Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (The 2/4th Battalion)

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The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)

From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

CHAPTER X.
THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES,
AUGUST, 1917.

In the war-history of all Battalions there is a season when it is possible to say that they have reached their fullness of development, but have not yet lost all original identity. August, 1917, was such a season in my history. Of officers and men who had served with the Battalion in its infancy many were yet remaining. Time and experience of war had moulded these, with the admixture of subsequent drafts, into a Battalion sure of itself and well-developed. But when it quitted the battleground of Ypres most of its old identity had vanished. From that time onward the 2/4th Oxfords were a changed unit, whose roots were set no longer in England but in France, for in France had come to it the officers and men of whom it was afterwards constituted.

On the eve of this great change-importing battle a short review is not amiss of the Battalion’s constitution. A Company still had for its Commander Brown, among whose officers were Coombes, Callender, and Webb. As Company Sergeant Major, Cairns was a tower of strength. John Stockton led B Company, and under him was Moberly. C Company possessed two Captains, Brucker and Harris, and had as platoon commanders, Hawkes, Matthews, and Jones. D Company was still commanded by the author. An acquisition to my company had recently arrived in Scott, the bearer of two wounds received in service with the Oxford Territorials. Scott was the best officer I ever had. Guest, another new officer, before he went into the line showed that he was made of the right stuff; he was commander of No. 16 Platoon. Dawson-
Smith, Copinger, Gascoyne, and Hill were other new arrivals in my company. The N.C.O.’s on whom I most relied were Sergeants Palmer, Leatherbarrow, and Sloper, but the real backbone of the Company were the gallant and determined section leaders whom I had chosen for promotion from the ranks. Of my runners and signallers I was especially proud, and at Company Headquarters there was, of course, the redoubtable Sergeant-Major Brooks, who besides being a great fighter possessed also high organising powers. My total strength on reaching Poperinghe was over 200, which shows that at this time the Battalion was well found in men. It was known nevertheless that some reduction from this maximum fighting force was to take place. One hundred men of the Battalion, including ‘ specialists ‘ like Lewis gunners, signallers and runners, were henceforward ‘left out of the line’ whenever the Battalion went forward to take part in an attack. They were so
left in order that, if the casualties were very high, some nucleus of veteran soldiers would still remain around whom the new Battalion could be built. A like rule applied to officers. A month
ago the Colonel had decided which of these should not take part in the first Ypres attack. Brown and myself stayed out of the line, and in our stead Callender and Scott respectively commanded A and D Companies.

Our stay near Poperinghe was short. Attention was devoted to the final organisation of platoons and sections and to the problem of what kit to carry in the attack and how best to carry it. Varied experiments were made to see whether a pack or haversack was better and which way uppermost a shovel should be slung. Supply of ammunition for the Lewis guns raised many questions for debate. When all the sections the Lewis-gunners, bombers, rifle-grenadiers, and riflemen were finally complete, a new drain was made on our numbers by the demand for seventeen men per Company, who from their duties became known as ‘ Loaders and Leaders.’ Their function was to lead forward during battle mules loaded with rations, water, and ammunition. So little advancing was there that the mules, so far as this Battalion was concerned, were never used, and the loaders and leaders, thanks to their function proving illusory, escaped all share in the fighting.

If Poperinghe and Ypres had quite borne out their reputations I should not here remark on either of them. The former was a most crowded and degenerate-looking town, by a few towers rendered
impressive from a distance, but in reality of mean structure. Besides its club at which I recollect that Heidsieck 1906 was then only ten francs the bottle and its estaminets, the town held few attractions. Damage by long-range German guns around the station had been considerable, but to the town itself, except its windows, not very much had up till now occurred. The surrounding country was neither flat nor uninteresting. The Mont des Cats and Kemmel bounded the horizon on the southeast, while to the west and north gently undulating hills, covered with fields of hops, distinguished this area from the sodden plains commonly credited to Flanders. Ypres, though destroyed past any hopes of restoration, in 1917 still wore the semblance of a town. From previous descriptions of the ‘Salient ‘ I had almost expected that a few handfuls of ashes would be of Ypres the only vestige
left. The portions least destroyed in Ypres compared perhaps equally with the worst in Arras, but of the two the Flemish city had been the less well built. The remains of the great Cloth Hall, cathedral, and other buildings revealed that what had once been, supposedly, of stone was in reality white brick.

