London County Council in the Great War 1914 - 1918
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    London County Council in the Great War 1914 - 1918

    LCC index

    CHAPTER II.

    The Western Front, 1914.
    From 18th to 20th July, as part of a test mobilisation, a great naval display had been given at Spithead by the British Fleet at which some 200 vessels, manned by 70,000 officers and men, were present. After the manoeuvres it was thought advisable, as affairs in Europe appeared so threatening, that the vessels should not disperse. Consequently at the outbreak of war the fleet was fully mobilised, ready at once for active service. The army was not mobilised until 3rd August, when it became clear that Germany was about to invade Belgium.
    War between Great Britain and Germany having been declared, an Expeditionary Force, consisting at first of only four divisions, with some cavalry and a few aeroplanes, was sent to the assistance of the French. The troops embarked chiefly at Southampton, the bulk of them crossing to Boulogne or Havre on the nights of 12th and 13th August. They concentrated at Amiens and between 17th and 20th August were assembled under the command of Sir John French to the south of Maubeuge.

    Mons and the Retreat.

    By the morning of Sunday, the 23rd, they were in position at Mons with a front of about twenty miles on the extreme left of the Allies, the 1st Corps, commanded by Sir Douglas Haig, being to the east of the town, the 2nd Corps, under Sir Horace Smith Dorrien, holding the town itself and the line to the west, and the cavalry, under Sir Edmund AUenby, being mostly in reserve.
    During the morning the Germans attacked with five corps and three cavalry divisions, thus out-numbering our men by more than two to one. Although the enemy suffered heavy losses the attack achieved only a moderate success, the British 2nd Corps, which was chiefly involved, retiring, late in the day, to prepared positions in rear. Towards evening, however.
    Sir John French learned that Namur, thirty-five miles to the east, had fallen on the 22nd, that, in consequence, the French on his right had retired and that his left was being outflanked. In addition therefore to being outnumbered in front he was in grave danger of being surrounded on both flanks, so that immediate retreat was essential. This began the next day, the direction taken being roughly south-west. The 1st Corps retired to the east of Bavai and thence through Landrecies, Venerolles, La Fere, and Villers-Cotterets, while the route of the 2nd Corps lay to the west of Bavai, and through Le Quesnoy, Le Cateau, St. Quentin, Ham, Noyon and Compiegne. At Betz on 1st September, the two corps were re-united and crossing the Marne next day fell back towards the Seine.
    Apart from an attack at Landrecies on the night of 25th/26th August, when the Guards drove off with heavy losses a force which advanced through the Foret de Mormal, the 1st Corps was not seriously molested, but the 2nd Corps was much harassed. As his men were too weary to continue their march. Sir Horace felt it necessary, in order to gain time, to disregard the orders he had received not to fight, and on the 26th near Le Cateau turned and faced the enemy. Accordingly a line was formed to the south of the Cambrai — Le Cateau road with the 5th Division on the right, immediately west of the latter town, the 3rd in the centre and the 4th on the left, the whole front measuring some nine or ten miles. The fighting lasted from dawn until well into the afternoon when the 5th Division, having lost many of its guns, was forced back and the two other divisions had to conform. The retirement in some disorder gave rise at the time to disconcerting rumours in England but these, as usual, greatly exaggerated the facts, and, although there was much confusion, the retreat never degenerated into a rout.
    The mobilisation of H.M. Forces led to the calling up from the Council's staff of 436 naval reservists, 870 army reservists and 590 members of the Territorial force. During August and September eighteen of the staff joined the Navy and 1664 the Army, so that, after two months of war, the staff on service numbered 3578. There were casualties amongst these from the first, for on 23rd August George Baker (4th Royal Fusiliers, Asylums) and Lance-Corp. E. W. Stretton (2nd R. Irish Rgt., Tram.) were reported as missing, on the 24th John Yates (1st R. Scots Fus., Tram.) died of wounds, and on the 26th, J. A. Goodwin (R.F.A., Tram.) was killed at Le Cateau, while before the end of the month A. G. Mitchell (1st Lines, Ch. Engr.) died of wounds and W. J. Thynne (1st E. Surrey, Tram.) was missing. P. S. T. Marshall (1st Lines, Tram.) died on 11th September of wounds received near Mons, Corp. Frederick Lait (R.G.A., Educ.) on the same date of wounds received towards the end of the retreat, and S. C. Good (4th Dragoon Guards, Tram.) on 2nd October of wounds received on 3rd September near Lagny. Randall Kirk (Coldstream Guards., Asylums), wounded and taken prisoner near Mons, died at Laon on 14th September.
    The first member of the Council's staff to win a decoration was Sergeant. A. J. Tilney (4th Dragoon Guards, Clerk) to whom was awarded the Croix de Guerre,
    During the retreat towards the end of August he was accidentally left behind by his regiment. While making his way back he rescued a wounded comrade, taking him on his horse, and later picked up a straggler. Eventually he fell in with some French troops with whom he remained some days before he was able to rejoin his regiment.

