Chapter 17

image

Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien had not expected to receive a warm welcome and although the Commander-in-Chief received him with impeccable politeness the atmosphere cooled as their meeting progressed. The situation as seen by Sir John French from the eminence of headquarters differed greatly from the situation seen by the man on the spot, but the fact was that it was not possible from either point of view to get a clear idea of the position. Although the shrunken salient that contained them was only five miles deep and barely five miles wide hardly anyone knew where anyone else was. As one emergency succeeded the next and troops were detached from one brigade and hurried pell-mell to assist or reinforce another, or were bunched together piecemeal to make a counterattack, the very structure of command was in disarray. It was meaningless in the circumstances to refer to corps or even Brigades, and the makeshift formations could only be described by the name of the senior officer in command: Geddes’s force, Hull’s force, O’Gowan’s force. Even the Canadians now had so many ‘foreign’ troops attached that they could only be called ‘Alderson’s force’.

But it was easy for GHQ to inform a senior officer prior to an attack that a certain number of Battalions would be ‘put at his disposal’. The troops were there – somewhere – in the chaos of the salient, but they could not be marched from barracks to parade-ground as in peacetime, nor brought together as a body at some assembly point behind the lines. All telephone lines ran through Ypres and since most of them were out of action it was difficult to contact a Divisional Headquarters, let alone a Battalion Commander. The troops might be anywhere, and in the turmoil of events even a mounted man sent off to scour the ravaged salient would have little hope of finding them. All that could be done was to trust to luck – and to pluck and grim determination. There was no shortage of the last two, but luck was in short supply, and so was information. At the end of a long day’s fighting, amid a ferocious bombardment, with nothing to go on but scribbled and often contradictory messages, it was difficult to judge precisely how the line stood, whattroops were holding it, and how far the Germans had advanced where the line had given way.

Part of the trouble was that there were too many men and too many guns squeezed into one small area. On the map the salient no longer resembled a straggling semi-circle, it was now like a clenched fist at the end of a thick wrist – and far from being in a position to punch a knock-out blow, the Army was fighting with one hand tied behind its back. There was no space to manoeuvre and the loss of material and the mounting casualty lists were ample evidence that a large mass of troops squeezed so tightly together could do little more than provide an inviting target for the enemy’s guns. Throwing them in willy-nilly to patch up the front could not staunch the flow of the German advance indefinitely, for the enemy was weaker in men but so hugely superior in firepower and lethal weapons that by merely pressing against the vulnerable salient, by biting into it bit by bit, it could only be a matter of time before it collapsed. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien wished to reorganise the line and to withdraw the superfluous men and materials without delay. Reason told him that reinforcements could be better employed in relieving exhausted troops and manning and strengthening a shorter front that would be easier and less costly to defend. From this new line, and in due course, a well-planned and meticulously organised offensive could be launched to push the enemy back.

These were the matters he wished to discuss with the Commander-in-Chief.

Smith-Dorrien was not a man who shirked bold action when the situation demanded it. It was only a matter of months since the great retreat from Mons when Smith-Dorrien had averted possible catastrophe by turning to fight the Germans in a brilliant rearguard battle at le Cateau. He had fought it against Sir John French’s specific instructions and, although the Commander-in-Chief had initially commended him, there had been an undertone of friction in their dealings ever since. Sir John French did not lend a sympathetic ear to Smith-Dorrien’s views although they accorded closely with his own. But he had given his guarantee of support to General Foch and he must fulfil that promise by allowing the French every chance to fulfil theirs. If the French offensive succeeded and they managed to recapture the ground they had lost, it would restore the situation in the salient more quickly than any other course of action, and, in the view of the Commander-in-Chief, speed was of the essence. With his next offensive looming close, he was especially anxious that the salient should be ‘quietened down’ before it took place. It was perfectly possible, he informed Smith-Dorrien, that the Germans had got wind of the new plan and were merely attacking here in the north in an effort to thwart it. The fighting at Ypres must be concluded – and soon. If the French did not succeed, he conceded, it might well be necessary to fall back and tighten the line, but meanwhile, and he stressed the fact, ground must be given up only in the most extreme circumstances – and not at all if it could possibly be avoided. The French must have their chance, even if it was a gamble. ‘After all,’ he added, ‘it was the French who got us into this mess. It’s up to them to get us out.’

