Friday 31 October 2014

Severe Fighting Near Zandvoorde

Remains of the fir wood seen from the west

Saturday 31st October 1914: the 2nd Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment has today lost two officers and thirty two other ranks killed as well as scores of men injured in a gallant attempt to stop a German advance from Zandvoorde. Early this morning orders were received for two platoons of C Company to occupy a small wood of fir trees then held by the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. This wood was a target for German artillery and very heavily shelled. The inadvisability of the order was soon apparent as, at first light, the Germans advanced, skirting the place to either side and cutting off its garrison. Its commander, Captain Lemon was wounded and captured along with many of his men.

The rest of the Battalion was ordered to make a fighting retreat towards the Menin Road which they did, eventually holding the German onslaught. The Battalion lost both its commanding officer – Major John Murray Traill and second-in-command Major Robert Percy Stares, both shot at close range whilst in the trenches trying to stem the enemy flow. 

Sergeant Edward Hutchinson has contacted us and describes his experience: "I was with Sergeant Arthur Baldock from Clifton and Lance Sergeant Frederick Staines from Walthamstow when they were killed. We couldn't bury poor old Staines as the Germans took our trench about ten minutes after he was killed. I did have a job to get away. I wriggled away on my belly for over a hundred yards. The next trench to me surrendered, and I can tell you it is a sight to see Englishmen walking away with their hands above their heads. You don't want to see it twice".

Tonight the fighting has died down leaving the battalion at less than half strength – around four hundred men. Only four officers have survived unscathed, the most senior being the adjutant Captain Foss. He tells us that the battalion is tasked with holding its current position.

We understand that the Bedfords’ experiences today have been fairly typical. The feeling is that the Germans came as close as one can possibly come to breaking through without actually doing so. All our reserves were used up and the only British soldiers behind the front line were cooks, chauffeurs and the like. Many battalions have suffered much worse than the Bedfords, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers, for example, are now less than one hundred strong out of a theoretical strength of one thousand.

Yet there seem grounds for some hope. The German attacks have petered out and they are evidently as exhausted as our own men. They may be too tired and too bloodied to launch any major attacks in the near future They cannot know how close they came to a breakthrough or they would have persisted and any lull in the fighting will give our battered units time to regroup and for reinforcements to come up. Let us hope that the Germans have been persuaded not to try our defences again in the days to come.

Source: X550/3/wd; P64/30/4

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