Voices from the muddy hell

Passchendaele has entered in the British collective memory as the tragic symbol of the Great War on the Western Front, as well as the military débâcle  par excellence. The reasons for this consideration of a battle, although concluded with good local successes and lower losses compared to Somme, can be sought in a series of social, psychological and military variables. It should first be noted that in England the patriotic enthusiasm around the war had long since weakened, so that in January 1916 the British government had been obliged to introduce compulsory military service. The influx of volunteers had collapsed from 462,000 in September 1914 to just over 4,000 in June 1917. After the terrible battle of the Somme, it was also common sense that no more similar massacres would have been repeated and at the same time the easy victory of Messines had generated the hope of achieving great success with little loss. Passchendaele abruptly brought the British people to the reality of the war of waging. Not only the fierce German resistance, but in particular the lunar scenery, made even more dreadful by the mud hell in which the battlefield was transformed, so shocked the British soldiers to give us a picture of Passchendaele as the hardest and the terrible clash of the British Army in the First World War.

 

From the Trench Newspaper, Le Bochophage – 26 March 1917

Men die of Mud, as they die from bullets, but more horribly. Mud is where men sink and - what is worse - where their soul sinks. Hell is not fire, that would not be the ultimate in suffering. Hell is mud

 

Private H. QUIGLEY,

Passchendaele, October 1917

A few days later being wounded, Private Hugh Quigley, wrote to home from hospital. About the action of 9 October he tells: “the officers told us the usual tale, "a soft job" and I reckon it might have been easy enough if we had had a decent start. But none of us knew where to go when the barrage began, whether half-right or half-left...?” Quigley and the men with him reached their first objective, “a ghastly breastwork littered with German corpses”, after which he was knocked out for a while by a shell. 'One sight almost sickened me before I went on: thinking the position of a helmet on a dead officer's face rather curious, sunken down rather far on the nose, my platoon sergeant lifted it off, only to discover no upper half to the head. All above the nose had been blown to atoms, a mass of pulp, brain, bone and muscle.' Apart from that episode, Quigley added, 'the whole affair appeared rather good fun. You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects.' For a short while he looked at the barrage, “ours and the Germans”, as something provided for our entertainment - a mood of madness, if you like'. The mood of madness soon passed. One of the men in his platoon, loaded with five hundred rounds of ammunition, “acted the brave man, ran on ahead, signalled back to us, and In general acted as if on quiet parade. The last I saw of him was two arms straining madly at the ground, blood pouring from his mouth, while legs and body sunk into a shell-hole filled with water.” Then the Germans launched a massive artillery barrage, with mustard gas and high-explosive shells. 'Before is the country seemed a mass of crawling flame,' Quigley wrote. As they advanced, men 'grew nightmarish, as if under a cliff of fire'. British shells, falling short, burst near groups of men trying to go forward. 'But when the mud and smoke cleared away, there they were, dirty but untouched. The clay, rain-soaked, sucked in the shell and the shrapnel seemed to get smothered, making It useless.' At that moment, a German shell burst among them. 'A man beside me put his hands to his ears with a cry of horror, stone-deaf, with ear-drums shattered.' Advancing further. Quigley himself was hit by German machine-gun fire. ‘Four men carried me on a stretcher down the Passchendaele road, over a wilderness of foul holes littered with dead men disinterred in the barrage. One sight I remember vividly: a white-faced German prisoner tending a whiter -Cameron- who had been struck in the stomach. In spite of the fierce shelling he did not leave him.’ Two men carrying a wounded Highlander were hit by the explosion of a shrapnel shell. They were both killed. The wounded Highlander survived. 'The only trouble was his being dropped into a stinking shell-hole. I came down myself once or twice, the path being so bad, but my stretcher bearers, Royal Army Medical Corps, were good stuff afraid of nothing, and kind hearted, apologising for any jolting.' Stretcher cases were needing up to sixteen men to carry them back across the mile of mud to the dock-board oaks and advance dressing stations.

[Reconstruction of an attack on Passchendaele taken by Martin Gilbert, First World War, Rosetta Books, 2014]

 

Sergeant Robert Charles Baldwin

Dear Sir, I have much pleasure in replying to your letter dated August 5th, 1917. I am very pleased indeed to know that you are safe in Blighty. Well, sir, you ask me where I got to when we went over the top. I think you will remember halting and lying down in No Man's Land. Well, as I lay there the time seemed to be long; then I got up and went to the front of the platoon to see what had gone wrong. When I got there I found you had gone on and the remainder of the men had not the sense to follow you. So I led on with the remainder, taking my direction from the compass. I reached the hill and passed Schuler Farm on the right. We started to climb the hill and then a funny thing happened; those already at the top came running back again shouting 'Get back and dig in; they are outflanking us'. I took the warning and retired to a suitable position and got the men digging themselves in. We could see the Boches coming over the ridge like a swarm of bees. When they got nearer we opened machine-gun and rifle fire. All the time this was going on the artillery had ceased firing, and I began to feel a bit down-hearted. Then things quietened down a bit; so I told the lads to make a drink of tea for themselves, which they did gladly enough.

