North Manchester Battlefield Society
North Manchester Battlefield Society  

Ypres

They call it Passchendaele

 

The Rain was still relentless as we wandered around the town which will always be in the psyche of The British and Commonwealth nations who fought there.   Again, I would not swap places with the men who fought, lived, survived and died at that hell on earth, Passchendaele.

The Battle of Passchendaele or Third Battle of Ypres was one of the major battles of WWI. The battle consisted of a series of operations starting in June 1917 and petering out in November 1917 The attack served several strategic purposes. A successful attack offered the British a chance of inflicting significant casualties on the German army. A breakthrough in Flanders would hinder the German submarine campaign against British shipping, and also help prevent German Zeppelins from attacking targets in mainland Britain. Whether successful or not, the attack would prevent the German Army from exploiting the serious morale problems of the French.

During the battle, British troops launched several massive attacks, heavily supported by artillery and aircraft. However, they never managed to make a breakthrough in well-entrenched German lines. The battle consisted of a series of 'Bite and Hold' attacks to capture critical terrain and wear down the German army, lasting until the Canadian Corps took Passchendaele on 6 November 1917, ending the battle.

Passchendaele has become synonymous with the misery of fighting in thick mud. Most of the battle took place on reclaimed marshland, swampy even without rain. 1917 had an unusually cold and wet summer, and heavy artillery bombardment destroyed the surface of the land. Though there were dry periods, mud was nevertheless a constant feature of the landscape; newly-developed tanks bogged down in mud, and soldiers often drowned in it.

As you can see from the two pictures below from different angles, farmland can still be a quagmire.

 

 

Mud

 

The battle is a subject of fierce debate among historians, particularly in Britain. The volume of the British Official History of the War which covered Passchendaele was the last to be published, and there is evidence it was biased to reflect well on Douglas Haig and badly on General Gough, the commander of the Fifth Army. The heavy casualties suffered by the British Army in return for slender territorial gains have led many historians to follow the example of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the time, and use it as an example of senseless waste and poor leadership

There is also a revisionist school of thought that seeks to emphasise the achievements of the British Army in the battle, in inflicting great damage on the German Army, relieving pressure on the distressed French, and developing offensive tactics capable of dealing with German defensive positions, which were significant in winning the war in 1918.

Casualty figures for the battle are still a matter of some controversy. Some accounts suggest that the Allies suffered significantly heavier losses than the Germans, while others offer more even figures. However, no-one disputes that hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed or crippled.

The last surviving veteran of the battle was Private Harry Patch (17 June 1898 - 25 July 2009).

Battle of Passchendaele Museum

 

Our trip to Ypres was coming to an end, but we still had so much to do.  Cramming the important site was a must.  The Household Cavalry holds a certain amount of admiration for me as I was briefly in the regiment.  So a trip to see the memorial was a must. It is located down a little passageway (which is well signed posted) in Zanvoorde. 

The memorial was unveiled on 4 May 1924 by former British Commander-in-Chief Lord Haig.  The memorial - an obelisk featuring a Household Brigade roll of honour - marks the site where the Life Guards met a severe fate on 30 October 1914 when, while holding Zanvoorde Hill, they were attacked by German forces and suffered substantial losses. 

We next hit Ploegsteert or “Plug Street” to the men in WWI as Ypres was “Wipers” and Whyteshaete becoming “White Sheet”.  Going into Ploegsteert woods is eerie as I am sure it’s just a trick of an over active mind but it is very quiet. Maybe, the wind in the trees but nothing, no birds or distant road -Just peace and quiet, making the cemeteries in the woods tranquil and a solemn place.  One of my favourite memorials is the Ploegsteert memorial.  Indeed, I took one of my favourite photographs here (see below). 

The memorial commemorates more than 11,000 servicemen of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in this sector during the First World War and have no known grave. The memorial serves the area from the line Caestre-Dranoutre-Warneton to the north, to Haverskerque-Estaires-Fournes to the south, including the towns of Hazebrouck, Merville, Bailleul and Armentieres, the Forest of Nieppe, and Ploegsteert Wood. The original intention had been to erect the memorial in Lille.

