Winter operations, 1914-15 (Western Front)

23 November 1914 – 6 February 1915: Winter operations, 1914-15French orders for a major offensive in December lead to disastrous piecemeal British attacks. Localised operations seeking tactical advantage continue through winter.

The defence of Festubert, 23-24 November 1914

Order of battle:
Indian Corps (Willcocks): Meerut Division

The Meerut Division beats off a determined enemy attack.

The following sections of the page are extracted from “The truce: the day the war stopped” by Chris Baker (Amberley Publishing, 2014). They describe operations up to Christmas 1914 and cover battles officially described as The attack on Wytschaete, 14 December 1914 and The defence of Givenchy, 20-21 December 1914.

The Allies go onto the offensive

As the Ypres fighting appeared to have died down, British Commander-in-Chief Sir John French summed up the situation in a Special Order of the Day, issued to the army on 22 November 1914:

The value and significance of the splendid role fulfilled since the commencement of hostilities by the Allied forces in the West lies in the fact that at the moment when the Eastern Provinces of Germany are about to be over-run by the numerous and powerful armies of Russia, nearly the whole of the active army of Germany is tied down to a line of trenches extending from the fortress of Verdun on the Alsatian frontier round to the sea at Nieuport, east of Dunkirk (a distance of 260 miles), where they are held, much reduced in numbers and morale by the successful action of our troops in the west.

What the enemy will do now we cannot tell. Should they attempt to withdraw their troops to strengthen their weakened forces in the East, we must follow them up and harass their retreat to the utmost of our power.[1]

A Special Order was almost a public statement. In the more private communications, Sir John indicated to his corps commanders that the cessation of German attacks on Ypres may simply indicate a lull while the enemy drew breath and regrouped to continue their offensive. He advised on the necessity for vigilance and the positioning of reserves for rapid reaction to anything that might develop.

Despite the impasse and uncertainty about German intentions it was inconceivable that the French and British allies would adopt anything but an aggressive stance. There was no question that they must continue offensive operations against the German entrenched line. France had gone to war with the deep desire to wrest back her former provinces of Alsace and Lorraine which she had lost to Germany in 1870, and had not only failed to achieve that but now had Germany controlling a significant part of her land, population and industrial base. France would stop at nothing to rid herself of the occupier. For Great Britain, it was not enemy occupation of the homeland that was the issue but the fact that Germany now held the North Sea coast of Belgium. From the ports of Antwerp, Zeebrugge and Ostend, the German surface fleet and U-boats posed a major threat to British naval dominance and her ability to supply an army in France. The then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had implored Sir John French in a letter of 26 October 1914,

I do trust you will realise how damnable it will be if the enemy settles down for the winter on lines which comprise Calais, Dunkirk or Ostend. There will be continual alarms and added difficulties. We must have him off the Belgian coast even if we cannot recover Antwerp.[2]

By mid-November it was all too evident that the Germans now held the coast and were not going to be easily prised away from it. This was so clear a danger that on 9 December 1914 Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey advised the ambassador to France, Sir Francis Bertie, that the British public would ‘regard any losses entailed by an offensive action taken by our troops against these coastal positions as fully justified’.[3] Removal of German forces from the Belgian coast remained a British objective throughout the war: an objective that remained unfulfilled until October 1918.

The French and, to some extent, the British, also felt an obligation to maintain pressure on Germany in the West in order to alleviate pressure on their ally, Russia, in the East. Germany had a strategic advantage of ‘interior lines’, and had the capability to move forces from West to East as needed. This advantage could not be broken by Allied military action but could be minimised by pinning down the enemy troops in the trenches of the West.

The entrenched position presented the French and British military staffs with a great dilemma, an almost insuperable problem that defeated every technological and tactical development until 1918: how to break through the German defences. Some contemporary commentators and many observers since 1918 have viewed the military’s attempts to solve this problem as brainless, dull thinking that recklessly sent men to do the impossible and to meet an inevitable death in trying. Modern academic historians see a ‘learning curve’, with lessons learned the hard way in the 1915-1917 period eventually catalysing into techniques that fundamentally changed the war in 1918. During the ‘race to the sea’ phase, the German and French armies first encountered the terrible difficulty of attacking an entrenched enemy that was equipped with the awesome firepower of modern weapons. The small original BEF had its first taste of things to come during a few weeks on the heights above the River Aisne in late September, when facing German troops dug-in on slopes above them. But in the autumn of 1914 such a position was not the norm and had not yet settled; commanders would hope to break that line, or to outflank it. The Aisne was seen by the British command as an aberration in a war of movement. By late November 1914 it had become horribly evident that the Germans had gone onto the defensive and that the trenches were no longer something unusual or temporary but the way the war was going to be. Sir John French and French General Ferdinand Foch, who in late 1914 was Assistant Commander-in-Chief to General Joseph Joffre, both later wrote of their thoughts with regard to the situation. In essence, they agreed that the Allies were facing up to siege warfare on a vast scale. Sir John believed that the Allies could effect nothing of importance unless and until one of two things happened: ‘either there must be a considerable augmentation of our forces, including a vastly increased supply of heavy artillery, machine guns, trench artillery and ammunition, or the enemy’s forces on the Western front must be so weakened by the necessity of sending troops to the East’[4]. Foch said much the same: ‘It seems to me that the organisation of this war has got to be carefully studied. What are its requirements? A large number of siege guns, with plenty of ammunition, heavy enough to breakdown the obstacles opposed to them’.[5] He went on to call for grenades, mortars, mining and tunnelling to blow up the German positions from below.

There was some debate between the Allies not with regard to whether to attack the Germans, but where and when. The decision that emerged was a French one, and neither for the first nor the last time the BEF found itself agreeing to undertake operations for which it was neither ready nor to which it could devote its whole-hearted backing. It was a consequence of coalition warfare, in which France was the dominant senior partner when it came to operations on land. For political reasons the British were disinclined to take firm a stance against French proposals, even when they meant ignoring or de-emphasising the North Sea coast problem. As early as 19 November – the critical fighting at Ypres had only begun to slow down a week before – Foch was proposing that when the Allies did go onto the offensive, it should begin with a blow between Antwerp and Namur, and be followed by another against the River Meuse between Namur and Liége. Expected resistance on the Meuse could be overcome by a further attack starting from Verdun. His thoughts set a basic pattern for every Allied offensive up to late 1917, in that they envisaged a huge converging pincer attack in the North and South against the salient that the Germans had pushed into France. It was never considered that the BEF would play a significant part in such an action, but their support would be needed. Quite apart from it being a relatively small force in comparison with the French and German armies, Joffre and Foch both held reservations about the British, especially their offensive capability. Sir John French was still nervous of the possibility that the Germans had not yet gone onto the defensive but were merely resting and massing troops for a fresh blow. He instructed his various corps to be alert to this possibility, on 22 November.[6]

On 6 December 1914 Foch went to meet with Joffre. There was some new intelligence that the Germans were removing forces from the West.[7] Despite his foresight in analysing the requirements for a successful breakthrough, Foch effectively ignored the fact that such resources and techniques were simply not yet available and formed an opinion that the moment for offensive action had arrived. In particular, he believed that an attack in the area Wytschaete-Hollebeke would relieve the precarious situation south east of Ypres. It was enough to persuade Joffre. On 8 December he issued general instructions to the French Army that stated that main attacks would be carried out:

‘One, starting from the region of Arras, in the direction of Cambrai and Douai, to be executed by the Tenth Army reinforced. The other in Champagne, in the direction of Attigny, by the Fourth Army. In addition, secondary operations will be carried out on various parts of the front, more particularly by the Eighth Army and the left of the British Army, attacking in a convergent direction on Wervicq [Wervik]; by the Second Army, attacking in the direction of Combles, ….’[8]

Foch formally requested Sir John French’s assistance in committing the BEF to join the offensive. Alternative British proposals for a North Sea coast operation, which would require the BEF to be moved from its position south of Ypres and up to the Dunkirk-Furnes-Nieuport area, were put to the French just as these plans were being announced. Despite support from British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, Churchill and Sir John French, they were not received well. The latter would later write, ‘It was quite evident that they [the French] had no intention of leaving the British forces in sole charge of the Allied left, but they agreed to regard the question as a military one and to refer it to General Joffre. I had several conversations with him on the subject, but there appeared to be no disposition on his part to acquiesce in my plans’. Sir Edward Grey advised Bertie to adopt the line that ‘co-operation with the contemplated French effort to drive the Germans back would be rendered far more effective’ if the BEF was moved and the coastal operation undertaken, but it cut no ice with French high command. Such were the impossibilities of being the junior partner in military coalition. ‘Yielding thus to French representations, our government began to weaken. Churchill adhered to his views throughout, but was not supported’.[9] With such weak political support, Sir John was in no position to refuse the French. The die was cast. It was in December that under Joffre’s instructions formalised into British orders, the BEF would make its first attempts at storming the continuous, entrenched Western Front.

A plan emerges

Even before Joffre issued his formal instructions on 8 December, he had written to Foch and Sir John French saying that a thinning out of German forces was now so evident that they should proceed with partial attacks without waiting for final preparations. Time was of the essence.

It was the job of Sir John’s Chief of the General Staff (CGS), Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Murray, to turn the general instructions into a practical operational plan. He had been given the job as CGS at the beginning of the war but it had proved an unhappy appointment. His performance during the first months had been decidedly shaky and he was not well-liked by his peers or juniors: one staff officer summed Murray up as ‘incompetent, cantankerous, timid and quite useless’.[10]

Intelligence from various sources gave Murray a reasonably accurate picture of the opposing forces within the area. From south to north, the British Indian, IV and III Corps between Cuinchy (on the Béthune to La Bassée road) and stretching up to the River Douve north of Ploegsteert were faced by the German 29th Division, VII Corps and XIX (Saxon) Corps; from the Douve to Wytschaete hospice, II Corps faced the 6th Bavarian Division and part of II Bavarian Corps. The British I Corps was in reserve. On the north of the British and extending the line up to beyond Ypres was the French Eighth Army. On the immediate left of the British came that Army’s XVI Corps, who faced the rest of the II Bavarian Corps. Overall, this gave the Allies a theoretical manpower advantage: the British force, including I Corps, of ten infantry divisions (and cavalry in reserve) was confronted by fewer than seven German divisions.

A resumption of offensive operations had been the subject of speculation amongst the senior officers of the BEF for some time. Commander of II Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, had put in writing to his divisional commanders that it was ‘unnecessary and unprofitable at this juncture to enter into a discussion of possible plans’, saying that it was the Commander-in-Chief’s business to agree this with the French but it was fairly plain that his Corps would be called upon to capture the Wytschaete-Messines ridge. All they could do in the meantime was to improve their trenches with a view to attacking from them.[11]

Information was coming through to Saint-Omer that the French were planning to attack on a fairly large scale, not only in Flanders but in the Vosges, the Champagne, on the Aisne and in Artois. Joffre met with Sir John French, requesting that on 14 December 1914 the BEF should play a part in this offensive by attacking all along its front, but with particular weight on the Messines-Warneton sector. He assured the British commander that General Victor d’Urbal’s Eighth Army would attack alongside, in the Hollebeke-Wytschaete area. The operation would be carried out by XVI Corps under General Paul-Francois Grossetti.[12]

British General Headquarters issued its own detailed instructions at 7pm on 12 December 1914, under Murray’s signature. It called for an offensive action beginning on 14 December, which would be carried out by the BEF with the French on their left and with the intention of advancing to reach a line from Le Touquet (a hamlet 3 miles south of Warneton) to Warneton and Hollebeke. By doing so, the enemy would be driven from the left bank of the River Lys. The British element was responsible for capturing Messines and Warneton. On the left, II Corps would take high ground at Wytschaete (the French being responsible for the village itself), Hill 75 and Messines. On the right, III Corps would advance on Warneton once II Corps had also captured Messines. In other areas, IV Corps and the Indian Corps would not attack but would ‘carry out local operations with a view to containing the enemy’. The attack would be supported by ‘powerful artillery bombardment’ and the Cavalry Corps. I Corps and the 1st Indian Cavalry Division would remain in reserve, but the instructions remained silent on what they would actually do in the event of success.

The plan was clear enough, even if it did water down somewhat from Joffre’s request that the BEF attack all along its line. But it does not reveal the full story. Sir John French had been discussing matters with his corps commanders, and orders for preparations to be made had gone down to the divisions, for several days before Murray’s instruction emerged from Saint-Omer. He had told Smith-Dorrien that the French and II Corps attack on Wytschaete would precede any move by III Corps, by as much as several days.

A conference held at the town hall in Bailleul on 12 December 1914 brought Sir John together with his corps commanders. What emerged, and what became the basis of operations regardless of Murray’s instruction, was curious and half-hearted. Far from an ‘attack all the way along the line’, even in the Messines-Warneton sector the attack would not be made as one. Instead, each division of II and III Corps would attack independently in succession, in a sequence beginning on 14 December with 3rd Division of II Corps which was on the extreme British left. After that, no division was to advance and get ahead of the one on its left. Whilst waiting for Messines to fall to II Corps, the two divisions of III Corps would actively harass the enemy by sapping, sniping and use of artillery. By taking this approach it was inevitable that relatively small forces would attack and be exposed to enemy fire from ahead, left and right, while the units on their right waited to see if the attack had succeeded before they too went forward.[13] Rarely can there have been a plan so devoid of imagination and practicality; rarely can military planners have so thoroughly abandoned all known military principles; and rarely can an army have taken so little account of the resources and operational capabilities of the forces at its disposal, to say nothing of the capabilities of the enemy it faced and the nature of the ground over which it was to advance.

The Germans would later call the battle the Dezemberschlacht in Französisch-Flandern.

Extract of map from "The truce: the day he war stopped" by Chris Baker (Amberley, 2014)
The locations of fighting in December 1914. Extract of map from “The truce: the day the war stopped” by Chris Baker (Amberley, 2014)

[1] A copy of the order is included in the war diary of III Corps.

[2] Sir John French, 1914, pp 303-304

[3] French, 1914, p306

[4]  French, 1914, p301

[5] Ferdinand Foch, Memoirs, pp204-5

[6] War diary III Corps General Staff

[7] The British Official History mentions that eight German infantry divisions and four cavalry divisions had left for the East by early December 1914.

[8] Foch, Memoirs, p213

[9] French, 1914, p307.

[10] The GHQ staff was based in Saint-Omer, with the Operations Section at 15 Rue Henri Dupuis and Intelligence in nearby Rue Victor Hugo. It also had a report centre or field office closer to the fighting at Bailleul, but apparently only open from 9am to 4.30pm, with the staff returning to St-Omer each evening! The quote about Murray is from Brigadier-General Philip Howell to his wife, 27 February 1915, Howell Papers IV C 3 115, Liddle Hart Centre for Military Archives.

[11] Copy in war diary of III Corps General Staff, National Archives piece WO95/668

[12] Paul-Francois Grossetti was born in Paris in 1861 but of Corsican background. He was the product of the military college of St-Cyr and veteran of campaigns in Africa, Algeria and Tonkin. In command of 42nd Division in the early months of the war including at the Marne and Yser, Grossetti died of dysentery aged just 56 on 7 January 1918. He had a reputation as a front-line commander and a fireball. Foch said of him in 1915, “Mes généraux : d’Urbal, de Maud’huy, des héros. Grossetti: invulnérable! Toujours sous la mitraille, au milieu des balles. Elles ne le touchent pas. Quel homme!” (“My Generals d’Urbal, de Maud’huy, heroes. Grosseti: invulnerable! Always under fire, where the bullets are [flying]. They do not touch him. What a man!)

[13] Brigadier-General John du Cane of III Corps General Staff drafted an order for an attack to be carried out by 4th Division in the direction of Warneton from St Yves, with the intention of assisting the II Corps attack on Messines and protecting its southern flank. He also stressed that while III Corps was in a holding role until Messines fell, it must act with vigour. His commander Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney would not let du Cane issue the order, on the basis that it was not what Sir John French had specified. WO95/668, hand written draft 15 December 1914 and memorandum dated 11 December 1914.

The attack at Wytschaete, 14 December

The British part in the offensive whittles down to two single-battalion attacks

Around 8 December 1914 Smith-Dorrien at the British II Corps headquarters learned that his formation would probably soon have to undertake an offensive operation against German positions in the Wytschaete area, alongside the French XVI Corps on his left. He soon became aware of the emerging idea of a sequential attack; and that as he was on the left of the British front he would be called upon to undertake the first assault. He already had the 3rd Division holding the left of his Corps’ front, next to the French. The division was commanded by Major-General (James) Aylmer Haldane and had been in almost continuous action since Mons in August 1914.[1] The plan was gradually confirmed over the next few days, amid a rush of meetings between GHQ, II Corps and the commanders of its constituent divisions and brigades. Early on 9 December a motor car arrived to take Brigadier-General William Bowes to meet with Smith-Dorrien. Bowes commanded the 8th Infantry Brigade of Haldane’s division. Although records do not confirm so, it appears that it was at this point that Bowes’ brigade was selected to undertake the first attack once it was finally ordered. The brigade had been relieved from the trenches and was resting at Westoutre at this time and remained so until just before the attack.[2]

The commanders of the Royal Artillery of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions were summoned to a conference at II Corps advanced report centre on the Scherpenberg hill in the morning of 11 December. Part of the artillery of 4th Division, a formation of III Corps, was going to be used to supplement that 3rd and 5th Divisions of II Corps. The three officers were briefed with an outline of the plan and told that ‘Orders for the attack will be sent, when drafted, for the information of the artillery commanders, but these cannot be issued until the commander of the French Eighth Army has issued his orders to the commander of the XVI French Corps, and the final scope, and time of commencement of, the attack is finally settled’. The three went away to arrange appropriate dispositions of their brigades, organise ammunition stocks and begin the process of ranging the batteries onto the probable targets.[3] At the same time, the men of 3rd Divisional Signal Company of the Royal Engineers, notably Number 3 Section under Lieutenant Robert Dammers, laid telephone cable from the barn that would be used as an advanced brigade headquarters to the firing line and support trenches.

