Commemorating those lost during the 1917 Flanders offensive, part two

The impact of the weather in Flanders.
The impact of the weather in Flanders.
  • Controversy surrounds decision to appoint Gough to lead northern operation Tragic news received back home

This is the second part of a feature to mark the centenary of the 1917 Flanders Offensive, a campaign which lasted from June 7 to November, 1917.

If you missed the first part of the feature, ‘Battle was mired in controversy before it even began’, click here.

Shell-carrying pack mules at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge.

Shell-carrying pack mules at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge.

It began with the Battle of Messines (June 7-14) which was a significant tactical success for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Part two focuses on preparations for the second phase of the campaign and the Battles of Pilckem (July 31-August 2) and Langemarck (August 16-18). These two battles were the first of eight which together are known as the third Battles of Ypres, perhaps more commonly known in Britain as Passchendaele.

DELAY

A major controversy associated with the Flanders Offensive surrounds the BEF’s Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig’s decision, on April 30, prior to the Battle of Messines, to appoint General Sir Hubert Gough and the BEF’s 5th Army which he commanded to undertake its Northern Operation and to lead the coastal force in Operation Hush.

Military historians have often puzzled over the choice of Gough. Many have suggested he messed up most things he touched. Others will argue history may have been unkind to him with such stigmatisation for his handling of the campaign.

Sir Herbert Plumer

Sir Herbert Plumer

The inevitable delay between Battles of Messines and Pilckem which Haig’s decision led to was significant for three reasons: Gough was given almost seven weeks to prepare, move the 5th Army into position and reorientate artillery when General Sir Herbert Plumer, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF’s 2nd Army, asked for only three days before launching the next bite and hold operation to immediately exploit the success of Messines; secondly, the delay was countenanced, indeed exacerbated, by a War Cabinet which, at that time, seemed incapable of making consensus decisions; thirdly, the Allies lost the element of surprise and gave the Germans time to prepare their defences – by end of July, Germany had 65 divisions available to face the coming offensive, four more than some weeks earlier.

PREPARATIONS: ARTILLERY, THE GOD OF WAR

Centralised artillery planning and control, improved weather data, comprehensive field surveys, new and highly accurate 1:10,000 scale maps and improved communication techniques all contributed to give British artillery much improved accuracy in 1917.

New artillery techniques were developed (eg, mixing creeping and standing barrages, improved sound-ranging techniques, gun calibration and registration, flash-spotting).

Sir Hubert Gough

Sir Hubert Gough

A creeping and standing barrage plan and timetable was devised, tailored to estimated rates of advance of the infantry units.

Large numbers of posts from which machine guns were to fire offensive and defensive barrages were built and protective pits were dug for mules, which were to carry loads of 2,000 rounds of ammunition to advanced troops.

Divisional trench mortar batteries were used to bombard the German front-line opposite where it was too close for the artillery to shell without endangering British troops.

Despite greatly increased calibres and numbers of artillery pieces available and better tactics employed, the mud so prevalent on the battlefields around Ypres caused and created by barrages, exacerbated by the persistent rain, resulted in many artillery pieces becoming unusable as the campaign progressed.

Taking artillery through the mud.

Taking artillery through the mud.

There were insufficient pieces available for more than one major blow at a time without re-alignment.

Nevertheless, artillery fast became the God of War (a phrase attributed to Stalin) and a crucial factor in maintaining morale and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the BEF, which no longer depended on the number of infantry.

The later introduction of artillery parks which sped transfer of pieces and allowed concurrent and sequential blows, was a triumphant vindication in 1918 of the lessons learnt in 1917.

OVER-AMBITION: CHANGING THE PLAN OF ATTACK

Another accusation levelled at Haig and Gough is even more difficult to reconcile, the change of plans for July 31. Following conferences with his Corps and Divisional commanders, and possibly influenced by Haig’s strategic vision, Gough changed plans for the northern operation by adding a third objective, then a fourth to the day 1 plan although the final objective was at Corps and Divisional commanders’ discretion to attempt only in places where German defences had collapsed.

