The Battle of Gheluvelt

Gheluvelt might seem a strange name for a park on Worcester’s Barbourne Road in this most English of cities. The park, however, commemorates a remarkable feat of arms in October 1914 at Gheluvelt in Belgium by the Worcestershire Regiment, which in the words of Field Marshal Sir John French ‘saved the British Empire’. Alan Cowpe, researcher with the Mercian Regiment Museum (Worcestershire), explains.

Caption: Hankey sets off through the shellfire, walking stick in hand. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the Mercian Regiment Museum (Worcestershire).

Britain went to war in 1914 with a small professional army that was dwarfed by the massive conscript armies of the continental participants. With all reservists mobilised, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of some 120,000 men was despatched to the continent to help expel the German invaders from France and Belgium.

It was a force so small that the German General Staff discounted it in its planning for the war; and the Kaiser is alleged (probably inaccurately) to have described it as a ‘contemptible little army’. What it lacked in numbers, however, it made up in quality. The soldiers were highly motivated and well trained. In particular they were well-practised in concealment and manoeuvre, and especially in the use of their Lee Enfield rifles. Their seven year active service engagements enabled them to develop these skills to a higher level than was possible for short service conscripts.

The popular image of the Great War is of mud and trenches. But the campaigns of 1914 were quite different. August 1914 was very hot, and on all fronts, armies of millions manoeuvred over distances of hundreds of miles as they strained every sinew to conclude the war victoriously before (again as the Kaiser put it) the autumn leaves fell. In this mobile war, casualties on all sides were enormous; by the year’s end each of the major belligerents had lost about a million men, 10 times the number in the entire BEF. In France, the German armies advanced as far as Paris before being driven back. The BEF began the war in Belgium at Mons, retreating with the French armies to Paris and then joining in the counter-attack, which came to be called ‘the miracle of the Marne’. In September 1914 they were redeployed to northern France and Flanders, where they were closer to the Channel ports, thereby shortening their supply lines. It was expected that, together with French forces in the area, they would be able to mount mobile operations against light opposition in open country until now little affected by the war.

Germany had, however, chosen this front to make its final big push to win the war outright, by outflanking the Allied armies in the north. So as the BEF deployed around the Belgian town of Ypres, they collided with far stronger German forces coming the other way; for the next six weeks the two armies grappled with each other in what came to be designated the First Battle of Ypres. Casualties on both sides were very heavy. The Germans called it the Kindermord (the killing of the children) because some of the German units employed were half-trained university reserve regiments. But this was only part of the story. The German army was a formidable opponent, determined, well drilled, highly motivated, supported by heavy artillery using high explosive shells, and in great numbers; the BEF had far fewer and smaller guns which used the less destructive shrapnel shells, and they had neither the time nor the materials to construct anything more than at best rudimentary trench defences. By the end, Britain’s small professional army had been destroyed. Nevertheless, they fought the German army to a halt, and did so with such skill and determination that their enemy never guessed how thin was the khaki line which faced them; the Germans counted their own appalling casualties and ascribed these to the strong fortifications, superior numbers and massed machine guns which, quite mistakenly, they believed they were attacking.

There’s nothing reasonable about what I’m going to order them to do. The village must be retaken or the war’s lost. You’re all I’ve got left.”

On 31 October 1914 the Germans launched what was intended to be the knockout punch; an assault in great strength, in the presence of the Kaiser himself, against British positions on the main route east to Ypres in and around the village of Gheluvelt. Some 250 heavy guns were concentrated just on this point (the BEF had 50 such guns for the entire front) and the infantry numbers were six times those of the defenders. An interesting historical curiosity is that one of the assaulting infantry was a certain Adolf Hitler.

During the course of the morning the defenders were overwhelmed. Pounded by heavy artillery fire (‘like being in an earthquake’) and assaulted on all sides by infantry emerging in large numbers from the autumn morning mist, the West Surrey and Welsh battalions virtually ceased to exist; the South Wales Borderers were driven from the village itself, with the survivors maintaining a brave but doomed resistance around the chateau. An enormous hole had been created in the British line. Victory in this battle – and potentially in the war – was within Germany’s grasp.

