In October 1914, a few miles east of Ypres, about 350 men from the Worcestershire regiment changed the course of World War One. It’s an extraordinary story of courage and bravery under extreme pressure.
I heard about it for the first time last week during a service in Alfrick: a part of the intercessions was given over to remembering the centenary of the battle for Gheluvelt, which had happened a couple of days previously.
As I understand it, there are very few occasions in military history where the actions of one small unit can make a major difference to the direction of an entire war – but this was one of those occasions.
Towards the end of October 1914, the British army was in deep trouble – they were massively outnumbered by a rampant German army. On the 31st, the fall of the strategic locality of Gheluvelt to the Germans meant there was little to stop the Germans driving the British army back to the French ports, probably out of the country as well, and achieving a quick win.
At this point desperate measures were needed and the 2nd battalion of the Worcestershire regiment was the only one left in reserve. At 2pm, three divisions were sent into action, crossing open ground that was littered with dead and wounded British soldiers, and under constant bombardment from the Germans.
This counter-attack took the Germans completely by surprise, and they retreated fast. What the Worcestershire regiment did not know was that the Gheluvelt chateau was still being held by the South Wales borderers: but this meant that they were able to combine with them and successfully retake Gheluvelt.
It is curious that the Germans did not re-group and re-take Gheluvelt – they may have vastly over-estimated the remaining strength of the British army. The upshot of it is that they lost the opportunity to break through the British lines and achieve a quick and complete victory in the war. Instead, the British were able to make a short, tactical retreat to a stronger position, and consolidate their lines – which would be there for the next four years.
Shortly after arriving in Worcestershire I had noticed a park in the north of Worcester which had the odd name of Gheluvelt. I now understood why! I visited it yesterday to pay my respects. As the centenary of the battle was a few days ago, there were poppy crosses to some of those who had fallen. One was to a ‘Great Uncle Alfred Farmer’; another was for 8513 Albert Perks, and read ‘A very proud grandson. A Grandad I never met’. He had been a clay miner hewer from the Stourbridge before the war, and fell at Gheluvelt. His great-grandson Matthew Perks has added a comment below, which I highly recommend reading.
The story of Gheluvelt is extraordinary and inspirational: yet it came at a heavy cost to those involved. There were 370 men who took part – of whom just over half (187) were killed. The park and its memorial is a fitting tribute to those who fell both in that battle and at other times during the war.
The full story is told here.