The beginning of the end

 

12th October 1914

II Corps, of which the Dorsets were part of in 1914, were the first British troops to be sent into the gap on the left hand edge of the French. To the north lay Flanders. The 7th Division had recently landed at Zeebrugge and was now moving south in a race with the Germans. They were moving towards a small town in Belgium called Ypres.

From the Dorsets at Béthune to Ypres in the north the land was flat and dotted with industrial activity, much as at Mons before. Into this gap poured the BEF and the Germans. This was known as the race to sea.

The British were attempting to pivot from Vermelles in the south and wheel around to the right, thus simultaneously relieving the French in the south and attacking the Germans to the east. The Germans had other ideas.

The 15th Brigade set off along the road to Festubert in heavy fog. Their ultimate objective was to take the town of La Bassée, which had just fallen into German hands, but their immediate concern was to hold the line between Festubert and the canal to the south.

At some point just before they reached Festubert shellfire caused them to halt. Gleichen detached the Dorsets from the 15th Brigade and sent them south to defend the canal as he had just been informed that the French Cavalry unit covering the canal was going to be withdrawn. The 13th Brigade were replacing the French south of the canal.

Heading along the tow path on the north side of the canal, the Dorsets arrived at Pont Fixe, a bridge between Givenchy on the north and Cuinchy on the south. Some books claim that there is a village called Pont Fixe here but I cannot find any mention of this. I think it simply comes from the geographical name on a map. Pont Fixe just means a fixed bridge. I’ve included a later British trench map which clearly marks Pont Fixe as the same as the existing bridge.

Image of a map of Cuinchy showing Pont Fixe
Map of Cuinchy showing Pont Fixe

It was immediately obvious that the French had left too soon and the Germans were now attacking along the canal, trying to squeeze between the French and British lines. Bols ordered Frank’s A Company to cross to the south and move eastwards along the canal. D Company were to move along the north edge of the canal. Bols positioned one machine gun in an unfinished factory by the north side of the bridge which began strafing Germans gathering in some brickstacks and railway lines to the south east. B and C Companies were held in reserve.

A Company made good progress at first. A high bank immediately to their right shielded them from the advancing Germans. The war diary reports that they “inflicted severe loss on Germans north of Cuinchy.”

D Company, more exposed as they moved along the open fields north of the tow path, were suddenly sitting targets. Accurate fire poured into them from Cuinchy village in the south west, from the high bank to their south and also from the brickstacks and a large railway junction to the south east. Several men fell in the crossfire. At a farm just 180 metres east from the bridge their CO, Major Reginald Trevor Roper, was shot in the head. He died shortly afterwards.

The Dorsets didn’t get any further. B and C Companies entrenched in a rise by the farm where Major Roper had died. A Company returned to Pont Fixe with D Company and Battalion HQ and billeted for the night.

The Dorsets were in a precarious situation. They were in touch with the 1st Bn Bedfords to the north, but to their south the situation was uncertain. The 15th Brigade were massively overextended, occupying a 2 mile line above the canal from Festubert. An untroubled sleep that night would have been very difficult.

The Dorsets’ war diary reports 11 killed, 30 wounded and 3 missing. The CWGC reports 13 dead for that day, but only 11 of them are buried in the vicinity of Pont Fixe.

7 thoughts to “The beginning of the end”

    1. Dear Jean

      Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to read my blog.

      The war diary might mention an officer has been wounded, but never ordinary soldiers unless it’s an extraordinary event (see today’s post later on). The Dorsets’ war diary is remarkably chatty compared to other regiments in the 15th Brigade.

      The only way to do it would be to look up the individual soldier’s records and see if their wounds are listed, then tie that date back to battle dates.

      You can look up war graves at CWGC. The list of men listed on the 12th that fell at or near Pont Fixe is as follows:

      BLOWS HERBERT H Corporal
      BRIGGS CHARLES ALBERT Private
      FRANKLIN WILLIAM JAMES Lance Corporal
      LENNARD WILLIAM HERBERT Private
      LIGHT WILLIAM EDWARD Private
      MEAD PERCY WILLIAM Private
      NUTBEAM WALTER Private
      ROGERS CECIL Lance Corporal
      ROPER REGINALD TREVOR Mentioned in Despatches Major
      WHITSEY ARTHUR JAMES Private
      WOODMAN JOHN Private

      NB That the date given by the CWGC might not be 100% accurate, nor might it include men killed on that day; plenty died of wounds in hospital, or were found at later dates. I’ve taken them out of that list above.

      1. Thanks. Bertie Clarke was wounded around the 15th October. He didn’t die and was luckily taken to hospital somewhere and was later discharged as unfit. He died in 1930 as a result of his wounds. He was my grandfather so it is an interesting read.

        1. I’ve just looked at his photos on Ancestry and the lovely tapestry of him in bed. Fascinating. Thank again for taking the time to visit.

  1. Arthur James Whitsey was my paternal grandfather’s half-brother (my grandfather & his sister were my gt grandmother’s 2nd family). He had been a regular with the 2nd Bn 1904-11, & was recalled from the Reserve, reinforcing the 1st Bn, quite literally being kitted out & sent to join the BEF. he has no known grave (I am interested to read your comment about 11 being buried near Pont Fixe – I assumed that all had no graves) & is listed on the memorial at Le Touret CWGC cemetery. Unfortunately I have no knowledge of any photos in existence & have not carried out a trace on his son who had been born earlier that year – his widow remarried, & I need to find out if he took his step-father’s name.

    1. Dear Mark

      Thanks for your comment. I think my post might have be a bit misleading. I don’t have any evidence of a specific grave. As you say, he’s remembered on a memorial at Le Touret and I counted this in my search of local cemeteries. I was simply discounting men who died in hospitals further afield on that day. So apologies for that.

      But there’s no doubt that he was possibly among the dead recovered and buried near where they fell (see the 19th October post) and their graves were simply lost in the fierce fighting over the coming days, weeks and years in this area.

      I just looked at his service records on Ancestry. It’s got some interesting information you might be interested in if you haven’t seen it already. It appears that he was with the original deployment on the 16th August 1914. His wife applied for his medals after the war so there’s information about her in there. Their son was born on 3/3/1914 and was also called Arthur James Whitsey. There’s a record for a man with the same name born in 1914, who died in 1997 in Havering, Essex. If you’d like me to email the service records to you, then just let me know.

  2. Hello, not sure if you are monitoring the comments or not. Apologies for not replying to you sooner. I am actually going to le Touret tomorrow, & will try to get to Pont Fixe to try & picture where Arthur spent his last moments. Yes, you are quite correct that (as far as I know), the Arthur James Whitsey who died in 1997 was my late father’s cousin, although we have never had contact, & I am unaware if there are any descendants, but may try to find out when I have time. On another note, I am aware that a collector has Arthur’s Mons Star, but refused to part with it when I made contact & offered to purchase it.

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