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The 1917 Flanders offensive, the final phase begins

A six-inch Howitzer abandoned in a sea of mud.
A six-inch Howitzer abandoned in a sea of mud.

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

It began with the Battle of Messines, a significant tactical success for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

Private John R Dodds

Private John R Dodds

Part two focused on preparations for the second phase of the campaign and the Battles of Pilckem (July 31-August 2) and Langemarck (August 16-18), to the end of August 1917. These two battles were the first of eight which together are known as the 3rd Battles of Ypres, perhaps more commonly known in Britain as Passchendaele.

Part 3 dealt with operations during September up to and including October 4, during which the effectiveness of British bite and hold tactics resulted in three notable, albeit costly, victories.

The fourth part of the series is split with, this week, a brief overview of operations during the final and most controversial phase.

POELKAPELLE: OCTOBER 9

A Livens gas projector in action.

A Livens gas projector in action.

The costly gains of the battles at the end of September and beginning of October persuaded some British commanders that German defences were at breaking point. Despite worsening rain, the British Commander-in- Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, opted to continue attacks towards the Passchendaele Ridge. This proved one of his most controversial decisions. He thought the Anzac Corps could get a good jumping-off line for an attack planned for October 12.

Unfortunately for the Anzacs, preparations for the Battle of Poelkapelle were feeble compared to previous efforts and they paid a heavy price as they floundered in the mud against fresh German reserves well supplied with mustard gas. The Allies simply found it impossible to move forward sufficient artillery pieces and ammunition to support attacking infantry.

The French First Army and British Second and Fifth armies attacked on October 9, on a 12,300-metre front, from south of Broodseinde to St Jansbeek, to advance half of the distance from Broodseinde Ridge to Passchendaele. Advances on the northern part of the front were retained, but most of the ground taken in front of Passchendaele village and on the Becelaere and Gheluvelt spurs was lost to German counter-attacks.

GAS WARFARE

The disabling power of mustard gas.

The disabling power of mustard gas.

1917 saw two major gas innovations: An effective British delivery system, the Livens gas projectors, capable of handling projectiles containing 40 gallons of gas, which the Germans quickly copied and used most effectively on the Italian Front at Caporetto; much more sinister mustard gas, commonly known as Yperite or Yellow Cross, which was used for the first time on the Western Front in October.

All three Western Front belligerents considered mustard gas in 1916, but the British and French rejected it because it wasn’t sufficiently toxic, it wasn’t lethal, it didn’t kill, however, the Germans realised it was a disabler and persistent. They first used mustard gas in September 1917 on the Eastern Front, at Riga.

No immediate symptoms are shown by those exposed to mustard gas, but within a couple of hours there’s irritation to eyes, and skin blisters will appear anywhere on the body where sweat may be. Mustard gas poisoned the ground, which the Germans had no intention of counter-attacking across, and it was used very successfully in counter-battery work rather than for denial of territory.

British casualties from exposure to mustard gas equated to two divisions in hospital at any one time, ie, about 25,000-35,000 men. The persistent nature of the gas resulted in contaminated uniforms which the Germans themselves found they were unable to replace as a direct impact of the naval blockade exercised by the Royal Navy.

FIRST BATTLE OF PASSCHENDAELE: OCTOBER 12

Heavy rain fell from October 9 to 12, the most difficult period for the British but very successful for the Germans. Arguably, this was the most controversial stage of the Flanders Offensive. The Germans expected the attack – a deserter had told them the start time and intelligence was gleaned from a trench raid that captured three men.

Deeper objectives were set than for earlier battles, requiring an advance of about 3,000 metres, consequently not one objective was taken. Formidable obstacles had to be overcome (eg, uncut wire which could/should have been verified beforehand) and troops were exhausted just getting to the start line. Opportunities for training beforehand were limited.

As with Poelkapelle, artillery support was inadequate because few guns had been/could be moved forward, similarly only limited ammunition supplies had been moved forward and many gun emplacements were not solid enough. Attacking troops on October 12 faced dreadful conditions with ground churned up by continuous artillery barrages turned into glutinous mud created by persistent rain.

