BEDFORD, 1914 – 1915
From August 1914 to May 1915, the city of Bedford and surrounding areas played host to thousands of territorial soldiers at the beginning of the war. Much of the pre-embarkation training was done there. Soldiers were billeted with local people or in empty houses, and the city authorities organised entertainments.
Although the original intention had been to allow six months of training, the British Expeditionary Force’s need for reinforcement was such that several of the units which had arrived in Bedford in August 1914 found themselves reassigned for active service between November 1914 and May 1915.
The Battle of Mons, was the first major engagement of World War One for the British Expeditionary Force and was fought on Sunday 23 August 1914. 1st Battalion The Gordon Highlanders took up a position along the Mons-Beaumont road, alongside the Royal Scots. At noon the Germans advanced obliquely. The German advance was stopped 300 yards from the British line. Another German column, advancing from another angle at 4pm, suffered the same outcome.
The losses borne by these battalions were slight. However, other parts of the British line had suffered greatly, and at 9pm the two battalions were ordered to withdraw. Initially this was to the second line but, on hearing that the French Fifth Army had retreated completely, the British were forced to follow or risk being exposed to vastly superior German forces.
LE CATEAU, 1914
The German Army’s successes over the French led to a series of staged retreats for the British Expeditionary Force. However, II Corps turned to face the Germans again at Le Cateau. The BEF’s superior training and rapid firing succeeded in halting the German advance for a time, but eventually the German superiority in numbers began to tell, and the order was given to retire again. However, for some reason this order only reached the Gordons some hours late, by which time the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force was some distance away. The Gordons, with two companies of 2nd Royal Irish, then attempted to follow, but ran into a strong German force on the outskirts of Bertry and after an hour’s fierce fighting were forced to surrender.
At the battle of Ypres in October 1914, the British line came under enormous pressure and was in danger of being broken. The Belgian city of Ypres was the last obstacle between the French Channel ports and the advancing German army. The fighting began on the 19th of October and lasted for over a month. The Germans were eventually defeated by elements of the Indian Army and the Old Regular British Army and Ypres stayed in Allied hands for the moment. 8,000 men were killed in the First Battle of Ypres and the British Regular Army were all but destroyed.
THE BATTLE OF NEUVE CHAPELLE, 10 – 13 MARCH 1915
Neuve Chappelle was the first major action of the year in which the Gordons were involved. It was an attempt by the Allies to break the stalemate that had formed in the trenches in 1914. 2nd Gordons was involved from the first day; 6th Gordons from 11 March. This was the first major engagement for the 6th Battalion, who had been in France since November 1914. Although initially hugely successful, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle descended into failure as a result of the collapse of communications, which seriously hampered the British effort to advance further. Although they were taken by surprise at first, the German army responded with force and rushed many more soldiers into the trenches, launching a counter-attack on the 12th of March. The British troops also rushed many more soldiers into their trenches and managed to hold the two kilometres of ground they gained the day before. Further progress proved impossible and the attack was stopped on the 1th3 of March.
THE BATTLE OF LOOS, 25 SEPTEMBER – 18 OCTOBER 1915
Referred to at the time as ‘The Big Push’, this battle was the biggest British attack of 1915 and saw the first mass engagement of New Army units. Five battalions of The Regiment saw action in this battle, with a further two inovled in a subsidiary attack at Hooge, North of the Loos battlefield. Despite heavy casualties, there was considerable success on the first day in breaking into the deep enemy positions near Loos and Hulluch. But the reserves had been held too far from the battle front to be able to exploit the successes. Despite improved methods, more ammunition and better equipment, losses were extremely heavy, with very little ground gained. British casualties at Loos were about twice as high as German losses.
THE SOMME, 1916
The Somme offensive was planned initially as a combined operation with the French. However before the plan could be put into operation, the French suffered heavily at Verdun and so the British had to take on the main burden. The attack was preceded by a very heavy bombardment of German positions. On 1 July 1916, British soldiers “went over the top” along the 16-mile front of the battle of the Somme. By the end of the day, there were over 57,000 casualties, 21,392 of them killed or missing – the worst one-day total in the history of the British Army. However, the Gordons had been more succesful than most having captured their first day objectives. By the end of the year, the front line had been advanced by about 6 miles at most.
BEDFORD, 1914 – 1915
The Battle was launched 31 July and continued until the fall of Passchendaele village on 6 November. The offensive was fought for control of the ridges to the South and East of Ypres. On the first day the left wing of the attack achieved its objectives but the right wing failed completely.
