Museum Highlights - Battle of Frezenberg, 8th-13th May 1915 (Second Battle of Ypres)

By Angel Drinkwater (Museum Assistant)

8th-13th May 2024 marks the 109th anniversary of the Battle of Frezenberg, the third of four major battles making up the Second Battle of Ypres. This month we’ll be exploring the actions of the courageous men of the 10th Hussars, looking at how they earned themselves the Battle Honour of Frezenberg, 1915.

Build up to Frezenberg (April 1915)

Photograph showing the Allied trenches at Zillebeke, Feb 1915. This photo was taken by, then, Lieutenant-Colonel T.T. Pitman of the 11th Hussars. The Zillebeke trenches were around 6km from Frezenberg

As of April 1915, many of the key positions across the Ypres salient were held by Allied forces. The Belgian army held the north of the River Yser, with two French divisions positioned on the northern end of the salient. The eastern defence was held by the Canadian Division and two British Divisions. These two British Divisions were the II and V Corps of the Second Army, comprised of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Cavalry Divisions, 4th, 27th, and 28th Northumbrian Divisions, the Lahore Division, and 1st Canadian Division.  

It was within the 3rd Cavalry Division that the 10th Hussars were positioned, as they belonged to the 6th Cavalry Brigade (with the 3rd CD being made up, initially, of the 6th & 7th bdes). The 3rd had been in Belgium since the first week of October 1914, acting as a mounted mobile force. During major actions, such as at the Second Battle of Ypres, the troops served dismounted as infantry.  

The area surrounding Ypres was important to hold – the hills encircling the town provided tactically significant sightlines across the landscape. The ridges and woodland also provided cover for the movement of supplies and reinforcements. The necessity to gain this land, accompanied by its general layout, meant that the Germans chose it as the area to launch their first major attack using poison gas.  

At 5pm on 22nd April 1915 the German 4th Army released 171t of chlorine gas along a 6.5km front between Langemark and GravenstafelThis line, being held by the 45th and 87th French divisions, suffered 2,000-3,000 casualties (800-1,400 fatalities) due to this first gas attack. The troops fled, leaving an undefended 6km gap in the French front. As the gas cloud progressed inwards, the German infantry advanced, occupying the villages of Langemark and Pilkem, where they dug in trenches. This marked the first battle – of Gravenstagel Ridge (22nd-23rd April). 

The second battle, of St. Julien, began a day later on 24th April (lasting until 5th May). The village of St. Julien became the new front line following the first gas attack. A second was released on the morning of 24th, allowing the Germans to take the village. An hour after the gas attack began a 1.4km gap in the Allied line formed, but, due to German delays at pushing forward for fear of the gas, the gap was retaken by Canadian and British troops.  

Preliminary attempts at protection against the gas were already being issued by this second attack. Possibly on the advice of Lieutenant-Colonel George Gallie Nasmith of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Allied soldiers were issued with cotton pads soaked in urine. The urea aided in neutralising the chlorine and would be worn over the face until the gas dispersed. Other soldiers wore handkerchiefs, socks, or flannels soaked in sodium bicarbonate solution. By July 1915 gas masks and anti-asphyxiation respirators were provided to soldiers, but this, unfortunately, did not help the men at Ypres. 

‘The French soldiers were naturally taken by surprise. Some got away in time, but many, alas! not understanding the new danger, were not so fortunate, and were overcome by the fumes and died poisoned. Among those who escaped nearly all cough and spit blood, the chlorine-attacking the mucous membrane.

The dead were turned black at once. About 15 minutes after letting the gas escape the Germans got out of their trenches. Some of them were sent on in advance, with masks over their heads, to ascertain if the air had become breathable. Having discovered that they could advance, they arrived in large numbers in the area on which the gas had spread itself some minutes before, and took possession of the arms of the dead men.

They made no prisoners. Whenever they saw a soldier whom the fumes had not quite killed they snatched away his rifle and advised him to lie down “to die better.”.’ 

The Daily Chronicle, 26th April 1915

Map of the Second Battle of Ypres April-May 1915

Frezenberg, 8th-12th May 1915

The Battle of Frezenberg, the third major movement of the Second Battle of Ypres, began during the early hours of 8th May. Three German army corps advanced forwards, placing themselves opposite the 27th and 28th Northumbrian Divisions on the Frezenberg Ridge. The Germans launched a series of heavy bombardments towards the trenches on the forward slope of the ridge, which held the Allied 83rd Brigade.  

At the beginning of the battle the 10th Hussars were billeted at Vlamertinghe, located west of Ypres. Here they were subjected to constant shelling from the German forces. There was very little movement between 8th–12th May, with the regiment remaining within their trench dug outs. During these four days near constant shelling and rifle fire was focused on the trenches held by the 8th Cavalry Division, with frequent casualties occurring. The main objective was to defend and hold the line they remained at. The regiment saw most of its action on the last day of the battle, 13th May 1915.  

Frezenberg, 13th May 1915

Colonel Sir Francis Henry Douglas Charlton Whitmore, 1st Baronet Lord Lieutenant of Essex (1872-1962)

The following details come from The 10th (P.W.O) Royal Hussars and the Essex Yeomanry during the European War, 1914-1918, written by Sir Francis Henry Douglas Charlton Whitmore, 1st Baronet Lord Lieutenant of Essex. Colonel Whitmore served with the Essex Yeomanry during the Second Battle of Ypres before being made a commanding officer of the 10th Hussars in April 1918. His book, written in 1920, gives a first-hand account of the regiments’ movements throughout the battle.  