All the time we could see Fritz preparing for a counter-attack and we knew it had to come. I waited patiently keeping a look-out for them coming. Then men were getting knocked out one by one, until I had only five; and the Lewis gun had got a bullet through its pinion which rendered it useless. Nothing happened until the evening, and then the bombardment started and we knew we had something toput up with. I sent up an SOS rocket and our artillery opened out, but the shells were dropping short and hitting our men. Then we retired for about fifty yards and took up some shell holes. I looked round and found all my men had vanished. I was amongst some of the Cambridgeshires and Hertfordshires. I really did not know what to do. The artillery became more intense and still our shells were dropping short. There was another sergeant out of the Cambridgeshires in this shell hole with a few men; so I told him I would go back and try and get in touch with the artillery. On my way back I got wounded in the leg, so I rolled into a shell hole. It began to rain and rained heavily all the night. When day broke I found myself covered with clay and mud, and wet through to the skin. I crawled out and looked about me. It was a quiet morning except for a shell bursting now and again, and I could see some men through my glasses, about a mile away, working on a road. I made my way towards them. How I got there I do not know, for I was more dead than alive. I inquired for the dressing-station, which I found after a long walk. I was sent down to the Base to hospital and was sent to England on 6 August.

I am pleased to say that I am feeling much better and my wound is getting on nicely. I hope my letter will find you feeling much better for the rest you have worked so hard for. I saw in the casualty list that the Colonel had died of wounds, the Adjutant killed, 2nd Lt. Gratton missing, Captain Andrews wounded, and Lt. Telfer missing. I think I have told you all the news you require, and hope you enjoy reading it.

 

Captain A.F.P. CHRISTISON,

6th Battalion,

Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders.

On Saturday 4 August General Gough who was in command of the 5th Army, inspected our remnant. He remained mounted and said: 'Well done, you did your best. I deplore your losses. I am sure you will all want to avenge their deaths so I am making you up with a large draft so that you can return and avenge your comrades.' A man in the rear shouted angrily: “You're a bloody butcher”. He rode off taking no notice, but after that he became known in the 5th Army as “Butcher Gough”.

 

Private REG LAWRENCE,

3rd S. African Infantry Battalion

South African Brigade.

18 September, 1917. We marched a mile or two along the Ypres road and through Ypres itself - majestic, though in ruins, and silent but for the echoes of marching feet on the stones. There was something unnerving about the silence, broken only by the steady thud of guns. Far away an occasional star shell glimmered for an instant before the inky black swallowed it up. I could not help having misgivings of what was to come and for the first time I felt nervous. We reached the reserve trenches with whole skins, but dog tired, and relieved the Manchester Fusiliers who, poor devils, seemed all of a dither to get away. We had very little sleep as the advanced batteries were only 100 yards behind us and the noise was ear splitting. They started up before dawn and by the time it was light, the bursts of fire had swelled to one continuous roar as all the batteries along the ridge joined in. We got everything ready for the fray and made our last wills and testaments. Mine was short and sweet, as I had only about £10 back pay to leave. Brother Geoff 's company was posted a few hundred yards in advance of ours and had already suffered a few casualties. In the afternoon, he came down to see me. We sat and watched the troop coming up in little columns. Against the skyline they looked like line of ants. Roscoe remarked that he didn't mind dying if it was sudden but he hated pain. “But what about Bunny?” I asked him, and he replied, “Oh, she'll get over it in time”. At 10 pip emma we got our marching orders to move up our jumping-off place. It drizzled mournfully and our spirits sank again as we started slipping in the mud and falling over each other. After keeping fine for seven days it was too bad to rain the night before the attack.

 

Musketier HANS OTTO SCHETTER,

3rd Company, 231st

Reserve Infanterie Regiment,

50th (German) Reserve Division.