While these discussions and preparations were taking place, the general situation on the Flanders front remained relatively quiet although punctuated by the arrival of disquieting news. A battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers reported that the Germans were strengthening their defences, employing ‘poles on trestles with barbed wire’; the Royal West Kents of 10th Infantry Brigade (4th Division) found that the Germans had brought field guns forward to within 300 yards of their front line. During this ‘quiet period of 6 to 13 December 1914, no fewer than 342 officers and men of the BEF lost their lives, such was the daily toll of trench warfare.[4] Among them were three officers and 40 men of two companies of the 1st Lincolnshire Regiment (9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Division) who had carried out a localised attack against Petit Bois at 10pm on 8 December. Soaked and cold to the extent that men had to help each other climb from their flooded trench, they had been cut down by enemy fire coming from the wood. Most of the casualties fell within yards of their own trench, hit as they plodded through deep mud. Only on the extreme right of the frontage attacked did the battalion manage to cut the barbed wire defences and enter the edge of the wood. They found a firing line some yards into the trees and full of water, and could see other lines of trenches further on. Two German machine guns appeared to be located centrally within the wood. The survivors fell back to their start point. Sketches of the German positions were delivered to brigade headquarters.[5]

Later on 11 December, the commanders of the four battalions of 8th Infantry Brigade met with Bowes. The general plan of attack was disclosed to them, but not the date. Bowes ordered the 2nd Royal Scots and 1st Gordon Highlanders to begin preparations for an assault; they would be supported by his other battalions the 4th Middlesex Regiment and 2nd Suffolk Regiment. Officers of the attacking companies were to spend a day in the trenches on 12 December, with a view to making themselves familiar with the situation. Poor Second Lieutenant Alexander Pirie, who was to lead a company of the 1st Gordons, was shot through the head while doing so. He died of his wounds next day.[6]

Smith-Dorrien finally issued written orders at 1.30pm on 13 December, based on the instructions he had received from Murray. They called for the capture of Wytschaete and Hollebeke by a combined attack of the British II Corps and the French Eighth Army. The latter would employ its XVI Corps and XXXII Corps, and would advance in the direction of Oostaverne and Houthem. The 32nd Division of XVI Corps would be on the immediate left of the British, with the boundary on the line Vandenberghe Farm – Wytschaete hospice – Wambeke. II Corps would deploy its 3rd Division for the attack, which ‘will be made in force and will be pushed with the utmost determination’. It would advance to capture Point 73, Maedelstede Farm and the eastern edge of Petit Bois: the same position that had repelled the Lincolnshires attack on 8 December. The 5th Division lay on 3rd Division’s right, with the operational boundary being the crest of a ridge running eastwards from Point 73, through Point 74 to Wytschaete. 5th Division would not make an infantry attack but would ‘arrange by activity in its trenches to convey the impression that an attack is going to be made’ in the area south west of Messines. The Cavalry Corps would be in reserve ready to exploit any breakthrough (it moved a brigade to the Scherpenberg-Westoutre area for the purpose, and caused most artillery and Field Ambulances to have to move to accommodate them); it was placed under temporary command of II Corps for the operation, as was a portion of the artillery of III Corps’ 4th Division and a single 4.5-inch howitzer battery from I Corps. Spotting work for the artillery would be carried out by 6 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, two machines being allotted to each of the 3rd and 5th Divisional artillery.

The attack made by 8th Brigade. Extract of map from "The truce: the day the war stopped" by Chris Baker (Amberley, 2014)
The attack made by 8th Brigade. Extract of map from “The truce: the day the war stopped” by Chris Baker (Amberley, 2014)

The attack was ordered to begin at 7am on 14 December with a preliminary bombardment lasting 45 minutes, at which moment the British and French infantry would begin their attack. The supply of artillery ammunition gave cause for anxiety. British GHQ had given sanction for a certain amount of expenditure of shells, with II Corps orders adding that if more was required for the tasks allotted, then it was to be used. The supply officers reported the numbers of shells that were in the forward area (between the divisional railheads and the gun positions): at the sanctioned rate of fire of 150 shells per day for each 18-pounder there was enough shrapnel shell for sustained action lasting 2.7 days, but for the 4.5-inch howitzers firing at 60 per day there was less than a day of Lyddite high explosive shell although there was also 2.6 days of shrapnel. The paucity of ammunition, especially the threadbare stocks of high-explosive, was the critical factor. II Corps had to limit its attack to a single infantry brigade front while the rest of the Corps in effect would stand by and watch to see what happened.

Shortly after II Corps issued their orders, so Haldane’s headquarters issued at 3.30pm more detailed orders to the units of 3rd Division. 8th Infantry Brigade would attack the German trenches fronting Petit Bois and at Maedelstede Farm. They would then go on to secure the rest of the wood and a location known as Point 73. The 2nd Royal Scots and 1st Gordon Highlanders had already been instructed to move to Kemmel during the evening and to be in their assault positions by 5am next day. The 4th Middlesex and 2nd Suffolks would also move to Kemmel, as would brigade headquarters, but remain there until called upon. The battalions of 9th Infantry Brigade would ‘support the attack from their trenches and will take any opportunity of gaining ground’. 7th Infantry Brigade would remain in a reserve position near Locre. During the afternoon of 13 December, Captain the Honourable Henry Lyndhurst Bruce of the Royal Scots and Lieutenant William Findlay Dobie of the Gordon Highlanders, both of whom had spent the day before in the trenches and who would lead a company into action, reported to the divisional Commander Royal Artillery (Brigadier-General Frederick Wing), to offer advice regarding their respective lines of advance and other details of the position. It is not clear whether Bruce was shown the sketch of the position his battalion would attack, for they were to advance over the same ground where the 1st Lincolns had been cut down six days before. Neither officer would survive the next day.[7]

Shortly before dawn on the fine morning of 14 December, Brigadier-General Bowes, his opposite number at 9th Infantry Brigade W. Douglas Smith and their respective Brigade-Majors moved into the barn north of Kemmel, from where they had good observation of the attack front. They would be joined there by Lieutenant-Colonel George Geddes of 42 Brigade RFA, the artillery unit in specific support to the assault units. Behind them on the Scherpenberg hill, staff of II Corps, 3rd Division and later Sir John French himself would also study what was happening.

By the time the artillery bombardment opened at 7am on 14 December, the French and British assault units had taken up their allotted positions. Plastered with mud and with the kilts of the Gordons heavy and sodden, they waited the 45 minutes while shells screamed above onto the enemy trenches a matter of 200 yards in front.

Somehow, the call for a British attack ‘all along its front’ had been whittled down to these two under-strength battalions, many soldiers in which had barely received training and some of whom had not been in the trenches before, were wet and up to their ankles in mud, and about to attack a difficult set of defences. As commander of I Corps, General Sir Douglas Haig, would note in his diary on 14 December, ‘it is sad to see the offensive movement by the British Army 280,000 strong resolve itself into an attack of two battalions!’[8] And as if that was bad enough, the geography of the situation meant that they would have to attack in different directions, in effect as two single-battalion attacks.

The front line to be assaulted was not quite continuous. The Germans held the two woods that lay west of Wytschaete (the small detached wood Petit Bois being nearest to the British trenches) and Maedelstede Farm which lay just north of the Wytschaete-Kemmel road. The German defences skirting the western edge of woods lay in a more-or-less north-south direction, and those skirting the northern side of the farm in a west-east direction. In other words, the ‘line’ formed a right-angle bend in between the woods and farm. The 2nd Royal Scots would attack Petit Bois, advancing eastwards and downhill, and the 1st Gordons would attack the farm, advancing southwards and uphill. The further they advanced, the further apart they became. It proved to be a most difficult situation in that German defenders holding the woods could not only fire into the Royal Scots coming towards them, but into the backs of the Gordon Highlanders advancing away from them; and vice-versa.

Dead men can advance no further[9]

In early June 1917 the British Second Army carried out one of the most successful offensive operations of the war in finally capturing the Wytschaete-Messines ridge. Attacking on a front several miles wide and with enormous artillery resources, they advanced across the very same ground in which the fighting of 14 December 1914 had taken place. As a prelude to the attack, the British artillery fired a pulverising bombardment onto enemy positions that then gradually crept forward, allowing the infantry to advance in its wake and to a large extent unmolested. The German defences of Maedelstede Farm were obliterated by the explosion of an enormous underground mine. The shellfire and fall-out from the mine churned the ground and created a new landscape; countless numbers of German soldiers were killed, their bodies never found. The shells and debris also churned and fell on the old battleground of 1914 and the weathered, broken skeletons and tatters of kilts of the 1st Gordon Highlanders who died here on 14 December 1914. They still lay where they fell because their advance had been brought to a shattering halt, the line barely moved over the next two and a half years and it was simply too dangerous to attempt to recover the dead. After the 1917 advance, men of the 11th Royal Irish Rifles were ordered to clear this part of the battlefield and in so doing they found the remains of the 1914 victims.[10] They identified the few they could, and buried the remainder with dignity. The burial place was named Irish House Cemetery, after a farm nearby. It had been just a few hundred yards behind 8th Infantry Brigade’s line in December 1914. A single mass grave contains the unidentifiable remains of 30 men of the 1st Gordon Highlanders, next to the graves of 27 year-old Lieutenant Dobie who had co-ordinated with the artillery the day before he died; 19 year-old Lieutenant James MacWilliam and 9870 Company Quartermaster Sergeant Archibald McKinlay.[11] Together with just four others named in other cemeteries, they are the only ones of 125 men of the battalion who were killed or died of wounds on the day to have a known grave. The poor 1st Gordon Highlanders lost three-quarters of their officers and over half of their men killed or wounded in the attack. And what of the 2nd Royal Scots? With the exception of two men buried in Locre churchyard, not one of their 53 officers and men who died in their attack on Petit Bois has a known grave today.[12] A further 51 officers and men were listed as wounded. On the left of the Royal Scots, the French 32nd Division also suffered significant numbers of casualties.[13]

453 Corporal George Gleghorn of A Company of the Gordons wrote home soon after the battle:

I have just come from the trenches where I had my first baptism of fire. I will never forget it. The Gordons and Royal Scots had to take some trenches. This they did, but at some loss. In this my first ordeal under fire the noise did not trouble me, nor the shells, but when I saw my mates knocked over I felt a bit giddy. But this passes away, and it becomes part of the day’s work. The ground was in an awful state. We were up to the knees in mud and water, shivering with cold.[14]

Seeds of disaster

These terrible statistics tell a moving tale of disaster, which stemmed from what proved to be a wholly insufficient artillery bombardment and an unjustifiably optimistic view that it would clear the way for the infantry. Simple calculations reveal the terrible truth. II Corps arranged for a total of 143 field guns and howitzers from the artillery of 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions to fire on targets on the front to be attacked by 3rd Division. Of these, 96 were 18-pounder field guns firing shrapnel, and the rest were 4.5- and 6-inch howitzers firing high explosive and shrapnel. This resource was spread to fire onto a number of different targets, with only 72 of the 18-pounders, 18 of the 4.5-inch and 13 6-inch howitzers aiming at the trenches to be assaulted. There does not appear to have been a specific task for reduction and clearance of the enemy’s barbed wire defences. II Corps orders read,

The attack will be preceded by an artillery bombardment of objectives, A, B, C and E. [The first three were the German trenches to be attacked; E was a feint against trenches near Messines]. When enemy’s artillery opens, fire will be opened on them (objective G)’. The French propose to begin their preliminary bombardment about three quarters of an hour before the infantry attack commences. The bombardment will not be continuous, but will commence with a burst of intense fire for two minutes, then  a cessation of fire for ten minutes, followed by a burst for, say, one and a half minutes, then a cessation of five minutes, and so on. A similar course will be adopted by the artillery under command of II Corps against objectives A, B, C and E. Bursts of fire need not be simultaneous against all four objectives.

At the expiration of the period allotted to the initial bombardment [i.e., when the infantry should begin to advance] fire on objective C will switch sufficiently to the East to allow the infantry attack on Petit Bois and Maedelstede Farm to proceed with danger from our own fire.

Brigadier-General Frederick Wing reported in the war diary that each 18-pounder had 60 rounds allotted to it for the preliminary bombardment; each 4.5-inch howitzer 50 rounds and each 6-inch howitzer just ten. They were to fire in four bursts that totalled 23 minutes of the 45 minute period. We can calculate from this that the bombardment of objectives A, B, C and E consisted of a total of 4380 18-pounder shells, 900 4.5-inch and 130 6-inch: some 235 shells per minute.[15]

The targets at A, B, C and E were defined in various orders but not with great precision. At this stage of the war there were no trench maps for the enemy’s position had not been surveyed. The positions to be hit were only known by ground and air observation and expressed in sketch maps. If we ignore E completely, it appears that the total trench frontage onto which the bombardment would fall was approximately 1250 yards: thus there were just over 4 shells to be fired for every yard of enemy trench. To the uninformed that sounds a lot! But with technical manuals showing that a new 18-pounder could expect to get only 50% of its shells within a 42-yard range of target, and with most of the guns of the BEF being well worn by December 1914, it becomes evident that very few would actually hit the target. Add to this that shrapnel was already known to have only minor effects on trenches and barbed wire, and it can be appreciated just how the German defenders and defences were to all intents fully intact when the bombardment ended. Once the shells stopped falling, the British whistles blew and men began to advance with the bayonet, the German infantry simply had to man the parapet and open fire.

We should not leave the artillery without mention of Second Lieutenant Hew Kilner of the 35th Heavy Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery.[16] He had landed in France on 1 December and had been given the unenviable task of assessing an experimental 5-inch ‘trench howitzer’ which fired a 50-pound Lyddite high-explosive shell. Ten men worked six hours per night for five nights to dig a suitable pit to house the beast. Fifty rounds of ammunition were brought forward but had to be carried the last three-quarters of a mile by hand, as did the various sections of the howitzer that would be assembled in the pit. It took over 13 hours to bring this material into place. By herculean effort, Kilner and his men had the new weapon ready by 6.45am on 14 December, and prepared to fire in the preliminary bombardment. Confidence in its potential effects was perhaps not high, as a few rounds had been fired before it was disassembled for the move into place and it had been found that the fall of shots varied by 200 yards. Frustration must have been intense when it was found that the howitzer and shells had become so muddy during the carry into the pit that not a shot could be fired until they were completely cleaned. It finally came into action on 17 December.[17]

As soon as the Gordon Highlanders left their trenches and began to move up the gentle slope towards Maedelstede Farm they came under heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Those men that somehow survived the hail of bullets found that the barbed wire defences some 50 yards in front of the German trenches were intact. The Gordons could advance no further. Losses mounted as men were picked off: Lieutenant James MacWilliam, described in a letter sent to his grieving father, was among them. He had led numbers 9 and 11 Platoons of C Company, encouraging his men forward. Having taken cover in front of the wire, he was shot when raising his head to try to find ways to make progress.[18]

The 1st Gordon Highlanders advanced from the camera's position up a very gentle slope towards the German trenches at Maedelstede Farm. Few made it as far as the trees seen here. Author's collection.
The 1st Gordon Highlanders advanced from the camera’s position up a very gentle slope towards the German trenches at Maedelstede Farm. Few made it as far as the trees seen here. Author’s collection.

The 2nd Royal Scots found their downhill advance a little easier at first, despite D Company on the battalion’s right front having to squeeze through a gap in a hedge which stood in front of their trench. The battalion also soon came under terrific fire but quickly reached the German trench on the edge of Petit Bois where they captured two machine guns and a number of men.[19]

Early reports reaching II Corps were encouraging, although there was an absence of information from the Gordons which was assigned to the fact that the telephone cables linking their front line to the brigade headquarters barn were being continually broken by enemy shell fire. At 7.45am Smith-Dorrien received a message from the French XVI Corps that both of its divisions had reported at 7.30am and that everything had been carried out in accordance with orders. They also signalled at 8.30am that that they had captured the first line of enemy trenches. Smith-Dorrien now informed GHQ that the two battalions of 8th Infantry Brigade had gone ahead with great dash and troops were now well inside Petit Bois; and a few minutes later the news came that the Germans had evacuated buildings at Maedelstede Farm. This was all reasonably accurate.

But the fog of war soon descended and thickened. No one seemed to be able to report what had happened to the Gordons or exactly where the Royal Scots were except that they were somewhere inside Petit Bois. In fact, the latter had sent patrols forward which had discovered an unoccupied but flooded trench line within the wood. One wonders whether the Scots had been given information that it existed, for it had been reported by the Lincolnshires after their attack. As early as 7.40am, 42 Brigade RFA was placed under direct orders of 8th Infantry Brigade for close support but did not open fire for some time as the position of the infantry was so obscure. Although the British artillery had continued to fire in bursts ever since the infantry had advanced, they were now ordered to keep up a slow rate of fire on objective C until the situation became clearer. In Petit Bois, the dwindling number of Royal Scots found British shells falling on their position and even behind them, especially around the south west corner of the wood, adding to the heavy German fire still pouring from their front. Out of touch and unaware of what had happened to the Gordons on their right and French on their left, the battalion took cover as best it could. During this period, Private 11340 Private Henry Robson carried out an act of exceptional bravery that was to eventually lead to him being awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation reads,

For most conspicuous bravery near Kemmel on the 14th December, 1914, during an attack on the German position, when he left his trench under a very heavy fire and rescued a wounded Non-Commissioned Officer, and subsequently for making an attempt to bring another wounded man into cover, whilst exposed to a severe fire. In this attempt he was at once wounded, but persevered in his efforts until rendered helpless by being shot a second time. [20]

Around two hours after the attack began, messages began to arrive from the French that their attack had not made the progress initially reported. They had not only suffered from machine gun and rifle fire from the trenches in the same way as the British battalions, but were also being troubled by German artillery east of Wytschaete. II Corps had employed only eleven heavy guns onto counter-battery work (that is, firing to destroy or neutralise the enemy’s artillery) and it appears to have had little effect. The French attack was described in the history of the 18th Bavarian Infantry[21]:

‘The French high command intended to unsettle the Germans by means of attack in mid-December all along the line. This was experienced by the 18th Regiment as well. On 14 December after a sharp artillery bombardment, the French launched forward against the German lines as it became light. We were not unprepared because the prisoners [this refers to French soldiers captured during a successful surprise German attack some days earlier which had led to the capture of 215 men] had stated that a major attack would take place in mid-December. But it was a much more modest affair than had been expected. All attacks were beaten off by the defensive fire of our machine guns, some of which could bring down enfilade fire on no man’s land, together with that of our soldiers, who coolly manned the parapet and waited until the enemy closed right up to them. The courage of the French was absolutely remarkable. Led by officers with drawn swords, they launched forward repeatedly from their trenches, only to be shot down or driven back. A further attack was attempted  the next day (15th), this time it was directed against Hill 58 which climbed away to the left of our position … their dead littered the battlefield … Our losses  were only sixteen wounded’.

The attack had by now lost all cohesion, with elements of the Gordons and Royal Scots pinned down in the positions they had reached. The French units were in the much the same position, and were uncertain with regard to British progress. At 12.50pm 3rd Division finally signalled to II Corps that the Gordons were held up 50 yards short of the enemy front trench and that the Germans had reinforced it. Corps passed this onto GHQ and the Cavalry Corps was stood down, for it was certain that no exploitable breakthrough was going to happen this day. Half an hour later a message came from French XVI Corps asking if the British were in possession of whole of Petit Bois, but all that could be said was that this was ‘not clear but probable’. This was somewhat optimistic.

Sir John French had now arrived at the Scherpenberg to observe proceedings. He could have seen little forward movement, but he believed the German artillery fire to be less than the British and on that basis authorised a renewal of the attack for mid-afternoon.

Half of the 4th Middlesex moved forward to give support to the 1st Gordon Highlanders, and the British artillery fired a bombardment described as ‘stupendous’ by the Royal Scots but which the Gordon Highlanders reported as falling short. In essence the proposed attack fizzled out and by 5.30pm the tired remnants of the two battalions had been relieved. A party of the Middlesex stretcher bearers and others helped the wounded Gordons to the dressing stations at Kemmel. As the Royal Irish Rifles would find in 1917, many dead men remained out in no man’s land.

