At the end of May I ventured once more to the battlefields of Flanders. There was no specific reason for my trip, more a desire to return after nearly nine months away, for what might be my only visit this year. However I planned an itinerary for the 2.5 days and managed to squeeze a lot in.
Part of the trip was spent following the actions of the 1st Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). It is a battalion I have been researching for a number of years now, and I wanted to trace some of its movements from 1914, 1917, and 1918.
1914 – Langemarck
First stop was Langemarck, where the battalion had been in action from 21-24 October 1914 during First Ypres. The men had been involved in heavy fighting in the Battle of the Aisne. On 15 October they had entrained for Flanders, reaching the salient on 20 October. The following day they marched to Langemarck, acting as advance guard of 3rd Brigade.
The battalion was tasked with taking Poelcapelle station and the main road running from the station to Poelcapelle itself. The battalion spread out both sides of the railway line to Poelcapelle and began to advance north east. However, it soon came under heavy fire from the direction of the station, as well as from German troops to the north, and was forced to withdraw.
The following day the battalion was located immediately west of the Steenbeek – better known now as the location of the Harry Patch memorial, and suffered only a few casualties. On 23 October the battalion was sent north west of Langemarck and assaulted the Kortekeer Cabaret, an inn that had been taken by the Germans. This was a successful operation in which 60 Cameron Highlanders taken prisoner by the Germans were freed. During the subsequent fighting that day Captain Stanley-Creek’s company was cut off by the Germans, but under the cover of darkness he managed to extricate them in the confusion. For his actions that day he was awarded the DSO.
1914 – Gheluvelt
By 29 October the battalion had moved to the vicinity of Gheluvelt to counter the German attack there, but it was 31 October that was to prove a pivotal point in the battalion’s history.
I have visited the scene of the Queen’s stand at Gheluvelt on 31 October 1914 previously, but it is still an action that fascinates me (see my blog post here). The battalion held the most forward part of the British line that day, yet managed to cling to its positions as the battalions around it withdrew. This stand cost the battalion dearly, a famous photograph purporting to show just 32 survivors after the battle.
It isn’t until you visit the area that you get a true appreciation of the battalion’s position and how the landscape would have impacted on the events that day. The key point for me is that when the companies were dug in, due to the nature of the terrain they would have had limited sight of the companies either side, and therefore limited appreciation of the events unfolding around them.
1917 – Menin Road
A now innocuous-looking residential road off the Menin Road was the battalion’s front line on 25 September 1917, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge; only a short distance from where the battalion had been in action at Gheluvelt three years previously. The morning was misty and at 7.30 a.m. battalion HQ (situated in Herenthage Wood, near the chateau) was informed that the Germans had broken through. A few confused hours of fighting followed, in which most of the battalion’s officers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, but the following day the original line was retaken. The battalion’s casualties totalled just over 400.
1918 – Meteren
The following day I drove south west from Ypres across the border into France and to the site of a few days’ heavy fighting for the battalion in April 1918. As the Germans tried to push north west during the Battle of the Lys (part of Operation Georgette), the 33rd Division was rushed in to try and plug the gap. On 12 April the battalion took up a position south of Meteren, around the Hoegenacker windmill.
This position gave an excellent view towards the advancing Germans; an officer who was present recalled the action: ‘Presently over the ridge came a battalion of Germans marching in column of fours with company officers mounted. There was an officer in front – probably the Commanding Officer – on a grey horse. Undoubtedly, the Germans thought they had only now to walk through to the coast. British infantry had never had a better target – every Lewis gun, every rifle was trained on that slow-moving body – not a shot rang out yet; it would be murder when we did fire, we could not miss them…The whole line vomited out a blaze of fire; ahead of us Germans reeled and fell, the grey horse reared up on its hind legs and horse and rider fell in a heap. The whole column broke and fled helter-skelter, but still the hail of bullets ceaselessly sped from Lewis gun and rifle, and bigger and bigger grew the heaps of corpses in front.’
Visiting the fallen
In addition to following the battalion’s actions, I also tried to visit as many of the graves of the men as I could, to pay my respects. Many of the cemeteries were first time visits for me, from the small CWGC plot at Winnizeele, well behind the lines (resting place of Private Bell, killed during a trench mortar demonstration), to the nine graves located in Perth (China Wall) Cemetery. At Messines Ridge cemetery lay four soldiers from the battalion, all captured at Gheluvelt but who subsequently died from their wounds.
I also visited sites I’ve been to many times before; Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, where the battalion’s CO Lieutenant Colonel St Barbe Russell Sladen is buried, killed by a shell on 12 March 1918 whilst inspecting the battalion’s positions, and Tyne Cot, where Private Dilks lies directly behind the Cross of Sacrifice, one of the original burials in the cemetery.
In total I visited the graves of 70 soldiers from the battalion across 20 cemeteries, 15 of which I had not previously been to, as well as paying my respects to the 353 men of the battalion commemorated on the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot memorial, and Ploegsteert memorial.
It seemed fitting that the last stop on my trip was Nine Elms cemetery; ten men from the battalion are buried here, including Private James Nicholls who is commemorated on my local war memorial. His epitaph poignantly reads ‘In loving memory of our dear son never forgotten by father mother and all at home’.