Written by Dr Jack Binns
During the early morning of Friday October 30, 1914, just a century ago, when the hospital ship Rohilla struck Saltwick Nab and broke its back, the survivors of the 2nd Battalion of Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment were fighting for their lives. They were astride the road between Ypres and Menin in southern Belgium. Just one of those Yorkshiremen who died that day was 7580 Private Percy Ireland, whose parents George Edward and Elizabeth lived at 17 Church Stairs Street, Scarborough.
Like nearly all British infantry regiments of the line, the Green Howards had two linked battalions each of up to 1,000 regular soldiers. The custom was that while one battalion was stationed for several years abroad in one of the many colonies, the other would be at home recruiting and training new members. In January 1908 the 1st Battalion had left for Egypt to begin another overseas tour. From there, in 1912, it had gone further east to India and would be there throughout the Great War, one of only 12 regular units never to fight against German or Turk.
Meanwhile, in 1909, the 2nd Battalion had returned from South Africa to its principal barracks at Fulford, south of York. Two of its companies, about 400 men, formed a detachment at Scarborough.
In 1911, more than a million working days were lost as a result of strike actions. Seamen, firemen and dockers came out all over the country. At Liverpool there was violent rioting. The Government called in troops after Lime Street police station was besieged, a mob was pillaging Scotland Road and JPs had read out the Riot Act. The soldiers who acted to disperse the rioters at bayonet point in Scotland Road were several hundred Green Howards; but they were not the troops who fired on and killed two civilians there.
When the war with Germany began in August 1914, the 2nd Battalion had been stationed in Guernsey for the past year. They were not one of the units earmarked for the British Expeditionary Force of five infantry and one cavalry division. However, it was soon clear that a seventh division would have to be assembled and sent to France as soon as possible to reinforce the first six.
On August 28 the 2nd Battalion said farewell to the Channel Islands and embarked for Southampton. Their orders were to be one of the infantry regiments of the new Seventh Division, formed hastily from Guards battalions now withdrawn from their ceremonial duties in London and training in the New Forest.
By October 6, when the first half of the Green Howards landed at Zeebrugge, the objective of the Seventh Division was to go to the defence of Antwerp, which was under German siege; but four days later, when the 2nd Battalion had reached only Bruges by train, the city and port were surrendered.
It was too late to save Antwerp so the Seventh Division was diverted southwards to secure Ypres, gateway to the Channel ports.
On October 14 the Battalion passed through the cobbled streets of a medieval town that was still undamaged or defaced by war. Then, after four days and four nights of almost continuous marching and counter-marching, about 1,000 Green Howards finally took up positions a mile long and about nine miles down the road from Ypres to Menin. Particularly crucial was the crossroads near the hamlet of Kruiseeckt.
Here, for the next 16 days and nights the Yorkshiremen withstood the German onslaught. Conditions in this momentous battle were as bad and as brutal as any during the course of the whole war on the Western Front. Greatly outnumbered, unprotected by barbed wire, unable to dig deep trenches, often without food, sleepless and frozen stiff in night-time frosts, the Green Howards were subjected to ferocious artillery and mortar bombardment followed by mass infantry attacks.
The Battalion had only two Vickers machine guns and both were destroyed and their crews killed or severely wounded. Repeated assaults by grey hordes of Bavarians were repelled by rapid, accurate rifle volleys. Every day the defenders fired 96,000 rounds of .303 bullets. When positions were lost they were promptly retaken by counter-attack. Losses, especially on the German side, were huge. Many of the Bavarian dead and wounded were young schoolboys, recently recruited and quickly trained.
By October 29, only about 300 Green Howards were still actively engaged. Two days later, after they had again held their ground and other units had collapsed, surrendered, fled or just fallen asleep in their dug-outs, General Haig rode down the Menin Road and said to the divisional commander: “Please congratulate the Yorkshire regiment on their stout perform- ance.”
Having saved Ypres for the time being, what was left of the Seventh Division were withdrawn from the front line. One officer who watched the 2nd Battalion as they came out of the battle wrote later:
Never did I again see during the war men in such a sorry plight. We had lost 10 officers killed, 18 wounded and 655 Other Ranks killed or wounded, of whom 250 were killed. What was as fine a battalion as there was in the British army had started with 1,000 strong and had been reduced to one captain, three second-lieutenants, and less than 300 gallant men.
One of those “gallant men” was 9545 Private Henry Tandey, the most highly decorated private to survive the war. Later he was to be awarded the Military Medal, the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Victoria Cross. After only three days out of the line, the 2nd Battalion were back under fire in a support position at Ploegsteert (“Plugstreet”).
(A painting by Fortunino Mataria showing men of the 2nd Battalion at the Kruiseeckt crossroads is one of the proudest possessions of the Green Howards. Everyone in the picture is said to have been killed except Private Tandey, shown carrying a wounded comrade on his back.)