During the evening orders were given that the offensive would continue next day; GHQ was informed at 11.50pm that Petit Bois had been captured. Over at I Corps, Haig had noted two days before that ‘They [II and III Corps] seemed to me rather slovenly in their methods of carrying on war’. On 15 December 1914 he would write, ‘Very little energy displayed by 8 Brigade (Bowes) of 3rd Division, II Corps in pressing their attack’.[22]

The Allied assault had not unduly worried the German high command or caused the Germans to make any significant changes to dispositions. In his diary, commander of Sixth Army Generaloberst Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria simply noted, ‘Various isolated attacks and attempts at attack occurred during the morning. I gained the impression that these were conducted reluctantly and only undertaken to demonstrate that at least something was happening’.[23]  He was not far from the truth.

Sir John French would later write in his memoirs that the ‘Gordons at dusk had captured the enemy’s trenches surrounding Mendleston Farm (sic), but were again driven out of them by powerful machine-gun counter-attack’.[24] This was wishful thinking. French was attempting to deflect blame from rushed preparation, highly optimistic views with regard to the effect of artillery and the reduction of a potentially large-scale attack down to two pinprick assaults. The two battalions had been cruelly exposed to frontal and enfilading fire from positions that had already defeated one similar effort just days before. As one highly respected young British staff officer would call it, the brigade’s attack had been ‘little short of murder’.[25]

[1] The 52 year-old Haldane had only taken command of 3rd Division on 21 November 1914. He replaced Major-General Hubert Hamilton who had been killed in action and was promoted to divisional command at that time, having begun the war leading a brigade of 4th Division. A very experienced soldier who had seen action in earlier wars, Haldane is often reported to be a rather hard and unforgiving character.

[2] William Hely Bowes, aged 55, had been born in France. Commissioned into the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1879, he was an experienced regimental and staff officer. Bowes began the war in the Directorate of Staff Duties at the War Office but took command of 8th Infantry Brigade on 23 October 1914.

[3] Ranging was a process of firing a number of shots at a known target. The fall of each shot was observed from ground and air and suitable corrections made until the shots were hitting the target. Once this was achieved the gun settings were known for firing from the current position onto that target. Ranging usually gave away all pretence at surprise, for the enemy knew that the target was the subject of ranging.

[4] The casualties included ten men killed and eight wounded of the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, which was resting in billets miles behind the lines at Hazebrouck on 6 December. A German aeroplane dropped three bombs onto the billet of C Company. The explosion also killed eight civilians, of whom two were children.

[5] Second Lieutenant Samuel Shorten Arthur Wade is listed at the Le Touret Memorial. He had been ill and had been ordered to hospital, but a man who had returned from the attack brought back a cap that was identified as his. It was riddled by a bullet. The courageous 38 year-old Wade had chosen to go into action rather than seek treatment in hospital. A Private of his battalion wrote to Wade’s widow: ‘Mr. Wade said to me, ‘Come on, my lad; it only wants one to lead,’ and Mr. Wade and I set off, getting well in front of the company. We got to a German dummy trench, and I jumped in, and lying down turned round looking for the officer. I heard he was wounded, and asked if he was attended to they said, ‘No,’ and I got up and retired to the officer, and got him out of the trench and dressed him, seeing that he was hit in the head, and in my idea the officer was dead when I left him.’ Samuel Wade had enlisted in 1895. A veteran of the Boer War, he was commissioned from the ranks in November 1914. From The Bond of Sacrifice: a Biographical record of all British officers who fell in the Great War. Vol. 1. 1917. Reprint. Uckfield: Naval & Military Press, 1992.

[6] Pirie is buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery. He had recently been commissioned, having previously been a Company Sergeant Major.

[7] Captain Hon. H. L. Bruce has no known grave and is commemorated at the Ypres Memorial (Menin Gate). According to one report (The Bond of Sacrifice) he was shot in the forehead by a German concealed in a dugout, while he was climbing out of a trench to lead his men on to the next trench. Wing would also lose his life in the war, killed while commanding 12th (Eastern) Division in 1915.

[8] Sheffield, Gary and Bourne, John, editors Douglas Haig: war letters and diaries 1914-1918, p.85

[9] A quotation from a statement made about the attack made by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment on 1 July 1916: ‘It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further’. The sentiment applies perfectly to the 8th Infantry Brigade’s attack on 14 December 1914.

[10] The battalion war diary reports that they undertook this work 21-29 June 1917.

[11] Dobie had joined the battalion with a draft on 5 December. MacWilliam had joined the battalion on the Marne in September 1914 and had only just returned to action after recovering from a wound he sustained on 12 October. He had been promoted to Lieutenant three days before he died.

[12] The same is true of the 1st Lincolns who had attacked Petit Bois on 8 December. Only one man who died of wounds has a known grave. Fifteen others are listed at the Ypres Memorial (Menin Gate) and Wade at Le Touret.

[13] The 32nd Division, raised in Perpignan, has an obelisk memorial on the lane that runs past Godezonne Farm cemetery. It records the division’s exploits in this area between late October 1914 and early January 1915.

[14] The letter was reproduced in the Aberdeen Journal on Saturday, 26 December 1914. George Gleghorn had arrived in France on 27 November 1914. He was killed in action on 27 May 1915.

[15] It is instructive to compare the “guns per yard” ratio of this attack with that employed in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. For the Wytschaete action, II Corps had 103 guns and howitzers firing on a front of 1250 yards, or 0.08 guns per yard. At Neuve Chapelle, IV Corps had 0.17: twice as many. The attack succeeded.

[16] Commissioned from the Royal Military Acadamy in 1912, Hew Ross Kilner was awarded the Military Cross in the 1916 King’s Birthday Honours and ended service as a Major. He was knighted in 1947 and was at that time Deputy Chairman and Managing Director of Vickers-Armstrong.

[17] National Archives, WO95/1390.

[18] The Bond of Sacrifice, Vol. 1.

[19] Reports vary: the battalion war diary says 60 Germans were captured; the Official History reduces it to 42. II Corps sent a message of congratulations.

[20] Henry Howey Robson was born in South Shields in May 1894. His VC was gazetted in 18 February 1915. He was the first soldier to be made a Freeman of the Borough of South Shields. Robson later emigrated to Canada, where he died in 1964.

[21] The full title of this unit is Königlich Bayerisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 18 ‘Prinz Ludwig Ferdinand’. It was under command of the 6th Bavarian Infantry Brigade of 3rd Bavarian Division, of II Bavarian Corps. The regiment was raised in Landau-in-der-Pfalz and in December 1914 was commanded by Generalleutnant Otto Ritter von Breitkopf.

[22] Sheffield and Bourne, Haig letters and diaries, p.84. Haig’s note reminds the author of the entry for 1 July 1916 when Haig recorded his belief that ‘few of the VIII Corps had left their trenches’ when in fact they had died in their thousands that day.

[23] Rupprecht’s Diary In Treue Fest Vol 1 p 276

[24] 1914, page 322.

[25] From Armageddon Road: a VCs diary 1914-1916 by Billy Congreve, edited by Terry Norman. Congreve was an exceptional regimental and staff officer who earned the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross before being killed in 1916 at the age of 25.

Succession of pinprick attacks

Henry Rawlinson’s IV Corps did not carry out any significant operations in the period between 14 and 17 December, although units adjacent to the Indian Corps were ordered to open fire to support their attack on the 16th. In addition to this, the units occupying the front line trenches all along the Corps front had kept up small-arms fire and from time to time the artillery fired salvoes at identified troublesome spots. This included their part in the ‘demonstrations’ while 3rd Division attacked at Wytschaete. The Corps now commanded the 7th and 8th Divisions, both of which largely comprised units of the regular army that had been based at distant garrisons of Empire when war was declared. Those units had been recalled home, but in some cases had to wait until their place could be taken by an outgoing Territorial unit.

The Corps, which at the time had included 7th Division and a rather under-strength 3rd Cavalry Division, had been despatched to Belgium in the first week of October 1914, with orders to assist the Belgian Army which was besieged at Antwerp. By the time it arrived, the Belgians were already withdrawing westwards from Antwerp and 7th Division complied, and in so doing became the first British formation to enter Ypres. It had played a central role in the First Battle there, and earned itself the title of the ‘Immortal Seventh’. Both the Corps and Division had inevitably been improvised formations, for they did not exist before the war. The staffs were new, the units were unfamiliar with each other and for some men it was their first time in Europe for many years. Despite this the division acquitted itself well, but holding the German attack was achieved at appalling cost: the 7th Division lost 364 officers and 9,302 men in little over a month since arriving in Belgium. All twelve of its infantry battalions had 500 men or more killed, wounded or taken prisoner; most lost more than 750 and in the case of the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers a staggering total of 1,024. A complete battalion when at full strength numbered 30 officers and 977 men. For all practical purposes the division had to be rebuilt in late November and early December and most of its units were still under-strength when Sir John French’s orders for the offensive were received. The 7th Division was under command of Major-General Sir Thompson Capper. Aged 51, he was a highly regarded regimental and staff officer who had seen service in the Second Boer War.[1]

The 8th Division began to land in France in early November 1914 and was still completing assembly just as the First Battle of Ypres was dying down. On 14 November it took over a stretch of the front line in the Rue du Bois – Fauquissart – Neuve Chapelle sector. For men so recently recalled from Malta, Egypt, South Africa and India the change in climate and conditions came as a distinctly unpleasant development. The division was in a similar state of training to that of the 7th Division before the fighting at Ypres, in that its units were at reasonably high strength and well-trained but the formation was new, the staff was new and of course the situation in which the division found itself was of a type no man had yet experienced. Major-General Sir Francis Davies was in command. He too was a Second Boer War veteran and had held regimental and staff posts in the intervening years. Davies was in the post of Director of Staff Duties at the War Office when war was declared.

By early December the two divisions were holding the four-plus miles of front line from La Boutillerie down to Neuve Chapelle. This is a uniformly flat area, intersected by many drainage ditches. Behind the German front line lay the small River Layes (it crossed to behind British trenches near Pétillon) and a gentle incline to a ridge which peaks at a distance of about a mile from the trenches.[2] The ridge is only some 15-30 feet higher than the area to the west but gave it the advantage of being less liable to flooding and for the Germans it provided useful observation points and ensured that some of its artillery was out of direct sight from the British-held area. Not far behind the German line lay the villages of Fromelles, Aubers and Neuve Chapelle; behind the British lay Fleurbaix and Laventie, with the River Lys some four miles away. The whole area was farmland and was dotted with houses and barns. There was no particular tactical or other logic to the siting of the two opposing trench lines, in that they just happened to be where the fighting of October had settled down.

Facing Rawlinson’s men was the German VII Armee-Korps under General der Infanterie Eberhard von Claer. Under his command came the 13th Division (Generalleutnant Kurt von den Borne) and 14th Division (Generalleutnant Paul Fleck). The Korps had seen much action since the start of the war, including battles at Liege, Namur, St-Quentin, on the Marne, at Arras and on the Lorette Ridge. It was a formation of the Prussian Army with its units drawn from the Westphalia region and had moved into this sector in November. The boundaries differed slightly, but essentially the 13th Division faced the entire British IV Corps while the 14th Division faced the Indian Corps south of Neuve Chapelle.

Throughout the period up to 18 December, this part of the front remained generally quiet but with occasional flare-ups.  The artillery of both sides was active, firing on roads and sensitive points behind the lines. The trenches could sometimes be deceptively quiet while the troops strengthened defences or tried to make their lot more comfortable. Sniper fire picked off the unwary at vulnerable points and localised firefights or small-scale infantry attacks often developed in an effort to eliminate the troublesome snipers.  Casualties were small in number but all too often included experienced officers and NCOs. Both sides sent patrols out into no man’s land at night, to probe the enemy’s defences and to identify units if possible by the capture of prisoners. The British were also keen to detect any sign that the Germans were sapping towards them.

A young officer of the Royal Engineers whom we shall meet later in December 1914 was involved in a perfect local raid during the night of 26-27 November. Units of the 8th Division’s 23rd Infantry Brigade had reported problems from snipers located in a house near the German trenches. This was the large farm house north of Neuve Chapelle known to the British as the Moated Grange. Typical of many farms in Northern France, the buildings surrounded a courtyard and midden on four sides, making a site 40 yards square.[3] Lieutenant Philip Neame RE was ordered to take a party of 24 men to demolish the house, covered by eight men of the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment under Second Lieutenant Loraine Macgregor Kerr. Waiting until after midnight due to the moon being so bright earlier on, Neame’s men ran cables out to the house, which was found to be unoccupied, and despite occasional German rifle fire in their direction laid fourteen guncotton charges. Within an hour the two parties were back in the safety of their own trenches, undetected. Exploders were then connected up to the three cable circuits which had been laid, and the house was demolished on three sides. There were no casualties.[4]

On 16 December patrols reported that the German barbed wire defences in front of 7th Division were now 5 feet high in places, but with gaps and areas much less well covered. The enemy trenches appeared to be lightly manned but the German infantry was ‘making a big show’ to suggest that there was a greater presence.  A German prisoner interrogated on 19 December confirmed these findings, saying that the trenches were certainly no more strongly held than usual and had one man about every four to five paces.[5]

At 10.30pm on 17 December, Capper and Davies were summoned for a meeting with Rawlinson at his headquarters in Merville. Their brigades, artillery and engineers were warned that fresh orders might be expected during the night. Orders from Murray at GHQ did not arrive until midnight. After discussion it was decided that the most effective way of ensuring that the Germans dare not remove any reserves from the front facing IV Corps was for both 7th and 8th Divisions to make an attack. Rawlinson advised that this should take place at dusk, which was around 4pm. The two divisional commanders returned to their headquarters, respectively at Sailly-sur-la-Lys and Estaires respectively. Their subordinates were called and plans worked out.

Rawlinson issued an order from IV Corps headquarters at 9.20am, stating the general objective but also giving divisional commanders latitude to select their own points of assault. With only some seven hours to go before the attack must be launched, there was no time for any change in dispositions or to bring rested men into the trenches to relieve those who needed rest; no time for any special reconnaissance; no time to think about surprise or deception, arrangements of supply or special arrangements for casualties.

For the attack by 7th Division, Capper decided upon an assault by 22nd Infantry Brigade on a front 400 yards wide in the direction of Bas-Maisnil, against the three lines of German trenches in front of the brigade. The divisional artillery would open fire at 4pm, paying particular attention on to the enemy’s front trench and those on its flank and on an area known as the ‘Cabbage Patch’. The infantry would go ‘over the top’ at 4.30pm and ten minutes later the guns would lengthen range onto the German support trenches and approach tracks. The artillery would also devote a certain amount of ammunition on breaking up the barbed wire defences in front of 20th Infantry Brigade. This formation would attack, but only with two half-battalions, at 6pm.

Whilst this plan was being briefed to the units involved, the division’s chief gunner, Brigadier-General Royal Artillery Herbert Kendall Jackson, worked out that he only had ammunition for a fifteen minute bombardment and virtually all of that was shrapnel. It might keep German heads down for a while, but even the most optimistic soldier would now guess that the division’s infantry was going to face uncut wire and trenches that had barely been damaged.

22nd Brigade: the Warwicks and Queen’s

At 10am on 18 December the commanding officers of the brigade’s battalions met at brigade headquarters at Fleurbaix. They received instructions from Brigadier-General Sydney Lawford, an experienced officer would later in the war go on to lead 41st Division and become the longest-serving British divisional commander of the war.[6] It was decided that the brigade was to attack on a 500-yard frontage east of La Boutillerie, with the left hand end of the front being at Well Farm.  With no significant changes to dispositions being possible in time, the brigade would have to use the units that were already in the trenches. The 2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment would lead, followed by two companies of the 2nd Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). The rest of the Queen’s would man the front line east of Well Farm. The general idea was to advance across the 250 yards of no man’s land, penetrate the enemy’s barbed wire defences and capture their front line trench. Work would then be undertaken to reverse the trench parapet and to secure the flanks. Once this was achieved a second advance would be made, if the enemy was believed to be weak. Divisional instructions came, entreating the brigade to make sure that they had arranged for special wire cutting, hand grenade and machine gun detachments, to provide working parties with all the tools, equipment and materials they would need for isolating the captured area and revetting the trench as needed. They would also make preparations for bringing ammunition and all manner of trench stores forward, but should not dismantle anything from their old trench until the German line had been definitely secured. This was to prove somewhat optimistic.

The 2nd Royal Warwicks had been holding a sector of the brigade’s front line for the past three days. In order to take their place as ordered for the attack, they had squeeze up into a shorter line by vacating the left-hand part of the trenches they were holding. A and B Companies of the 2nd Queen’s moved up from reserve into the vacated trench and their C and D Companies moved into a close support position ready to follow the Warwicks once they had advanced. All of this took place within a short distance of the enemy, in driving rain, with men moving through already half-flooded trenches and deep mud. The Queen’s were still moving into place when the divisional artillery opened up at 4.15pm and had no time to pass details of the attack scheme to each soldier.

Although the Warwicks described the artillery as ‘heavy’ and the Queen’s said it was ‘terrific’, simple mathematics and the admission by the divisional artillery commander suggests this cannot have been so. The bombardment apparently did little damage to either the barbed wire defences or the German trench or its garrison, but it did manage to wound several of the British troops awaiting the whistle at 4.30pm and gave away any opportunity for surprise. The German artillery, according to the Warwicks, was so little troubled that it made hardly any reply. The infantry of the German 55th Infantry Regiment[7], manning the trenches of the La Boutillerie sector, were ready and waiting. The story of 22nd Infantry Brigade’s part on 18 December is quickly and movingly told by the 2nd Royal Warwickshire’s war diary:

Attack was started by B Company on the right led by Captain Haddon, advancing in two lines; A Company advanced on the left in two lines with D Company in the centre. C Company formed the third line, with entrenching tools. A machine gun was on each flank. Immediately the attack was opened, the enemy opened a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire. The battalion advanced under this with steadiness, suffering very heavy casualties.[8]

The Queen’s had managed to get into the trench from which the Warwicks attacked by about 4.45pm but could only guess at the carnage ahead of them as it was now dark and the air full of smoke. About fifteen minutes later, an NCO from the Warwicks returned to ask for support from the Queen’s but there was no reliable information about exactly what had happened. Leaving half a company behind to defend the trench in case of a German counter attack, the Queen’s now also advanced into the continuous hail of fire. A message went to the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the brigade’s reserve company, to prepare to move forward to reinforce the attack. The Queen’s found that the Warwicks had apparently crossed the first half of no man’s land without too much trouble, but the piled corpses and wounded near the German wire told their own story. Reports suggested that a party of the Warwicks had entered the German trench. As they crossed the fire-swept no man’s land, the Queen’s also took severe casualties: Captains Lee and Fearon, who commanded the two companies, were both wounded. The Warwicks’ commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Brewis and three of his officers had been killed at the head of their men, Haddon was taken prisoner, and battlefield command inevitably broke down. The survivors of both battalions were scattered in groups, taking cover as best they could. Runners sent to take information back to battalion and brigade headquarters failed to arrive, and even by 6pm Lawford had no clear idea of the progress made by his men, or their position. The British artillery fire, having stepped forward as instructed, continued to fall on the German support trenches and had no effect on the fight for the front line. At 7.15pm Capper instructed Lawford to call off the attack but it appears to have been at about 7.52pm when Captain Francis Montague-Bates, who was in command of the 2nd Queen’s and back in the original trench, ordered the men to withdraw from no man’s land and sent out parties to attempt to bring in the wounded. These tired remnants arrived in their old front line, finding them now full of the recently arrived 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

When roll call was taken, it was found that the Warwicks had lost twelve officers and 383 men killed, wounded or missing, and the Queen’s had lost six officers and 89 men: a terrible toll for no gain whatever.

