Passchendaele a race to the sea.
We had just finished a booklet on Passchendaele and were dumfounded the Royal Naval Divisions were not mentioned. To give a balance and honour where due we write this report.
To the east of Ypres in 1917 the German army occupied the high ridge that dominated the plain. The British assumed if they could break out of the Ypres salient they could capture the German ridge swerve North and take the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge. The move would threaten the Ruhr industrial heart of Germany and end the growing threat of German U Boats which sailed from Zeebrugge. The port of Ostend would offer a great possibilities supply route.
Politicians in London pressurised Field Marshal Haig to attack. He came up with a plan to drive out of Ypres and capture the high ground. In conjunction there would be a seaborne attack The old Calvary man would order his horsemen to chase the fleeing enemy to the coast.
The plan pleased the politicians and military alike.
To say Haig disregarded barbed wire, machine guns and aircraft we know now is puerile rubbish. It was necessary to give the brave French Army an opportunity to recover from Verdun by detaining the German reserves. French infantry sacrifice in this single battle amounted to 163,000 French dead and 250,000 wounded.
General Nivell’s failure prompted the French to hand over the Western front to Douglas Haig. Some even volunteered to take over part of the line rather than go back to their own army. Russia was on the brink of revolution and the release of the German army on that front would be catastrophic. Haig did not want to enter into an offensive involving heavy losses unless there was reasonable chances of success. The War Cabinet thought the time and place to choose was now beyond dispute and victory may be nearer that is generally recognised.
The Ypres area had been reclaimed land and at risk under heavy shell fire. The 70 foot high point of Passchendaele should be captured quickly in July of 1917. The victory at Messines had boosted moral and showed that defenders could suffer more than attackers. The carefully planned battle of Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday 9th April by the Canadians had stirred Haig immensely. John Charteris, Haigs Intelligence Chief on Passchendaele considered the preparation to attack was good, but the one fear was the weather. All this time Fritz observed the preparations easily seen from the higher ground. Covering all possibilities they withdrew to the high passchendaele ridge leaving behind the flat vulnerable land. September was reasonably dry followed by downpours on 2nd October. John Charteris Intelligence said, “With good weather the Germans might be driven from the Belgian Coast.”
The German defence in depth was of three layers laced in barbed wire, pill boxes and cross axis machine gun fields of fire backed by planned artillery. The signal advantage the Germans had was the choice of ground.Battle opened with the Australians at Broodseinde on the 4th of October under a creeping barrage when attacking troops met the Germans in no-man’s-land advancing towards them. It Becomes known as the German Black Day with heavy German losses and the Australians capturing their objective. The Germans despite their preparations made serious tactical errors leading to the tactic of small groups defending isolated positions relying on depth and mutual support. October 9th attack at Poelcapelle was considered half a success.
The British Salient was now just short of Passchendaele creating an air of confidence. A Brigadier said, it was not the enemy but mud preventing us from doing better. 12th October, Haig told correspondents, the mud, it defeated us. A fracas occurred when General Wully Robertson reported, it was a hard war, not because of the Boshe, but because of these people here (politicians). He then threatened to resign.16th October David Lloyd George telegraphed Haig. The War Cabinet congratulated him and the troops under his command for achievements in this Great Battle.
Sailor Without Ships.
The Naval Divisions had been part of the reserves in 1914 and had been formed into a land unit and was made up off bits and pieces.
It contained sailors. marines and soldiers. All the way through the war the 63rd Division had their own esprit de corps ignoring the Army and its bullshit.
They even sat when they toasted the King and rightly thought they were helping the pongos (monkeys)out of the shit. On one shoulder they wore an Army rank and on the other a Naval rank and strutted over the duckboards speaking in Navy fashion.
Leave, was a run ashore and if you did not come back you were adrift. Andrew Miller or The Andrew is the Royal Navy and avast meant hold, enough or finish. Amazingly, from their first engagements they fought better than most of the army.
The Sacred Seas Soldiers.
The division was hauled off the Arras front trenches and moved to the south east of Dunkirk. Then to Ypres which was a complete sea of mud. The men trained as best they could. Captain Peter Ligertwood who had been wounded twice, informed his Marines that in a few days they would go over the top. He knew that the men would be disorientated in the mud and devised a plan. As a rallying point some of the Marines would carry a wooden banner with stripes of red like in days of old. The Chaplain Father Davey blessed the wooden banners. The men now knowing the significance of the blessing considered the banners to be sacred. Scale models of the battle field were used showing the pill boxes and trenches. The intelligence people were well pleased and talked confidently. Cdr Arthur Asquith the son of the past PM had been wounded twice, thought the training was not enough as most of the time was spent laying roads and duck boards in the Flanders mud. Before joining up he told his family he could not sit quietly by reading the newspapers.