On August 18, starting at 4 a.m., the Battalion marched to Goldfish Chateau, close to Ypres, and the Transport to a disused brickfield west of Vlamertinghe. We lived in bivouacs and tents and were much vexed by German aeroplanes, and to a less degree by German shells. On August 20, while companies were making ready for the line, an air fight happened just above our camp. Its
sequel was alarming. A German aeroplane fell worsted in the fight, and dived to ground, a roaring mass of fire, not forty yards from our nearest tents. By a freak of chance the machine fell in
a hole made by a German shell. The usual rush was made towards the scene by those, that is, not already sufficiently close for their curiosity. A crowd, which to some extent disorganised our preparations for the line, collected round the spot and watched the R.F.C. extract the pilot and parts of the machine, which was deeply embedded in the hole. For hours the wreckage remained the centre of attraction to many visitors. The General hailed the burnt relics, not inappropriately, as a lucky omen.

During the night of August 20/21 the Battalion relieved a portion of the front eastward of Wieltje. Three companies were placed in trenches bearing the name of ‘ Capricorn,’ but B was further back. During the night a serious misfortune befell the latter. Three 5.95 fell actually in the trench and caused thirty-five casualties, including all the sergeants of the company. On the eve of an attack such an occurrence was calculated to affect the morale of any troops. That the company afterwards did well was specially creditable in view of this demoralising prelude.

On the following night Companies assembled for the attack. Neither the starting place nor the objectives for this are easily described by reference to surrounding villages. The nearest was St. Julien. The operation orders for the attack of August 22 assigned as objective to the Oxfords a road running across the Hanebeck and referred to as the Winnipeg-Kansas Cross Road. The 48th Division on the left and the I5th on the right were to cooperate with the 184th Brigade in the attack. Shortly before 5 the bombardment started. In the advance behind the creeping barrage put down by our guns, of which an enormous concentration was present on the front, C, D and A Companies
(from right to left) provided the first waves, while B Company followed to support the flanks. The Berks came afterwards as ‘moppers up.’ Half-an- hour after the advance started D, B and A Companies were digging-in 150 yards west of the Winnipeg-Kansas Cross Road. The losses of these companies in going over had not been heavy, but, as so often happens, casualties occurred directly the objective had been duly reached. In the case of C Company, on the right, but little progress had been made. Pond Farm, a concrete stronghold, to capture which a few nights previously an unsuccessful sally had been made, had proved too serious an obstacle. Not till the following night was it reduced, and during the whole of August 22 it remained a troublesome- feature in the situation. Before the line reached could be consolidated or they could act to defeat the enemy’s tactics, our
men found themselves the victims of sniping and machine-gun fire from Schuler Farm, which was not taken and to which parties of reinforcements to the enemy now came. More dangerous still was an old gun-pit which lay behind the left flank. The capture of this had been assigned to the 48th Division, but as a measure of abundant caution Colonel Wetherall had detailed a special Berks
platoon to tackle it. This platoon, assisted by some Oxfords on the scene, captured the gun-pit and nearly seventy prisoners, but failed to garrison it. A party of the enemy found their way back and were soon firing into our men from behind.

During the early stages of consolidation, when personal example and direction were required, John Stockton, Scott, and Gascoyne were all killed by snipers or machine-gun fire. Scott had been hit
already in the advance and behaved finely in refusing aid until he had despatched a message to Headquarters. While he was doing so three or four bullets struck him simultaneously and he died.

