Based on extracts from the Regimental Chronicles of The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Vol 24 1914-1915
On the night of the 23rd-24th October, as described in Colonel Davies's diary, French reinforcements came up and took over the trenches held by the 1st Army Corps, and a portion of those held by the 7th Division, the 2nd Division being relieved by the 17th French Division (IXth Army Corps).
These reinforcements arrived none too soon, for the 7th Division and the 1st Army Corps had been hard put to it to hold back the German masses, and the 7th Division had been very severely handled. The 2nd Division was, however, given no rest, and the 5th Brigade moved during the 24th to relieve a brigade of the 7th Division, a few miles to the east of Ypres, on the Menin road.
The line was now held as follows : North of the Ypres-Zonnebeke road, French troops; on their right, from Zonnebeke to Polygone Wood, 2nd Division; thence to the Menin road, 1st Division; onwards to Zandvoorde, 7th Division; and in the Zandvoorde trenches, the 3rd Cavalry Division. On the 25th the 5th Brigade moved to Polygone Wood, in which and in neighbouring woods the Regiment spent an anxious three weeks, constantly engaged, but only on two occasions having the opportunity of really distinguishing itself.
These memorable days were the 31st October and the 11th November, on the latter of which it fell upon and utterly routed the Prussian Guard at Nonne Bosschen, accounting for, it is said, no fewer than six hundred of the enemy,
On the 16th November the 5th Brigade was relieved by French troops, and marched to Ypres, in which historic town, it is of interest to note, the 2nd Battalion of the 52nd had been quartered exactly a century before, when it formed part of the army of occupation of Flanders.
Lieut.-Colonel Davies's Diary. October 24th.—(Haanixbeck to the Halte, on the Menin road, east of Ypres, 5 miles south, and thence eastward to crossroads beyond Gheluvelt, and back to Veldhoek, 13 miles in all during the day.) After being relieved by the French, we marched to St. Jean, where we joined up with the rest of the 5th Brigade, and marched through Potijze to the halte, where the railway crosses the Menin road, which we reached at 5 a.m. We slept for an hour or two, lying in a field, but the cold woke us up; so we had breakfast, and read letters which had come in. We had had a hard three days with scarcely any sleep, and were hoping for a day or two in reserve. This, perhaps, had been the intention, but it was not to be. During the night or early morning, the 7th Division had had some of their trenches taken, and we were consequently moved off in a great hurry, at 9 a.m., to their support.
We were sent up to Polygone Wood (Polygone de Zonnebeke), and the Worcestershire and the Highland Light Infantry were pushed forward to clear this wood, at the eastern end of which were the trenches which had been lost. The Worcestershire had a fight in this wood, drove the enemy back, and got close up to the part where the captured trenches were situated. There they and the Highland Light Infantry established themselves in trenches. Meanwhile, the Connaught Rangers had been dispatched south, to Veldhoek, as a reserve to the 21st Brigade (7th Division), who were entrenched on the Ypres-Menin road.
We ourselves were kept in the west end of Polygone Wood, except B Company (Baines), who were sent as a support to the Scots Guards (of the 20th Brigade), in trenches at the north-east end of the wood. Later on—about 3.30 p.m.—I got orders to take the remaining three companies to the crossroads near the 9th kilometre on the Menin road, as a support against a German attack in that direction. At the crossroads there was to be a Staff Officer of the 7th Division, who would give me further orders. I was told to avoid passing through Gheluvelt, which was being shelled, by keeping to the north of it, and coming out on to the road about the 8th kilometre post.
With no exact knowledge of the position of either our own troops or of the Germans, it was rather a difficult job to take the Regiment across country like this. I went in front myself, and by worming along low ground, and obtaining some information from the Bedfordshire, (7th Division), who were in trenches in front of Gheluvelt, as to what ground to avoid, we got to the 8th kilometre fairly successfully. The rear Company (A) did get caught at one place by a German machine-gun, and lost 1 killed and 4 wounded, but we were perhaps lucky to get off so easily. It was growing dark, and the evening was fortunately hazy, which helped us to move unobserved.
