THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES
On the 21st July the Battalion left Moringhem, and once more found itself at "B" Camp at Brandhoek. This was a very different place from what it had been during the winter, and being full of troops, the Battalion had only one third of its former area in which to accommodate itself. Anti aircraft batteries, tunnelling companies, transport lines, field hospitals, and observation balloons were everywhere.
The training was complete. Everyone knew the orders and it was merely a case of waiting for "Z" day, the day of the attack. On the 29th July, which turned out to be "X" day, the fighting personnel left Brandhoek, and moved to Durham Redoubt, an area just west of Ypres, where the men bivouacked for the night. The next day illuminating flares, iron rations, spare water bottles, bombs, and maps were given to the men.
Though all knew the role of the Battalion and its allotted objectives, no one in the Battalion knew the extent of the attack, or which divisions were attacking, or what was to happen if all objectives were captured. It was believed that if the attack succeeded, there were other divisions in rear ready to exploit the success. Wild rumours began to filter through. One of the most prevalent was that eighty mines would be sprung at zero, and this was inspiring to all, and infused new courage into the men.
Towards evening the companies left the area, and slowly in the darkness moved via the Plaine d' Amour past the Dixmude Gate and the Dead End to Oxford Trench, where they took up a position and waited. This waiting was very unpleasant, as the enemy was obviously expecting an attack and shelled the whole area almost all night. There was little shelter, as the trench was shallow and wide, and several were wounded before the fight commenced.
The objective allotted to the Battalion consisted of a section of the enemy second line called the "Stutzpunkt" Line, comprising Pommern Redoubt (called "Gartenhof" by the Germans) to Bank Farm, known to the enemy as "Blucher." The distance of the objective from the Battalion's zero position was approximately a mile and a half, which was at that period of the war a big distance to be called upon to cover in one day.
Two hours before zero it became known that the artillery was firing gas shells on the enemy batteries, so that at zero the enemy would not be able to work their guns. The drone of the gas shells passing overhead, and the knowledge of this device on the part of the British artillery, was very reassuring to the waiting troops.
For a few minutes before zero all was tranquil, and the men were quietly waiting. Zero was at 3 50 a.m., at which hour it was quite dark. Suddenly there was heard the firing of an 18-pounder battery. It was a battery firing just a second or two early. There followed a deafening roar. All the guns had fired together, and their shells were racing across the sky. A sheet of flame covered the enemy trenches. The fight had begun. The men rose from their positions slowly and went over the top to the front line, where according to plan they waited twenty five minutes. The advance then continued. They should have advanced in waves, but that was impossible over the shell cratered ground, as the going over the churned up earth was very difficult, particularly in view of the heavy loads the men carried. All cohesion was soon lost, and the men sauntered forward in little groups endeavouring as best they could to keep the proper direction. No one knew what was happening. After passing the enemy front line all danger from his barrage was over, but his machine guns were active, and every now and then a man dropped in many cases not to rise again. At length the river Steenbeek was reached. Numbers were few and hopes of success were rapidly vanishing. How the fight had progressed on the right or left no one knew. In front was a strong position on the other side of the Steenbeek Valley, which turned out ultimately to be Bank Farm.
The enemy in the dim light was firing his machine guns and causing casualties, but with a final rush the men were in the centre of a German strong point. The companies were weak, one consisting of only a dozen men or so, and the Germans were in occupation of the position as well, and fired coloured lights to encourage the support of their artillery. They were dealt with by the bombers, and one sensible Private, who soon used up all his available bombs found a store of German bombs, which he employed to advantage. About the same time another party of the Battalion captured Pommern Redoubt, while the 7th King's on the right got into Pommern Castle. In all about eighty prisoners were taken, which considerably exceeded the numbers of the men that first dashed up to the objective. The prisoners belonged to the infantry regiments of the 235th Division, and a few of them were artillerists belonging to the 6th Feldartillerie Regiment.
The taking of Pommern Redoubt was specially commented upon in the Dispatch of Sir Douglas Haig dealing with this battle, though the Redoubt fell much earlier than was therein stated.
Among the dugouts several things were found, such as field glasses, medical apparatus, rifles, bombs, and so on. In one was a store of bottles of aerated water. In another there was a store of rations which were ultimately consumed, and strange to relate, in one dugout there was a copy of a recent number of the "Tatler."
