96 Years On: the Battle of Gheluvelt

96 years after it ended, the Battle of Gheluvelt has hit the news on BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs show, Today.

An army map of the Battle of Gheluvelt, October 1914. British army positions in red, German attacking battalions in green.

It is October 31st 1914 and the German advance across Belgium towards France presses on, reaching the village of Gheluvelt on the outskirts of the town of Ypres. There, soldiers of the Worcestershire regiment reinforce a small group of South Wales Borderers at the Gheluvelt Chateau. Their mission is to stop the German advance at all costs: they succeed, but lose many lives in the process.

The Battle of Gheluvelt is significant as the nearest that the German army would come to breaking through Allied lines at Ypres until 1918. At Gheluvelt, a well organised and brave counter-attack by the Worcesters pushed the attacking Germans back. The town of Ypres would become a bloody crater over the next four years of war; but it never again would be so near to being overran.

At Gheluvelt 354 men of the Worcestershire regiment charged the advancing German troops (more than three times their number) by running across open ground with bayonets fixed while under machine gun fire. A third of the Worcesters died in the counter-attack, but they managed to repel the German push.

Gheluvelt, October 31st, 1914.

You can read about this action at the very beginning of the First World War on Today‘s website. You can find a detailed account of the Battle of Gheluvelt on the Worcestershire Regimental Museum webpage; and how the battle is memorialised through the town of Worcester’s own Gheluvelt Park.

Phil Mackie, the article’s author, writes that the Battle of Gheluvelt is today largely forgotten. I’m not sure I buy that: the First Battle of Ypres, of which the Battle of Gheluvelt is a part, is not a neglected action, at least by those who are interested in the history of World War One.

Gheluvelt was however a dynamic and heroic counter-attack: and indeed Mackie reasons that this may be why most people have not heard of it, despite its strategic importance. The stories we tend to tell about World War One are trench-siege horrors, not dashing actions across open ground, he argues. True: but the brutal history of the four years to follow, and the millions of dead, will tend to push even the most heroic action into the footnotes of history.

Still, it’s nice to see this story of extraordinary bravery get a wider audience.

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11 thoughts on “96 Years On: the Battle of Gheluvelt”

  1. My grandfather James Shirley was regimental sargent major South Wales Borders at the battle and is shown in the Worcester Regiments painting. My 8 year old daughter is studying Flanders at school. I am able to send a photocopy of the painting and your details of the battle to show her friends. She is so proud thank you.

    Robert

  2. Thanks for your comment, Robert. It’s nice to know, especially in the week of Remembrance Day, that your daughter is learning about this important subject. It’s especially nice that this site has helped you pass on knowledge of your grandfather’s heroism in one of the really significant early battles of the war!

    To those who want to see the painting of the Battle of Gheluvelt to which Robert is referring, follow the link to the BBC Radio 4 Today page on our blog entry. Sgt. James Shirley is depicted there somewhere!

  3. Sorry sir, I only just had my computer fixed today so I’m kind of behind. I think it’s quite tragic that armies were forced to run across no-man’s land in a attempt to seize land. But what’s done is done. I doubt anyone today would even risk such a thing. (I would be the one running down the hill.)

  4. The above piece captures what was going on in this period… just further down the road at Zillebeke, the Glosters were also copping it. On the 31st October and on the 7th November, they raced down to Zillebeke overnight, to plug a hole in the British defence. They had landed in August with 1000 men, and by the time they got to Zillebeke they numbered just 300. They took reinforcements on the 7th August of around 200 men to help the situation. My aunt’s husband was with ‘A’ company on the right of the line, and along with a Lt. Kershaw and 49 other men they were cut off, and nothing else was heard of them. Of these 500 men only half answered roll call.

    1. My Grandfather Alfred Patrick Poulston served with the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment and was killed on 31st October 1914 at Gheluvelt, he had been with the Gloucestershire Militia since 1904 and then The Special Reserve.

  5. My grandfather, James Francis Burke was in the 2nd Bttn Worcesters so would have been there that day. He died of cancer during WW2 but I have inherited the Worcs Regimental History which he bought (despite the high cost) and passed on to my Dad (also James Francis). I’ll be remembering Pte JF Burke on 31 Oct this year. By all accounts a decent man of whom I am very proud. I am named after him.

  6. I think the prominence given to the 2nd Worc that particularly day partly because it was a success, rather undermines the enormous contribution made along the line – and also the decimation of the battalions that had preceded them in defending that sector. the 2nd Worcs counterattack was fortuitous but immensely lucky in finding the German advance resting and had the element if surprise rather any immense feat of arms. To give you an idea of the immensity if the situation elsewhere that day I offer you the following.

    The full grunt of Fabeck’s Kampfgruppe attack had actually fallen further South East primarily on Allenby’ Cavalry Division. At a certain point the British centre was driven in. My grandfather’s (Lt. Col Howell) regiment, 4th Hussars, had been in action all day (not held in reserve like the 2nd Worc). They then “alone” held the entire line as the Guards rearguard were forced to make a tactical withdrawal. The 4th Hussars defended a vital bridge on the Comines Canal with about 280 men. Covering the retreat of Grenadier Guards on their left, they repulsed an attack by a Bavarian division numbering about 24,000, attacking in depth. The frontal assault was infilladed by the 4th Hussars, and used the Comines Canal as a feature of defence.

    If you wish me to support this with written accounts, I have my grandfathers own letter describing these event with customary casualness.

    To be respectful 31st October was a very important day in which the BEF managed to reverse an overwhelming force. To put this down to a single action by the 2nd Worc is not only rubbish but undermines the huge effort made along the whole BEF line of 12 miles. It might be worthier to note the effort of the 129th Baluci’s at Hollebecke. Their battalion strenghth was decimated down to about 50 men and a sepoy machine gunner, Khududad Khan, won the first Indian VC for his actions.

    This is not to say that the success of the Worc’s should not be celebrated, but that it should be out into perspective. To put it quite succinctly the 2 Worc’s did not win the battle, far from it!

  7. I lost a great uncle at Gheluvelt. He was 19 years of age and a member of the South Wales Borderers. I was hoping to read about the SWB but everything I am finding out about Gheluvelt seems to focus on the 2nd Worcesters, which seems to rather negate the effort and sacrifice made by others, like my great uncle. A little more balance in the reporting might be nice!

  8. 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Surrey Royal West Surrey were there too. My great Grandfather Private Arthur Tickner Service Number 8163, previously a coal carter of Dorking, Surrey, was one of those who lost their lives on 31/10/1914. He left behind a wife, Elizabeth and their children Constance, Beatrice, Clarice, Arthur and finally my grandmother, Phyllis, who was born two months after her father died.

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