Vandvoorde Ridge - Early battles of the Great War - By Paul Allen

In the early days of the war, long before the people of Scarborough had seen in their local newspapers the lengthy casualty lists of 1916 onwards it had been usual for the ‘Scarborough Pictorial’ and ‘Mercury’ to reproduce pages of photographs of many of the men of the town who had been serving in their country’s armed forces. Each week’s selection of images had usually been accompanied by a suitably patriotic banner such as;

‘Our gallant son’s’, ’Local Heroes’, ’More Local Heroes’ and ‘Ready to fight, Ready to die for the Motherland'

Amongst the portraits featured in the ‘Scarborough Pictorial’ of the second of September 1914 had been a picture showing a young private of the 17th Lancers, sitting straight and proud upon his charger, Charles Allison is seen wearing the full dress uniform of the regiment and is armed with a lance, which he is holding in his right hand and a sword which hangs down the left flank of his horse. The photograph, which the soldier had probably posed for in the days of peace may have taken pride of place above the mantelpiece in his parents home for some years until the outbreak of the war when it had been taken down in a moment of patriotic fervour to be taken to the Newspaper’s office in Aberdeen Walk by the soldiers proud parents where it had joined the army of partisan sons waiting to be included in the newspaper. Tragically some of the young men featured in the photographs had very little of their lives left to live, the Lancer was to be one of them. A little under eight weeks after the publication of his photograph, whilst wearing the cap badge of a different regiment the soldier had ‘vanished’ in appalling circumstances leaving his parents with nothing but memories, a trio of medals and of course, the photograph. [1]

The three prestigious regiments of the Household Cavalry First and Second Life Guards, and Royal Horse Guards [The Blues], which had constituted the Seventh Cavalry Brigade, had landed at Zeebrugge in the early hours of the eighth of October 1914. At the time high expectation had been running through the one and a half thousand men or so that they would soon be engaging the enemy with their usual panache and vigour with their favoured weapon the sabre. Alas those expectations had not come to fruition, it is true that in the ensuing days they had indeed skirmished with the foe but the classic cavalry charge had not taken place after all.

The Seventh and Sixth Cavalry Brigades had made up the Third Cavalry Division, which along with the Seventh Infantry Division had been despatched abroad as a token gesture to the Belgians which had been intended to reinforce the beleaguered garrison of the city of Antwerp, however the city had capitulated almost on the day that the two divisions had landed on foreign soil. Their primary mission at an end the two divisions had eventually made their way to Ypres, which the Third Cavalry Division had arrived at on the fourteenth of October 1914.

The Royal Horse Guards had been the first regiment of the Household Cavalry to drawn blood, when, on the 26th of October, the regiments three squadrons [a Squadron of cavalry had consisted of six officers and a hundred and fifty four other ranks] had charged up onto Vandvoorde Ridge to draw the enemy’s fire away from the 20th Brigade of Seventh Division who were attempting to extricate themselves from a ‘perilous situation’. One of the squadrons had subsequently dismounted on the ridge, and as a volley of rifle fire had burst from them the other two had had galloped on to the east thereby extending the British line and menacing the German’s flank. The Royal Horse Guards had achieved their objective as the enemy had turned all their attention on the cavalrymen thus allowing the infantry to get out of a tricky situation. The ‘Blues’ had eventually been able to get away under the cover of darkness.

Alas soon after this episode the unthinkable had happened, not only had the Cavalry had their treasured horses taken away, they had also begun to dig trenches and act the part of infantry, of this deplorable state of affairs an Officer had wrote in his diary;

‘I have half my troop, twelve men in all, with me in a shallow trench… the rest of the squadron is spread out a hundred yards each side of us… in ten day’s I have washed twice and had my boots off once. Horses? I’ve almost forgotten what a horse looks like!’

Outnumbered by a ratio of around seven to one the allies had been stretched to the limits of their endurance by late October, and the enormous casualties which had been received by the already tiny B.E.F. by this month had meant that if the defences of Ypres were not to collapse altogether every available man, cooks, grooms, batmen, engineers, and of course the cavalry would have to be sent into the line.

