A Bols from the blue

14th October 1914

The only good news anyone had experienced for a couple of days crawled back through the battlefield during the night. Lieutenant Colonel Bols had dragged himself back to the Dorsets at Pont Fixe. His escape is a story straight out of the pages of Boys’ Own. The Germans had let a great prize slip through their hands.

Bols lay injured on the ground as the Germans surged over their position. Any immobile British wounded were taken prisoner. The German stretcher bearers soon arrived to pick among the wounded and Bols was told to wait for an ambulance. So he waited. And waited. Dusk came and so he began what much have been an agonising crawl back to the British line. Agonising because of his wounds, but also mentally as he crawled through the fallen heaps of his once proud Battalion.

Sadly there’s no first person account of his adventure, nor is there any more information about this other than the story above. We’ll catch up with Bols in the future but for now the Dorsets were in the capable hands of Major Cyril Saunders.

One more officer crawled back to the lines. Captain Francis Hans Bunbury Rathborne had been assisting the 18-pounders by the spoil heap when he was severely wounded. I’m happy to say that he survived the war and lived a long life, dying in 1976 aged 87.

First thing in the morning the sad remnants of the three Companies, B, C and D were merged into, what the war diary calls, a Composite Company. They were led by Captain Henry Beveridge who must have been an officer from the previous reinforcements as he’s not on the original list sent out from Belfast. They were sent away along the canal to the west out of the action.

Meanwhile the battle continued for a third day. The British continued to try to push through to La Bassée. The 15th Brigade was trying to move on, so that the 3rd Division to their north could swing round into the gap. Again the 13th Brigade was held up and the Dorsets couldn’t get forward without experiencing the dreadful enfilade fire from the Germans hidden behind the raised bank on the south side of the canal.

Gleichen’s hand drawn map shows the situation in more detail. Some of the positions aren’t the same as they stand today; Cuinchy is now more to the left directly south from the Pont Fixe.

Map of Cuinchy and environs 14th October 1914
Gleichen’s map showing the situation on the 14th October 1914

Frank and the rest of A Company hunkered down in the factory at Pont Fixe and soon came under withering shellfire. A message came fro Gleichen. “Pont Fixe must not be given up. I know I can rely on you to stick to it with the help of the Devons”. Two more companies from the Devons arrived to support the skeleton 1st Battalion Dorsets.

At 2pm the French attacked at Vermelles to the south. At 5pm A Company got the orders they must have been dreading. They were to support an attack by the Devons along the same line north of the canal they had tried for the last two days. But they weren’t to move until the 13th Brigade advanced on the south bank of the canal.

Luckily for A Company, the Germans attacked the 13th Brigade and pushed them back. By 8:30pm the Germans were now attacking the north side of the canal. A Company and the Devons held on and only three men were wounded, although three deaths are listed on CWGC, presumably they died from wounds sustained over the last couple of days.

Frank had survived another day.

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.