We seem to do a good job of remembrance - the recent commemorations at the Menin Gate and at Tyne Cot on July 31st were very moving. The Battle known as Third Ypres had started on that date in 1917. Field Marshall Haig had hoped the battle would be decisive and the Allies would break out of the Salient, but yet again his plans were to fail, despite heroic deeds and much sacrifice.
This is an attempt to give some sort of insight into the nature of the battle through the stories of a small number of men who were there. I told the story in last month’s edition of BRUMRATION of the Welsh Poet Private Ellis Humphrey Evans, known as Hedd Wyn. Serving with the 15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers he was killed on the first morning of the battle at Pilckem Ridge. A reluctant soldier, some of his views are reflected in the poem, Rhyfel (War). I have attempted to translate this poem from its original Welsh to convey something of the thought behind the work:
It is sad that I live at a time
when faith in God has ebbed.
The rulers and the powerful
Stand up and take his place.
As quickly as God is shown the door,
Out come the weapons to kill one’s brother.
The sound of battle is in our ears,
Its shadow falls heaviest on the homes of the poor.
The ancient harps are silent
And hung on the willows bough,
The boy’s cries fall on the wind,
And their blood is in the rain.
Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, V C and Bar MC, RAMC
Captain Noel Chavasse was wounded early on July 31st when he was hit in the head by a small shell splinter, but walked back to the dressing station to get the wound dressed. He was advised he should stay there until he could be sent to a CCS for proper treatment but he insisted on returning to his duties, and treated a constant stream of wounded. He was wounded again in the head on August 1st and at this point he most certainly should have been removed from the battlefield but in some pain he continued to treat the wounded. He was seriously wounded by shell fragments later in the day when a shell entered his Aid Post, killing or wounding all those inside.
Captain Chavasse was operated on at the CCS No 32 at Brandhoek but died on the morning of August 4th. In a letter dictated by him to his fiancée Gladys he is reported to have said, ‘Give her my love, tell her Duty called and called me to obey’.
On 14thSeptember, the Bar to his VC was announced in the London Gazette. The citation read, ‘Though severely wounded early in the action whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the dressing station, he refused to leave his post and for two days not only continued to perform his duties but in addition went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out. During these searches, practically without food, worn with fatigue and faint with his wound, he assisted a number of wounded men over heavy and difficult ground. By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would otherwise have perished in the bad weather conditions. This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds’.
Captain Russel Sandon Turner 5th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment
Part of the 143rd Brigade the 1st/5th Warwick’s went into action North East of St Julien on 4th October 1917. On their flanks were the 1st /6th and 1st/7th Warwick’s with the 1st/8th in reserve. The attack followed an intensive barrage which lifted at 6.00 am and as the men moved towards the German positions, Captain Turner leading C Company was one of the first casualties. They had been met with a hail of machine gun and sniper fire, the Germans using the many shell holes for this purpose. There was no trench line as such to capture but the Battalions did achieve some of their objectives. This was at a terrible cost, 12 officers were killed and 15 wounded with over 700 other ranks killed wounded or missing.
Captain Turner was 35 when he was killed; he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. He is also on the Sutton Coldfield and Four Oaks memorials and the Bishop Vesey Roll of Honour. His first wife Madeline died in 1909, and he is also commemorated on her grave which is in Sutton Coldfield Town Cemetery. He had married Cicely May Grove in Holy Trinity Church Sutton Coldfield on 28th June 1917.
Private Frederick Barlow, 1st/7th Worcester Regiment
Frederick Barlow was interviewed by the Birmingham Evening Mail in November 1978, and looked back to events in October 1917. At that time he was 82 and lived in Shirley, Solihull but was originally from Small Heath.
On October 18th 1917 he was preparing to attack German positions around a German pillbox at Wurst Farm. They had made their way towards the start point through the devastated landscape in drenching rain. They had tried to follow the tape laid down for them, but even keeping up with the man in front was very challenging. They had left their greatcoats behind because of the ground conditions. In addition to their usual kit their rifles and extra magazines were wrapped in sandbags to protect them from the mud. They passed around 15 tanks stuck in the mud.
His close friend Jack French was hit, and soon after his ‘pal Jack’. They were the last of the men he had trained with in England. The others had been killed or wounded in a similar attack on August 25th.
Frederick Barlow was caught in shell fire and was seriously wounded in the neck. A stretcher bearer applied a shell dressing, but he had to try and make his own way back to an Aid Post. At one point he was pulled out of the mud by an Artillery officer. He eventually got a lift on a wagon and was moved on to a Dressing Station at Ypres Canal Bank. From there he was moved in a cattle truck, lying on straw, to a Casualty Clearing Station for an operation. As the doctor was doing his rounds the following morning, although his head was covered in bandages, he heard him asking the nurse ‘Is the boy with the neck wound still alive’.
Private W J Harvey, 24th Battalion, Australian Infantry Force
Throughout the night of 3rd October 1917 the Australian Infantry had moved single file up the tracks into the ditches that passed for the front line. There were four German Divisions massed opposite, including on the ridge at Broodseinde which was the area the Australians planned to attack. As the Australians waited a German barrage opened up at 5.30 am. This had a devastating result on men packed closely together waiting to attack. Over a third of Private Harvey’s section was put out of action, but their advance in the early morning mist and through the smoke of the barrage caught the Germans by surprise. Lyn Macdonald in ‘They called it Passchendaele’ wrote that the Australians infuriated by the German shelling and the death of their comrades ‘ went savagely into attack, wielding bayonets to such an effect that a large number of unfortunate Germans, seeing the Australians were in no mood to take prisoners, shammed dead or wounded to escape the onslaught’. Private Harvey wrote ‘a number of those Huns rose up and started firing on us from the rear. That, naturally enough made the boys see red. Their deaths were real enough after that’.
An official communique issued that evening noted that one Anzac Corps had taken 3,900 prisoners and met all its objectives, and that the other Corps who had come into contact with Prussian Guards, had met all their objectives and taken no prisoners.