At daybreak next day (19 December) the survivors of the two battalions who were still in their front line saw the Germans beckoning at them, indicating that they could come out to bury the dead. It must have been with some trepidation that several officers and some thirty men went out, meeting with a slightly larger number of enemy in no man’s land. An informal ceasefire was arranged and men of both sides set to the grim task of identifying and burying the bodies.  One report states that of the Warwicks, ‘between 200 and 300 were buried on the ground’: the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in fact list 116 dead.[9]

The majority of the men killed were more than half way across no man’s land and close to the wire defences, which meant that search and burial parties were working near the German trenches. It was as a result of this proximity that two officers of the Queen’s were taken prisoner: this was not noticed until the ceasefire was ended by British shellfire. One of those who went into captivity was Second Lieutenant Charles Gardner Rought of C Company:

I was working until well into the night, with rescue parties. Many of our wounded were lying close up to the enemy lines and we had been unable to get to them. The men in our trenches stood to arms the whole night as we were expecting a counter-attack and just as it was growing light I heard some of them say the enemy were leaving their trenches. I looked over our parapet and saw some Germans bending over our wounded, but almost simultaneously some of our men fired and the Germans disappeared. About an hour later the Germans showed themselves again and our men were told not to fire. Seeing our doctor standing on the parapet and going out, and thinking I should be of help in getting some of the wounded in, (and also that by being in no man’s land I might show our men that the Germans intended letting us bring in our wounded and that they must not fire) I followed the doctor out and, after looking at a few men I found to be dead, heard the Germans calling ‘we are peaceful, we are peaceful, take your comrades’. I [went off] to the right to a point in the German advanced trench where I thought I might find Lieut. Ramsay, who we thought had been wounded the previous evening.

As I got up to the first line which was partly a firing trench and partly a natural ditch cross-wired, I saw a number of our wounded and was just starting to lift a man when a German soldier called ‘Officer?’. I said ‘yes’ and he replied ‘our officer wishes to speak to you’. [The officer said] that our men might take back the wounded but the rifles must be left where they were. This demand I thought quite reasonable and shouted to the men within earshot accordingly. The German officer made one or two further remarks, amongst other things he said, pointing to our dead and wounded, ‘the Englishmen are very brave’.  I was now standing close to a sap, running from the advanced trench to the main firing line, and started to move off to lift one of our fellows who was lying close by. Several of our NCOs and men were by this time hard at work amongst Germans, who were also helping to rescue the wounded – but the German officer caught my arm and said I was not to go. For a moment I remonstrated and after saying something in German, the officer said ‘war is war’. I made some remark in which I used the word ‘treachery’, whereupon I was pulled by some soldiers, evidently by command of their officer, into their sap and drawn into their main trench. The officer, holding a revolver to my chest, said that if I repeated my remarks he would shoot me. He cooled somewhat and stated that I must see his commandant and with his permission might return to my own lines, but as I had seen their position he must keep me.

It was now I noticed Lieut. Walmisley and saw the Germans taking his equipment from him. He was about 20 yards distant and they brought him and one or two men and sent us down their trench under escort. As we passed, away to our left we could still see Germans mixed up with our men attending to the wounded in no man’s land. We were harangued by an officer with a red cross band round his arm. Speaking fluent English he said we had fired on the white flag and were to be shot.[10]

According to the 2nd Queen’s diary, it was during the ceasefire that a German sniper picked off Lieutenant Henry Bower of the 1st South Staffords, killing him instantly. Half of his battalion had now moved up into the trenches from which the 2nd Royal Warwickshires had attacked, and Bower – who had himself been wounded during the First Battle of Ypres – was shot while helping bring in the Warwicks’ wounded. The Staffords’ diary times his death at about 8.30am, about the time that Rought and Walmisley were being taken prisoner.[11] The somewhat nervous truce ended not long afterwards.

 20th Brigade: the Scots Guards and Border Regiment

Once Brigadier-General Frederick Heyworth, in command of 20th Infantry Brigade, had received his instructions from division, he also had little time to conclude on how best to use his force to make an attack. It had already been decided that he would use two half-battalions (that is, two companies from each battalion) and would attack at 6pm, a full ninety minutes after 22nd Brigade had advanced on his left. Heyworth gave orders to move his brigade headquarters to a forward position at La Cordonnerie Farm, which was just behind the extreme left-hand portion of the attack frontage.[12]

The battalions holding the trenches, the 2nd Border Regiment and 2nd Scots Guards, were strung out over a longer line than usual as the 7th Division’s other brigade (21st) had been temporarily released to support II Corps. Despite having little time, Heyworth decided that both battalions had to squeeze up in order to have enough men on the 400-yard front to be attacked. The space they vacated would be filled by other units that would have to move into place before the attack. Whilst this appears to have been achieved, it meant a day of moving men and material and precious little time for briefing or preparation for going ‘over the top’. By the time that A and C Companies of the 2nd Borders were in their position it was dark and no man knew exactly his correct front or the point of attack.

At 3.45pm, the two officers who would lead the attack met to co-ordinate orders. Captain Giles Loder of the Scots Guards and Captain Henry Askew of the Borders agreed that just before 6pm their men would climb over their parapet, crawl under the British barbed wire and lie down.[13] Once they were in place, Loder would blow his whistle and all four companies would advance at the walk until the enemy opened fire, at which point they would rush the German trench. They had to cross a no man’s land that varied between 80 and 150 yards in depth, and the barbed wire defences in front of the German trenches. As it happened, these defences were patchy, with some gaps between areas that were less easily penetrated. No man’s land was flat and criss-crossed with small drainage ditches; behind the German front lay a few farm houses and away on the left some small woods in front of the village of Fromelles which sits on the gentle Aubers ridge. By 6pm, it was pitch dark.

Across no man’s land lay the 7. Lothringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 158 of 25th Brigade of the German 13th Division, supported by that division’s guns of the 13. Feldartillerie-Brigade.

About half an hour before the attack, rumours came through that the 22nd Brigade about half a mile away on the left had failed in theirs. There was no special preliminary artillery bombardment on the front to be attacked, although shelling was going on to some extent and those units on the flanks maintained rifle and machine gun fire to make sure the enemy kept their heads down.

As his watch ticked round to 6pm, Giles Loder blew his whistle as hard as he could. Two hundred yards off to his left, Henry Askew and the two companies of 2nd Border Regiment did not hear it amid the noise of gun fire. The Scots Guards got up as ordered, and quietly crossed no man’s land, finding the gaps in the wire. Within minutes those men who had been lucky enough to walk towards these gaps were jumping down into the enemy trenches and bayonetting every German they could find. Despite the evident tension in the air from the 4pm attack and that there had been much activity behind British lines during the day, the absence of a preliminary bombardment had helped the Guards achieve complete surprise. In Loder’s section they were in possession of the enemy trench and set about making it defensible: no easy task as it proved to be very deep. Private 7792 Harold Bryan would recall that his job was:

It was my duty to cut the wire with cutters. This I had to do lying down and it was to this that I owe my life, for hundreds of bullets passed over my head. When we were within 80 yards of them the signal was given and what a charge: we caught them getting out of their trenches, but few of them were left to escape. On these occasions no prisoners were taken. They either have to run, or stand and be killed. We held that trench for three days and then, owing to weight of numbers, had to retire again to our own line. We weren’t exactly sorry because our trenches are far better than theirs.[14]

Elsewhere the attack was breaking down. The Germans, alerted only at the last minute as the Guards were almost upon them, poured fire into those elements on whose front the wire defences had been present and intact. In other words, the German trench was only entered in patches, isolated from each other, while the survivors in the fire-swept areas also became isolated into small groups that took shelter as best they could. On the extreme right of the Scots Guards’ front, F Company’s progress was halted by an enemy machine gun firing from the vicinity of Delaporte Farm to Rouges Bancs, which scythed the Guardsmen down as they attempted to breach the wire.[15] A detachment under 18 year-old Lieutenant Geoffrey Ottley was ordered to reinforce them but they too suffered heavily from this fire.[16]

The 2nd Borders, having not heard Loder’s whistle, did not advance until some time later. Their own war diary suggests this took place at 6.15pm although the brigade diary says it was fifteen minutes later. Quite why it took so long for the two companies to begin to move is not clear – and many of those who might have reported why it was so did not live to tell the tale. With the Germans now fully alerted, the Borders met with heavy fire as they attempted to cross no man’s land. It appears that some casualties were caused by the British artillery firing short, and those men who did manage to approach the German trenches were halted for an hour until messages could get back to the guns to cease firing or lift onto the enemy’s reserve trenches.

The Sunderland Daily Echo of 9 January 1915 included a letter written home by the 2nd Border’s 9050 Sergeant Charles Dobson. He had only arrived in France on 25 November and this was his draft’s first time in action:

I had my baptism of fire soon after I arrived here. Two days after my arrival my company went into the trenches for four days’ duty. On the fourth night we made an attack on the enemy’s trenches, which are only about 100 yards from ours, but our attack was unsuccessful, although we got to the enemy’s barbed wire and some even got into the trenches. I had about 50 men in my platoon when we started but at the finish I only had 29; the others were mostly wounded. I thought I would never get back. Three times we went forward from our trench under a perfect hail of lead.

Eventually the battalion’s temporary commanding officer Major George Warren made his way to Brigade HQ at La Cordonnerie Farm; by this time it was apparent that the attack had failed and, other than the parties of Scots Guards, the brigade had nowhere penetrated into the German lines. Heyworth issued orders to call off the attack unless it could be carried on without heavy casualties. As Warren returned to his trench he found that those company and platoon officers who had survived had already withdrawn their men back to the cover of their own front line. ‘Further operations ceased and the collecting of dead and wounded went on’, according to the battalion diary. Five officers and 123 men of the 2nd Border Regiment had been killed or wounded, including Henry Askew, the officer who had led the advance.[17]

The work of bringing in the wounded continued for the next two days. There was no ceasefire arranged in this area. Two soldiers of the battalion were awarded the Victoria Cross for their extreme bravery in bringing in wounded men during daylight. Privates 6423 James Alexander Smith and 10694 Abraham Acton share a common citation, which was published in the London Gazette of 18 February 1915:

For conspicuous bravery on 21st December, at Rouges Bancs, in voluntarily going from their trench and rescuing a wounded man who had been lying exposed against the enemy’s trenches for 75 hours, and on the same day again leaving their trench voluntarily, under heavy fire, to bring into cover another wounded man. They were under fire for 60 minutes, whilst conveying the wounded men into safety.[18]

It was not safe enough to bring in the dead who were lying near to the enemy wire and trenches. The brigade’s war diary reported that there were many cases of wounded men being shot by the Germans as soon as they moved, and of one poor fellow who, despite being wounded in both thighs managed to drag himself back to the British parapet, only to be shot dead just as he reached it. But while this may be generally true, at least one officer saw things differently. Captain Sir Edward Hulse of the 2nd Scots Guards wrote to his mother on 22 December:

The morning after our attack, there was almost a tacit understanding as to no firing, and about 6.15 a.m. I saw eight or nine German heads and shoulders appear, and then three of them crawled out a few feet in front of their parapet and began dragging in some of our fellows who were either dead or unconscious close to their parapet. I do not know what they intended to do with them, but I passed down the order that none of my men were to fire, and this seems to have been done all own the line. I helped one of our men in myself, and was not fired at, at all.  I sincerely hope that their intentions were all that could be desired with regard to our wounded whom they fetched in. I also saw some of them, two cases, where the two Germans evidently were not quite sure about showing themselves, and pushed their rifles out to two of our wounded and got them to catch hold, and pulled them on to their parapet, and so into their trenches. Far the most ghastly part of this business is that the wounded have so little chance of being brought in, and if heavy fire is kept up, cannot even be sent for. There were many conspicuous acts of gallantry that night, in getting in the wounded under fire, but many had to be left out.[19]

With the attack of the 2nd Border Regiment having failed, those detachments of the 2nd Scots Guards that had reached the enemy line and were now holding parts of the trenches found themselves in a most dangerous situation. Their battalion’s G Company under Hulse had been ordered to support the assault. He wrote in a letter home on 20 December that ‘Directly the attack was launched, we began digging communication trenches under fire, (a dirty task) towards the line of German trenches which our other two companies had taken.’ Captain Loder returned across the fire-swept no man’s land about an hour after getting into the enemy trenches in order to gather information and obtain reinforcement, but learned that brigade had now called the attack off. He was also ordered to organise a digging party for the same purpose of sapping out towards the captured enemy position. It proved an impossibility to dig 180 yards across no man’s land. A party of one officer and about ten men went across to reinforce the dwindling garrison, which had been in Loder’s absence under Lieutenant James Saumarez. This young officer, Harrow-educated and son of a Baronet, had sustained nasty wounds as described in Hulse’s letter:

Saumarez is severely wounded, and may lose his hand. He was pluckier than anything I have yet seen, as he also had a bullet in his side, apart from half his hand (right) blown off, and persisted in saying that it was so damnable that he would not be able to play polo again!

A stretcher was sent across and Saumarez brought back to British lines with great difficulty. Of the six officers who had gone into the attack, only Loder survived unharmed. Around 180 men – about half of those who went into action – were killed or wounded, but their fates were in many cases not definitely known for a considerable time. Among those killed was Private James Mackenzie, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. His citation, published in the same London Gazette as the two from the 2nd Border Regiment, reads:

For conspicuous bravery at Rouges Bancs on the 19th December, in rescuing a severely wounded man from in front of the German trenches, under a very heavy fire and after a stretcher-bearer party had been compelled to abandon the attempt. Private Mackenzie was subsequently killed on that day whilst in the performance of a similar act of gallant conduct.

25 year-old Mackenzie, a native of Dumfries, has no known grave and is commemorated alongside so many of his comrades at the Ploegsteert Memorial.

As the British attack petered out and shell fire on their reserve and communication trenches was having little effect, the German 13th Division took the opportunity to reinforce. Close-in fighting with the detachments of Scots Guards took place and by about 11.30pm the Germans had recaptured some of their trenches. The rest of them were given up as the Guards withdrew to their own lines before dawn. They later reported that the Germans had allowed them to gather in the dozens of wounded men.

23rd Brigade: the Devons and West Yorkshires

Across the Sailly-Fromelles road on the right of the 2nd Scots Guards lay the operational boundary between the British 7th and 8th Divisions. The latter held the 3.5 mile stretch of line down to beyond the Port Arthur crossroads, south of Neuve Chapelle. On the left the front line was occupied by 25th Infantry Brigade under Brigadier-General Sir Arthur Lowry Cole; on his right came the 23rd Infantry Brigade, the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Pinney. For much of the division’s sector, the British front line lay south of and parallel to the Armentières – Neuve Chapelle road, which is named Rue du Bois except for a section between the hamlets of Picantin and Fauquissart where it is known as Rue Tilleloy. The ground is flat and other than for farmhouses and barns along the road, and the little River Layes which in this area ran behind German lines, there were few features between the trenches and the Aubers Ridge a mile distant. In Pinney’s area the village of Neuve Chapelle lay directly ahead and behind German lines. Facing his sector on the left of the village lay the ruins of the Moated Grange. On the right, the trenches turned almost ninety degrees at the Port Arthur crossroads and followed the line of the Estaires – La Bassée road. Behind Neuve Chapelle the sizeable wood, the Bois de Biez, sheltered German reserves.

Facing the 8th Division was the southern element of the German 13th Division, which by coincidence was also a 25th Brigade. On the German right facing the left of the British 25th Infantry Brigade were elements of the same 158th Infantry Regiment that had caused so much trouble to the 2nd Scots Guards, but most of the line opposite 8th Division was held by the 13th Infantry Regiment.[20]

8th Division received its instructions from Rawlinson around midnight on 17-18 December, and like the 7th Division it had little time in which to plan what to do, although it had received some intimation that it was about to be ordered into offensive action. Shortly before midnight divisional headquarters signalled to Lowry Cole for his brigade to cancel any work, keep as quiet as possible and generally avoid disturbing the enemy. At 9am the brigadier went to Estaires to meet with his superior, Davies. He was told to arrange to pin the enemy down while 23rd Infantry Brigade on his right made an attack near Neuve Chapelle. Lowry Cole returned to brief his battalion commanders at Fort d’Esquin, to which he moved brigade headquarters for the attack. It was now 1pm, just over three hours before the action was to begin. Although the brigade was not going to make a major assault, it was to engage the enemy with fire from all along its front, and its 2nd Rifle Brigade would advance on an 800-yard wide front to capture the German front line thus threatening the main enemy line south west of the Fauquissart-Trivelet road. In order to carry it out, some adjustments of the disposition of the battalions of the brigade would be needed. At the time, all five battalions (the brigade had been joined in November by the territorials of the 13th London Regiment, also known as the Kensington Battalion) were in the front line with only some companies in reserve, so it meant much shuffling along the trenches. The company commanders of the Rifle Brigade were briefed at 2.30pm and the movement to get the right troops into place appears to have been completed by the time the artillery opened fire at 4.15pm: this was the same time as the attack of 22nd Infantry Brigade, but a full hour and a half earlier than that of 20th Infantry Brigade in between them. This fragmented approach can be assigned in large part to the army’s doctrine of devolved command, leaving decisions to the ‘man on the spot’. It inevitably led to differing decisions and nowhere was this fragmentation likely to occur more than across a divisional boundary. One can only wonder whether the poor Scots Guards would have suffered so heavily from machine gun fire if they had attacked at the same time as the 20th Infantry Brigade, and had that brigade made a full attack instead of half-heartedly deploying only the 2nd Rifle Brigade.

