Based on extracts from the Regimental Chronicles of The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Vol 24 1914-1915
November 11th.—(Fight with the Prussian Guard in Nonne Bosschen Wood.) At about 10 a.m. we were turned out, as there had been a German attack on the 1st Brigade, who were holding the ground a little to the north of the Ypres-Menin road. I was ordered to take the Regiment to Westhoek, and get into touch with the 1st Division, who would be bringing up reinforcements on the right.
A certain number of shells were dropping about in different places, but by watching where they were being put, I was able to avoid them, and we reached Westhoek without loss. Here I got the companies into any cover that was available, and I could see the Northamptonshire (1st Division) advancing, on our right, into the southern part of the wood lying to the south of Westhoek. I also found here Colonel Lushington, commanding a Brigade of artillery, in a dug-out near a shrine just beyond the village He told me that the Germans were in the Nonne Bosschen Wood, and that his adjutant had collected some gunners, cooks, etc., armed them with rifles, and put them out facing the Germans in front of us.
A message now came from the 5th Brigade that I was to clear the Nonne Bosschen Wood of the enemy, and that the Highland Light Infantry, who were in reserve on the western edge of Polygone Wood, would join in an attack on the trenches captured by the Germans, which extended southwards from the south-west corner of Polygone Wood.
Almost at the same time an order came from the G.O.C., 1st Brigade, that I was to bring the Regiment round to the south-east corner of the wood south of Nonne Bosschen, to combine with 1st Division troops in an attack on the captured trenches.
These contradictory orders could not both be obeyed, but it was obvious that the Germans must be cleared out of Nonne Bosschen, as they were here in dangerous proximity to some of our guns and to some French guns. I therefore decided to carry out the 5th Brigade orders, and sent a message to the 1st Brigade to say what I was doing.
I sent A and B Companies to clear the Nonne Bosschen, advancing from north-west to south-east.
This they did most successfully, driving the Germans before them, and killing and capturing a good many. C and DCompanies followed in support. When A and B came out on the south-eastern edge of the wood they were joined by the Northamptonshire on the right, and by some Connaught Rangers and Sappers on the left. Led by Dillon, they charged the Germans out of the trenches, some of the enemy turning and running when the attack was thirty or forty yards off, and others surrendering.
Most of those who ran were shot. The men with whom we had this fight were the Potsdam Guards. They were very fine, big men, but by the time we came across them they did not seem to have very much fight in them, as they had been under our artillery fire for some time, and this, no doubt, had shaken them considerably.
Our casualties altogether amounted to 27, of whom 5 were killed. Lieut. C. S. Baines was wounded.
There was still another trench held by the Germans in front, and there is no doubt that this also would have been taken ; but, unfortunately, the French artillery, not realizing that our attack had progressed so quickly, began firing shrapnel into our front line, so that the attack could not get on. It took some time to inform the French artillery, and by then it was dark.
I now collected the whole regiment at two or three houses just east of the south edge of the Nonne Bosschen Wood, and I found the 5th Brigade headquarters on the north edge of Polygone Wood. It was then proposed to try to retake the trenches which the Germans had captured, the idea being to make a flank attack on them from the south-west corner of Polygone Wood. As, however, it was absolutely pitch dark, it was decided to postpone the attack until 1 a.m., when the moon would be well up.
I returned to the Regiment, and just as I arrived it came on to pour with rain and hail, but I managed to squeeze all the men into the houses for shelter, though many of us got thoroughly wet before we could get under cover. It cleared up later, and I was trying to snatch a little sleep when, about 11 p.m., the Staff Captain of the 1st Brigade came in, and I went with him to see General FitzClarenee, commanding that brigade, whose headquarters were in a house on the southern edge of the wood south of Nonne Bosschen. From him I learned that he also had orders to attack from the south-west corner of Polygone Wood, at 4 a.m., with the 2nd Grenadiers and Irish Guards (of the 4th Brigade), and the Munster Fusiliers. I then returned to the Regiment.
THE BATTLE OF NONNE BOSSCHEN Extract from History of the Second Division 1914-1918
On 8th November 1st Corps Headquarters had issued a comment on the operations: " Information from all sides points to the fact that the German offensive in this neighbourhood (from Zillebeke to Broodseinde) is breaking down."
The truth of the matter was that the German Higher Command had been organizing for another violent attempt to break through to Ypres and Calais.
