On the night of the 28th October, shortly after dark, the few that were left in our trenches were haunted by a cry from behind our position, too far away for us to leave the trench. We heard someone pleading with us, “Please bring me into the trench, I am wounded and can’t move.” There were already too few of us fit to handle rifles to repel the constant attacks to break through our defences, so we had to stay put. The cries continued all through the night but he could not be brought in. In any case it was a death trap, open to shrapnel fire, he would have been no safer if moved.
At daybreak 29th October a terrific attempt was made to break through our trenches, but we repelled the attack. Germans were standing one against another, dead, in front of our trench. About 1.30 p.m. they commenced to attack again. Roff and I had just placed Stringer’s body under a hedge. Although dead we wished to save him from further mutilation by shrapnel fire. After that we took a quick glance along the trenches and, as we could not see a single man on his feet, we decided to retire to a farm building thirty yards to our rear, where we ought to find some cover. We moved fast and passed the individual who had been crying out for help. It was Fellowes. He was conscious but quiet. We dashed into the farmyard intending to go back for him. To our surprise we saw that it was swarming with German infantry who ordered us to give up our arms at once. So we did. We were taken across the farmyard to be interviewed by a German officer who spoke a little English. He said, “You are now prisoners of war. You will have to conform to our orders until the end of the war”. As Guardsmen we were expected to behave well. If we did no harm would come to us.
We then passed to a corner of the farmyard and noticed about sixteen others of our company. Frank Mills (my chum), Fegan, Pennicuik, Benson, Sgt John Moss, Sgt Oliver, Ptes Haliday and John Little, Whiteside, Osborn and a few others. The barn at the far side of the farmyard was blazing, having been fired by the Germans before the occupation, they were at the time engaged in trying to prevent it spreading to the farmhouse and they succeeded. We were then marched away still watching the blaze. An exciting spectacle and a dramatic moment. We never saw Fellowes again, he may have died or been taken prisoner and being wounded sent to another camp. (D.A. Fellowes listed by CWGC as having died 2.11.14, Panel 11 Menin Gate)
We were marched in the direction of Menin and here and there were joined by other prisoners, Scots Guards, Coldstreams, Black Watch, Camerons and other units. We made up about 200 all told. At a point somewhere between Menin and Courtrai (Kortrijk) we were ordered to march to attention. We were not told of the reason for this change. We had marched at ease since our captivity some hours before.
We soon found that we were passing someone of importance, for set deeply in a field on our left, about twenty five yards distant, was a glittering array of horsemen, with one lone figure on a magnificent horse right out in front of the others. It was the Kaiser. There we were. The ‘Old Contemptibles’ out of action. He must have been feeling a little confident of victory at the moment, but when later he learned of the cost, he was not too happy or confident, for the only gain his 1st German Army had to show for all their efforts, was the capture of one small village, Zandvoorde. What a poor gain, for the Germans had 24,000 men against our 5,000 thousand at the start of that battle.
We were told later that on the 2nd November 1914, the Kaiser left the line in front of Ypres not only unsuccessful but defeated. For the line in front of Ypres, though forced back and shortened, was still unbroken. They left thousands of dead in front of the line they could no longer reach.
The Battle of Ypres, the great rush for Calais had died away in complete and irreparable failure. The line became stabilised and remained so until the end of the war. The Kaiser had only arrived at the front line on the 29th October and when the true picture of events was revealed, he returned home to Germany and left the direction of the war on that front to his army commanders.
After marching past the Kaiser, our little band of prisoners were marched in the direction of Courtrai, where we entrained in horse boxes, chalk-marked ’40 Hommes’. So we were packed in like sardines, standing up, and taken on a 1,000 kilometres journey to Schneidemühl in Provence Posen, Poland. The journey took us four days. After the war, Schneidemühl was returned to Poland and is now known as Piła. After the train had left Courtrai, we were out of range of our artillery fire. For two days we had been in danger from them for the Germans were constantly bringing up more troops to replace their heavy losses, and our reconnaissance planes were reporting the heavy concentration of enemy troops to make possible accurate artillery fire on them. So it was with a feeling of relief that our unpleasant journey began and, when out of range, a feeling of thanksgiving that so far we were uninjured came to every man. For although whatever lay ahead of us was speculative, what we had left amounted to nothing less than human slaughter. We had acquitted ourselves worthily and halted in full stride the greatest, largest and most efficient army the world had known. We could do no more. We were out of action.
Some idea of the intensity of the Germans shelling of our trenches, can be gained from the following. “From the 25th to 29th October the shelling of our trenches was unceasing from 7.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m., many trenches being completely destroyed, the noise was terrific.”
From a check made at one point of 100 yards length, a count revealed that 120 shells were exploded in two minutes, but despite this expenditure, little ground was gained, and the position was held. Many men suffered permanently from shock to the end of their days.
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.