The position was consolidated, trenches were dug and manned by the men. A captured German machine gun was turned round and got into action. Four or five hours after the capture of the Stutzpunkt position another brigade continued the attack, but though the efforts of its members were successful at first they had in consequence of their exposed flanks to retire at nightfall, and the Battalion was then holding the line without anyone in front. Rain commenced to fall, and the ground having been churned up by countless shells, the whole area soon became dissolved into a morass of spongy earth pitted with innumerable shell craters half full of water. The trenches that had been dug soon filled, and the men were wet through. They were utterly exhausted, and some of them had to get what sleep they could, huddled up in these wet trenches, with their feet several inches deep in water.
Cooking was impossible, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that any food at all could be supplied to the men in the advanced positions. Added to this was the fact that the enemy artillery was exceedingly active, and the shells killed many in the exposed trenches. The British heavy artillery also fired short, which had a most demoralising effect on the men in front.
On the 2nd August it became known that the enemy intended definitely to recapture the Stutzpunkt line. The men were informed of this, and told to resist to the last. All available men were sent up from the transport lines to reinforce the men in front. These reinforcements suffered considerably from shell fire on the way up, but their advent inspired and cheered the weary men who had been through the whole fight, and whose rifles were in many cases so choked with mud as to be unserviceable. Towards midday the enemy developed a heavy barrage. He was about to attack, and everyone was waiting for the anticipated onslaught without fear, as all felt that any counter-attack would be repulsed with great loss. The S.O.S. signal and machine guns were ready, but the artillery observer saw the enemy first, and the artillery barrage of the British soon dispersed the attack.
Owing to the insufficiency of the number of surviving stretcher bearers, the evacuation of the wounded was exceedingly difficult. These were collected in a dugout at Bank Farm, where they lay for a long time after having received some slight attention. Two wounded Germans whom the stretcher bearers had been unable to clear were handed over to the relieving unit. The Battalion Aid Post was at Plum Farm, where the Medical Officer and his staff worked to the limit of their powers in attending and evacuating wounded.
Major E. G. Hoare, who was in command of the Battalion during the operation, wrote a poem which describes the conditions of the Ypres battle, and it is here given in full:
THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW.
31st JULY, 1917.
Down in the valley the Steenbeek flows,
Down in the valley was rain and rain,
Down in the valley the barrage fell,
Down in the valley the shambles lay
Up on the slope was a line hard pressed
But all who pass to the crumbling trench
Down in the valley the waters flow,
Here in the Vale of the Shadow of Death.
The Battalion was relieved on the night of the second third, and the men drifted down in small parties through the mud to Potijze. Some hours were spent here, during which several casualties took place, as the enemy subjected the area to the fire of 8 inch shells. Towards evening the men were told to rendezvous at Vlamertinghe. There was no need to pay much attention to the means of getting there. That could be left to the men themselves. Everyone was ready to give them a lift, for their muddy appearance showed that they had just been in the fight, and consequently practically all arrived in motor lorries. At Vlamertinghe, rum was issued and later all embussed for the Waton area, which they reached shortly after midnight. After debussing there was a short march to billets. For some even this was too much, and about thirty were unable to walk, and had to be sent to hospital. The remaining men were put into billets, and at 4 30 a.m. the officers sat down to dinner, the first proper meal they had had for several days. Afterwards they lay down to sleep for six or seven hours.
What had been done by the Battalion during the last few days, at the commencement of the struggle for Passchendaele, was then perhaps the greatest achievement the Battalion had accomplished. Undoubtedly it had done well, and the following message was received from the Brigade Commander:
To Officer Commanding,
Will you please congratulate all ranks of your Battalion on the great gallantry they displayed during the recent operations? They not only captured all their objectives, but also helped other troops to capture theirs. The magnificent way in which they captured the position and held it against all counter attacks makes me very proud to have such a Battalion in my Brigade.