While the bombardment was underway and battalions on either side added to the maelstrom with rifle and machine gun fire, at 4.20pm four platoons of the Rifle Brigade slipped quietly out of their trenches and passed through the British wire defences. They managed to enter some German saps and advanced trenches, drawing German fire as they went. Behind enemy lines, two or three haystacks were set on fire, throwing a smoky illumination over the battlefield. An officer and four men were hit, two of them killed, before the detachment was ordered to withdraw – which it did without further loss – in the early hours of 20 December. The British artillery continued sporadic fire throughout the night.[21]

Captain Ralph Verney, commanding B Company of the 2nd Rifle Brigade which had been in reserve during the operation, wrote home that ‘the artillery fairly bombarded the enemy’s trenches on our right front, and an attack was delivered successfully as far as we know, but we have not had any definite news yet of what happened’. He was referring to the efforts of the 2nd Devonshire and 2nd West Yorkshire Regiments away near Neuve Chapelle.

At 4am on 18 December, Brigadier-General Pinney returned from divisional headquarters with his orders to make at attack at Neuve Chapelle. Specifically, he would attack from that narrow portion of his front known as ‘C Lines’ (the 8th Division had subdivided its front into lettered sections). This was east of Neuve Chappelle itself, and faced the recently-destroyed buildings of the Moated Grange. The brigade’s front line skirted the ruins on the northern-western side; the German frontline trench lay along its south-eastern edge. The limited expectation of the operation was explained: the enemy front line would be captured, with a view to possibly outflanking Neuve Chapelle. Pinney made arrangements to move brigade headquarters to the ‘Red Barn’ on the Estaires – La Bassée road near Rouge Croix, and called his battalion commanders there for a briefing. The orders were sketched out but not fully confirmed until a second briefing at noon.

The pattern of the day was similar to that experienced by the other brigades which had been ordered to attack. There was very little time to do anything other than to order the 2nd Devonshire Regiment, which had moved into the front line the previous day, to lead the assault. They would be supported by the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment, of which a grenade detachment under Lieutenant Frederick Harington would be ready to go into the initial attack. The Devons would advance using their D and C Companies only, with B in support. Their A Company would come up from reserve on the right only if called upon. The four company commanders did not have a complete view of what was to take place and to get back to their units until just fifteen minutes before zero hour.

At 4.15pm, the same time as for the attacks further north, the British artillery commenced its bombardment. This letter, written next day by Lieutenant-Colonel George Brenton Laurie, commanding officer of the 1st Royal Irish Rifles which was in the F Lines trenches not far from assault battalions, paints a vivid picture of the start of the attack. He was situated in a farm house on the Rue Tilleloy:

This morning your kind present of ginger cake, plum pudding, and mittens, also soap, arrived, for all of which many thanks. You will be interested to hear what was going on last night, which I did not like to tell you at the time I was writing. We had been summoned in the morning to receive the General’s order for an attack on a trench by the Rifle Brigade. The real attack, however, was to be made by someone else on quite another part of the line. We were to demonstrate. Well, if you ever heard Hell let loose, it was whilst I was writing that letter. Probably over fifty guns took part in it, and the firing was quite close overhead. It may have been 100 guns really some very heavy ones. Then about 10 miles of trenches were blazing away at the Germans, and they were blazing back at us. Bullets were racing through our roof, and there I sat in a little room, shivering with cold for we could light no fire. I was not allowed to go into my firing line, but sat near the two telephones connecting me with the artillery and with my own regiment.[22]

There is inconsistency between the reports of the action as stated in the various war diaries, but there is a common theme in that the left-hand C Company of the Devons under Major Walter Meridith Goodwyn ran into problems which soon brought their advance to a standstill. Goodwyn was wounded in crossing no man’s land and, having had no time to have the attack properly explained to the platoon commanders and sergeants, the company began to drift too far towards its left.[23] The men encountered thick barbed wire entanglements and were cut down by German fire as they attempted to negotiate them. Only a few men under Lieutenant Thomas Joy reached the enemy front line, where they linked up with D Company, which had had a much more successful advance.[24]

The diary of the 2nd West Yorkshires suggests that the Devons did not even begin their advance on the right, blocking the trenches as the two companies of the battalion moved forward into the line the Devons should have vacated. This may be a misinterpretation for A Company on the Devons right standing-by for orders to advance, and is perhaps an illustration of the lack of meaningful briefing of the assault units and the confusion that inevitably arose. Despite the disaster befalling the left company and the confused picture on the right, Captain Claude Lafone led the central D Company through the rubble of the Moated Grange and captured the enemy trench beyond, as ordered, assisted by wire cutters from 15 Field Company of the Royal Engineers.[25] Around 5.10pm, the two support companies of the West Yorkshires moved forward to relieve Lafone’s company, taking tools and materials with them for the purpose of consolidating the position that had been won. Some soldiers escorted 24 German prisoners back to British lines. Work also began to sap out from the British trenches in an effort to link up with the captured German trench, effectively providing a communication trench which could shelter men moving between the two. It was undertaken by the West Yorkshires and Number 3 Section of the Field Company. The sappers had been forced by heavy enemy fire to take cover for an hour, even before they reached the British front line. When his officer Lieutenant McAllister RE was then wounded whilst reconnoitring the German trench with Claude Lafone, the work was led by Sergeant Cooper RE and continued until around 4am. Number 2 Section RE also joined in this work, digging out to link up with the right-hand of the captured trench.

At 5am, the Field Company’s Number 1 Section under Lieutenant Philip Neame RE (the man who had blown up the Moated Grange in November) was ordered forward to relieve the tired Number 3. This proved to be most fortuitous. About 7.30am, troops of the German 13th Infantry Regiment, armed with sackfuls of grenades, stole up to the captured trench at the north-east corner of the Moated Grange. Although the mixture of West Yorkshires and Royal Engineers in the area also had grenades at their disposal, it proved to be a largely one-sided fight: the British had no really effective weapon with which to reply. Their home-made grenades proved to be most difficult to light, being fiddly and slow to use and prone to the fuze failing to light in the wet conditions. Most men simply did not know how to use them. Within the confines of a trench the German grenades proved to be devastating. They appeared to have no fuze to light and could be thrown up to 40 yards. In this desperate close-in fighting, of the West Yorkshires ‘nearly a platoon was knocked out’. To make matters worse, their trench and the recently-dug saps were rapidly filling with flood water. Step forward Philip Neame:

‘When I got there I saw the officer in command who said the Germans were counter-attacking with bombs, that his own bombers had all been wounded and that the bombs that were left would not go off. So I went up to talk to one of the remaining bombers … and discovered that he could not light our own bombs because there were no fuzes left.’[26]

Neame knew how to light a grenade by holding a match-head on the end of the fuze and then striking a matchbox across it. He clambered up onto the parapet (really the parados of the German trench) and began to calmly fight off the enemy with the stock of grenades. This extraordinarily brave young man held the enemy at bay for 45 minutes, causing them a good many casualties too, whilst the West Yorkshires evacuated the captured trench and carried their wounded back to original front line. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in this action; but of course he had also played an important part in previous ventures.

In this enterprise, the Devons had lost nine officers and 131 men killed, wounded or missing including thee company commanders; the West Yorkshires five officers and 95 men. There had been no opportunity to remove the dead. The Germans are likely to have dealt with those in the trenches, but the remains lay out in no man’s land until Christmas. No one could be really sure, but the general report was that at least a hundred Germans had died in this fight for the trench behind the Moated Grange.

Serious lessons were learned from the grenade fighting, and part of it was that the army was just not yet effective in their manufacture or use. Within a day of the fight, the staff of IV Corps issued a stern instruction to 7th and 8th Divisions:

‘The experience of the operations of the night of December 18th and 19th show clearly that more effective steps must be taken to make use of hand grenades and bombs. Men must be trained to throw them accurately and instructed carefully in the mechanism and construction of the weapons. Divisional commanders will arrange for at least 30 selected men per battalion to be trained as bomb throwers and the question of carrying the necessary numbers of hand grenades to ensure the supply of these weapons at the right point and at the right time should be gone into carefully. It is evident that if cunningly handled and accurately thrown, a trench may be easily captured by following it along from traverse to traverse and throwing bombs well into each successive section of trench. This was done successfully by the Indian Corps and can be repeated with advantage.’[27]

Whether trenches could be ‘easily captured’ remained to be seen, but there is no doubt that the army took this lesson seriously – so seriously, that by 1916 when the army had a plentiful supply of reliable grenades, many commanders were bemoaning the fact that rifle and bayonet skills had been abandoned and that the units were becoming overly reliant on the grenade in trench warfare.

The simple fact of the matter was that men were not likely to be efficient grenade fighters if their grenades were poor and there were not enough of them. Rawlinson immediately wrote to Murray at GHQ, that it was imperative a better grenade with a larger explosive charge was produced in quantity, and quickly. ‘I am very disgusted at losing the trenches after having captured them so successfully and owe these German bomb throwers a grudge which must be paid ‘ere long’. He said that German prisoners thought nothing of the effect of the British grenades in use. His temper was not improved when Brigadier-General George Fowke of the Royal Engineers, senior munitions engineering advisor at GHQ, was reported to have said that the failure to hold the trenches had been ‘too much attributed to the grenades from what he had heard of the matter’ and refused the idea of a larger charge. Rawlinson retorted that he ‘had better visit the hospitals and see the wounds they made. They are a horrible sight as the Medical Officers will tell you’. With numerous appeals from GHQ having already gone to the War Office to no apparent effect, a request was made for a supply of French hand grenades with IV Corps had already tested and found acceptable. British unpreparedness for the siege fighting in which they were now engaged could hardly be more stark.

At 6pm on 19 December 1914 GHQ Orders talked of the ‘marked success’ of the previous day. Little wonder that these bulletins generally became known as the ‘Comic Cuts’.

[1] Capper was accidentally wounded by a ‘jam tin’ bomb in April 1915 and was killed in action during the Battle of Loos in the September of that year.

[2] The British called it the Aubers ridge.

[3] It is marked on early maps as Ferme Vanbesien.

[4] Neame had already been recommended for his work on the night of 15-16 November when laying out barbed wire defences under fire.

[5] The war diary of divisional headquarters states that the man was Private Heinrich Schmidt of 1 Battalion of the 15th Infantry Regiment, 26th Brigade, 13th Division.

[6] Lawford had been in the same Sandhurst intake as Douglas Haig, but was apparently not of quite the same calibre in that Haig passed in first place with Lawford trailing in at 40th. Nonetheless during his Great War service, especially once promoted to a divisional command – he proved to be a very capable General. It appears that a nickname used for him in the army was ‘Swanky Syd’. He became the father of actor Peter Lawford.

[7] Infanterie-Regiment Graf Bülow von Dennewitz (6. Westfälisches) Nr. 55, which was raised in the Detmold – Bielefeld area. A few days before, the Queen’s had taken a prisoner of the Königin Augusta Garde-Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 4 who had been attached to the 55th.

[8] National Archives, WO95/1664

[9] Almost all of the men of the two battalions have no known grave today and are listed at the Ploegsteert Memorial. Lt-Col. Brewis, Second Lieutenant Benjamin Standring and two men of the 2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment are buried in Sailly-sur-la-Lys churchyard. Just one of the 2nd Queen’s has a known grave: Pte L/10669 Edward Jones lies in Y Farm Military Cemetery. It is evident that those men buried during the ceasefire were lost or destroyed at a later date.

[10] National Archives, piece WO374/59326, service record of Charles Gardner Rought. The text is from his own notes explaining the circumstances of his capture. A completely inexperienced soldier, Rought was well-known before the war as a rower of international standard and was one of the coxed four that won a gold medal for Great Britain at the 1912 Olympic Games. He enlisted into the Artist’s Rifles on 4 August 1914 (the day that war was declared) and was sent to France on 28 October 1914. The 2nd Queen’s war diary describes him as one of four probationary Second Lieutenants who joined on 13 November. Rought remained in enemy hands until returning to England on 20 November 1918. Second Lieutenant Edward Atherstone Walmisley was even less experienced, for he landed in France only on 10 December and joined the battalion three days later. 21 year-old Lieutenant Duncan Gavin Ramsay was killed in the attack and according to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records was originally buried in the churchyard at Fleurbaix: this implies that his body was brought in from no man’s land. Ramsay was an officer of the Royal Sussex Regiment, attached to the 2nd Queen’s from 12 November 1914.

[11] 20 year-old Sandhurst-educated Henry Raymond Syndercombe Bower has no known grave. He is commemorated at the Ploegsteert Memorial.

[12] Heyworth had been appointed to command the brigade on 13 November 1914. He was killed in action on 9 May 1916 at the age of 53, while in command of the 3rd Guards Brigade, and lies in Brandhoek Military Cemetery.

[13] Both men were experienced and reliable officers; Askew was a veteran of the Second Boer War.

[14] Private papers of Harold Douglas Bryan. Imperial War Museum 73-141-1. Bryan survived the war, having been wounded three times. He had just returned to service after recovering from his first wound, which occurred on 26 October 1914. He was one of six brothers who served. His recollection that the Scots Guards held the enemy trench for three days is flawed.

[15] Rather unusually, the 2nd Scots Guards named its four companies as F, G, RF (Right Flank) and LF (Left Flank).

[16] Ottley was mortally wounded by a bullet to the neck. He died three days later at the Australian Voluntary Hospital at Wimereux. The son of Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Ottley, he is one of the few men whose body was repatriated home before this practice was officially halted. He is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard in Fort William. His promotion to Captain, which had been applied for before the attack, came through shortly afterwards.

[17] The records of the CWGC list 44 men who died, although three including Henry Askew are shown to have died on 19 and 20 December. This is possibly at odds with the war diary which reports that Askew was killed ‘on top of the enemy’s trenches’. Only three of these men have a known grave, and all are buried in distant locations that imply their remains were found after the war. The number of deaths is a little higher if we count those who died of wounds after 20 December. They include Captain Cameron Lamb, who was wounded in the first wave of the attack. He died of his wounds on 29 December and is buried in Wimereux. L/Cpl Brewer and Pte Clarke both received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bringing Lamb back to British lines under heavy enemy fire.

[18] Abraham Acton was killed in action at the age of 21 on 16 May 1915. He has no known grave and is commemorated at the Le Touret Memorial. James Smith survived the war and passed away in 1968.

[19] Sir Edward Hamilton Westrow Hulse, Sir Letters written from the English front in France between September 1914 and March 1915

[20] Infanterie-Regiment Herwath von Bittenfeld (1. Westfälisches) Nr. 13, raised in the area of Münster. This unit also faced the 23rd Infantry Brigade at Neuve Chapelle.

[21] Sergeant 2355 William Goff and Pte 5254 Ernest Newman are both buried in Fauquissart Military Cemetery. Goff had elected to extend his service with the regiment to twelve years in March 1914, having originally enlisted in 1907. He already had some service before that, with the Volunteers and briefly with the regular army, but had been discharged on medical grounds. In recent years he had served in Egypt and India. The army could ill afford to lose such experienced NCOs in ‘demonstrations’ specifically designed to draw the enemy’s fire.

[22] Letters of Lt-Col. George Brenton Laurie, privately produced 1921

[23] Goodwyn recovered from his wound and in late 1915 was posted to the Middle East to take command of the 16th West Yorkshires, the ‘Bradford Pals’. He later moved to France and commanded the 2nd Manchester Regiment from August 1916.

[24] Joy was killed in action in Mesopotamia on 11 December 1915, having been posted for an attachment to the 2nd Dorsetshire Regiment.

[25] Lafone, still commanding D Company, was killed in the same vicinity during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on 12 March 1915. He is buried in the Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard near Laventie.

[26] From Arthur, Max Forgotten voices of the Great War

[27] National Archives WO95/ War diary of IV Corps General Staff.

The battle for the ‘German Birdcage’

The failure of II Corps to make progress in the Wytschaete area on 14 December had left Sir William Pulteney’s III Corps in a quandary. The original GHQ instructions for each corps and division to attack in succession from the left, and that his corps should not proceed with an attack until II Corps had succeeded, rendered Pulteney immobile and wondering what to do. His corps consisted of the 4th and 6th Divisions, both of which had arrived in France prior to the BEF  moving to Flanders and which had gained experience on the Aisne and in the recent fighting. The 4th Division, commanded by Major-General Henry Wilson, held the front from the River Douve, skirting to the east of the large Ploegsteert Wood and going on down to the Lys near Frélinghien.[1] From there, Major-General John Keir’s 6th Division carried on the line around the eastern side of Houplines and Armentières to the link-up with 7th Division south of Bois-Grenier.[2] From an offensive viewpoint the area held by the corps was not ideal. As everywhere else, the trenches had settled where the fighting had died down in November 1914 and in this area they left III Corps hemmed in by two rivers. The larger of the two, the Lys, was a commercial waterway that for the most part ran in a low-lying area and which in many places was now flooding. It lay behind the 6th Division’s trenches, but crossed where the two divisions met and was in front of the 4th Division. Any serious advance that the latter would make would have to negotiate the crossing of the swollen Lys. On the division’s left flank was the much smaller tributary, the River Douve, streaming down from the Flemish hills about Kemmel to meet the Lys at Warneton. By December this too had risen considerably and would prove a nuisance to any advance going in the direction of Gapaard between Warneton and Messines.

Behind Pulteney’s lines, 4th Division had the advantage of Ploegsteert Wood, large and thick enough to conceal breastworks, dugouts and many thousands of men. Just behind it was the height of Hill 63, which gave good observation across the wood into enemy-held ground. 6th Division had the mixed blessing of Armentières very close up behind its trenches: initially very useful for finding billets and facilities for men in its factories, breweries and larger houses (with shops and entertainments too, for much of the civilian population chose to remain[3]), but a magnet for German shellfire and problematic for withdrawal in the event of an enemy attack in the area.

Occupying the trenches facing III Corps was the German Army’s XIX Armee-Korps under General der Kavallerie Maximilian von Laffert. It was a corps from Saxony, as given by its fuller title as the 2nd Royal Saxon (II. Königlich Sächsisches). The Korps comprised the 24th (2nd Saxon) Division (Generalleutnant Hans Krug von Nidda) and 40th (4th Saxon) Division (Generalleutnant Leo Götz von Olenhusen). The divisions were raised in the Leipzig and Chemnitz regions respectively.

It was not that Pulteney would have been particularly innovative or proactive once II Corps had failed to make progress. He demonstrates throughout his time as a corps commander a certain inflexibility of purpose and formality in approach. Sir John French had already recently had to rebuke him for submitting observations and questions on paper, concerning subtle matters of strategy that would have been better and more securely dealt with face to face. When on 30 November his peer Henry Rawlinson wrote to suggest that due to the flooding he may have to pull his left flank back a little to drier ground and asking whether III Corps be in a position to comply by pulling their line back at the point where the two met, Pulteney wrote ‘the tenor of my instructions from GHQ prevent my considering the question of altering my present line unless I am compelled to by the action of the enemy’: such a high-handed response was hardly likely to endear him to the quick-witted and sociable Rawlinson. One wonders what the men who were up to their knees in cold muddy trenches would have made of it.