Most of those commemorated by the memorial did not die in major offensives, such as those which took place around Ypres to the north or Loos to the south. Most were killed in the course of the day-to-day trench warfare which characterised this part of the line, or in small scale set engagements, usually carried out in support of the major attacks taking place elsewhere.
 
It does not include the names of officers and men of Canadian or Indian regiments (they are found on the Memorials at Vimy and Neuve-Chapelle) and those lost at the Battle of Aubers Ridge, 9 May 1915, who were involved in the Southern Pincer (the 1st, 2nd, Meerut and 47th Divisions - they are commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial). Hyde Park Corner holds two graves of equal sadness for different reasons. Rifleman Samuel McBride, 2nd Bn. Royal Irish Rifles, executed for desertion on 07/12/1916, Row A. 17. 

Thankfully, but very belatedly pardoned on 08/11/2006 as was all the 306 British Empire Soldiers executed in WWI. Another sad grave is that of under-age soldier, Private Frederick William Giles. He was serving with the 1st/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment when he was killed. He died on 28th April 1915 aged 17. He was the son of son of Frederick James and Sarah Giles living at 9 Hilcot Road in Reading, Berkshire.


 

Ploegsteert from Air (c) Google Earth
Berks Cemetery Extension
Ploegsteert memorial
The Household Cavalry Monument

 

Ever since Paul McCartney made the video to “Pipes of Peace” when I was 12, I have wondered about that famous football match.   It was therefore decided that we see the place for ourselves.


The Christmas truce was a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides – as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units – independently ventured into "no man's land", where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another Close to Prowse Point Cemetery, on the north side of this road is another cross which commemorates the Christmas Truce of 1914 - the Khaki Chums cross. It is near where the houses are located, on the edge of a field. More recently, an information board has been erected beside the cross.

 

Khaki Chums Christmas truce

 

To get in the Bayernwald Trenches you need a combination code from the local tourist information centre in Kemmel. We didn’t have it.  But luck and kindness of locals we got it, so we thank the un-named man who lived close by for his help. The Bayernwald Trenches are a carefully restored section of an original German trench system dating from 1916.

The reconstruction was carried out in the original trench section under archaeological conditions. It is named Bayernwald ('Bavarian Wood') as it was Bavarian units which had first been stationed here. Adolf Hitler had served here in 1914/15 (see pic below), and was awarded an Iron Cross close by, while working as a Company Runner. He returned to visit the site in June 1940, following the fall of France

 

Bayernwald ('Bavarian Wood') - with Gerry and Kev (Cent) Hitler, as usual far right.

 

Stark reminders of the aftermath of Battle of Passchendaele are the memorial at The Menin Gate and Tyne Cot Cemetery. The cemetery grounds were assigned to the United Kingdom in perpetuity by King Albert I of Belgium in recognition of the sacrifices made by the British Empire in the defence and liberation of Belgium during the war. It is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war.

The name "Tyne Cot" is said to come from the
Northumberland Fusiliers seeing a resemblance between the German concrete pill boxes, which still stand in the middle of the cemetery, and typical Tyneside workers' cottages – Tyne Cots.

The cemetery lies on a broad rise in the landscape which overlooks the surrounding countryside. As such, it was
strategically important to both sides fighting in the area. The area was captured by the 3rd Australian Division and the New Zealand Division, on 4 October 1917 and two days later a cemetery for British and Canadian war dead was begun. The cemetery was recaptured by German forces on 13 April 1918 and was finally liberated by Belgian forces on 28 September.

After the
Armistice in November 1918, the cemetery was greatly enlarged from its original 343 graves by concentrating graves from the battlefields, smaller cemeteries nearby and from Langemark. The Cross of Sacrifice that marks many CWGC cemeteries was built on top of a German pill box in the centre of the cemetery, purportedly at the suggestion of King George V, who visited the cemetery in 1922 as it neared completion.
 
The King's visit, described in the poem
The King's Pilgrimage, included a speech in which he said:

We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war. King George V, 11 May 1922

The stone wall surrounding the cemetery makes-up the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. Upon completion of the Menin Gate memorial to the missing in Ypres, builders discovered it was not large enough to contain all the names as originally planned.

