Saturday, 31st October 1914 is said to have witnessed the supreme effort of the German Imperial Army to break through the British defences and capture Ypres. Their attack was pressed simultaneously along twelve miles of the front stretching from Messines in the south to the Menin road and beyond in the north. It was to lasted not only throughout the day but during the greater part of the night.
Along the Menin road, the BEF had been forced back on 29th October 1914 from a line just west of Kruiseecke crossroads to trenches some ¾ mile further back on the higher ground on which the village of Gheluvelt stands. On the morning of the 31st these new positions were in turn attacked by divisions of the German Imperial Army as their Kaiser waited in nearby Menin to celebrate their victory.
There was a significant difference between the attacks of the 29th and that of the 31st. The attack of the 29th had been a surprise attack covered by fog without any preliminary bombardment, whilst that of the 31st was preceded by a bombardment which, in terms of its violence, threw into the shade anything that the war had seen to-date. The expenditure of ammunition was colossal; it began at daybreak and gradually increasing in volume until 11.00 hrs when it ceased and the German infantry surged forward.
The tactics of the enemy in these Menin road attacks almost always took the same form. All the batteries within the area would concentrate on the road and on the trenches immediately to right and left of the road, making these positions absolutely untenable. Then, when the troops in the line of this shellfire had fallen back dazed and semi-consciousness, the enemy would drive a dense mass of their infantry into the gap. By this method, companies, and sometimes whole battalions, that held their positions throughout the shellfire were overwhelmed and virtually annihilated as the enemy flowed over and around them.
The shellfire was mainly focussed on the defences of the 3rd Brigade and 22nd Brigade in the vicinity of Gheluvelt, and fate soon overtook Major Lawrence's Company, the right flank company of 1st Battalion, the South Wales Borderers [1st SWB] just north of Gheluvelt. They formed the northern boundary of the gap caused by the bombardment and as the German wedge spread out to the right; it bore down on them from three sides. Major Lawrence turned half the men about and they fought back-to-back. They kept up the fighting to the bitter end, but it was merely a question of selling their lives as dearly as possible. Eventually the German tide swept over them and they ceased to exist. The remaining companies of the 1st SWB managed to hold their ground in and around the Gheluvelt Chateau.
To their right of the 1st SWB in Gheluvelt the 2nd Battalion, the Welch Regiment had been forced out of the village, those remaining being overrun. So too were the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers; the 2nd battalion, the Kings Royal Rifle Corps and the 1st Battalion, the Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. Gheluvelt had been lost and a great gap had been broken in the British line.
At 13.30 hrs the 2nd Battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment [2nd Worcesters], who were in reserve near Polygon Wood a mile to the rear, were ordered to retake the lost position. The 2nd Worcesters, led by Major Edward Barnard Hankey, deployed in the woods just to the rear of Gheluvelt and advanced in a series of short rushes. They charged right up to the line of the lost trenches, the last rush had to be made across 200 yards of open ground in the face of a terrific shrapnel fire. Over 100 of the Worcesters fell in this last rush, but the remainder charged home and drove out the Germans with heavy loss.
The old trenches had collapsed in on themselves and provided no cover, but the sunken road just to their rear provided fair cover and the 2nd Worcesters took up positions lining this tying in their left with the right of the 1st SWB. The Germans, however, were still in the village and the position was at best a precarious one. These two Battalions managed to hold on until dark, when they were ordered to retire.
The 2nd Worcesters lost 192 casualties in this short, brilliant charge. Their achievement was alluded to by the C-in-C as one of the finest in the whole campaign, and one which saved the army from a very awkward predicament. Out of a total strength of eleven officers and 450 other ranks they lost: Captain E G Williams, Lieutenant E C R Hudson, Lieutenant E A Haskett-Smith and 189 other ranks.
The Germans did not carry their advance beyond Gheluvelt on 31st October 1914. The ground they had gained had been won through a huge expenditure of ammunition followed by a reckless sacrifice of men; their losses had been enormous. Their further progress was also barred by the British infantrymen who they had shelled out of the village that morning. These had taken up a new defensive line and now forming a barrier to any further advance on the part of the enemy that day.