Smith-Dorrien could only stifle his misgivings and acquiesce, but he was far from happy and, on his return to Poperinghe, a message from General Putz did not lighten his heart, for it seemed that Putz did not share the view of the British Commander-in-Chief that it was ‘up to the French’ to retrieve the situation with a little help from the British. He proposed to attack at 5 p.m. next day. Two French divisions were already in the line and, for the purposes of the assault, Putz proposed to augment them by less than a whole division.* In the view of General Smith-Dorrien a total of seventeen Battalions was extremely unlikely to achieve a decisive result. He doubted, indeed, if they would succeed in retrieving any ground at all. But the orders of the Commander-in-Chief had been categorical. Reluctantly, and with many qualms, he was forced to commit his troops and send out his own orders for the British to attack on the right of the French. A general plan had already been drawn up in the course of a meeting that morning, but in Smith-Dorrien’s opinion the timing was premature. His reinforcements would have no time to rest, still less to prepare and reconnoitre the ground before they were flung into battle. There was worse to come. Well after midnight another message arrived from General Putz, and the news that he had put zero hour forward by almost three hours to five past two in the afternoon came as a bombshell.

By the time his Advanced Headquarters could be contacted the Commander-in-Chief had already retired for the night but at Smith-Dorrien’s insistence he was brought to the telephone. With this latest development Smith-Dorrien’s fears had increased ten-fold and he spoke eloquently and at length, repeating all he had said earlier and more. He expressed his outrage at the paltry numbers the French proposed to engage, he reiterated his reluctance to fling in weary troops in the most unpropitious circumstances, he begged the Commander-in-Chief to intervene. Their conversation was not a happy one and Sir John French soon cut it short. He gave Smith-Dorrien a direct order to proceed as planned. The attack must go ahead and there was no more to be said.

By the time new orders could be drafted and sent out to the artillery and the scattered infantry it was past two o’clock in the morning. The attack was now barely twelve hours away and the fresh troops who were destined to make it had not yet begun to make their way to the line.

The Lahore Division was in bivouacs near Ouderdom, some ten kilometres south-west of Ypres. They had marched thirty miles from Bethune to get there and, undisturbed by the clamour of the distant bombardment, most of them were sleeping like logs. The new orders meant that by 5.30 in the morning they would be on the road again, setting off at half hour intervals to march on Ypres and out to the salient beyond.

Like the Meerut Division the Lahore Division was low in numbers, weakened by sickness, and casualties at Neuve Chapelle had left wide gaps in the ranks and Indian reinforcements could not easily be brought from half-way round the world. The 4th Battalion of the London Regiment was attached to the Ferozepore Brigade to strengthen it, and although they were not the first battalion of the Brigade to set out that morning, Frank Udall thought it was early enough. His feet were still killing him.

Sgt. F. G. Udall MM (2 Bars), 1/4th (City of London) Bn. (Royal Fusiliers) (TF), Lahore Div.

The day before we left we were all issued with overcoats and a new pair of boots, because they wanted to get rid of these stores and the Quartermaster must have reckoned that the easiest way of carrying them north was to issue them to us and let us wear them. We moved off on a warm April morning to march from Neuve Chapelle to Ypres and with new boots our feet were so sore and bleeding that there were many, many stragglers. We couldn’t help but fall out! A good many Belgian women came out of their cottages and bathed our feet and bandaged them up as we sat at the side of the road, and there were so many dropped out that they eventually had to send lorries to pick us up and take us the rest of the way to Ouderdom Camp. The following morning the Connaught Rangers left to go to the line and a couple of hours afterwards, we followed them and marched on to Ypres. We eventually arrived and my feet were still sore, so I fell out again, had a rest and after a bit I struggled to my feet. In the Ypres residential part I looked into a house and saw a table was already laid for breakfast, and so people evidently must have scurried and just left it. They were shelling the place, so you couldn’t blame them. Further on I came to a jeweller’s shop and the front must have been just blown away. You could see all the stuff lying there in the rubble. Well, there was a Connaught Ranger in front of me. He’d already helped himself and I was about to do the same when a military policeman came along and told me to clear off.

