On 31st July 1917, behind the newly mastered creeping barrage, the allied troops climbed out of the their trenches along the whole front line, from Boesinghe in the North to Le Gheer in the South, and advanced towards the German forces. The enemy’s first line was quickly taken (the Germans had adapted the scheme of defence in depth, which consisted of a thinly defended front line of machine gun outposts and strongly more heavily defended support line) and the British pushed forward about one mile before meeting much stiffer resistance. Later in the afternoon the advance was stopped and pushed back in places by a carefully coordinated counter attack by specially trained troops. However a worse enemy was afoot, the worst weather for 75 years, which turned the whole battlefield into a quagmire, the whole attack was stalled until 10th August.
It is estimated that Third Ypres cost the Allies about 300,000 casualties (35 men for every metre gained – many of them were lost to the mud of Flanders and have no known grave, only to be commemorated on the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot Memorials to the missing) and the Germans a further 260,000 casualties.
Here is an account of the first day of that bloody campaign, starting a the northern extreme of the attack.
Boesinghe area photograph - Guards and 38th Division
St. Julien area photograph - 51st and 39th Divisions
Frezenberg area map - 55th and 15th Divisions
Hooge area map - 8th Division
Shrewsbury Forest - 24th Division
Hollebeke - 41st Division
Green Wood & Wambeke - 19th and 37th Division
Messines - 3rd Australian Division
Warneton - 1st New Zealand Division
At zero hour 3:50am (31st July 1917), on the left of the Rouler railway the Guards Division attacked with two Brigades, the 2nd Guards (1st Scots Guards and 2nd Irish Guards) met little resistance in meeting their objective. The 3rd Guards Brigade (1st Grenadier Guards and 1st Welsh Guards) also made their objective with little resistance. The second objective was taken up by supporting Battalions of the 2nd and 3rd Guards Brigades, the latter coming under murderous machine gun fire from blockhouses on the Rouler railway, this threatened to hold up the hole attack including the actions of the 113th and 114th Brigades further South. The 3rd Guards managed to clear the blockhouses and join up with the 113th and 114th Brigades.
The 1st Guards Brigade (2nd Grenadier Guards and 2nd Coldstream Guards), who were in support advanced at 8:50am to take their objectives, but were held up by machine gun fire from near the Steenbeek and the slow advance of the 113th and 114th Brigades and had to dig in 80 yards short of their objective.
Sergeant R J Bye of the 1st Grenadier Guards (who captured 2 pillboxes and accounted for 70 of the enemy) and Private T Whitham (took a machine gun nest and killing its 3 occupants) of the 1st Coldstream Guards won the highest honour for the courage and bravery, the VC, for their part in the action.
At zero hour 3:50am, the 114th Brigade (38th Division), consisting of the 10th Battalion (1st Rhondda Pals) Welsh and the 13th Battalion (2nd Rhondda Pals) Welsh attacked taking their objectives with little resistance. The 15th Battalion (Carmarthenshire Pals) Welsh and the 14th Battalion (Swansea Pals) Welsh on their right took up the attack and met much stiffer resistance at Iron Cross Ridge (just off top of photo), this objective was finally taken by the 15th Battalion Welsh.
The 113th Brigade (38th Division), consisting of two companies of the 13th Battalion (2nd Rhondda Pals) Welsh and the 16th Battalion (Cardiff City Pals), met resistance early in the attack in the vicinity of Pilckem from fortified farms, but finally achieved their objectives.
The 115th Brigade (38th Division) in support, followed up, taking the fortified houses (which had been converted into concrete machine gun posts). The Germans counter attacked at 3:10pm and was un-successful, except against the 11th (2nd Gwent Pals) South Wales Borderers.
In front of the 38th Division that day, it was estimated that there were 280 pillboxes, housing deadly machine guns, it was these that accounted for the many casualties experienced. During the taking of these Corporal J L Davies (single handed attacked a machine gun position and took it, although previous attempts had failed, he then led an attack on a sniper – he died later and is buried in Canada Farm) and Sergeant I Rees (captured a machine gun post killing its occupants with rifle and bayonet, he later went on to take a pillbox, killing 5 and capturing a further 30, including 2 officers and their machine gun) won their VC’s.
