Tag Archives: Battle of Passchendaele

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling

I am a big fan of this series of books on the Victoria Cross. There are literally hundreds of books out there about the VC, and with many hundreds of winners there are plenty of subjects to write about. The problem I find is, that often we read about the same or similar stories in books. Some of the VC stories are well known – and for very good reasons, of course. But isn’t it great to read about some of the lesser-known deeds as well? Therefore I think it’s quite a nice touch to cover all of the Victoria Crosses awarded for a particular campaign, in one volume. This particular volume looks at the Battle of Passchendale – more properly, Third Ypres – fought between July and November 1917.  A remarkable 61 VC’s were awarded, to men from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. There were a couple of VC winners at Passchendaele with strong Portsmouth connections.

James Ockendon was a 26 year old action Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who won the Victoria Cross at ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm on 4 October 1917. Born in Portsmouth, Ockendon had joined the ‘Dubs’ pre-war in 1909, and was serving in India when war was declared. When the Battalion were recalled in 1914, he joined the 29th Division and subsequently fought at Gallipoli, before being sent to the Western Front in 1916. Apparently on the eve of Battle, Ockendon’s Battalion were adressed by a General, who asked ‘who is going to win a Victoria Cross tomorrow?’, to which Ocekdon replied, ‘I am, sir, or I will leave my skin in dirty old Belgium’. Two months previously he had been awarded the Military Medal. When a platoon officer was killed by a Machine Gun and another wounded, Ockendon found himself in charge of his company and took it upon himself to charge the position, killing all but one of the Germans. He chased the survivor for some distance before bayonetting him. After the attack Ockendon gathered the survivors of his company, and headed for ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm. Although they were met by heavy fire, Ockendon somehow managed to convince the Germans to surrender. Ockendon wad described as a quiet, unassuming man, and was feted when he returned to Portsmouth on leave later in 1917. He was discharged from the Army in 1918 after suffering from the effects of Gas. James Ockendon VC MM died in 1966, at the age of 75. His son, also called James, is still a member of the Portsmouth Royal British Legion, and to this day Ockendon’s VC is the only one that I have seen outside of a display case.

Dennis Hewitt was serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Portsmouth Pals, when he won the Victoria Cross at St Julien on the first day of Third Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Born in London, his maternal grandfather was a deputy lieutenant of Hampshire, which might explain why he joined the county regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916 after studying at Winchester College and then Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he found himself commanding a company, in the second wave of the attack near Steenbeck. Resistance was stiff along Pilckem Ridge, and Hewitt tried to re-organise his company, despite being badly wounded by a shell blast. Refusing treatment, he led the company on to the next objective line, and although the objective was secured, Hewitt became a casualty in the hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. He might not have strictly speaking been a Portsmouth lad, but he died serving with and leading many a young man from Portsmouth.

Montague Moore was serving in the 15th Hampshires, the 2nd Portsmouth Pals, at Passchendaele. Born in Bournemouth in 1896, he went to Sandhurst in 1915 at the age of 18. Commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916, he was wounded in the leg at Messines Ridge in 1917. Back in time for Third Ypres, he led 120 men in an attack at Tower Hamlets on 20 October 1917. They captured the objective, but suffered heavy losses. They remained on the objective overnight, and were shelled the next day by British artillery, who thought that they had all been killed. Eventually Moore had only 10 men left. Moore and his party sat out the rest of the day and the next night, and returned to the British lines under the cover of the morning mist, after being in no mans land for almost 48 hours. Their return was greeted with amazement. Moore retired from the Army in 1926, and retired to Kenya, where he died in 1966.

All of the stories are very well written, and have been researched in fitting detail. It’s a very inspiring read. Of course, I’m a big fan or researching, writing and reading individuals stories, whether they be decorated or not. They all have something different to teach us. I’m thinking out aloud here, but wouldn’t it be interested to see a book of ‘near misses’ to the VC sometime?

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 is published by The History Press

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Third Ypres (Passchendaele) 95: Portsmouth connections

The Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium.

The Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

95 years ago today the Third Battle of Ypres, often somewhat erroniously referred to as Passchendaele, began.

There are hundreds of books out there about Ypres and Passchendaele – some of which I am busily thumbing right now researching Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes! – and if you want to find out more about the battle there is certainly a lot of information out there. Suffice to say, Passchendaele has become, alongside the Somme, a byword for futility, needless slaughter and mud. To what extent this legacy is deserved has been debated keenly by historians in recent years.