These far more ambitious plans played into German hands, allowing counter-attack divisions to hit the Allies when extended.

Water carriers pass a burnt-out tank.

Water carriers pass a burnt-out tank.

UNSEASONAL WEATHER

The weather in August 1917 was exceptionally bad with 127mm of rain falling. It was also overcast and windless, which much reduced evaporation.

Haig may have been justified in expecting the weather would not impede offensive operations because rain would have been dried by the expected summer sunshine and breezes.

Arguably, the appalling weather conditions saved the Germans when the British logistical supply chain eventually broke down in prolonged periods of heavy rain – ground conditions in the last month of the campaign (October to November) were so bad that neither side could then employ recognisable, effective operational tactics.

BATTLE OF PILcKEM: JULY 31 TO AUGUST 2

The opening battle of the third Battles of Ypres saw 17 divisions attack German positions across a 15-mile front after an 18-day preparatory barrage had fired 4.2 million shells.

Conditions were far from ideal with the element of surprise already gone. Nevertheless, the first day started well, especially in the north with the capture of Pilckem Ridge and St Julien. Advances up to 3,700 metres were made before German counter-attacks on the flanks of the break-in recovered much of the ground lost.

To the south, II Corps troops moving up slopes leading to the Gheluvelt Plateau encountered unbroken wire, unsuppressed pillboxes and heavy, accurate German bombardments.

As the day wore on, it began to drizzle before conditions worsened in increasingly heavy rain. There was nowhere for the water to drain away, shell holes filled with water and the battle ground to a halt in the mud at the end of day 1. During the following two days, what advances had been consolidated by the end of the first day were generally held in appalling weather conditions and in the face of ferocious German counter-attacks and bombardments.

There is controversy to this day about the severity and impact of unseasonal heavy rainfall during August 1917. Torrential rain lasted relented after August 5 when Gough was obliged to conduct fresh offensive operations. Westhoek was captured on August 10, but successful German counter-attacks recovered much of the ground lost.

BATTLE OF LANGEMARCK: AUGUST 16-18

The Battle of Langemarck coincided with a period of dry weather although ground conditions were still atrocious and the churned-up battlefield made navigation impossible such that attacking units were forced to advance on compass bearings – the potential for this creating inevitable confusion and delays is only too easy to imagine. The timing of the battle was influenced by the effect a delay would have on Operation Hush, which needed the high tides at the end of August or it would have to be postponed for a month. Operation Hush was an ambitious plan for amphibious landings on the beaches to the north-east of Nieuwpoort aimed at getting behind German lines, combined with attacks from Nieuwpoort and the Yser bridgehead. 216 fighting tanks were employed at Langemarck, but 70 soon succumbed to breakdown or got bogged down, another 40 or so were knocked out by the Germans. The pattern of the earlier Battle of Pilckem was repeated. Initial success was followed by forward units being isolated by German artillery fire and being forced back to their start line by German counter-attacks before the Germans, in turn, were stopped by British artillery fire.

Towards the northern sector of operations, the British XVIII Corps retook and held the north end of St Julien and the area south-east of Langemarck, while XIV Corps captured Langemarck and the third German defensive line near the Kortebeek.

On August 20, in a brilliant action near St Julien, tanks crossed the Steenbeek with the object to tackle bunkers in the area. Each tank, both male and female types, selected a strong-point, drove up to it, then blasted it. Only one tank got bogged down.

Unfortunately for British forces, exploiting observation from higher ground to the east, the Germans could inflict heavy casualties on divisions holding the new line beyond Langemarck. A British offensive intended for August 25 was delayed because of the failure of previous attacks to hold ground and, then, postponed because of the poor weather. Minor operations towards the end of August were again costly and inconclusive. Haig called a halt to operations amid tempestuous weather.

