Voices of the First World War: Passchendaele

The Ypres Salient was one of the most intensely voices fought over sections of the Western Front. Early in 1917, the British high command laid down plans to seize control of the area once and for all. The starting point was the capture of the Messines Ridge, to the south of Ypres. To help with this, a series of powerful mines were laid deep under the German front line. Bryan Frayling of the Royal Engineers was one of those involved in preparing the mines. He described his anticipation on the morning of the attack, 7 June.

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I had hoped very, very much that I would push the switch in that blew up Spanbroekmolen, which was the largest of them and which I’d helped to charge. Instead I was ordered to get up on Kemmel Hill that night and act as official observer for all the Tunnelling Companies. I had two subalterns with me; we put out sticks, lining sticks, on the correct bearings, and waited in pitch dark. When zero came, my anxiety of course was that some of the mines had been sitting in extremely wet ground and the explosive was ammonal which doesn’t go off when it’s wet. It was in soldered waterproof tins but we wondered how they’d fared…

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Frayling needn’t have worried –19 mines went up at 3.10 am. The result was devastating. Lieutenant John Royle of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company witnessed the impact of the explosions.

The whole hill, the whole hillside, everything rocked like a ship at sea. The noise from the artillery was deafening, the thunder from our charges was enormous. The infantry dashed forward under a barrage and kept sending back thousands and thousands of prisoners. I couldn’t tell you how many. They came back through our dugouts and we were able to see them and they were absolutely demoralised. We were all so happy that we didn’t know what to do. Then when we got a look at the craters there were lumps of blue clay as big as a small building lying about there. Our Hill 60 crater was 100 yards across from lip to lip and still 45 feet deep. We thought the war was over…

Messines Ridge quickly fell into Allied hands. The whole operation was a stunning success. But it was not capitalised upon, and the Germans were able to regroup. The next stage of the attack began on 31 July. After a two week bombardment of German lines, the British attacked near Pilckem. British officer Ulrick Burke recalled the morning of the battle.

Immediately the daylight came, they had their rum ration. The Quartermaster was always good on these occasions, it was practically a double, because he’d filched or watered or done something to it to let us have some more. Anyhow, that was done. Then you gave the men your last orders. They had brief sort of ladders, two bits of wood nailed together with three or four cross pieces to form the ladder to help them get out. Five minutes before the actual time of going over, which was the worst time for the troops, that’s when their feelings might break. You’d say, ‘Five minutes to go!’ You’d shout it down the left and right of your sector. Then, ‘Four minutes… three minutes… two minutes’ and ‘half a minute!’ and then you’d say, ‘10 seconds… get ready! Over…!’

Clifford Lane of the Hertfordshire Regiment was one of those who advanced on the German lines that day.

At dawn in the morning about, we were told, 800 guns opened up and we went over the top. It was all quite nice; we didn’t have anybody firing at us, not for the first quarter of an hour or so, anyway. We were getting along – strung out in what we called open formation, that’s a couple of yards between each man – and we came under long-distance machine-gun fire. As we were going along, the man on the left of me was hit in the arm and the man on the right of me was hit in the heart, he died – he probably died, we weren’t allowed to stop, anyway but he did, we knew he died afterwards. It missed me altogether, that was just the luck of the war.

The British made significant gains on 31 July, despite attacking in increasingly heavy rain and meeting with determined German resistance. Ivor Watkins remembered the progress made by his regiment, the 15th Welch.

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As we got up from the canal bank to make our advance, we went through some light 18 pounders on the way up over the ridge. They were belting away as hard as they could. The terrain was pretty difficult, owing to shell holes and most of all they were very, very deep so we had to be careful we didn’t fall in. If I remember rightly there were tapes had been laid out giving some sort of direction on where to go but it was a scramble to get between the shell holes. But forward we went, under fire – definitely under fire – a little of everything, a little of everything. There were some casualties but we finally reached our destination and we landed up in a shell hole or two and gradually got into a position where we could defend whatever we had gained.

Unseasonal, heavy and persistent wet weather forced a temporary halt to operations around Ypres. During August, there were just three days when it didn’t rain. Walter Cook of the Royal Army Medical Corps described the misery this caused.

It rained for three solid weeks and the plight of the men in the trenches in the northern part of Belgium was absolutely impossible. It was so impossible that the men coming out of the trenches who were wounded had to get rid of their kilts because they couldn’t walk because the pleats were covered in this horrible slime which made such a weight. I’ve never seen conditions like it; in every trench it was two feet of water!

The heavy rainfall soon turned the Ypres Salient into a muddy quagmire. Despite this, the pause in the fighting was only brief. On 16 August, British troops were back in action at Langemarck. They attacked in terrible conditions, suffered heavy casualties and made no real breakthrough. Alan Hanbury-Sparrow commanded the 2nd Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment in the battle.