The campaign began with an assault on Pilckem Ridge, on the northern side of the Ypres Salient. Although the battle was relatively succesful, heavy rainfall turned the ground into a quagmire, which delayed subsequent operations and potentially gave the Germans time to reinforce their positions.

11 Portsmouth men were killed on the first day of Third Ypres. Seven of them were fighting with the 1st Portsmouth Pals, more properly known as the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, who were involved in the attack on Pilckem Ridge. They were Private T.J. Fitzgerald (19, North End), Private Reginald Chamberlain (27, Forbury Road, Southsea), Private Frank Childs (a parishoner of All Saints Church), Private Henry Harnden (27, South Brighton Street in Southsea), Private G. Jerrard (23, College Street, Portsea), Lance Sergeant Joseph Wilkins (Dover Road, Copnor) and Private Ernest Shawyer (19, Lake Road, Landport). Fitzgerald, Chamberlain and Shawyer are buried in Buffs Road Cemetery, Jerrard is buried in Gwalia Cemetery while the rest are remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. Wilkins had been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery on the Somme the previous year.

Portsmouth men also died serving with other units on 31 July 1917: Lance Corporal H.P. Evans (1st Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers; parishioner of All Saints Church, buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery), Private Albert Jackson (11th Bn, South Wales Borderers; aged 32, Dickens Road, Mile End; remembered on Menin Gate), Private John White (26th Field Ambulance RAMC; age 20, Gunner Street, Landport; remembered on Menin Gate) and Private Moses Purkiss (196th Company, Machine Gun Corps; age 24, from Grosvenor Street, Southsea; buried in Vlamertinghe Cemetery) also fell.

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They called it Passchendaele by Lyn McDonald

Along with the Somme, the name ‘Passchendaele’ perhaps captures more than anything the horrific legacy of the Second World War. Properly known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the big offensive of 1917 has gone down in history as Passchendaele. Even though the fighting for Passchendaele itself only encompassed a small part of the battle in the Autumn. Millions of men were fed, sausage-factory style, into the Ypres Salient between July and October 1917. This was Haig’s second attempt at the ‘big push’ after the slaughter on the Somme the previous year.

There are some harrowing accounts here – indeed, it almost feels trivial to call them fascinating. Stories of thousands of men drowning in mud – can there be a more horrific way to die? One shocking story even relates how a man became trapped in the Flanders mud, and sinking up to his neck, begged his comrades to shoot him and put him out of his misery.

And not only does McDonald focus on the British Tommy – Aussies, Canucks and Kiwis all fought in the battle too, and some of their stories are included here. The Western Front – and, indeed, Passchendale – were truly Allied operations. And the accounts are carefully and sensibly selected, to give an impression not only of the fighting itself, but also of the human cost of war, and of the social history – letters home, leave, rations, wounds and treatment and officer-men relations.

One review of this book on Amazon refers to Lyn McDonald as the ‘recording Angel’ of the common soldier, in particular the Great War Tommy. When this book was published, Oral History was very much in its infancy. It was still a completely new concept that the experiences of the ordinary, common soldier might be anything as interesting as the deliberations of those much higher up the food chain. 30 years on however, this book shows its age somewhat. Nowadays historians might be more inclinded to weave Oral History in with conventional writing in a more complementary manner.

Presenting the Great War through the eyes of the millions of men who fought in it changed the way that military history was approached. For too long the study of armed conflict – in particular that of 1914 to 1918 – was far too focussed on Haig, French, Lloyd-George and the like. The men in McDonald’s book, however, lived and died on the strength (or weakness) of those mens egos and decision making. McDonald does not get too bogged down in the age-old ‘Lions vs. Donkeys’ debate, thankfully. Instead she gives us the barest details of the grand strategy, whilst letting the stories of the common men shine as only they can.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – after Passchendaele

George Raymond Dallas Moor VC

2nd Lt George Moor VC MC and Bar (Image via Wikipedia)

The great 1917 offensive in Flanders petered out as Autumn began to approach. Advances has been made out of the Ypres Salient, but at a terrible cost in lives, and a breakthrough had not been made. Also, since the mutinies in the French Army the BEF was having to take an even more active role in the fighting on the Western Front. However, with the entry of the United States into the war, massive reinforcements could soon be expected from across the Atlantic. On the Eastern Front, however, the newly Communist Russians had sued for peace. As a result, German attention could now focus solely on the Western Front. For both sides it must have seemed – even with the benefit of hindsight – that 1918 would be a make-or-break year.