According to the views set forth by the German General Staff, the non-success of their heavy attacks during the latter days of October and in the first week of November forced them to conclude that even with the newly-formed Army Group Fabeck, which had been operating on and south of the Ypres-Menin road, a breakthrough was impossible. The great superiority of the enemy in personnel and material had given him no success ; not even though some of Sir Douglas Haig's battalions were pitifully weak. More guns and men might batter down and break through the British and French defences ; so the German General Staff imagined.
Thus during the " comparatively quiet " days along the northern section of the Ist Corps line there had been going on considerable organization of new forces—for the German Prussian Guard were being brought up to accomplish what their comrades had failed to do.
11 NOVEMBER The blow fell on the morning of the 11th November, when the enemy from Messines to Zonnebeke launched no less than six and a half corps against the British and French, who held the line somewhat intermixed. The XXVIIth Reserve Corps still operated between Becelaere and Broodseinde; the newly-formed Guards Division, consisting of the 1st and 4th Guards Infantry Brigades (called Winckler's Division, from the name of its commander), operated from opposite the centre of Herenthage Wood to the southwest corner of the Polygone Wood.
Next came another new group— the Army Group Linsingen, consisting of the 4th, 39th, and 30th Infantry Divisions, operating from the left of the Guards Division to Zillebeke; from Zillebeke to Messines, in the order given, 4th and 3rd Bavarian Infantry Divisions, 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, 25th Reserve Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 26th Infantry Division, and nth Landwehr Brigade—i.e., the Army Group Fabeck, also reinforced. The latter group was also given more heavy guns and " all the artillery ammunition allotted to the German Sixth Army."
The Fourth German Army—i.e., the northern flank of it— operated against the French and Belgians from Zonnebeke to Nieuport, and the Sixth German Army, south of the Army Group Fabeck, were to co-operate in this huge converging attack on Ypres.
Many of these formations consisted of perfectly fresh troops, and so far as numbers were concerned there could be no question of their superiority over Sir Douglas Haig's war-worn, though withal cheerful troops. Even with the French troops the enemy outnumbered the Allies. And the German Kaiser had come to see his famous Guard break through to Ypres.
At 7.30 a.m. the enemy's artillery opened with a roar! It seemed as if he had brought every available gun in his possession to bear upon the British line.
Shortly afterwards the Prussian Guard advanced. Their centre line was directed against Verbeek Farm ; their left on and south of the Ypres-Menin road.
About 10 a.m. a Black Watch Highlander suddenly appeared at the Headquarters of the 5th Infantry Brigade, which were then in the north-west corner of the Polygone Wood, and stated that under intense artillery fire the battalion had been forced to evacuate its trenches on the right of the King's, and that the Germans were occupying them.
Under very heavy pressure the Black Watch, Camerons, some of the 6th Infantry Brigade, and some Zouaves had fallen back from the line held on the night of the 10th-11th—i.e., from the north-eastern exits of the Herenthage Wood to the south-west corner of Polygone Wood—and had been pressed back to the western exits of the Nonne Bosschen Wood.
The brigadier of the 5th Infantry Brigade went off himself for reinforcements, and in the meantime ordered up the Highland Light Infantry (who lined the western exits of the Polygone), and the Connaughts and 5th Field Company R.E., who continued the line to the north-western corner of the Nonne Bosschen Wood.
The Oxford and Bucks, with the Irish Guards in support, were moved up from Divisional Reserve near White Farm to Westhoek. Here the former battalion received orders from the 5th Infantry Brigade to clear the Nonne Bosschen Wood and then join up with the Highland Light Infantry, who were at the western exits of the Polygone. A and B Companies of the Oxfords (At this period the Oxford and Bucks numbered less than 400 bayonets.) immediately advanced at_the_double from the north-west, with direction south-east into the wood, and drove the Prussian Guard before them, killing and capturing many. As the survivors of the enemy rushed out from the wood the Highland Light Infantry, who were lying in wait for them, opened fire, killing many more. The Oxfords, on emerging from the wood close on the heels of the Prussians, joined up on the right with some men of the Northampton Regiment, and on the left with the Connaughts and 5th Field Company R.E., who had also with them a hastily collected group of orderlies, servants, cooks, transport men, and stragglers from the 1st Brigade, A combined charge was then made on the enemy, who, though standing bravely to meet the attack, again lost heavily in killed and wounded, besides many prisoners. The Prussians thereupon fell back to the trench they had captured earlier in the day from the Black Watch and Camerons.