A number of cavalry subalterns when ordered to get their men digging had said reasonably enough: ‘Yes, sir. But what are they going to dig with?, only to be blasted by majors and colonels who had told them not to ask such damn fool questions. ‘If needs be with their hands!’

The day that the 2ND Life Guards had begun digging had been recorded in the regiments ‘War Diary’;

‘26TH; [October] ‘A quiet morning in bivouacs and billets—received orders at 1pm that the Brigade was to be ready to move from Klein Zillerbeke at 2pm. Orders issued for a dismounted attack on Kortewilde, 2ND Life Guards in reserve, orders cancelled at 2pm owing to 7TH Division just to the N. of 7TH Cavalry Brigade being rather pressed. The Regiment was then ordered to occupy a back position in case the 6TH Cavalry Brigade was forced to retire by the falling back of the 7TH Division. At 5-30pm after beginning to dig on the back position, the Regiment was ordered to return to it’s last nights billets, [at a farm half a mile to the east of the village of Klein Zillerbeke] and to send one squadron to relieve one squadron of the Royal Horse Guards near Zandevoorde' [2]

Standing on a small ridge four miles to the Southwest of Ypres, the village of Zandevoorde had been, and still is typical of the many dreary agricultural communities dotted around the almost flat landscape of Flanders. In general built around the village church the cluster of dwellings would have been insignificant if it were not for the fact that the ridge that they had stood on had guarded a valuable crossroads, and had stood directly in the path of the German Thirty Ninth Division’s advance on Ypres.

The following day, ‘C’ Squadron of the Second Life Guards had been sent to the wafer thin line [which had been dug mostly with the assistance of bayonets and hands] held by the 3RD Cavalry Division on Zandevoorde Ridge, of which the Regiments history says;

‘The line for which the Household Brigade was to be responsible for the next days rested on the forward slope of the ridge, and in respect of trenches had little to recommend it. These, of the narrow type of the period, were in short sections, very far apart, with no communication laterally or from behind, and so visible and vulnerable as to render it impossible to bring up men or material except at night. Time, opportunity, and tools had been alike lacking to place them in serviceable communication or defence'

Four sorely pressed squadrons of the First and Second Life Guards [around 640 men] supported by a machine gun section [two guns, one of which was to subsequently jam irreparably] of the Royal Horse Guards so thinly spread that there was just one rifle for every six yards of frontage had been expected to accomplish the tasks that a battalion of infantry would have undertaken with difficulty, subjected to intense enemy shell fire over the next few days the cavalry men had somehow held on, losing men daily. The entry in the War Diary for the 28th of October relates;

‘The left trenches of ‘C’Squadron were heavily shelled causing three troops of ‘C’ Squadron to be relieved by ‘D’ Squadron at 6pm; the remaining troop of ‘C’Squadron and ‘B’Squadron remained in the trenches. Casualties: -- three other ranks killed, 5 other ranks wounded'

During the night of the 29th of October the cold and hungry cavalrymen had listened in their terrible exposed positions to the ominous sounds in the plain below of the enemy bringing troops and heavy artillery forward, painfully aware of what the activity had meant they could only wait for the arrival of dawn and whatever fate had in store for them.

Unknown to the British the German High Command had decided that the 30TH of October would be the day that they would smash the defences of the city once and for all in a concerted attack on the Zandevoorde and Messines Ridges and eventually march triumphant into Ypres by the 1ST of November, indeed the Kaiser himself had been ensconced in a nearby château ready to take the formal surrender of the much fought over piece of battered Belgian real estate. The German Armies order of the day for the thirtieth had been explicit enough;

‘The breakthrough will be of decisive importance. We must, and therefore we will, conquer, settle forever the centuries long struggle, end the war, and strike the decisive blow against our most detested enemy. We will finish with the British, Indians, Moroccans and other trash feeble adversaries who surrender in great number if they are attacked with vigour'