Against this changing strategic background, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment had by now been on the Western Front for over 3 years. Their war had taken them from Le Cateau, via the Marne, First Ypres, Ploegsteert, Second Ypres, the Somme, Arras, to Passchendaele. Interspersed in between were long spells of routine trench duty, along with the odd raid.

After the fighting on 4 October 1917, 5 October was relatively quiet for the Hampshires. The Battalion was relieved that night, and went into reserve in the area of Louis Farm. There the men stayed for several days, still under shellfire as they carried rations forward for the Rifle Brigade. On the 6th Private E.S. Dabb was killed, and is buried in Dozinghem War Cemetery. The Battalion were relieved from reserve duties on the 7th, and marched back to Wolfs Camp. The next day was spent on the usual clean up and inspections. The 4th Division’s offensive was renewed on the 9th – the 1st Hampshires were on standby all day, but were not called upon.

After remaining in Wolf Camp for several days, on 12 October the Battalion boarded trains at Elverindghe, detraining at Proven, and then marching to Putney Camp, where the men were accomodated in tents. After several days under canvas, the Hampshires marched to billets in Poperinghe on the 15th. On the 18th the Battalion entrained at Peselhoek, and arrived at Mareouil the next day. From there they marched to billets in Dainville, a suburb of Arras.

On 23 October the Battalion returned to familiar territory, when it went into the front line near Monchy. The front seems to have been relatively quiet, and the men were occupied mainly with improving defences. As November began the enemy became more troublesome, sending over trench mortar rounds. On 3 November gas shells were fired, causing a number of casualties. In the early hours of the next day a heavy barrage was unleashed, and the Germans were seen to be leaving their trenches. Rifle and Machine Gun fire and artillery broke up the attack.

On 8 November the Battalion was relieved, and marched to Boise de Boeufs. The next day a draft of 145 reinforcements arrived, welcome after the losses at Arras and Passchendaele. The next few weeks were spent providing work parties, and on inspections and parades. Several days of musketry training also took place. On 24 November the Battalion went into reserve in the Brown Line, but still found time to form working parties.

On 27 November the Battalion was suddenly ordered to go into the front line in the Pelves sector. This move took place the next day on the 28th, and the Battalion’s front was from Scabbard to Bit Lake. Enemy artillery was active. By this time in the war trench maps were becoming extremely detailed, as were operational orders which covered the fine minutae of every move, right down to the last man or blanket. On 2 December the Battalion were relieved and went back to Monchy, where men were spared to work on the defences of the town.

After a short respite out of the line, on 6 December the Hampshires again went into the line, this time south east of Monchy. For several days the enemy were quiet. On 10 December, however, the Battalion was ‘stood to’ until 10am as an attack was thought to be imminent. No attack transpired, however. Later that night, they were relieved and went back to billets in Arras.

There was little time for rest, however. Suspicions of an enemy attack remained, and the whole 4th Division was ordered to be ready to go back into the line at short notice. Even while out of the line, the Battalion kept to the age-old routine of ‘standing to’ at dawn and dusk until the 15th. On the 18th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve at Bois de Boeufs, providing work parties until they went into the front line on 22 December. Christmas Day was spent quietly in the front line, and apart from a  brief period in support at Le Fosse Farm between 26 and 30 December, New Years Eve was also spent in the front line.

During December 1917 a second Victoria Cross winner joined the Battalion – 2nd Lieutenant Montague Shadworth Seymour Moore, who had won the VC at Passchendaele in September 1917 with the 15th Hampshires, a Portsmouth Pals Battalion. The other VC holder to serve with the 1st Hampshires, 2nd Lieutenant George Raymond Dallas Moor, won his VC with the 2nd Battalion at Gallipoli in 1915, and had served with the 1st Battalion since later in 1915.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Passchendaele

artillery barrage map from ...

An example of a creeping artillery barrage at Passchendaele (Image via Wikipedia)

The Battle of Passchendaele had begun on 31 Jul7 1917. The first phase during July and August had failed to make any serious progress. The Battle of Broodseinde was to be the last assault launched in the Ypres Salient as part of the offensive, and was an attempt to protect the southern Flank of the salient. The ever-elusive breakthrough was still hoped for, however.