    Battle of the Marne, 1914.

    The German forces advancing from Mons to the Marne were commanded by Von Kluck, who appeared to think that our troops had been so roughly handled that for the time being they might be ignored. Accordingly in the early days of September, instead of continuing his advance to the south and south-west, he turned to the south-east from the neighbourhood of Amiens, and crossed the Marne between Meaux and Chateau-Thierry seemingly with the intention of attacking the left of what he considered to be the main body of the Allies. He thus exposed his right flank, guarded only by comparatively small detachments, to the full assaults of the British and of a French army, commanded by General Maunoury, on their left. These assaults proved successful and, in the face of vigorous opposition, the British by 7th September had advanced to Coulommiers on the Grand Morin, and by the 8th to the Petit Morin, both these streams being tributaries of the Marne which
    was crossed on the 9th to the west of Chateau-Thierry.
    Von Kluck was now in considerable danger and a general retreat of the Germans to the Aisne was ordered. This retreat was followed up by the British through Oulchy and Fere-en-Tardenois, and on the 12th they were again in touch with the main German forces. The operations from 6th September onwards, which formed a part of important engagements by several French armies, culminating in General Foch's successful attack at St. Gond, 40 miles to the east, are usually known as the first Battle of the Marne. By it the German advance was definitely checked and, indeed, pushed back for thirty miles and the threat on Paris was removed, so that it is rightly regarded as one of the decisive battles of the war.

    Battle of the Aisne, 1914.

    The passage of the Aisne, on a front of fifteen miles between Bourg on the east and Soissons on the west, was forced on 13th September. This was a difficult task, for the river is both broad and deep and, as many of the bridges had been blown up, some troops had to cross on rafts or pontoons, others on the girders of the broken bridges, and all this under continuous fire. Facing the British and three or four miles to the north of the river was a line of chalk hills on the summit of which was the Chemin-des-Dames. As the scene of prolonged fighting throughout the war, this was destined to become one of the most famous positions on the whole front. The 1st Corps on the right advanced nearly to the top of the ridge, the 2nd Corps in the centre near Vailly was not so successful, while the 3rd Corps (which had been formed under Sir William Pulteney towards the end of the retreat from Mons) could do little more than hold its ground immediately across the river. Here both sides dug themselves in and, in spite of attacks and counter-attacks, the line remained unaltered for many months.
    After 18th September, although local encounters were frequent, the general fighting died down and early in October the British were relieved by the French and moved northwards to the flank of the Allied advance.
    The casualties amongst the Council's staff were Alfred Luker (Northumberland. Fusiliers, Asylums) killed on 9th September at the Marne, while those killed or missing at the Aisne were: 13th September, E. S. Harrison (1st R.W. Kent, Tram.); 14th September, C. A. Dickens (4th Royal Fusiliers, Asylums), Lance-Corp. S. Andrews (R.W. Surrey, Parks), F. A. G. Daysh (1st Coldstream Guards., Housing), Lance-Corp. James Walker (2nd R. Sussex, Asylums); 15th September, H. G. Davis (2nd W. Riding, Educ.) ; 16th September, John Ryan (1st Irish Guards, Tram.), C. J. Morley (4th Worcesters, Asylums); 20th September, W. A. Farley (1st South Lancs., Clerk); 21st September, F. W. Adams (3rd Worcesters, L.F.B.); 22nd September, H. H. Chitty (2nd R. Fus., Parks) ; 4th October, W. J. Plater (1st Coldstream Guards., Tram.), I. W. Bradford (1st Coldstream Guards, Housing) died as a prisoner of war on 21st October of wounds received on 14th September.

