Battlefield Review

Providing insights into the battles
that have shaped human history

Arnhem

Balignano

Cachy

Columbus

Dinant

Khalkin Gol

Maleme

Nonne Bosschen

Rethem

Sangshak

Suez

Taukkyon

Tébourba

Turnu Severin

Nonne Bosschen

Belgium 1914

OVERVIEW

The purpose of battle is to make the other fellow quit. To do that you may need to kill him or his fellows, or maybe just enough of them to encourage the rest to change their point of view. Of course, he is trying to do the same thing to you.

At some stage in the battle one side or the other will adjudge that they have done enough and that from then on their best course is to get out of harm's way - and this involves either surrender or retreat. It is that moment, the point at which that decision is reached, that is so crucial to the whole exercise. And it is the length of time in action which a particular contestant can manage before reaching that point which will decide the winner.

For it is not the weapons or the tactics or the location or even the cause which determines the winner, but the ability to last longer than the other fellow before making the fateful decision.

In November 1914 occurred a wonderful example of this principle, when the Germans' vaunted Guards Division attacked the positions occupied by the battered British troops who were misleadingly labelled the Guards Brigade - for there were only a handful of actual British guardsmen left.

BACKGROUND

From the start of the First World War in August 1914, the German army had not had it all their own way by any means. They had taken a battering at Mons and on the Marne, but they had one enormous advantage: numbers.

The German government may have reacted publicly to the assassination of the Arch-Duke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, supporting the outraged Austrian people in their determination to exact retribution from the Serbs, but, to be fair, the Serbs had been a thorn in the Austrians' side for many a long year and they had frequently considered a military solution. The Germans, dominated by the Prussian style of thinking which had overlaid the whole nation since the battle of Koniggratz in 1866, had looked for a way to extend their influence in Europe and the Austrian difficulties seemed as good an opportunity as any they could dream up. So by 1914 the German plans and preparations for war were already made, even to the extent of laying railway lines and manufacturing railway rolling stock to transport troops and equipment.

Essentially, their main problem lay to the east: Russia. Russian sympathies lay with the Serbs for purely ethnic reasons (they too reckoned the Serbs to be a troublesome lot). As a result, there was a Russian plan to (a) invade Serbia to forestall the Austrians, hopefully to knock the latter out of the leadership stakes in Europe; and (b) to attack Germany, as a shield for an attack on Austria via Serbia. And, as a help in their plannning, the Russian army was enormous.

Needless to say the Germans had worked out those ideas themselves, so they had their own plans to defend against Russia initially, while they first knocked the French out of the equation. For the Russians had carefully concluded a mutual defence pact with the French, both looking the while at Germany. It was a mere irrelevance to the Germans that the British were allied with the French; the British army didn't amount to much, to German thinking, and could be ignored. But to complicate matters slightly, the British had given the Belgians a guarantee of neutrality; British troops would be sent to their aid in case they were attacked.

The start of hostilities, then, saw a large German army assaulting France through neutral Belgium - the Belgians, like the British, were too weak to be taken seriously by the Germans. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were driven back from their original positions along with the French and Belgians, as none of the Allies were sufficiently prepared for the onslaught to have sufficient reserve strength actually on the ground.

The Germans nearly got through to Paris, but had made the classic mistake of trying to capture the enemy's capital city while ignoring his armies in the field. At the First Battle of the Marne the French managed first to hold their position with the aid of the BEF, who had retreated from their earlier positions around Mons, and then to drive the Germans back.

By November 1914 the lines had stabilised somewhat. That part which interests us in this account was in the British sector, just to the east of Ypres in Belgium.In 1914 the Western Front, as it came to be called, had not developed the extensive deep trenches and redoubts surrounded by impenetrable jungles of barbed wire which came later. There were still branches on the trees even if the leaves had fallen (naturally), and grass in the fields supported farm animals. To be sure, where a battle had been fought there was mute evidence in the form of hastily-dug graves and shell-holes and broken buildings. But in the main, Belgium was as Belgium had been.

The British army in Belgium was not. It had taken a severe beating in its fighting retreats and at the Marne and then in the advance to its present lines. The state of the 1st Guards Brigade was typical. Of the three original battalions of the brigade, all Guards units, only about 200 Scots Guardsmen remained, while the rest of the brigade had been filled out with two equally battered regular Scottish regiments of the line: 1st Battalion The Cameron Highlanders and 1st Battalion The Black Watch. The actual strength of the theoretically 2,500-strong brigade amounted to rather less than 850 men - and they were bone-tired and much of their equipment was missing.