After arriving at Proven on 20 September, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment spent the next week training hard. It was hard to get much training done, however, due to the limited amount of space available. On 23 September a draft of 103 men arrived, and on the 27th the Divisional Commander, Major-General Matheson, inspected the Battalion.

On 28 September the Battalion entrained at Proven in the afternoon, and detrained at Elverindghe. From there the Hampshires marched to Roussol Camp. The next day Company Commanders instructed their NCO’s and men in the plans for the forthcoming offensive. The day after that on the 30th each Company rehearsed their plan for the attack.

later on the 30th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve at the Canal Bank, relieving the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. The detailed operation order issued by the Adjutant listed the equipment and rations that the men were to carry. Officers were not to carry swagger sticks, and were to dress exactly the same as the men. Haversacks and entrenching tools would be left behind. Instead every man was issued with either a pick or shovel. Each platoon would carry 10 wire cutters, every man 2 aeroplane flares and every man 3 sandbags.

A detailed map was issued, showing the ground over which the Brigade was to advance. Starting in the area of Langemarck, the 11th Brigade was to attack on a narrow front, capturing ground to the North East of Poelcappelle. The 1st Hampshires were on the left, the Somerset Light Infantry on the right, and the 1st East Lancs in support and the Rifle Brigade in reserve. The Hampshires objectives, in order, were to be the Red House, Beek Villa, Imbros House, Kangaroo Huts and Tragique Farm. The principal objective, however, was merely a green line marked on the map. An even more detailed Battalion-level map was issued, that showed each of the Companies objectives, and also the distances between each landmark on the map. A diagram of how the platoons were to be set out in the advance was also included, and each platoon was allocated a specific objective, either to capture or, for the support companies, to consolidate once it had been captured.

The attack was to be on a 2 Company front, with each company’s front being 150 yards wide. The two other companies were to be in close support. A creeping Artillery Barrage was planned, as well as a Machine Gun Barrage. A detailed map showed the planned creep of the Barrage, beginning at Zero hour, and creeping forward on lines in front of the advance, moving forward every 2 to 3 minutes. Each Battalion was also alloted 2 Vickers Machine Guns to act in support. 2 Platoons were also designated as counter-attacking platoons, and designated authority to act on their own initiative to break up any German attacks. A Lewis Gun team of the 21st West Yorks was to be attached for anti-aircraft duties. A contact aeroplane was to overfly the area at set times to observe and report on progress.

On 1 and 2 October officers and NCO’s went forward to reconnoitre the line. The next day, on the 3rd, the Battalion went forward to its assembly area at Eagle Trench. It comprised 19 officers and 522 men. 3 officers and 118 men were to be left with the transport, to form a nucleus for reforming the Battalion if it were wiped out. Two tins of hot tea laced with rum were brought up for each Platoon. Heavy rain had fallen in the first few days of October, turning the artillery-riddled ground into a morass.

The troops were formed up and ready to go at 2am on 4 October. The enemy began shelling at 5am. At 6am the advance began, advancing behind the creeping barrage. They met light resistance, but the barrage was reported as being ‘ragged’, and caused many casualties to the Battalion. 30 prisoners and a machine gun were captured in Kangaroo trench. The Battalion advanced well, however. At 1pm it was noticed that the 10th Brigade on the left flank were retiring. An advance by the Rifle Brigade, coming up from reserve, checked this withdrawl. The Hampshires held firm on their objective line as night fell. Overall the battle of Broodseinde was one of the most succesful of the war. All objectives had been captured, for relatively light casualties when compared with the Somme and the earlier phases of Passchendaele. This was

The Battle on 4 October inflicted heavy casualties on the Battalion. 4 officers and 36 men were killed, and 8 officers and 182 men were wounded. 25 men were missing. Among the wounded were Colonel Armitage and Captain Laurie, the Chaplain, who both remained at their post.

Four Portsmouth men were killed on 4 October 1917. Private William McCarthy, 32 and from Highland Street, Eastney, is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant Henry Hall, of Victoria Road South, Southsea, is also remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. Private Charles McCable is another man remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, while Private Frank Oxford, 29, is buried in Cement House Cemetery.

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