July 31 marks 100 years since the bloodiest battle of the First World War. Author Roger Goodwin delves into the Lancashire Infantry Museum’s archives to tell the story of Lancashire’s role in one of history’s most terrible battles.
As with every major campaign of the First World War, Lancashire and the North West of England paid the blood price at Passchendaele.
Among the many North West regiments which fought at Passchendaele were the East Lancashire, South Lancashire, and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments, all now part of today’s Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. Their records are preserved by the Lancashire Infantry Museum in Fulwood Barracks. The regiments fought, and fought, and very often fought again from the beginning to the end of the three-month campaign.
No less than 64 battalions – today there are only 47 infantry battalions in the entire British Army – from those regiments were committed to battle, most of them more than once.
With a battalion numbering anything from 500 to 1,000 men, and with casualty replacements adding to the total, something approaching 100,000 men wearing the cap badges of the proud old infantry regiments of Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland must have seen action in the mud of Passchendaele – and that is without counting those
from the region who served with other arms, corps, and regiments.
Little wonder that the word is burned into Lancashire’s collective folk memory.
These excerpts from the battalion diaries give just a flavour of the action:
2nd East Lancashires: “The attack commenced ... and the whole of the objective on the battalion front was captured in spite of considerable opposition, especially on the right flank ...
“The enemy made a determined attack on this flank, but was driven off with heavy loss ... largely due to the courage and initiative of Corporal Hyndman who, seeing the attack coming, took his Lewis gun section well out on the exposed flank and dealt successfully with the enemy ...Two further attacks were driven off during the day with heavy loss to the enemy...The position was maintained for the rest of that day and the whole of the next under heavy artillery fire and considerable enfilade fire from rifles and machine guns ...until the Battalion was relieved...
“Casualties were heavy: 5 officers and 47 other ranks killed; 5 officers and 137 other ranks wounded; and 40 other ranks missing ...”
1st/4th Loyals – the pre-war Preston Territorials: “The weather had been fine ... but on the 29th a very heavy thunder and rain storm broke out, and all the shell-holes were filled with water, while the roads became impassable... 22 Officers went into action this day with the battalion, and of these only four came through unhurt. During the actual (approach) the casualties were few (but we experienced) some annoyance by enemy snipers lying out in shell holes. (We) then moved forward to attack ...the casualties became very heavy, especially amongst (the officers), these being caused by machine guns and shells from guns firing from the high ground...the (German) line was occupied...(but) ammunition was beginning to run short, and ... the enemy counter-attacked in strength, obliging the Brigade to fall back.”
“The Battalion casualties had again this day been heavy, 51 of all ranks killed or dying of wounds, while 192 were wounded and 77 were missing.
“By 2pm on 1st August only 90 men of the Battalion had assembled...more straggled in by ones and twos (over the next) 24 hours ...”
5th South Lancashires – pre-war Warrington Territorials: “At 5.05am the Battalion...went forward... It was still very dark and...difficult to keep direction...but (the first enemy) line, now in our hands, was reached with few casualties. Once (the line) was passed, however, and the companies deployed, the enemy’s fire became much more deadly ... It was now getting lighter, and the Germans ...were able to shoot with greater effect; but nothing could stop these men from Lancashire. Gallantly and skilfully ... they advanced by short rushes from shell hole to shell hole ... to within 200 yards of their objective. Here the advance was...checked by machine gun fire ... but two tanks opportunely arrived on the scene and soon put a different complexion on affairs... This powerful intervention enabled the men ...to resume their advance, and they surged forward into the enemy’s trenches, clearing the dug-outs ... with bomb and bayonet...
“On this first day... the Battalion lost 1 officer and 27 other ranks killed, and 5 officers and 133 other ranks wounded ... 1 officer and 11 other ranks were reported missing ...”
September 20 – Menin Road
5th South Lancashires – pre-war Warrington Territorials: “ ... The attackers pressed forward and, after a bitter struggle, captured the first objectives, with the exception of the notorious Hill 37 ...A message was received...from...Brigade...that Gallipoli Copse and Hill 37 were to be taken and held at all costs ...
