A hundred years ago WW1’s second most notorious bloodbath was churning up souls in Flanders. Here, I spare a few words on Leicestershire’s involvement at Passchendaele.
The three Leicestershire Regiment officers stared at the map, looked hard at the surrounding mud and then, with incredulity, at each other.
The bloodbath of Passchendaele had been raging since July 31st and now, October 8th, a week after the Tigers’ mauling in Polygon Wood, they were checking their co-ordinates as they prepared once again to enter the line.
“Which, as a result of the battle, was pushed forward to about 1,500 yards east of Polygon Wood, to include the Reutelbeck – on the map a stream, on the ground a huge lake owing to shell fire,” said Lieutenant David Kelly, the Brigade Intelligence Officer.
Lt Kelly and the officers had a problem. They were looking for the villages of Reutel and Molenaarelsthoek… and they were no longer there.
“Not even one speck of brick dust – let alone half a brick – had survived.”
Deserving of a WW1 reputation that puts it second to the Somme for suffering, Passchendaele was the name given to the Third Battle of Ypres. It was a four month war of attrition, a two-pronged campaign to capture a German controlled railway and weaken Gerry’s claim on the Belgian ports. Nobody seems to agree on the final number of dead and wounded, but even by WW1 standards, the estimate of 250,000 Allied troops was costly. The Germans suffered 236,241 casualties. Humanity, easily, was the biggest loser of all.
A century later, we’re in northern Belgium, driving along Flanders’ traffic-free country roads and past neat, quiet villages. We visit Ypres and Poperinge: Pretty towns full of life. Our Great War soldiers saw none of this. The sudden and frequent sight of their smooth white headstones reminds us that Flanders’ reputation for beer and chocolate is matched only by its renown for death.
The sun is shining as we arrive at the Railway Dugout Cemetery at Zillebeke. It contains the remains of 2,500 men in their teens and twenties. Our group includes Richard Lane, the Tigers Regiment WW1 historian, Ben Jackson of BBC Radio Leicester, Chris Sturgess, the Leicestershire motoring boss, and me, for the Mercury. We’re in Zillebeke to see one man in particular. Chris, to mark the occasion, is carrying a Leicester Tigers flag.
Frank Tarr was an England international and a Tigers rugby captain. He was also a Leicester son and a lieutenant in the 4th battalion. On the afternoon of July 18, 1915, his position was being shelled. While telling his men to take cover, a shell splinter killed him.
“There were no steel helmets then,” says Richard, “they were not introduced until 1916.”
Frank, a solicitor, had been in France and Belgium just four months. In Footprints of ¼ Leicestershire Regiment by Captain John Milne, he reveals the news of the 27 year old’s death hits the soldiers hard.
“You had to know Frank Tarr and to be in the battalion to realise what that meant; no words can ever explain,” he said.
A white wooden cross, larger than any around, was erected at his grave,
“…that all who passed might see and remember,” said Milne, “a great three-quarter and a greater gentleman”.
It’s while we’re planting the flag next to Frank’s headstone the impressively tattooed Commonwealth War Graves Commission gardener walks over. We’d exchanged a Hallo (Flemish) as we entered the cemetery.
“I thought you were French,” he says in perfect English. “You’re from Leicester?” he adds, acknowledging the flag. He smiles broadly to himself and announces, “I’m from Groby.”
Michael Cross is 34 and ex Parachute Regiment. He came to Belgium, from Majorca, seven years ago. He’s now got two kids and speaks Flemish. His gran Jean Emery lives in Melton.
He talks passionately about Leicester City and then his day job.
“I don’t see it as being a gardener, I see it as being a guardian, being ex-military myself,” he explains.
“I was in Iraq in 2003, and, to my mind, it was nothing to what these guys have seen. Can you imagine being here back in the day and going through what they went through?
“It just means even more knowing there’s a Tigers captain among them.”
Today, Polygon Wood is green and beautiful, like so many of Flanders’ better known killing fields. Three miles west of Ypres, this sector saw action for 3,000 Leicesters in the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th and the 2/4th and 2/5th battalions. But, in 1917, after three years of continuous fighting, the wood had gone. Add to that the heaviest summer rainfall for 30 years, and its liquid mud meant death as much as the raining shells.
Around 600 Leicesters died here fighting off a two flanked German attack. Still now, a century later, many old Tigers lie silently beneath the shade of the wood’s fir trees.
It’s here you’ll find the Buttes New British Cemetery, home to 2,100 Allied troops, and impressive memorials to Australian and New Zealand divisions. Amid the rows of nameless headstones, I find three unknown Tigers a long way from home.
Many who fell here are named on the Tyne Cot memorial. Among them is Sydney “Togo” Bolesworth, a Hinckley boxer considered the finest soldier in the regiment.
The Tigers’ descent into hell began in the early hours of October 1, 1917.
“Though we had fully prepared for a rough night, the first hours passed quietly enough and we began to hope that after all, the Ypres bark might be worse than its bite,” said Acting Colour Sergeant Douglas Bacon.
“Firstly, we dug ourselves in as well as possible…and with the aid of some old wood planks lying about, contrived to make a little shelter and firing position. At midnight, we lay down in the mud with the idea of sleeping, each one taking turn at sentry.”
Bacon and his brothers in khaki were roused by a terrific German artillery barrage at 4.40am. Forty minutes later, amid a cloud of smoke shells, the German infantry attacked on two fronts.
Although repelled during one almighty struggle, the Germans penetrated into the 8th Leicesters left flank with heavy artillery. An SOS was issued by HQ and Temporary Lieutenant Colonel Philip Bent, a Canadian who had been schooled in Ashby, quickly assembled men for a counter attack.
Lt Kelly, in his book 39 Months with the Tigers, reveals how Bent led from the front and, in the moment of victory, was waving his pipe and calling “Go on Tigers!”
Bent was cut down in flight by a single bullet to the head. His body was never recovered. Bent’s quick action, however, saved the position.
The 26-year-old was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
“The counter attack was successful and the enemy were checked,” reads the dedication. “The coolness and magnificent example shown to all ranks by Lt Col Bent resulted in the securing of a portion of the line which was of essential importance for subsequent operations.”
In Polygon Wood, with two different maps, we try to locate where Philip fell. It’s an impossible task. The smooth dirt track alongside the wood, parallel to a country lane, is the closest we get to accuracy. Ben, with his BBC microphone, documents the sound of birds in the proximity.
Five weeks after the battle, Passchendaele, sat on a ridge five miles east of Ypres, was captured by the Canadians. We drive slowly through the quiet village in our Land Rover and are amazed at its utter ordinariness. Supermarket. School. Church. Peaceful.
It’s at this point Richard leans forward and tells us that in the following spring, in April 1918, and at the Fourth Battle of Ypres, the village was back in German hands.
More pics and words to be added later