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Page last updated at 07:13 GMT, Saturday, 30 October 2010 08:13 UK
Forgotten heroes

JP Beadle's painting of the meeting between the 2nd Worcestershire and the 1st South Wales Borderers in the grounds of the chateau in Gheluvelt
JP Beadle's painting of the meeting between the 2nd Worcesters and the 1st South Wales Borderers in the grounds of the chateau in Gheluvelt

It stopped a critical German advance and is memoralised for having "saved civiliation", yet it's one of the least well known battles of WWI. The BBC's Phil Mackie finds out why.

Gheluvelt, a tiny village outside Ypres, was the scene of a small but incredibly significant action fought on 31 October 1914, at the outset of the conflict.

With the British Expeditionary Force in full retreat, and the road to the Channel ports opening up for the advancing Germans, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment, were ordered to advance.

A 1926 photograph of survivors of the battle of Gheluvelt
A 1926 photograph of survivors of the battle of Gheluvelt

Led by Major Edward Hankey, they mounted a bayonet charge through heavy artillery and machine gun fire, and drove more than 1,000 German troops out of the grounds of Gheluvelt (pronounced gur-love-elt)chateau, where they met up with a small contingent from the South Wales Borderers, who were bravely holding out against the Germans.

They managed to "plug" the hole in the line and save the day for the British Army. Of the 600 or so men involved - nearly one third were killed or wounded.

So heavy were the losses sustained by the Germans that they called the day "the slaughter of the innocents".

The Imperial War Museum holds an interview, recorded many years later, which gives a rare insight into what happened that day. William Finch, an NCO, described his experiences after the battalion charged the German lines.

"Jerry opened fire straight across the Menin road at me with a machine gun, and that's when I got hit in the leg. And as I got up, Jerry hit me in the back," he recalled.

The Worcesters' great achievement was to stem the German tide and restore confidence in the British lines. The memorial in the village of Gheluvelt itself is a fascinating amalgam of homage and hyperbole.

It reads: "To the eternal memory of the officers and men of the 2nd Worcesters, who on 31st October 1914, fighting gloriously against a determined foe, gave their lives at Gheluvelt that civilisation might be saved."

Franky Boston, curator of the Passchendaele Museum in Belgium, says "the courage that they got there convinced the commanders, the officers and the men to not give up".

But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Both sides became entrenched there, and the cemeteries that litter the area bear testament to the carnage of the next four years.

The BBC's Phil Mackie at the memorial in Gheluvelt
The BBC's Phil Mackie at the memorial in Gheluvelt

This may explain why Gheluvelt is not more widely known. Our modern view of the campaign on the Western Front is of huge loss of life and military inertia, whereas Gheluvelt featured a successful dynamic action over open ground.

In the Regimental HQ on the outskirts of Worcester a small group of former soldiers meets every Wednesday to study the archives and help with requests from researchers and family historians.

One of the volunteer archivists, Trevor Wilson, is aware that few outside the city are aware of what happened at Gheluvelt. "I think it is of great importance that it is remembered and taught in schools," he explains.

"Like many people who grew up in the seventies and eighties in Worcester, I knew Gheluvelt Park, opened in 1922 by the Earl of Ypres, but not how it came by its name."

New interest

My father and grandfather, who served in the Worcestershire Regiment, would try to explain, but I am afraid like many a callow youth, I was not really interested and did not pay attention.

Now everything has changed. Like many people I have become fascinated with local history. I am not alone.

In Worcester, regular lectures about the battle are oversubscribed. And this summer, after a successful and well supported fundraising campaign, a brand new memorial was opened.

Worcester's Gheluvelt memorial
Proud and bitter memories: Worcester's Gheluvelt memorial

In the intervening 96 years since the battle, the Worcestershire Regiment has evolved to become the 2nd Battalion, the Mercians. Among the VIPs present at the ceremony was Colonel Simon Banton, who led the Mercians in Afghanistan last year.

"We celebrate every year on 31 October," he explains. "We hold a parade. We read to the soldiers the citations of the day and the action. And then at night the officers and the Sergeants will sit down and have dinner together."

The memorial is striking. A small circle of grass, which has been sown with poppy seeds, is surrounded by rusty metal panels. The height of each resents the death toll in a two month period during the war.

October 1914, when Gheluvelt was fought, is dwarfed by nearly every other one. That is probably why so few people outside Worcester and Belgium have heard of it.

But this memorial is testament to the renewed interest in the stories of those who fought and died nearly 100 years ago.

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