Harsh times and conditions as war nears end

A German bunker 'protected' by a sea of mud and water-filled shell holes.
A German bunker 'protected' by a sea of mud and water-filled shell holes.

This is the final part of a feature spread over recent months, to mark the centenary of the 1917 Flanders Offensive, a campaign which lasted from June 7 to November 1917.

It focuses on the conditions faced by men, animals and machines, and goes on to summarise the outcomes of the Offensive and reflect on what was achieved, the enormous casualties sustained, the many controversies surrounding the Offensive and the lessons learned by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

Mules struggling in the quagmire of mud.

Mules struggling in the quagmire of mud.

2nd BATTLE OF PASSCHENDAELE

Cursory perusal of the Roll of Honour, below and in last week’s edition of the Gazette, reveals almost half of the 111 casualties incurred during the final phase of the 1917 Flanders Offensive (October 5 to November 10) were sustained during the 2nd Battle of Passchendaele

(October 26 to November 10), notably on October 26.

50th DIVISION HISTORY

Passchendaele in June 1917...

Passchendaele in June 1917...

The Territorial Force formations comprising 50th Division were drawn from Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire, including the battalion most closely associated with Alnwick and north Northumberland, Northumberland Fusiliers’ 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force. Half the casualties recorded in the Roll of Honour in relation to 2nd Passchendaele served with this battalion. 50th Division entered the fray of Passchendaele relatively late on but that didn’t prevent it sustaining horrendous casualties during the campaign. It’s painful, now, to read the official divisional history (The Fiftieth Division, 1914-1918 by Everard Wyrall) and 1/7th Battalion’s War Diary available at

http://www.fusilier.co.uk/military/7th_battalion_northumberland_fusiliers_war_diary.html

The following extracts illustrate the conditions faced and reinforce the desolation evident in the photographs accompanying this article.

Wyrall: ‘…Passchendaele has an evil sound: it conjures up visions of seas of mud, of incredible conditions beyond adequate description, of almost superhuman efforts of infantry and artillery to ‘carry on’ despite the desperate situations in which they often found themselves; and of courage, tenacity and a cheerfulness (wonderful to see) inconceivable to those who were not there. For the latter stages of the battle were almost as great a struggle against the elements as against the enemy.’

...and then five months later, in November 1917.

...and then five months later, in November 1917.

‘At the period when this story begins… the whole Salient was a dreary, desolate area, pock-marked with countless shell holes (those in the forward area being inhabited by small garrisons who constituted the ‘front line’), lines of water-logged, battered shell-torn trenches, evil-smelling and rat-infested cellars beneath a rubble of bricks… and burrowed holes in the sodden earth, dignified by the name of dug-outs.’

Describing the ground over which 1/7th Battalion and its sister battalions of 149th Brigade attacked, Wyrall continues: ‘Fifty square miles of slime and filth from which every shell that burst threw up ghastly relics, and raised stenches too abominable to describe; and over all, and dominating all, a never-ceasing ear-shattering artillery fire and the sickly reek of the deadly mustard gas.’

On October 26, 149th Brigade attacked in a north-easterly direction between the southern borders of the Houthhulst Forest and the Broembeek, which lay towards the extreme left of the British line.

FUSILIERS’ ATTACK

1/7 th Battalion’s War Diary describes the attack: ‘A, B and D Companies moved into position, at 5 am reported ‘all ready’. Zero hour. Our barrage was laid down and crept forward 50 yards every 4 minute. Troops advanced and enemy machine guns immediately opened fire and enemy barrage came down at zero + 1 minute. Companies on either flank made progress for some 200 yards but B Company in the centre immediately held up by heavy M.G. fire from the front, probably from the huts about 100 yards from their jumping off line. B Company eventually surrounded and past [sic] these concrete huts but suffered considerable casualties in doing so.’

On the left flank: ‘D Company… quickly gained their objectives but were constantly sniped and machine gunned… They however held on to their objective all through the fight.’

Meanwhile, on the opposite flank: ‘A Company… with help of the platoon from the support company struggled on under heavy M.G. fire… they encountered a trench strongly held by machine guns which had been untouched by our barrage. 2/Lieut Thompson and his platoon put up a great fight for their trench, he, himself, and most of his platoon being killed in the attempt.

‘2/Lieut Shaw and his platoon and Lieut Temperley and platoon pressed on… suffering such heavy casualties that another platoon of C Company dispatched. 2/Lieut Shaw was killed and Lieut Temperley wounded, but very gallantly led his platoon on – he, himself going forward alone to light a flare at a position where it could be seen by aircraft… While crossing the German wire to get back to his men Lieut Temperley was killed by a sniper.’

ALL FOR 150 YARDS!

The situation rapidly deteriorated: 2/Lieut Strong, the Company Commander, was also killed by a sniper when pressing forward to reconnoitre and rally the remainder of his company.

‘All four officers and most of the NCOs of this company were killed and as the enemy were being reinforced the few men left were compelled to fall back on a line with the centre company who were still held up and suffering considerable casualties, two of their platoon officers, 2/Lieut Tucker and 2/Lieut Brown were killed.

‘The third platoon of C Company in support had lost their officer and had many casualties in going forward to help [the] right company and could be of little use.

‘Owing to very heavy machine gun and sniping fire the centre and right companies being practically unable to hold the ground gained and orders were sent out to consolidate as far in front of the tape line as possible – about 150 yards. ‘The right flank of the left flank company being consequently unprotected it was decided to swing it back into line with the other two companies. The enemy very soon reoccupied the ground temporarily won by us, but all wounded as far as was humanly possible were brought in.’

CASUALTIES AND 
NO REAL RELIEF

1/7 th Battalion was relieved at midnight on October26, and moved back to Marsouin Camp. Casualties in the attack that day were nine officers killed; one officer wounded and missing believed killed; one officer wounded; 43 other ranks killed, 150 wounded and 53 missing. It might be expected those who survived the carnage were relatively safe at Marsouin Camp but on October 27, the camp was bombed by hostile aircraft during which attack Captain RP Neville MC and six other ranks were killed and 13 other ranks wounded. Several animals were also killed. Overall, the number of local men with a connection to the wider Alnwick district who were killed or died during the 1917 Flanders Offensive was at least 263.

CAPTAIN ROBERT PATRICK NEVILLE, MC

Captain Neville died of wounds received during the attack on Marsouin Camp. He was later awarded the Military Cross. There appears to have been no citation, as such, rather Robert was gazetted in the 1917 King’s Birthday Honours. Such awards, and those in the New Year Honours, tended to be for general good service, rather than a specific act of gallantry.

He was listed as Qr.-Mr. and Hon. Lt (ie, Quarter Master and Honorary Lieutenant), so he was responsible for the battalion’s logistics rather than being primarily a combatant officer. Until 1911, Robert had been Colour Sergeant (and acting Sergeant Major) – Quartermasters were often commissioned from the ranks.

The War History of 7th Northumberland Fusiliers’ (via public libraries in Northumberland) Biographical Notices records: ‘For his able, gallant, and distinguished services, Mr Neville was awarded the MC, and later promoted to the rank of Captain; honours which were a source of gratification to all members of the battalion. It was a heavy blow to all, when, by the explosion of a bomb dropped by an enemy aeroplane, his beloved battalion and his country were deprived of the life and services of so true a gentleman and so gallant a soldier.’

Captain Neville MC is commemorated on Alnwick War Memorial.

A RECURRING THEME

Readers of this series of articles may be familiar with the number of local families which lost two or more sons. At least 30 families fell into this category, including that of Adam and Mary Hindmarsh, of High Buston, Alnmouth. Private Adam Hindmarsh was born at Blyth. He died at Alnwick Military Hospital on November 8, 1917.

His brother, Driver Mark Hindmarsh, who served with the Royal Army Service Corps, died at Dunkirk Military Hospital, on March 5, 1919, possibly a victim of the global influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 which took more lives than the First World War – estimates range from 20 to 40 million people worldwide. The brothers are both commemorated on Warkworth War Memorial (by St Lawrence’s Church).

SHILBOtTLE COUSINS KILLED ON THE SAME DAY

Private Robert George Weightman was born about 1892 at Shilbottle, the son of Robert George and Mary Weightman. In 1911, he was living at Bilton Banks, Lesbury, with his parents and working as a miner. He left a wife, Jane Ellen Weightman, who lived at 6 Garden Terrace, Grange Colliery, Shilbottle, and a child, Mary. Weightman’s cousin, Private Thomas Henry Weightman, was also born in 1892, the son of Thomas Henry (snr.) and Susan Weightman, of 8, Sea View, Shilbottle. He too enlisted at Alnwick and was a miner. The UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901-1929 (available via Ancestry.co.uk) records his date and place of death as ‘On or since... Death presumed’, which suggests he may have first been posted missing in action. Both Weightman boys are commemorated on Shilbottle War Memorial.

BOUlMER FAMILY LOSS

Gunner Robert Stephenson went to an observation post on November 13, 1917, with two others and was never seen again. His birth place is recorded as Alnmouth but the family were all from Boulmer. Robert left a wife, Gertrude, and two children, Edith, who was almost six years old when he died, and her brother William. Robert’s descendant Amanda Sinton-Gerry tells that Gertrude never remarried. Robert is commemorated on Alnmouth War Memorial.

CASUALTIES

Staggeringly different estimates of casualties relating to the 1917 Flanders Offensive are available on the internet and in various published works. German casualties to the beginning of October were significantly lower than Allied losses but this changed as October progressed. In terms of attrition, many German soldiers thought the 3rd Battles of Ypres worse than the 1916 Battles of Verdun and the Somme. On the British side, estimates range from 245,000 to 449,000 killed, wounded, missing and prisoners of war, while on the German side they range from 200,000 to 400,000. For illustrative purposes, therefore, it may be reasonable to use median respective figures as being in the order of 300,000 to 310,000 (60,000 killed or died) Allied casualties and 270,000 to 280,000 German. From the Allies’ perspective, French losses should be added but estimates of these, too, vary wildly.

OUTCOME

If the belligerents on all sides felt exhausted at the end of 1916, they were much more so by the end of 1917. Nevertheless, because of its greater mobilised manpower, the German Army maintained an ability to switch significant resources to and from the Eastern and Italian Fronts.

Resistance of the German 4th Army, unusually wet weather which resulted in appalling ground conditions, the onset of winter and diversion of British and French resources to Italy following Austro-German victory at Caporetto, enabled the Germans to avoid a general withdrawal, which had seemed inevitable in early October.

In 1917, the BEF extracted lessons of 1916 to achieve some success in the controversial battles of attrition which so marked British psyche and outlook on the year.

British strategy was to be on the front foot, taking the offensive and seeking to break through German defensive lines. German outlook was to adopt a defensive posture and wear out the Entente Allies through attrition. The Germans achieved their objective of not allowing the Allies to break through the 1st Flandern Line (fourth defensive line) and they continued to hold the Belgian coast.

German defensive tactics were generally successful but, when weather conditions were good, they had no effective answer to bite and hold tactics employed by the BEF.

REFLECTIONS

Some historians believe the European history of the 3rd Battles of Ypres has still to be written. There is controversy still over which side was most successful during the campaign.

Although Germany may have won the battle, it was a pyrrhic victory as the considerable casualties and, particularly, material losses incurred could not easily be replaced – so many pack animals were lost that they didn’t have enough in 1918, a situation exacerbated by failure of the fodder crop. Germany ended up losing the war because there was no political vision of how to make the peace.

Sir Douglas Haig’s conviction of collapsing German morale was completely wrong – it did not crack in 1917, it was not until after the Battles of the Lys in April 1918 that it began to break, more especially when Ludendorff then realised Germany could not win the war and sued for peace.

Most military historians would probably agree that, in 1917, the BEF needed to be handled with care, yet Haig took an enormous risk by setting what turned out to be unrealistic and unattainable goals (eg, along a 30km front, objectives were set to 10 kilometres depth) and, especially, in continuing the offensive in Flanders as conditions deteriorated. In fairness to him, it may have been difficult to justify halting without having to give up hard-won ground.

What was, arguably, a British defeat left the Allies in a much more precarious state towards the end of 1917 by when nobody on the Allied side, possibly except Haig, anticipated victory in 1918.

Reflecting on the overall outcome of the Flanders Offensive, the truth of the matter is that neither side could justifiably claim a clear-cut victory on the battlefields at the end of 1917.

IMPACT ON MORALE

Casualties sustained during the campaign represented the loss of 10 British divisions, which subsequently affected morale. In December 1917, discontent was general behind the lines with mutinies at training camps and many drink-related offences however, unlike with the French Army earlier in the year, this never manifested itself in the front line.

HARSH LOGISTICS REALITIES

Harsh logistics realities and collapse resulted in delays. Handling the clawing mud, dreadful ground conditions and roads, was essentially an engineering matter that wasn’t dealt with properly for too long. Congestion and the lack of suitable usable roads resulted in restricted movement of supplies. Fragmented engineering resources reflected a lack of understanding, at the time, about the importance of logistics and its needs.

INTEGRATION OF ARMS

Yet, 1917 saw greater delegation of command within the BEF, greater staff efficiencies at Army, Corps and Division levels, and improvement in quality of its officers and men who were fast learning ‘on the job’.

The principal fighting unit focused on platoon formations rather than, as hitherto, companies or battalions. Organisation, weaponry and tactics changed to apply the harsh lessons learnt after 1916. Pioneer battalions were kept in reserve, to follow up the attacking infantry and rebuild roads and work on defensive positions as ground was consolidated. Signal detachments were organised to advance with the infantry-observation balloons were reserved for messages by signal lamp from the front line, as insurance against failure of telephone lines and message-runners. Here was the beginning of integration of arms which was so vital to the Allies’ eventual success in 1918.

BRITISH OFFICIAL HISTORY

The France and Belgium Volume II, Messines and Third Ypres (Passchendaele) Official History of the Great War was written at a ‘snail’s pace’, it was the last of the Great War histories to be published, in 1948. The story of its production is littered with lots of quarrels and resignations.

The volume’s and series editor, Brigadier General Sir James Edmonds, CB, CMG, concluded that Passchendaele was an Allied victory because of the campaign’s achievements in undermining German spirit and causing irreplaceable loss of war materials.

The great tragedy for the British Army and the Imperial Forces of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which suffered so many losses in the fight for the few miles from Ypres to the Passchendaele Ridge, is that only five months later, almost all the ground gained in the mud and horror of the 1917 was recaptured by the German Army during its April offensive in 1918.

Roll of honour

For each entry,the format is the name and rank; regiment/battalion; date of death; age; and where commemorated (or buried, if found).

Private Neil Patrick; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/5th Battalion Territorial Force, ‘A’ Company; 26 October; 31; Poelkapelle British Cemetery.

Private John Pollard; Northumberland Fusiliers, 12th /13th (Service) Battalion; 26 October; Unknown; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Corporal Robert Riddle Robson; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; Unknown; Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, Ieper.

Lance Sergeant William Russell; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; Unknown; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

John Taylor Rutter; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/5th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 28; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private Henry Ryder; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/5th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; Unknown; Poelkapelle British Cemetery.

Private Samuel Sanderson; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/4th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 21; Poelkapelle British Cemetery.

Lance Sergeant Thomas Simpson; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; Unknown; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private William Slassor; Northumberland Fusiliers 1/4th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 31; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private William Straughan; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/5th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 23; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Lance Corporal William Tait; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; Unknown; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Lieutenant Harold Kenyon Temperley (MID); Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/6th Battalion Territorial Force attached to 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 21; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

2nd Lieutenant Robert Thompson, MC; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; Unknown; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private Thomas Murray Trotter; Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), 2/3rd Battalion; 26 October; 22; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private James William Turnbull; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 21; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private Robert Wade; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/4th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; Unknown; Poelkapelle British Cemetery.

Lance Corporal Robert Walker; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 28; Poelkapelle British Cemetery.

Corporal Alexander Wallace; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/5th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; Unknown; Cement House Cemetery.

Private Robert George Weightman; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 25; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private Thomas Henry Weightman; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 October; 25; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private Robert Thomas Craigs; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 27 October; Unknown; Solferino Farm Cemetery.

Corporal John Fife; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 27 October; 21; Solferino Farm Cemetery.

Private William Foreman; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 27 October; 25; Dozinghem Military Cemetery.

Captain Robert Patrick Neville, MC; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 27 October; Unknown; Solferino Farm Cemetery.

Private Joseph Daniel J Potter; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 27 October; Unknown; Solferino Farm Cemetery.

Able Seaman James Sanderson Pratt; Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, Royal Naval Division, Howe Battalion; 28 October; 30; Nine Elms British Cemetery, Poperinge.

Private Martin Henry Grey; Durham Light Infantry, 10th (Service) Battalion; 29 October; 19; Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

Private Peter McDougal; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/6th Battalion Territorial Force; 29 October; 28; Dozinghem Military Cemetery.

Private John Scott, Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Battalion, attached to Light Mortar Battery; 29 October; 21; Favreuil British Cemetery.

Private Ernest Spring Henderson; London Regiment, 1/28th (County of London) Battalion (Artist’ Rifles); 30 October; Unknown; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Lieutenant Arthur Reed; Royal Canadian Regiment; 30 October; 33; Ieper (Menin Gate) Memorial.

Sapper Arthur William Robertson; Royal Engineers, 29th Light Railway Operations Company; 31 October; 27; Solferino Farm Cemetery.

Private William John Aitchison; Machine Gun Corp (Infantry), 4th Company; Unknown; Jerusalem Memorial.

Private M B Wight; Machine Gun Corps (Infantry), 6th Depot Company; 4 November; 26; Etaples Military Cemetery.

Corporal John Grey; Royal Field Artillery, ‘D’ Battery, 317th Brigade; 8 November; 32 Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private Adam Hindmarsh; Leicestershire Regiment, 3rd (Reserve) Battalion; 8 November; 19; Warkworth (St Lawrence) Cemetery.

Private James Davidson Gair; Alexandra, Princess of Wales’ Own (Yorkshire Regiment), 2nd Battalion; 11 November; 19; Bailleul Communal Cemetery and Extension.

Private John Hindhaugh; Northumberland Fusiliers, 26th (Service) Battalion (3rd Tyneside Irish); 12 November; 31; Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux.

Private Albert Myers; Lincolnshire Regiment, 10th (Service) Battalion (Grimsby); 12 November; 22; St Martin Calvaire British Cemetery, St

Martin-sur-Cojeul.

Private John Hall; Northumberland Fusiliers, Depot Battalion; 13 November; 34; Paisley (Hawkhead) Cemetery.

Gunner Robert Stephenson; Royal Garrison Artillery, 120th Siege Battery; 13 November; Unknown; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private William Willis; Prince of Wales’ Own (West Yorkshire Regiment), 1/8th Battalion (Leeds Rifles) Territorial Force; 13 November; 27; Menin Road South Military Cemetery.

Private David Alexander Woodcock; Lancashire Fusiliers, 3/5th Battalion Territorial Force; 15 November; 19; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private John William Auldjo; Canadian Light Infantry, 87th Battalion, Quebec Unit; 17 November; 26; Ieper (Menin Gate) Memorial.

Private Jacob Alex Tweedy; Northumberland Fusiliers, 22nd (Service) Battalion (3rd Tyneside Scottish); 18 November; 27; Wancourt British Cemetery.

Private John William Douglas; Border Regiment, 7th (Service) Battalion; 20 November; 22; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Private John William Lightbody; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Battalion; 20 November; 34; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Private Robert William Renton; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Battalion; 20 November; 30; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Private Robert Warren; Machine Gun Corps (Infantry). 169th Company; 23 November; Unknown; Louverval Military Cemetery, Doignies.

Private John Douglas Campbell Aikman; Northumberland Fusiliers, 9th (Service) Battalion; 25 November; 22; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Private John Brown; Coldstream Guards, 1st Battalion; 27 November; Unknown; Cambrai Memorial (Louverval Military Cemetery).

Private George Watson Elliott; East Lancashire Regiment, 2/4th Battalion Territorial Force; 27 November; 29; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Lance Corporal George Hedges; Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment), 2/6th Battalion Territorial Force; 27 November; Unknown; Cambrai Memorial (Louverval Military Cemetery).

Private John Thomas Wintrip; East Lancashire Regiment, 2/4th Battalion Territorial; 27 November; 35; Tyne Cot Memorial (Tyne Cot Cemetery).

Sergeant John Dawson; Prince Albert’s (Somerset Light Infantry), 7th (Service) Battalion; 30 November; 22; Cambrai Memorial (Louverval Military Cemetery).