Arthur quickly made sub. lieutenant and was almost immediately sent to Antwerp. Most of the men were sailors without ships and had no concept of modern warfare but were willing to follow him through fire or water. His father summed it up saying, “It was like sending sheep into the shambles.” He was promoted to Cdr of Hood Battalion known as the STEADIES. After three years of war a weariness was beginning to emerge. The brigade HQ, the 189th was rightly named the Dirty Bucket due to the continual shelling of the latrine by German Gothas hurtling shell after shell by day and night.
“ I lay listening to the shells and the confusion they caused.” Said Thomas MacMillan. He would hear the cars and horses wildly rush to get out of the way of the Menin Road. The road was a continual target for shell and gas attacks that churned up more mud. On moving up to the front the Naval division and its HQ were in the remains of a German Pillbox. MacMillan called the scene as the most godforsaken he had ever seen as it was covered with brown water dyed with blood where horses and men lay part buried with blank eyes staring. It was difficult for the field batteries as they could be consumed in the spreading pools of water that dotted the landscape. Stripy Richard Tobin remembered, ‘if you stepped of the boards you would be up to the waist sinking easy.’ Duckboards were the life line for food and ammunition that lengthened as they inched forward on the front and had to be continually repaired. Dead pack mules and broken half decomposed bodies had to be moved to carry out repairs day and night. Each morning the half drowned horses and mules had to be shot to put them out of their misery. A photographer wrote of the misery of the morning having to carry out these deeds and eventually becoming accustomed to it all.
On the German side at night on the 14th October Rudolf Binding looked at the thunder storms crossing the sky and wondered if the Gods were angry. He had seen the land change in the 3 year he had been in Flanders. But, there was still that determination to win and defend their country. The officers and men had a way of hiding the real fatigue of war. At least they could go to Ostend or Bruges for beer and patch up their faded uniforms and listen to old scratched record while a smoking cigar. They had been restricted proper food for some time and were now supplied with substitutes. With a rifle leaning against a wooden wall and gasmask near they became accustomed to the sounds of battle. Listening for the firing of guns and their howling overhead, second guessing where they will land. By now they knew the calibre and size of the projectile. Flanders twenty-four hour stench included gas mixed with that of rotten bodies. ‘There were no surprises any more for him’ a German historian later wrote, living, working and preparing for the next act of Mars. Death was present and so close it was now part of the soldier.
The first battles for Passchendaele despite initial successes had ended in dismal failure and at a great loss of Australian troops. The gauntlet now fell to the Canadians who with their great bravery would carry all before them. There Commander General Arthur Currie did not think so, but Haig overruled him expressing the importance of the attack, imploring “he could not tell the details, but hoped some day to do so.” The Canadians had the support of the 63rd Naval Division.
Blind with Red Brick Dust.
The sea soldiers were to advance from Wallemolen up the long mud slope 1,200 yards. On the high ground was the ruin of Tournant Farm now a bristling enemy stronghold of Pillboxes and machinegun nests.
When dark came on the night of the 24th October the Naval man relieved the Royal Scots. It was evident even then troubles lay ahead as there was no real front just mud scrapings with some machine guns riflemen. Richard Tobin remarked, “there was no hope of food or ammunition and that the Germans would rain a storm of steel down on them.” When shells came over and a soldier was walking the duckboards there was no alternative than to go on. The weather was bight and fine on Thursday in the clear autumnal sunlight. Friday morning of the 26th October should have been dry and fine but in the early hours the rain fell. For two days they had shelled the Germans caving in the trenches making mud holes.
The whistles blew in falling rain at 05.45 hours while still dark. Chronicler Douglas Jerrold could see that the only way forward was to find a less muddy way through the mess. To the left and front the Marine light Infantry and on the right the Sailors picking their way. German shells threw up clouds of mud while the rain battered down. Enemy machine guns and rifle fire and anything the Germans had invented opened up. Shells burst thought the gun smoke while the men of A Company 2nd Marines held their banner for others to see in the howling battlefield. Peter Ligertwoods plan was working as the men rallied to the banners. Peter was wounded three times as he forced himself to lead his men only hit again to lay in the mud. He tried to rise as the machine guns raked the ground, but he could not do so. He pointed to the German line saying, “ There’s your objective lads get it.”
