Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

The Territorial Who Saved the Situation at Second Battle of Ypres

Sergeant belcher, allow me to congratulate you on your brilliant performance. You saved the situation." The speaker was the Commanding Officer of the London Rifle Brigade, the scene the vicinity of the battered town of Ypres, and the person addressed, Lance-Sergeant Douglas Belcher, who was the second Territorial to win the V.C. in the war. This young non-commissioned Territorial officer performed a service of the highest military importance by maintaining a position south of the Wieltje-St Julien road during a fierce bombardment on May 12, 1915. Owing to the bold front thus shown, the enemy was prevented from breaking the British line, and an attack on the flank of one of our divisions was averted.

Sergeant Belcher may be regarded as typical of thousands of men who fought in the Great War. A year before he sprang into notice he was pursuing his ordinary occupation of a salesman in the antique department of Messrs Waring & Gillow, never dreaming of winning the V.C. or holding up Germans in Flanders. With the advent of war, like so many more Territorials, Belcher passed quickly from commerce to the battle-field. He is twenty-six years of age, and lives at Surbiton, the well-known residential suburb of London.

Before the war Sergeant Belcher had been a member of the Territorial Force for some years, and won a cup for shooting in 1914 when in the Queen Victoria Rifles. Previous to this he belonged to a cyclist volunteer corps. At the outbreak of war he joined the 1/5th (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment, more popularly known as the London Rifle Brigade.

It is always of interest to know what type of man the V.C. hero was in civilian life, whether he showed promise in his work, or struck those who knew him as a man out of the ordinary. Unfortunately we have, in many cases, very little information on these points, for the soldiers who do great deeds are very often uncommunicative concerning themselves or their early days. We have, however, a tribute to Belcher's worth which has been placed on record by one under whom he worked in London. This gentleman refers to him as a "steady slogger at his work," and, he adds, "you never met a man with less swank. He was always quiet and unpretentious."

Just after he had offered for foreign service some one said, "Fancy Belcher going!" The reply was, "I never thought he would do anything else."

We are told that the hero of Ypres kept fit for his Territorial duties by constant outdoor exercise. Every morning when the weather was favourable he had a bathe in the Thames at Surbiton, and generally swam across the river and back. He also rowed a good deal, and played cricket, but nearly the whole of his spare time was spent with the Territorials.

One day some one to whom Sergeant Belcher was telling his soldiering duties and recreations asked if there were many others like him in his firm. "Oh, yes," he answered, "any number, as you'll see if we should ever be wanted. I suppose the day will come some time when things aren't quite so peaceful as they are now." His prophecy came true, sooner perhaps than he anticipated, and when the terrible war of the nations broke out, Belcher and his brother Territorials were found ready—prepared and eager to strike hard blows for King and Country.

It is interesting to know that Messrs Waring & Gillow possess a rifle-range, and the future V.C. put in many of his evenings there.

We have described in other chapters the terrible second battle of Ypres, and need only mention a few important points here, in order to indicate the circumstances under which Sergeant Belcher gained the soldier's highest honour.

This great battle is notable in many ways. It saw the first use by the Germans of poisonous gas, and it firmly established the reputation of our Territorial soldiers as first-class fighting men. By unanimous consent of the Army, they showed themselves the equal of the Regulars in their coolness and gallant bearing.

The second battle of Ypres went on intermittently from April 22 to May 14. The fierce engagements at St. Julien have been described in the chapter dealing with our Canadian heroes. Throughout this three weeks' battle the enemy consistently held to his plan of driving the British back on Ypres by means of simultaneous pressure from north and east of the salient. Thanks to the superb conduct of our Territorials, together with the Canadians and Regulars, all the assaults failed, although on a few occasions the enemy succeeded in temporarily occupying some of our front trenches.

The London Rifle Brigade, composed of men like Belcher from City offices and stores, won the highest tribute from the General commanding their brigade for its splendid work during these critical weeks. It was a revelation of what British determination can accomplish. These men, who only a short time before had been pouring over ledgers or acting as salesmen, "hung on in trenches battered out of all recognition by the German high-explosive shells."

Belcher had been in the trenches along with his comrades since November 1914. They performed excellent work during the weary and disagreeable winter months, and did not experience a big action until the battle of Ypres. In the early stages of the great fight the London Rifle Brigade was brought up on the left of the British line, and from the first bravely stuck it—"with their tails well up," as their General put it.

The battle raged with particular violence in the sector between the Ypres-St Julien road and the Menin high road.

The London Rifle Brigade had established itself in an advanced trench between Wieltje and St. Julien. This position the Germans shelled unceasingly, and Belcher received orders to hold it. "I knew I was in for a hot thing," he says. "The breastwork, which was only about thirty-five yards long, was not only cut off from the division on each side, but was nearer the Germans and a target for their fire."

Including Sergeant Belcher there were eighteen men all told manning this advanced trench. They had reached it at three o'clock in the morning amid a hail of German shells. "We were being shelled to blazes," is Belcher's own description.

Few of us can realize what this meant to the brave little party of soldiers. The bursting of a shell at a distance of one hundred yards from a trench is sufficient to shake the nerves of the strongest, but when shell after shell falls in and around the trench the awful feeling produced in our gallant men cannot be imagined. Yet, however trying the ordeal, our soldiers have always remained cool and cheerful.

