Battle Honour on The Royal Green Jackets Cap Badge
Nonnebosschen, 11th November 1914
The Germans amassed IV Corps to begin the assault on the town. Yet, despite its numerical superiority over the Allies, the infantry had not sufficiently amended their tactics. They still marched in close order, which would cause unnecessary casualties. Fabeck and Albrecht, GOC Fourth Army, were to continue with the attack regardless of casualties, supported by Group Gerok, an ad hoc battle group (Kampfgruppe), comprising the 3rd Division, 25th Reserve Division, 11th Landwehr Division and the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division. They were to apply pressure to the north of Ypres, on the Comines Canal.
Fighting had been limited during early November. However, the German 3rd and 26th divisions broke through to St Eloi and advanced to Zwarteleen, some 3,000 yards (2,700 m) east of Ypres, only to be checked by the British 7th Cavalry Brigade. On the 9th of November the Germans attacked French and Belgian forces between Langemarck and Dixmude, forcing them back to the Yser, though the Belgians blew all the crossings. On 10 November 12½ German divisions from Army Group Fabeck, the German Fourth and Sixth Armies, and XXVII Reserve Corps began their assault. The bombardment was heavy and it kept the Allied infantry pinned down while the Germans advanced. However, the Germans were slow in their advance and return fire was possible. Neither Allenby’s or Conneau’s cavalry were attacked around Messines.
German advance to Ypres
The main German attack came opposite the Gheluvelt, extending from “Shrewsbury Forest” in the south, across the Menin Road, to Nonnebosschen (Nun’s Copse) and the edge of Polygon Wood beyond it. This was held by the exhausted II Corps, covering some 3,500 yards (3,200 m) of front. The corps had 7,800 men plus 2,000 reserves against 25 German battalions of 17,500 men. The British were forced back on hastily improvised strong points. The German 4th division breached the line and took the forward trenches which the British failed to recover during counter-attacks. However, the strong points prevented any serious breach. Massed small-arms fire repulsed German attacks between Polygon Wood and Veldhoek.
The Germans reached Nonnebosschen, and faced 900 men of the 1st and 3rd Foot Guards Regiment. British artillery, having been in reserve owing to ammunition shortages, began offering support. It was their return fire that prevented the Germans from launching a concentrated attack. Nothing lay behind the town, and the artillery lines represented the last line of defence. Monro, GOC II Corps, ordered his reserves, the Irish Guards and the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire battalions to form up. The 2nd Highland Light Infantry was ordered to reinforce Polygon Wood, which had now, in parts, been occupied by German formations. The 1st Battalion Buckinghamshires’ CO Lt-Col Henry Davies was ordered to attack the Wood, some 7 miles (11 km) away to the east. Davies decided the breach at Nonnebosschen was more pressing. Along with the 2nd Oxfordshires and Buckinghamshires and with artillery support from XXXIX Brigade, he attacked and pushed the Germans out of the surrounding forests near Nonnebosschen, catching many, including the Prussian Guard Units, by surprise. They reached the forward trenches but were then shelled by the French in error. The town was secured from further attack and the Ypres–Comines canal front was not breached. The cost to the Oxford and Bucks had been five dead and 25 wounded. Other units in the area suffered heavily, as had the attacking Germans. The German 4th division had suffered 2,932 casualties in November, while the Guards division suffered 2,314 casualties from the 11th–19th of November.
By the morning, the Germans had possession of the British front line between the Menin Road and Polygon Wood. I Corps, under Haig and Dubois IX Corps, facing the enemy at Polygon Wood, were concerned that their Corps’ could be cut off should Ypres, or the Ypres–Comines canal, be cut or captured. I Corps was 90% short of its officer allocation, and 83% short of other ranks. Haig was deeply concerned that the front was on the verge of collapse and the BEF was in danger of being destroyed. In the event, though Haig was not to know, was that the battle was already over. On the 17th of November, after a week of fighting, Albrecht ordered his Army to cease action and dig in where it stood. This order was immediately confirmed by Falkenhayn. III Reserve Corps under Beseler and XIII Corps under Fabeck were ordered to the Eastern Front. The casualties, political and military situation on the Eastern Front was serious, particularly with the Russian concentration around Warsaw. Besides, Falkenhayn had noted that the German Army in the West was exhausted and had decided a victory in a decisive fashion, was no longer attainable.
The end of the battle was not immediately apparent to the Allies. Several German attacks were made from 12th–14th November. Stout British defences, heavy snowfall and hard frost ended large-scale fighting. The British 8th Division was deployed to the front on November 13th, providing much needed reinforcement. Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts came over to France to visit on 11th November, caught a chill, leading to congestion of the lungs, and died on the 14th of November. The next day, a reorganisation now took place. I Corps was relieved by French IX and XVI Corps. On the 16th of November Foch agreed with French to take over the line from Zonnebeke to the Ypres–Comines canal. The new British line ran 21 from Wytschaete to the La Bassée Canal at Givenchy. The Belgians held 15 miles (24 km) and the French defended some 430 miles (690 km). The German withdrawal was detected on November 20th.
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