On October 3rd, 1914 the British forces led by Field Marshal Sir John French were on their way to relieve Belgian and German troops besieged at Liege. After a brief skirmish with Germans in Belgium, they arrived only to find that enemy reinforcements had taken over Meteren without fighting. What happened next would be one of history’s most famous incidents of good luck or bad luck?

A Future Field Marshal's Close Call at Meteren in 1914

While the Somme, the Ardennes, and Passchendaele are renowned for large-scale deadly engagements, the unsung and desperate struggle fought by soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment for the town of Meteren in 1914 changed the direction of military history.

Meteren is in modern-day France, in a traditionally Flemish-speaking region. Flanders has been memorialized in art and poetry, including John McCrae’s masterwork, “In Flanders Fields.” Meteren was one of many picturesque European villages where many soldiers were murdered distant from their homes and families during World War I. Although their names are engraved on monuments and memorials today, many of these heroes are forgotten with time.

The peaceful hamlet was the target of a merciless and deadly siege on Oct. 13, 1914. An attack attempted by British ground troops was beaten back by German soldiers ensconced in dugouts and snipers holed up in homes. With guns and bayonets, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment tried to force the Germans out.

Anglo-Irish Lieut. Bernard Law Montgomery, 26, was in the midst of the intense sword combat and was subsequently recognized in The London Gazette for handling his weapon with bravery and distinction. Montgomery, a strong-willed athlete with a passion for military science, pushed himself into combat with vigor, flashing a sword and body slamming a German rifleman in a trench to start a platoon assault. Montgomery’s fate and attitude to battle would be permanently altered by the time darkness fell.

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Lt. Bernard Montgomery is a military officer. (Corbis/Getty Images/Hulton-Deutsch Collection)

When World War I broke out in 1914, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was stationed at Shorncliffe, England, and was destined to fight at Meteren. The battalion had previously served in India, first in Peshawar and then in Bombay and Deolali until December 11, 1912, when they sailed for England. According to Charles L. Kingsford’s 1921 history of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, the 1st Battalion was assigned to Brig.-Gen. James Aylmer Haldane’s 10th Brigade of the 4th Division. The unit was sent to the Western Front and landed in France on August 22, 1914.

The Royal Warwickshire Regiment had a long and illustrious history before fighting in World War I. It was one of the oldest infantry regiments in the British Army, having gone through many name changes. The War of Spanish Succession, the Peninsula Wars in Spain and France, the Kaffir Wars in South Africa, the Indian Mutiny, and the Boer War were only a few of the noteworthy wars in which the regiment participated. In 1832, King William IV bestowed the title “royal” to the regiment. According to Kingsford, the regiment’s troops were mostly tough men from Lancashire, Yorkshire, Warwickshire, and Ireland throughout the nineteenth century. The guys were dubbed “Warwicks.” The antelope was the regimental emblem.

In 1908, Montgomery enlisted in the regiment. He had a loud, independent attitude, as well as a keen intellect and curiosity. He had scandalized his conservative relatives when he declared his profession as a soldier, having been born into an ecclesiastical family. The son of a bishop became a tattooed, mustachioed adventurer renowned for his love of sports, travel, and practical pranks after joining the army. Young Montgomery was also a voracious reader who loved history and literature, and he contributed many pieces to his regimental journal.

Montgomery and his fellow Warwicks could scarcely have imagined the horrors that awaited them when they arrived on the beaches of war-torn France in 1914. They landed with the 10th Brigade in the Le Cateau region on Aug. 23, barely missing the Battle of Mons.

The landscape was shrouded in a perplexing aura. The freshly arriving soldiers discovered the British Army retreating. “News of what had occurred was difficult to obtain,” Kingsford says. To cover the withdrawal of the 3rd and 5th Divisions, the soldiers marched north toward St. Python. Because they were cut off from the rest of the army, the Warwicks made a false route, almost putting them in the path of the oncoming Germans.

It didn’t take long for blood to be spilt. A shower of German bullets poured down on others in their brigade as the weary troops slept in a cornfield on Aug. 26. The Warwicks were instructed to go on the offensive. Montgomery was among them, and his company surged ahead of the rest of the soldiers in a shooting line.

“C.O. raced up… He subsequently recalled in his memoirs, “and screamed to us to assault the enemy on the front hill at once.” “There was no reconnaissance, no strategy, no covering fire; this was the sole command. We raced up the hill and were met with heavy fire; my Company Commander was injured, and there were many casualties.”

As seven officers and 40 soldiers were killed by German gunfire, the leader stopped issuing commands and the troops withdrew with a lack of plan that Montgomery considered absurd. “If this was actual war,” he reflected cynically, “it struck me as very strange and did not appear to make any sense against the backdrop of what I had been reading.”

The Warwicks were then deserted with no more instructions. Montgomery recounted, “When the retreat started, we were left behind, and for three days we marched between the German cavalry screen and their main columns following behind, traveling mainly by night and sheltering by day.” “Our group was led by Major A.J. Poole, a first-class regimental officer, and it was completely down to him that we were reunited with our battalion and rejoined the British Expeditionary Force.”

Before their real baptism of fire at Meteren in early October, life for the soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment became a succession of arduous marches, shooting skirmishes, and constantly shifting instructions. Following the German occupation of Antwerp on October 9, a battle for port cities along the English Channel ensued. General Haldane was given instructions to take the Meteren region from the Germans. On the morning of Oct. 13, just before 10 a.m., the brigade marched out of Caestre. It was going to be a long and exhausting day.

