Malcolm Barker: Sacrifice of men who held line at Ypres

Armistice Day next Tuesday is also the centenary of the last great spasm of the First Battle of Ypres. On November 11, 1914 the Germans launched a fresh attack on the thin line of the British Expeditionary Force protecting the Flemish town and, behind it, the channel ports of Boulogne, Dunkirk and Calais.

The ceramic poppies art installation 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' by artist Paul Cummins at the Tower of London

The assault troops included the Prussian Guard, who had been committed to the battle by Kaiser Wilhelm in person with the succinct order, “take Ypres”. For the most part, the Guard suffered the same fate as other less famous German formations, and were driven back by the BEF. A detachment of Guard Grenadiers did make progress, but it was halted by gunners of the Royal Artillery firing over open sights, and driven back by light infantrymen of the Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire Regiments.

The First Battle of Ypres extended from mid-October until late November. Outnumbered, out-gunned, but never outfought, the BEF held the line against incessant attacks. The cost was high.

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Battalions went into the trenches at full strength and came out with only sufficient survivors to form a company. For example, the 2nd Green Howards, with a regimental headquarters at Richmond, North Riding, went into action on October 16, 1914 and came out on November 4, having lost their commanding officer, Lt. Col. C.A.C King, two majors, seven captains, 17 lieutenants and 366 men. The Germans suffered appalling casualties too, losing men at a rate unparalleled during the whole of the Great War.

During early fighting near the Flemish town of Langermarck, they sent inadequately-trained volunteers, including students eager for war, into the attack. The consequent massacre, inflicted by highly trained men of the BEF firing their Lee Enfield rifles at 15 rounds a minute or more, left piles of dead in no man’s land.

This was not reported by the German High Command until three weeks later, on November 10, when a communiqué was issued reporting that near Langermarck “young regiments charged forward singing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles against the front line of the enemy”. Thus was born the story of the Kindermord (“Massacre of the Innocents”), much propagated in Germany as a morale booster in 1914-18, and, more sinisterly, adopted later by the Nazis as a rallying cry.

Subsequently, historians have dismissed as a myth the idea of boys singing as they went into battle. The suspicion is that the claim’s belated appearance in a High Command bulletin was designed to give the German public something to think about other than continued bad news from the front. Also, Deutschland, Deutschland über alles was not the national anthem at the time. A British infantryman who took part in the fighting heard no singing. Instead he recalled later: “They had simply been running into death, they gave great yells as they started but very few got back.” He described as “terrible” the screams of the wounded left in no man’s land.

Until the battle subsided on November 22, the fighting swayed to and fro. A crisis came at the end of October when the Germans seized Gheluvelt on the main road from Menin to Ypres, opening a breach in the British line. The day was saved by the 2nd Worcesters, who sent forward eight officers and 360 men to reclaim the lost ground. This achievement, described by military historians as “a miracle”, enabled a report to be made to the hugely relieved BEF commander Sir John French: “The line holds”.

The First Battle of Ypres was where the old regular army fought to its death at a cost of 58,000 casualties. In the words of the historian CRMF Cruttwell in A History of the Great War: “The defence of Ypres is the chief glory of the old army, which in its performance virtually ceased to exist”.

Those who survived the battle and the rest of the war adopted the title “Old Contemptibles”, a term derived from an order supposed to have been given by Kaiser Wilhelm to his generals: to exterminate Britain’s “contemptible little army”.

This may be another of the many myths of the Great War, but the men who halted the headlong advance of the German hosts, including the supposedly invincible Prussian Guard, adopted it with glee, and used it as the title of their old comrades’ association when it was formed in 1924.

I first encountered some of the members in the 1960s when producing a weekly ex-servicemen’s column for the Yorkshire Evening Post. They were canny old men by then, who realised that, like them, their organisation was destined in the not-too-distant future to do the soldierly thing and fade quietly away. In the meantime, they arranged for their standard to be laid up, apportioned any remaining funds to charity, and set the date for one last church parade.

They were amiable old fellows who liked to get together with their chums (that’s how they styled themselves; it was the way they had addressed each other in the trenches). They may have talked about the war, but if so it was a subject restricted to Old Contemptibles. Outsiders (and that meant anyone who had not been within earshot of the guns in 1914) soon learned that it was not a welcome topic.

I thought then, and believe more firmly now, that the experiences they had undergone, the deaths and the suffering of comrades, the blast of the guns, the mud, the filth and the stink, were not fit subjects for those who had not been there and could not possibly comprehend the horror of it all.

They were upright old fellows. They could still stand to attention for Last Post and Reveille. They wore on their chests service medals they styled “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred”. “Pip” was special to them, for across its red, white and blue watered ribbon is a thin silver bar bearing the inscription “August 5th-November 22nd, 1914”.

A sharp eye could discern on the ribbon a small silver rosette, similar in size and design to the gold rosette on the 1939-45 Star, which was awarded to pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. This is appropriate, for, like the airmen, the soldiers saved Great Britain at the start of a world war.

They will be remembered on Tuesday with amazement at their courage, wonder at their achievement, and gratitude for their immense sacrifice.

• Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.