The attackers, bursting through the hedge, unnerved the German soldiers. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the Mercian Regiment Museum (Worcestershire).

The brigade commander at Gheluvelt, Charles FitzClarence, had already shown physical courage and a cool head in a crisis when he won his VC in the Boer War. Now he had been galloping about the battlefield on horseback to keep in touch with events; he saw what had to be done; and he did it. Some 2,000 metres behind Gheluvelt, the 2nd battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment were in reserve, occupying a position (Polygon Wood) from which they had recently expelled the enemy at bayonet point. They were the BEF’s only reserve. After several months of campaigning, their numbers had been reduced from their original 1,000 to about 500, although this still left them in better shape than many other regiments. Judging that they would soon be busy, their acting commanding officer, Major Edward Hankey, ordered them to eat (hot stew and a tot of rum) while he went to receive orders from FitzClarence. The exchange between the two (there is more than one version) is the stuff of legends. Asked what his men were like, Hankey replied that they were first-rate and ready to do anything reasonable. FitzClarence responded: ‘There’s nothing reasonable about what I’m going to order them to do. The village must be retaken or the war’s lost. You’re all I’ve got left’. It was a stark but accurate assessment. Returning, Hankey briefed his men. ‘2nd Worcesters are to take the village. We can do it and we will do it. Good luck to you all’. Henry V it was not; but it was very English. The task was challenging: an advance over 2,000 metres of open ground to attack a force many times their size, in a battle which appeared to be irretrievably lost.

Carrying extra ammunition, some 370 of the battalion set off; the others had been ordered to take up a blocking position in case the Germans made another advance. For the first 1,000 metres they were sheltered from German eyes, but the signs were not good. A nearby artillery battery was seen to be withdrawing, and they passed a stream of wounded and other often shell-shocked refugees from the front line urging them not to go forward to certain death. Defeat was clearly in the air, but they kept going. As they formed up for the assault over the final 1,000 metres, they came under fire from both German and British artillery fire. Hankey gave the order to advance at the double, and set off through the shell-fire towards the chateau, walking stick in hand. As they advanced, ‘the guns took great chunks out of us’ and they also came under fire from German soldiers in the village. About 100 men went down, but the survivors kept going, sheltered from the view of the enemy in the chateau grounds by a thick hedge; this also presented an impenetrable obstacle to the advance, until the officers’ swords were used to hack gaps in it. It was an unusual and probably unique instance of these medieval relics serving a useful purpose in a modern war! There were probably about 1,000–1,500 Germans around the chateau, and only about 250 Worcestershire men still on their feet. But numbers had become irrelevant. The sudden appearance and ferocity of the attackers bursting through the hedge surprised and unnerved the German soldiers, who were routed. Hankey sought out the commanding officer of the Borderers, who turned out to be a personal friend. ‘My God, fancy meeting you here’, Hankey observed. ‘Thank God you’ve come’, was the calm but relieved reply. It might have been a chance meeting at a vicarage tea party. The British soldiers turned to the tasks of clearing the village and making full use of their extra ammunition to discourage further German interest in resuming the attack. To general surprise and relief, the German forces did not do so seriously. Their attack had failed, but they did not appreciate the slender margin of failure. The battle – or at least this critical phase of it – was over.

The meeting of the 2nd Worcestershire with the 1st South Wales Borderers. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the Mercian Regiment Museum (Worcestershire).

It is not often that the actions of one battalion have determined the outcome of a major battle; but the significance of the action at Gheluvelt, which prevented a German victory in 1914, cannot be overstated. Neither side now had the advantage. As the winter weather closed in in mid-November, the fighting petered out and both sides dug in where they were. The long trench stalemate of the Great War began.

For more information, visit The Worcestershire Soldier Gallery tells the story of the men of our county regiments from 1694 to the present. The gallery is located at The Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery, Foregate St, Worcester WR1 1DT. Open Monday to Saturday 10.30am–4.30pm. No charge for admission. The Worcestershire Soldier is administered by the Mercian Regiment Museum (Worcestershire) Trust, a Registered Charity no 276510. For further details, contact: John Paddock or Pamela Langford on 01905 721982 or email: