Tag Archives: ypres

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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Accidents and illness in war time

Something that I don’t think military history has ever quite convinced in portraying is the extent to which people are vulnerable to accidents and illness war time. In particular during the periods of mass mobilisation during both world wars. The National Roll of the Great War gives unparalleled information about how people died, which sheds new light on the experiences that affected the people of Portsmouth.

During war time, the usual health and safety and economy measures go out of the window. On a Dreadnought, or on the front line, for that matter, there are all manner of things that can go wrong. Several men were washed overboard warships. There were accidental explosions. Men fell into dry docks, or even Canals. One man drowned whilst attempting to rescue a man who fell overboard. One man was seriously injured when he fell under his horse. All manner of dangers could befall individuals during war. And we need to remember as well that in general life was more dangerous than it is now. Danger was an accepted part of life, and there was no such thing as health and safety. Personal Protection Equipment did not exist, and neither did risk assessments. But neither did litigation.

During wartime people seem to have been far more susceptible to illnesses that might be less than fatal in peacetime. Men died of illnesses as varied as Meningitis, Heart disease, Rheumatism, Brights Disease (nowadays called Nephritis), Blood Poisoning, appendicitis, post-operation illnesses and Malaria. If you think about it, a young man with an underlying heart weakness or defect is going to be susceptible to becoming ill during stressful circumstances. And that goes for pretty much any kind of illness. And in situations where there was a lack of sanitation, medical care or supplies, and poor diets, it is not surprising that so many people succumed to illness. Cuts and grazes or even insect bites could cause blood poisoning, and of course men in tropical climates were susceptible to Malaria.

Of course many men died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic during 1918 and 1919. Again, with so many men moving around the world, it is not surprising that the flu virus spread so virulently. Men who were tired and malnourished may not have had the immune system to fight off the flu. It is interesting also that a few men died of pneumonia during 1918 and 1919 – was this misdiagnosed influenza, or caused by it?

More obviously, several men died of the lingering effects of being gassed, some almost a couple of years after they had come home. Theirs must have been a horrific demise. A couple of men died from the effects of exposure – one the master of a Tug who had probably been at sea in cold weather, and suffered the consequences. Men also died of the effects of Trench Fever, and one man even died of frostbite in the Ypres sector in 1917.

Several men died soon after being invalided home with shell shock. Whilst it is hard with the information available to prove that shell shock killed them, it is not impossible – particularly considering the way in which shell shock was treated in the Great War.

One painter actually died from the effects of lead poisoning – almost certainly down to the lead content in paint. He was only 27 and had joined the Navy at the age of 18. Clearly nine years of working with lead paint on a daily basis was deadly. How many other men died of what we now know as industrial diseases? We all know nowadays about asbestos, but a hundred years ago so many hazards were not known. I also wonder how many stokers died of respiratory disease, or of illness linked to their job.

One man died from the effects of what was termed, at the time, acute nervous prostration. Nowadays, this would be termed a serious nervous breakdown. I’m loath to mention the gentlemans name, but he was a seaman who had been invalided out to hospital in 1916, and died the next year. If you think about it, many of us suffer from mental health issues, so for one man among almost 5,000 to experience a breakdown is not that surprising. Especially when you consider what he might have been through. Also, in 1916 treatment for mental illness was a lot more harrowing, as the condition was not nearly so well understood.

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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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New footage shows WW1 battlefields from above

Extraordinary aerial pictures of First World War battlefields have been discovered, after being hidden for nearly a century.

The dramatic aerial shots show the huge damage wreaked on towns such as Ypres and Passchendaele. The programme, on BBC One this Sunday evening, also includes aerial footage taken by British pilots. These new images give historians of the First World War a new insight into the impact of the fighting on the western front.

‘The First World War from Above’ is on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm.

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1918 in context

This photograph was taken in the forest of Com...

The signatories of the 1918 Armistice (Image via Wikipedia)

Regular visitors will be aware that my studies of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in the First World War have now reached the climactic year of 1918, when in November the Armistice was signed and the guns finally fell silent.

