Tuesday 14 October 2014

Panic at Givenchy

Wednesday 14th October 1914: The 2nd Bedfords have reached Ypres in their march south from Bruges. The 1st Bedfords, meanwhile are holding the new line west of Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée. Our contact with this battalion, now commanding B Company tells us: “At dawn we took over the front line trenches from C Company. It was very cold and miserable weather”.

“The trenches are very narrow and of no depth and in order to keep under cover we have to lie down cramped up at the bottom of them. It is awful work and we all get severe cramp”.

“A new officer called Litchfield joined the Company during the day for duty so I put him in the support trenches [1]. Many reinforcements also joined us and I have been made up with practically a new company. This is hardly pleasant as none of them has ever been under fire before and to have a new company for the first time in conditions such as we are now placed is rather staggering!”

This evening, on his way back for orders our contact has had quite an experience having to return to his company on hearing firing, details of which he has just sent us. “I reached my support trenches and the fire was still going on. It mostly came from the Germans on our right and the air was thick with bullets, mostly flying high. Every now and then we came in for a dose and they seemed to hit us from the front and rear. On the whole there was absolutely nothing to be alarmed at, as they were absolutely safe but the noise was awful and one could hardly make oneself heard above it all”.

“Suddenly to our horror we saw the men in Edwards’ trench (which was the trench to our immediate front) rise en-masse and retire back at the double in the dark back on to us. Our trench saw them coming and prepared to depart also. I shouted to Sergeant-Major Sharpe to go to the left to stop them while I rushed off to the right. We did our best and yelled amidst all the din for them to stop where they were and to the front line to get into our trench. It was useless though as almost in a mad rush they were through and passed us. We managed by getting hold of a few by the scruff of the neck to retain just a handful”.

“We were then faced with the awful task of holding our line with this handful and were very uncertain what actually remained in front. We fixed bayonets and waited for things to happen as we couldn’t think what it was that had made the front line go. Very heavy rifle fire continued for about half an hour and then quietened down and nothing happened”.

“I then sent the Company Sergeant-Major back to see if he could collect any of the Company and went off up into the front line to see what had happened in there. On the way I met Sergeant Mart who had stuck to his part of the trench with his Platoon  and has just discovered that Edwards’ trench was empty and so was thinking of getting back too. I told him to stop where he was and hold the bit of Edwards’ trench as well as he could. I then found Edwards who said that his trench was being enfiladed and that he had given the order to his fellows to get back into my support trench”.

“A fatal thing to do as it proved. The support trench had seen them coming hell for leather back and thought they were being attacked! I went back and found the Company Sergeant-Major returning with part of the Company and sent them on into the line. I then went on to C and D Companies and heard that a man in the Norfolks had passed a message down from the left that trenches on the right were to retire and so had caused alarm”.

“On our right the Dorsets and our A Company had been making a counter-attack to try and regain a section of guns and the Dorsets’ Commanding Officer (Lieutenant-Colonel Bols) who was missing. The attack did not do much good except to put the wind up the Germans who opened fire all along the line. The guns were irretrievably lost but Colonel Bols crawled away from the Germans though hit and got back to his lines. It has not been a creditable show on our part but was just what I had anticipated with a new and freshly out lot of men – one cannot expect much more”.

The adjutant has given us the following report on the day’s activities: “We held our new line”.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7

[1] Second Lieutenant John Litchfield would be killed just over a week later on 22nd October. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

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