To compound matters, the artillery barrage opened 200 metres short among New Zealand troops who sustained huge casualties within minutes. After initial successes, German counter-attacks recovered lost ground. It took four days to clear wounded from the battlefield.

SECOND BATTLE OF PASSCHENDAELE: OCT 16 TO NOV 10

Preparations were fraught with difficulties. 1,500 casualties alone were sustained during the preparatory road-building phase. Guns got bogged down, and men and pack animals were exhausted. German pill-boxes and blockhouses proved more difficult to destroy than expected.

At a BEF conference, on October 13, Haig decided to stop further attacks until the weather improved and roads could be extended. Minor local operations were sanctioned to maintain pressure and to discourage the Germans from sending reserves to the Chemins des Dames where the French had launched an offensive to capture La Malmaison, which was successful. This final phase of the 1917 Flanders Offensive was undertaken by the Canadian Corps in three limited attacks, on October 26 and 30 and November 6. The first attack resulted in some objectives being taken by the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions but with heavy casualties sustained, more than 50 per cent in some units. German counter-attacks and communication failures between the Canadian and Australian units to the south forced a slow retirement from some objectives gained.

Objectives for the second stage, starting on October 30, were to complete the previous stage and establish a base for the final assault on Passchendaele village. The attack met with partial success but the need for more roads was reinforced. Mule trains were used to carry artillery ammunition forward, however, the artillery’s performance was less effective than it could have been, with short, irregular and sometimes ineffective barrages.

Attackers on the southern flank quickly captured their objective and sent patrols into Passchendaele village, however, the attack on the northern flank again met with exceptional German resistance and remained short of its objective.

Three rainless days from November 3 to 5 eased preparation for the next stage, which began on the sixth. Better preparation of guns and gun positions along with greater knowledge and understanding of conditions, led to a complex artillery fire plan being devised but one that was implemented well. Consequently, artillery was much more effective. Units could leapfrog forward while keeping within the artillery umbrella. More effective aerial observation was available.

Many units of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Division took their objectives in under three hours and Passchendaele village was finally captured, not that there was much left of the village.

On November 10, the Canadian Corps launched one last action to gain control of the remaining high ground north of the village near Hill 52, which effectively brought the Flanders Offensive to an end, although a few small local operations were later conducted to improve positions still further.

Towards the end of the campaign, both sides fed in large numbers of troops. Conditions were such to preclude mass attacks, rather advances were achieved by a series of small attacks, especially over the last 800 metres to the village. These final phases of the 1917 Flanders Offensive were distinguished by the highest concentration of Victoria Crosses, and the German equivalent, awarded during the First World War.

PRIVATE ROBERT CLARK

Robert was born in 1889 at Hepple, the son of Henry and Jane Clark. His mother died when he was two and the 1891 Census shows him living at East Hepple Farm Cottages with his widowed father, Henry, 45, a farm servant and siblings William, 19, a shepherd; John, 16, a farm servant; Isabella, 14; Henry G, 13; Thomas, 11; James, nine; and Jane, five. Ten years later, Robert had moved to West Hall, Hepple, with his father Henry, then described as an agricultural labourer, and his sister Isabella.

By 1911, at the age of 22, Robert was also working as a farm labourer and living at Catchburn, Morpeth, with his married sister Isabella and her husband, John Monaghan, 36, a coal miner. They had a seven-month-old daughter, also called Isabella, and Robert’s brother Thomas, 31, lived with them while employed as a farm labourer.

In 1914, Robert married Janet Rogerson. They lived at Whittingham. The UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901-1929 refers to his widow, Janet, and to an unnamed child.

GUNNER GEORGE EWART WADE

George Ewart Wade was born in 1896, the son of Frank and Annie (née Ewart) Wade, of Embleton. His parents were originally both teachers.

Typical of administrative errors 100 years ago which researchers must be alive to, Wade is recorded in Soldiers Died as having enlisted at Alnwick, Nottinghamshire, but this is almost certainly a mistake, there appears to be no such place. To compound matters, both Soldiers Died and Ancestry.co.uk record him as resident at Leebury, Northumberland, which is likely to have been a misspelling of Lesbury.

Gunner Wade died of wounds received. In The Fallen of Embleton 1914-1919, it’s recorded that he reached a Casualty Clearing Station by October 11, 1917, which may suggest he was wounded during the Battle of Poelkapelle.

He’s buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No. 3, and he’s commemorated locally on the Memorial Cross, Spitalford Cemetery (Embleton); on the 1914-18 Plaque at Embleton Church of England School and on the Presbyterian communion tray used in the United Reformed Church (now closed).

DUKE’S SCHOOL PUPIL

Private John Richardson Dodds was born on November 22, 1889, at Longhoughton, the son of Mary Dodds and the late Thomas Robert Dodds, who was a schoolmaster at Longhoughton. He was educated at the Duke’s School, Alnwick, and before the war he was employed at the North Eastern Railway Mineral Audit Office, Newcastle.

Dodds enlisted on May 17, 1916, at Alnwick. He served with the Royal Field Artillery before joining the Northumberland Fusiliers, 24th/27th (Service) Battalion (1st Tyneside Irish). He’s recorded as having served with the BEF from January 1, 1917. He died on October 16 from wounds received at Langemarck two days previously. His Captain wrote: ‘He was a fine fellow and a very good soldier, and was a great favourite with all ranks’.

Buried at Minty Farm Cemetery, Wade is commemorated locally on Longhoughton War Memorial and on the 1914-18 Memorial Plaque at the Duke’s Middle School.

LOCAL FAMILY’S SACRIFICE

In one of those strange coincidences in life, Rose Knox and her husband George, from Belper, Derbyshire, were holidaying at Alnwick when part three of this series of articles was published on September 14. They were surprised to read about Petty Officer Thomas Egdell (misspelled Edgell, author’s mistake) which prompted Mrs Knox to contact the author to share more of the Egdell’s family history.

Robert and Thomasina (variously Thomasine and Thomason) Blythe Egdell, of Kirk’s Buildings, New Row, Alnwick, had 10 children, four daughters and six sons. All six sons served in the First World War and the family had the unenviable distinction of losing four of them. George Knox is descended from one of the daughters who never talked about the impact this had on the family. It is impossible, now, to imagine just what emotions must have been experienced at their losses, especially when their other two surviving sons both returned home scarred with war wounds.

Little is known about the background and service of Corporal John Egdell who was born on February 12, 1884. His loss, on October 26, 1917, came little more than a month after that of Acting Petty Officer Thomas (Tommy) Egdell DCM, who was originally reported killed in action on September 22, when out on patrol. His body was not recovered and it was later reported he died of wounds while a prisoner of war, on September 24, 1917.

The family had already suffered the loss of Lance Corporal Edward (Teddy) Walker Egdell during the 1916 Somme campaign. He had served in India with the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). He was discharged but re-enlisted for service in the Great War with that regiment’s 1st Battalion. He was killed in action on July 20, 1916 leaving a fiancée, Dorothy Davidson.

More would follow when David James Blythe Egdell was killed on April 13, 1918. He had joined his brother Teddy’s regiment. He has no known grave and he’s commemorated on Ploegsteert Memorial (Berks Cemetery Extension). All four brothers’ names appear on Alnwick War Memorial.

As for the two brothers who survived the war, the eldest, Robert, served in a Railway Battalion and was gassed, it is said with mustard gas, on June 22, 1917. At some point he was wounded and lost the use of a hand, so thereafter he always wore a glove. Back home, he managed to find employment as a school caretaker.

The youngest brother was George W Egdell who was born on October 2, 1893, and lived until 1975. He served with the local Northumberland Fusiliers 1/7th Battalion, Territorial Force.

He was wounded in the face and head by shrapnel and medically discharged, but he returned to his pre-war occupation and became the owner of a tailoring business and clothing shop.