The Kaiser was certain that his great army would sweep in to the sea that small force of British soldiers sent to help the French when war with Germany broke out on August 4, 1914. So sneering was he of the British Expeditionary Force that he commanded his forces to ‘exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army’.
Massively outnumbered as they were yet did the British regulars show their mettle. Pushed back though they may have been, but overwhelmed they were not and at last they halted the German advance. In so doing they did the job that had been entrusted to them: they foiled the German attempt to defeat the French swiftly and end the war within weeks. These regulars of the British Army paid a terrible price for their valour. Many were killed and many more were maimed and wounded in body, spirit and mind. Those who survived were bonded in a way that only old soldiers who have gone through battle together can be so bonded.
It was as if with an uncanny prescience that Shakespeare had written for them the speech of Henry V at the Battle of Harfleur when he declared to his men that he and they were a “band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother”. A band of brothers indeed were the veterans of the British Expeditionary Force and when they banded together in associations to remember their fallen comrades they took as their name the derogatory term used by the Kaiser.
In so doing these Old Contemptibles transformed its meaning. No longer did it signify something shameful; instead it shouted out of men who were brave, patriotic, comradely, self-sacrificing, dogged, and unconquerable.
When war broke out in August 1914 the British Army was able to put in the field a small yet highly professional force. Well trained, well organised, and well equipped with Lee Enfield rifles, its men were motivated and certain in the moral superiority of their cause in defending Belgium against German aggression.
Since the late nineteenth century, Germany had been ‘seeking a place in the sun’ amongst the imperial powers of Europe. Powered forward by the vigour of its industry and the might of its army, its belligerence threatened the status quo and precipitated international crisis after international crisis.
As the twentieth century dawned the likelihood of war grew and the British Government did something most unusual for a British government: it planned ahead. A Liberal administration, it strove for peace but yet prepared for conflict. Under Lord Haldane, the War Ministry created both the Territorial Army and the British Expeditionary Force.
In the event of war, the Territorial Army was to defend Britain, whilst the BEF gave the British something that had been missing before – the ability to intervene swiftly and effectively in a war on the continent. Made up of the units that were based in Britain as opposed to those which were scattered around the Empire, the new force included six infantry divisions and a cavalry division and was to be placed on the left flank of the French when the need arose.
In the high summer of 1914 the foresight of the Government was made plain for all to see. On the evening of August 3, huge crowds gathered at Buckingham Palace as the news of the inevitability of war spread. Cheering, clapping, shouting and waving flags they sang with gusto ‘God Save the King’ when George V and Queen Mary appeared on the balcony. The next day Britain was at war.
Germany had violated Belgium’s neutrality and the British held firm to their promise of supporting that small nation in the event of attack. The British Expeditionary Force was quickly mobilised in an impressive and successful operation that brought in reservists to join their serving comrades. Part-time soldiers of the new Territorial Army flocked to their battalions in readiness to defend Britain as hundreds of trains took regular soldiers to Southampton for embarkation to France.
A private in the 2nd Battalion the Coldstream Guards, which recruited strongly in Birmingham, he and his pals had been stationed at Windsor. The Battalion War Diary records that after transferring unfit men and receiving reservists, by noon on the third day of mobilisation (Friday 7 August) the battalion had reached full strength and had completed its mobilisation.
Following a few days training in Windsor Park, the men were split into two to head for Southampton at 3.10 and 5.15 p.m. respectively on Wednesday 12 August. The right half of the battalion embarked on the SS ‘Olympia’ and the left half on the SS ‘Navarra’. At noon the next day they arrived in very hot weather at Le Havre, where French soldiers sang the Marseilleise in greeting.
After a day of rest the battalion was put on a train for the front. It stopped for refreshments at Rouen where coffee was handed out by French soldiers and crowds of civilians cheered and shouted ‘Vive les Anglais’. Upon reaching Lille the battalion was then marched to join the 4th (Guards) Brigade. This was part of the 2nd Division and I Corps of the BEF.
Five days later Granddad wrote to his Mom in Alfred Street, Sparkbrook, “We start this morning Tuesday for the front, sent out with rations and 120 rounds of ammunition each. Don’t know wear we are for just yet let know later if we can. I don’t think it will last long we are a happy Battalion of men and that’s what the Germans are not. England for ever.”
The 2nd battalion acted as the advance guard for the Brigade and crossed the Belgian frontier at 4.30 a.m. on Sunday 23 August at Malplaquet, the site of a famous victory against the French by the Duke of Marlborough in 1709. After “a long, rather trying march” the battalion reached the outskirts of Mons and was then moved up to the firing line where it dug in.
The stay was very short. In the early hours of Monday morning, orders were received “to vacate trenches and furnish rearguard to the Division in conjunction with the 3rd Battalion Coldstream. A very hot, tiring day – carried out without pressure from enemy, but under considerable artillery fire.”
