‘The Battle of Passchendaele’ was the last segment of the 1917 battle known
more correctly as ‘The Third Battle of Ypres.’
To stem the German advance during 1914 the British army held a salient around the Belgian town of Ypres with dogged determination knowing that losing the town would allow the German army to capture the ports of Dunkirk and Calais and possibly put Britain out of the war. The ‘First Battle of Ypres’ cost the Germans dear with over a hundred and fifty thousand casualties. The ‘Second Battle of Ypres’ during April and May 1915 also cost the Germans a large number of casualties however the British were left defending a salient in which the ridges of higher ground to the south and east were held by the German army thus making movement during the day impossible and life under fire from German positions on those ridges hazardous.
During 1915 the then Commander in Chief Sir John French had wished to mount an operation in this area but was dissuaded by London and ordered instead to follow the French lead and attack at Loos. This led to the loss of many casualties yet led to him being replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig. Haig also wished to fight at Ypres in 1916 but was again instructed by London to follow the French lead at the Somme. By 1917, with Admiral John Fisher despairing due to the success of the German ‘U-boat’ fleet in sinking merchant vessels heading for Britain Haig reintroduced the idea of fighting at Ypres to free the Belgian coast and reach the submarine pens at Ostend. This meant victory over the higher ground around Ypres, reaching the railway at Roulers and disrupting the German supply system, so the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’ was launched.
The Battle of Messines fought by General Plumers Second Army between the 7th and 14th of June had been an outstanding success but the momentum was lost due to the logistical difficulties in transferring artillery and preparing men before the main attack on Pilkem Ridge began on July 31st.
The higher ridges to the east of Ypres had to be taken individually. Normal weather patterns may well have enabled a success in a battle lasting only a few weeks however the unusually heavy rainfall however plus determined defending by the German forces made movement for both sides almost impossible. Fighting had been continuous in the salient since 1914 yet rainfall such as this was unprecedented.
Both General Gough’s Fifth Army and General Plumer’s Second Army participated in the opening day of the battle for Pilkem Ridge on the 31st July, the rain began the same day, it became especially heavy during October. The vast array of artillery, over 3000 guns, now available for the British was unleashed to devastating effect firing over four million shells breaking German defences but also the drainage systems that lay throughout the area leaving water filled shell holes.
A series of difficult battles followed Pilkem at Gheluvelt plateau, Langemark, as the British forces slowly struggled forward. General Plumers 2nd Army used a ‘Bite and Hold’ approach at the Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde to slowly make their way towards the final ridge on which the remains of Passchendaele littered the ground.
The advance entailed a struggle with conditions more than with the enemy. Both armies became bogged down in the morass with untended wounded men lying in shell holes slowly filling with dirty rainwater and with no-one able to aid they slipped under the rising tide. Exhausted men struggled to move artillery in the mud, railway sleepers laid to form roadways through the theatre were constantly under fire from an observant enemy making passage difficult. Weary men fell from the wooden pathways into the mire and equally weary men had not the strength to retrieve them, walking wounded stumbled for miles over the wet ground to the casualty clearing stations more dead than alive. Always men remained under fire from artillery, Mustard Gas, machine gun and rifle bullets, often from their own side. When the rain cleared there were few days when the sun was noticed and never enough to affect the ground. The foolhardy use of tanks, against advice, saw them slither into the mud where they say some might remain.
Passchendaele itself was taken by General Plumer’s Canadians on the 6th of November slithering over the slope and into the ruins of the church atop the ridge. This over three months after the battle began. Success had been achieved yet both sides suffered, the British well over 300,000 casualties, the Germans around 250,000, on both sides morale reached a new low, and exhaustion was the order of the day. This battle rightly or wrongly came to represent how Britain saw the entire war.
It is thought that both General Gough and the well respected General Plumer wished the battle to be brought to an end as both knew well the conditions the troops endured but army generals do not carry the responsibilities of Commander in Chiefs and Field Marshall Haig had wider fears to contend with. Not only had Admiral Fisher revealed his worries re the German submarine attacks but Haig was well aware the French army had mutinied. The General Nivelle offensive had failed at great cost and the French army, badly paid, badly fed and once again suffering great loss morale broke down completely and in many areas whole Brigades refused orders. In Haig’s mind the weakened French could not be trusted to defend if the Germans attacked, also with the Russians leaving the war this allowed Ludendorff the German army commander the opportunity to transfer a million men to the western front, to Haig this meant capturing the high ground was vital.
