hair's breadth. As I escaped I caught a horror-stricken look on the face of the driver of the other car, whom I recognised as Jimmy Rothschild, driving one of General Pulteney's staff.
At noon, returning to headquarters, we passed long lines of London's motor-buses debouching infantry near Neuve Eglise. Reinforcements in plenty had arrived. Though they came too late to save Messines and Wytschaete, they were in time to nullify the German gain and hold the enemy to the ground so dearly won.
Early in the afternoon airmen reported the enemy forming for attack at Gapaard, a village east of Messines. French guns and English guns hammered at them for an hour or so, and the threatened attack fizzled out.
Visits to the ruined inn on the Wulverghem-Messines road became more and more exciting. Wulverghem was shelled at frequent intervals. Coal-boxes dropped everywhere. No field was free from a miniature cellar or two excavated by the howitzer shells.
"If they begin shelling you, move out," was de Lisle's usual caution. Move out, indeed! Little would be left to move if a Black Maria came too near. Fifty yards from where I stood two great black fellows ploughed the turf. Yet not a splinter came my way.
A run to La Clytte late in the day, to General Allenby's headquarters, took me past innumerable French foot soldiers. They bred confidence in their sturdy appearance, crowding along swiftly in undulating lines. They looked eminently business-like.
Passing through Kemmel at dusk de Lisle saw a detachment resting in the ditch at the side of the road. Pulling up, he said: What troops are these?
"London Scottish," came the answer.
"Is one of your officers with you?"
"Yes, sir," and Colonel Malcolm rose and came to the side of the car.
"Ah, Colonel," said the General, "you are on the right road. La Clytte, where your regiment is to re-form and get some rest, is only a couple of miles ahead."
"On again?" said Malcolm. " My men have had no sleep for three nights, and we have had no rations to-day."
But before he had finished, word had passed from mouth to mouth along the line of sturdy youngsters that food, rest, and, best of all, the gathering of their comrades scattered in the charge, were but two miles away. Cheerily prodding sleeping forms, stretching weary limbs, they jumped into the road and were off in a jiffy. Their temper, when so completely worn and tired, was good evidence of the fine stuff of which they were made.
One day they were to be brigaded with the 1st Division, Haig's lot of seasoned heroes. In that collection of regiments, whose fame was one with Britain's greatness, I was, months later, to hear a veteran officer of the line say with feeling, "No better Battalion of soldiers exists in the whole army than the London Scottish." - high praise indeed, and well earned before it was won.
So the battle of Messines ended. Our losses were great, and those of the enemy far greater. The 1st Cavalry Division had nearly forty per cent. of its numbers killed or wounded, and the Battalions brigaded with it suffered almost as heavily.
To Part 2
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