The Germans were sweeping through Belgium and had been surprised to find the British so close at Mons. Although outnumbered by more than two to one, the 70,000 British were armed with Lee Enfield rifles that had a ten-round detachable magazine and a range of 2,000 yards. Adept at shooting speedily and accurately, they inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy but had to give way to the sheer weight of numbers against them.
The Retreat from Mons had begun. As the British retired, Belgian civilians were fleeing their homes. Sergeant A. H. J. Lane of No. 1 Company, 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards recalled that it was “a very pitiable sight’. He went on to state that when attacking nearby the Germans “forced women from Mons to go in front to shield; could not fire and lost heavily… German spy caught attempting to bribe gunners; shot at 9 o’clock a.m.’
Although the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards was in action during the retreat, it was not involved in fierce fighting – unlike the 1st battalion of the Royal Warwickshire regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Elkington.
By early morning on August 26, he and his men, who included Lieutenant Bernard Montgomery, had withdrawn to Ligny. Here they halted to rest. As soon as they did so heavy artillery fire was heard whilst wagons were seen rushing down the opposite hill. In response Lieutenant Colonel Elkington formed two companies by the side of the road and two more to the rear. He then ordered a counter attack as the best way of relieving the pressure on the battalion.
The Royal Warwicks gained the top of the hill but then came under heavy Maxim gun and shrapnel fire, forcing them to pull back. Once again in their original positions, the men dug trenches to protect them from the on-going shrapnel fire. As evening fell, the Battalion retired in batches, holding each trench as long as possible.
Lieutenant Colonel Elkington later wrote that was impossible to keep the men together in the dark for any length of time because there were so many stragglers, whilst others were continually falling out through exhaustion.
The battalion broke up into three groups, with the commanding officer eventually pulling together about 250 soldiers. During their march they heard constant gun fire and came across much discarded British artillery ammunition, which lessened the spirits of the worn out men.
By eight in the morning of August 27, Lieutenant Colonel Elkington’s first thought was to try and get some food as they had eaten little for 24 hours. In one village they obtained a few loaves, and a small piece of bread was given to each soldier. Eventually they reached St. Quentin, which was filled with disorganised bands of British soldiers separated from their battalions. It was a chaotic scene and it looked like they would have to surrender, but thankfully discipline was restored and an orderly retreat was made.
By early September, the 1st battalion the Royal Warwicks had regrouped. Soon after, the Allied Retreat was ended as the French, with British support, pushed back the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne between September 6 and 10. Paris was saved from capture and any prospect of a quick German victory was lost.
When they reached the River Aisne, the enemy dug in and repulsed a sustained French and British attack, which was abandoned on September 28. The French Commander-in-Chief, Marshall Joffre, now moved his forces north-west to try and out flank the Germans and reach the English Channel. In this ‘race for the sea’ the Allies arrived at Nieuport, near Ypres, in Flanders by early October, whilst the Germans captured Antwerp in Belgium on the tenth of that month.
The British Expeditionary Force then fell back to Ypres, between 8 and 19 October. During this time, on October 13, the 1st battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was involved in the assault on the well-defended village of Meteren to the south. Captain Tomes, later to be a colonel of the regiment, recalled that the ground was very difficult. It was slightly undulating and cut up by hedges, wet ditches, gardens and hop fields with poles and wires that further hindered progress.
In a heavy mist and with a light rain falling that thickened the mud, C and D Companies captured some enemy trenches and the outskirts of Meteren. This was followed up by a successful assault by other regiments. Unhappily, though, 45 men were killed and 85 wounded. Amongst the latter was Lieutenant Montgomery, who had led a charge – for which he was awarded the DSO.
Six days later, the bloody and bitter First Battle of Ypres began. It lasted from October 19 to November 17. The number of casualties was horrific and on October 31 the British line was broken at Gheluvelt on the Menin Road. Ypres lay open to capture and disaster faced the British – until a gallant charge by the men of the 2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment saved the day and prevented a crushing German victory.
In his history of the Worcestershire Regiment in the Great War, Captain H. FitzM. Stacke MC explained that the men of the Battalion were:
almost the last available reserve of the British defence. Nearly every other unit had been drawn into the battle-line or had been broken beyond recovery; and to an onlooker that last reserve would not have seemed very formidable. The Battalion could muster not more than five hundred men. Ten days of battle had left all ranks haggard, unshaven and unwashed: their uniforms had been soaked in the mud of the Langemarck trenches and torn by the brambles of Polygon Wood: many had lost their puttees or their caps. But their weapons were clean and in good order, they had plenty of ammunition, and three months of war had given them confidence in their fighting power. The short period in reserve had allowed them sleep and food. That crowd of ragged soldiers was still a fighting battalion, officers and men bound together by that proud and willing discipline which is the soul of the Regiment.
