MAY 8TH 1915: GWENT’S BLACK DAY
The 1st and 3rd Mons had followed the 2nd Mons to Flanders in February 1915. Their particular skills as miners were quickly exploited as a detachment from both battalions was sent to take part in tunnelling duties near Ypres, in Belgium.
In May 1915 all three battalions of the Monmouthshire Regiment fought in the same vicinity for the only time in the war and were soon to find themselves defending the line against a series of German attacks which became known as the 2nd Battle of Ypres.
The battle, which opened on April 22nd, was notable for the first use of poisonous gas by the Germans. On May 4th-5th the 2nd Mons faced the deadly yellow clouds, protected only by makeshift masks improvised from flannel body belts made by the womenfolk of Pontypool. In spite of heavy shellfire leading to numerous casualties, the battalion continued to hold its sector of the line around “Mouse Trap Farm”, a moated chateau which the Germans had identified as a key target.
It was, however, the 1st and 3rd battalions that bore the brunt of the fighting. On 8th May 1915 –“Monmouthshire’s black day”- both were decimated. On May 8th, the 3rd Mons were in the front line at Frezenberg, on the tip of the Ypres Salient. Following a three hour bombardment, which had begun at 5.30 a.m., thousands of German infantry launched three separate attacks on the British trenches. They too fought heroically to hold the line, sustaining appalling casualties in the process. Yet, heavily outnumbered, supported only by a handful of old and worn-out artillery pieces and with no possibility of reinforcements, it became clear that the 3rd Mons were in an impossible position. They were ordered to withdraw to a support line 400 yards back. Even then a small group refused to give ground and fought on until they were totally overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, a mile to the north, the 1st Mons faced an equally horrendous experience. At 4 a.m. the Germans launched a fierce artillery and gas attack on the line. This was followed by waves of infantry, attacking across no-man’s land in broad daylight. The 1st Mons put up fierce resistance but, with only makeshift trenches, inadequate barbed wire defences and little artillery support, their position soon became untenable. By noon the Germans had infiltrated the British lines to the right of the Monmouthshires, leaving them in grave danger of being surrounded. A German call to surrender was met with a defiant shout of “surrender be dammed” from Captain Harold Edwards. A fighting retreat was organised and a new line consolidated.
On both parts of the front, ground had been given but the line had not been broken. Great heroism had been displayed but the cost had been terrible. By the end of the day, of the 83 officers and 1020 men who had arrived in the Ypres Salient with the 3rd Mons, only 4 officers and 131 men were left unscathed. During the second Battle of Ypres 259 officers and men from of the battalion had been killed and approximately 500 wounded. Most of these casualties had taken place on 8th May. Of the 588 men of the 1st Mons in the trenches on 8th may, 439 were killed, wounded, missing or prisoners by the end of the day.
During the course of the battle all three battalions of Monmouthshires had lost their commanding officers. Colonel Robinson (1st Mons) had been killed while rallying his men on May 8th, Colonel Cuthbertson (2nd Mons) and Colonel Worsley Gough (3rd Mons) were both wounded and sent back to Britain. As a result of their heavy losses, from May until July, the three battalions were merged into one.