NORTHUMBERLAND FUSILIERS, 1/7th BATTALION TERRITORIAL FORCE

During this second phase of the Flanders Offensive, the local North Northumberland formation belonging to the Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force, was far to the south, in the Cojeul Valley south-east of Arras. There, when not in the front-line, large carrying and working parties were provided to improve existing trenches, dig new ones, strengthen protecting barbed wire and carry rations to the front line. There were also periods of training when held in reserve.

When holding the front-line, wiring parties were sent out at night as were regular small patrols. The battalion was not called upon for major action during this time although one of its patrols got into a fierce fire-fight on the night of August 14. The patrol, comprising an officer and six other ranks (OR), encountered a large enemy patrol near its position in Cable Trench. Fire was opened by both sides at close quarters. The battalion’s War Diary records heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy while its own casualties were one OR wounded, and two OR wounded and missing believed killed.

During July and August 1917, the number of casualties sustained by the battalion was one officer killed (accidentally), seven OR killed, and two officers and 26 OR wounded, plus four men missing, presumably killed.

TRAGIC NEWS FOR A LOCAL FAMILY

Another recipient of the prestigious Military Medal award, commemorated on Alnwick War Memorial, was Ernest Richard Cook, the son of Charles Henry Cook and his wife Louisa, of the Square, Bailiffgate, Alnwick. The 1911 Census shows Ernest to have been 15 years old and already in gainful employment as a solicitors’ clerk.

August 1917 was a tragic month for the Cook family, as recalled by Craig Armstrong in his book, Alnwick in the Great War (Pen and Sword Books, 2016): ‘The family had already lost one son when Lance Corporal Charles Bertram Cook, 1/7th Northumberland Fusiliers, was killed during the Second Battle of Ypres on May 25. The first week of August brought news that they had suffered the loss of their second son when a telegram arrived at their Bailiffgate home notifying them that Company Sergeant Major Ernest Richard Cook MM, 1/7th Northumberland Fusiliers, had died of wounds on July 29. As if this was not bad enough, a second message arrived two days later informing them that their youngest son, Private J Percival Cook, Seaforth Highlanders, had been wounded in action.’

KIRKNEWTON LOSS

Commemorated on Kirknewton War Memorial, George McGregor was born at Carhum, Northumberland, the son of Mr T and Mrs Jane McGregor, of East Kirknewton, late of Primside Mill, Yetholm, Northumberland.

He enlisted at Kelso in December 1915 and was killed in action on the opening day of the third Battles of Ypres when the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards captured all its objectives but suffered heavy casualties. Two officers and 55 OR were killed and six officers and 207 OR were wounded. Before the war, McGregor had been employed by a Mr Davidson, a rabbit catcher, of Yetholm.

SAD NEWS FOR A FAMILY WHO RAN A WELL-KNOWN HOSTELRY

Robert Wanless was born at Alnwick, the son of Thomas and Eleanor Wanless who occupied the Plough Hotel, Bondgate Without, at the time of the 1911 Census. Thomas was the proprietor and livery stable keeper. Robert was a barman.

The Plough Hotel had 17 rooms and there were three Wanless children: Robert (29), Catherine (18) and Archbold J (seven). In addition, there was a step-son, Albert F Cairns (17), a step-daughter, Eva Cairns (15), an uncle, James Mole (77), two boarders and three servants.

Having enlisted at Alnwick, Wanless first served with the Leicestershire Regiment before serving with 1st Battalion of the Prince of Wales’ (North Staffordshire Regiment). He is another who is commemorated on Alnwick War Memorial.

EMIGRANT RETURNS FROM AFAR TO SERVE HIS COUNTRY

Born on September 14, 1891, at Glanton, William George Innes was the son of George and Mary (née Lilburn). Somewhere between 1911 and 1915 William emigrated to New Zealand. Like many other local men who emigrated in the years immediately before the First World War, Innes responded to the Empire’s call to arms and he enlisted on June 26, 1915, into the New Zealand Medical Corps. Innes is buried at Pont-D’Achelles Military Cemetery, Nieppe, and he’s commemorated on the Roll of Honour at St Bartholomew’s Church, Whittingham.