At 6am the Germans launched a barrage over the line held by the 8th Cavalry Brigade. By 7am the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, who had been at the front of the line, were in retreat. The 10th Hussars commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel E.R.A Shearman, alongside Major C.W.H. Crichton and Captain G.C. Stewart, upon hearing of the retreat began rallying their men, who were also subjected to heavy shelling. As of 8am, the men of the 10th were ordered to leave their belongings in the trenches, being allowed to carry only their weapons and a spade. Still under heavy fire from the Germans, they were tasked to begin creating dugouts to the right of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, with the plan to slowly advance along the road and regain lost ground.  

Under the command of Lieutenant R. Gordon Canning, half of A Squadron was taken to fill a gap between the Queen’s Bays and the 5th Dragoon Guards. From this position they provided the remainder of the 8th Cavalry Brigade with rife fire cover. The remaining two and a half squadrons were to stay digging themselves into the roadside, which is where they were to remain until 2pm. Whitmore notes it is here that Lieutenant J.M. Wardell was wounded. 

At 2pm heavy fire was launched by the 10th Hussars and the 8th Cavalry Brigade against the encroaching Germans. The order to counter-attack and retake the front line was ordered at 2:15pm. At 2:20pm, the 10th Hussars were joined by the Essex Yeomanry and Royal Horse Guards, who were leading an advancement on their right. Upon their arrival, Shearman supposedly pointed towards the German line and statedThat is the trench that I am going to take. I shall do it with the greatest ease, there is no doubt about it whatever. 

Lieutenant-Colonel Eustace Robert Ambrose Shearman
Captain Gerald Charles Stewart

With the arrival of reinforcements, the 10th jumped out from their dugouts, charging towards the enemy lines. The Germans, unprepared for such a head on attack, were prompted into a retreat, vacating their trenches and leaving their equipment in their haste. It is in this charge that Lieutenant-Colonel E.R.A Shearman and Captain G.C. Stewart were killed. Major Gibbs and Major Crichton were heavily wounded.  

Whitmore states that, despite being severely wounded, Major Crichton ‘showed great gallantry, continuing to direct operations whilst lying in the open, until he handed over command to Major the Hon. C.B.O Mitford.’ At 4:30pm a retreat was ordered, during which the regiment suffered numerous casualties. Major Clement Bertram Ogilvy Mitford DSO was killed during this retreat.

Lieutenant G. Alexander, Lieutenant Lord Chesham M.C. (4th Baron Cavendish), and Lieutenant C. Humbert were also wounded whilst retreating. The remainder of the regiment rallied under Lieutenant T. Bouch and Lieutenant D. Ogilvy, 12th Earl of Airlie, sheltering in the dugouts to the right of the Queen’s Bays.

Lieutenant R. Gordon Canning rejoined with his party at 8:30pm, with Lieutenant R.G. Borthwick and his party returning to the dugouts at the same time. By this point in the day, the 10th Hussars numbers were reduced to four officers and ninety-eight soldiers of other ranks. This party continued to hold the line, protecting the Queen’s Bays right flank until 10:30pm, when they were relieved by the 9th Cavalry Brigade. The 8th Cavalry Brigade then retired to the G.H.Q line.  

On the morning of 14th May, the remnants of the 8th Cavalry Brigade were amalgamated with the 6th Cavalry Brigade, and they moved to take up a line 300 yards away from the rear of the original firing line. The 10th remained here until 8:30pm, until they were relieved by the Scots Greys. After which they returned to their original billeted huts at Vlamertinghe. 

Major the Honorable Clement Bertram Ogilvy Mitford DSO
Last message of Major the Honorable C.B.O Mitford

Transcription of Major the Hon. Mitford’s last message. He has mistakenly labelled the 2nd Life Guards as the 1st, and dated it as March, not May, likely due to the stress of his situation.

To OC 8th Cac Bde

Am in the trenches that 1st L. Guards vacated this morning with 1 1/2 Sqdns 10th, some Essex Yeomanry – Crichton’s leg is broken, Shearman wounded. Am heavily shelled & both flanks are being threatened – Have you any orders.

C Mitford Major

XRH

5.40pm, 13th March

We have few wounded here

The Casualties of Frezenberg - killed 13th May 1915

Lieutenant-Colonel E.R.A Shearman

Major the Honorable C.B.O Mitford

Captain G.C. Stewart

Captain M. A. de Tuyll

S.S.M. Keats, A. 3941

Sgt. Dicks, J. 5610

Sgt. Keeley, A. 4524 

Sgt. Lurcott, E. 5413

Cpl. Haddington, S. 5238

Cpl. Bayston, A. 396

Cpl. Chamberlain, T. 5453

Cpl. Nepean, H. 18

L./C. Guyver, G. 4563

L./C. Meads, H. 5171

L./C. Scales, H. 5369 

L./C. Mason, T. 3607

L./C. Johnson, H. 5601

L./C. Masters, A. 14789

L./C. Smith, F. 7998

Pte. Fewster, W. 3205

Pte. Senior, B. 7972

Pte. McBryde, A. 1110

Pte. Cooper, J. 5119

Pte. Chatton, C. 3472

Pte. Walker, A. 4899

Pte. Fletcher, F. 5469

Pte. Hope, C. 4310

Pte. Sole, T. 7671

Pte. Cobb, A. 14479

Pte. Cole, P. 5042

Pte. Kimmens, W. 28439