At Zandevoorde on Friday the thirtieth of October 1914 the day had begun with a light fog. With red rimmed eyes, unshaven, and filthy the Household Cavalrymen had been ‘stood to’ throughout the night, shivering in the cold of early morning the three hundred and twenty or so men had just managed to grab a quick breakfast and a good dollop of morale boosting rum before they had been subjected to a terrific artillery bombardment which had begun at around 6-45am.The noises which had been heard during the previous night had been the sounds of over two hundred heavy howitzers being brought up which in the light of day had literally torn the Cavalry’s positions apart. With no cover to speak of and with little else that could be done the Cavalrymen had to sit the storm out with gritted teeth, their ears ringing, their heads spinning, and prey to God that they would be spared. Many of the men may have never known what had hit them, some had been buried alive in their collapsed trenches by the deluge of shells, others had almost certainly been blown to kingdom come.

The hurricane of steel had ended half an hour later leaving the positions at Zandevoorde a smouldering pockmarked scene of desolation resounding with the cries of the grievously wounded. Some of the cavalrymen however had survived the onslaught and had met the subsequent infantry assault by the German Thirty Ninth Division and three battalions of elite Jaeger troops with the withering rifle and machine gun fire which for so long had been the signature song of the regular soldier until an order had been received at around 8am to retire. Some of the cavalrymen had not heard, or had chosen to ignore the order to fall back and a few of the men, a Squadron of Life Guards and the machine gun of the Blues, had remained behind and had continued to pour fire on the enemy until they too had eventually been annihilated. By 9am the Household Cavalry’s position had fallen. A German War Diary [XV Corps] had subsequently recorded;

‘Two whole British squadrons with their machine guns lay dead and wounded, completely annihilated in one meadow of the battlefield’.

The Diary of the Second Life Guards had also recorded [and understated] the action on Zandevoorde Ridge;

‘The line on the right of ‘B’ Squadron driven back, forced ‘B’ Squadron to retire with losses. ‘C’ Squadron less one troop would appear to have been surrounded from the accounts of the two survivors of the Squadron.

Meanwhile the reserve trenches had been manned by ‘D’Squadron on the left of the Royal Horse Guards. Heavy shelling of these trenches ensued and the Regiment gradually fell back on to the Zillerbeke Ridge where the 5th and 6th Cavalry Brigades had taken up a defensive line.

Casualties; Missing, three officers seventy-five other ranks, Wounded, two officers and seven other ranks'

Amongst those reported as ‘missing’ had been; 17L/6417 Private Charles Harry Allison.

Born in Scarborough at No.24 Nelson Street on Saturday the 31ST of July 1886, Charles had been the eldest of five children of Mary ‘May’ Elizabeth, and Harrison Allison, who’s profession is listed in the 1901 Census of Scarborough as that of ‘Journeyman Cabinetmaker’ [Harrison Allison and Mary Elizabeth Turner had married at St Mary’s Parish Church on the 21st of November 1885]. [3]

At the age of five years Charles had begun his education at the nearby Central Board School where he had remained until the age of thirteen when he had left to take up an apprenticeship as a Cabinetmaker working with his father. However by the age of fourteen he had found that the drudgery of making and repairing of cabinets was not the path he wished to take, therefore in 1905 at the age of eighteen he had enlisted into the Army at Scarborough seeking the excitement and glamour of a soldiers life in one of Britain’s ‘Cavalry of the Line’ regiments, and after learning to ride along with the arts of combat with lance and sword at the Cavalry Depot at Canterbury, Charles had duly joined his regiment, the 17TH Lancers, in India where he had been stationed on garrison duties at Meerut from September 1905 to the October of 1910, when the 17TH Lancers had gone to Siakot where they had remained until October 1914 when the regiment had embarked at Bombay on the sixteenth of the month destined for France.

However, Charles had never journeyed to France with his regiment because at the outbreak of war he had been a time served soldier in the Army Reserve. Living and working in Scarborough until his recall to the colours in that dramatic August of 1914, Allison may have expected to rejoin his old regiment, however, a shortage of men in the Household Cavalry had seen him being sent instead to the elite Second Life Guards with a draft of a hundred and twenty men from the reserves of various Lancer Regiments [a similar number of Dragoons and Hussar reservists had been posted to the First Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards respectively].

