As we approach Remembrance Day, we bring you this article from John Basham, who has shared with us his research into Passchendaele, 1917 …
There are few more evocative images of the first world war than those columns of weary, heavily laden men trudging in single file along a duckboard path through a barren, shell-scarred, swampy morass. Apart from the mud-caked combatants, the only signs of life are shredded tree stumps and a silent piles of bricks that mark the ruins of a family home.
This was typical of Passchendaele, one of the worst periods in British military history. From July to November 1917, an area roughly the equivalent of Brandon-Barton Mills-Thetford triangle, saw a series of battles whose names ring through British military history – Messines, Pilkem Ridge, Langemarck, Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle and 1st & 2nd Passchendaele. Officially, all but Messines are grouped as the 3rd Battle of Ypres, but they are commonly called “Passchendaele.” Their aim was to capture a ridge of high ground to the north, east and south of Ypres, from which the Germans could observe activity in and around the town, which, in places was only 2 or 3 miles distant.
We know that Brandon men fought in this campaign because, sadly, seven of their names are carved in the stone of the town’s war memorial. One of them was Ernest Brown, of the Royal Fusiliers, who was one of the 289 casualties in his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (1000 men) at Pilkem Ridge, on the 31 July. He was listed as missing and for a year his family clung to the desperate hope that he was alive, before receiving official notification that he was presumed dead.
The wettest summer in 30 years turned the battleground into a muddy morass of deep water-filled shell holes capable of swallowing men, horses and even tanks. Attacking through the mud exhausted even the fittest soldier as it hampered progress, soaked into clothes and blocked weapons. As well as the physical discomfort it stank of death and decaying bodies, both human and animal. In 1917 there was a new ingredient – mustard gas – which the Germans were using for the first time. This did not blow away on the wind, it stayed as a green slime on the mud and caused horrible blistering where it touched the skin.
The toxic mud of Passchendaele had its own special character: “the mud wasn’t liquid, it wasn’t porridge, it was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. When you got off this track with your load, it ‘drew’ at you, not like a quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you.” This monster consumed 42,000 Allied bodies which were never recovered. Ask the private soldier why he was fighting, and he may have uttered expletives about the hated Boche, or grumbled about ‘orders’ but one thing that spurred him on was the need to get out of the clutches of the mud, and on to the high, dry ground.
The army edged its way onto the ridge with gains measured in fractions of a mile, while the families waiting at home became familiar with foreign names, like Westhoeck where John Wells was killed by sniper fire on the 10th August. On 25th September George Marchant of the Suffolk Regiment was literally lost in a raid on the enemy line at Gonnelieu, on the Menin Road. His body was never found. His wife, Elizabeth never remarried, and remained a widow for 56 years!
By October the Allies held the ridge, but the killing had not finished. The 9th October was a costly day for Brandon men, three were killed in the Battle of Poelcappelle. Near Langemark, William Adams of the Royal Fusiliers was wounded by a sniper when he went to assist a wounded colleague. He died on the 13th. Two other Brandonians, Lance Corporal Bertie Challis and Private Bertie Docking, were killed when the1st Norfolk Regiment was trapped by machine gun fire in front of Polderhoeck Chateau.
Meanwhile, at Poelcappelle the 8th Suffolk’s attack was stopped by strongpoints in the Brewery and Meunier House, two objectives assigned to the 8th Battalion Norfolk Regiment on the 22nd October. They prepared for this assault with a few days on the front line, to familiarise themselves with the ground, then by training on models behind the lines. Meanwhile, a four-day barrage aimed at destroying German strong points and removing machine gun posts from shell holes in no man’s land, made the mud worse.
On the night of 21st/22nd the Norfolks negotiated 5 miles of treacherous duckboards knowing that one slip would mean certain death in the mud, and by 1am they reached their forming up lines. This had been achieved in total darkness as any light would have invited a German barrage. Shelter in trenches was impossible because holes a couple of feet deep filled with water, so they made do with shallow scrapes in the mud for cover during a tense four hour wait. At Zero Hour they followed a rolling barrage to their objectives which they took and consolidated, allowing the 10th Essex regiment to pass through them and go on to achieve their objectives. Among the casualties that day were two more Brandon men, Percy John Basham, who survived his wounds with the loss of his right arm, and Edward Kent, who died of his wounds on the 27th.
British and Canadian forces finally captured Passchendaele on 6th November giving the High Command something they could call a victory. But the statistics of that summer make grim reading: an advance of about 50 square miles cost the lives of 60,000 British troops with a total of at least 275,000 British casualties. Estimates of total casualties vary from about 600,000 to a million.
Nigel Steel and Peter Hart summarise the battle thus:-
The third battle of Ypres, better known now as ‘Passchendaele’, was a life and death struggle involving millions of armed men trained to kill or maim their enemies. Each soldier was a painfully vulnerable individual who suffered in awful conditions while waiting with heavy foreboding to discover his fate. Hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives, their limbs or their sanity in this vortex of despair. It was an experience most survivors never forgot until death or the confusions of extreme old age brought down the curtain on their minds.
When you read the names on the war memorial, remember the dead with honour for their suffering and sacrifice. Remember the women like Elizabeth Marchant who remained a widow for 56 years. Remember the children who, like 10 month old Joan Kent, never knew her father. Remember the maimed and wounded who suffered physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. All were ‘vulnerable individuals’ waiting with ‘heavy foreboding’ to discover their fate. They are our past and we are the future they fought, suffered and died for.
The stories of individual soldiers are taken from Darren Norton’s excellent Brandon At War website.
Passchendaele: the Sacrificial Ground, by Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, p 164for the description of the mud by Jack Dillon, a Lewis gunner. Also quated in the summary of the battle
From greatwar.co.uk website ‘Battles of the Western Front 1914-1918’ page seen 18/10/2017.