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Passchendaele Remembered

31 July 2017 by Karen O'Rourke

medals

Captain Noel Chavasse (VC and Bar, MC) medal group on public display in Liverpool for the first time at Museum of Liverpool until Jan 2018. Image Courtesy of the Lord Ashcroft Collection © IWM

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.

Similar to the Somme the year before, the battle lasted for several months into autumn. Very little ground was captured and it is estimated that combined total of casualties on both side easily reached more than 500,000.

The Allies and Germans had wrestled for control of the town of Ypres from almost the beginning of the First World War in late 1914. For Allied command control of Ypres had always been a key strategy in keeping German forces from reaching the Belgian coast. The Front line formed a salient around the town and in the summer of 1917, the Allies planned a major offensive to push back the enemy lines.

A preparatory attack in June had seen 19 mines exploded under the strategically strong, German held, observation point at Messines Ridge.

The Third Battle of Ypres began on 31 July at Pilkhem Ridge. Of the 21 battalions of the Kings Liverpool Regiment, in action on the Western Front in the summer of 1917, 10 Battalions would take part in the first few days of the battle: the four (17th – 20th) Pals battalions and the six (1/5th -1/10th) Territorial battalions of the 55th Division.

Map

Battle of Ypres, 1917

On the first day, the Pals were at the southern end of the line and fought their way through Sanctuary Wood, through the German first line trenches and pushed on towards their objective. They came under heavy machine gun fire and shelling and were forced to halt their advance south of ‘Clapham Junction’.

Their losses in the first few days were 84 Killed, 537 wounded and 37 missing.

The Territorials were further North, attacking from the Wieltje trenches, and had a little more success in the ground they gained. The 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th Battalions attacked between 3.50 and 4.30am. Several machine gun posts were captured, including the strongpoints of Plum Farm and Pommern Redoubt, enabling the troops to push further forward and capture the German second line.

The 10th (Scottish) Battalion moved off at 3.30am crossing the Steenbeek River and, with the aid of tanks, which disabled the enemy Machine Guns, were able to capture the enemy trenches. The consolidation of the trenches began immediately. It was during this action that the battalion Medical Officer, Captain Noel Chavasse was awarded the Victoria Cross for the second time. Sadly, it was also during this action that he received the fatal wound that led to his death on 4 August.

The 8th (Irish) Battalion in the role of ‘Moppers up’ left their trenches at 8.30am following behind the main attack. The going across the already heavily shelled, battle-damaged ground was difficult. Progress was further hampered by heavy shelling from the German Artillery and attack by snipers and they incurred heavy losses.

In the first few days of the Battle, the cost of the ground gained for the Liverpool Territorials was high. Over 200 men were killed and more than 1200 wounded and missing.

The Third Battle of Ypres would continue for several months, and more King’s Regiment men would enter the fray, but the losses in those first few days must have left Liverpool reeling from the news.

  1. Pat Wilson says:

    Thanks for this interesting information. My grandfather James Hughes was in the 2nd Liverpool Pals at this time. I had no idea he was at Passchendaele.

    • Karen says:

      You are welcome Pat – if you don’t already have it, i recommend the book ‘Liverpool Pals’ by Graham Maddox, which is a really well researched publication by a local author. Interestingly, i have just looked at the timeline in his book and he gives different figures for the Pals losses at the beginning of Third Ypres – mine were taken directly from the Regimental history published in 1935, and are a combination of Officers and other ranks, but as Graham’s figures are much later, he may have found another source – his numbers are as follows: “During their time in the line, the Pals Battalions have lost 11 Officers and 223 other ranks killed or died of wounds and 21 Officers and 625 other ranks wounded.” it is always difficult to give an exact figure for losses in battle, as there are a number of variations to consider, but i have re-examined the Commonwealth War Graves details for Pals who died in the first couple of weeks of the battle and can only assume that, as the Pals went back into the trenches after the initial attack, he meant losses for the whole battle. It always seems to be the case that the more you delve into history, the more questions it throws up…..

  2. Ann Deseyn says:

    As I’m sitting here, eyes all wet, feeling so humble, I am so thankful to these men who gave their lives, so we could live. It touches me every year again when we visit the graves at Passchendaele Tyne Cot Cemetry, to see all those men, some so very young, who fought for freedom. They remain heroes.
    Sincere greetings, Ann Deseyn.

    • Karen says:

      Thank you for your comment Ann. I agree with you that the sheer size and scale of Tyne Cot certainly brings home the reality of the awful losses incurred (on both sides) in those four short years.

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