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south to defend the canal as he had just been informed that the French Cavalry unit covering the canal was going to be withdrawn.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.