They selected an arbitrary cut-off date of 15 August 1917 and the names of the UK missing after this date were inscribed on the Tyne Cot memorial instead.

Additionally, the
New Zealand contingent of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission declined to have its missing soldiers names listed on the main memorials, choosing instead to have names listed near the appropriate battles. Tyne Cot was chosen as one of these locations. Unlike the other New Zealand memorials to its missing, the Tyne Cot New Zealand memorial to the missing is integrated within the larger Tyne Cot memorial, forming a central apse in the main memorial wall.

 

Tyne Cot
Tyne Cot

 

To end our trip to Ypres it would be fitting to mention the Menin Gate.  The Menin Gate is one of four memorials to the missing in Belgian Flanders which cover the area known as the Ypres Salient. Broadly speaking, the Salient stretched from Langemark in the north to the northern edge in Ploegsteert Wood in the south, but it varied in area and shape throughout the war.

The Salient was formed during the First Battle of Ypres in October and November 1914, when a small British Expeditionary Force succeeded in securing the town before the onset of winter, pushing the German forces back to the Passchendaele Ridge. The Second Battle of Ypres began in April 1915 when the Germans released poison gas into the Allied lines north of Ypres. This was the first time gas had been used by either side and the violence of the attack forced an Allied withdrawal and a shortening of the line of defence.

There was little more significant activity on this front until 1917, when in the Third Battle of Ypres an offensive was mounted by Commonwealth forces to divert German attention from a weakened French front further south. The initial attempt in June to dislodge the Germans from the Messines Ridge was a complete success, but the main assault north-eastward, which began at the end of July, quickly became a dogged struggle against determined opposition and the rapidly deteriorating weather. The campaign finally came to a close in November with the capture of Passchendaele.

The German offensive of March 1918 met with some initial success, but was eventually checked and repulsed in a combined effort by the Allies in September.

The battles of the Ypres Salient claimed many lives on both sides and it quickly became clear that the commemoration of members of the Commonwealth forces with no known grave would have to be divided between several different sites.

The site of the Menin Gate was chosen because of the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields. It commemorates casualties from the forces of Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and United Kingdom who died in the Salient. In the case of United Kingdom casualties, only those prior 16 August 1917 (with some exceptions). United Kingdom and New Zealand servicemen who died after that date are named on the memorial at Tyne Cot, a site which marks the furthest point reached by Commonwealth forces in Belgium until nearly the end of the war.
 
New Zealand casualties that died prior to 16 August 1917 are commemorated on memorials at Buttes New British Cemetery and Messines Ridge British Cemetery. The memorial, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield with sculpture by Sir William Reid-Dick, was unveiled by Lord Plummer on 24 July 1927. 

Every night at
8.00pm a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate. The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ypres and the local people are proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town. 

In 1928, a year after the inauguration of the Menin Gate Memorial, a number of prominent citizens in Ypres decided that some way should be found to express the gratitude of the Belgian nation towards those who had died for its freedom and independence. The idea of the daily sounding of the Last Post - the traditional salute to the fallen warrior - was that of the Superintendent of the Ypres Police,
Mr P Vandenbraambussche.

The Menin Gate Memorial on the east side of Ypres was thought to be the most appropriate location for the ceremony. Originally this was the location of the old city gate leading to the Ypres Salient battlefields and The Menin Road, through which so many British and Commonwealth troops had passed on their way to the Allied front line. The privilege of playing Last Post was given to buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade.
 
The first sounding of Last Post took place on
1st July 1928 and a daily ceremony was carried on for about four months. The ceremony was reinstated in the spring of 1929 and the Last Post Committee (now called the Last Post Association) was established.

Four silver bugles were donated to the Last Post Committee by the Brussels and Antwerp Branches of the Royal British Legion. From 11th November, 1929 the Last Post has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial
every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944.
 
The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at
Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time.

I am sure that each and everyone who visits Menin, would like to thank the Ypres townsfolk and the fire brigade for their tribute.  Certainly in 2006, the NMBS warmly shook the hands of the buglers from the fire service.

 

Menin Gare - Note the name Hoar Circled. Maybe some distant relative
From the Side and Front
Kevin and Stuart - Menin Gate and the Last Post

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