As the British guns prepared to withdraw and with German shells exploding all about the 2nd Battalion was sent in to action. ‘A’ Company was ordered to hold an embankment on the Menin Road. It did so until joining the counter attack several hours later. As for ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies they were directed to “the bare slope of the Polderhoek Ridge. The ridge was littered with dead and wounded, and along its crest the enemy’s shells were bursting in rapid succession.”
The commanding officer, Major Hankey, decided that the only way for his 370 men to make it across that “deadly stretch of ground was by one long rush”. With bayonets fixed the valiant Worcesters swept forward, officers to the front of a long irregular line. As they reached the crest of the ridge they were sighted by the enemy artillery and “a storm of shells burst along the ridge. Shrapnel bullets rained down and high-explosive shells crashed into the charging line. Men fell at every pace”.
Over one hundred were killed or wounded but undaunted “the rest dashed on. The speed of the rush increased as on the downward slope the troops came in sight of Gheluvelt Chateau close in front.” Scrambling across the light railway and then through hedges and wire fences, onward went the Worcesters to the grounds of the Chateau where they closed with the enemy.
The Germans were taken by surprise. Some were wandering around searching outhouses whilst others were seeking to dislodge the remaining British defenders from the Chateau. The enemy gave way “at once before the onslaught of the British battalion and crowded back out of the grounds of the Chateau into the hedgerows beyond. Shooting and stabbing, ‘C’ Company of the Worcestershire charged across the lawn and came up into line with the gallant remnant of the South Wales Borderers”.
They “had made a wonderful stand. All day they had held their ground at the Chateau and they were still stubbornly fighting although almost surrounded by the enemy. Their resistance had delayed and diverted the German advance, and the success of the counter-attack was largely due to their brave defence.”
Yet the village of Gheluvelt was still in the enemy’s hands. ‘A’ Company was now ordered to advance and “after some sharp fighting among burning buildings and bursting shells” took control of the church and churchyard. Patrols were then sent out to work forward from house to house until they reached the cross-roads at the eastern end of Gheluvelt.” However it impossible to occupy the centre of the village permanently as it was subject to bombardment by both German and the British artillery.
Houses were burning on all sides, roofs were falling in and walls were collapsing, whilst stubborn pockets of Germans still held out – but the operation had been a success. Gheluvelt had been recaptured and the British line had been reformed. The cost paid to do so had been high: 187 men were killed or wounded. This was third of the Battalion’s remaining strength. These soldiers and those who came through unscathed are honoured in Gheluvelt Park in Worcester, which was opened in 1922.
Heavy fighting went on but the line did not break again. The 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards were also in the thick of it. Captain W. J. Cook of No. 2 Company recounted how they had taken up their position at dawn on October 26 in heavy, thick woods. They had come under heavy shellfire although “the Germans must have lost considerably and the sights were too terrible to describe”.
For the ensuing three weeks the 2nd battalion held its own “against long odds with not a man in reserve. Every man had his position in the firing line which he could not leave for the whole 22 days.” All the while it rained and “in places we were up to our knees in mud and water and did not have a hot meal at all. In fact very little to eat except ‘Bully and Biscuits’. Nobody could get a wash”. Casualties were “extremely high, numbering 300 Officers and men”. The officer could have been speaking for the whole of the BEF.
Fortunately Our Granddad made it through this harrowing engagement. On one occasion he started to write a letter to his Mom when the Germans attacked the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards in its trenches. After the foe was beaten back Granddad found the letter under his feet.
He went on to relate how “we only had one chap hit in the face, so the Germans did no damage. I don’t know what we done to them as the fight took place in the woods, they could not have got off as light as us, my arms ached through shooting so much and quick”.
On November 17, French troops relieved the survivors of the 2nd Battalion. That day the First Battle of Ypres ended. The British Expeditionary Force had thwarted the German attempt to outflank the Allied line and end the war quickly by capturing Calais and Boulogne in ‘the race for the sea’.
In his incisive and insightful account of Britain and the Great War 1914-1918, John Bourne has written that Gheluvelt “was probably the last decisive act of the old pre-war, peacetimetrained regular army in the Great War. It was a fitting climax.”
The British regiments had been battered but not broken – but the price had been a heavy one. According to John Bourne, the “scarred battalions of the BEF often existed only in name, being reduced in many cases to 200 rifles or less.” These veterans, though, would play a vital role in the battles of 1915 whilst the example of their unflinching bravery and unyielding spirit inspired the volunteers of the New Armies.
Ypres may indeed have been the graveyard of the old regular British Army but those who survived that graveyard came out of it as men proud to be Old Contemptibles. The Germans had not swept them into the sea. Fighting all the way they had stood, given ground, stood again and almost with their backs to the sea had resolutely held ground against a formidable foe. I am the grandson of an Old Contemptible and I am proud to be so.
First published in the Birmingham Mail’s First World War supplement.