The accounts that officer prisoners of war had to give when they returned from captivity make for fascinating reading. Not only can they flesh out the sometimes sparse and clinical war diary entries, but they can give an insight into how these men acted under intense pressure, often in confused circumstances, and with enemy forces bearing down on them.
One such officer was Captain Edward Drury-Lowe, of the 2nd Battalion The Sherwood Foresters (Notts & Derbyshire Regiment). The battalion was part of 18th Brigade, 6th Division; proceeding overseas on 20th September 1914, Drury-Lowe was captured exactly a month later.
On this day, 20th October, the German Fourth and Sixth Armies launched attacks in the Ypres to Armentieres area, in response to the British advances of the previous days. The 18th Brigade was holding a salient in front of the main bulk of the division, consisting of a line of scattered posts. Three battalions, including the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, were holding a line of about three miles, with the Sherwood Foresters occupying the village of Ennetieres, south east of Armentieres. The battalion to the rear was about 700 yards away, and on the Foresters’ right flank there was a gap between the battalion and the left battalion of the 16th Brigade.
The battalion war diary records how the Germans commenced shelling the village at daybreak. A number of attacks were made against the salient, with the battalion being shelled from all directions, and just five platoons holding a front of 1,500 yards. Eventually during late afternoon the battalion was forced to fall back, however during the course of the retirement it became clear that 16th Brigade to the right had already fallen back, and the Germans approaching from the rear cut off any route to safety. The bulk of the battalion was left with no option to surrender, but Drury-Lowe and the remnants of his men managed to hold out until the next morning. In total almost 500 men of the battalion were taken prisoner. Drury-Lowe’s account of the action is reproduced in full below:
On Oct 20th D Coy, of which I was in command, occupied the trenches on the extreme right of the Battalion’s position. I had taken over the trenches the night before from the DLI.
The position was a hopeless one. Lieut. May’s platoon (No 13) had been temporarily taken from me to form an independent post on my left. Nos. 14 and 15 platoons were entrenches close together, while 2nd Lieut. Smith’s platoon (No. 16) was entrenched about 300 yds to the right of No. 15. The only way to reach these trenches was across open ground with no cover whatsoever. Further still to the right across open more open country was a railway crossing held by the 16th Bde with whom Smith was in communication.
I had orders to withdraw No. 16 platoon as dawn on Oct. 20th to D Coy Hd Qrs, which were at a farm some 150 yds in rear of Nos. 14 and 15 platoons. Directly they arrived, the Germans began to shell the farm, and it was soon in flames. This resulted in the loss of some of the rifles and all the equipment belonging to two sections. The men however were all got away under cover before the buildings were completely destroyed.
I sent at one to inform the CO, who told me to send these two sections to him at once. He also told me to send No. 16 platoon out again to the trenches, as an attack was developing on our right. I sent Smith off with the other half of his platoon, telling him that I should be with No. 14 platoon on my return from the village.
I then took the two sections to the CO. It was about 11am when I handed them over to him. I told him that Smith had only ½ platoon in his isolated position, but the CO could not spare me any more men. I returned to No. 14 platoon. As there was not much firing going on, we dug hard, and did what we could to improve the cover.
About 4.15pm, I received a written message from Smith. He said he had seen nothing of the enemy, and asked for field glasses if I had any spare to spare.
Soon after this some of the men of the DLI came and crowded into our trenches – there was no officer with them. They said that they had been sent ‘to assist in covering the retirement’, but there was then no reason to retire.
Presently however, as it was getting dark, we heard shouting from our left rear (the direction of LA VALLEE), as if men were charging. Soon after we saw men about 300 yds behind us. I estimated their numbers at not less than 1000. Directly I could see that they were Germans, I ordered the men to turn about, and then opened fire, but I soon found that we were being fired at from the front. I now ordered the men to face alternately front and rear, and not to fire unless they were compelled to, as I know that we were completely outnumbered, and our ammunition was running short.
As it got dark we could hear the Germans in rear digging themselves in. Later they set fire to a building near No. 14 platoon. I expected every minute that they would rush our trenches, and ordered every man to stand to. There was also a building on my left, by which I posted a piquet.
At dawn the piquet reported that the enemy had brought up a machine-gun on our left, and as soon as it was light, I saw what looked like a Battalion of the enemy drawn up on that side.
I knew then that we were completely surrounded, I considered that the only course open to me was to surrender.
I surrendered at about 5.15am on Oct 21st with about 50 men, a few of whom were DLI.
I received no messages from and heard nothing of Smith after 4.15pm on the 20th, and I received no messages or orders from the CO after I left him in the village about 11am.
I fear there can be no doubt that Smith and his men were all killed on the evening of Oct 20th, his trenches being rushed from the rear. The ground sloped down slightly behind his trenches, which would enable the enemy to come up unseen.
Brigadier-General Congreve wrote after the battle “The Battalion had done exceedingly well all day; it was just worn out and overwhelmed by superior numbers.” The action of the men that day highlights the resilience of the British Army at the time. Despite having already suffered heavily in action, being led by new officers, with very few of the original platoon commanders who had accompanied the battalion to France, and having been reinforced by men new to the battalion, the men still held out under extremely difficult circumstances.
Casualties were hard to estimate due to the loss of all the battalion’s paperwork and records when the HQ was shelled early on in the battle, but in addition to those taken prisoner it was estimated that over 100 men were wounded. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records 77 men of the battalion killed on the 20th, 72 of whom have no known grave and whose names are inscribed on the Ploegsteert Memorial. Amongst these names is that of Lieutenant Harry Smith, referred to in Drury-Lowe’s account.