Eventually I caught up with the battalion in an orchard and there was a Quartermaster Sergeant there with his battalion stores. He was giving the stuff away – all of his battalion’s rations! He said he hadn’t seen his Battalion for three days so we might as well have the stuff. I remember him handing out the tins of Maconochie rations and also big gross boxes of Bryant and May’s matches. The Colonel spoke to us while we were resting and said that the Germans had sprung a gas attack and might do it again. He told us, if that happened we should piss on a handkerchief and tie it round our mouths. He said that would do the trick. Then we got orders to move and we started off towards the front. The Connaughts were already in the front line and we were going into support. When we arrived, a few of the boys still had the stuff they’d got from the Quartermaster, but most of us had chucked it away long before.

The Lahore Division was a mixed bag. There were tall Pathans from the north-west territories around Peshawar and Rawalpindi, stocky Gurkhas from the highlands of Nepal, bearded Sikhs from the Punjab. There were soldiers from Bhopal, men of the Frontier Force and, fighting alongside them in their British battalions, Irishmen in the Connaught Rangers, Merseysiders in the King’s Liverpools, Scots in the Highland Light Infantry, a Lancashire contingent in the Manchesters, and the Londoners of the Royal Fusiliers. Together they were to launch out from the northern wall of the salient against the German line on Mauser Ridge. And they were to do more than capture it. Advancing with the French troops on their left and Hull’s force of ‘odd detachments’ on their right, they were to batter on and push the Germans back to Langemarck, while the French, advancing from just east of the canal, were to capture Pilckem village on the way.

In the course of the morning Sir John French took the trouble to telephone a personal message of encouragement to Second Army Headquarters. The Commander-in-Chief wished it to be known that he had no doubts about the successful outcome of the offensive as the enemy could not be ‘very strong or numerous, as he must have lost heavily and be exhausted’. These optimistic words did nothing to relieve Smith-Dorrien’s anxiety, and there certainly was no time to pass them on to the troops. It was now twenty minutes past eleven and, if all had gone well, even the tail-end of the Lahore Division should now be moving into position ready to deploy.

Major F. A. Robertson, 59th Scinde Rifles, Frontier Force, Lahore Div.

We had orders to make a counter-attack in the direction of St Julien. I had recently been through a course of bombing and had been told to take command of the bomb party of my regiment, but I had no time to put the men through their paces before we marched. Those were the days of frequent changes in the pattern of bombs. As we prepared to deploy I served out the Battye bombs to the sepoys and they looked at them with dismay. I asked them what was wrong and at last a young Sikh remarked, ‘But, Sahib, we have never seen a bomb with a fuse like this before! We’re used to lighting ours with matches.’ So that was a pleasant situation, I must say, when we were just going into action!

It was a bad start, but there was nothing to be done except to give the hastiest of demonstrations and advice, and to hope for the best.

It took a long time to spread the troops of three brigades into formation. They were still well back from the start-line but, apart from the three battalions in the lee of Hilltop Ridge, they were well within view of the Germans, and German aeroplanes, swooping low above them, had shown particular interest in such a large gathering of troops, and buzzed off busily northwards to report that an attack was underway. When the preliminary bombardment started up it could hardly be heard against the roar of enemy guns and the screech of enemy shells targeted on the infantry as they waited to move.

Under cover of the bombardment the infantry moved forward to jumping-off positions. At two o’clock precisely to the minute they began to advance. It was the only movement of the afternoon that went according to plan.

Major F. A. Robertson.