Throughout the 22nd no actual counter-attack nor organised bombardment by the enemy took place, but much sniping and machine-gun fire continued, making it almost impossible to move about. Our loss in Lewis-gunners was particularly heavy.
Callender, the acting company commander of A Company, had been killed before the attack commenced, and Sergeant-Major Cairns was now the mainstay of that company, whose men were thoroughly mixed up with B. Upon the left the 48th Division had failed to reach Winnipeg, with the result that this flank of A and B Companies was quite in the air. On the Battalion’s right the
failure of C Company, in which Brucker had been wounded, to pass Pond Farm left the flank of D Company exposed and unsupported. But the position won was kept. Ground to which the
advance had been carried with cost would not be lightly given up. Moberly, Company Sergeant-Major Cairns, and Guest – the latter by volunteering in daylight to run the gauntlet of the German
snipers back to Headquarters greatly distinguished themselves in the task of maintaining this exposed position during the night of August 22 and throughout August 23. Some of our men had to remain in shell-holes unsupported and shot at from several directions for over fifty hours. During the night of August 23/24 the Battalion was relieved, when those whom death in battle had not claimed nor wounds despatched to hospital marched back through Ypres to the old camp at Goldfish Chateau.

The attack, in which the Bucks had successfully cooperated on the right of our advance, earned credit for the Brigade and the Battalion. It had been, from a fighting standpoint, a military success. But from the strategical aspect the operations showed by their conclusion that the error had been made of nibbling with weak forces at objectives which could only have been captured and secured by strong. Moreover, the result suggested that the
objectives had been made on this occasion for the attack rather than the attack for the objectives.

The 184th Brigade had played the part assigned to it completely and with credit, but what had been gained by it with heavy loss was in fact given up by its successors almost at once. Withdrawal from the Kansas trenches became an obvious corollary to the German omission to counter-attack against them. Ground not in dispute ’twas not worth casualties to hold. On the Battalion’s front Pond Farm, a small concrete stronghold, remained the sole fruit of the attack of August 22. It was after the 61st Division had been withdrawn, wasted in stationary war, that what success could be associated with this third battle of Ypres commenced. Judged by its efforts, the 6ist was ill paid in results. On August 25 the Battalion, and with it the rest of the Brigade, moved back from Goldfish Chateau to Query Camp, near Brandhoek. The weather, which had been fairly fine for several weeks, now again broke in thunderstorms and rain. Trees were blown down along the main road to Ypres. The clouds hung low or raced before the wind, so that no aeroplane nor kite-balloon could mount the sky. This meteorological revulsion stood the Germans in great stead. Mud and delay, fatal to us, were to them tactical assets of the highest value. As can easily be appreciated, to postpone a complicated attack is a proceeding only less lengthy and difficult than its preparation, nor can attacks even be cancelled except at quite considerable notice. Thus it befell that some of our attacks, before they had commenced, were ruined by deluges of rain when it was too late to change the plans. On August 27 a further attack upon Gallipoli, Schuler Farm and Winnipeg was made by the 183rd Brigade in cooperation with the 15th and 48th Divisions. The mud and enemy machine-gun fire alike proved terrible. The contact aeroplane soon crashed, the advance failed to reach the ‘pill-boxes’ from which the Germans held out, and before night a return had to be made to the original line.

On August 30 the Brigade went forward once again to Goldfish Chateau. The camp had not been improved by our predecessors, who had attempted to dig in. Holes filled with water were the result, and nearly all the tents and shelters had to be moved. Since the stagnation of the battle German shelling in the back area had much increased. The field where the camp lay was bounded on three sides by railways or roads. Some of our 12-inch howitzers were close in front. Despite our best attempts to sever association with such targets we had a share in the shells intended for them. One night especially the long howl of German shells ended in their arrival very near our tents. The latter had been placed at one side of the field in order to escape, as we expected, the shells more likely to be aimed by German gunners at the main road and railway as targets. We changed our ‘pitch,’ but the next morning came a pursuing shell on an old line of fire, which made it clear that the best place was the deliberate middle
of the field.