In the night of 19/20 September we entrain to the front line. Ledeghem, the last station open to traffc, is our unloading stop. Many ammunition columns pass by us toward the front, and the cannonade grows in intensity — giving us a welcome! The enemy is firing fiercely and our own artillery is replying in kind. This morning the British infantry has broken through our first lines at Wilhelmstellung. Often we have to take cover on the side of the highway from the bursting shells. Anxiously, I look ahead toward the front line where the shells are bursting with dark smoke clouds. Only stumps are left of the trees, and I try to figure out how I can best get through this hell. I am at watch at the roadside to look for vehicles of Regiment 231. We are moving forward with coffee containers and sacks of bread to our company, which has occupied the shell holes and what is left of the trenches - the Flanders position. I am anxiously observing the battleground: concrete bunkers outline the position. There are no quarters for us, so at night we sleep in a barn on top of potatoes. At 3 a.m. we are awakened and we now move forward in single file on the Menin-Ypres road. On both sides of the highway our batteries are firing and their iron greetings receive prompt reply from the enemy. We have to move fast because it is almost 6 a.m. and we have to reach our front line before daybreak. We reach the Front headquarters from where we are guided to our troops which occupy shell holes 150 metres ahead. The soldiers are reluctantly leaving their shell holes and are not eager for food. The whole earth is ploughed by the exploding shells and the holes are filled with water, and if you do not get killed by the shells you may drown in the craters. Broken wagons and dead horses are moved to the sides of the road; also, many dead soldiers are here. Seriously wounded who died in the ambulance wagon have been unloaded and their eyes stare at you. Sometimes an arm or a leg is missing. Everybody is rushing, running, trying to escape almost certain death in this hail of enemy shells on the highway, which is the only passage since the fields are hooded shell holes. I breathe easier when we reach our kitchen wagon. Today I have seen the real face of war.

 