    Antwerp.

    In the latter part of August the main Belgian army had withdrawn northwards to the neighbourhood of Antwerp but, using this as a base, it continued by frequent sallies to harass the enemy. The Germans were thus compelled to retain in the district troops which could have been more usefully employed elsewhere, and accordingly, at the end of September, after several weeks of desultory warfare, the reduction of the Belgian position was seriously undertaken. The defence fared badly against heavy artillery of the kind which had been so successful at Liege and Namur, and the Allies were appealed to for assistance.
    The only troops immediately available were a brigade of Royal Marines and two brigades of the R.N.V.R., which were despatched to Antwerp in the early part of October. A breach had already been made in the outer defences of the town and, as the Germans were greatly superior in numbers, no striking success was probable. The British forces, however, did good service by aiding the Belgians in holding up the attack for several days, and also by covering the Belgian withdrawal from the town. In this fighting Sergeant T. York (Educ.) was killed on the 6th, Percy Haggis (Arch.) on the 7th, and W. F. Forse (Tram.) on 9th October. The 7th Division and some cavalry landing at Zeebrugge covered the retreat along the coast.

    La Bassee and Armentieres.

    Early in October, when a dead-lock had been reached on the Aisne, Sir John French suggested that, if his forces were transferred to the left of the Allied line, his lines of communication would be much shortened and he might be in a position to outflank the Germans. General Joffre consented and, as already mentioned, the British were relieved by the French and moved northward. Stated thus the problem which confronted the British commander appears simple enough to need no comment, but it must be remembered that his forces numbered about 100,000 men with horses, guns and baggage. One division alone, containing at full strength about 19,000 men with some 5,600 horses, 75 guns and 650 wagons, occupies in column of route about ten miles of road and takes three hours to pass a given point, while to transport it by rail about 90 trains are needed. It was therefore a formidable task, requiring much skill and organisation on the part of a staff unpractised in the handling of large bodies of men, to disengage so large a force from a vigilant and energetic enemy, and to convey it across the lines of communication of other troops. This intricate movement was, however, accomplished without mishap and by the 11th of the month the 2nd Corps was operating near La Bassee with the 3rd Corps on its left to the east of St. Omer. With much hard fighting and in spite of a strong resistance the line slowly advanced eastward until, towards the end of the
    month, the two corps were held up to the east of Bethune, Laventie and Armentieres in positions which were maintained with little or no alteration almost to the end of the war.
    In this fighting B. A. Edlin (2nd Bedfords, Asylums) was killed on 13th October, J. P. Knights (1st Notts, and Derby, Asylums) on the 20th, A. G. Martin (Wilts., Tram.) on the 24th, E. W. Moore (4th R. Fusiliers, Tram.) and Joseph Knowles (2nd Border, L.F.B.) on the 26th, and F. C. Hyde (1st Wilts, Tram.) on the 31st. J. W. Otton (4th Middlesex, Tram.) was awarded the D.C.M. for an attempt near Neuve Chapelle on 5th November in which he lost his life, to rescue a wounded non-commissioned officer. Corporal O. J. T. Smith (Yorks. L.I., L.F.B.) died on 7th January, 1915, of wounds received near La Bassee on 22nd October.

