Patrick Mercer uses the first-hand account of a renowned junior officer to report on a grim regimental battle fought in the mud of Broodseinde a century ago.
Reconstruction of an officer of the Royal Warwicks at Passchendaele, autumn 1917.
Along with Mons and the Somme, Passchendaele is one of the best-known battles of the First World War. The images of mud, blood, and gore are especially poignant in this centenary year, being commemorated by so many of the old regiments that fought there – foremost among them, the Royal Warwickshires.
Three of the most famous heroes of the Warwickshires were also there: Bernard Montgomery, Bill Slim, and Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoon character, ‘Ol’ Bill’, the archetypal, long-suffering private soldier, an image that – while typifying the British Tommy at war – did so much to raise morale.
A fourth hero was the prolific author Charles Carrington, whose gallant service with the 1/5 Battalion of the Warwicks left a proud scar on the rest of his life. Many of the words below are his.
Regulars and Territorials
At first, the numbering of battalions – 1/5, 1/6, and so on – can seem confusing. Having most of the Birmingham conurbation on which to draw for manpower, the Warwicks had four Territorial Force (TF) battalions before the war, numbered 5, 6, 7, and 8, and these were very quickly doubled in strength once hostilities began.
A soldier who enlisted into the TF rather than the Regular Army or the hastily raised Kitchener units joined under different terms of service. So the TF was justly proud of its distinct numbers, and these were styled 1/5 in relation to the first tranche of battalions, then 2/5 as new Territorial battalions were raised in the same area.
The Third Battle of Ypres became synonymous with mud. The Belgian artist Alfred Bastien’s famous depiction of Canadian gunners trying to move their guns through the mire captures the awfulness of the fighting conditions.
When 48th (South Midlands) Division (TF) deployed to France in March 1915, its senior brigade was styled Warwickshire and consisted of all four of the regiment’s pre-war Territorial battalions. Soon, the Somme killed and injured many of the longer serving men, while Pozières thinned them further; by the summer of 1917, Charles Carrington, currently second-in-command of B Company, 1/5 Royal Warwicks, noted:
in the company it always seemed to be the newcomers who were killed. The old hands, now mostly sergeants and corporals, survived everything.
And he had this to say about the new draft coming forward to make up the numbers:
The skinny, sallow, shambling, frightened victims of our industrial system, suffering from the effect of wartime shortages, who were given into our hands, were unrecognisable after six months of good, fresh air and physical training. They looked twice the size and, as we weighed and measured them, I am able to say that they put on an average of one inch in height and one stone in weight during their time with us.
One boy’s mother wrote to me complaining that her Johnny was half-starved in the Army and what was I going to do about it. I was able to convince her that Johnny had put on two stone of weight and two inches of height, and had never had so good an appetite before.
Beyond statistical measurement was their change in character, to ruddy, handsome, clear-eyed young men with square shoulders who stood up straight and were afraid of no one, not even the sergeant-major.
Soon redesignated 143rd (Warwickshire) Brigade, they were plunged into what is popularly known as ‘the Battle of Passchendaele’, in which all four battalions saw serious fighting. However, the little village of Passchendaele, a few miles north-east of Ypres, was only the focus of the last phases of what should properly be known as ‘the Third Battle of Ypres’.
All Britain’s wartime plans were designed for cooperation with her French allies. The year before, Verdun had inflicted dreadful casualties on both the French and German forces, while losses at the Battle of the Somme had required that the British Army on the Western Front be rebuilt.
By Christmas 1916, Russia was buckling under German pressure, so it was decided that France’s planned ‘Nivelle Offensive’ (as it came to be called) should be supported by a complementary British effort. So, in May 1917, Haig gave orders for another offensive in Flanders.
On 7 June, a preliminary attack was made on the Messines Ridge – just as Russia was launching her Kerensky Offensive on the Eastern Front. Though the Nivelle Offensive had collapsed after three days, the blowback had been a crippling military mutiny that paralysed the French Army and left large sectors of the line wide open. Haig was under tremendous pressure both to support the Russian effort in the east and to divert attention from the French sector in the west.
Canadian machine-gunners make use of shell-holes as emplacements. Enemy artillery were ranged in on all trenches. Men were often safer improvising new defensive positions on the cratered battlefield.
Accordingly, at first light on 31 July, the main Passchendaele Offensive began, with an attack on Pilckem Ridge and then on Westhoek, Hill 70, and Langemarck.
But in shocking weather conditions and against carefully deployed German artillery and reserves, the first phase of the operation had stalled with heavy casualties by the end of August.
Bite and hold
Haig nonetheless launched a second phase in September. The aim was no longer rapid advances to break the line, but the slower ‘bite and hold’ tactics favoured by General Plumer, whose 2nd Army now played a far larger role in the battle alongside Gough’s 5th.
These limited advances were meticulously planned and used overwhelming artillery fire to seize key positions and wear the enemy down, but without any immediate expectation of a breakthrough. Supported by reconnaissance planes and forward-observation officers who were right up with the front-line infantry, the artillery was usually decisive. The British took the Menin Road Ridge, held a German counterattack on 25 September, and made real gains at Polygon Wood.
