Silk Embroidery of the Cloth Hall at Ypres
Today’s object is a silk embroidery showing the Cloth Hall at Ypres. The salient at Ypres became the heart of the British defence of the Western Front in the First World War, and saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war. In the desperate fighting of October and November 1914, later known as the First Battle of Ypres, the professional German Army came very close to breaking through the stretched lines of the British Expeditionary Force. Captain Krook, who went out with the 1st Battalion Black Watch in August 1914, and was captured at First Ypres, has left us a vivid account of the confused nature of this battle, when the Black watch found themselves fighting hard against almost overwhelming odds. His story is taken from Angus Konstam’s Book There Was a Soldier, pg 176-180.
27th October 1914
“As soon as it was light, the Germans started shelling, and one of the first shells knocked out the two machine guns-bursting just between them. Shelling went on all day. A and B Companies prolonged our line to our right. A suffered severely having three officers wounded and about one hundred men killed and wounded. I lost about 15 men. When it was light enough to see I discovered that there was dead ground in front of my position where enemy troops might assemble without being seen and then rush us. I chose what I thought was the best place for an observation post, and sent Corporal Whitecross and six men to take up this post. He lost one man killed and another wounded on the way there. He took on the remainder and stayed there all day in observation, only coming in once – under fire – to report.
At night the Bedfords relieved us. They were very jumpy, and would not wait for my men to get out of the trench before they jumped in, which made it very difficult to keep order and silence. It appears that they had had a very bad time.
We were ordered to Battalion Headquarters. A & D were sent to reserve; B & C were lent to the Coldstream Guards. The move to the Coldstream line between Bercelaer and Kruseik, was ordered the very moment we got to HQ. The men had not even time to get their packs off. I reported to the Coldsteam, and was sent to the extreme left of the Coldstream Line. This was all done in the dark, and in complete silence. I joined up with Coldstream Nos 1 and 2 Companies under Captain Evelyn Gibbs, on my right, and got into touch with the Scots Guards under Captain de la Pasture on my left. Their right was about 120 yards from my left. This space had to be watched.
28th October 1914
“We found the trenches that we were told to occupy were in a shocking condition – full of litter of all sorts and one or two dead bodies. We cleared up as best we could, buried the dead, and tried to improve the trench. We had very few tools, no ammunition except what was on the men, no means of communication except by runner. After making a fuss, we were told that there was a heap of boxes of ammunition at the Krusiek crossroads, and eventually two boxes arrived, but they were marked ‘For Practice Only,’ which did not sound too good. We then found another box buried in the trench, also marked ‘For Practice Only.’
That night Gibbs and I had a notice that an attack was expected by the 28th German Corps from the direction of Menin. I went and saw Gibbs. There was nothing for us to do but wait. Wavell Paxton was with Gibbs, and we had a glass of excellent brandy. We were then informed by messenger that a counterattack was to be delivered the next morning 929th October) across our front, and that we were to hang on.
29th October 1914
A foggy morning. Heavy firing began on the right of the Coldstream Line, and very soon extended to our line. On the left of my line the trench curved round in a semi-circle, and then came the 120 yard space between us and the Scots Guards. At this part of my trench the Germans made three charges, but they were all repulsed with severe loss to the enemy. We now had to open the boxes of ammunition marked ‘For practice only’ and issue it. It was maddening, the cartridges burst in the chamber after firing, and it was almost impossible to get the breach open again. The men were cursing and using their feet to kick the breach open.
At about 6.30 am Gibbs informed me that their HQ had gone, and a little later that Nos 2 and 3 Coys had been overwhelmed. I said that I would hold on and support him , and I kept sending messages for help via the Scots Guards. Gibbs asked me to send a section to join two of his sections to guard our right rear, as after the breakthrough at the Kruseik crossroads, the enemy were getting round behind us. I sent a section under Corporal Williams, who was killed after he was gone a few yards, and Corporal Whitecross immediately went out and took the section to its position.
No help came, no counter-attack. Then came a message that a section of the Gloucesters had arrived, and wanted to know where to go, and that they had an officer with them. McNeil told me that he knew where they were, and after receiving instruction from me as to where to place the Gloucesters, he disappeared into the wood at the back of the trenches. I never saw him again, nor the Gloucesters. I sent a messenger to HQ via the Scots Guards. I never saw him again either.
I then went to the right of my line to be in touch with Gibbs, and remained there until another message came to say that three platoons of the Gloucesters had arrived, and wanted to know where to go. I went down to the left, and some men left their firing positions and began to follow me. I sent them back, and told them to keep on firing.
All this time we were being fired at from behind as well. I saw no sign of McNeil, nor of the Gloucesters, and on getting near the left end of my trench, saw there was no-one left of my left section, and it was difficult to get along, as there were dead and wounded lying in the narrow trench.
I turned to go back to the right, and came face to face with a lot of Germans. I had my notebook and pencil in my hands – and I must admit that I was taken by surprise. They fired at me, one downed me with the butt of his rifle, and that was the end of the fight for me. Angus MacNaughten was with me until the last moment, when I went to the left of my line to try and get in touch with the Gloucesters. He stayed to keep in touch with Gibbs. Then, what remained of the line, was attacked with the bayonet from the rear. The sections sent out to guard our right rear were overwhelmed without having the chance of even warning us.”