The 1st King's, lying next to the Black Watch, had also suffered many casualties from the heavy shelling of the early morning, 30 other ranks being killed and wounded. But on the left of the battalion the Coldstream Guards, and battalions of the 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades who continued the line to Broodseinde, were not seriously attacked. A number of Prussian Guards rushed towards the trenches of the 2nd Coldstream, but were speedily dealt with and did not attempt a second attack on this part of the line.
The greatest and heaviest attacks had been made on and south of the Ypres-Menin road; but there the line held fast, the enemy being mowed down in hundreds as he advanced in massed formation. The Kaiser's famous troops could not prevail against men who fought with the courage of lions, undismayed though vastly outnumbered. Seldom in the whole history of the Great War was the courage of the British soldier put more severely to the test than at this final attempt of the enemy to smash his way through to Ypres.
Alas, that only a very few of those who fought on that November morning survived the Great War But the traditions the dead left behind them will for ever remain glorious.
The 5th Field Company R.E., who took a gallant part in counter-attacking the enemy, lost heavily. Major A. H. Tyler, Captain A. E. J. Collins, and Lieut. H. F. T. Renny-Tailyour were killed, another officer was wounded, and 15 sappers were killed and wounded. The Oxford and Bucks lost 1 officer (Second-Lieut. J. Jones) killed, 1 officer wounded, and 25 N.C.O's and men killed, wounded, and missing. The Connaughts' losses were Captain Gilliat wounded, and 61 other ranks killed and wounded. The Highland Light Infantry lost 1 officer (Second-Lieut. J. W. Mears, who had been commissioned the previous day) killed, and 14 other ranks killed and wounded.
When night fell, the stretch of ground won by the Prussians was only 500 yards in length. Their losses were very heavy, for although they advanced with great gallantry in close formation they were decimated by the accurate and rapid rifle-fire of Sir John French's infantry, combined with the splendid practice made by the Divisional Artillery. When the Prussians broke through the northern exits of the Nonne Bosschen Wood they came within a hundred yards of the 9th, 16th, and I7th Batteries of the XLIst Brigade R.F.A., and within rifle fire of the gunners of the 35th (Heavy) Battery. Here again they suffered considerably from rifle fire, the gunners of the four batteries using their rifles with excellent effect.
From the Ypres-Menin road to Klein Zillebeke the enemy's attack made no progress.
Thus far the attacks of the Prussian Guard, upon which the German General Staff had set such store, had failed. But the action was not concluded.
A counter-attack was arranged to take place at 1 a.m. when the moon had risen, with the object of recapturing the trench lost by the Black Watch and Camerons.
The Oxford and Bucks, and the Highland Light Infantry under Colonel Davies, were ordered to reconnoitre the enemy's trenches, but found them strongly held and impossible to take without a considerable force.
The attack of the Prussian Imperial Guard around Noon, 11th November 1914.
The situation at nightfall on the 11th November 1914.
The 52nd attack the Prussian Imperial Guard as painted by W B Wollen.
An Extract from "A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE OF NONNE BOSSCHEN" By C.S. BAINES Originally published in the Regimental Chronicle for 1932.
I believe I am the sole surviving officer that was in the front line of the counter attack on the Prussian Guard in Nonne Bosschen on November, 1914, it may be of interest to the Regiment if I record my impressions of the fight before my memory of them completely fails. I remember little of the tactics and not much of the sequence of events, as I was in a state of considerable excitement at the time, and very tired after three weeks of cactmaoias fighting, marching and counter marching, attacking and counter attacking since October 21. I do not know how much "C" Company (under Tylden Pattenson and Titherington), or " D" Company (under Tolson and Spencer) saw of the fighting. Both officers of " A " Company, Dillon and Pepys, were afterwards killed, and I was the only officer in " B " Company.
“A” and " B " were in the front fine, and " C " and " D, " I believe, in support.
I probably saw more of the fight than any surviving officer. But my memory has become dimmed, though many stand out very vividly.
We had had a peaceful night in a redoubt and some farm sheds on November 10, and started the morning of the llth by washing and cleaning up. Before we had done much, as was usual in those days, we were ordered up to the front. It was a nasty, grey, raw day and there was a lot of noise going on somewhere in the distance. Such noise always filled me with awe, as I had quite long enough experience to know what it meant. My dislike for shells had started on first acquaintance; the Aisne and then Ypres had intensified my dislike into a positive hatred.