The passage overhead of German aeroplanes made nights uneasy. Darkness was lit by those huge flashes in the sky, which denoted explosions of our dumps of shells. The ground shook many
times an hour with great concussions. Sometimes the crash of bombs and patter of machine-guns firing at our transport lasted till pale dawn appeared or its approach was heralded by the bombardment of our guns, whose voice pronounced the prologue of attack.

On both sides the concentration of artillery was very great. Though the bad weather had shackled our advance from the start, our staff yet hoped to gain the ridge of Passchendaele before winter set in. The Germans, too, held that the stake was high. Our guns, which were advanced as far as Wieltje and St. Jean andl stood exposed in the open, became the object of persistent German shelling. Sound-ranging and aerial photography had reached a high development, and few of our batteries went undiscovered. For the Artillery life became as hard as for the Infantry. Gunner casualties were very numerous. Our batteries for
hours on end were drenched in mustard-gas. Into Ypres as well large quantities of ‘Yellow Cross’ shells, cleverly mixed up with high-explosive, were fired with nocturnal frequency. The long range of the enemy’s field-guns made the effect of these subtle gas-shells, whose flight and explosion were almost noiseless amid the din of our own artillery, especially widespread. The enemy’s activity against our back area was at its height at the end
of August, 1917. Casualty Clearing Stations were both bombed and shelled. Near Poperinghe nurses were killed. No service forward of Corps Headquarters but had its casualties. Our lorry-
drivers’ work was fraught with danger. The Germans were waging a war to the knife and employ- ing every means to serve their obstinate resistance. The ‘ defence in depth,’ practised to some extent at Arras, had become the enemy’s reply to our destruction by artillery of the trench systems on which, earlier in the war, he had relied with confidence. Destruction of prepared positions had reached so absolute a stage that the old arguments of wire and machine-guns brought up from deep dug-outs to fire over parapets, were no longer present. The ground to a distance of several thousand yards behind the enemy’s front line could be, and had been, churned and rechurned into one brown expanse. For four miles east of Ypres there was no green space and hardly a yard of ground without its shell-hole. Positions where the enemy held out consisted in groups of concrete ‘pill-boxes,’ which had been made from Belgian gravel and cement in partial anticipation of this result of the artillery war. They in all cases were carefully sited and so small (being designed to hold machine-guns and their teams) that their destruction by our heavy shells was almost impossible. These ‘pill-boxes’ were also so designed as to support each other, that is to say, if one of
them were captured, the fire of others on its flanks often compelled the captors to yield it up. Garrisons were provided from the elite of the German army. One cannot but admire the steadfastness with which, during this phase of warfare, these solitary strongholds held out. Indeed, the only way to cope with this defence was to press an advance on a wide front to such a depth as to reduce the entire area in which these pill-boxes lay into our possession. By attacking spasmodically we played
the enemy’s game.

Our methods of attack which had been practised through the spring and summer still consisted, broadly speaking, in the advance of lines of Infantry behind a creeping barrage. These lines were too often held up by pill-boxes, against which the creeping barrage was ineffectual, and once delay which had not been calculated on occurred, the creeping barrage was proved doubly useless, for it had outdistanced the speed of the advance. The change in tactics necessary to reduce these concrete strongholds was soon appreciated, but troops who had been trained in the older methods were slow, in action, to adopt the new ones requisite. Partly from such a reason the 61st Division scored little success against the pill-box defence, but lack of tangible results was not joined with lack of honest attempts. The mud, the nibbling tactics passed down from above, inadequate cooperation by the divisions fighting side by side with us, and the failure of our artillery to hit the pill-boxes which we had hoped could be put out of action by our heavy shells, further combined to paralyse efforts which, had they been directed to more easy
tasks, would now, as often, have earned for the Division the highest military success.”

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74 thoughts on “The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)

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