The Warwicks were in charge of the advance guard and were the first to engage the enemy. When the Germans realized they were being pursued, they fled inside houses and trenches. The tiny Flemish village has been transformed into an armed stronghold.

“The Royal Warwickshire were immediately instructed to drive them out, and they made steady progress until about 1 o’clock, when they had reached the outskirts, through skilful use of the terrain.

Then they were stopped as the onslaught spread to other areas,” Kingsford stated.

The fight was very bloody. To force the Germans out of dugouts, the assaulting Warwicks used extensively on the bayonet. To slice and stab opponents, British troops were given a standard 17-inch bayonet. A needlepoint-style bayonet was favored by the French soldiers, whereas certain German bayonets featured serrated edges. Bludgeoning was also done using the rifle butt.

Fighting with a bayonet was harsh and intimate. In a BBC interview published by The Telegraph in 2014, German conscript Stefan Westmann, who was conscripted into the 29th Infantry Division in April 1914, remembered that wielding a bayonet in battle was a terrible sensation that soldiers soon grew accustomed to. “My comrades…were completely unaffected… “One of them bragged that he had strangled a captain and murdered a [French infantryman] with the butt of his rifle,” he added. “A third had struck someone in the head with his shovel, and they were regular guys like me.” Westmann, on the other hand, never recovered from his bayonet use. “Sometimes I woke up soaked in perspiration at night because I saw the eyes of my fallen opponent, the enemy,” he said.

Montgomery was right in the middle of the battle and characterized it as “grim warfare.” He had been a literal bayonet-fighting champion throughout training, earning awards in man-to-man competitions. However, until Meteren, the young soldier had only pierced straw bags. Montgomery, on the other hand, proved to be a formidable opponent in the bloodbath. Montgomery showed “conspicuous courageous leading” as he turned the Germans out of their trenches with the bayonet, according to the London Gazette on Dec. 1, 1914.  

The Warwicks were abruptly commanded to halt their advance and maintain their position at the height of their victory. The initiative had been forfeited. As they were obliged to stay back, the soldiers were targeted by German fire. “They had pushed with great zeal, and the majority of the fatalities happened when stopped under intense fire,” Kingsford regretfully recounted.

Meteren after battle in 1918. (National Library of Scotland) Meteren in 1918, after a fight (National Library of Scotland)

Montgomery was shot in the chest by a sniper. His right lung was punctured by the bullet. He collapsed in the open, exposed to enemy fire and suffering from what should have been a lethal injury according to science. A fellow soldier came to his assistance and administered a field dressing to his wound, indicating that he had some experience with military medicine. Montgomery was wounded in the head and trapped under the body for excruciating minutes while additional bullets were fired at him. Montgomery was hit by a succession of gunshots fired at him. Montgomery was hit in the knee by a second bullet. Montgomery was stuck there, his chest filling with blood.

After midnight, British troops seized Meteren. Despite their valor, the Warwicks were not given credit for the victory. “This delay robbed the Royal Warwickshire of the credit for the real conquest of Meteren, which Gen. Haldane believed they might have accomplished if they had been permitted to push forward,” Kingsford wrote. During the following several days, the soldiers advanced to the eastern outskirts of Armentieres.

The soldiers assumed Montgomery was dead and abandoned him on the battlefield. Stretcher-bearers discovered him still alive and transported him to an Advanced Dressing station. His condition was deemed hopeless by medical professionals, and a grave was excavated for his impending burial. Montgomery managed to live against all odds. Due to the seriousness of his illness, he was transferred to a hospital in France and then to a hospital in England. The majority of his internal bleeding happened in the pleural space surrounding his lung, according to doctors. Montgomery’s recovery, like the “fortunate” result of the shooting wound, was unexplained. 

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In July 1943, General Montgomery prepares to address soldiers of the British 8th army who participated in the invasion of Sicily. (Photo credit: Getty Images) )

For his bravery throughout the fight, Montgomery was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, a rare honor for a lowly lieutenant. His extended stay in the hospital allowed him to ponder calmly. By acquiring more military expertise, he grew more determined to dominate the conditions around him. This became a way of life for me.

“While I was in the hospital… During a 1960s interview, he said, “I came to the conclusion that war is a highly professional business, and there is no place in war for the amateur.” “So I made the decision to learn my field and get down to business. And I gave it all up—everything. I didn’t participate in social activities. “I was employed.”

In 1916, Montgomery returned to the battlefield. At the age of 30, the tenacious young Montgomery would become the Chief of Staff of a division by the conclusion of the war. He would go on to participate in a number of additional engagements and become renowned for his triumphs throughout WWII. Although he recovered completely, the lung damage had an effect on him: he could no longer tolerate cigarette smoke, despite the fact that he constantly supplied smokes to his guys.

He’d grown as a result of his time at Meteren. Montgomery’s victories were aided by his understanding of morale and compassionate leadership style, which he developed based on his early trench experiences.

The remaining soldiers of the regiment’s 1st Battalion dug in outside of Houplines after their battle at Meteren, where they stayed for a month under continuous shellfire. During a severe bombardment in 1918, Meteren was reduced to a mound of debris. Many British troops, notably men from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, were killed in the fierce fight for the town on Oct. 13, 1914, and are now buried at France’s Meteren Military Cemetery; 180 of those buried there remain unidentified. MH

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