L. BOYD MOSS,
On the 6th August the Battalion was taken by train to Audruicq, and billeted near by in a hamlet called Blanc Pignon, where the next six weeks were spent. The troops were well housed in this place, which was very clean in comparison with the other villages in which the Battalion sojourned from time to time. Each man was given a new suit, deficiencies in kit were made up, and the companies soon began to resume their normal appearance. Leave opened, and it was possible for those who wished to have day trips to Calais, and one or two of the more fortunate managed to get seaside leave at Paris Plage or Wimereux. The time spent at Blanc Pignon passed without special incident, except that one night there was a bombing raid by which the Germans obviously hoped to blow up the ammunition dump which was in close proximity to the billets. Fortunately, although many were dropped, not one of the bombs was effective enough to explode the ammunition. During the raid a large Gotha aeroplane was caught in the beam of one of the searchlights, and this was the first occasion the men saw this particular type of machine.
Despite the training the men had undergone before the battle, there was a good deal of time devoted to field work, as in view of the experience gained and the lessons learned in the recent attack new tactics had to be evolved. Until the Third Battle of Ypres, the chief obstacles to the advance of the British had been the German wire entanglements. The fuses on the British shells had always permitted the shells to bury themselves to some extent before exploding. This meant that a crater was formed, and though the enemy wire in the immediate vicinity of the crater would be destroyed, the obstacle effect of the whole entanglement remained almost in its entirety. A new fuse which was known as No. 106 was introduced in 1917, by means of which the shells would explode instantaneously on impact, and the splinters would destroy the wire over a much bigger area than had formerly been the case. The artillery could now ensure the proper cutting of the enemy wire entanglements, and it had been anticipated that in the attack of the 31st July the troops would not encounter serious obstacles in the way of wire entanglements, particularly as they were to be supported by tanks. It is true the artillery had cut the wire, but several units had nevertheless been held up. The Germans had anticipated to some extent the British methods of attack and invented a system of defence to meet it.
The Commander of the Fourth German Army which was defending the Ypres sector, Infantry General Sixt von Arnim, was a commander of high standing, inasmuch as the British Higher Command had thought fit to publish some observations of his on the Somme Battle. In the Ypres sector he had adopted the plan of holding the forward zone with few troops well disposed in depth, with strong reserves in rear which could be used for an immediate counter attack before the British could consolidate any positions they had won. His advanced troops were carefully echeloned in fortified farms, each strongly concreted and armed with several machine guns. The advantage of this scheme was that it afforded few definite targets to the British artillery, and gave every opportunity to the Germans to ambush and enfilade advancing British infantry. Tanks were of little avail against these block houses, which in reality formed a belt of small fortresses which could only be overpowered one by one. At any rate they could easily break up the force of an attack, and inflict a large number of casualties at a small loss. The reserves could then be used to counter attack the British before they had properly put the positions won into a state of defence. Such a method of defence was indeed a difficult obstacle to the advance, and its efficacy had been learnt at great cost in the last fight. This system of defence meant that new tactics had to be evolved to combat such a scheme. The German method of defence was explained in printed sheets and the explanations were retailed to the men. In the numerous tactical schemes and attack practices that took place the men were taught to encircle enemy strong points rapidly and close in on them. These exercises were supervised by the Divisional Commander in person.
While in this area another Divisional horse show took place, the third to which the Battalion had sent entries. It was rather a good show, and there was some very fine jumping, in which Belgian cavalry officers took part. The Battalion secured two first prizes for a water cart and limbered wagon, two second prizes and two third prizes. It obtained the third place in the Division for the total number of marks gained.
All good times come to an end and the 14th September was the Battalion's last day at Blanc Pignon. The occasion was marked by great festivities, and most of the men apparently consumed large quantities of beer. For this they could not be blamed as they were going into action, and might never survive to indulge so freely again. The next day the Battalion moved by train to Vlamertinghe, where the men bivouacked in the open, having for shelter large bivouac sheets.
The orders were that surplus personnel had to be left here, and all the officers who had taken part in the Battle of the 31st July were, with one exception, left behind. On the 17th the Battalion moved up from Vlamertinghe to Ypres, turned left at the Water Tower, skirted the Plaine d'Amour and proceeded along No. 5 Track to the neighbourhood of Warwick Farm. The next day the Battalion headquarters and two companies moved up to Bank Farm and took over the front shell crater position. Though two big attacks had taken place since the Battalion was last in this area, the front line was approximately in the same place as when the Battalion had left it in the early days of August. A fortified farm called Somme had been captured, and that was about all. Hill 35 was still in possession of the enemy. The Battalion with its sister regiments in the Brigade was to succeed where others had failed.
The Battalion held the shell crater position from the evening of the 18th, and it was obvious that the enemy expected an attack as he searched the whole area with heavy artillery fire at dawn on the 19th.
