This particular extract details Joe Garvey’s involvement at the First Battle of Ypres (now Ieper) as part of the British Expeditionary Force in autumn 1914. It is Chapter 9 of his memoirs ‘Fresh in my Memory Always’. The preceding chapters deal with his early days in Halifax, Yorkshire, his enlisting in the Scots Guards and life in pre-war England. They go on to recount the BEF’s involvement in the Retreat from Mons, the Battle of the Marne and the Battle of the Aisne.
The chapters following the extract tell of his years as a Prisoner of War both in camp and on working commandos. In the two camps at Schneidemühl and Stralsund, he encountered people of many different cultures and nationalities and spent periods of time (whilst on the working commandos) living with German families.
The night of the 19th October we spent in billets at Hazebrouck. 20th we marched to Poperinghe (now Poperinge), seven miles west of Ypres (Ieper). My half battalion slept in a convent. 21st October we marched to Koekuit, near Langemarck (Langemark), north east of Ypres. Here the Gloucesters were being heavily shelled. We were sent forward to take the strain off them and opened fire on a German trench. We were involved in the clash at Ypres now and lost four killed and five wounded in this first assay. Later we took heavy toll of some Germans who came a little too close to us. We were then withdrawn at nightfall and rejoined the battalion at H.Q. at Steenstraat. On the 22nd, French Territorials were trying to drive the Germans to the west bank of the Yser Canal. They were not going about it as we should have done and Lt Lawson of my battalion was advising them of a change of tactics when he was killed by a sniper. A sad loss of a brilliant young officer. All this day we were under a heavy attack.
The Camerons lost their trenches on our right and we had no contact with anyone. We were hoping that they, the enemy, had not streamed through this gap and spent a restless night speculating if we had been surrounded by the enemy. But fortunately our fears were unfounded. At 6.00 a.m. on 23rd a counter attack was made by the 2nd Brigade supported by C Company Scots Guards and the Camerons’ trenches, lost the day before, were recovered. A German attack on our attack was in progress during the relief, but was repulsed.
Our 2nd Battalion was having a terrible tough time, fighting in the 7th Division around Gheluvelt (Geluveld) and we the 1st Division were ordered to support it. On the 25th we reached Zillebeke south east of Ypres and marching via Hooge we reinforced the firing line on the left of the 2nd Battalion near Gheluvelt. On the way we passed the transport of the 2nd Battalion and heard of its losses. Out of 1,004 commencing they were less than 500.
From the 26th to 29th October we occupied the same trenches on the left of the 2nd Battalion with the exception that on the night of the 27th we took over from the Bedford’s trenches a little further advanced. We were unable to move either forward or backward owing to the furious shelling and sniping (it looked and it proved to be a veritable death trap). The position was about half a mile north east of Gheluvelt to the right of the Menin Road. That night Captain R.F. Balfour was killed. Throughout the night 27th and 28th we had to be especially alert, for the 27th Reserve German Division had been brought up with orders to take our trenches at all costs. At daybreak 27th and on 28th the Germans attacked our trenches in massed formation, and we mowed them down with concentrated fire. Some of them were within twenty yards of the trench. Their losses were terrible. They were piled up one on top of another. Then when their attack was called off some of our boys indulged in a little ghoulish game. If we saw any movement we fired on the unsuspecting German to see if he would move properly, often one of our men would throw a stone, if it hurt the German they would put their hand to the injury, whilst the man behind the rifle on our side would then fire to kill. It was war of no quarter with a vengeance.
We were informed to expect an attack at 5.30 a.m. on the 29th. My half of B Company was supporting R.F. Company on the right of the line. Our front faced north on our left, north east on our right. The German attack came in overwhelming force and got to within 200 yards of L.F. Company, when it could no longer face the accurate fire, and came to a standstill.
About 1.00 p.m. we were informed that the Germans had broken through on the right of the line. The Black Watch and the Coldstreams were both reported to have been cut up, thus exposing the right of the 1st Scots Guards. The report turned out to be only too true. As a result R.F. and B Company (my company) and two sections of C Company were surrounded and practically destroyed. The Germans had broken through the line held by the Gloucesters on the Menin Road. This is the furthest point in the Ypres sector that the Germans ever got (in the First Battle of Ypres), for under the devastating fire of C Company in support of us, the Germans began to fall back. The situation had been saved by the magnificent consistency of the 1st Scots Guards. But this great deed had cost the Battalion dearly. R. F., to all intents and purposes, no longer existed and the half of B Company, my half, had suffered equally. Our casualties that day were about 240.
Sir John French wrote, “All said and done, however, the main element of success was to be found in the devoted bravery and the stern, unyielding determination to ‘Do or die’ displayed by the rank and file of the ‘Contemptible Little Army’ and its reinforcements.”
The first battle ended, the 1st Scots were withdrawn on the 16th November and marched to billets near Westouter, where Lieutenant Colonel H.C. Lowther (wounded on the Aisne) rejoined and took over command once again. My old company commander, Captain Wickham had been killed and Captain Balfour. The Battalion consisted of one combatant officer, Captain Stracey, the quartermaster and seventy three rank and file, out of 993.
How did I fare? Before the German breakthrough we had a large number of dead and wounded actually down in the trench with us. One Lt Macdonald (an officer from the reserve newly arrived) was lying in the corner of my trench mortally wounded. I was standing in the blood that was running out of him, but could not stop to render first aid because of the scarcity of riflemen to repel the constant attack. My rifle barrel and breach used to swell and contract with the constant use, and often one could not work the bolt, it being stuck, we put the one so affected down and picked up a dead colleague’s. Ammunition was brought up in large supply under cover of darkness so we never ran short.
Stringer, a man I had grown to love dearly, was killed on the 29th October about 1.30 p.m. He was shot through the left wrist and clean through the heart, in the final German breakthrough. He died in my arms with the loveliest smile on his face that I have ever seen. Roff was shot in the throat but it was not much more than a flesh wound, although an artery was cut, for I hastily dressed it with my emergency dressing and the bleeding stopped, and he was taken prisoner later in the day along with me, and spent four years as a prisoner of war with me at Schneidemühl, Province Posen. So ended my career as a front line soldier.
The curved ceiling of the Menin Gate Memorial with the rebuilt town in the distance.
A detail of Panel 11 of the Memorial with Joe’s friend Fellowes among those without a grave.
Army map of 1st Ypres 29th October, 1914 – source, copy in the 'In Flanders Fields Museum', with permission. Where Joseph Garvey was captured is circled.