London Scottish at Messines, Halloween 1914

The London Scottish, the 14th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment (Territorial Force) could trace a continuous history back as far as 1859 and until the Haldane Reforms of 1908 was a unit of the disbanded rifle volunteer corps. It landed in France on 16 September 1914.

After spending its time on lines of communication duties, the battalion reassembled at the British General Headquarters at Saint-Omer on 27 October 1914. Seven days earlier, a British force had attempted to advance from Ypres to capture river crossings in the area of Menin in West Flanders, Belgium. It had soon run into the advance screen of a much larger German force, advancing towards Ypres in an effort to outflank the entire British and French line in Flanders and France. The clash developed into one of the epics of the Great War, known as the Battles of Ypres, 1914 (or “First Ypres”). To the south of Ypres, the rest of the British Expeditionary Force already had its hands full in containing German attacks that spread along a long line, from Messines down to Armentières and La Bassée.

Part of a map from the British Official History of Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1914 volume II. My highlights pick out Wytschaete and Messines. Ypres lies just off the top of this image. British forces are shown in red and German in green. The British front line shown is as it was on 18 October. The 1st and 2nd Cavalry Divisions of the Cavalry Corps had pushed forward and covered a gap between III Corps down towards Armentières and the recently arrived 7th Division of IV Corps at Ypres. German forces had already reached the line of the River Lys. As the Germans continued their advance over the next two weeks, the British cavalry, mainly fighting dismounted, fought rear guard actions whilst being pushed steadily back towards the Messines-Wytschaete ridge. Reserves were few, but a number of battalions arrived from other divisions in order to steady the line. Most famous of these was the counterattack made by the Territorials of the London Scottish near Messines on 31 October 1914.

By late October, a crisis was developing at Ypres, where a week of continual heavy bombardment and infantry attack had fragmented and weakened the British defence, and German infantry was threatening to break through. On 29 October, the London Scottish was taken by a fleet of buses, with urgency, to Ypres. Next morning it marched out to Hooge, east of Ypres, where it was to reinforce that part of the front. Later that day, as another crisis was developing to the south, the battalion was withdrawn back to Ypres and then moved by bus the short distance to Saint-Eloi. At 6am on 31 October, under temporary orders of the headquarters of the Cavalry Corps, it moved another short distance to Wytschaete.

The issue was the ridge of high round that runs south from Ypres, generally known as the Messines Ridge or Wytschaete-Messines Ridge. Holding it was considered to be strategically vital. On its east side, the ground slopes very gently up to the ridge, but on the west side it falls more steeply. The occupant of the ridge line enjoys excellent tactical observation over a long distance. German occupation of the ridge would enable them to dominate the ground to the west and seriously endanger the British force holding Ypres.

A view of the ridge line from the west today, taken from Neuve Eglise (Nieuwkerke). Messines church can be seen on the ridge on the right. In the lower foreground is the church at Wulverghem. Germans standing on that ridge would enjoy dominance of this ground.
Same source. Part of a map describing events in the area of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge on 31 October 1914. The position of the London Scottish is shown. At 6am it is shown near the hospice situated northwest of Wytschaete. At 10am it began to advance to counterattack, proceeding to the south of the village before turning eastwards to strike across the main road. Its position by 10.30am is shown. The battalion found such trenches as there were already full of other troops of the Cavalry Corps, and the men took whatever cover they could. The battalion remained in this position under enemy shellfire until it ceased at dusk. During the evening, several enemy attempts to advance with infantry were repelled. Around 2am on 1 November, German forces (of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Division) did finally break into the British front, on the left (that is, north) of the line held by the London Scottish. Despite local counterattacks, by dawn the Germans were round both of the battalion’s flanks. It had no choice but to withdraw towards the west, but men who were wounded and could not move, or were unfortunate to be cut off, fell into captivity as the Germans advanced and crossed the main road.
A sketch from the battalion’s war diary. It would soon report that in this action, it lost 14 men killed, 122 wounded, 22 wounded and missing, and 163 missing. Note that the orientation is not the normal “North at the top”, but more like “North on the left”. The sketch specially picks out a counterattack made by the battalion’s reserve company when a German breakthrough first threatened the battalion’s left flank. It also suggests that the battalion’s front line may have been a little closer to the main road than is suggested by the map from the Official History. The Wytschaete-Messines ridge fell into German hands and was not recaptured until the immense effort of the Battle of Messines on 7-10 June 1917. A splendid memorial to the London Scottish stands alongside the main road in the area that they battalion defended.
Imperial War Museum photograph Q56313 “Detachment of the London Scottish in Kemmel after their action in defending the Messines Ridge, 31 October 1914.”


The Battle of Messines 1914

London Regiment