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The First Seven Divisions

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The First Seven Divisions
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Author(s): Ernest W. Hamilton
Date Published: 2012/09
Page Count: 216
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-913-9
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-912-2

First to the battle line in the First World War

As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth Britain could boast a well trained regular European army and one which was—regiment for regiment—considerably better than most. It was finely tuned and fundamentally suited to the kind of warfare the British Empire had fought since Waterloo. In a war of attrition in the industrial age all that could be hoped of it was that it would buy the nation time with its blood, so that other resources of men and material could be brought into the fight. The British Expeditionary Force which landed in Europe in 1914 consisted of six infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades. The 7th Division arrived in October 1914. Most students of the period know of the outstanding performance of the British regulars in the first engagements of the war. Casualties mounted through the Battle of Mons and the subsequent retreat, at Le Cateau, the Maine, the Aisne, at La Bassee and at Ypres. By the end of 1914 the ‘old’ British Army as it had quickly come to be known had been all but annihilated. The time of fluidity had passed and the war became a grinding stalemate of trenches, mud and wire. From the British perspective, the men who fought the remaining three years of war were Kitchener’s New Army supported by troops from the far flung empire. Great feats of heroism and extraordinary acts of fortitude had been performed by the first seven divisions and the achievements of the ‘Contemptible Little Army’ as it battled to stem the rapid advance of the German tide had become a legend of the Great War. This book tells their story.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

The day which followed, that is to say October 29th, was the first of the five days during which the Kaiser was present in person with his troops opposite Ypres. He had arrived with the avowed intention of stimulating the army to one supreme, irresistible effort which would carry all before it, and open the coveted road to Calais to the mass of troops now concentrated at Roulers and Menin.<br>
The occasion was signalized on the morning of the 29th by a grand assault along and on each side of the Menin road. This broad highroad was the most direct and obvious route to Ypres, and the Germans—as their way is—went straight for the shortest cut. There was no secret about the enterprise; it was, in fact, known among all ranks of the British army, and even published in some of the general orders of the evening before, that the XXVII. German Reserve Corps would attack Kruiseik and Zandvoorde at 5.30 a.m. on the 29th.<br>
In the light of this general knowledge, subsequent events are not wholly easy to understand. The attack came at the very hour which had been announced, and—as far as Kruiseik was concerned—at the very spot. Zandvoorde, as a matter of fact, was not implicated, and so can be left out of the discussion.<br>
At Kruiseik our line of defence was just in rear of the cross-roads, about a quarter of a mile nearer Ypres than it had been on the 26th. The six regiments in the front line which came in the path of the attack were the 1st Grenadiers, 2nd Gordons and 2nd Scots Fusiliers south of the road, and the Black Watch, 1st Coldstream and 1st Scots Guards to the north of it. In reserve were the 2nd Scots Guards and the Border Regiment, the latter being in Gheluvelt, the former to the south of it.<br>
At 5.30 then, with true military punctuality, the Germans made their advance under cover of a thick fog, and, as subsequent events proved, succeeded in getting past and behind our first line without opposition. It is said that they marched in column of fours straight down the main Menin road, which, for some reason only known to staff officers, does not appear to have been in the charge of any of the first line troops.<br>
However that may be, the fact remains that the Germans did get past, without a shot being fired from either side, and established their machine-guns in the houses along the roadside in rear; with the result that the regiments next the road suddenly found themselves, without any warning, assailed by a murderous machine-gun fire from both rear and flank. To add to the unpleasantness of the situation, they were at the same time vigorously shelled by our own artillery. Under this combined attack the 1st Grenadiers next the road on the south side suffered very severely. Colonel Earle was wounded almost at the first discharge, and Major Stucley, who then took over command, was killed within a short interval. Owing to the thickness of the fog it was a matter of great difficulty to locate the enemy with any degree of accuracy, or to return a fire which appeared to come from the direction of our own reserves. Captain Rasch, who was now in command, accordingly decided to withdraw the battalion into the woods to the south, leaving the enemy to continue their fusillade at the empty trenches. With them went the left flank company of the Gordons, under Captain Burnett. “C” Company of the Gordons, which was on the right of Captain Burnett’s company, was comparatively clear of the fire from the rear, and did not withdraw with the others. The subsequent exploits of this company were most remarkable, and will be described later on.<br>
The fog now suddenly lifted, the sun came through, and the situation became comparatively clear to both sides. The Germans ceased their fusillade from behind at the empty trenches, and began to press southwards from the road, and westward from the direction of Menin, in great numbers. To meet this new movement, the 1st Grenadiers and Captain Burnett’s company of the Gordons formed up and charged, driving the enemy back to the road in considerable disorder. In the moment of victory, however, they were heavily enfiladed from the trenches recently occupied by Captain Burnett’s company, and numbers fell. They were again forced to withdraw to the south, the enemy following close on their heels. Once more the Grenadiers and Gordons reformed, and once more they drove the enemy back to the road, only to be themselves again driven back by weight of numbers. It was at this moment that Lieutenant Brooke, of the Gordon Highlanders, who had been sent from the right flank with a message, arrived on the scene and—seeing the overwhelming superiority in numbers of the enemy—hurriedly collected a handful of men from the rear (servants, cooks, orderlies, etc.), and led them forward in a gallant attempt to do something towards equalizing numbers. He and nearly all his men were killed, but he was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for his action.<br>
In the meanwhile the Grenadiers were fighting to a finish. Refusing to be beaten or to give way, they fought up to the moment when the order arrived for them to retire to Gheluvelt. This was about 10 a.m. By that time 500 out of the 650 men who had gone into action had fallen, and out of the sixteen officers only four were left. No. 4 Company—the heroes of the successful charge on the 24th—alone lost 200 men, or, in other words, were wiped out. <br>
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