Private LEONARD HART,

1st Otago Infantry Battalion,

5th New Zealand Reinforcements

France, 19 October, 1917. Dear Mother, Father and Connie, in a postcard, which I sent you about a fortnight ago, I mentioned that we were on the eve of a great event. Well that great event is over now, and by some strange act of fortune, I have once again come through without a scratch. For the first time in our brief history as an army, the New Zealanders failed in their objective with the most appalling slaughter I have ever seen. My company went into action 180 strong and we came out thirty-two strong. Still, we have nothing to be ashamed of, as our commander afterwards told us that no troops in the world could possibly have taken the position, but this is small comfort when one remembers the hundreds of lives that have been lost and nothing gained. Our brigade received orders to relieve a brigade of Tommies who had two nights previously advanced their positions a distance of two thousand yards. These Tommies had, however, failed to take their last objective and we were going to be put over the top to try and take it. At dusk, we started off in full fighting order. The weather had for some days been wet and cold and the mud was in places up to the knees. The ground had all been deluged with our shells before being taken from the Germans, and for those five miles leading to our front line trench there was nothing but utter desolation, not a blade of grass, or tree, numerous tanks stuck in the mud, and for the rest, just one shell hole touching another. The only structures which had stood the bombardment in any way at all were the German machine-gun emplacements. These emplacements are marvellous structures made of concrete with walls often ten feet thick and the concrete reinforced throughout with railway irons and steel bands and bars. The ground was strewn with the corpses of numerous Huns and Tommies. Dead horses and mules lay everywhere, yet no attempt had been made to bury any of them. Well, we at length arrived at our destination - the front line - and relieved the worn-out Tommies. They had not attempted to dig trenches but had simply held the line by occupying a long line of shell holes, two or three men to each hole. Many of them seemed too worn out to walk properly and I don't know how some of them must have got on during their long tramp through the mud back to billets. Each of us had a shovel with him, so we set to work to make some kind of trenches. We were at this point about half-way up one slope of the ridge which in the course of forty-eight hours we were to try and take. The mud was not so bad here owing to the water being able to run away into a swamp at the foot of the ridge. Anyway, by daybreak, we had dug ourselves in sufficiently and, although wet and covered in mud from head to foot, we felt fit for a feed of bread and bully beef, for breakfast. We stayed in our new trenches all that day and the day following during which it rained off and on, and Fritz kept things lively with his artillery. At three o'clock on the third morning we received orders to attack the ridge at half-past five. It was pitch dark and raining heavily. When all was ready we were told to lay down and wait the order to charge. Our artillery barrage curtain of fire was to open out at twenty past five and play on the German positions on top of the ridge a hundred and fifty yards ahead of us. At twenty past five to the second, and with a roar that shook the ground, our guns opened out on the five-mile sector of the advance. Through some blunder our artillery barrage opened up about two hundred yards short of the specified range and thus opened right in the midst of us. It was a truly awful time - our men getting cut to pieces in dozens by our own guns. I heard an officer shout an order to the men to retire a short distance and wait for our barrage to lift. Some, who heard the order, did so. Others, not knowing what to do under the circumstances, stayed where they were, while others advanced towards the German positions, only to be mown down by his deadly rifle and machine-gun fire. At length our barrage lifted and we all once more formed up and made a rush for the ridge. What was our dismay upon reaching almost to the top of the ridge to find a long line of practically undamaged German concrete machine-gun emplacements with barbed wire entanglements in front of them fully fifty yards deep! The wire had been cut in a few places by our Artillery but only sufficient to allow a few men through at a time. Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their comrades' eyes. It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that the day was lost. We accordingly lay down in shell holes or any cover we could get and waited. Any man who showed his head was immediately shot. They were marvellous shots those Huns. We had lost nearly eighty per cent of our strength and gained about three hundred yards of ground in the attempt. This three hundred yards was useless to us for the Germans still held and dominated the ridge. We hung on all that day and night. There was no one to give us orders, all our officers of the battalion having been killed or wounded. All my Company officers were killed outright - one of them, a son of the Revd Ryburn of Invercargill, was shot dead beside me. The second day after this tragic business, we were surprised to see about half a dozen Huns suddenly appear waving a white flag. They proved to be Red Cross men and they were asking for a truce to take in their wounded and bury their dead. It was a humane and gallant act. Our stretcher-bearers were able to go and take all our wounded from the barbed wire, and we had all the wounded carried out before nightfall. We had not time to bury many of our dead but the wounded should be the only consideration in times like that, but I went out and buried poor Ryburn. My company has come out with no officers, only one sergeant out of seven, one corporal and thirty men. Even then we are not the worst off. I have just decided to have this letter posted by someone going on leave to England, so I will tell you a few more facts, which it would not have been advisable to mention otherwise. Some terrible blunder has been made. Someone is responsible for that barbed wire not having been broken up by our artillery. Someone is responsible for the opening of our barrage in the midst of us instead of 150 yards ahead of us. Someone else is responsible for those machine-gun emplacements being left practically intact, but the papers will all report another glorious success, and no one except those who actually took part in it will know any different. I will relate to you another little incident or two which never reaches the press, or if it does it is 'censored' in order to deceive the public. This almost unbelievable but perfectly true incident is as follows. During the night after we had relieved the Tommies prior to our attack on the ridge we were surprised to hear agonised cries of 'Stretcher- bearer', 'Help', For God's sake come here' etc. coming from all sides of us. When daylight came some of us, myself included, crawled out to some adjacent shell holes from where the cries were coming and were astonished to find about half a dozen Tommies, badly wounded, some insane, others almost dead with starvation and exposure, lying stuck in the mud and too weak to move. We asked one man who seemed a little better than the others what was the meaning of it, and he said that if we cared to crawl about among the shell holes all round about him we would find dozens more in similar plight. We were dumbfounded, but the awful truth remained, these chaps, wounded in the defence of their country had been callously left to die the most awful of deaths in the half-frozen mud while tens of thousands of able-bodied men were camped within five miles of them behind the lines. All these Tommies (they were mostly men of the York and Lancaster Regiment) had been wounded during their unsuccessful attack on the ridge which we afterwards tried to take, and at the time when we came upon them they must have been lying where they fell in mud and rain for four days and nights. Those that were still alive had subsisted on the rations and water that they had carried with them or else had taken it from dead comrades beside them. I have seen some pretty rotten sights during the two and a half years of active service, but I must say that this fairly sickened me. We crawled back to our trenches and inside of an hour all our stretcher-bearers were working like the heroes that they were, and in full view of the enemy whom, to his credit, did not fire on them. They worked all day carrying out those Tommies. Carrying wounded over such country often knee-deep in mud is the most trying work imaginable, and I do not say for a moment that the exhausted Tommies (the survivors of the first attack on Passchendaele Ridge) were physically capable of doing it, but I do say that it was their officers' duty to send back and have fresh men brought up to carry out the wounded that they themselves could not carry. Perhaps they did send back for help, but still the fact remains that nothing was done until our chaps came up, and whoever is responsible for the unnecessary sacrifice of those lives deserves to be shot more than any Hun ever did. If they had asked for an armistice to carry out their wounded I do not doubt that it would have been granted for the Huns had plenty of wounded to attend to as well as the Tommies. I suppose our armchair leaders call this British stubbornness. If this represents British stubbornness then it is time we called it by a new name. I would suggest callous brutality as a substitute. After reading this do not believe our lying press who tell you that all the brutality of this war is on the Hun's side. The Hun is no angel, we all know, and the granting of an armistice, such as that which we had, is a rare occurrence. The particular regiments who were holding the ridge at the time of our attack are known as `Jaegers', but for all the terrific casualties those Jaegers inflicted on us, we survivors of Passchendaele Ridge must all admit that they played the game on that occasion at any rate.

 

Rifleman V. SHAWYER

13th Battalion,

The Rifle Brigade

Sooner or later the stretcher-bearers would get to you on the Somme, but at Passchendaele the wounded didn't stand an earthly chance. At one aid post a doctor said to the stretcher-bearers, “Only bring back men we've got a hope of curing. If you get a seriously injured man, leave him to die quietly. Too often you bring men back here and before we can help them they're gone. You're wasting your time and ours”. I thought that was a terrible thing to say. But that was Passchendaele.

 

Bibliography:

Lyn Macdonald, 1914-1918: Voices & Images of the Great War, Penguin, 1988

Martin Gilbert, First World War, Rosetta Books, 2014.