Nevertheless, 1st Guards Brigade was positioned to hold part of the front line, which ran across the Ypres-Menin road just east of Gheluvelt, some five miles (8 kms) south east of Ypres itself. They were a constituent element of that part of the BEF - the remains of the 1st and 2nd Divisions - which stood in the path of an impending German assault. In all, the two weary British divisions fielded less than 8,000 men, including such "reserves" as the cooks and clerks. Not all of them were in the trenches.

These trenches need description. They were not the deep, sandbagged and revetted masterpieces of a little while later, with dug-outs and redoubts. They were little more than shallow ditches, which had a distressing tendency to collapse during heavy shellfire, burying the occupants. The trenches had been partially filled in by shell-fire and weather and had become too shallow to offer proper protection to the occupants.

However, Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Haig, GOC 1st Corps, had ordered the construction of a number of bunkers behind the front line, each commanding a small area around it and providing defence in depth as well as refuges for troops evicted from the front line if that were to happen. At that stage of the war it was deemed sufficient to surround each bunker with a single belt of barbed wire.

The troops deployed by the British were few enough but more than made up for their paucity in numbers by a qualitative superiority which was soon to be displayed. They were, for the main part, long-service regulars; and at that time in the British army, that meant experience in colonial wars overseas, experience of being shot at and sustaining casualties, and of giving more than they got.

Yet they were desperately tired and could not even be fed properly in the trenches.

Against them was ranged a fresh German formation, tasked with punching a hole through the British lines, through which the Germans could pour on their way to the Channel ports. General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of staff of the German army, who had replaced General Helmuth von Moltke (nephew of the victor of Koniggratz) when he lost his nerve at First Marne just two months earlier, realised that there was now little hope of a complete victory, but the seizure of the Channel ports would seriously impede British re-supply and reinforcement efforts. He assigned the breakthrough task to their 4th Division and the Prussian Guards Division, combined in a single corps under the command of General Baron von Plettenberg, himself a former Guards officer. The German force was made up of 25 battalions of infantry totalling perhaps 17,000 men, plus artillery, cavalry for the chase or exploitation, and service troops.

(It may be helpful to American and other readers if the term "Guards" is explained. The British and German guardsmen were not part-time reserve soldiers, but regular troops of elite units, tasked originally - still so-employed in the British army - to guard the monarch. They tended as a result to be taller than the average soldier, but there was a difference between the British and German versions. While the British were fully-trained combat soldiers who just happened to be issued with a superbly-smart uniform for wear while actually on duty at the palace in addition to all their normal combat kit, the German Guards were really just what the title implies: palace guards.)

TACTICS

The German pre-attack bombardment commenced at 0630 hours on 11 Nov 1914. In no time the British lost not only their trenches but also their vital telephone communications as unburied lines were cut. Many of the infantry defenders evacuated the dubious shelter of the trenches and sought cover in nearby woods. At 0900 the barrage moved on to the rear areas and they ran back to their fire positions, just in time to see the German lines advancing through the early morning mist.

The mist, seen by the German troops as a heaven-sent blessing, providing them with cover as they made the dangerous approach over the last few hundred paces, acted however as a clear back-drop which silhouetted them for the British riflemen.

These British soldiers had learned a rather special trick during their overseas service in the Empire and back on the rifle ranges at Aldershot and other training camps in Britain. They had developed what was officially called "rapid fire", when each soldier fired as fast as he could for one minute, but aimed each shot, needing to reload as he went. It was not unknown for some men to achieve as many as thirty or more hits on the range targets during this "mad minute", an average performance of one hit every two seconds with a bolt-action weapon which held just ten rounds!

The Germans' 4th Division, made up of Pomeranians and West Prussians, in twelve battalions totalling some 8,500 men, was slaughtered. They walked into the rapid fire of eight and a half (depleted) British battalions and suffered up to 75% casualties in some of their companies. After that beating they never recovered and never came near the British trenches either.

North of the road the Guards Division assaulted with all save one brigade, 4th Prussian Guard Grenadier Regiment, which went in south of the road and suffered the same fate as the 4th Division.

However, the general success of the rest of the Guards, north of the road, forced the British south of it to retire or be outflanked, despite their successful defence. At the end of the day, then, following their experience of rapid fire from 4th Royal Fusiliers, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers and 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, the survivors of that single Prussian Guard regiment managed to grab just a small portion of the British front line.