The idea had got about that the German trenches were two hundred yards away. When our front line went over the top they found that there was anything from twelve to fifteen hundred yards to go. Our artillery preparation had not at all shaken the nerves of the Germans, and the two British and four Indian regiments who led the way were absolutely mown down by rifles, machine-guns, and artillery of every calibre. The slaughter was cruel. It was men against every machine that frightfulness could devise. My bombers never even got to grips! It was a miracle that any men did manage to cross that wide shallow valley exposed to a torrent of fire from the German line on the rising ground beyond. Even the men who had started from behind the Hilltop Ridge were mown down in rows as they cleared the skyline. Heavy German Howitzers now had the range and whole platoons were being knocked out by a single massive shell. All across the shallow valley the dead and the dying were tossed into the air and dropped in mangled heaps.*But survivors of the leading waves pressed on until they were little more than a stone’s throw from the German wire a hundred yards beyond. A little to their left, where the French were attacking, luck was on the side of the Germans, for gas cylinders had been placed in front of it in preparation for an attack of their own. Like the Canadians four days earlier, the soldiers could see gas clouds passing across French troops, but this time, just as the gas enveloped their leading line, the wind shifted direction and slowly rolled the gas from west to east suffusing the ground where British and Indian soldiers were crouched on the slope beneath Mauser Ridge. All along the line the advance broke up.

Sgt. F. G. Udall, MM (2 Bars).

The Connaught Rangers went over first and we were waiting for the word to go forward, but within a few minutes we saw the Connaught Rangers leaving the line and coming back gassed. They were in no sort of order, and there was greenish colour about their clothing and they were coughing and staggering and some of them were dropping down on the way. I remember hearing an NCO shouting at them, ‘Don’t let the Territorials beat you!’ And many of the Connaught Rangers actually turned round and went back again to their line. Then it came to our turn to advance, so over we went and for the first time we used the entrenching tools for what they were made for and we dug ourselves in within a few hundred yards of Jerry with our entrenching tools. This was at Buffs Road, Hilltop Farm. But the attack seemed to have withered out and we were withdrawn after that. In the evening they came round for burial parties and I volunteered. We buried nine or ten who’d been hit the previous day while we were getting into position. And we’d left plenty more than that behind us in the line!

But the handful of survivors of the Manchesters and Connaughts, Sikhs and Pathans, still clung to the ground they had reached close up to the German wire. The slightest movement brought a fresh tornado of fire from machine-guns on the ridge. But they tended their wounded as best they could. At night guides were sent out to bring the survivors back. More than fifteen hundred casualties were left behind – and most of them were dead. The Colonels of three battalions had been killed and two other Commanding Officers wounded. The Connaught Rangers had lost all their officers. So had the Pathans. But, once again, the Germans made no attempt to advance.

Major F. A. Robertson.

It seems that the Germans were expected to walk into Ypres that day, and indeed there was little enough to stop them. But whenever you sprung a surprise on Fritz he would pause while his staff did a bit of thinking. Here he was being attacked by Indians who ought to have been some fifty miles away, as they must have known. An obvious case for consideration! So they stayed where they were and lost their last chance of walking in.

It was an impossibility to take the German trenches but the British line was pushed forward and the Germans were held back. The Lahore Division was rallied and for four days, sometimes by ourselves and sometimes working with other troops, we pressed against the German lines. The enemy never advanced one inch during that time and by the end of it the defence had been reorganised and Ypres was safe.