    Battles of Ypres, 1914.
    The 1st Corps which also detrained at St. Omer, but later than the 3rd Corps, pressed on to the east of Ypres, where it took up a position on the left [i.e., to the north) of the 4th Corps. The latter had been despatched from England to aid the Belgians but, arriving too late to alter the course of events at Antwerp, had, after the fall of the city, retired in a south-westerly direction along the coast. An advance was made to the line Zandvoorde — Gheluvelt — Zonnebeke — Langemarck with the intention of striking to the south-east at Menin, an important point in the German communications, and to the north-east through Poelcappelle and Passchendaele in the direction of Bruges. The Germans, however, had collected great numbers of troops in this district, partly in order to make a diversion and so relieve the pressure on their line further south, but chiefly with the object of breaking through and of capturing Calais and the adjacent coast-line and so hampering the British bases of supply. The British were out-numbered in the proportion of three or four to one and, instead of advancing, found themselves hard put to it to hold their ground.
    Ypres, which in this way came to be the scene for four years of such desperate fighting and obstinate bravery, both in attack and defence, as can scarcely have been surpassed in all history, was before the war an ancient and beautiful but decayed' city of 17,000 inhabitants. Situated in an extensive and fertile plain it had become a centre for agriculture instead of for weaving, its former industry, and it was also a rail and road centre of importance. Its historical monuments included the famous Cloth Hall and Belfry, dating from the 13th century, the finest Gothic public building in the country, the 13th-century Church of St. Martin (formerly the Cathedral), the 14th-century Town Hall and numerous quaint and picturesque houses of the Renaissance. All were destroyed, and the town during its four years partial siege was so completely wrecked that when the enemy was at length driven off not a house, scarcely even a room, was habitable. In its defence 300,000 British and
    Dominion troops died and a million were wounded.
    To the north, east and south the ground rises, but it is only on the south, near Messines and Wytschaete, that any really considerable hills exist. There the highest parts, 260 feet high, are nearly 200 feet above the level of the plain, while to the east the average rise is only about 80 or 100 feet, and to the north it is even less. In modern warfare in so flat a country the possession of the higher ground confers great advantages upon the side which hold it. First and foremost they have very much better opportunities for observing the movements of their opponents and the effect of their own shell-lire. Secondly they can secretly mass troops on the reverse side of the slopes, and so launch surprise attacks without warning to their opponents. Finally, and this is not the least important benefit in a marshy area, they can drain their trenches more or less effectively, and thus prevent them from becoming so many muddy pools or water-courses. It was for possession of these ridges, therefore, that the fiercest fighting took place, and a brief outline of the opening phases of this struggle will now be attempted.

    As already stated, the British had advanced to the line Zandvoorde — Gheluvelt— Zonnebeke — Langemarck which was reached about 20th October, although
    isolated advances were made even later at different parts. After much fighting, which daily increased in severity, the main German assault opened on 29th October. In face of the overwhelming attacks on that and the next day Gheluvelt, Reutel and Zonnebeke were lost and the line was withdrawn on the average about one mile to Messines, Hollebeke and Klein Zillebeke. On the 31st the famous counter-attack by the 2nd Worcesters at a very critical time recovered much of the ground up to Gheluvelt, but further south Messines fell and Wytschaete was threatened. On 1st November the Germans developed their success and captured the whole of the Messines- Wytschaete ridge, the British retiring to Wulverghem. After this the fighting on the British front slackened for some days, the brunt of the attacks being borne by the French and Belgians to the north. On 11th November, however, their sector was once more ablaze for, after a terrific bombardment lasting several
    hours, the attack culminated in an assault by the Prussian Guard, aided by troops of the line, along the Ypres-Menin road. This was almost successful, for the line was pierced in several places, but the advance was stemmed by the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry; the 1st Northamptons, the Connaught Rangers and others, and a new line formed some distance to the rear. Wytschaete, which had changed hands several times since the beginning of the month, now finally passed into the possession of the Germans. This day's attack proved to be the final attempt by the enemy to break through, and the British were therefore able to consolidate their position on the line of St. Eloi — Hooge— Frezenberg — Langemarck,
    The enemy's losses were enormous, those of the Prussian Guard alone in killed, wounded and missing amounting to nearly 7,000.