This was the case on the occasion when Belcher led his men into the trench in the early hours of that May morning, although the ground was torn up every few yards and "looked as if a giant had been over it with a cinder sifter."

From the first it was hot work. Four of the eighteen soon fell, wounded by shrapnel. Belcher himself was hit, but only slightly, in the chin. He had one very narrow escape, for a piece of shrapnel went clean through his cap. Shell after shell struck the breastwork, and the splinters flew so close that the gallant defenders thought their last moment had come.

Belcher had his full share of anxiety. He was not in the least afraid, although he realized that the awful shelling would soon place the whole party out of action. When he had only four men with him, word was sent from the troops on his right that the position was untenable, and that they were going to retire. Belcher's face became very serious when this message was delivered. He knew that if he retired the Germans would speedily seize the whole of the advanced trenches, with very serious results for the men in the rear trenches. Fully counting the awful cost, he made up his mind to fight on. By now his comrades in the other part of the line were actually retiring, and told him to do likewise. Had Belcher followed their example he would have been fully justified in abandoning an untenable position. Belcher refused to do this, because he realized that if he abandoned his dangerous post it would be a serious thing for the flank of his division.

He next got a message through to the rear, which is as dramatic as any of the war. It read:

"Regiment on my right retiring. I am holding on."

Back came the answer. "Good. Hold on."

Inspired by this reply, which lost none of its effectiveness through its brevity, Belcher started to 'hold on.' He rallied the four men remaining with him, and infused into each his own dauntless courage. They seized their rifles and poured forth volley after volley at the German trenches. Their position rapidly became very perilous. The breastwork was torn away in many places by the high-explosive shells. Still the brave men did not waver. They had no intention of giving in, and skipped about dodging the enemy's fire with as much coolness as if at play.

Belcher noticed that the section of trench recently evacuated by the men on his right was not so much damaged as his own portion. He accordingly transferred his little party to it without any mishap. He was the last to reach the new position, and had hardly entered when a high-explosive shell completed the demolition of the section in which they had been standing only a minute before. The little band of heroes was not slow to give thanks for their marvellous escape.

A fellow-member of the London Rifle Brigade pays the following tribute to the hero: "I happened to be near Sergeant Belcher," he says, "when he distinguished himself, and I marvel how he ever came back. I think he accomplished what not one man in a thousand would have done, and absolutely stuck on for death or glory."

For nine hours Belcher and his dauntless men stuck to their post. The enemy could not advance to capture the trench, for five British rifles rang out incessantly, and to have ventured into the open would have meant certain death. The German artillery could shell the position hour after hour, but until the occupants retired the trench could not be taken.

As the day passed Sergeant Belcher began to get anxious, not that he had lost heart—he was as courageous as ever—but he knew there is a limit to the bravest endurance, and that he and his four companions could not keep up the unequal fight much longer. He was inspired by the knowledge that as long as he kept the enemy from capturing the trench he was safeguarding the flank of a whole British division. Had the Germans known there were so few British soldiers behind the breastwork, the most serious consequences would have followed for our main forces.

This incident demonstrates once more that a handful of British led by a hero are capable of holding up a large force in a serious attack. British pluck and determination never to surrender have often 'saved the situation,' and it was so on this occasion. Cheering his men and sharing their risks, Belcher was the life and soul of the determined stand. He would have died rather than give in, once having declared, "I am holding on."

By this time, however, their endurance was all but exhausted, yet each man filled his magazine, and pulled the trigger, with set face and determined spirit. The rifles became impossible to hold through constant firing; the answering shells caused showers of dust that half-blinded them.

Then ere the position had become absolutely intolerable, reinforcements arrived, and the gallant sergeant and his men were relieved. For nearly half a day Belcher had 'held the fort ' in the face of terrible danger. The relieving party set to work to repair the damaged trench, and their fresh fire, in greatly increased volume, told the Germans that it was fruitless to continue, and soon they abandoned the attack.

When Sergeant Belcher appeared before his commanding officer he was greeted with the words we have quoted above—"Saved the situation!" The hero was amazed to hear such high praise—it nearly took his breath away. He himself regarded his exploit much less seriously, for when he wrote to a friend describing the deed, he said: "It was a bit saucy, wasn't it? Five men—three wounded —holding up the Germans."

Homely incidents in connection with our V.C. heroes are always of deep interest. To the recipient of the coveted decoration perhaps the most affecting experience is his return to his own folks. Sergeant Belcher had obtained leave from the front and arrived at his home in Surbiton tired and travel-stained after his journey from the trenches. A young woman travelled in the same railway carriage and eyed him curiously. She, too, got out at Surbiton, and walking from the station plucked up courage to say, "Excuse me, are you not Sergeant Belcher, the Victoria Cross man?" Belcher admitted he was, and received her congratulations.

At the White City, London, Sergeant Belcher received a stirring ovation, when some three thousand to four thousand employees of his firm presented him with a magnificent silver rose-bowl. "The country owes its freedom, its happiness, and its riches to men like you, and will ever remain grateful to them," said Mrs S. J. Waring in making the presentation. The hero replied that he often thought of his fellow-workers at the front, and "sometimes we'd see the old vans at the front, and we'd think of home and London and all that." He concluded his remarks by appealing for more recruits.