Black Watch Corner

The Black Watch Corner Memorial, Zonnebeke

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Some 31 officers and 1031 other ranks of the 1st Battalion, the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) left for France in August that year and fought at the Marne, Aisne and Ypres. By roll-call the morning after the Battle of Nonne Boschen on 11th November 1914 there were just 109 men and one officer left. This memorial is dedicated to their memory.

On 11th November 1914 the famous Prussian Guard attacked against the thin line that was the BEF's last defences in front of Ypres. The actions of the 41st Arty Bde and the 2nd Battalion, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were to prove significant in preventing a German breakthrough.

Ian at the Royal Welch Memorial

The Prussian Guard Attack on 11th November 1914. [© Ian R Gumm, 2014]

Sunday, 1st November 1914 saw the relentless pressure of the German offensive bear fruit when they finally managed to drive the thin line of the Cavalry and Indian Divisions off of the Messines Ridge. Fresh German formations had been brought up from Lille and Arras including a new composite Guards Division. These were brought into the line ready for another push along the Menin Road. The pressure was continued along the northern and southern edges of the salient to keep the French and British troops fixed in their defensive positions as preparations for renewed assault along the Menin Road took place.

On 5th November 1915 the relentless attacks against the northern sector along the line Bixschcoote to Langemarck were declared 'a useless waste of life' by the German Command. The XXII Reserve Corps had managed to storm Dixmude, but the defending Belgium Army demolished all of the bridges over the canal effectively setting the line for the next three-years.

The newly created Group Linsingen, commanded by General Alexander von Linsingen, was combined with Group Fabeck for what would be the final drive along the Menin Road to capture Ypres. At 06.30 hrs on 11th November 1914 the Prussian Guards of the 2nd Guards Composite Division advanced in the thick early morning fog. They smashed into the British defensive line strung out between Polygon Wood and Herenthage astride the Menin Road in front Ypres. The situation for the British defenders was critical.

To the south of the Menin Road the 12 battalions of the German 4th Division, around 8,500 Pomeranians and West Prussians, were met by the rapid fire of 8.5 (depleted) British battalions; the slaughter was horrendous and they suffered approximately 75% casualties in many of their companies.

To their north astride the Menin Road the composite Guards Division attacked. The 4th Prussian Guard Grenadier Regiment was to the south of the road whilst the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Prussian Guard Grenadier Regiments were to the north. The 4th Prussian Guard Grenadier Regiment suffered a similar fate to that of the 4th Division and was met by the rapid fire of the British infantrymen.

To the north of the road, however, the attacking German Guards had greater success. The 2,000 or so Officers and men of the 2nd Prussian Guard Grenadier Regiment attacked the 2nd Battalion The Duke of Wellington's Regiment. The 2nd Dukes were too late in running forward from their temporary shelter in the woods behind their position, and the leading Fusilier Battalion pressed on over them and into Veldhoek Wood. The 850 or so British infantrymen managed to hold them in the wood; where the Fusilier Battalion was annihilated as their 1st Battalion occupied the captured British trenches.

To their north, the rest of General Winckler's Prussian Guard Division had better luck. Facing their attack was the remnants of the British 1st (Guards) Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General FitzClarence and to their left (north) was the 1st Battalion The King's (Liverpool) Regiment positioned at right angles to them, facing north to guard the left flank of the British line. The 1st (Guards) Brigade numbered around 850 and the King's about 450. Attacking them were two full-strength regiments, the 1st and 3rd Foot Guards, a total of six battalions.

In the artillery bombardment the telephone lines to the supporting batteries of 41st Brigade, Royal Field Artillery were cut and the defenders were unable to call on their prearranged defensive fire tasks. The gunners, however, realised that something was afoot and fired their DFs into no-man's-land in an effort to stop the advancing Germans. It did not succeed and the Prussian Guard swept over the defending British guardsmen and infantrymen of the 1st (Guard) Brigade in their trenches. Of the 200 or so Scots Guardsmen, only five came back alive.

The British defensive line was broken, the Germans were through and all that lay between them and Ypres were the reserve and a handful of cooks, bottle washers and other soldiers that made up the echelon.

The Prussian Guard came on towards Polygon Wood and Nonne Bosschen Wood. Retiring before them were the surviving guardsman and infantrymen of the 1st (Guards) Brigade who withdrew towards two bunkers behind their original position. One was held by a platoon of the Black Watch and the other garrisoned by the two battalion HQs of the Black Watch and the Cameron Highlanders. Both bunkers held firm as did the men of the King's Liverpool Regiment holding the left flank of the British line. The Germans may have broken through, but they were being hit in their flank by the Kingsmen and suffered high casualties as they moving near the bunkers. This caused the enemy veer away in the direction of Nonne Bosschen, which at that time was free of British troops.

Major Rochfort-Boyd had been deployed forward as a FOO when the attack came in and he had withdrawn before the German onslaught. Realising that gunners of 41st Brigade Royal Field Artillery had lost communication with the British troops in the frontline he made his way to gun line. As the Germans advanced they came into view of the gun-positions. The Artillerymen of the 41st Brigade RFA could see the Prussian Guardsmen advancing. Some well aimed rounds of shrapnel convinced the enemy to take shelter in the wood where they were soon fixed with high explosive. Lieutenant Murray of 39th Brigade RFA made a swift horseback reconnaissance close to the German positions and confirmed what they already thought they knew. The 39th Brigade quickly added their fire to that of 41st Brigade.

Realising that the enemy had broken through, the officers of the two RFA Brigades rounded up all the men they could; spare gunners obtained by reducing the crews, drivers, cooks, veterinaries, in fact anyone they could find. With this make-shift force of 40 or so they set up a defensive line in front of their gun positions. Still the Germans lingered in Nonne Bosschen and did not come on against this extremely depleted British force.

Colonel Westmacott, commanding the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Division, sent the 5th Field Company Royal Engineers and the 2nd Connaught Rangers forward to the edge of Polygon Wood. Both units were by this time very short of men, but from here they were able to protect the flank of the Kingsmen holding fast to their position. Major General Charles Munro, commanding 2nd Division, sent forward three depleted companies of the Highland Light Infantry, the divisional cyclists and the remnants of the 1st Coldstream Guards who were by now only about 100 strong. He also sent forward the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry to augment Colonel Westmacott's defences.

The Germans were about to break into Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence's 1st (Guards) Brigade headquarters when he called for help from his Divisional commander, Major General Landon. All that the Major General could send forward was the depleated and battle-weary 1st Battalion, the Northamptonshire Regiment.

Other British Artillery Brigades joined the battle and even the French gunners, out on the flank, contributed to the weight of artillery fire that was fixing the enemy within Nonne Bosschen Wood.

Colonel Westmancott then mounted a counterattack; from behind the gun line of the 41st Brigade RFA the 2nd Ox and Bucks, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel H R Davies, advanced at a walk. As they closed on the edge wood the walk became a charge. The 300 or so men of 2nd Ox and Bucks crashed into the wood and then proceeded to work their way through it. Their hell bent charge smashed into the enemy and they commenced to killed or captured all who stayed to fight. Lieutenant Colonel Davies recalled the events in his diary for 11th November 1914:

"At about 10 a.m. we were turned out, as there had been a German attack on 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 were 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 the Germans were in 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 5th Brigade that I was to clear the Nonne Bosschen Wood of the enemy, and that the Highland Light Infantry, who were in reserve at the western edge of Polygon Wood, would join in the attack on the trenches captured by the Germans, which extended southwards from the south-west corner of Polygon 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 from Nonne Bosschen, as they were in dangerous proximity to some of our guns and to some French guns. I therefore decide to carry out the 5th Brigade orders, and to send a message to the 1st Brigade to say what I was doing.

I sent A and B Companies to clear Nonne Bosschen, advancing from the north-west to south-east. This they did most successfully, driving the Germans before them, and killing and capturing a good many. C and D Companies followed in support. When A and B Companies 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 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. Lieutenant C S Baines was wounded, and Colour Sergeant J Jones (A Company) was unfortunately killed, just at the moment when he had been promoted 2nd Lieutenant, though we did not know it at the time.

There was still another trench held by the Germans in front, and there is no doubt that this would also have to be taken; but unfortunately, the French artillery, not realising 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 Nonne Bosschen Wood, and I found the 5th Brigade headquarters on the north edge of Polygon Wood. It was then proposed to try and retake the trenches, which the Germans had captured, the idea being to make a flank attack on them from the south-west corner of Polygon Wood. As, however, it was absolutely pitch dark, it was decided to postpone that 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 FitzClarence, 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 Polygon 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."

Lieutenant C S Baines, the Officer Commanding B Company of the 2nd Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, later wrote an account of his experiences in the attack:

"I told my platoon sergeants, having no other officers in the company, what we had to do, and set off. When we topped the ridge we saw a big stretch of open field, with a few khaki figures lying about - whether dead or alive I don't know. Beyond was a big 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 and I decided that I at any rate could never reach that wood — and I was not sure that I wanted to. If I became a casualty, Sergeant Hudson would have his chance at leading B Company in action, which was his ambition. However, 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 hard as fast as we could, down and shooting, up again and into the wood, sweating in every pore, more from fright than exertion! I do not know how many were hit running across the open, but the men went like hell and shot between times. I believe C Company was 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 seemed 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, so passed the word down to send all prisoners to the centre of the wood where I was, on a ridge 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 I have ever seen. But the Germans gave no trouble at all, and urged by the bayonets of our men, collected on the ridge. Eventually 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 in 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 the thick undergrowth made progress difficult. We moved slowly forward like a line of beaters and kept coming on bunches of Germans. Some loosed off their rifles without bothering to take aim, thank goodness, then turned tail and ran. I fired fifty-two rounds through my revolver, and burned 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 thirty yards and the huge bulk of the average Prussian Guardsman made one easy target, even on the run.