Sir John French met with Pulteney on 15 December to explain the changed circumstances and the need to support the French assault near Arras; that there would now be no successive attack and in the light of the experience at Wytschaete any major objectives would not be shared between any two adjacent commanders. The Commander-in-Chief ran through various possibilities in terms of a ‘holding attack’ that III Corps might be called upon to make, but concluded that best of all would be a move against the strongly-held Messines ridge. It was not encouraging, especially when he went on to outline that ‘the present object cannot be obtained without losses, and probably heavy losses’. His guidance to Pulteney was perplexing for a man of inflexible thought: ‘at some points it might be desirable to prepare the attack by bombardment. At others it might be preferable to attempt a night surprise. At others it might suffice to advance our trenches by sap and to destroy the enemy’s obstacles by explosives before attempting an assault.’ As long as the enemy was ‘fully occupied and made to fight’, French left it all up to Pulteney.

At 12.45am in the morning of 18 December, the capable staff officer Major Charles Harington issued orders from III Corps headquarters at the town hall in Bailleul, down to the two divisions. They were only to ‘demonstrate and seize any favourable opportunity which may offer to capture the enemy trenches on their front’. Operations were to commence at 10am that day.

As early as 10 December the staff at 4th Divisional headquarters had been mulling over possible offensive operations. They had in mind attacking Messines from the south, should II Corps manage to capture Wytschaete. Pulteney authorised the division’s proposal of using 10th Infantry Brigade (and 21st Infantry Brigade which was briefly used as a Corps reserve) to seize Avenue and La Douve Farms and the nearby St Yves bridge over the Douve, which would give a good starting position for such an attack. Detailed plans were to be worked out.[4]

The 4th Division also considered that they might just undertake local operations to eliminate a troublesome tactical position in front of Ploegstreet Wood and straighten their line there. The fighting had created an awkward series of bends in the trenches. In the centre, where a lane from La Basse-Ville runs directly towards the eastern edge of the wood, the Germans held a forward line that poked a snout out towards the British. This was called the ‘German Birdcage’ by the British; the front line of this feature had until recently been a British trench but was now in enemy hands. The main German trench ran more or less parallel to the edge of the wood, behind the forward line. IN between the two lines on the German right lay a number of houses, which were already proving to be problematic in that they housed snipers and, from the top floors, the British trenches on the edge of the wood could be observed. South of this feature, the Germans had recently built a small strong point they called the Entenschnabel (Ducks’ Bill). The British line bulged out towards the German, forming two small salients. Armies do not like occupying salients, for the enemy can shoot at them from left, front and right, and the curved line is inevitably longer than a straight one and needs more men to hold it, for no real advantage. Division thought it would be good to eliminate the two salient and grab the ‘Birdcage’ but it was understood that a much deeper advance here would take them into even wetter trenches than those they already held and from previous experience they knew that the ‘Birdcage’ could be enfiladed by German guns north of Messines. If an attack was to be made here, it was for distinctly limited objectives. The battalions of 11th Infantry Brigade were asked to consider the matter on 10 December, at which point it was proposed that the attack would be made by the 1st Somerset Light Infantry and 1st Rifle Brigade. These battalions and the others of the division also had other urgent matters to deal with: their trenches were flooding and the parapets collapsing to the point where there was no bullet-proof head cover. For several days, the units in the front line spent their time pumping out, revetting the trench sides with timber, and laying bricks to improve tracks and communication trenches. The conditions of the front line were now so bad that men even had difficulty simply getting into it. Lance Corporal 9090 Arthur Cook of the 1st Somerset Light Infantry recalled that on Friday 18 December his company moved up to relieve another. It was so dark he described it as pitch black. The hapless Cook, loaded with his rifle, ammunition, rations and a sandbag full of other supplies and equipment, fell into a number of shell holes on the way up and finally slipped into a trench three feet deep with cold water. It was too close to the enemy to be able to shout for help, and it was only after much splashing, slithering and no doubt a few calls to the Almighty that he managed to emerge, soaked, filthy and tired, to carry out his front line duties. Cook was one of the men ordered into the attack and was surely not the only one in this condition. Four lucky men of each battalion were spared the task, for they were sent to work with the division’s transport to help with handling the arrival of Christmas gifts.

Holding the ‘Birdcage’ and a stretch of line on either side was the 8th Infantry Brigade of the Saxon 40th Division. Raised in the Zwickau area it comprised the 133rd and 134th Infantry Regiments (formally the Königlich Sächsisches 9. Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 133 and 10. Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 134 under command of Oberst Franz von Kotch and Oberst Schultz respectively).

Even before the blood of the men of 3rd and 7th Divisions had been spilt in their attacks of 14 and 18 December, it was all too evident that the German barbed wire defences presented a considerable difficulty for any infantry attack. In front of the ‘Birdcage’, the wire was observed as being six feet high and six feet thick. Early lessons were being learned and new ideas tried for tackling such a barrier. Pulteney instructed the 4th Division to determine the best methods available, and to make a number of ‘rabbit wire’ mats stuffed with straw that could be thrown across the barbed wire to form a bridge over which a man could run or lie down. Wooden planks were to be found that were long and strong enough for a heavily-laden infantryman to use to bridge a stream or trench. The men of 11th Infantry Brigade set about constructing these things, making bridges fifteen inches wide an eight feet long. They also carried out practice assaults to be made using these methods, and cut some lanes in their own barbed wire defences in order to facilitate an advance from the edge of the wood into the ‘Birdcage’. A test carried out by the Somersets showed that by using the mats, four men could cross a German-style wire defence 5 feet 6 inches high in just over a minute. Patrols went out from the battalion and reported that while the enemy front line appeared to be lightly held, the ground of no man’s land was broken up and was difficult to advance across: and that was without Germans firing at you. Nonetheless the regimental history records that morale was high and ‘all ranks were in a state of feverish excitement’ at the prospect of going into offensive action.

By 8.30am on 18 December, Pulteney had made up his mind. There was no real value in continuing preparations for an attack up towards Messines as it was evident that II Corps were not making progress. He now wanted 4th Division to attack the ‘Birdcage’ at 3pm the same day and said so at a meeting he held at the division’s headquarters at Nieppe. 6th Division was also represented at the meeting but was told it was only to ‘demonstrate’ and use as little artillery ammunition as possible. The question arose as to how many large siege howitzers were available to fire in support of the attack. The reply was hardly reassuring: one.[5] With only some six hours before zero, 4th Division commander Wilson flatly stated that the operation was not possible but he could plan for it to take place tomorrow (and gave orders to that effect). A gunner officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Lyon, who was acting as a liaison officer for General Headquarters, said that Wilson’s proposal was not in line with Murray’s order and the attack must be made today. A message was sent for the commander of 11th Infantry Brigade to join the meeting, as his brigade would have to make the attack.[6] This was none other than Brigadier-General Aylmer Hunter-Weston. Another man with war experience, he has not been well-regarded by military historians but this mainly hinges on his later performance in higher commands at Gallipoli and on the Somme. During the first months of the campaign in France he appears to have been an energetic ‘front line’ commander, in so far as a brigadier can ever be. Arriving at Nieppe at 10.15am he heard the plan and simply said that it could not be done. The infantry could not be properly disposed and instructed, and sufficient artillery was not available to carry out the bombardment. Wilson’s idea that the attack could be held on 19 December was approved instead. Despite the fact that this meant that the attack would be independent of all others being made by the British Expeditionary Force and late to support the Arras attack, no one seems to have suggested that it should not go ahead at all. It poured with rain during the afternoon of the 18th. The trenches, already part-flooded, rapidly filled; the dugouts were already unusable; no man’s land became a morass. The weather improved overnight and the early morning was fine, but it soon clouded over and began to rain again during the attack.

The final orders made no pretence at an advance of any significance but simply the capture of the enemy salient of the ‘Birdcage’: the orders called it a ‘bight’. The 1st Rifle Brigade would attack astride the La Basse-Ville lane and reach the enemy trenches some 300 yards along it past ‘German House’ which lay immediately in front of the British line. On their left, the 1st Somerset Light Infantry would reach the enemy breastworks. The 1st Hampshires and 1st East Lancashire Regiment of the same brigade would hold the front and do their best to occupy the enemy with fire while the two battalions made their attack. Behind Ploegsteert Wood, the territorials of the London Rifle Brigade would act as a reserve, ready to move forward if called upon.[7] Small squads of the 7th Field Company of Royal Engineers were attached to each, equipped with crowbars and grenades for dealing with few houses in the enemy lines, and also with means of marking for aerial observation the ground that had been gained. The British artillery would fire on the area to be attacked, and at zero hour of exactly 2.30pm would lengthen range. To the north, 10th Infantry Brigade would also provide fire support, as would the 12th Infantry Brigade to the south.

During the morning of 19 December, the two assault battalions made their final dispositions, with platoons lining up in waves ready to go ‘over the top’. British shellfire commenced as early as 9am, with the divisional artillery (recently having fired from its positions west of Ploegsteert Wood, in support of 3rd Division’s attack at Wytschaete) firing in two-minute bursts every fifteen to thirty minutes throughout the morning but constrained by the same shortages of ammunition as elsewhere.[8] 29 Brigade RFA, which was specifically allocated to support the attack, reported that it fired 1100 shells in all during the day. It appears that not all of the rounds fell on the intended targets, for both 10th and 11th Infantry Brigades reported British shells falling in and around their trenches: the former were advised that the shells exploding around them ‘could only be German’. The Adjutant of the 1st Somerset Light Infantry was called to an artillery observation post near St Yvon to advise the gunners whether a trench they were about to bombard with heavy shells was British or German: he had to tell them that despite the British shrapnel raining down on it, the trench was in fact held by the 1st Hampshire Regiment.[9]

Number 2 Mountain Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery, through prodigious effort, moved three of its light guns into front line. One shelled German House for 18 minutes to give the Rifle Brigade’s I Company cover while it moved into its assault position. It was ordered to be prepared to move forward to destroy the houses at close range.

During the morning, the brigade’s machine gunners opened up in what proved to be a vain attempt to help clear the barbed wire. It was also seen that the enemy had erected poles holding up anti-grenade nets.

At 2.30pm the whistles blew and men of the two battalions began to move. On the right, the advance was led by two platoons from I Company of the 1st Rifle Brigade and a party of an NCO and ten men under Captain the Honourable Richard Morgan-Grenville. It was laden with sandbags, picks and shovels, for it was assigned to work with the demolition part of the Royal Engineers. With the bombardment having lifted, the German troops holding the trenches and strongpoints of the ‘Birdcage’ were free to man their defences. Morgan-Grenville was almost immediately killed by a shot coming from the third house, while the men of the lead platoons rushed forward and managed to capture the first two houses.[10] Captain the Honourable Francis Prittie, who went forward and was to have directed the operation from the front, was also killed.[11] A machine gun detachment did manage to get forward and took up position in the second house. Behind them in the reserve trenches and breastworks in the wood, other pairs of platoons moved in their wake, ready to join the attack when ordered. On the right front of the battalion, the advance could progress no further than a fence which was just beyond the second house, for it was brought to a standstill by the men desperately trying to negotiate the deep mud in the face of withering enemy fire. It had advanced no more than 300 yards. On the left front, 19 year-old Second Lieutenant Archibald Daniell rushed his platoon forward, but they too found the mud, water, shell holes and British shell fire falling short combined to make their task an impossibility. Daniell decided to try to work his way left to link up with the Somersets, but every man who followed him was hit and no survivors could accurately report what had happened to him.

The deaths of Morgan-Grenville and Prittie, not to mention the fire-swept ground across which runners had to go in order to report back, meant that information was slow in getting to the battalion. The next platoon was ordered to advance to reinforce those that had led before, and D Company of the 1st Hampshire was also sent forward. They could make no progress, halted by their own side’s shellfire. After about an hour, the fragmented reports coming in from wounded men and message runners began to make sense. The enemy’s main earthwork defences appeared to have been little affected by the shelling, but elements of the battalion had penetrated into the defences and were now held up. Some men were working along a German communication trench along the right of the La Basse-Ville road and something of a firing line was being established there; others were east of the St Yves road but pinned down by fire. The machine guns were still working in the second house. Casualties were heavy and no further progress could be made due to insufficient covering fire and the sheer practicalities of the mud. Most of the men who had advanced and who as yet survived were sheltering behind the parapets of old German trenches and were mostly under water. Captain William Seymour, temporarily commanding the 1st Rifle Brigade, could see that continued action was futile and halted further operations. He signalled to brigade at 4.40pm that unless some serious support could come up on the right, he proposed to demolish the houses that had been occupied and then withdraw. Hunter-Weston told him to make sure his men linked up with the Somersets and to hold on in a continuous line, while the sappers blew up the houses and German defences behind them. They could then withdraw through the British front line. During the evening all were back where they had started. Any notion of continuing the attack was abandoned on 20 December after orders were at first issued to continue. It was wisely judged that no further gain was possible.

The experience of the 1st Somerset Light Infantry on the left of the Rifle Brigade was not dissimilar. Their B Company was to form the first line of the attack with C in support and H Company in reserve behind it. In position by 1pm, they watched helplessly as the deafening British artillery fire intensified at about 1.30pm and continued for the next hour – with much of it falling short and shrapnel flying about the British trenches and breastworks. Arthur Cook ruefully recalled that one British shell killed about a dozen of his comrades. Barely one of the heavy howitzer shells fell on the eastern side of the Le Gheer – St Yves road, most exploding in no man’s land and cratering the ground over which the Somersets were to advance.

With every other man carrying a set of wire cutters and others encumbered by the mats they were to throw over the German barbed wire, the battalion’s advance began exactly on time along with the Rifle Brigade. It soon came to a terrible standstill. Only some 40 yards from the edge of the wood, the platoons on the right were hit by a heavy British howitzer shell that caused many casualties. On the left and only some ten yards further ahead, heavy German cross fire from machine guns and rifles caused the British advance to melt away. C Company was ordered forward to bring fresh impetus to the attack, but it too suffered severely. As darkness fell, part of the company reached trenches along the Le Gheer – St Yves road but found them full of water and untenable. They held on to an 80 yard stretch of the road as best they could. Brigade orders for a continuation of the advance next day were questioned, given the sheer impossibility of digging in to create a ‘jumping off’ line, and eventually the orders were cancelled. For all of the effort, 11th Infantry Brigade had succeeded only in clearing the enemy from the edge of the wood and pushing the line a few tens of yards forward. The Somersets had lost six officers killed or wounded during the attack, and 24 year-old Lieutenant Roger Moore was hit next morning, while reconnoitring the ground near German House.

The fighting settled down to an uneasy quiet over the next few days, while the dead lay out on the battlefield. The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission list 34 officers and men of the 1st Rifle Brigade who were killed in the attack or who died of wounds or in the trenches shortly afterwards. Only two of them have no known grave. 24 of them lie in Rifle House Cemetery, deep within the wood and which was in effect a battalion plot from November onwards. Two more lie in London Rifle Brigade Cemetery, which is on the south side of Ploegsteert village, an others in locations adjacent to casualty clearing stations and base hospitals. Of the Somersets, the records list 47 officers and men dead. The pattern is similar to that of the Rifle Brigade in that the majority were buried in a battalion plot which now forms part of Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery. It is quite clear that they were buried at Christmas: we will shortly be returning to the wood.

III Corps planned to send its 6th Division into an attack opposite Frélinghien on 21 December, supported by its own and artillery of 4th Division, but this enterprise was abandoned due to shortage of artillery ammunition.

Givenchy and the Indian Corps

To the south of IV Corps, the line was continued by the Indian Corps under Lieutenant-General Sir James Willcocks, comprising the 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) Divisions. The divisions were commanded by Lieutenant-General Henry Watkis and Lieutenant-General Charles Anderson respectively. All three had spent many years in India and had experience of command there, but in circumstances of ‘small wars’ very different to that which now faced their Corps. At 64, Watkis was among the oldest of British Generals to command a division in France; both men were really at a corps command rank despite only having a division. It was the first time in which Indian troops had been called upon to fight in what was still in late 1914 essentially a European struggle. The divisions of the corps comprised a mixture of British and native Indian units. The latter generally had a mixture of British and Indian officers. As their name suggests the divisions had been based in the Lahore and Meerut areas of northern (and of course pre-partition) India, and the native units were principally manned by men of the northern provinces. They included soldiers from a bewildering array of traditions and tribes: Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and other religions were all represented in the force; there were men who would describe themselves as Punjabis, Jats, Mahsuds, Pathans, Ghurkas, Dogras, Garhwalis, Mahrattas, Afridis.[12] The British army in India had learned over the years since the 1857 mutiny to provide these men with suitable rations, uniform, equipment and an atmosphere in which their traditional requirements could be met, yet still remain within a structure and with regulations not unlike the British army itself.

The Corps, which otherwise went by the name of ‘Indian Expeditionary Force A’, for the government of India also despatched other forces to Mesopotamia and Africa during 1914, was largely supplied and funded from India. Whilst the British regular army was relatively small and now fully deployed, the ability to obtain the manpower and material benefits of Empire gave Britain a significant strategic advantage, and a relatively rapidly-accessible and professional army from India was central to it. This was tempered by the Indian army having a perhaps undeserved reputation at the War Office and among the British high command as being poor, and those British officers with the Indians as being second-rate. The corps was, despite looking like two full divisions on paper, in manpower terms not much more than a single division. It was stripped of the Sirhind Brigade which remained for a while in Egypt, and most of its units were Indian, operating at a smaller war establishment than their British counterparts. It was also deficient in artillery and was using a heavy and obsolescent machine gun, both products of the fact that it had hitherto been mainly used as a frontier defence force in the mountains of the north of India.[13] Few had ever envisaged a deployment in a continental war in Europe.

The Lahore Division arrived in Flanders in time to play a part in the fighting on the Wytschaete-Messines front from late October 1914. On arriving in Europe the troops had received a message from King George V:

You are the descendants of men who have been great rulers and warriors … you will recall the glories of your race … Hindus and Muslims will be fighting side-by-side with British soldiers and our gallant French allies … you will be the first Indian soldiers of the King-Emperor who will have the honour of showing in Europe that the sons of India have lost none of their martial instincts. In battle you will remember that your religious duty is your highest reward … you will fight for your King-Emperor and your faith, so that history will record the doings of India’s sons and your children will proudly tell the deeds of their fathers.

The call to men’s martial instincts and religious duty soon withered on the Western Front. The Indians were no more impervious to bullets and high-explosive than Britons, Frenchmen or Germans. During the period up to December, which was also marked by the arrival of the Meerut Division and belatedly the Sirhind Brigade, the corps found itself heavily engaged and played an important part in the fighting in Flanders. It was soon honoured by its first Victoria Cross of the Great War being awarded to 26 year-old Sepoy [Private] Khudadad Khan, a machine gunner of the 129th (Duke of Connaught’s Own) Baluchis. On 31 October in action near Hollebeke, Khan’s team was hotly engaged, preventing the Germans from making a breakthrough towards Ypres. The battalion’s other gun was knocked out by a shell explosion and eventually all the men of the machine gun team were killed except for Khudadad Khan, who despite being badly wounded, continued to operate his gun. He was left for dead by the enemy as they advanced but despite his wounds he managed to crawl back to his regiment during the night. Despite this and many other cases of individual bravery and skill, the corps came to be regarded as not performing as well as it might. There is no doubt that this stemmed from an understandable initial unfamiliarity with the harsh facts of life in France, but also that the British high command had not taken sufficient steps to ensure that the corps was briefed and prepared. It was also due to a failure of the officers of the corps to adapt their organisation and methods to the new warfare, or at least to do so quickly enough. Tactical lessons had still not been fully understood and corrective actions taken before the corps was pitched into the battles of December, and men’s lives depended upon it. There was also reports that the men’s sword-bayonets did not fit properly onto the rifles with which they had been issued just before leaving India. By the time the fighting in Flanders quietened down in mid-November, the corps had suffered significant numbers of casualties and now found Indian replacements hard to come by, for no reserve and reinforcement system yet existed. The loss of British officers – 187 of them by 1 December – and their replacement with new and unfamiliar men appears to have a serious effect on the fighting ability of the units of the corps.