Their comrades north of the road sent the 2,000 strong 2nd Prussian Guard Grenadier Regiment to attack 2nd Battalion The Duke of Wellington's Regiment. The "Dukes" were too late in running forward from their temporary shelter in the woods behind their position, and the leading Germans (the fusilier battalion) pressed on over them and into Weldhoek Wood. But the 850 men the British scraped together there managed to hold them in the wood. And there the Germans were annihilated - because their 1st Battalion had refused to come forward to their support, sitting meanwhile in the captured British trenches. Few of the fusilier battalion survived.

Still further north, the rest of General Winckler's Guards Division initially had better luck in their assault. Facing their part of the attack was the British 1st (Guards) Brigade - which contained only that handful of guardsmen and the few replacements we have mentioned earlier - with 1st Battalion The King's (Liverpool) Regiment stationed at right angles to them, facing north and refusing the left flank of the British line.

The British "Guards" numbered only about 850 and the King's about 450. Attacking them came two full-strength regiments, 1st and 3rd Foot Guards, a total of six battalions. (Some of these attacked the King's and wished they hadn't; the King's remained in place all day despite everything the Germans could throw at them.)

The telephone lines to the supporting batteries of 41st Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, having been cut, the defenders could not easily ask for defensive fire (DF) tasks. However, the gunners realised that something was happening and fired their DFs into no-man's-land. But it didn't stop the Germans, who came on and swept over the Guards' trenches with the bayonet. Of the 200 or so Scots Guardsmen, only five came back alive.

The line was broken and the Germans were through - but their success had been seen by a Royal Artillery observer, Major Rochford-Lloyd. He escaped and raced back with the news.

The surviving men of the brigade ran back to the two bunkers behind their original position. And it was partly the bunkers that saved the day. The Germans were channelled between that of the Black Watch, held by a platoon under a lieutenant, and that garrisoned by the two battalion HQs of the Black Watch and the Cameron Highlanders. Both bunkers, like the position of the King's just to the north, held firm all day.

So, although the Germans were through the British line, they were to suffer high casualties moving near the bunkers. They seemed to lack direction; they were through, but didn't know what to do next. Shot down by the bunkers' defenders and by the few Scottish survivors who had made it to the shelter of Glencorse Wood, the Germans finally decided they would be better off in the nearby Nonne Bosschen (Nun's Wood), which was free of British troops. They made a scampering dash for its cover.

It was the wrong move. Rochfort-Boyd's message had alerted the gunners of 41st Brigade Royal Field Artillery (a "brigade" would now be called a battery). In fact, from their gun-positions they could now actually see the Germans moving into Nun's Wood. They helped them on their way with some judicious rounds of shrapnel and then pinned them into the wood's cover with high explosive. Lieutenant Murray of 39th Brigade RFA made a swift horseback reconnaissance close to the Germans' positions and confirmed what they already thought they knew. Then they added their fire to that of 41st Brigade.

Realising that the Germans were in the shelter of Nun's Wood only because they must have broken through the infantry positions, the gunner officers rounded up any men they could - spare gunners provided by reducing the crews ("detachments" in Royal Artillery parlance) at the guns themselves, plus drivers, cooks, veterinaries, and anybody else they could find - thrust rifles into their hands and sent them to form a make-shift "infantry" line in front of the gun positions. This small group of artillerymen amounted to about a platoon's-worth, say 40 soldiers.

By 1000 hours they were facing, in Nun's Wood, about 800 Germans, with other groups outside the wood. But the Germans in the area seemed confused as to what they should do next and just moved about restlessly. The guns of the defending batteries kept them moving.

Meanwhile the British commanders at all levels went about building up their numbers again, after the losses and confusion of the initial onslaught. The commander of 5 Brigade in 2 Division, Colonel C B Westmacott, sent into the edge of Polygon Wood, just to the north of Nun's Wood, 5th Field Company of Royal Engineers and 2nd Connaught Rangers, both units short of men but placed to protect the flank of the unmoveable King's. His superior, Major General Charles Munro, commanding 2 Div, sent up some Highland Light Infantry - about three nominal companies, but these were each very short of men - plus the divisional cyclists (push-bike despatch riders) and 1st Coldstream Guards, a battalion now only about 100 strong, so that Westmacott might have a few more men for a counter-attack. And, critically, he collected 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry ("2 Ox and Box") from another part of the battlefield entirely and sent them up to Westmacott too.

The commander of the battered 1 Guards Brigade, Brigadier Charles Fitzclarence, saw that the Germans were almost into his brigade HQ and called for help from his divisional commander, Major General HJS Landon. 1 Div was even more short of men than 2 Div; all Landon could manage to provide was the battle-worn 1st Battalion The Northamptonshire Regiment.

