Zanvoorde isn’t a widely known battle of the First World War. It isn’t the Somme, Mons, Passchendaele or the Marne. It doesn’t have the same ring as any of the other bigger iconic battles, and for the British Army it wasn’t one of its finest moments. Listed on the Standards and Guidons of the Household Cavalry as 'Ypres 1914', the action at Zanvoorde would be largely forgotten, known only by the public as just a small part of the 'First battle of Ypres.' But ask any old Household Cavalryman and you’ll hear a tale a of bravery, courage and the ultimate sacrifice of almost three hundred of our fellow Household Cavalrymen. For our regiment, it was the bloodiest and most costly loss of life since the Battle of Waterloo.
Almost a century ago, at 6.45 on the morning of 30th October 1914, almost three hundred guns opened up onto the forward facing slopes of the Zanvoorde ridge, which was occupied by soldiers of the Seventh Division and Seventh Cavalry Brigade. Seventy-five minutes later, when the artillery lifted, the lightly armed cavalrymen still left alive, now looked out down the gentle slope of the ridge through the haze, to see thousands of German infantry heading their way.
Communication lines had been cut in the bombardment so several units did not hear the order to retreat into trenches further to the rear. About three hundred men – a squadron from each of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards and the Machine Gun Section of the Royal Horse Guards, remained in shallow, make-shift trenches and fought on. By mid-morning they had been surrounded and overwhelmed by five battalions of German infantry. They were killed where they fought.
The Germans captured the ridge but failed to press home their advantage, and that area of the frontline then became a part of what was known as the ‘Ypres Salient’ once the war of movement ended with the ‘Race to the sea.’ And so Zanvoorde slipped into obscurity, just another name where a few hundred men were killed and buried, in a war where the dead in most later battles were counted in their thousands, not hundreds.
During my career as a Household Cavalryman, I had heard stories about Zanvoorde. One such story was about how the Kaiser had told his generals not to take any Household Cavalrymen alive. He knew the Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards were King George V’s personal bodyguard and favorite regiments. He thought wiping out the Household Cavalry would be a massive blow to his cousin's morale. I’m not convinced how accurate the story is, but it is still hard to explain why not one man escaped and of those few taken prisoner, not one was unwounded, not one.
One of the casualties was Lieutenant Charles Pelham (Lord Worsley), who was the son of the 4th Earl of Yarborough. He commanded the Royal Horse Guards machine gun section at Zanvoorde. His body was found by Germans and he was buried on the ridge where he fell. At the end of the war, his grave was found; he was exhumed and reburied in Ypres Town Cemetery Extension. His widow bought the land where his body was originally buried and in 1924 Earl Haig dedicated a memorial built on the gravesite, to Lord Worsley and the other 295 Household Cavalrymen who died there.
For a member of my family, the link with this little known battle in the early years of the First World War runs deep. My cousin, Captain (Retd) Mark Avison, who ended his career as the Riding Master of the Household Cavalry, grew up living on the estate of the 7th Earl of Yarborough in Lincolnshire. His parents, now retired, still live there today, having spent many years working for the Yarborough Estate. I can actually remember playing with my cousin, and our brothers, on the land owned by the Earl. Unbeknown to Mark and I, who would amass about fifty years service in the regiment between us, we were living and playing in the shadow of a fallen, fellow Household Cavalryman.
Zanvoorde might be just a blip on the radar of historians and world war one buffs, but for Household Cavalrymen, the 30th October 2014 will mark a somber date in the proud history of our regiment.