All this time there had been no sign of any fighting going on in this direction, though an occasional big German shell dropped on the road. I left the Regiment under cover of a steep bank at the side of the road near the 8th kilometre, and went on myself, with two buglers, to the appointed crossroads. There was no sign of any Staff Officer, but with some difficulty I managed to find King, the Colonel of the Yorkshire Regiment (7th Division), in a trench. He said that there was nothing going on, and no need for support or reinforcements. As there seemed to be nothing to do, I went back to the Regiment and marched back to Veldhoek, where we bivouacked for the night in some buildings and an orchard on the south side of the road. Here I was able to get in touch with the headquarters of the 21st Brigade, under whose orders we had been temporarily placed. We got a few hours' sleep at night.
October 25th.—(Polygone Wood.) We again came under the orders of the 5th Brigade, and were ordered to relieve the Scots Guards (7th Division) in the north-eastern part of Polygone Wood. We moved early in the morning, and C and D Companies took over a bit of the line at the edge of the wood, with the Worcestershire and Highland Light Infantry on our right. Here we found B Company in support, and they rejoined us. Some of the 6th Brigade were partly in front of us, so that only half of our trenches were actually in the front line. We were shelled occasionally in the afternoon, and at intervals a few bullets came over, but on the whole we had a quiet time.
In the afternoon the 4th (Guards') Brigade made an attack, passing through the line to the right of us, and gained some ground. It is said that they also captured two guns.
A very wet night, which made things most unpleasant.
October 26th.—(Polygon Wood to Wood south-east of Westhoek.) About 1 p.m. got orders to go back into Divisional Reserve in the wood (K.14.b.) south-east of Westhoek (Eksternest), the rest of the Brigade being also distributed about here in reserve.
No sooner had we arrived in our place than we got orders to return to the place from which we had come, so as to support an attack by the 6th Brigade. By the time we had carried out these orders it was dark, and we were told that we could go back again into reserve. After this we had a quiet night, and were even able to have tea cooked—a rather unusual event in these days.
Regimental Headquarters got into a little house, and the companies made shelters in the wood, which afforded some protection from the weather.
October 27th.—(Wood south-east of Westhoek.) Had a quiet morning and part of the afternoon, but at 3 p m. we were again sent up to the front to support an attack by the 6th Brigade, only, however, to be returned as not wanted when we got there. We are becoming a little tired of the extremely muddy track which leads along the north side of Polygone Wood.
October 28th.—(Wood south-east of Westhoek to Polygone Wood.) Again to support the 6th Brigade we marched, at 8 a.m., back to the north-east corner of Polygone Wood. The Connaught Rangers went on beyond Molenaaresthoek and relieved part of the 6th Brigade in their trenches, and the Highland Infantry went on in support of them. The Worcestershire and ourselves stayed in the north-east corner of Polygone Wood, and we dug fresh trenches where existing ones were not enough. On our first arrival some of the big howitzer shells did us some damage, but the shelling soon ceased. We had 1 man killed and 18 wounded.
October 29th.—(Polygone Wood.) Still in the same place in the morning. In the afternoon we were ordered to move to the northwest corner of Polygone Wood, where, with the Worcestershire and the King's (6th Brigade), we were in reserve under Lord Cavan, commanding the 4th(Guards') Brigade,
The Germans had made an attack about Gheluvelt and had gained some ground, so it was thought that a reserve might be wanted.
However, the 3rd Brigade advanced and pushed the Germans back, the 7th Division also advancing on their right
October 30th.—(Polygone Wood to near Zwarteleen, 4 miles southwest.) A quiet morning as far as we were concerned. An attack was made on the 6th Brigade, but was repulsed.
About 2.30 p.m. we were ordered off with the 2nd Grenadiers and the Irish Guards, under Lord Cavan, to reinforce the part of the line south of the Ypres-Menin road. The Grenadiers and Irish Guards were put in to dig trenches east of Klein Zillebeke, to fill a gap between the 1st Division on their left and cavalry on their right.
We were put in reserve west of Zwarteleen, and when we arrived there in the dark, were ordered to dig trenches commanding the road and railway, as a possible back position, if required. After digging the trenches I put the Regiment into a small wood close to the railway, and headquarters shared a farm with some of the 10th Hussars At about 10 p.m., just as we were going to sleep, I was ordered to send out two companies to connect the left of the Irish Guards with the right of the Gordon Highlanders.
The companies to go were A (Dillon) and B (Baines), and Crosse (Adjutant) and I went with them. We woke up sleepy officers of the Irish Guards and Gordon Highlanders, but they knew nothing as to where we were intended to be used. In the end we found a company of sappers (of the 7th Division, I think) holding Groenenberg Farm (R. 4. a.) and the small wood to its north-west. They had apparently been promised relief, so I put A and B Companies in here, though there was barely room for both. A were in the farm, and B in the wood. In the latter were also some Irish Guards, while the Gordon Highlanders were on the left (east) of the farm. Some new trenches had to be dug in places.
If it had not been for the fact that there was a strong moonlight there would have been great difficulty in getting A and B Companies into position.
October 31st.—(Woods near Zwarteleen.) The early morning was quiet in reserve, but later on in the morning there was a report (I believe false) that the Germans had broken into the big wood South-west of Klein Zillebeke, and we were ordered to dig trenches facing this wood, with our left on a little mound (K. 22.c. O. 3)(this mound subsequently became the famous Hill 60) which some Frenchmen were entrenching.
Before we had got to work at this, I received urgent orders (1.30 p.m.) to take the two remaining companies—C (Tylden-Pattenson) and D (Tolson), as quickly as possible to a point north of Groenenberg Farm, where a German attack was expected.
I went by the road which turns north-east from a point just South-east of Zwarteleen (K. 22. d.O.l.), and after following this for about half a mile to a farmhouse (K. 23. c. 2. 7.), in a little gap between the woods, turned eastward to the re-entering corner of the wood . I could not find anyone to tell me the situation, but soon saw Gordon Highlanders retiring to the north-east of Groenenberg Farm, as other troops on their left had already retired. The result of this was to make the position of A and B Companies insecure, since the Germans following up the Gordon Highlanders were looking into the left rear of the two companies. Soon afterwards therefore they began to withdraw.
I now put C and D Companies into position where we were, to stop any further advance of the Germans on the south of the big wood; and as A and B came back I lined them up along a ride facing eastward (K. 23. d. 6. 6.-5. 9.). I also sent two platoons of C and some regimental scouts to the north (to about K. 23. a. 8. 2.), to prevent any of the enemy getting round our left flank, as that was the direction in which the German main advance was said to have taken place.
Some of the Irish Guards had retired with our A and B Companies, but the position which we now took up enabled all their right companies to remain where they were. After a little time I received information from the party which I had sent northward that the Northamptonshire and Sussex Regiments were advancing on our left. So I told A and B Companies to get in touch with them, advance eastward through the wood, and clear it of Germans. This movement, I think, took the enemy by surprise, for, at the beginning of the advance, we could see some of them, only a short distance ahead, crossing our front from ourright to left, evidently quite unaware of what was impending. Others were running about in a confused manner, and though a few of them stood and fought, we had much the best of them, killing a considerable number—some with the bayonet—-and clearing the wood to the edge (K. 24. c. 5. 3.-5. 9.). C Company also followed through the wood in this advance, while D was kept back (about K. 23. c. 9. 6.), to look after the right flank, where they had a pretty good field of fire.
In the evening I got most of the Regiment collected at the south edge of the wood (about K. 24. c. 1. 3.), and after much consultation with the Irish Guards and Gordon Highlanders, it was decided to take up our old line of trenches of last night. I was then sent for by Brigadier-General Bulfin, commanding the 2nd Infantry Brigade, and in temporary command of the 1st Division, under whose orders we had come for the time being. He wished to make a further attack during the night on the part of the woods (about K. 24 central) which was still in German hands. His commanding officers thought that their men were too done for anything more and I think that they were right. The idea of this attack was, therefore, given up, and we were ordered to hold our present line, with the alteration that we were to fill the whole gap between the left of the Irish Guards and the right of the Northamptonshire; while the Gordon Highlanders, who had suffered severely lately, and were reduced to 1 officer and 100 men or less, dropped back into reserve. All this, however, was not quite possible to carry out, because the Germans were still in possession of part of the Gordons' original trenches (about K. 24. c. 7. 3.). This I discovered when, with Pepys and my servant (Flowers), I reconnoitred ahead and nearly walked into them. I had begun to have my suspicions as to whether the Highlanders were really there, so we were advancing cautiously, and were eventually challenged in German. We immediately turned and ran, keeping a little apart from each other, and were not hit by the few straggling shots which they fired. After this it was decided to hold the east edge of the big wood.