Historians will forever debate the rights and wrongs of his decisions, none of these have ever had to make such a decision knowing the lives of his men depended on his conclusion. Haig was not an uncaring brute disinterested in his men as some claim, nor was he infused with a sense of sacrifice he was however a soldier who obeyed the order to fight the enemy and accepted his responsibilities whatever the cost.
Some 750,000 Scots, Welsh and Irishmen died during the Great War and the responsibility for this was laid on Haig and the generals by Lloyd George in his memoirs, memoirs which appeared after Haig and the generals had died and were unable to answer. This was to avoid blame being laid on Lloyd George’s shoulders, he after all was merely a cabinet member and Director of Munitions and later Prime Minister! Had the Field Marshall lived to answer his critics and had as many friends in the press as Lloyd George we may well have had a different view of the burden he carried during these years and a clearer understanding of reasons for the ‘Third Battle of Ypres,’ better known as Passchendaele!
Passchendaele List of Local Casualties
The first day of the Battle of Pilkem Ridge, the beginning of the ‘Passchendaele’ battle.
Amos W.G. Private William George Amos. 269512. ‘B’ Coy. 1st Bat. Hertfordshire Regiment. 118th Bde, 39th Div. Died 31st July 1917 age 24. Track X Cemetery. Ypres. Son of Charles William & Louisa Amos, 13 Coronation Avenue, Braintree.
Kellick T. Shoeing Smith Corporal T KELLICK 75909. 8th Div. Ammunition Col., Royal Field Artillery. Died age 22 on 31 July 1917. BRANDHOEK NEW MILITARY CEMETERY. 31st July 17. Brother of Julia Holmes, of Rose Cottages, Coggeshall Rd., Braintree.
Rix A.C. Private Arthur Charles RIX 225291. 1st Bn. London Regt. (Royal Fusiliers) 167th Bgde, (56th Division) Died on 31 July 1917. Reburied in Hooge 2nd May 1919 after being identified by his disc. HOOGE CRATER CEMETERY. Ypres. 1891 father Charles a Baker, mother Anna living New Street. Elder sister Winifred one year older.
Cooper.G. Rifleman George Cooper 41213. 10th Battalion. Royal Irish Rifles. 107th Brigade. 36th (Ulster) Division. Died 5th Aug 1917. YPRES (MENIN GATE) MEMORIAL. Battle of Langemark. Son of Joseph Cooper, 57 South Street, Braintree.
Benham F.J. Rifleman Frederick James Benham 41282. 10th Batt. Royal Irish Rifles. (formerly 31899 Essex Reg) Died 6th Aug 1917, age 34. Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. Killed by German shell. Father William a butcher in Bradford Street (Benham & Sons).
Beresford.F. Private Frank Beresford. 43515. 10th Batt. Essex Regiment. 53rd Brigade, 18th (Eastern) Division. Died 11th August 1917. Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, Ypres. Died of wounds. Born Bethnal Green, son of a silk weaver and worked at Warners.
Edwards W.H. Private William Henry 60358. 11th Batt. Royal Fusiliers. 54th Brigade, 18th (Eastern) Division. Died 10th Aug 1917. Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. Wife Elsie Beatrice (nee Cooper) Edwards. A groom at the White Hart before enlisting, married at Black Notley Church 3rd Oct 1912.
Archer E.C. Driver Edward Charles Archer L/4883. ‘C’ Battery. 153rd Brigade Royal Field Artillery. Died 12th August 1917. Age 33. Born Surbiton, son of Thomas & Lucy Archer, of Bocking, Essex. Husband of Rose Ellen Archer, of Staines Road, Sunbury, Middx. Butchers assistant by profession. Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial
Newman E. L/Corporal Ernest Newman G/29708, 16th Battalion. Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex) Regiment. . Died 19th August 1917, age 35. Tyne Cot Memorial. A boarder at Bradford Street, Bocking. He was single and working as a Miller.