At the time the Regiment had been mobilising in London’s Regents Park and the six foot tall ‘old sweats’ of the Life Guards had not taken kindly to their regiment being inundated with a bunch of so-called ‘short arsed donkey wallopers’ from the not so exclusive Cavalry of the Line. The feelings of the Lancers towards the ‘Ticky Tins’, as the Life Guards had been nicknamed, had been mutual and they had not taken kindly to being sent to the spit and polish Regiment. Many of the men like Charlie Allison had spent years perfecting their soldiering on the dusty plains of India and the Velt of South Africa, whilst the Life Guards, on the other hand, had spent most of their time on ceremonial duties in the capital, their only ‘foreign station’ having been Pirbright in Surrey where they had gone yearly for a fortnight of musketry practice and manoeuvres.

Life in the Household Cavalry however had had its financial compensations, instead of the usual one Shilling and Twopence a day wage of a Private of the Cavalry of the Line Charles and his comrades would have received an increase of sevenpence a day making their daily pay the princely sum of one shilling and ninepence.

Charles Allison had been in London for three weeks and during that time he had been issued with his kit, a sword and rifle, and most importantly for a cavalryman, a horse. During this period the three regiments of cavalry had been brought up to their war strengths and on the first of September the Second Life Guards [by then a third of the Seventh Cavalry Brigade] had received their orders to moved down to Ludgershall in Wiltshire where they had united with the Sixth Brigade to form the Third Cavalry Division, the whole coming under the command of Major General The Honourable J.H.G. Byng CB MVO.

The time in Wiltshire had been spent on exhaustive Divisional exercises which had eventually bonded the men of the Household Cavalry and the Cavalry of the Line into a cohesive fighting unit, a fact not overlooked by the author of the History of the Life Guards;

‘So with this strange assortment of regiments welded together, and people may have smiled to see men of five feet four inches wearing the badges of the Household Cavalry; but however small their stature, they were to add robustly to the reputation of their adopted regiments, and at the same time to admit that they themselves had gained by inclusion in them, and by being able to take the correct measure of comrades whom they might previously have regarded as feather-bed soldiers’ [4]

Whilst the cavalry had been training in Wiltshire events in Belgium had taken a turn for the worst when the German Army had turned their attention on the capture of Antwerp, thus on the second of October, unknown to the soldiers charging through the peaceful English countryside, the Minister for War Lord Kitchener had wired the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir John French;

‘A serious situation as been caused by the German attempt to besiege Antwerp [which has now culminated in placing Antwerp in grave danger of falling in a short time]. We can hardly hope the town will hold out unless Joffre [the French Commander in Chief] can send some regular troops to act there in conjunction with all the regular troops that we can send, that is the 7th Division and a Division of Cavalry’

In the wake of this message the War Office had soon afterwards issued the order for the Seventh Infantry and the Third Cavalry Divisions to begin their preparations to proceed abroad and shortly afterwards the three regiments of Household Cavalry had made their way to Southampton where they had embarked in Steamships which had catered more for the needs of the horses than the men who had been packed aboard like sardines.

The transports carrying the cavalrymen had steamed out of Southampton on the morning of the 7th of October 1914 accompanied by an escort of torpedo boats bound for the usual ‘unknown destination’, which had eventually turned out to be the Belgian port of Zeebrugge where the men and horses had disembarked in the early hours of the following day.