On 16 August the attack was resumed, to little effect. Stalemate reigned for another month until an improvement in the weather prompted another series of attacks in September. Further actions in October made little progress. The eventual capture of what little remained of the village of Passchendaele on 6 November gave Haig an excuse to call off the offensive and claim success.
From 9 April to 16 May, Allied troops attacked trenches held to the east of the French city of Arras. The ground and date were chosen for the battle as part of a combined operation with the French and included Vimy Ridge as a major objective. There were big gains on the first day, followed by stalemate and a series of small-scale operations to consolidate positions. These battles were largely successful in achieving their limited aims, but were gained at the price of a comparatively large numbers of casualties.
The attack was launched 20 November 1917 and was an initial success, as British forces gained more than five miles of ground. The assault incorporated the largest number of Mark IV tanks that had been used during World War One alongside an artillery barrage. Despite strong gains on the first day, the battle had little strategic impact as the ground was essentially retaken by German counter-attacks. Yet in terms of the tactical methods used by both sides, the Battle of Cambrai was an important precursor to the fighting of 1918.
SECOND BATTLE OF THE SOMME, 21 MARCH- 5 APRIL 1918
The attack started on 21 March, with a massive artillery and mortar bombardment and long-range shelling of Paris. Its aim was to split the French and British lines, to push the British into a pocket in Flanders, and to open a way to the Channel ports. All the Gordons battalions were involved except for 2nd Gordons who had been moved to the Italian Front. By the time the Germans halted their first attack on 5 April in view of hardening resistance, in some places they had advanced 40 miles and were very close to Paris.
BATTLE OF LYS, 9 – 29 APRIL 1918
The German offensive known as Operation Georgette took place in Flanders with the goal of seizing important supply roads and cutting off the British Second Army at Ypres over the Lys Canal. The Territorial and Service Battalions of the Gordons were among those rushed into the sector to hold the line after initial losses. The German attack, as at the Somme, again petered out after Allied reserves were rushed into the area and determinedly held on to the line.
SECOND BATTLE OF THE MARNE, 20 JULY – 6 AUGUST 1918
A British force took part in Foch’s large scale counter-attack of the River Marne, which overwhelmed Ludendorff’s troops. It was a hard-fought series of attacks, often through densely wooded areas. At the end of July, 5th Gordons were ordered to attack the Chateau of Buzancy. They achieved their objective in 50 minutes, but were then forced to retreat back to their starting point when the French were unable to secure their flank. German and French accounts pay tribute to the bravery with which the Gordons attacked and then defended the chateau.
BATTLE OF AMIENS, 8 – 17 AUGUST 1918
On 8 August 1918, the Allies launched the Great Counter-Offensive. In the first 4 days, the front in the Amiens area advanced 12 miles, in large measure due to the efforts of the Canadians. 600 tanks spear-headed the British assault, and pushed the Germans back to their 1915 positions, taking 16,000 prisoners. Ludendorff called 8 August “the black day of the German Army”. Despite these successes, victory could not be guaranteed. The roads deteriorated into muddy quagmires. The first effects of what became to be known as “Spanish flu” were being felt; at any time, 10-15% of troops might be affected.
THE PURSUIT TO THE SELLE, 9 – 25 OCTOBER 1918
During October the British Fourth Army drove elements of the German army back from the Hindenburg support line towards the Selle River and then drove the flank of the German Second Army towards the Sambre-Oise Canal. Enemy resistance was strong and effective at this late point in the conflict. 4th, 5th and 6/7th Gordon were in constant action during the final weeks of fighting. 4th Gordons in particular were involved in heavy fighting at Famars, taking, retreating then taking the village again not only on 25 October but then forced to retreat and re-take the village again 2 days later.
THE ITALIAN CAMPAIGN, 1917 – 1918
The 2nd Battalion were part of a force sent to fight alongside the Italian army against the Austrians. It held a sector of the front first at Martello in north east Italy, and from April 1918 on the Asiago Plateau. Although the line was mainly static the battalion spent much time in raiding and harassing the enemy.
The Battalion’s most notable battle was on the Piave River at the end of October 1918. Their task was the capture of part of an island, and under heavy fire they successfully captured their two objectives. Towards the end of October 1918 the Austrians then began to withdraw hurriedly all along the front, and the 2nd Gordons pursued them, taking hundreds of prisoners. An armistice for the Allies and Austro-Hungarians came into effect on 4th November