Later they were to call it the Battle of St Julien and in the aftermath of the failure of the first day’s fighting Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien took no satisfaction in the fact that he had been right. The absolute necessity of reorganising the line was now occupying his mind to the exclusion of all else. As he had anticipated, the French had failed miserably for, apart from the French troops on the immediate left of his own, the attack that had been promised and intended along the remainder of the French line had never got off the ground, and once again the British had suffered the consequences and footed the bill, as he saw it, for the French. He was not unsympathetic. He knew full well that, just as he himself was being pressed by Sir John French, General Putz was being pressed by Foch, and he knew too that, regarding the reinforcements he had been led to expect and the guns that had been promised to replace the seventy he had lost, Putz had been badly let down. But it was not good enough. The French planned to renew the assault next day and Smith-Dorrien took it upon himself to make it clear to General Putz that he did not intend to order any further offensives in his support unless and until Putz was in a position to make a very much more substantial contribution – and to make it effectively. Then he sat down to compose a longer and more difficult communication to General Headquarters. As etiquette demanded, he addressed it to Sir William Robertson, Chief of the General Staff, but its message was intended for the Commander-in-Chief.

Smith-Dorrien began by outlining the events of the day and, although he scrupulously reported some isolated minor successes as well as the major failure, he was human enough to succumb to the temptation of reminding GHQ of the views he had expressed at Hazebrouck and that he had not anticipated ‘any great results’. The French intended to renew the offensive a few hours hence, and the net result of General Putz’s latest dispositions, Smith-Dorrien pointed out, would be to add just one battalion to the existing force east of the canal.

I want the Chief to know this, as I do not think he must expect that the French are going to do anything very great – in fact, although I have ordered the Lahore Division to cooperate when the French attack at 1.15 p.m., I am pretty sure that our line tonight will not be in advance of where it is at the present moment. I fear the Lahore Division have had very heavy casualties and so, they tell me, have the Northumbrians, and I am doubtful if it is worth losing any more men to regain the French ground unless the French do something really big.

Smith-Dorrien was ignorant of the fact that the Commander-in-Chief had already complained to his staff about Smith-Dorrien’s ‘wordy’ missives and messages. Already he had filled several pages and he had not yet come to the purpose of his letter. That purpose was finally to convince the Commander-in-Chief of the need to withdraw the troops and tighten the line’ as speedily as was practicable. He reminded GHQ that the Germans’ guns dominated the salient, that the shelling was intense and that Poperinghe, as well as Ypres, was now within their range. Barely two hours ago his own report centre had been hit by splinters from a shell exploding too close for comfort, and all the approach roads of the salient were constantly swept by shell-fire. If the French were not going to make a big push (and he made no secret of the fact that he was more sceptical than ever about their chances of doing so) ‘the only line we can permanently hold and have a fair chance of keeping supplied would be the GHQ line passing just east of Wieltje and Potijze with a curved switch through Hooge and Sanctuary Wood to join on to our present line about a thousand yards north-east of Hill 60.’ He added several paragraphs of detailed map references to outline precisely the line he had in mind – a line that would reduce the salient to a quarter of its present size. And he continued with a certain boldness: ‘I intend tonight if nothing special happens to re-organise the new front and to withdraw superfluous troops west of Ypres.’

It was clear that in his own mind Smith-Dorrien fully expected that ‘nothing special’ would happen as a result of the day’s fighting – and he went further. They must consider the possibility that the Germans might break through the French lines and gain ground west of the canal. If that happened there would be no alternative for the British but to give up Ypres entirely and the whole of the salient beyond it.

At this point it may have seemed to Smith-Dorrien that he was giving the impression that he himself was pessimistic, for he hastened to assure the chief-of-staff that this was not the case and attempted to enliven the remaining pages of his voluminous letter with an air of optimism. He referred with enthusiasm to the ‘big offensive elsewhere’ which he knew was dear to the heart of the Commander-in-Chief, and asserted his own belief that it would do more to relieve this situation than anything else. He passed on the latest news, reported by the cavalry, that the French had recaptured Lizerne, and that, as a result of his own protest (which he had gone into in detail a dozen pages earlier), General Putz was putting an extra regiment into the line for that day’s attack. ‘We are to assist with heavy artillery fire,’ he added, ‘and the Lahore Division is only to advance if they see the French troops getting on.’

By the time Smith-Dorrien signed and sealed his letter it was well into the small hours of the morning and the staff officer who would motor with it to Hazebrouck was unlikely to get there much before dawn.