We packed up, and off we went, I have no idea how far, and have no recollection of the march until we came to some of our 6-inch guns pulling out, which struck me as odd.
Later on we came to some French "75's" —silent, which struck me as odder. still, because the noise of battle was now quite close, and generally the French were all out to see how many rounds they could get through their guns before they became red hot. Soon after, we came to some of our own guns, 4.5 Howitzers I think, apparently deserted, and we halted near them. I remember seeing the Commanding Officer (Davies) and Crosse looking for an artillery officer and eventually unearthing Colonel Lushington. Colonel Davies assembled the Companv Commanders and told us that the Germans had broken through the trenches of another Brigade and were in a wood just over the brow of the hill behind which we were halted. He told us that there were only a few gunners and sappers, fighting as infantry, lined out between us and the Germans. We were to charge over the open space between us and the wood and clear the wood of the Germans with the object of recovering the lost trenches. "A" and " B " Companies were to be in the front line, " C " and " D " in reserve.
My heart quickened. I had no wish to run over the open in full view of the Germans, nor to do any more wood fighting, of which I had had quite enough during the past few days.
However, orders were orders, and the machine created by years of discipline pushed me on. I told my platoon Serjeants (having no other officers in the company) what we had to do, and we set off. When we topped the ride we saw a big stretch of open field, with a few khaki figures lying about—whether alive or dead I don't know to this day. Beyond, was a huge wood, and looking through my glasses I could see Germans wandering about in it.
More were lining the edge and shooting at us. My heart sank still further and I decided that I at any rate would never reach that wood—and I was not sure that I wanted to. If I became a casualty, Sjt. Hudson would have his chance of leading " B " Company in action, "which was his ambition.
However, the machine worked again and I decided that what had to be done was best done quickly. We all did a sprint and then lay down and shot at the Germans. Up again and on as hard as we could, down and shooting, up again and into the wood, sweating in every pore, more from fright than exertion!
I don't know how many were hit running across the open, but the men went like hell and shot between times. I believe "C" Company were shooting at the wood from somewhere or other. When we got into the wood, I was bewildered to find so many Germans there. But, thank God, not so bewildered as they appeared to be, as they put up no fight at all. There seemed to be crowds of them—literally crowds—because they were in no sort of formation and were wandering aimlessly about, and most of them put their hands up as soon as they saw us.
I did not know what to do with them all, and so passed the word down to send all prisoners to the centre where I was, on a ride through the wood. The picture left in my memory is of a few little khaki men making noises like wild animals, very hot and out of breath, shouting and swearing at a mob of the most enormous men in field grey that I have ever seen. But the Germans gave no trouble at all and urged by the bayonets of our men, collected on the ride. Eventually, I think, we detailed one slightly wounded man to escort them all back. I have no idea how many there were or what happened to them. Starting through the wood, we strung out into a very thin line, two men at intervals of twelve to fifteen yards. Many of the trees had had their tops or branches knocked off by shells, which together with thick undergrowth made progress difficult. We moved slowly forward like a line of beaters and kept on coming upon bunches of Germans. Some loosed off their rifles without bothering to take careful aim, thank goodness, then turned tail and ran. Others surrendered without more ado. I took pot shots with my revolver at those that ran. I must mention here, for the sake of the incredulous, that there were, I think, three officers in the 52nd in 1914 at Aldershot, who had been known to hit the target at thirty yards, or was it fifteen?—at the officers' annual revolver shoot, and I was one of them. In fact I had been known to hit the target more often than to miss it, and what is more, with the left hand as well as the right. I only mention this in the hope that those that read this will believe me when I say that I don't think I missed one German that I fired at on this day. I fired fifty-two rounds through my revolver, and burnt my left hand on the barrel in reloading. It is not difficult to understand when I say that the longest range at which I fired at a German, was about thirty yards and the huge bulk of the average Prussian Guardsman made an easy target, even on the run.
We struggled on. Sjt. Hudson roaring like a bull, and doing great execution with the bayonet. The Bosches kept on breaking cover just in front of me up the ride and giving me wonderful shooting.
Hudson was with me on the ride and had shots when a bunch came out. But if a single one appeared he invariably shouted, " Your bird, Sir." I don't think he had ever been out shooting before! I was so excited by this time that the sweat was streaming down my face and pouring off the points of my collar which, having no tie-pin, were outside my jacket. I was wet through, but I had almost forgotten to be frightened.