During the night of 29 October 1914, the Indian Corps took over from II Corps a long stretch of front line. It now occupied the whole run from the La Bassée Canal, up past Festubert and Neuve Chapelle, to Rouges Bancs near Fromelles. By mid-December, IV Corps had relieved the Indians from Neuve Chapelle northwards, and the 8th (Jullundur) Brigade of the Lahore Division had extended the line down across the La Bassée Canal past Cuinchy to the Béthune road, taking this sector over from the French. The published history of the corps describes the corps line as ‘one of the least attractive sections, either from the picturesque point of view or from that of comfort. … The only prominent objects, to some extent relieving the eternal monotony of the scene, was the Bois de Biez, so long a stronghold of the enemy, and in the distance the Aubers ridge, so near and yet so far’. South of the canal, the units of the Jullundur Brigade found themselves on the edge of a vast coal mining area; black with dust, studded with slag heaps and pit winding heads, criss-crossed by railways and with the civilian population still being present in lowly miners villages. In the dark, the cold and the mud of late 1914 it could scarcely have been more different to the lands from which the men of the corps came.

The Indian Corps received Sir John French’s order to carry out ‘local operations with a view to containing the enemy now on their front’ and stood by for the successive attack to be mounted from 14 December to come their way. Earlier in the month Willcocks had made some changes to his dispositions and the Lahore Division had extended its front and taken over some of the trenches from the Meerut, giving the latter a chance to move some of its units into the rear. According to his headquarters diary, while he was supportive of his front line firing and making small ‘demonstrations’ on 14 December, Willcocks ‘considered it inadvisable, in view of the lack of a definite objective, to attempt any attack across the open’. Nonetheless, he decided to do just that, using the 7th (Ferozepore) Brigade of the Lahore Division on 16 December.

The Ferozepore Brigade attack on 16 December

The enemy facing the Lahore Division in front of the village of Givenchy had been causing concern by sapping out towards the Indian front line. Conscious of information that the enemy had used saps as a means of exploding charges or under the parapets of trenches, the commanders of the division and corps were determined to put a halt to it. Two enemy saps on the front north east of Givenchy that was being held by the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs of the Jullundur Brigade was judged as being particularly concerning, and the purpose of the attack was to eliminate these saps and seize as much of the German front line as possible. The attack was timed to coincide with larger French operations across the canal, under taken by their 58th Division. It was decided that the experienced 129th Baluchis would lead the attack, followed by the 57th Wilde’s Rifles, 1st Connaught Rangers and detachments of the Sappers and Miners who would assist in demolition and building trench blocks and barricades as needed. A battalion of the French Territorial 142nd Regiment of Infantry was also attached to the brigade for this operation. The assault units were in billets in Béthune and starting with the Baluchis at 2am moved forwards to cross from the south side of the canal by Pont Fixe, about an hour before zero at 6.30am. Every man was issued with 200 rounds of rifle ammunition. On reaching the 15th Sikhs headquarters somewhere on the road around ‘Windy Corner’ (it is not clear if this name was yet in use), the Baluchis moved into Givenchy under cover of the network of communication trenches. The other battalions remained in reserve in this position, ordered not to proceed further until the Baluchis attack began, and took shelter in the buildings along the road up from the bridge. With two battalions now in the trenches, there simply was no room to accommodate a third or fourth. Orders had been given verbally the previous evening are somewhat chilling: the second battalion was not to go into action until the first one was ‘used up’; the third would follow when the second was similarly disabled. The Baluchis were to enter the German front line and then fan out to left and right, and by bayonet, bomb and fire were to capture as much of the trenches as possible. There was to be no preliminary artillery bombardment.

At 6.30am two detachments emerged from the British front line and although under fire quickly crossed just 25 and 50 yards of no man’s land respectively, jumping into the two narrow enemy saps and driving forwards towards the German main fire trench. The defenders soon woke up to the attack. Fire across no man’s land suddenly became so intense that it proved simply impossible for support to be moved forward or for wounded men or messengers to attempt to return from the saps. The two detachments were on their own. In the left-hand sap, Major Henry Potter received a message from his own trenches by the simple expedient of someone tying the paper to a weight and throwing it from the front trench. It was at this point that the British weakness in grenades and portable mortars began to be ruthlessly exposed, for the Germans of 56th Infantry Regiment (79th Brigade of 14th Division) responded quickly and began bombing the Baluchis detachments back down the sap towards no man’s land.[14] Both detachments were greatly reduced by casualties, in part because in places they were overlooked and the parapets of their saps were far from bulletproof. Several men were seen to attempt to climb out of the right-hand sap in an effort to return to their own trenches, but all were killed or wounded in the attempt. A barricade was somehow constructed which kept the enemy at bay to some extent, but the party in this sap was in a most dire siege situation for some hours.

The 15th Sikhs, ten man to a party, supported by the Sappers and Miners, now worked feverishly under fire to drive saps out from their front line trench to link up with the two isolated detachments in the German saps. Havildar 4072 Mastan Singh acted as a runner, taking messages to and fro over fire-swept ground to keep the diggers and the men in the sap informed as to progress: this brave soldier was killed at about 1pm, on his third attempt.[15]

Around 2pm the Germans made a concerted effort to destroy the remaining Indian garrison in the right-hand sap. A heavy fire was opened on the main British trench in order to keep men’s heads down and minimise fire being able to stop the counter-attack. Curious as to why the volume of fire had suddenly increased, Lieutenant Bairstow and Jemadar Bir Singh peered through a loophole (a metal plate with a small hole, built into the parapet of the British trench) and found that they could see the heads and shoulders of German soldiers firing down into the right-hand sap. Bairstow (who was the Adjutant of the 15th Sikhs) and Bir Singh opened fire on them, and are said to have accounted for a minimum of ten Germans; Lieutenant John Smyth is said to have hit four more.[16]

It became increasingly evident during the afternoon that the situation was untenable and orders were given to the sap parties to withdraw under cover of darkness. Of the right-hand sap, just 21 men emerged, in every single having been wounded by grenades. A party of the 15th Sikhs managed to cross to the left–hand sap at about 6pm, whereupon Potter withdrew his party. For no gain whatever, and no effect on the French attack to the south, the 129th Baluchis lost two officers and 53 men killed, four officers and 67 men wounded. The 15th Sikhs lost six killed and fourteen wounded.

The Gharwal Brigade attack on 19 December

Despite the Ferozepore Brigade’s costly and futile effort, pressure coming down from Sir John French caused the Indian Corps to undertake further offensive operations. This was to support the French attack to the south and was therefore at the same time that the British pinprick and bloody attacks at the ‘Birdcage’, Rouges-Bancs and Neuve Chapelle were also being carried out. Corps’ headquarters at Hinges received orders from British GHQ simply that it must attack but that it should concentrate ‘only on such objectives as are reasonably feasible’. This was a considerable reduction in scope from the ‘attack all along the line’ that Sir John had called for only hours before. Other than easing local tactical problems caused by specific hotspots in the trench lines (such as eliminating a point where the British trench was overlooked, or where troublesome German mortars or machine guns were positioned), the Indian Corps had no clear geographic objective they could use to formulate a plan. There was no ‘Aubers ridge’ to go for, no river line whose capture might ease the problems of flooding of the trenches. The villages of Violaines and Chapelle St-Roch lay ahead, but other than that it faced miles of flat farmland, dotted with trees and cut by many drainage channels. There was little tactical gain to be had by advancing the line from where it already stood. The town of La Bassée lay beyond, but the Corps clearly did not have the resources to carry the offensive that far and made no dispositions of its reserves that may have hinted that it was even considered. The corps was in the invidious position of making attacks with no specific purpose other than to capture some trenches and kill Germans.

From the early hours of 18 December, Corps headquarters held a series of meetings with the two divisions in order to decide a plan of action. An initial operational order emerged at 10am, but it called for an attack to begin as soon as 4.45pm. The Gharwal Brigade of the Meerut Division, and which would have to carry out this attack, protested that it could not be ready at that time and at 11.30am requested a delay. More discussion followed, from which it was decided that zero hour should be postponed by eleven hours and that the operation should commence at 3.45am on 19 December. During the day and a very stormy, cold and wet night, the brigade shuffled its units to bring those selected for the assault into the correct locations. It also moved headquarters from Lacouture to a more advanced position at Rue des Berceaux.

The plan was quite simple: the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment and half of the 2/3rd Ghurka Rifles would attack and capture a portion of the enemy line which was on the extreme left front of the next brigade to the south, the Dehra Dun. They would be supported by a company of the 107th Pioneers and detachments of Sappers and Miners. Should it succeed, that brigade would then mount a further attack. The Leicesters, led by Lieutenant-Colonel  Charles Blackader, began to move from the rear at 12.30am on 19 December, going into the front line trench which at the time was held by the 6th Jat Light Infantry. They were to attack from a small feature in the British line known as ‘Jat salient’ or ‘C Company salient’. It is not far from the junction on the Rue du Bois known as ‘Chocolat Menier Corner’ after a large advertisement on the side of a house there. Without a long preliminary bombardment to give the game away but a short and sharp burst fired by 9th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, the Leicesters achieved surprise and quickly crossed no man’s land, capturing about 300 yards of the German line from the 57th Infantry Regiment (of the same brigade and division that had been attacked by the Ferozepore Brigade on 16 December). ‘G’ Company of the 2/3rd Ghurkas under Major Walter Dundas also advanced, his detachment going to the right where a gap had been noticed in the Leicesters line. Casualties were few so far and the capture of the trench remarkably easy, but it appeared that the enemy had simply retired to a reserve trench. A prisoner of the 11th Jaeger was taken and sent back to British lines.[17] Dundas’s men managed to reach the German front trench and link up with the men of the Leicesters that were on the right, but all efforts to move along the trench to reach the main body of the Leicesters was brought to a halt by enemy fire. They found themselves in a difficult position for the trench they had captured led directly into the main German fire trench and on attempting to move further along it ran into determined resistance. A barricade was built in an effort to seal off the trench and provide some protection against grenades and bullets. The men also began to work to create a parapet facing the right way.

By 10.10am it was becoming clear that no further progress was going to be made and the signs were that the enemy was about to counter-attack. Airmen reported a build-up of German infantry in trenches around La Quinque Rue. By 11.20am, brigade was receiving reports that the enemy was intensively bombing the captured trenches, and it was now also understood that in daylight the position could be overlooked from some German trenches. Inevitably, without reserves and suffering from the same shortage of a reliable bomb that all other British units had experienced, the Leicesters and Ghurkas were gradually reduced and pushed into a smaller and smaller space. The Germans cut away the barricade separating them from the isolated detachment on the right by the expedient of firing at it with a machine gun from close range: the barricade of course exploded into matchwood, and German bombers began to advance onto the Leicesters and Ghurkas ahead. Dundas took the only sensible decision and withdrew his men back to the British front line. The main body of the Leicesters held on.

On the right of this activity, the Dehra Dun Brigade had made preparations for its attack, which would if the Leicesters succeeded take place from the line now held by the 6th Jat Light Infantry and the 2/2nd King Edward’s Own Ghurka Rifles.[18] Any chance of carrying this out was  eliminated during the afternoon, as heavy German shell and mortar fire was directed onto their position and casualties mounted. Enormous trench mortar round exploded with a fearsome road, blasting men and trenches to fragments. The Ghurkas’ Lieutenant Colonel Charles Norie, in his report to brigade, would call them ‘wreaker bombs’: a vivid title. The Ghurkas were forced to withdraw from a small orchard they were holding, to a position some 40 to 60 yards in the rear. Two companies of the 1/9th Ghurka Rifles came up to assist in the digging of this new line, which proved most difficult with the ground being so wet that the sides would constantly fall in, and with German shrapnel bursting over the men during the rainy night. At dawn, detachments were sent to quietly retrieve whatever they could from the abandoned orchard: bombs, flare pistols, rifle grenades and telephone equipment were all saved. The orchard is shown in sketch maps as being in the north east angle of the junction where the road from Chocolat Menier Corner meets the Rue des Cailloux, also known as Brewery Road. All hope of reinforcing the beleaguered Leicesters still holding the enemy trench evaporated, and during the late afternoon and evening Blackader withdrew his force to where they had begun the day. The effort had cost the Gharwal brigade four dead, 17 missing and 77 wounded.

The Sirhind and Ferozepore Brigades attack on 19 December

The story of this attack was not dissimilar to that of the Garhwal, but ultimately with much heavier casualties and, and as things turned out, producing much greater risk to the security of the British position at Givenchy. The plan was concocted during the meetings on 18 December and was launched at 5.30am next day – almost two hours after the Leicesters had commenced their attack and by which time the German defences were fully alerted and projecting enormous volumes of fire onto the British lines.

Described in orders as a ‘simultaneous and conjoint’ operation between the Sirhind and Ferozepore Brigades, the action took place east and north east of Givenchy. Their objective was the capture of enemy trenches on a front about 150 yards in breadth. On the left, four waves of men of the Sirhind Brigade, comprising 1st Highland Light Infantry and 1/4th Ghurka Rifles, would advance. It was their first significant operation since arriving in France from Egypt. On the right, the 59th Scinde Rifles was lent for this operation by the Jullundur to the Ferozepore Brigade. It received orders late, and from 2am moved through the night from billets at Beuvry. Not a man had had a win of sleep since the previous night. The battalion reported to the headquarters of the 129th Baluchis, still in the line after their attack three days before, and after some hasty discussion was led into the communication and support trenches. The Baluchis cleared 200 yards of the front to allow the Scinde Rifles to take up their attack position. It was dark and not a man had ever been near this position before. They arrived a matter of minutes before the signal for the launch of the attack, which was a four minute bombardment of the enemy trenches by 18 Brigade and one section of 57 Howitzer Battery of the Royal Field Artillery. Before they had any opportunity to get into contact with the Sirhind Brigade units on their left, they were off into action.

During this brief bombardment, the first wave of the left hand group (the Sirhind Brigade) left their trench and moved out into no man’s land. The moment is stopped, they rushed the last 180 yards or so and entered the enemy fire trench with very few losses. They had achieved an element of surprise, regardless of the generally alerted enemy, and sent some 80 prisoners back to British lines. In accordance with orders, the Pioneers and Sappers and Miners moved in to consolidate the trench and make it defensible. The second and successive waves also began to move forward. So far, so good. The Scots of the Highland Light Infantry and the Ghurkas now moved on to the reserve trench, finding that stage relatively straightforward, too, and the second wave arrived soon afterwards. But the advance was halted there. The two captured trenches, so narrow in extent, were now so crammed with men that a message was sent back to the third and fourth waves to halt their advance and return. The position that had been captured also included a say running out from the German lines towards the trenches from which the brigade had attacked: the 104th Pioneers began work to dig to connect it up, effectively to form a new communication trench. In the event this effort failed. One report assigns it to the early death of a British officer (‘they ceased work’ stated the 1st Highland Light Infantry) but more likely is that it was the result of a serious problem had developed on the right.

The 59th Scinde Rifles were not only tired and not sure of where they were or where they were supposed to be attacking, they found it terribly difficult to climb out of the flooding and muddy trenches. There had been no time or orders to create prepared exits and the men had to slither up the trench sides as best they could. In so doing, the battalion practically lost all sense of direction. First out was a platoon on the battalion’s right under Jemadar Mangal Singh; they advanced well and captured a trench. Although it ran in parallel with the main German fire trench it was in fact an offshoot of a sap and was some tens of yards short of the main line. Mangal Singh and his men held this sap all day until relieved early on 20 December.

A position was also reached on the extreme left. No one could report quite how, but a party under Lieutenant William Bruce veered so far to their left that they ended up entering the German main trench across into the Sirhind Brigade’s area of operations. Bruce was wounded and later died in the trench that day. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, with his citation reading,

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. On the 19th December, 1914, near Givenchy, during a night attack, Lt. Bruce was in command of a small party which captured one of the enemy’s trenches. In spite of being severely wounded in the neck, he walked up and down the trench, encouraging his men to hold on against several counter-attacks for some hours until killed. The fire from rifles and bombs was very heavy all day, and it was due to the skilful disposition made, and the example and encouragement shown by Lt. Bruce that his men were able to hold out until dusk, when the trench was finally captured by the enemy.

The citation tells us the outline of what happened, but for greater detail we have a report from Havildar Dost Mohammed of ‘H’ Company,

I and my platoon reached the German trenches. Lieutenant Bruce was the first man in the trenches. The enemy said they would surrender and handed up rifles but men who put their heads over the trenches were killed. The writer Mohammed Hussein was killed in this way; eventually we got into the trench. Lieutenant Bruce told me to fortify and hold the left. [He] was wounded in the neck and later killed. Our men held on all day and killed many Germans, [but] our [rifle] bolts jammed and we could not fire much. Lots of Germans were piled up in the trenches on both sides and they seemed to be all round us. The Germans soon brought up a bomb gun into action. I told our men to go but they refused for they said the Sahib had told them to stay. Finally I when I went all others were dead – killed by bombs. I and another wounded man stated off up a sap. There was a British officer there who told us the Germans held this sap. We went into the opening and taking a wrong turning found ourselves in front of a hostile trench. We waited until the bursting of shells showed us our line and we crawled up to our firing line, which fired on us. I shouted out that I was a man from India and a Sergeant said ‘come on’. I went in and then went back to bring in the other wounded man. The Sergeant said I ought not to go back.

Dost Mohammed’s terrifying account is supported by others that talk of close-in fighting in the enemy trenches and bayonets, with the Scinde Rifles using bayonets in the dark. The trenches were crammed with men: German, British and Indian, and an awful confused fight took place with severe casualties to both sides.

On the left of the Ferozepore Brigade’s area, a German detachment in a sap and with cover of an embankment had simply been missed as the British units on their left and right advanced towards the German lines. They had the advantage of observation across no man’s land and into the backs of those men of the Sirhind Brigade now in the saps and trenches of their enemy. Fire from this detachment, as well as from the German lines and artillery not only caused casualties to those men, but swept the space between the two front lines, Once again it became almost impossible to bring reserves or messages forward, or to evacuate wounded or bring messages back. Many a man was killed or wounded in the attempt.