It was bright moonlight and eight miles away on the edge of the salient the outlines of Mauser Ridge, of Hilltop Ridge, of the jagged spire of the church in St Julien stood out sharp and black against the light of the clear sky. In the shadows below, stretcher-bearers were still on the move among the debris of the battle, picking their way between the deeper shadows of hunched and silent corpses, and keeping their ears pricked for some faint cry or groan or whisper that would guide them to a wounded man. In a few hours’ time the guns would start up and the infantry would line up again and attempt to advance across this ground still littered with the bodies of yesterday’s dead.

Weary and worried Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien stretched out on a camp bed to snatch a brief rest before the rigours of the day. He had done his best. All he could do now was hope that the letter now on its way to GHQ would induce the Commander-in-Chief and his staff to sanction his proposals. That hope, and with it most of his personal hopes and expectations, was soon to be shattered at a stroke.

Sir John French was furious. But it could hardly have been the content of Smith-Dorrien’s letter which caused him to fulminate against its author, for the proposal to withdraw to a safer line made sound military sense and in his heart of hearts the Commander-in-Chief was of the same opinion. But it was the tone of the letter that incensed him, with its apparent lack of confidence, its gloomy view of the French and its lukewarm commitment to the support that the Commander-in-Chief, albeit conditionally, had assured Foch would be forthcoming.

Faced as he was with a triple dilemma, Sir John French was in no mood to be trifled with and, shortly after luncheon, Sir William Robertson sent a telephone message to Smith-Dorrien that made this crystal clear. It was couched in lofty language but it was intended to leave Smith-Dorrien in no doubt that his unfavourable view of the situation was not accepted by the Commander-in-Chief, and it forcibly reminded him that he had more than enough troops and ample reserves to assist the French and trounce the Germans. Smith-Dorrien must ‘act vigorously’ to assist and cooperate with the French and must attack simultaneously ‘as previously instructed’ with every gun and every man he had.

This message was more than a slap in the face. It was a body blow. Reading between the lines it was plain that his lengthy letter had caused grave offence, that Smith-Dorrien’s analysis, so painstakingly set out, was interpreted unequivocally as lack of zeal, and that the conditional support he proposed to contribute to the latest French counter-offensive amounted to an. intolerable contravention of the personal orders of the Commander-in-Chief. So that there should be no possible doubt of his intentions a Staff Officer was sent from GHQ to Poperinghe to repeat the orders verbally and make absolutely sure that Smith-Dorrien understood that they were categorical.

Major-General Perceval was a senior Staff Officer and as sub-chief of the General Staff was second in importance only to Sir William Robertson, but he was junior in rank and seniority to General Smith-Dorrien. He could hardly have relished his task and, in the circumstances, it was doubtless an awkward interview – Smith-Dorrien resentful and icily courteous and Perceval stiff with distaste for an embarrassing task. But worse was to come – and even the signallers at Second Army Headquarters knew it before the Army Commander. Perhaps in error, but not impossibly with calculated disregard for Smith-Dorrien’s feelings, the wire from GHQ was not encoded but was sent ‘in clear’ for all to read:

Chief directs you to hand over forthwith to General Plumer the command of all troops engaged in the present operations about Ypres. You should lend General Plumer your Brigadier-General, General Staff, and such other officers of the various branches of your staff as he may require. General Plumer should send all reports direct to GHQ from which he will receive his orders.

It was repeated, also ‘in clear’, to the V Corps Commander, and Smith-Dorrien’s subordinate, Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Plumer.

It was a humiliating insult and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was deeply wounded. Within two hours he left his advanced report centre and drove back to Second Army headquarters. After the hustle and bustle of Poperinghe the chateau seemed very quiet. Most of his staff had already gone to V Corps and there was precious little of his army left – only a single corps in the line south of the salient. He was unmoved by the news that the French counter-offensive had failed again. In the early hours of the morning he had written to GHQ: ‘I am pretty sure that our line tonight will not be in advance of where it is at the present moment.’

And he had been right.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!