Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Legendary Polygon Wood: The First Fight

By James Patton

Polygon Wood is a small forest in Belgium a few miles east of Ypres. In 1914 there was a racecourse and a Belgian Army rifle range located there. It was the site of three actions during the Great War. The first, which happened during First Ypres, was a battalion-sized fight in October 1914, and is the subject of this entry. The second, during Second Ypres, was in May 1915, when the British were driven out of the wood, and the last, the biggest and the most well known, occurred during Third Ypres at the end of September 1917.

All battles are important, certainly to those who fought them. Moreover, the first battle in Polygon Wood was noteworthy for two reasons. First, there occurred another of those fleeting opportunities for the Germans to push through a weak spot in the Allied forces, which they failed to exploit. Second, it was the first occasion where British Territorials were engaged in battle. 

Location of Polygon Wood East of Ypres

Polygon Wood was on the northern side of a small salient held by the British. On the morning of October 24th, the German XXVII Reserve Corps launched an attack to reduce the salient using four regiments of their 54th Reserve Division, supported by artillery, attacking the British 21st Brigade. The line south of Zonnebeke had been thinned due to movement of units of the 2nd Division to support a French counterattack to the west. This left just the 21st Brigade to defend Polygon Wood, just over two miles due east of Ypres and a few hundred yards south of Zonnebeke, and the only geographical barrier to a German assault on Ypres itself.

On the Reutel Spur, which runs parallel to the eastern face of Polygon Wood, the 2nd Wiltshire Regiment (recently arrived from garrison duty in Gibraltar), was holding the 21st Brigade line, at its junction with the 22nd Brigade — a point which had been heavily shelled on the previous day. Early that morning a company of the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, some 200 yards away on the right of the Wiltshires, was forced to give ground, and two companies of the 2nd Scots Guards (of 20th Brigade), who filled the gap on the other flank, were also driven back, but no word of this had reached either brigade headquarters or the Wiltshires. 

Depiction of 1914 Fighting at Polygon Wood

The two platoons forming the right of the Wiltshires defending the southern edge of Reutel were overwhelmed by attacks in their front, flank, and rear at about 8 a.m. Germans in the village of Reutel, on the right flank and even behind the Wiltshires, attacked in force, while the rest of the Wiltshires were fully engaged at the front, and shot their way down the trenches from right to left, capturing what remained of the companies, the casualties exceeding 450 men. Only the quartermaster, the sergeant-major, and 172 other ranks answered the roll call next morning, and over half of these men had not been in the line on the 24th. Before this disaster occurred,  however, Brig. Gen. Watts, commanding the 21st Brigade, had reported to the 7th Division headquarters the desperate straits of the Wiltshires and the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers (who had already fallen back). 

Shortly after he added to his message that the enemy had succeeded in breaking through the line and had entered Polygon Wood, though as on other occasions when Germans got into woods behind the lines, this did not preclude all hope that the troops in front were still holding out. Gen. Capper immediately took from his cavalry reserve at Hooge the only unit available, the 1/1st Northumberland Hussars (known familiarly in the Army as "The Noodles") to check further enemy progress through Polygon Wood. 

Northumberland Hussars Cap Badge
The Norman keep is the "New Castle"
The honor is for South Africa 1900–02
Thus by accident or by twist of fate this yeomanry unit [see below] dating from 1797 became the first non-regulars to fight with the British Army in the Great War.  Advancing dismounted, they stopped the Germans long enough for the 2nd Warwicks, detached from the 22nd Brigade, to join them and this ad hoc force then drove the Germans back, suffering nearly 300 casualties, including the senior officer Lt. Col. WL Loring of the Warwicks. 

The regiment carried out the task assigned to it in a thoroughly effective manner, though this was its first serious action – indeed the first serious engagement of any Territorial unit. In combination with the 2nd Warwickshire, which was in reserve behind the 22nd Brigade north of the wood, the hussars definitely checked the German advance, and, after considerable fighting cleared the part of Polygon Wood which lay south of the racecourse. 
(Military Operations. France and Belgium, 1914, Volume II)

The Official Report added: "The Germans. . . were content to rest after achieving the objective that they had been given, or they did not know what to do next."

Thus the inexperienced German reservists had been unaware that they had opened a critical hole in Capper's 7th Division defenses, and an opportunity was lost. The next day, with the Germans still holding the northern half of the wood, the 1st Irish Guards and the 2nd Grenadier Guards, from 4th Brigade, 2nd Division, were ordered to clear them out. The scene was later described as "a slaughter-house." During the early hours of the 26th, these two battalions were reinforced by the 3rd Coldstream Guards, and all attacked again. However, the Germans held their ground and the action was over.

What Were the Yeomanry?

In the years after the Jacobite rising of 1745,  the attempt by Prince Charles Edward Stuart to regain the British throne for the exiled House of Stuart, many counties formed irregular military units for local defense. Some, consisting of young "Toffs" with their own horses, became known as "the Yeomanry." They dealt with civil unrest and, once, a French incursion. The Territorial and Reserve Forces Act of 1907 incorporated all irregular units into the new Territorial Army, under the control of the War Office.

1 comment:

  1. Very desperate fighting occurred here. I'm reading the History of the Second Division and the losses to the Guards reduced them to mere shadows of what they once were. Many called First Ypres the graveyard of the British Regular Army.