Thus, while the Germans milled about, seeming to have no plan for exploitation, the British were gradually building up their numbers - a few here, a handful there. And the guns were still stirring the cauldron. It says something for the confusion in the German ranks that they seemed to be really worried by the scratch gunner platoon with their 40 rifles, thinking that they were facing just the tip of a whole new defence line. Finally, the Germans started to dig-in in Nun's Wood, and parties outside the wood moved into its diminishing cover.

By now other British batteries had been notified of the Germans' predicament and were joining in the shoot; even French gunners, out on the flank, contributed some fire when they were able. 18-pounder, 60-pounder and 75mm shells screamed into the wood in ever-increasing numbers, churning the earth and humus into a porridge of smoking hell.

Then came Westmancott's counter-attack. From behind the gun-line of 41 Brigade, 2 Ox and Box, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel HR Davies, moved forward at a walk, then, close to the edge of the wood, they broke into a cheering charge. (The direct antecedents of the battalion were the 2/52nd Light Infantry, who had finished off Napoleon's Imperial Guard at Waterloo, so it was with something of a sense of eager anticipation that they now assaulted the Prussian Guard, hoping to make it a regimental "double".)

The 300 men of 2 Ox and Box went through the wood in a disciplined killing foray. They killed or captured all who stayed to fight, notching up a huge "bag" for the loss of 5 killed and 20 wounded - some from French artillery fire in a "blue on blue" incident just when they had finished their business in the wood and were preparing to go on and re-take the old front line.

But with the engineers of 5 Fd Coy on their left and the fellow-infantrymen of 1 Northamptons on their right, they pressed on and took the support lines, their original more ambitious goal having been dropped when Brigadier Fitzclarence was killed.

And there the battle fizzled out. There were Germans in some of the old British front line, 300 metres into Allied territory for a width of three-quarters of a mile (1200 m). But that was all.

COMMENTS

Some historians have labelled the Nun's Wood battle a clash of Guards; but it wasn't, really - only 200 Scots Guardsmen were involved in the initial German attack and 100 Coldstreams as reserves later. And, if truth be told, it wasn't the battle of Nun's Wood, either, as the fighting extended over a much bigger area.

However, it was in that little wood that the matter was finally decided. And we say "finally" because perhaps it can be argued that the matter was decided in broad terms much earlier and much further away, when the 4th and Guards Divisions were allocated to von Plettenberg.

Even contemporary German observers were sceptical of their Guards' potential as soldiers under modern battle conditions, one making acid comments about "toy soldiers from Potsdam". Magnificent physical specimens they may have been - and some of the British clearing the casualties from Nun's Wood complained about having to bury bodies over seven feet (2.1 m) tall, while many of the German wounded would not fit onto British stretchers - but being big does not necessarily make a good soldier. Neither does pre-war duty just guarding palaces and so on.

The sad fact is that those splendid German soldiers had not been trained for war. The evidence is in their milling about after breaking the British line instead of continuing the assault, by-passing the bunkers.

Now, that particular failure is mute testimony of the failure of their junior leaders, the platoon and company commanders. They were either not present far enough forward to immediately grasp what was happening or were there, but themselves did not know what to do.

There is a strong probability that the latter is the case. Young men of privileged birth (such as would be needed to ensure acceptability in the elite Guards regiments) are very much inclined to continue their life-style within the army. As a result they often seem reluctant to learn about the dirty, business end of war, leaving that to their sergeants. But when it comes to battle, they do tend to die rather splendidly; the pity is that they take so many of their men with them.

(There was a lovely cartoon in the magazine "Punch" about 150 years ago, in which a British general asked a fashionable young cavalry officer what was the function of cavalry in battle. "Why, I suppose it is to give tone to what would otherwise be merely a vulgar brawl," was the drawled reply. The German officers at Nun's Wood seem to have had much the same style.)

We have evidence, then, that while the German plan was for the seizure of the British front lines by 4th and Guards Divisions, there was little real planning for exploitation although they were supposed to punch a hole through which German follow-up troops were to pour. In other words, there was intention but there was no plan.

Von Plettenberg certainly wasn't forward sufficiently to supervise the assault, nor were his divisional and regimental commanders. Perhaps they hadn't studied Koniggratz; there the Prussian commanders - even the future King of Prussia - were right up forward where they could see and control.

Also not sufficiently far forward were the German artillery observers with effective communications. Throughout the battle (and in other early battles of the war), German counter-battery fire was largely ineffective, although they did manage to batter the British trenches into waste heaps. As it was the work of 41st and 39th Brigades of the Royal Field Artillery that did so much to halt the Germans - especially after they had broken through the infantry ahead of them - this counter-battery failure was conclusive.