Having closely studied one Battalion’s experiences on the Western Front, at Le Cateau, the Marine, 1st Ypres, Ploegstreet, 2nd Ypres, The Somme, Arras, Passchendaele and then the Kaiser Offensive and the final 100 Days, it mystifies me how British military history places so much emphasis on Ypres and the Somme, yet the fighting of 1918 – which actually saw the end of the war – are largely seen as a postscript to the massive losses in Flanders and Picardy the previous year. Why is this?

Looking at casualty statistics is one way of assessing the intensity of fighting in particular sectors at particular times. I have now analysed over 2,000 men from Portsmouth who fell in the First World War whilst serving with the British or Imperial Armies. I have been able to trace 1,344 of them. Of those 1,344, a large number of them were killed serving in France or Belgium, and the following numbers were killed during the series of well known battles:

Somme – 187
Hundred Days – 145
Kaiser Offensive – 125
Passchendaele – 103
Arras – 50
2nd Ypres – 23
1st Ypres – 20
Cambrai – 15
Loos – 5

Of course, death totals from one city represents a relatively narrowed down sample. A large proportion of these men came from Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, who happened to be fighting in a particular place at a particular time. Also, as in most cases we do not know the cause of death, we cannot be absolutely sure that men were killed in action, and did not die of illness or accidents. Never the less, 2,000 men does represent a sizeable number to compare and contrast with.

Its interesting to note that more men fell in the battles of 1918 than did either on the Somme of Passchendaele, and signigificantly more than during earlier battles on the Western Front. So why, if more men died in 1918, do we not think of 1918 as a ‘bloody year’?

Possibly, because 1918 brought about victory. The blunting of the German’s Kaiser Offensive and the subsequent counter-attacks during the ‘hundred days’ were succesful in that they resulted in the end of the war, and thus they did not draw the same scorn as do the wasteful losses off 1916 and 1917. Certainly, the vast amount of literature published on the middle years of the war – especially 1916 and 1917 – has perhaps dimmed broader awareness of the first and last phases of the war in the west. British Second World War commanders were haunted by the spectre of the Somme and the huge casualties, and sought to limit losses as much as possible.

Also, I have read before that British military culture does have a fondness for the heroic defeat, such as Arnhem. The popular conception of ‘lions led by donkeys’, of trench warfare, of going over the top, and of Tipperary and Bully Beef is manifested in the Somme and Passchendaele. Yet the First World War DID begin with some mobile, hard fighting at Mons, Le Cateau and on the Marne, and ended with some mobile, well-fought battles in 1918.

It would probably be going a step too far to argue that victory in 1918 would salve Haig’s reputation as a butcher, but never the less the British Expeditionary Force ended the War as a highly professional organisation that had borne the brunt of the fighting in the decisive theatre of the war. The BEF had been victorious in defence and attack. Whilst victory might not say too much about the Generals, it speaks volumes of the regimental officers, NCO’s and men – many of whom were not regular soldiers, and by 1918 were very young indeed.

Another factor to bear in mind about 1918 is that the Spanish Influenza epidemic was killing thousands, both on the front line and at home. Also, after four years of war, millions of men killed or wounded, the privations of rationing, and untold other hardships, war weariness amongst the British people would have been quite understandable.

Does 1918 deserve a new emphasis in military history? I believe that it bears a strong resemblance of the lack of importance given to succesful phases in the Second World War – the breakout from the Normandy beachhead and the advance up until Arnhem; and also the rapid advance across Germany in Spring 1945 – both have been largely ignored, whilst historians pick over the bones of Arnhem, Dunkirk, Singapore and North Africa.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – The eye of the Storm

After the Gas attack 0n 8 August 1916, the 1st Hants were relieved on 11 August. The Battalion went back to camp accomodation. Space was cramped, and water supply was a problem. After the first couple of days were spent resting, what the war diary describes an ‘ambitious’ training programme was curtailed by having to provide men for working parties. This pattern continued until 21 August when the Battalion entrained at Brandhoek for Ypres. There Headquarters was based in the Town Ramparts, C and D Companies in the Infantry Barracks, and A and B Companies in the Zillerbeke Bund.

It was only a short stay in the front-line town, for on 22 August the 1st Hants relieved the 42nd Canadian Infantry. The sector occupied was only 1,000 south of Ypres, along the Menin Road itself, and stretched for 800 yards. The position was described as ‘rather unpleasant’, due to being overlooked by all points of the Salient. Most of the trenches were in a poor condition. The Germans were relatively quiet, apart from sending over light guns and trench mortars in the evening. A heavy barrage on the 26th, however, resulted in two officers being buried by earth and being badly shaken. 5 men were killed and 15 wounded. During the bombardment 10 Germans tried to infiltrate A Company’s positions but were beaten off. The next day the Battalion was relieved.