We struggled on, Sergeant 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 ridge and giving me wonderful shooting. Hudson was with me on the ridge and had shots when a bunch came out. But if a single one appeared he invariably shouted, "Your bird, Sir!" 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, was 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. By a stroke of luck, out 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 pistol, 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 normal. They had all dropped their arms. I herded them out on to the ridge to be received by Hudson, who nearly bayoneted the first of them, before he realised the situation.

Having got back on the ridge 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 went on collecting more Bosches, and left a party of them sitting on the ridge 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 taking a dozen leaps back and he was amongst them with his bayonet, yelling like a madman. I dashed back and he swore 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 overhead and the noise was terrific. Suddenly I had a colossal blow on my right side, which sent me reeling. I was furious and turned on Hudson and said: "Who the hell hit me?" I was getting rather stupid with excitement and exertion. He said "You have been hit Sir", I said “I know that, but who hit me?" He said "You have been 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 my revolver in my left hand, Hudson telling me all the time I ought to go back. I heard myself saying to Hudson: "I am not going back yet, I am all right".

So we went on again and I actually forgot my wound for a time. I heard a ghastly noise coming from the right and taking a plunge into some undergrowth I came upon a little man in khaki, cursing and swearing and crying all at once and making the most agonising noises. He was trying to get his bayonet out of a large Bosche. I gathered that the Bosche had surrendered and had then picked up his rifle and tried to shoot his captor, who was so frightened that he shoved his bayonet right into the bony part of the Bosche and then got still more frightened when he found he could not get his bayonet out again. He was simply howling with rage and fright and tugging like a maniac. I told him to leave his bayonet where it was and take the German rifle and bayonet, and pick up another English one when he could find one.

I got back to the ridge 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 as in front, we decided to push on. After a bit, I saw the end of the wood and open space beyond. Just as we got to it I received a message from A Company commander to say that the French 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 on the ridge. He had a look at me and then 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 seemed to be a lot of bullets flying about and the shells were terrifying. I began to feel sick and then the trees went up in the sky and the sky came down to earth. I found Hudson bending over me and saying in his gentlest tones, "This is no place for you, Sir. I will get the men to line the edge of the wood. They will be all right and I have some nice Bosche to help you. It will be dark before you get back if you do not go now." I do not remember more. Loss of blood had me rather stupid. I remember walking back along the ridge 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 Guards Corps — engraved on them. They were all over 6 ft. 4 ins., and the one carrying my equipment was 6 ft. 7 ins."

Other British Artillery Brigades joined the battle and even the French gunners, out on the flank, contributed to the weight of artillery fire that was fixing the enemy within Nonne Bosschen Wood.

Brigadier-General FitzClarence was determined to win back the front line trenches lost earlier in the day. Having lost most of his own brigade in the fighting, he returned to the rear to find new troops. The 49 year-old Brigadier-General decided to show his troops the way and paid for the decision with his life. He was at the head of 500 or so men from the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, the Irish Guards and a contingent of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, when he was shot and killed by a German rifleman. Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence VC has no known grave and is remembered with honour on Panel 3 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. He is the highest-ranking officer inscribed on the Menin Gate and his Victoria Cross, which he won in the Boer War, is in the Lord Ashcroft VC Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London.

The battle thereafter seemed to fizzled out. The Germans had managed to seize some of the old British front line and advanced some 300 metres into Allied territory on a frontage of just over a kilometre (about three-quarters of a mile), but they had missed their chance. Perhaps they did not realise just how stretched and weak the British defenders in front of them were.

Following the assault of 11th November the weather deteriorated and on the 17th the German High Command called off their offensive bring the First Battle of Ypres to an end. The Germans had failed to press home their advantage at the critical moment and Ypres remained in Allied hands never to fall to the enemy throughout the remainder of the war.

The desperate fighting of the First Battle of Ypres did, however, use up all of the available forces of the BEF and by its end the old Regular British Army had virtually ceased to exist. The forces that made up the British I, III, IV Cavalry and Indian Corps had prevented Ypres falling into the hands of the enemy, but at a terrific cost with 2,298 Officers and 51,807 soldiers of the BEF becoming casualties. The French and Belgium Armies also played a significant part in securing the city and they too paid a heavy price with the French sustaining 85,000 casualties and 'Brave Little Belgium' 22,000. Thus, the First Battle of Ypres should not be view just as a British victory but rather an Allied one as without the support of the French and the dogged defence of the Belgians along the Yser canal the BEF would not have been able to hold on.

The city of Ypres was at that time relatively unimportant in itself, but it quickly assumed strategic importance as the anchor of the Yser line and as the last vestige of Belgium remaining unoccupied; whilst Ypres remained in Allied hands Belgium was not defeated. Thus the retention of Ypres by the Allies took on a significant political perspective and became an imperative military objective.

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Last updated: 15th December 2018