The 51st Division attacked at 5:30 with two brigades, the 152nd Brigade, consisting of firstly the 1/5th (Sutherland and Caithness) Seaforth Highlanders and the 1/8th (Argyllshire) Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders advanced meeting little resistance and achieving their objectives (near Welsh Farm). The 1/6th (Morayshire) Seaforth Highlanders and 1/6th (Banff and Donside) Gordon Highlanders took over the advance towards their object MacDonald’s Farm, the 1/6th Gordon’s requiring the support of a passing tank to quell resistance around Ascot Farm. The second Brigade, the 153rd Brigade consisted of the 1/7th (Donside) Gordon Highlanders and the 1/7th (Fife) Black Watch, who took their objectives with little resistance, the advance was continued to the next objectives by the 1/5th (Buchan and Formartin) Gordon Highlanders and 1/6th (Perthshire) Black Watch, who although met stiff resistance from pillboxes, outflanked them and moved onto their objectives. An emeny counter attack was launched about 3:30pm but was held up by rapid rifle fire, during all this confusion the 1/6th Seaforth Highlanders and 1/8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders crossed the Steenbeek, but were later pushed back by further counter attacks.
Sergeant Alexander Edwards (captured a machine-gun in a wood and killed all the team. He stalked a sniper and although badly wounded in the arm, went on and killed him. He led his men, although badly wounded, on until the objective was captured) of the 1/6th Seaforth and Private George McIntosh (his company came under machine-gun fire at close range and he immediately rushed forward under heavy fire and took the gun, killing two of the enemy and wounding a third. He then entering the dug-out where he found two light machine-guns which he carried back with him) of the 1/6th Gordon Highlanders both won the VC during the days attack.
The brigade attacked at zero hour with two Brigades, the 116th Brigade (consisting of the 11th, 12th, 13th South Downs Battalions and 14th (1st Portsmouth Pals) Hampshire Battalion) and 117th Brigade (consisting of the 16th (Chatsworth Rifles) Sherwood Foresters and the 17th King’s Royal Rifle Corp) with the 118th Brigade in support. The 116th Brigade with the support of two tanks, which were allocated the enemy’s artillery, reached their objectives, St Julien, taking many prisoners. Lieutenant D G Wyldbore Hewitt of the 14th Hampshire winning the VC during the action (when his first objective had been captured, he reorganised his company and moved forward. Whilst waiting for the barrage to lift, he was hit by a piece of shell, which exploded the signal lights in his haversack and set fire to his equipment and clothes. He extinguished the flames and then, in spite of his wound and severe pain, he led forward the remnants of the company under a very heavy machine-gun fire and captured and consolidated his objective. He was subsequently killed by a sniper while inspecting the consolidation and encouraging his men. His body never recovered and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial). The 117th Brigade with only Stokes mortars and rifle grenades rushed three pillboxes near Regina Cross and overcame further stiff resistance at Albertia to reach their objective. The 118th Brigade set out at 8:00am with the 1/6th Cheshire’s, 1/1st Hertfordshire’s and 4/5th Black Watch to consolidate and mop up any pockets of resistance, the 1/6th Cheshire’s passed through St Julien, the 4/5th Black advanced through Kitcheners Wood, however the 1/1st Hertfordshire’s did not fair so well and were cut down by murderous machine gun fire put down by the enemy. The 118th Brigade suffered heavy counter-attacks and due to failures by the neighbouring division (the 55th Division) their flak was exposed to enfilade fire, causing them to retreat.
