The Hindenburg Line & Third Ypres
In March 1917 the Gloucesters still had twelve battalions on the Western Front, several of which, in various Divisions, were to be involved in the fighting that took place during the cautious pursuit of the German Army as it withdrew back towards the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line.
61st Division (mockingly referred to as the “Sixty-Worst” by some) included 2/4th, 2/5th and 2/6th Gloucesters. Second-Lieutenant W.G. Shipway enlisted as a private soldier with 4th Battalion in 1914, and after his commission in 1916 was posted to 2/4th Battalion, as he explained in his memoir:
“I was posted to the 2/4th Battalion Gloucesters (Territorials) part of the 61st Division (we called it the sixty-worst). This was a second line division which got very few replacements for casualties or wastage. It was not used in main attacks usually but for holding line after attacks and in quiet sectors.”
Nevertheless, Shipway was to win a Military Cross for his action at Fresnoy on 5th April during a local German counter-attack as the British advanced. The citation read:-
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He displayed great gallantry and initiative in the face of heavy fire, withdrawing his men to a better position and holding it with complete success.”
Private Henry Done, also of 2/4th, also took part in the advance on the Hindenburg Line in March and April, recalling that the men
“. . . were soon going to face a period of booby traps that called for all the skill and sense not to touch anything that looked inviting, especially the village pianos. One favourite with the German booby trappers was to suspend a small shell or minenwerfer on copper wire somewhere in the church crypt with a special small container with acid-soaked wadding until the wire was rotten and not strong enough to take the weight, explosive shell, bomb or what have you. One could think of many ways in which the Germans did their traps. One special trap was very inviting; this was where civilians had had a factory many miles behind the line. They used coke, and when the Germans pushed, they in turn used the coke, but when they had to go they would bury 4 or 5 shells in a heap of coke and then start a fire. After a day or so, 4 or 5 tons of coke makes a welcome, warming place, except when the whole lot goes up.”
The advance of 2/5th Battalion from Caulaincourt to Vermand on 31st March was described by Captain R.S.B. Sinclair:-
“. . . patrols were sent forward to ascertain if the village of Vermand had been evacuated. This was found to be the case and A Company was sent up to consolidate east of the village. Whilst digging we saw Uhlans skirmishing in Holnon Wood – – – they made off towards Bihecourt, about a mile east of Vermand and our rifle fire had no effect on them. This was the first and only time that I saw German Cavalry in the War.”
The three major war poets of the Gloucestershire Regiment were all to be found in 5th Battalion, and their front line newspaper, “The Fifth Gloucestershire Gazette”, encouraged literary outpourings from all ranks. Captain Cyril Winterbotham, of 1/5th Battalion, and editor of the Gazette, was killed on the Somme in 1916. Lieutenant Will Harvey, started the war in 1/5th and it was with them that he won a Distinguished Conduct Medal while still a Lance Corporal. After his commission in 2/5th Battalion, he was captured in August 1916. He completed a slim volume of poetry, “Gloucestershire Friends: Poems from a German Prison Camp”, which his German captors forwarded, untouched, for publication in England in 1917. The third of the trio was Private Ivor Gurney of 2/5th Battalion, a close friend of Harvey. Gurney served with the battalion until the end of the war, but was mentally damaged by the war, and ended his life in and out of psychiatric care. One of his poems, published in 1919, was dedicated to his fellow soldiers:-
(To the Men of the 2/5 Gloucester Regiment)
I’d not have missed one single scrap of pain
That brought me to such friends, and them to me;
And precious is the smallest agony,
The greatest, willingly to bear again –
Cruel frost, night vigils, death so often ta’en
By Golgothas untold from Somme to Sea.
Duty’s a grey thing; friendship valorously
Rides high above all fortune without stain.
Their eyes were stars within the blackest night
Of Evil’s trial. Never mariner
Did trust so in the ever-fixed star
As I in those. And so their laughter sounded –
Trumpets of Victory glittering in sunlight;
Though Hell’s power ringed them in, and night surrounded.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Nivelle Offensive in the spring of 1917, which included the bitter fighting around Arras for the British, largely passed the Gloucesters by, except for 12th Battalion. The next big push was to be the three month long Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, which began that summer, on 31st July.
One veteran soldier of 8th Battalion recalled in old age:-
“Don’t think that I’m saying we weren’t scared. But we had a job to do – so we did it, and we depended on our officers – a better bunch of men never lived than what we had. No wonder they used to say:
‘Halt the Bays and steady the Greys,
But let the Glosters pass!’
“That was a well known saying. The Glosters were known all along the front. If ever there was a raid to be done or a gap to be filled, they always said – ‘Send the Glosters – the Glosters’ll do it!’
“The Germans used to put up notices in front of their trenches when we went into the line. They knew we were coming! The signs said ‘Come on the Glosters – we’re waiting for you!’ then we used to put up a notice saying ‘We’re coming!’ And we did.”
Two Victoria Crosses were awarded to officers of 8th Battalion during the Great War, one in 1916, to Lieutenant-Colonel Carton de Wiart (who had also served in The Royal Gloucestershire Hussars before the war); and one in 1918 to Captain Manley James. The second day of Third Ypres saw a special award made to 8th Battalion’s “A” Company, in the form of a crimson silk butterfly, the emblem of 19th Division, to be worn as a badge of honour on the right arm.
A posthumous Victoria Cross was awarded to an officer of 14th Battalion, Second-Lieutenant Hardy Falconer Parsons, in recognition of his gallantry on 21st August. 14th Battalion was the “Bantam” battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, raised in Bristol in 1915 from the shorter men of the county, between five feet and five feet three inches tall. Parsons was in command of a forward bombing post on the Knoll near Lempire which came under a night attack. The Germans stormed the position with flamethrowers, and Parsons single-handedly held them off long enough with bombs, even though badly burned, for a successful counter-attack to be delivered. Falconer died of his wounds.
The summer and autumn rains of 1917 began early on in the battle, and the terrain over which the Allied soldiers had to advance later turned into a quagmire, made worse by shellfire. Major attacks became bogged down, and the casualty lists lengthened horrifically. Even between major attacks there was little let-up for those in the front lines, as both sides launched raid and counter-raid. One such raid carried out by 60 men of “C” Company, 2/5th Battalion of 23rd October was described by Captain M.F. Badcock of 2/5th Battalion in a letter to his wife:-
“I have not written for some time. I have done a raid show. It did not go badly: we collared some prisoners, one machine gun, and did in about 20. It was the most disgusting shambles I have ever seen. The wretched Germans were simply mad with fright and it seemed sheer butchery, all poor youths of eighteen and nineteen. We got 10 prisoners, but 6 were killed going across No Man’s Land by their own shells; one fool surrendered to me and thrust at me with his bayonet; it went through my trousers, tore my pants, and never touched me. There was nothing to do but to shoot him. It’s the first life I have ever taken in this war to my certain knowledge and it was beastly. We did not have a single fellow killed, only four slightly wounded and all got in safe, so it was a success. Our fellows absolutely saw red and we had a job to stop the killing. We blew up three of their dugouts, which they would not come out of, so I suppose they were buried and suffocated. The sight of us, black hats, black hands and faces, black bayonets and darkness, only white flaring Verey lights and the unceasing crash of our shells on their support lines, made it seem pretty awful.”
The battle for Passchendaele ended on 10th November. The Allies had advanced four and a half thousand miles for a cost of 226,000 in killed and wounded.
Picture: Cover of the Fifth Glosters’ Gazette, April 1917