“The advance commenced under a heavy barrage from the German artillery... Both objectives were secured...the next problem was to hold them against the inevitable counter-attack.
“... The enemy began to put down heavy...artillery fire, forcing the garrisons to move slightly forward into the surrounding shell holes ... German troops were observed working forward to counter-attack... after a stiff fight (they) were repulsed by rifle and Lewis-gun fire; although on the right they managed to get as near as 20 yards, and on the left ... to 50 yards. The combatants were so close that the artillery on both sides was unable to shoot.
“The situation of the Battalion was now precarious...there was a shortage of ammunition; and all signal communication had failed.
“When the German counter-attack was so near succeeding ... all messages, maps and code-books had been destroyed lest they fall into enemy hands ...(so) the exact sequence of events from now on is difficult to determine...However, rations and ammunition eventually reached everybody, and ...Hill 37 was linked up with the posts on either side.
“The next day...passed quietly...until ... the enemy furiously bombarded the whole front, and it was evident that he was about to make a determined attempt to re-capture the vantage points. At 6.30 pm the ... attack developed, its main weight being directed at Hill 37, still held by the devoted soldiers of the 5th Battalion.
“The Germans came on with magnificent bravery in dense waves, followed by small columns ... the assault was fiercely pressed. But nothing could avail against the tenacity of the defenders ...The attack was shattered, and Hill 37 remained in the hands of the Prince of Wales’s Volunteers. (Editor’s note: Regiment’s full title was The South Lancashire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Volunteers)).
“... There is now little more to relate. On the evening of the 22nd the battle-scarred men of the 5th Battalion were relieved ... and withdrawn. The losses sustained in the two days’ fighting were 2 officers and 25 other ranks killed, and 6 officers and 137 other ranks wounded – comparatively light casualties when the severity of the battle is taken into account.”
October 4 – Capture of Broodseinde
8th East Lancashires: “... The Battalion took over the front line in due course, having been ‘lost’ by the ‘guides’ (on the approach) ... The Battalion was now very weak, not more than 250 men going into the line. The weather was at its worst, the mud quite indescribable, and movement was very difficult. The transport of rations, trench stores etc was a constant source of anxiety, for everything had to be brought through ... an almost pathless morass, made worse by a standing barrage. The evacuation of the wounded was another very great difficulty.”
October 9 – Poelcapelle
The attack of the 66th (East Lancashire) Division on October 9 was an epic among epics, and deserves more space than we can give it here, so Retro will cover it in detail later this year. For now, this is what the acclaimed war correspondent Sir Philip Gibbs had to say in The Times the next day:
“The brunt of the fighting fell upon the troops of North Country England, the hard tough men of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and it was Lancashire’s day especially. The night march of these men who went up to attack at dawn seems to me ... one of the most heroic episodes in all this time ... Nothing better than this has been done, and Lancashire should thrill to the tale of it, because her sons were its heroes.”
October 26 – Passchendaele
4/5th Loyals: “ ... Despite the mud and water-logged shell-craters the line advanced steadily ... until finally held up ... (by) a barrier of machine-gun fire (from) the pill-boxes...in front and on the flanks ... (40) enemy aircraft repeatedly flew over ... and inflicted several casualties ... The troops ... were compelled to lie low in water-logged shell holes owing to the sweeping machine-gun fire and constant sniping. The ground over which the troops advanced was badly cut up by shell fire, and all shell holes were full of water; the going was very difficult, and before the day was far advanced, Lewis guns and rifles were rapidly becoming useless. Heavy rain began to fall about mid-day ... the men much reduced in numbers and much exhausted through exposure and being in water-logged shell craters for two days and two nights ... It was (therefore) necessary to withdraw ... during the withdrawal most of the wounded were brought back into our lines. The casualties, in this the Battalion’s first battle of the war, had been very heavy; 3 officers and 63 other ranks killed, 5 officers and 165 NCO’s and other ranks wounded, 53 missing, a total in all of 289 casualties ...”