But it was in the October attack on Broodseinde that 143rd (Warwickshire) Brigade was to be tested to the full. Carrington describes the preparations:
When I returned to camp to find the men in marching order on parade, an orderly thrust into my hand an intelligence report saying that the Germans had doubled their front-line posts. Two German companies were holding the front I was to attack with one… Men going into action support themselves with a sort of hysterical cheerfulness, but no one could be cheerful in the Third Battle of Ypres.
It was now about 20 minutes before zero, which was to be six o’clock. As the shells came faster and faster, crashing into the waste of mud and hedge-stumps which hid our assembled brigade, I could not disguise from myself that the Boches had forestalled us with a full-dress bombardment of our jumping-off line. I began to wonder if a Boche attack was coming, ignorant of ours; or whether (and this frightened me the more) they had learned our plans and would shatter our huddled group.
A British soldier lies low in a captured German emplacement.
The non-commissioned officers made sure that all the men were ready and as steady as possible under the bellowing artillery. Then the moment arrived. Carrington continues:
It was zero hour and our barrage had fallen, blotting out the German bombardment with a drumfire 40 times as great; there was no more thought or feeling, no more fear or doubt; only an endless blast of sound; a flicker of flame in the sky, a roaring and howling of shells over our heads, and a smoky pall of shrapnel.
We must follow hard on the barrage and be on the enemy before they had recovered from the shock of it. I jumped out of the trench, shouting to my little group, and together we stumbled forwards towards the enemy.
There looms up in front a bank undercut by a row of dugouts, familiar enough from the map. I draw my revolver, but they are smashed and empty. Over and on, behind the thunder and lightning of the barrage (like cannon balls rolling down sheets of iron over our heads). One is thankful for a steel helmet.
Through the tumult I isolate a distinct noise, a spitting, a crackling, like children’s fireworks. Rifle bullets! Small arms, indeed! We look about vaguely. It seems already to have grown a little lighter, so that lumps loom up irregularly in front about 30 yards away, half left. Heads!
Three or four Boches in a shell-hole shooting at us! We see them together. Stanley shouts and brandishes his bayonet. Then I see Campbell lying curled up and grey-faced at my feet. Why, he’s dead! And, by God, they’ve hit ‘Tiny’ Greenwood. He is staggering about and bellowing, his hand on his chest.
Stanley catches and lowers him to the ground behind the stunted ruins of a hedgerow which gives a little cover. Crack, crack, crack come the bullets at 30 yards’ range, aimed more distinctly every moment as the light grows and the barrage lifts ahead. The enemy are even near enough to throw a bomb.
Stanley rises and shouts, ‘Come on, sir, let’s go for the swine.’
‘No,’ I say, ‘get down in this shell-hole,’ and I’m right. There is no chance for three men to charge three over the mud and pitfalls. Stanley plucks me by the sleeve and says, ‘Aw, come on, sir,’ whilst Walker and I get down in the hole and begin to shoot, though Stanley stands and calls us once more.
‘Come down, you fool,’ I order him. Then he comes down, slithering on the edge of the shell-hole, dropping his rifle with a clatter. A bullet has hit him in the eye, smashing his left brow and cheek bone into a ghastly hole.
I sit stupidly in the half light, not looking at my servant’s body, and then imitated Walker, who was firing at the Boches when they showed their heads. I must have emptied my revolver before this time and now picked up Stanley’s rifle, coated with mud from fixed bayonet to stock.
With difficulty, I fired a round or two, wrenching at the clogged mechanism after each shot. Walker gave a cry of joy as he got one Boche through the head, but one or two more ran up from neighbouring shell-holes and made the odds still heavier against us.
Still our own guns thundered overhead and now the German guns began to reassert themselves, dropping a few shells experimentally into their own lines, which they guessed had fallen into our hands.
As well as being laced with trenches, the German lines were studded with concrete bunkers.
Carrington continued his duel with the enemy, at first quite convinced that his was the only part of the advance that had not been driven back. Despite the dazed confusion of an officer right at the point of the fighting, Carrington was in the middle of a most effective ‘bite and hold’ operation.
Finally, a reserve platoon arrived, its Lewis guns raking at the enemy’s flank and causing a great gang of ‘field-greys’ to come running towards him, their hands raised in surrender.
Worried that the rolling barrage had moved on too far beyond his company, Carrington gathered up what was left of his men, took a mixture of other troops, including some New Zealanders from his flank, seized an abandoned German position, and then dug in. Whether he knew it or not, he was conforming exactly to Plumer’s tactical plan.
Carrington summed up:
the battle had really been proceeding according to plan. Still like a man in a dream, I had been commanding and manoeuvring considerable bodies of men… the advance was orderly and regular…
Crouching in muddy trenches and shell-holes brought men into close contact with the dead. The whole battlefield was strewn with human remains.
The popular memory of Passchendaele is of muddle, vainglory, and slaughter. Despite being dazed by the brutality of battle, Carrington shows how victory was won here by good generalship, careful planning, and great bravery from well-led men.
In 1785, the 6th Regiment of Foot had bought for the officers’ mess a ‘handsome silver snuff-box upon which was emblazoned, “Seek Glory!”’. After Orthez in 1814, Wellington had scratched, ‘Huzza for the 6th Regiment – Now Keep Glory’. Amid the shells and mire of Third Ypres, the Royal Warwicks did just that.
This article featured in issue 80 of Military History Monthly.
To find out more about the Royal Warwicks, click here.