    As the result of three weeks' desperate fighting, the Germans, with the loss of 150,000 men, had succeeded in advancing at the most a distance of four miles on a front of about fifteen. It is true that, especially from the east round to the south, they had secured positions which enabled them to overlook and even to enfilade the British lines, both to the south and south-east of Ypres and to the north-east of Armentieres, but they had definitely failed in their attempt to break through to the Channel coast or even in their subsidiary effort to capture Ypres.
    On 21st October Sergeant A. J. Toole (2nd Dragoon Guards., Educ.) was killed near Zonnebeke, and Charles Walker (R.F.A., Tram.) at some place unknown; on 23rd October, Francis Greygoose (2nd K.R.R., Tram.) near Pilkem; E. S. Moth (3rd Rifle Brigade, Asylums) died of wounds on the 25th; on 30th October, W. R. Henderson (1st Dragoons, Asylums) and T. H. Broom (1st Life Guards, L.F.B.) were missing, and Walter Bell and Lance-Corp. M. M. Humphreys, both of 1st S. Wales Borderers and Asylums, were killed near Gheluvelt; on 31st October, Lance-Corp. Daniel Reilly (1st R. W. Surr., Tram.) was killed, W. Curtis (1st R. W. Surrey, Parks), W. J. Basterfield (1st R. W. Surrey, Educ.) and A. G. Ferryman (2nd K.R.R., Tram.) were missing near Gheluvelt, and H. J. F, White (2nd Life Guards, Tram.) was missing near Messines. It was on this last date that the 14th Londons won their laurels near Messines, the first occasion when a Territorial battalion had fought as a complete unit by the side of the Regular Army. The killed or missing included R. T. M. Wyllie and M. S. Bryce (Arch.) and A. B. C. Sarll (Educ), while Lance-Corp. James Carey (Arch.) died a few days later as a prisoner of war of wounds received on that date.

    The casualties in November were: 1st November,
    A. R. Shearing (Highland Light Intantry., L.F.B.) killed; 7th, Thomas Foss (2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Tram.) killed; 8th, Corp. H. H. Jeffries (1st Northumberland. Fusiliers, Parks), and C. D. Cater (1st Northumberland. Fusiliers, Educ.) missing; 9th, John Rafter (Irish Guards, Asylums) killed; l0th, C. R. Kenchatt (W. Riding, Parks) killed; 11th, Sergeant Hubert McShane (1st Scots Guards, Parks) missing, and William Simmonds (4th Royal Fusilioers, Clerk) killed; 13th, Lance-Corp. Ernest Andrews (3rd Worcest., Educ.) killed; 15th, E. T. Benson (R.F.A., Stores) wounded near Dickebusch subsequently died of his wounds; 19th, Charles Clarke (1st Northumberland. Fusiliers, Parks) killed. Lance-Corp. C. E. J. Martin (R. W. Surrey, Tram.) wounded and taken prisoner on 31st October died at Wervick on 4th December, and J. G. Hicks (2nd Dragoon Guards, Asylums) wounded and taken prisoner near Messines died at Ghent on 9th December.

    Fighting in Winter of 1914-15.
    After the Battles of Ypres the fighting died down for some months into ordinary trench warfare with its unremitting watch and guard even in the quietest sectors, with its mud and slime and vermin, with its patrols in No Man's Land, with its nightly ration parties, working parties and burying parties, with its continual casualties from shell, bomb, mine and sniper, with its sudden bombardments and raids and minor attacks, with its hours of cold and wet, boredom and discomfort, punctuated by minutes of deadly peril. The casualties included W. H. Ayton (R. W. Surrey., Tram.) killed on 17th December in a British attack at Le Touquet to the north of Armentieres, Corp. W. H. Cowan (Scots Guards, Educ.) on the 18th in a raid near Rouges Bancs to the east of Laventie, C.Q.M.S. G. Malcolm (1st Grenadier Guards, Educ.) on the 20th in the neighbourhood of Armentieres or Sailly-sur-la-Lys, W. S. Liddle (14th London, Parks) on the 24th and A. J. Webb (3rd Grenadier Guards, Asylums) on the 29th near La Bassee.