August 1916 had been a hard month for the Hampshires, particularly considering they had been sent to the Ypres sector to recover from their mauling on the first day of the Somme. They had lost 23 men killed (including 7 from Gas), 38 wounded, 2 missing, 46 men were gassed, and 91 were sent to hospital, with only 36 returning in the opposite direction. This was hardly a Battalion rebuilding itself – replacements were going straight in at the deep end.

September 1916 proved to be a much quieter month for the Battalion. On 1st September they went back into the front-line east of Zillebeke. On the 2nd two men were killed in D Company, the Battalion’s only loses for the whole month. On the 5th the 1st Hants were relieved and went back to Montreal Camp, 2 miles south of Vlamertinghe. After spending several days resting and on inspections, on 10 September the Battalion marched to Poperinghe, then by train to Bollezeele and thence to billets at Merckegem. The next day the whole Brigade marched to Capelle, two miles south of Dunkirk, and the next couple of days were spent in the sand dunes at Dunkirk.

On the 15th the Battalion marched back to Merckegem, where Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wished them ‘godspeed on their departure for the Somme’. The next day they marched to Esquelbecq station, where they entrained for Amiens. After several days spent in billets in Amiens the 11th Brigade marched to Corbie. On the march the 1st Hants fought a readguard action exercise against the rest of the Brigade. The rest of the month was spent training hard and in practising assaulting enemy positions.

Finally the Battalion had been allowed to rest and gather itself after its hard time on the Somme and a less than quiet spell at Ypres. However, only 27 men and 4 officers arrived as reinforcements during September 1916, so the Hants would still be seriously undermanned on their return to the Somme, where the Battle had been raging ever since their departure.

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1st Hampshires – The Ypres Salient, Summer 1916

The next day the Battalion went into the front line, relieving the 1st Grenadier Guards. It was very hot and the trenches in most part were dry, unusually for Flanders, which normally had a very high water table. The spell in the line was relatively quiet, with the only interruptions being Trench Mortars and mainly snipers. Enemy Machine Guns were also more active at night.

On the 28th Major Armitage of the West Yorkshire Regiment arrived to take over command. It was most unusual for an officer from outside the Regiment to be posted, especially to take command. The losses on the Somme had been so great, however, that it is likely that the usual tribal considerations had fallen by the wayside.

On 31 July the Battalion was relieved, and went back into support at Elveringhe. The time in support, and the men found time to bathe in the lake at Elveringhe Chateau. Some training was carried out, as well as providing fatigues for night work. On 4 August the Battalion went back into the line. It was still extremely hot, but the men were able to get on with work to improve their trenches.

The quiet was shattered, however, on the 8th. A warning was issued the day before that the enemy might use gas, as the wind was from the north east. Sure enough, at 10.30pm on the 8th the Germans discharged Gas. 10 minutes later a raiding party of 20 to 30 enemy was spotted, but was beaten back by rifle fire and grenades. An artillery barrage was called up, which effectively cleared no-mans land in front of the Hampshires sector.

The day afterwards Major Armitage submitted a detailed report of the incident. The numerous anti-gas devices, such as ‘gas gongs’ and klaxons, had not worked. 3 men had been killed, 14 wounded and 8 missing. 3 men were killed by gas, 37 suffering from the effects of gas, and 1 from shell shock. 1 officer had been wounded, and 1 affected by gas.

The Battalion went back into support for some much-needed rest, but D Company in particular were still feeling the effects of gas. Working under the threat of gas not only caused horrific casualties, it also seriously hampered the ability of a unit to resist attack – men wearing gas masks found breathing, moving and fighting much more difficult.

Among the dead during this period were Lance Corporal Wilfrid Cox (18, Copnor) who was killed on 4 August 1916, Private Albert Harris (29, Fratton) who was killed during the Gas attack on 8 August 1916, and Sergeant H.W. Doige who died on 10 August 1916. Cox and Harris are buried at Essex Farm Cemetery, and Doige at Lijssenthoek.

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