Contrary to the report in the Second Life Guards concerning the action at Zandevoorde the Germans had not in fact taken a single prisoner during or after the massacre neither had there been any wounded who had lived to tell the tale. A whole squadron of Life Guards [six officers and a hundred and fifty four men], and the best part of another, plus the machine gunners of the Royal Horse Guards had disappeared as if they had never been. There had been whisperings after the event, which had never been confirmed, that the German’s had slaughtered every British soldier that they had found alive on the ridge and had subsequently buried the bodies in mass graves, which had never been located after the war, in fact nothing was heard of the missing of Zandevoorde ever again. [5]

[In all the official documentation that I have seen regarding Charles Allison his date of death is in all instances is recorded as the 31st of October 1914. However, I believe this date is incorrect, as the War Diary of the Second Life Guards does not mention any casualties being taken by the regiment on this date; therefore I am of the opinion that Charles had died on the 30th].

In 1914 the Allison family had been living at No 4 Victoria Street where Harrison and May Allison had received word from the War Office that their son was ‘Missing’, and if any more information concerning him were received it would be passed on to them. They had not heard any more news concerning Charles until nine months later when the ‘Scarborough Mercury’ of July 16th 1915 had reported;

‘Missing Scarborough Life Guard - Considerable anxiety is being felt by Mr Harrison Allison, 4 Victoria Street, on account of his son, Private C. Allison [29] 2ND Life Guards. He was officially reported as missing on October 31ST, and not a single word has since been heard of him’

No more information regarding the fate of their son was ever received by the Allison’s, ‘Missing believed killed in action on the 31st of October 1914’ was all the War Office had ever said in recompense for their lost son. [5]

Twenty nine men from the 17TH Lancers including Charles Allison had been killed in action since their adopted regiment had landed at Zeebrugge on the sixth of October until the affair on Zandevoorde Ridge and not one of those men has a known grave, their names, along with that of Charles Allison, can be found inscribed on Panel 5 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.

In the years following their son’s death Harrison and May Allison had continued to live at no 4 Victoria Street, where Harrison [born at Harwood Dale in 1863] had eventually died on the 17th of September 1925 at the age of sixty two years. Mr Allison had subsequently been buried in Dean Road Cemetery where a now fallen headstone can be found in Section D, Border, Grave 76. I had found the headstone in 1999 when it was still upright and it has inscribed upon it the names of Harrison Allison and his son Charles [whom is incorrectly stated as having been killed in action at Mons]. According to the Scarborough Register of Electors for 1926, ‘May’ Allison [Born at Driffield in 1862] had taken in a lodger at No 4 Victoria Street, a Mr John Herbert Richard who had remained at the house until 1928 when Mary Allison had given up her tenancy to a family named Schofield, her name does not appear in any of the Electoral Rolls after this year.

[1] According to the 1914-18 ‘Medal Rolls’ which are held in the Public Records Office at Kew Charles Allison was posthumously awarded the 1914 Star with ‘1914’ Clasp, [the Clasp was awarded to men who had served under fire between the 5TH of August and midnight on the 22nd –23RD November 1914] the British War Medal, and the British Victory Medal, which were forwarded to his parents in 1920.

[2] A copy of the Second Life Guards War Diary for the relative period was kindly supplied to me by K.C. Hughes, the Assistant Curator of the Household Cavalry Museum at Windsor.

[3] At the time of the 1901 Census of Scarborough Charles had been aged fourteen years, sisters Annie Eliza, Florence, and Dorothy had been aged eleven, nine and five years old respectively, whilst brother Alfred William had been aged three. All were born at Scarborough. Also living at No. 45 Victoria Street at this time had been the children’s grandfather, William Allison aged sixty eight years, who is listed as an ‘Innkeeper’, who had been born at Hutton Buschel.

[4] Sir George Arthur; ‘The History of the Household Cavalry’, courtesy of the Household Cavalry Museum, Combermere Barracks Windsor.

[5] The grave of an officer, reportedly that of the twenty seven year old Lieutenant Charles Sackville Pelham, Earl Worsley the C.O. of the machine gun section of the Royal Horse Guards had been located on Zandevoorde Ridge, and after the war Lord Worsley’s remains had been re-interred in Ypres Town Cemetery Extension in Plot 2 Row D, Grave 4. The plot of land in which Lord Worsley’s body had originally been buried by the Germans had subsequently been purchased by his widow and the Household Division Memorial had been erected on the site.

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