The Germans' selection of fresh troops was probably a mistake. Fresh troops are more susceptible to panic than soldiers who have been under fire and have survived. For this particular attack the Germans would have been wiser to use formations which had had some action but had not been horribly battered. (There is story that during German army exercises, at which the Kaiser was present, a mistake had been made involving the use of live ammunition and some soldiers had been killed. Said the Kaiser to a British observer: "It vill do zem good to get shooted a little." He, at least, understood the principle.)

The dawn attack was also a misfortune in that the mist (as has been commented) provided the British infantry with a plain backdrop against which the German infantry attacking them stood out nicely in silhouette. Well, perhaps it wasn't a "misfortune" but just another example of bad planning. Dawn attacks are traditional and therefore expected, so defenders do tend to be alert; and meteorological conditions in the area should have been observed before the plan was made, indicating the probability of mist - there had been mist for several days before the attack was made. Possibly von Plettenberg thought the mist would cover his assault; but, then, he too was a Guards officer so probably hadn't learned much about shooting at targets against a plain background.

All in all, then, the Germans didn't really deserve to get past Nun's Wood. What about the defenders?

There are four features about which comment is worth making. Firstly, when all was going against them, the regular soldiers of the BEF engaged in this battle - tired beyond measure, hungry, uniforms in tatters and equipment missing or damaged - these regular soldiers still held firm. Perhaps their own performance gave them the encouragement to hold firm, though that performance was based on their training.

The second comment, then, is about their training. British regular infantry of the period had been taught to do two things better than any other army in the world: to march, and to shoot accurately. Casualties sustained over an extended period by infantry (or any other type of soldier) are psychologically more sustainable than a sudden cataclysmic loss; when 4th Division ran up against the rapid fire of the British regulars they were killed in heaps - and it broke them. Much the same thing was to happen to the Prussian Guard regiments north of the road.

Note that we comment that the Germans were killed "in heaps". This is quite literally true. For the Germans attacked in formed companies, shoulder to shoulder as though on parade. It didn't last too long that way, however. That is further damning evidence of the lack of realistic training of these fine men by incompetent commanders.

The third comment is about the design of the British service rifle of the day, the .303 inch (7.7mm) Short Magazine Lee-Enfield No.3. The SMLE had a ten-round magazine, fed by clips of five rounds, which were simply dropped into the top of the open rifle, the bullets being pressed down into the magazine itself with the thumb. Loading ten rounds in this way, even if the clips were still in the soldier's pouches - and an experienced man, firing from a prepared position, would usually have a supply of clips alongside his trigger hand on a scrap of cloth to protect them from dirt - took two or three seconds only. It was also possible, if spare magazines were available, to pre-charge them and simply remove an empty magazine and replace it with a full one. This action took about the same time. Either way, the British soldier's rifle was the best in the world as a fighting weapon; the German's 7.9mm 5-round fixed-magazine Mauser may have been marginally more accurate, but at fighting distances the SMLE's capacity for rapid re-loading gave the British soldier the edge and enabled his amazing "rapid fire" - which the soldiers themselves called the "mad minute".

Our final comment is about the work of the British artillery batteries. They, too, killed Germans in heaps in the early stages. Their commanders used their intelligence when communications broke down and dropped fire onto DFs - the DFs having, of course, been selected to catch attacking enemy just where they did catch them. Then they held firm when the enemy were through the defending infantry lines when all instinct and precedent suggested a swift limbering-up and withdrawal would be prudent. They fought over open sights at several stages of the battle, engaging German infantry just as their forebears had the French with canister at Waterloo a century earlier.

So did the Germans actually have any chance of winning at Nun's Wood?

Certainly! An injured English-speaking German prisoner being escorted to the rear turned to ask an artillery officer, whose battery he was passing, where the British reserves were. Major Clark just pointed to the guns. The German couldn't believe what he was hearing - there had to be more British reserves; so he asked what troops were behind the gun position. "Divisional HQ", he was told.

That was it. The Germans had come to within a few hundred metres - and the very few minutes it would have taken to traverse them - from achieving the breakthrough they had intended. Through the British lines at Nun's Wood and they would have had nothing to stop them reaching the Channel ports and cutting off the BEF. With their superior numbers the Germans could then have destroyed that magnificent little army, then the French, winning the war in the west in 1914.

But at Nonne Bosschen they quit a few minutes too soon.