Today – 31 July – marks one hundred years since the start of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres, 31 July-10 November 1917), Britain’s major offensive against German forces in the Flanders region of Belgium.
The ultimate aim was to liberate the occupied Channel ports to the north of Ypres, neutralising the U-boat threat to North Sea shipping and take the pressure of its hard-pressed French allies. We are commemorating the centenary by newly listing and upgrading 13 memorials, most with strong regimental connections to the battle.
Passchendaele has come to symbolise the horror of the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of Allied and German soldiers – under heavy machine gun and artillery fire; the Allies supported by tanks – attacked and counter-attacked in an apocalyptic landscape devoid of buildings, trees or vegetation.
The explosion of over one million shells, accompanied by torrential rain, turned the battlefield into a quagmire of craters and oozing mud, deep enough to swallow up men and horses. After three months of fighting, Britain and her Allies advanced just 8km. The terrible price, according to Army estimates, was 300,000 dead, injured or missing, with Germany sustaining 260,000 casualties.
By spring 1917, the only area of Belgium remaining in Allied hands was a bulge of land round Ypres known as the Ypres Salient. The commander of the British army, General Sir Douglas Haig, wanted to break through the German lines there and launch an assault from the high ground to liberate the occupied ports on the Channel coast that served as U-boat bases.
Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 and the resulting loss of unarmed merchant ships carrying food, coal and other essential supplies was bringing Britain to its knees.
Despite the misgivings of the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, Haig (wrongly) believed the German army was close to collapse and the assault went ahead. By early September, after huge losses, Haig was put under political pressure to halt the offensive. He refused. Australia, New Zealand and Canadian forces joined the battle. A final assault on 6 November secured the high ground above Ypres allowing Haig to call off the offensive and claim success. But in 1918 the territory gained there was lost, recaptured in a German offensive.
Haig was later severely criticised for continuing the assault for so little apparent strategic value. His actions, resulting in such a toll of human life on both sides, have remained a subject of controversy to this day. But the battle did contribute to an ultimate Allied victory and represents one of the key engagements of the First World War.
Hamsterley Colliery War Memorial, County Durham. Newly listed at Grade II. Image courtest of North-East War Memorials Project This simple wheel-head cross in this pit village is a particular memorial to Major Arthur Toward Watson, to whom there is a dedication at the base. He was a member of the family that owned and ran Hamsterley Colliery. 58 names of other local colliery men who died in the First World War are also recorded. Part of the memorial’s inscription reads: ‘…THE WORKMEN OF THIS VILLAGE WISH TO PLACE ON RECORD THEIR SORROW AT THE LOSS OF THEIR FRIENDS AND EMPLOYER WHOSE MEMORY THEY WILL HOLD IN AFFECTION FOR ALL TIME…’
Major ‘Patch’ Watson. Information courtesy of Liz in Eastbourne on the Great War Forum. Arthur Watson was a colourful figure who had always wanted to be a soldier, but was initially thwarted because of the loss of his right eye in a shooting accident. But he was a fine rider and, in September 1914, secured a commission with the Army Remounts Service responsible for provisioning and training horses for war. He was 46.Watson transferred to the 21st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (21 K.R.R.C) and, in May 1916, was sent to France. He was badly wounded at the Battle of the Somme but, after recovering, returned to France, commanding his Company at the Battle of Messines, June 1917.The Battle of Passchendaele began 8 weeks later. 21 K.R.R.C had a supporting role attacking the German forces, before being moved back from the front line into reserve. Watson had just been given a transfer to Britain but, before he left, decided to say goodbye to his comrades. As he picked up a bundle of the soldiers’ letters to take back with him, an enemy shell exploded nearby and he was terribly injured. He died of his wounds 5 August 1917 and was buried at La Clytte Military Cemetery, Belgium.
Edgar Mobbs recovering from shrapnel wounds sustained at the Battle of the Somme. Image courtesy of Olney & District Historical Society. Edgar Mobbs was a celebrated English rugby international who captained Northampton Rugby Football Club 1907-1913. Mobbs enjoyed a spectacular career. He attempted to enlist in the First World War, but at 33 he was refused a commission on age grounds. Undeterred and using his huge popularity and charisma, he raised his own ‘Sportsman’s Battalion’ of 264 sportsmen (‘Mobbs’ Own) for the Northamptonshire Regiment, joining as a private soldier. He rose to command the Battalion in April 1916 with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and fought at the Battles of Loos, Somme, Arras and Messines, where he was again wounded. He was killed in action on 31 July, the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele while leading an assault on a German machine-gun post that had trapped a detachment of his Battalion. His body could not be recovered.
Private Vernon Greenhough. Image courtesy of Michael Greenhough. Vernon was a miner in Crich, Derbyshire. Aged 23, he enlisted on 4 June 1915 and was posted to France where he was wounded the following year. He recuperated in Boulogne, France and then on a hospital ship, before joining the Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment). He was killed in action on 4 October 1917 during an attack on the first day of the Battle of Broodseinde, Passchendaele. His body was never recovered. He is remembered at the great Tyne Cot Memorial in Belgium. www.crichparish-ww1.co.uk
Crich Stand Memorial Tower, Derbyshire. Unveiled 6 August 1923. Upgraded to Grade II* Copywright Rob Bendall. Crich Tower is a regimental memorial to the 32 battalions of the Sherwood Foresters who fought in the First World War and particularly honours the 11,409 men of all ranks who died. The circular tower – with a large stone cross inset on its face, along with the Sherwood Foresters’ insignia – is built high on the summit of Crich Hill. It stands nearly 20 metres tall and, unusually for a war memorial, has a viewing platform. In 1934, the tower was fitted with a large revolving searchlight whose beam has a range of 38 miles.