At 10am, one of the tragedies of the day took place. A platoon of the 1/1st Ghurka Rifles of the Sirhind Brigade, meant originally to have gone into the attack at 5.30am but unable to do so as it was not ready, began to advance. It did not need to do this: its order had been cancelled. Captain Thomas Burke, Lieutenant Lionel Rundall and one man were immediately killed, 23 others wounded. Their brave attempt was over in moments and only a remnant returned unwounded to their trench.[19]

With it being evident for some hours that progress was improbable, that casualties were great and that the efforts to link up the sap on the right of the Sirhind Brigade’s front had foundered, the 1/4th Ghurkas’ Major Bernard Nicolay took the decision to withdraw. By about 5pm the captured position was given up. The losses to the attacking units had been heavy, but for the two brigades the battle had barely yet begun.

The defence of Givenchy 20-21 December 1914

German retaliation to The Indian Corps’ attacks was swift and heavy. From dawn on 20 December, in torrential rain and cold, the German artillery subjected the whole corps front line trenches to a deluge of high explosive shells, which was also supplemented by the fearsome trench mortars. Behind the German front, men of the 57th Infantry Regiment (of 79th Brigade, 14th Division) took up an assault position, facing the front between La Quinque Rue and Givenchy.[20] The epicentre of the bombardment was the front held by the Sirhind Brigade, on which on this occasion the German had an extra ace to play. The brigade was of course still in the process of recovering and reorganising after the fighting of the previous day, and as such its front line was being held by a very mixed set of units. On the brigade’s right, a company of the 1st Highland Light Infantry, two double companies of the 1/4th Ghurkas and two machine gun teams from the 125th Rifles held the line. On their left came another company of the 1st Highland Light Infantry and two double companies of the 1/1st Ghurkas. Parts of the 1st Highland Light Infantry, 1/1st Ghurkas and 125th Rifles were not far behind, in local reserve on the Festubert road.

While shells were still raining down and the men of the brigade were doing as best they could to take shelter in the flooded trenches, the area north of Givenchy (east of Le Plantin) was shaken at 9am by the sudden, deep and violent explosion of underground mines. Givenchy would acquire a terrible reputation as being a place for that most feared of trench fighting technique, and the explosion under the brigade’s trenches was the harbinger of many horrors yet to come. In comparison with later mine warfare this was small beer – a captured report suggested that ten mines each of 50kg of explosive were used, with a 300kg charge under Picquet House failing to explode – but it caused carnage and confusion. The timing of the explosions had been set in order to give the German engineers daylight in which to test the electrical circuits and to make any improvements needed before the switches were thrown. The Sirhind Brigade had been caught out by the very thing that all British units had been warned to look out for: the Germans digging saps out from their front line towards the British. From the sapheads closest to the brigade’s parapets, just three metres away, German engineers had tunnelled below and quietly laid the charges. To some extent this explains the strong resistance that had shown during the previous days fighting when men of the Indian Corps had stormed into some of the saps. For the infantry, the underground explosions were a terrible and new development. The technique was one of classical siege warfare from previous centuries and could not have been entirely unexpected, although it is apparent that there was no intelligence that the Germans had yet commenced any operations to actually undermine the British trenches. It was not unexpected because the British Royal Engineers had been having similar thoughts.  Some days previously, a tunnel seventy feet deep had been dug to within thirteen feet of the German lines on the front held by the Dehra Dun Brigade, but activity was detected and the mine shaft near the orchard and nearby trenches destroyed by mortars.

It was not until later than an assessment could be made of the exact effect of the German mines, but it was immediately evident that it had been very grave. On the brigade’s right front, one of the of the double companies of the 1/4th Ghurkas were simply erased, apparently without survivors. The greater part of half a company of the 1st Highland Light Infantry suffered the same fate. A report from German VII Corps captured later stated that ‘In dugouts of the trenches which were destroyed by the mines, a large number of Indian corpses were found still sitting; they had apparently been suffocated’.[21]

Within moments of the mine explosions, storming parties of German infantry and pioneers issued from each of the ten saps and very quickly entered the devastated British trench. They were followed by other parties who crossed the open between the saps, and commenced ‘mopping up’ the survivors by the use of hand grenade and what the captured report described as ‘incendiary torches’. Once cleared, a working party with timber, sandbags and other materials came across to the captured line and commenced to make it defensible.

The remainder of the 1/4th Ghurkas were ordered to retire from their trenches; a Ghurka officer and some 40 to 50 men of the Ferozepore Brigade joined them in doing so. The machine gun detachments of the 1/4th Ghurkas and those from the 125th Rifles remained to cover this retirement, but another violent explosion was heard and it is believed that they perished or were captured, to a man. Of the units holding the left of the brigade’s front, only a small number of the Highland Light Infantry on the extreme left appears to have survived the mines and initial enemy assault. In touch with the 1st Seaforth Highlanders of the Dehra Dun Brigade on their left, they fell back to support trench and barricaded it against further attack. This detachment held on until for the next 24 hours. The German infantry poured through the gap, pushing on in the centre towards Le Plantin on the main right. On the British left, Picquet House, the Orchard and the brewery fell into enemy hands as the Germans advanced on Festubert itself. The 1st Seaforth Highlanders and the 2/2nd Ghurkas of the Dehra Dun Brigade found themselves under heavy attack. The 58th Rifles were ordered to assist and the 6th Jats were also engaged on the left. Desperate fighting took place but the brigade more or less held its line. On the right, the Germans moved quickly through the increasingly ruined Givenchy, gaining advantage of the marginally higher and drier ground of the ‘Mound’ near the village church. East and south east of Givenchy, parts of the 9th Bhopal Light Infantry and 57th Rifles held their ground. No doubt some of this number came later in the day, but the captured German report said that 19 British officers and 815 other ranks were taken prisoner on 20 December: the majority would have been in this first rapid assault.

At 11.15am, the 1st Manchester Regiment of the Jullundur Brigade received orders to move from reserve and go to Gorre, where it would come under command of the Sirhind Brigade. The men were fed up, for it had spent the best part of two days at Béthune being ordered to be ready to move and then being stood won again. Marching off at noon, things changed again and the battalion was now instructed to move along the towpath of the La Bassée canal to Pont Fixe. On arrival the battalion was ordered to make a counter attack against German-held trenches east of Givenchy: this was misleading and disastrous for the battalion. The 2nd and 3rd battalions of the French 142nd Régiment of Territorial Infantry under Lieutenant-Colonel Cantau also moved in support, and took up a position near Pont Fixe.

Moving off at 3.15pm, the lead elements of the Manchesters soon found that Givenchy was strongly held by the enemy. The 3/142nd Battalion now moved up on the Manchesters left, passing north of the church. It took some time to clear the village, during which time twelve prisoners were taken (a small number given the close-in nature of fighting in a built-up area, hinting that men fought to the last), and by the time the Manchesters entered the old communication trenches on the east side it was too dark to see where the enemy was. The battalion was also now in unfamiliar, cratered ground. Companies of the 1/4th Suffolk Regiment, also ordered up from reserve, joined the Manchesters in and around Givenchy at this time. The French 3/142nd, commanded by Captain Salle, reached a similar position in the communication trenches, some 200 yards short of the German main firing line. They were out of touch with the Manchesters on their right and had nothing at all on the left. Salle, although badly wounded, remained in command until the morning, when Captain Ribes took over.

Patrols sent out during the night to reconnoitre the area met with heavy fire and sustained serious losses. At 6.30am on 21 December, the Manchesters and B Company of the Suffolks attempted to advance. They met with heavy and sustained machine gun fire, resulting in a heavy toll of casualties. Things had not been helped by his men being seen clear silhouette, illuminated by two haystacks burning behind them.

At 11am, heavy German artillery fire fell onto Givenchy and the three units now in the communication trenches east and north of the village. A strong infantry attack, again by 57th Regiment, followed 45 minutes later. At this point, it becomes difficult to know exactly what happened, not least as the war diary of the Manchester Regiment suggests that the French unit gave way on its left, and the 142nd Régiment says that it stood firm. It does appear that Captain Ribes was wounded, a patrol sent to get into contact with the Manchesters was wiped out, and the French were isolated north of the village church. The fighting remained intense for much of the day, ebbing and flowing. The British were pushed out of Givenchy again, only for the Manchesters to counter attack at about 2pm and the Germans to regroup and push again at about 3.20pm. The trenches and dugouts of Givenchy became a charnel house, with men of both sides dying and bleeding in large numbers as the fight boiled on.

During the fight, the British 1st Division, part of Haig’s I Corps and headquartered at Hazebrouck, was welcoming a new commanding officer, Brigadier-General Richard Haking.[22] At 2.30pm Haking received an urgent order to send one of his brigades to assist the Indian Corps; less than an hour later, he was instructed to send another. The 1st and 3rd Infantry Brigades, resting at Borre-Pradelles and at Strazeele respectively, set off for Béthune. During the evening, the 2nd Infantry Brigade also began to move, for a decision had been taken to relieve the Indian Corps completely.

While Haking’s men began their journey from rest and to the hell of the Givenchy-Festubert front, the fighting continued. Reinforcements had been ordered into the area in the shape of dismounted men of the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade, to which had now been added the 47th Sikhs from the reserve of the Jullndur Brigade and the 2/8th Ghurkas from the Bareilly Brigade. The 780 cavalrymen, who came from the 7th Dragoon Guards, 34th Poona Horse, 20th Deccan Horse and Jodhpur Lancers – what  images of Empire! – moved to Essars via Annezin on 19 December. They were commanded at first by 47 year-old Boer War veteran Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Lemprière. He was killed in their intervention in the battle, becoming one of 174 British and Indian officers and men of the detachment to die, be wounded or taken prisoner. On arriving in the forward area, Lemprière was ordered to use 200 men of the 7th Dragoon Guards and the 47th Sikhs to mount a counter attack in the area south of Festubert, attacking in a north easterly direction up towards the area of Picquet House and the Orchard. Delays were encountered as contact was made with the French battalion (which was on the right of where the detachment would attack) and the Jullundur Brigade beyond, and it was found necessary to file the detachment forward across a narrow bridge at one point. Having left Gorre for Festubert at 6.15pm on 20 December, it was not until 11.30pm that the force was in place. Their counter attack commenced in pitch darkness at 1am on 21 December. Their attempt was forlorn. Men reached the former British support trenches, but came under heavy enemy fire from their left front. Colonel Lemprière, who had gone forward with another officer to try to determine where they were and to locate the enemy’s line, was shot in the head as he made his way back. Soon after 2am the detachment was ordered to retire to Festubert. But this was not the end of the brave effort by the cavalrymen, for having regrouped in Festubert they were ordered at 3.50am to try again. This time an advance would be made by a first line consisting of the 47th Sikhs and half of the 2/8th Ghurkas and second line of the rest of the Ghurkas and the 7th Dragoon Guards. It proved as unhappy as the first. Moving off at 5am, units got mixed up, did not know where they were, were out of touch with units on either idea and found themselves under heavy and sustained machine gun fire from both left and right. On nearing the enemy’s fire trench a party, believed to be Ghurkas, gave a cheer before they rushed forward. Few were ever heard of again. Some of the 7th Dragoon Guards got into the enemy trench, and began to move along it to their right but ran into such intense fire they could advance no further. The 2/8th Ghurkas reported that two of their men had drowned in a flooded trench on the left. The situation was simply untenable and the wise decision was made to withdraw the force.

The units of 1st Infantry Brigade moved up through Beuvry in the morning of 21 December and took part in an attack with 3rd Infantry Brigade on its left during the afternoon. After heavy, confusing fighting through the trenches, dugouts and ruins of Givenchy, the brigade succeeded in ejecting the enemy. The units of 3rd Brigade made some progress, but found flooded trenches and dykes made an advance far from straightforward, to say nothing of continued determined enemy resistance. At the same time, the 2nd Infantry Brigade began to relieve the Dehra Dun in the Le Touret sector. During the night 21-22 December the units of this brigade also began to attack, but found the original trenches that they were meant to capture so obliterated they were hard to identify. Fighting continued throughout 22 and 23 December, as the relatively fresh units of 1st Division deployed and continued press. The German attack had by now lost its initial impetus through sheer exhaustion, but the 57th Regiment fought on doggedly and no ground was given up easily.

Losses on both sides had been severe: the Manchesters lost 5 officers and 280 men, the Highland Light Infantry 10 officers and 390 men; several Indian battalions lost more than 200 men. The German VII Corps reported approximately 1250 casualties. By 24 December, things began to settle down to an uneasy quiet. After all, it was Christmas.

[1] Not to be confused with his namesake Henry Hughes Wilson who was on the staff of GHQ, Henry Fuller Maitland Wilson (born 1859) was a veteran of the Second Afghan and Second Boer Wars. He had gone to war in command of 12th Infantry Brigade but took over 4th Division from 9 September 1914. Later in the war he commanded a corps in Salonika. Wilson was related by marriage to Hubert and John Gough, both famous Generals of the Great War.

[2] Keir was a gunner, having entered the army through the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. A trained staff officer, he was also a veteran of the Second Boer War. He went on to command a corps in France but was sent home in 1916 after serious disagreement with his commanding officer Sir Edmund Allenby, and retired from the army in 1918.

[3] The period is remarkable in that for the most part many civilians were carrying on their lives within the range of shell fire. Houplines was considered too close to the trenches and the people were compulsorily evacuated from the town after 24 hours’ notice during December 1914.

[4] The terms St Yves and St Yvon both appear in contemporary maps and documents, describing the hamlet at the north-east corner of Ploegsteert Wood. For clarity, St Yves is used throughout this narrative.

[5] At 9.30am II Corps received a message from II Corps saying that it could give them just ten rounds of 6-inch howitzer shell. Late on 18 December, I Corps offered III Corps the use of a howitzer battery, but it was refused as there was insufficient ammunition for it to be useful in the forthcoming operation. A section of three light guns from a Mountain Battery were allotted to 11th Infantry Brigade at 6.20pm on 17 December.

[6] Lyon, aged 57, had seen service in the Malakand Field Force, Second Boer War and West African Field Force, and had some time as British Military Attaché in Bucharest, Sofia, Belgrade and Athens. He was five times mentioned in despatches, knighted and given the rank of Brevet Colonel for his staff work during the Great War.

[7] The London Rifle Brigade was also known as the 1/5th (City of London) Battalion of the London Regiment.

[8] The divisional artillery brigades (14, 29, 32 and 37) were supplemented by numbers 4 and 6 Siege Batteries of the Royal Garrison Artillery and half of 37 Battery RFA for the attack on the ‘Birdcage’. It is of interest that the diary of 14 Brigade RFA, which was the most southerly of the division’s guns being located around Le Bizet and which was under orders to ‘demonstrate freely’, said that it halted its bombardment at 10am ‘as the ground was found to be too wet and marshy for an infantry attack’.

[9] This may not be correct, for the 1st Hampshires were some way south, on the far side of the Somersets and the Rifle Brigade. Whether their trench could be seen from St Yvon is doubtful. It depends on the direction in which the officers were looking, but if anything it may have been the trenches of the 1st Royal Warwickshires of 10th Infantry Brigade that they could see. The Warwicks complained of short firing at times through the morning.

[10] Richard Morgan-Grenville, the grandson of the late Duke of Buckingham, was known by his hereditary title as the Master of Kinloss. Born in 1887 he was Eton- and Sandhurst-educated and had been commissioned in 1906. He had already twice been wounded since the beginning of the war. Morgan-Grenville lies beside many of his men in Rifle House Cemetery.

[11] A 34 year-old son of a Baron, Prittie had been commissioned in 1900 and had spent much of the time before the war on various duties in Africa and Egypt. He had already been awarded the French Legion d’Honneur for being ‘the last man to leave a trench under very hot fire; and it was his action that saved the lives of many French soldiers’. He is buried next to Richard Morgan-Grenville.

[12] According to The Indian Corps in France, although the 129th Baluchis play an important part in the fighting of December 1914, ‘the name is a misnomer, as the genuine Baluchi is not now enlisted. The 129th consists of 2 companies of Punjabi Muslims, 3 of Mahsuds, 3 of other Pathans’.

[13] The field artillery was all British except for mountain guns. This was a legacy from the Indian Mutiny and subsequent decisions not to allow such weaponry to be in Indian hands.

[14] The German unit facing the attack was the Infanterie-Regiment Vogel von Falckenstein (7. Westfälisches) Nr. 56, which was raised in Wesel and Kleve, along the Rhine not far from the Dutch border. A prisoner captured by the Baluchis confirmed the fact.

[15] Mastan Singh was a native of Chhoti Hiron, Patiala, Punjab. He has no known grave and is commemorated alongside so many of his comrades at the Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial. CWGC incorrectly gives the date of his death as 10 December.

[16] John George Smyth was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his exceptional work on 18 May 1915. He continued on to see service in WW2, reaching the rank of Acting Major-general.

[17] Kurhessisches Jäger-Bataillon Nr. 11, raised in Marburg.

[18] Brigade HQ was in Cense du Raux Farm, which is situated behind and to the right of the Le Touret Memorial and Military Cemetery.

[19] Burke and Rundall have no known graves today and are commemorated at the Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial. Rundall was the author of a book, ‘The ibex of Sha-Ping and other Himalayan studies’. Published after his death and now freely available on the internet, it includes some excellent drawings. Sapper 2162 Raj Muhammad is buried at Gorre British and Indian Cemetery. Aged 21 he was a native of Murarian, Korla, Kharian, Gujrat, Punjab.

[20] Kgl. Preussiches Infanterie-Regiment ‘Herzog Ferdinand von Braunschweig’ (8. Westfälisches) Nr 57, raised in Wesel.

[21] It is also possible that they had been killed by ‘concussion’ from the air pressure wave of a nearby explosion. The phenomenon of finding such men, apparently unhurt but dead, is often commented upon by men who served in the trenches.

[22] Haking’s name became almost synonymous with the ground between Givenchy and Armentières, for he was in command during some of the more disastrous of British operations of the Great War in this area, including the British-Australian attack near Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916. He also commanded the British XI Corps which fought well here in the Battle of the Lys on 9 April 1918, holding on even though one of its formations, the 2nd Portuguese Division, was destroyed in a matter of hours by overwhelming German attack. On the Portuguese right, the 55th (West Lancashire) Division fought a brilliant defence – at Givenchy.

Indian Corps casualties to 31 December 1914 since it came first into the line in October

Casualties incurred Killed or missing Wounded
Indian Corps Officers Men Officers Men
British 144 915 148 1246
Indian 70 2590 96 4370
Source: “The Indian Corps in France” (Merewether and Smith)
Total 9579

The First Action of Givenchy, 25 January 1915

Order of battle:
First Army (Haig): Note: First and Second Armies had been created on 26 December 1914
I Corps (Monro): 1st Division

The affairs of Cuinchy: 29 January, 1 and 6 February 1915

Order of battle:
First Army (Haig):
I Corps (Monro): 1st Division (29 Jan) and 2nd Division (1 and 6 Feb)


Battles of the Western Front in France and Flanders

The Christmas Truce 1914