About this time we got held up on the left and I took a dive into the undergrowth. I broke through a thick bit and stumbled right on top of a bunch of about thirty Bosches, who promptly put their hands up (before I had time to do so myself !) By a stroke of luck, out of the corner of my eye I saw one German just getting up from the ground a little apart from the rest. He seemed different and as I looked at him he raised his revolver, but I was just before him and shot him dead at about ten yards range. The only effect this had on his men—he was their officer—was that their hands seemed to go a bit higher in the air than usual. They had all dropped their arms. I herded them out on to the ride to be received by Hudson, who nearly bayoneted the first of them, before he realized the situation.
Having got back on to the ride I found a big bunch of Germans collected there, and was conferring with Hudson what to do with them, when a slightly wounded man came along most conveniently and took charge of the fifty odd hulking Prussians. We still went on collecting more Bosches, and left a party of them sitting on the ride because we had no spare men to send back with them. Hudson kept on looking back at them to see that they were still there, when suddenly I saw him take a dozen leaps back and he was amongst them with his bayonet, yelling like a madman.
I dashed back, and he swore that he had seen them collecting rifles. My own belief is that they were far too frightened and much too thankful to be out of the fight to wish to arm themselves even if they had had the chance. However, eventually we were able to detail one man to stay with them and collect any others that were sent back. A lot of shells were bursting over bead and the noise was terrific. Suddenly I bad a colossal blow on my right shoulder which sent me reeling. I was furious and turned to Hudson and said: " Who the hell hit me ? - I getting rather stupid with excitement and exertion. He said " You've been hit, Sir." I said, " I know that, but who hit me ? " He said, " You're wounded." " Oh ! " I replied, " I thought somebody had hit me with a stick." I could not move my arm, it hung useless, so I carried on with my revolver in my left hand, Hudson telling me all the time I ought to go back.
There was only one thing left that I wanted to do from now onwards and that was to get out of it. But the machine worked again and much against my will, I heard myself saying to Hudson : "I am not going back yet—I am all right," and cursing myself for a fool at the same time.
So we went on again and I actually forgot my wound for a time.
I got back to the ride again and had some-more good shooting, but the shells overhead were damnable and branches of the trees were falling all around us.
The artillery seemed to be concentrating on us, but as it was just as bad behind as in front, we decided to push on. After a bit, I saw the end of the wood and an open space beyond. Just as we got to it, I received a message from "Rabbit.'" Dillon to say that the French "75's" were shelling our line and we were to stay where we were, until he had sent a message back. Just at that moment a big shell landed somewhere behind us and turning round I saw a German Officer walk out on to the ride. He had one look at me and ran towards our rear, It was the last shot I had that day and the best—running at thirty yards and a bull. When we got to the edge of the wood, we saw a few Germans disappearing across the open, but when they had gone we could see no sign of life although there appeared to be a lot of bullets flying about and the shells were terrifying. I began to feel sick and then the trees went up into the sky and the sky came down to the earth. I found Hudson bending over me and saying in his gentlest tones, "This is no place for you, Sir, I'll get the men to line the edge of the wood. They'll be all right and I've got some nice Bosches to help you. It will be dark before you get back if you don't go now."
I do not remember more. Loss of blood had made me rather stupid. I remember walking back along the ride we had come up, with some Bosches, one of whom was an officer. Another, who talked English fluently, carried my equipment for me. The officer gave me his field glasses with his name and regiment—1st Battalion, 1st Guard Corps—engraved on it. They were all over 6 ft. 4ins., and the one carrying my equipment was 6 ft. 7 ins. As we passed the officer I had shot last, he pointed at him and said : " My officer, you shot him. I saw it. It was a very good shot," and grinned. I still had my revolver in my left hand and felt inclined to shoot the blighter for that bestial grin, but I had only two rounds of ammunition left, having started the day with fifty-four,, and I could not stop him talking. He told me that the Germans had captured Paris, Calais and Boulogne and that the British Army were surrounded round Ypres. He said they had mounted a gun at Calais which was shelling Dover and one was being brought up which would reach London. When I told him that we should all be in England very soon, he told the officer, who smiled a pitying smile. They all believed the story and were rather sorry for me ! I got back to the Regimental Headquarters eventually, although I can remember very little of the journey. From there by horse and ambulance through Ypres to the Chateau Blanc. Then by motor ambulance to Poperinghe, where I was put into a children's hospital and nursed by nuns. Afterwards to Hazebrouck, and Boulogne, and so to Southampton and finally London, the Mecca of all wounded me.
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