Douglas Jerrold wrote it was ‘one of the finest exploits of that fated day.’ As Peter sank backward the red banners advanced across the Ypres mud and widened Paddebeek stream. The right pressed forward and captured a strongpoint and on the another left success. In the centre the Germans ‘from countless pillboxes and redoubts, rained like hail on the dauntless men.’ Wrote Surgeon Lt Geoffrey Sparrow. By 8pm it was clear the attack was being held in the swirling rain and iron storm.
Anson Battalion captured Varlet Farm at 0720 fighting through the blinding red brick dust. Leaving behind a small force under Sub. Lieutenant Stevenson before moving to the next objective. The Germans counterattacked fiercely. Battalion Commander Arthur Asquith of the Hood Battalion made his way to Varlet Farm himself rather than send runners In the battle had lost contact with his men and the could see the Farm was under heavy artillery attack. He found Lt Stevenson holding the position with only 11 men repelling each attack. The Germans moved a machine gun close to the farm and began raking the farm grounds. Asquith called on artillery support which silenced the machine gun before he proceeding forward. He located a small pocket of sailors holding off a German counter attack and again called in artillery support to break up the Germen offensive. He moved over the battlefield in full view of the enemy for a good two hours racing from one crater to another. Shells crashed around him as machinegun bullets slapped the mud close by. Arthur covered the whole Division from end to end to ensure they linked with the Canadians. He also steadied the men into line avoiding possible confusion. “Arthur Asquith saved the situation.“ said HQ Clerk Thomas MacMillan.
It was now the turn of the Australians who arrived at the front on open trucks and busses. They were soaked and tired cursing the bitter Flanders weather. Photographer Captain Frank Hurley thought, the misery of it is too terrible and appalling for words. The Canadians were not able to capture Passchendaele and by dark attacks petered out. Still the Naval Division held out under continuous counter attacks into the 27th October by showing great determination. Their surgeon Lt William McCracken attended the wounded in the forward first aid post under constant fire. On the same day Lt McCracken lead his attendants and stretcher bearers on to no mans land. Shells and machine guns were aimed at the surgeon who had a red cross fixed to his walking stick. He raised the stick above his head and the guns ceased. He showed complete contempt for danger inspiring the men by his example.
The advance of 500 yards over vital ground General Gough assuring the men said, “no troops could have done more.”
The German 164th Infantry had lost 1,800 officers and men. Captain Heines called the 26th October ‘a day of honour.’
They too had endured the fire and mud. ‘There can be no greater honour than this.’
Over and over again the British and Empire troops made brave failed attempts. Asquith and his naval force came up with an idea of using small groups of highly trained men. In the beginning of November German pillboxes in the Wallemolen area were taken one by one. The idea was to surround the pillboxes in the night and lob in grenades. Hawk gained around 200 yard without the usual spillage of blood.By the 5th November only one strong hold remained when the sailor soldiers were withdrawn from the Flanders area.
The division 190th Brigade was made up of soldiers who had been in reserve. In their turn and the 2nd and 5th Armies went over the top. Their objective had been the same and they too failed in the same mud. Pte Alfred Burrage of the Artists Rifles remembering going over the top said, “they moved across the mud initially as if they were on the parade ground.” Paddebeek was no longer a stream, it was now a hellish mire. Burrage wrote, ‘shrapnel was bursting not much more than face height.’ The wounded were sticking their rifles in the ground upwards so the stretcher bearers could see them, but the forest of rifles were uprooted by shell bursts like so many skittles. The German barrage was countered by a British barrage. Pte Burrage cried out, ‘oh Christ make it stop.’
All the bravery, sacrifice and determination came to nothing.Captain Peter Ligertwood died in mud but one of the sacred banners survived. Much later it was said it inspired the men of Flanders and filled future generations with pride for their Corps who’s traditions cannot be touched any other regiment.
Arthur Asquith died in 1939, he and the medical officer had been put forward for a VC. The Divisional commander though it unlikely two VCs would be awarded for the same Battalion. Asquith asked for his name to be withdrawn. The Navy does not give out VCs readily like some regiments duty is expected.
When the war ended the Army got rid of one of the best fighting Divisions they have ever seen. Was it because they embarrassed the Army?
It was the end of a brilliant fighting force, which had lost 47,953 men killed, wounded or missing 1914-18, or equivalent to three 1918 Infantry Divisions, in four years.
The Artists also fought as a battalion (1st Battalion) and were in the thick of the fighting at Passchendaele in the 3rd Battle of Ypres 1917, The Artists are commemorated 'going over the top' at Marcoing in 1917 in a painting by John Nash, an official war artist (an 'Artist' who served in that action); the original is in the Imperial War Museum .
Acknowledgements to - Jerrold Douglas - The Royal Naval Division. Royal Naval News.
P.S. - In an effort to make a story some time and events may be different.