The two remaining companies moved up after nightfall on the 19th. It commenced to rain and the difficulties of placing the men in their proper places were great. The night was black and there was nothing by which one could locate oneself. After several hours a tape was placed along the line of shell craters to serve as a jumping off mark along which the men were duly aligned.
The role of the Battalion was to capture Hill 35 and Gallipoli, which was a strongly fortified centre of resistance in such a position, situated on rising ground, that it commanded a large area to the north. After its capture other units in the Brigade were to pass through the Battalion and continue the attack. The distance of the attack by the Battalion was from four to five hundred yards, and it was to be made in four waves, a company to each wave. It was anticipated that though the position might be fairly easily captured the enemy would make a desperate effort to dislodge the attackers.
The attack was evidently anticipated, as the enemy shell fire for a few minutes before zero was particularly heavy. Meanwhile the British artillery maintained a silence in which the gunners were able to prepare for the impending barrage. Zero was at 5 40 a.m., and at that time suddenly there opened an enormous crescendo of fire from the British guns, together with a machine gun barrage, which latter some attributed erroneously to the enemy. At this time it was fairly light, and one could see from a hundred and fifty to two hundred yards, quite light enough to enable the German machine gunners to inflict many casualties.
Owing to the fact that the men had to jump off from shell craters, and many were anxious to advance quickly so as to evade the enemy shell fire, and that there was some mixing of units, the waves were somewhat confused. The German artillery was ready and intensified its fire. The enemy machine gunners opened fire at once and the attackers began to fall almost as soon as the attack was commenced.
On the right of Hill 35 the Germans had manned a derelict tank and could not be dislodged. Even though surrounded they did not surrender for some time. The men, however, pressed gallantly forward and eventually got as far as Gallipoli Farm. The Germans here were very stout-hearted and refused to surrender. One had a machine gun on top of a concrete dugout and, for some reason or other, perhaps excitement, the men could not bring him down. Following the brilliant example of one of the company commanders, the men eventually closed in and after a fierce hand to hand encounter, in which bomb and bayonet were freely used, the place fell.
On Hill 35 a 90 m.m. field gun of an old pattern manufactured by Krupps was captured, and altogether eight heavy and light machine guns fell into the hands of the Battalion. About forty prisoners were taken belonging chiefly to the 2nd Reserve Division of the Prussian Guards. The enemy machine guns were soon turned round and got into action against the Germans by those of the men who understood their use.
Towards 5 30 p.m. in the evening the enemy opened fire with a heavy barrage of all calibres. The fire was particularly intense at Gallipoli Farm, where the company commander had himself relieved the sentry on look out at his headquarters, until he was blown almost senseless by the violence of the concussion of a shell which burst almost on top of him. Afterwards the Germans advanced, but they were seen by the men and repulsed by machine gun fire. A party of Germans was observed carrying a stretcher and a white flag. It was a favourite device of the enemy to pretend that they were carrying a stretcher when they were actually carrying a machine gun, and in consequence this particular party was soon dispersed.
Towards dark on the 21st the enemy put down another heavy barrage on the line of Somme Farm. He was apparently delivering another counter attack. After it had been kept up some time great consternation prevailed at Battalion headquarters. No word had been received from the troops in front. Perhaps the enemy had captured the front positions, and that the line was lost. The barrage was still intense, and anyone who should dare to advance through it would expect to meet with almost certain death. Yet some one had to go to ascertain if all was well or ill. The Commanding Officer made arrangements to burn all papers and told everyone they must fight to the last where they stood. The Second in Command ultimately managed to get to Somme Farm and came back with the information that all was well, which was of inestimable worth, for had the British barrage lines been withdrawn, as had been suggested, the troops in front would all have been sacrificed.
On the 22nd September the Battalion was relieved. The greatest care was taken to get the captured machine guns that were not needed for the defence back to the transport lines. They were collected at Battalion headquarters and carefully escorted to the neighbourhood of the old British front line near Potijze, where they were met by the transport officer, and duly delivered to Divisional headquarters.
Having been relieved the men made their way back in small parties to Vlamertinghe, where the night was spent. The next day the Battalion moved by train to a camp by Watou. Two or three days were spent here, and then the Battalion detrained to go down south to join General Byng's Third Army.