Wise W.W. Lance Corporal WILLIAM WALTER WISE. G/42790. 16th Bn., Middlesex Regiment. (Public Schools) XIV Corps. 86th Bde. 29th Division. ex 8th East Surrey Regiment. Died age 18 on 19 August 1917.
TYNE COT MEMORIAL. Ypres. Son of Walter and Laura Wise, of Green Lane, Bocking, Essex.
Shelley T.R. Private Thomas Shelley 26238. 3rd Bn. Grenadier Guards. 2nd Guards Brigade. Guards Division. Died 19th Sept 1917. TYNE COT MEMORIAL. Family living in Coggeshall Road, Bocking.
Pickering F.W. Second Lieutenant Frank W. Pickering, 287th Siege Bty. Royal garrison Artillery. Died 20th Sept 1917. Pojitze Chateau Lawn Cemetery. Ypres. Prior to war worked as chemist at Crittall’s Manufacturing Co, and was a patrol leader with the Braintree Boy Scouts.
Sargent H.W. Private HERBERT WALTER SARGENT G-24038. 7th Bn. The Buffs (East Kent Regiment) 55th Brigade, 18th (Eastern) Division. 5th Army (Gough). Died age 37 on 30 September 1917. NINE ELMS BRITISH CEMETERY. Third Ypres. Husband of Mrs. Lily Rosina Sargent (nee Handley), of 66, Coggeshall Road, Braintree.
Butcher. F. Driver Frederick Butcher 55727.28th Bty. 124th Bde. Royal Field Artillery. Died 9th Oct 1917. Age 25. Born Braintree. Mont Huon Military Cemetery, Le-Treport. Worked horse pre-war at Straits Mill Farm, Bocking. “He was winner of regimental cup for best team of horses” Cup awarded for driving the gun team he had at Mons through three years of war without accident. Hit by shell and died of wounds.
Fuller.F.H. Rifleman FREDERICK HAROLD FULLER. S/28579, “A” Coy. 7th Bn., Rifle Brigade. (The Prince Consorts Own) 41st Brigade. 14th(Light) Division. XV Corps. (Formerly R/24061, K.R.R.C.) Died age 19 on 15th October 1917. TYNE COT MEMORIAL. Son of Frederick James and Annie Fuller, of “Alwyne,” Coggeshall Rd. Braintree.
Sibley F. Private Frederick Sibley 46615. 11th Bn. Leicestershire Regiment. (Midland Pioneers) Attd. 6th Division as Pioneers. Formerly 213958, Royal Engineers. Died 15th Oct 1917. Braintree. MENIN ROAD SOUTH MILITARY CEMETERY. Ypres. Married Gladys Radley in 1913 and worked at Hope Laundry, Rayne Road.
Turpin F. Private Frank Turpin 10118 (?) 1st Bn. South Staffordshire Regiment. 91st Bde. 7th Division. Died 22nd Oct 1917. Rayne. ST SEVER CEMETERY EXTENSION, ROUEN. Father & Eldest brother were Blacksmiths, and Frank an Iron Fitter.
Andrews, Horace Clive, G/68253. Private Royal Fusiliers posted to 2nd/4th Bn. London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers). 173rd Brigade, (58th Div).(XVIII Corps). Date of Death: 26/10/1917. CEMENT HOUSE CEMETERY. Passchendaele. Killed during advance either by bullet or shrapnel while with two others. Lance Corporal checked him and then continued forwards. The three wounded men remained in water filled shell holes. Mud knee deep and walking difficult. Body recovered September 1919
Butler S.A. L/Corporal Sebastian Alfred Butler 295156. 2/4th London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) Died 26th Oct 1917. Tyne Cot Memorial. Married Maud Elizabeth Rayner of Bocking at St Mary’s Church, Bocking.
Townsend E.S. Private Ernest Sydney Townsend 67769. Posted to 2nd/4th Bn. London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers). 173rd Bde. 58th (2/1st London) Div. Died 26 Oct 1917. TYNE COT MEMORIAL. Born White Notley, moved to Braintree where his father, now a widower, was horseman on farm. Attended Old High School.
This information was researched and provided by Braintree District Museum volunteer Graham Herriot