Above: William Barnes Wollen’s painting of Lt. Hugh Niven leading the defense of Frezenberg Ridge after his superior officers were all killed or wounded today.
After the northern portion of the Ypres Salient was subjected to the world’s first poison gas attack in April, relentless German pressure forced the British and Canadian defenders to withdraw on May 3rd and 4th to a new line of defense on the low ridges east of the crumbling city. At 5:30 this morning, a bombardment opens the day’s battle, peaking at around 7 AM in a thunder of high explosive shells. Lying in exposed trenches on the forward slope of the Frezenberg Ridge that they occupied only last night and found utterly unsatisfactory, the 83rd Brigade gets the worst of it.
The first infantry assaults begin when the bombardment shifts to secondary targets at precisely 9 o’clock. 4th Army commander General-Oberst Herzog Albrecht von Württemberg has positioned three corps against the British 28th and 27th Divisions peaks, achieving a three-to-one superiority. As the first wave formations cross no man’s land, the shattered defenders open fire with whatever they have left, and Major Hamilton Gault orders every man into the line, including the support troops and headquarters staffs. Gault is already wounded; as he is evacuated, he passes responsibility to the next officer in the chain of command.
With accurate fire, the defenders stop the first wave…but there are two more waves, and the Germans build superiority of fire, and the defense buckles. By noon, as the third wave launches, so many officers are dead or wounded in the defending units that sergeants have taken command of them; the 84th Brigade is virtually annihilated as a fighting force, leaving open the left flank of the shattered 83rd. Near Mouse Trap Farm, the 2nd Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers struggle to hold the line.
The Ypres Salient is in genuine danger of collapse.
Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and the 4th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, hold the right-hand shoulder of the gap that has been torn in the British defense. As the last wave launches, a company of the Rifle Brigade reaches the PPCLI with reinforcements and ammunition; counterattacks by the 80th Brigade stanch the flow of Germans through the opening. By then, Gault’s replacement is also wounded. As he is evacuated at dusk, he passes command of the remaining 83rd Brigade to Lieutenant Hugh Niven, whose face will adorn Wollen’s painting of the battle.
Meanwhile, the 10th Brigade advances under cover of darkness to plug the two-mile hole in the line. The PPCLI is relieved by the 3rd Battalion Kings Royal Rifles just before midnight; a roll call at the support line on the ramparts of Ypres finds that only four officers and 150 enlisted men are still alive and uninjured out of 700 on the roster. The unit’s official history reports eight officers and 392 enlisted men as casualties, with four officers and 108 other ranks killed.
After the battle, the Canadians are more sure than ever that their Ross rifles are unsuitable for trench warfare. They will trade in their weapons for Lee Enfields, never regretting the exchange. A century later, the PPCLI still holds today’s action as the highest of their battle honors, and the unofficial unit motto recalls “holding up the whole damn line.”
Finding themselves in battered and waterlogged trenches last night with little time to do anything about it before the German assault today, 1st Battalion of the Welsh Monmouthshire Regiment has also suffered tremendous losses when the 83rd Brigade collapsed on their right, allowing the German attack to flank their position and threaten encirclement. Called upon to surrender, Captain Harold Edwards of D Company famously cries “Surrender be damned!” and is last seen firing his pistol at his attackers.
Communications cut, the battalion’s commander is shot through the neck shortly after ordering his remaining men to fall back and form the new line. Many of them are killed fleeing over open ground. Of the 23 officers and 565 enlisted men who arrived last night, when the unit is withdrawn tomorrow only three officers and 126 enlisted soldiers are left. All three battalions are now so devastated by battle that the British Army decides to amalgamate them into a single, understrength battalion.
Nevertheless, the line has held for another day, and the Imperial German Army has not broken through to threaten British access to the Channel ports or allied lines of supply into the last remaining corner of ‘free’ Belgium.