The brigade attacked at zero hour with two Brigades, the 165th Brigade consisting of the 1/5th and 1/6th King’s Liverpool regiments advanced towards their objective with little resistance and the attack was taken up by the 1/7th and 1/9th King’s Liverpool regiments, the 1/7th were held up at Square Farm on the Divisional boundary, causing problems for the advancing 10/11th Highland Light Infantry of the 46th Brigade (15 Division), however the 1/7th persevered finally taking the farm and many prisoners. The 166th Brigade advance consisted of the 1/5th King’s Own Royal Lancs. and the 1/5th Loyal North Lancs., they quickly encountered heavy machine gun fire not silenced by the heavy allied artillery. However these two Battalions managed to stay in touch with the creeping barrage. The attack was taken up by the 1/5th South Lancs. and the 1/10th Liverpool Scottish would experience strong resistance around the fortified farms and they were unable to take their objectives, this resulted in heavy casualties. The whole attack was taken up by the 164th Brigade who was in support, with all the final objectives being achieved, the 1/4th King’s Own Royal Lancs. managing to capture 5 batteries of 77mm field guns on their way. Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse (1/10th Liverpool Scottish) VC and Bar was wounded in the attack later dying of wounds received. Temporary Lieutenant Bertram Best-Dunkley (He rallied his men and personally led them to the assault of machineguns which holding up the attack. He continued to lead his battalion until all their objectives had been gained. He later died of his wounds) of the 2/5th Lancs. Fusiliers and Sergeant Tom Fletcher Mayson (when his platoon was held up by machine-gun fire, he without waiting for orders, at once made for the gun which he put out of action with bombs, wounding four of the team, the remaining three fled, he pursued them to a dug-out where he killed them. Later, when clearing up a strongpoint, he again tackled a machine-gun single-handed, killing six of the team. Finally during an enemy counterattack he took charge of an isolated post and successfully held it until ordered to withdraw and his ammunition was exhausted) of the 1/4th King’s Own Royal Lancs. were both also awarded the VC for their bravery.
The brigade attacked at zero hour with two Brigades, the 44th Brigade (consisting of 8/10th Gordon Highlanders and the 8th Seaforth Highlanders) advanced to their first objective with little resistance. The 44th Brigade advanced on through Frezenberg to the next objective. Two subsequent counter attacks were beat off. The 46th Brigade (consisting of 7/8th King’s Own Scottish Borderers and 10/11th Highland Light Infantry) advanced towards their first objectives, the KOSB soon ran into strong resistance, but with the help of two tanks, pushed on. Further resistance was met but again this was dealt with by the KOSB. The HLI faired little better, meeting heavy resistance near Square Farm (on the Divisional boundary – see above). The 45th Brigade (consisting of 6/7th Royal Scots Fusiliers, the 6th Cameron Highlanders, the 11th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 13th Royal Scots) who were tasked as support, pushed through to the final objectives. Counter attacks forced a retirement later in the day.
The brigade attacked at zero hour with two Brigades, the 24th Brigade (consisting of the 1st Worcesters, 2nd Northampton’s, 2nd East Lancashire’s and 1st Sherwood Foresters) the 1st Worcesters and 2nd Northampton’s advanced to their first objective with the 2nd East Lancashire’s and 1st Sherwood Foresters assigned to push on through pass Bellewaarde Lake. The 1st Sherwood Foresters pushed on to the Brigades final objective, however heavy machine gun fire caused them to retire just West of Westhoek. The 23rd Brigade (consisting of the 2nd West Yorkshires, the 2nd Devonshire’s, 2nd Cameronians and the 2nd Middlesex) the 2nd West Yorkshires and 2nd Devonshire’s advanced quickly to take their objective, the 2nd Cameronians pushed through to the final objective, they met stiff resistance along the way but dealt with them Lewis guns and rifle grenades. The 2nd Middlesex advanced through the 2nd Devonshire’s, however they suffered the same fate as 1st Sherwood Foresters. The 25th Brigade who were in support (consisting of Battalions of 2nd Lincolnshire’s, 1st Royal Irish and 2nd Rifle Brigade) tried valiantly to push on but could not advance the line any further, the 2nd Royal Berks (25th Brigade) were tasked to support the 30th Division (see below). Captain Colyer-Fergusson (found himself with only a sergeant and five men. He still carried out the planned attack and succeeded in capturing the enemy trench. During an enemy counter-attack, assisted only by his orderly, he attacked and captured an enemy machine-gun, turning it on the assailants. Later, assisted only by his sergeant, he again attacked and captured a second enemy machine gun, but shortly afterwards he was killed by a sniper) of the 2nd Northampton’s and Temporary Brigadier General Clifford Coffin (when his command was held up in attack owing to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, he went forward and made an inspection of his front posts. Although under the heaviest fire from both machine guns and rifles and in full view of the enemy, he showed an utter disregard of personal danger, walking quietly from shell-hole to shell-hole, giving advice and cheering his men by his presence. His gallant conduct had the greatest effect on all ranks and it was largely owing to his personal courage and example that the shell-hole line was held) commander of 25th Brigade.