We had two companies out—C holding the south and east edges of the little wood (R. 3. b. 9. 9.), and D the south-east corner and part of the east edge of the big wood (K. 24. c. 5. 3.) with a burning farm in front of them. A Company was a little in rear of D, with a platoon guarding a track which ran between the two woods; while B Company was in reserve near my headquarters (about K. 23. d. 1.7.) I did also put some men in Groenenberg Farm, but afterwards decided to withdraw them, as the place was so much looked into from the left rear by the Germans.
Our casualties today were 9 men killed, 36 men wounded, two of whom were captured. No officer was hit, which was lucky, for we had not many left. A and B Companies were shelled considerably in the morning, before the German infantry attack, but they had dug so well that they suffered little. On the whole this was a good day for us.
November 1st.—(Woods near Zwarteleen.) Heavy shelling began as soon as it was light. At about 1 p.m., when I was up in DCompany's trench, at the east edge of the big wood, the shelling became still more intense, the range on the trenches being very accurate. From here I saw all the left part of the Irish Guards retiring, pursued by German shrapnel; which hit a good many of them
As this left C Company in too exposed a position, I ordered them to retire I got A and C Companies lined out along the southern edge of the big wood (K. 23. d. 5. 5 to K. 24. c. 2. 3.), with their left on the right of D Company, and told D to stand fast.
Soon afterwards, however, news came, both from Tolson, commanding D Company, and from a Sapper officer more to the left, that the Northamptonshire, on our left, had also retired from their trenches, and that Germans were coming on into the big wood.
As a German advance in this direction would enable them to come through the wood and attack us in rear I ordered D Company to retire by a more northerly track, and C and A by a track along the south edge of the wood, to a position along the road which runs north-east near the north-west edge of the wood (K. 23. c. 4. 9. - K.23. b. 2.4.).
On arriving at this line I found the 2nd Battalion Grenadiers who had been ordered up from reserve, to advance eastward and clear the wood. They advanced part of the way through the wood and then, being fired on from the right flank, wheeled southwards, and lined along the south edge of the wood (K. 23. d. 1. 5.-7.5). This, of course, brought their easterly advance to an end, and their second line did not go any farther either.
Meanwhile D Company, retiring farther to the north, had come on the Gordon Highlanders and Northamptonshire, who were beginning to advance again towards the trenches from which they had retired. D Company joined with them, and advanced a certain distance, being now in front of, and to the left of, the Grenadiers second line (about K. 24, c. 2.9.).
We now got orders to entrench inside the wood, on a line running, from about K. 24 a.5.0 in a south-westerly direction, thus cutting off the awkward salient at the south-east corner of the wood, and getting a line the effect of the shelling of which could not he observed by the enemy
D Company moved to the right, to join on, to the left of the Grenadiers' first line, and dug trenches facing east, while a company from the Grenadiers second line moved up to take the place of the Gordon Highlanders, and join on with the right of the Northamptonshire at K. 24. a. 5. 0.
B, C, and A Companies remained in reserve, on the road where they had dug themselves in, except that one platoon of B Company was moved up to connect the right of the Grenadiers with the left of the Irish Guards (about X. 23 c. 7. 5). On the right of the Irish Guards were French troops.
We had lost about a quarter of a mile of ground, but had established ourselves in a better position.
Our losses today were 64 men, 17 killed, 43 wounded, and 9 missing. Again no officer was hit, but some good sergeants were among the casualties.
November 2nd.—(Woods near Zwarteleen.) A sort of half hearted attack was made by the Germans on D Company and on the Grenadiers, with the result that a good many Germans were killed.
In front of D Company, who were in a fir wood Germans kept crossing the front within sight, and several of them were shot.
At night two of our companies relieved the company of Grenadiers between D Company and the Northamptonshire. We thus had three companies up in the front line (K. 23. d. 6. 6. to K. 24. a. 5. 0), and one company back in reserve, having the Grenadiers on our right and the Northamptonshire on our left.
Not much shelling today, and we only had one man wounded.We keep improving our trenches, and have a few strands of wire fastened on to the trees in front as an obstacle. The wood is fir and not very thick ; one can see a certain distance through it.
November 3rd.— (Woods near Zwarteleen.) Near one part of our line, in front of A Company, some Germans came up and began digging in a hollow only 30 yards from our trenches. Pepys and Pendavis, with two men shot at them from the trenches first, and then rushed out at them, driving them back, and killing about 30 of them as they retired. In fact, the Germans were thoroughly frightened, and hardly even fired.
The enemy was not at all enterprising today, but there was some shelling, and a certain amount of firing at night, though no real attack.
During the day some shells fell among the 1st Line Transport at the Halte (Arret)(Afterwards known as HELLFIRE CORNER) on the railway one mile east of Ypres, wounding Lieut. R. Brett (Transport Officer), Quartermaster-Sergeant Saker, Sergeant Sibley, the Pioneer-Sergeant, Sergeant Martin, the Bugle-Major, and the Orderly Room Clerk (Sergeant Smith).
The total casualties in the Regiment today were 11, of whom 1 man was killed, and Brett and 9 others wounded.
At night the 4th reinforcement of 120 men, under Ward, arrived.
November 4th.—(Woods near Zwarteleen.) Shelling by the enemy began at 11 a.m., and went on until 5 p.m. We kept in our trenches, and little harm was done— 9 men wounded.
November 5th.— (Woods near Zwarteleen.) Our headquarters were shelled intermittently from 10 to 5, but our trenches were not shelled at all, and we had no casualties.
November 6th.—(Woods near Zwartcleen.) Shelling began about 11a.m., and was pretty heavy until 1 p.m. In the afternoon news came in that the French, who were holding the ground beyond the Irish Guards — a little to our right— were retiring. Their retirement eventually compelled the Irish Guards and some of the Grenadiers just in front of our headquarters and reserve company to retire also.
Reports then came that some Germans were working through on our right flank, and tolerably close. As I had to keep most of my reserve company (B) facing the front (to take the place of the right company of the Grenadiers, who had lost a good many men from shellfire, and whose right had been exposed by the retirements on their right), I was only able to spare one platoon, and this I sent out on our right (about K. 23. a. 4. 1.). The Grenadiers were also able to send out one platoon, which eventually joined up with some of the 2nd Life Guards (dismounted), who had been sent up from reserve: and did some very good work. They succeeded in pushing back the Germans, who had got up to the farm at K. 23. c. 2. 7. and the road to the south-west of it.
About this time, just before dark, two companies of the Sussex Regiment (2nd Brigade) also came up, and this reinforcement finally stopped the German advance. They had, however, gained a little ground on our right, as owing to the French retirement it was not possible to get right back to the trenches which had been held by the Irish Guards. But we were able to establish quite a good line, the Grenadiers being a little behind their former position, our reserve company digging a new line (about K. 23. c. 7. 9.) on their right, and the Sussex joining up farther on the right so as to fill the gap between us and the 2nd Life Guards.
Our three companies (A, (C, and D) on the left of the Grenadiers had been quite undisturbed. Their trenches, being inside the wood, were not shelled, and these companies were some distance from the part of the line against which the German attack had come. During the night there was a certain amount of firing, and some of the enemy, creeping up to reconnoitre the Sussex trenches, were shot, but no further attack was made.
We had 8 casualties, viz. : 2nd Lieut.JM. B ward and I man killed, and 6 men wounded.
November 7th.—(Woods near Zwarteleen.) Not much shelling on our part of the line. All four companies now in the front line trenches. One man killed and one wounded today.
November 8th.—(Woods near Zwarteleen.) Still some shelling, but on the whole a quiet day—the last day in these trenches, which we have occupied for nine days.
We have now been about three weeks without changing our clothes or boots, and with our feet generally wet, but every one has kept very fit. Our work in these woods has been, I think satisfactory, and we have not lost heavily; but we have been made uncomfortable by a good deal of rain.
We had two men wounded today, and very late at night the London Scottish took over the trenches from us.
November 9th –(Woods near Zwarteleen to near Verlorenhoek, 4 miles.) It was getting on for daylight when the London Scottish relieved us and took over also the trenches on our right, which had been held by the Sussex. Leaving at about 4 a.m., we marched by the track (through K. 18. and K. 17.) to Zillebeke, and thence north to a place near Verlorenhoek, close to the headquarters of the 2nd Division, arriving about 6 a.m. Here we are in some old trenches made by the French, with regimental headquarters and the officers' mess in a barn belonging to a farm, which contained also the headquarter offices of the 2nd Division. The place is well within shelling range of the enemy, but he does not seem to put shells very near it.
November 10th.—(In Corps "Reserve near Verlorenhoek.) Quite quiet, but too cold to be much of a rest, though we were enabled to get cleaned up a bit, and to have some sleep.
General Monro, commanding the 2nd Division, had a look at the Regiment, and remarked that the men seemed fit and cheerful.
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