The first battle of Ypres, in late 1914, is typically epitomised by heroic actions of individual units. A fine example being the charge of the Worcesters at Gheluvelt chateau. But for many units the experience was a more drawn out, attritional, trial by artillery.
The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards can be used as an example for many. It is a convenient example as collected writings from battalion officers have been combined in J M Crasters' “Fifteen rounds a minute”.
The early stages of the battle see the battalion moving around in a support role, the dry diary [both individual and battalion] entries of movement and digging hide the physical demands on men and officers. The general confusion is illustrated by the frequent oscillating movement of units, crossing and re-crossing the same ground as plans, and often the unit’s chain of command, changes.
Further confusion, granted the general timeless confusion of warfare, is seen when an adjacent unit shoots down a British aircraft.
The battalion's time comes at the end of October, when on the 30th they move to Klein Zillebeke to relieve cavalry units holding the line. Digging new trenches from the canal towards the road, the battalion spends the next day under shellfire interspersed with attacks from German infantry. An officer describes it as the “worst day for shelling of war”.
When relieved, they move back a couple of miles to “bivouack” for 2 or 3 hours, hardly enough time of the necessary administration of weapon cleaning and reorganisation, before the battalion is returned to Klein Zillebeke as part of the “puttying up” of the line. Moving to the North side of the nearby wood, the Grenadiers drop their packs, which were ransacked in their absence, before advancing through the wood. Due to the close nature of the wood, companies became mixed up, but pushed the German units out of the wood and established a line along the wood's edge. With the adjustments enforced by enemy action, this was to remain the battalion's position till 11th November.
The German shellfire was only broken to allow infantry attacks, both grinding down an already tired battalion. On the 1st November 10 men killed, 29 wounded, 8 missing. 2nd November 4 killed, 12 wounded, 1 missing, 4th 4 killed, 26 wounded. During the infantry attacks on 2nd November it was noted that cries of “stop firing Northamptons are going to charge” caused confusion until battalion officers gave explicit orders to continue firing.
The 6th November was a day of crisis. Units to the Grenadier’s right, between them and the canal gave way under German pressure, exposing their flank. It is a main stay of war diaries and regimental histories that units are let down by neighbouring units, but on this occasion German reports confirm the case. The right hand company [No.1] adjusted their position to enfilade German units moving towards the gap in the line. The battalion’s machine gun officer [Lt Tufnell] moved his detachment to the woods edge, this former Eton schoolboy paid with his life. Units from the Household cavalry put in a stopping counter attack and by the time night fell the battalion was still holding its frontage, but only just. The war diary records 7 men killed and 68 wounded.
The 7th was spent grimly holding on, no heroic attacks, just the continued drain on manpower of the newly forming Western Front. The battalion suffered a further 19 killed, 46 wounded and 3 missing.
By the 8th some nearby units are relieved, introducing an envious feeling no doubt, but also at least one case of a minor international misunderstanding. A Grenadier brought a prisoner into the Battalion Headquarters, whom he had captured digging in within “our wood”. A closer examination revealed him to be a French Zouave, sent in to reinforce the weakened line.
On this day the 2 Grenadier Guards CO, Lt Col Smith, summed up the human cost in a letter home. Since the battalion had arrived in France of the 28 officers, 20 had become casualties; from an original strength of 1000 other ranks the battalion had lost 800.