Superhuman bravery of Lancashire's men
Belgium, October 1917, 100 years ago this month. In the Ypres Salient, the Passchendaele campaign had been grinding on for two long, murderous months, largely in rain-drenched, sodden horror. Yet spells of fine weather in September had aided some British successes, which encouraged Field Marshal Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, to believe the German defenders were on the point of collapse, and to order further attacks.Misled by faulty intelligence, he was, as so often, wrong. The Germans were far from breaking point. Once again, the unrelenting weather was to come to their aid. And for the thousands of Lancashire men serving in the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division, it was to be a baptism of fire as dreadful as any endured on the Western Front.The 66th Division was a First World War creation of a type not seen before or (apart from a brief period at the start of the Second World War) since in the organisation of the British Army. When the war broke out in 1914, the part-time soldiers of the pre-war Territorial Force could not be sent overseas without their consent. The territorial units were accordingly split into a “first line”, with men who had volunteered for overseas service and a “second line”, which was intended for home service, by the ten per cent who refused to volunteer. The division was formed in the first few weeks of the war, as the 2nd East Lancashire Division, a second-line formation of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division.It was as ‘Lanky’ a formation as it was possible to be, made up of 12 battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers, East Lancashire, and Manchester Regiments, with supporting artillery, medical and engineer units also drawn from the region.For two years, the division provided trained replacements for its parent unit and carried out home defence duties in England until, following the introduction of compulsory conscription in January 1916, all territorial soldiers were deemed liable for overseas service. In early 1917, the 66th Division moved to France. For some months, it held the line in relatively easy sectors while it adjusted to frontline conditions, but in October, it made its debut in what became known as the Battle of Poelcapelle.All the division’s battalions fought just as bravely, and suffered equally, in what was to come, but here two of them, whose records are kept in the archives of the Lancashire Infantry Museum in Fulwood Barracks, must represent them all – the 2/4th and 2/5th East Lancashires, made up of men from Blackburn, Burnley and the surrounding area.It started badly. The fine weather broke on October 5 and the rain ‘descended in torrents’ throughout the move up to Ypres the following day. There the two battalions were directed to bivouac in an open field near the Menin Gate.“It was a dismal prospect,” records the Regimental History. “The shell-pitted ground was sodden, no shelter of any kind was available and the troops had to make themselves as comfortable as might be on the sopping ground under waterproof sheets.”There they remained, with the rain sheeting down continuously, for the next two days until battle orders were issued on October 8, and the two East Lancashire battalions learned that they had been designated to make the final attack on the last objective set for their Brigade in the coming advance.Both battalions began to move up towards the front the same day. Reaching the western slopes of the Frezenberg Ridge (‘ridge’ only in the military sense, since it was a mere fold in the ground), they were halted and bivouaced until nightfall. The slopes were shelled all day, and the 2/4th sustained about 20 casualties.At about 6pm the battalions met up with their guides, and began to move in single file towards their assembly positions. What followed – even before they met the enemy – was an epic which has gone down in military history. It is not possible to improve on the words of the Regimental History, which is quoted here directly:“The country traversed was in an indescribable condition. Heavy fighting had been continuously in progress for weeks past on this front – the ground had been so ploughed up by shells that distinguishing marks had been almost completely eliminated. A ribbon of mud-soaked, shell-pitted road ran eastwards ... but on either side the country was a veritable honeycomb of shell-holes for as far as the eye could reach, the only means of progression being by taking a winding course round the lips of the craters.“Difficult enough ground this to traverse in daylight and when dry. But to cross in the darkness, under fire, was a task almost superhuman.“Officers of high rank and wide experience have designated this march as one of the outstanding feats of the war.”The 2/5th East Lancashires recorded with pride that not a single unwounded man fell out during the course of “this extraordinary march”.Both battalions toiled over the morass without once resting from the time that their guides met them at 6pm on October 8 until the hour of the attack – 5.20am on October 9 – taking more than 11 hours to cover a distance which, as the crow flies, amounted to barely a mile.The next day, the noted war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote in The Times: “The brunt of the fighting fell yesterday ... upon... the hard tough men of Lancashire and Yorkshire ... especially ...those Territorial battalions of the Manchester, East Lancashire, and Lancashire Fusilier (Regiments). “The night march of these men who went up to attack at dawn seems to me, who has written many records of brave acts during three years of war, one of the most heroic episodes in all this time. It took 11 hours for these Lancashire men to get up to their support line, and then, worn out with fatigue that was a physical pain, wet to the skin, cold as death, hungry and all clotted with mud, they lay in the water of shell-holes for a while until their officers said: “Our turn, boys,” and then they went forward through heavy fire, and over the same kind of ground, and fought the enemy with machine-guns – until they lay outside their last objective, and kept off counter-attacks with a few machine-guns that still remained unclogged and rifles that somehow they had kept dry. “Nothing better than this has been done, and Lancashire should thrill to the tale of it because her sons were its heroes.”When the attack did go in, it immediately became evident that the Germans were in great strength. The advancing troops were met by severe machine-gun and rifle fire, and the shell-fire was some of the heaviest experienced against infantry in the whole war. By about midday it was apparent the advance had not progressed beyond the first objective – a distance of about 500 to 600 yards – and a defensive line was established in anticipation of the inevitable counter-attack. It came at dusk, and was, in the main, repulsed.By now the units of 198 (East Lancashire) Brigade – to which both the East Lancashires and some Manchester battalions belonged – had become so intermingled that independent unit command was almost impossible, and Lt Col Whitehead, Commanding Officer of the 2/5th East Lancashires, as the senior officer, took command of the whole mixed force. It remained in the frontline for the rest of the day and the next night, fighting off at least one more counter attack by enemy troops who were almost as exhausted as the British.About 10am on October 10, a runner reached the headquarters of the 2/5th with a crumpled and only half-decipherable written message that the German position was to be taken at all costs. ‘It appeared to be an order of annihilation,’ records the Regimental History. Lt Col Whitehead summoned the commanding officers of the other battalions, who agreed that if the order was carried out, it would involve the extermination of the Brigade. The order was re-examined, and it was found, with difficulty – and no doubt very great relief – to be 24 hours late.‘But for this timely discovery, a terrible tragedy might have occurred,’ records the regimental history dryly.The battalions which had been engaged in the attack remained in the line during the whole of October 10, under heavy shell-fire. It was fortunate that the enemy was, relatively speaking, immobilised by the state of the battlefield no less than were our own troops – who would otherwise have found themselves seriously short of ammunition and grenades. As it was, they suffered terribly from shortage of water. The only means of getting supplies up to the frontline was by mule train, whose sole approach, as the Germans well knew, was along a single road. This track consequently received constant attention from the enemy artillery throughout the attack and the succeeding days, and although train after train was dispatched from Ypres (each animal carrying eight petrol tins – 16 gallons – of water), very few ever got through ‘and the suffering of the frontline troops was correspondingly accentuated.’Finally, the next night, the force under Lt Col Whitehead was at last relieved. Even then their sufferings were not over, and they were heavily shelled on their way back. Eventually, however, the remnants of the two East Lancashire battalions reached the same field outside Ypres in which they had bivouaced before the battle.For them, the Battle of Poelcappelle – just one phase in the ongoing horror of the Passchendaele campaign – was over. The cost of their first battle had been high. The 2/4th lost 13 officers and 316 men killed or wounded; the 2/5th 12 officers and 355 men. In each case, practically half the battalion had become casualties.