The Norfolks’ bloody ordeal in the hell of Passchendaele
- Credit: Archant
In the first of two special features commemorating the centenary of one of the costliest campaigns of the First World War, Steve Snelling charts the fate of Norfolk soldiers during the 1917 Passchendaele offensive.
The monsoon-like deluge which was fast turning the battlefield into a sea of mud was still falling as Arthur 'Jacko' Patten snatched a few moments to write home.
Just three days had passed since his first perilous advance into the cauldron of fire east of Ypres and, from a sodden tented camp, the Norfolk company commander sought to reassure his mother that all was well.
'Our little stunt is a thing of the past now,' he scribbled on a postcard, 'will write in a day or so. Don't worry to send any parcels for six weeks as I am going on a course in a week…'
The 'little stunt' to which he so matter-of-factly referred was the launching of one of the greatest British offensive operations of the First World War - an all-out assault by around 100,000 men from nine divisions - and far from being 'a thing of the past' it signalled the beginning of a 3½-month campaign to drive the German army from the gentle ridges rising above the wet Flanders plain and a large part of Belgium beyond it.
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Designed to yield a major strategic victory, the dawn attack - which began amid pouring rain at 3.50am on July 31, 1917 - was fraught with danger and difficulty.
None more so than in the advance north of the Menin road towards the Gheluvelt Plateau where 'Jacko' Patten's company formed part of a force intended to exploit an anticipated early success that never came.
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The plan was for the 18th (Eastern) Division to leapfrog the spearhead units of the 30th Division and carry the advance towards the shell-splintered remains of Polygon Wood, a little over 3,000 yards from the British frontline.
But the attack went awry from the outset. Struggling across a shell-pocked wasteland of mud, barbed wire and devastated woodland, assailed by heavy shelling, the leading troops lost touch with the creeping barrage, veered off course and were cut down in droves by machine-guns firing from undamaged pill-boxes.
The armoured force operating alongside them fared little better. Of the 48 tanks only 19 made it as far as no-man's-land and of these all bar one was put out of action.
The result was total confusion. Mistaking Chateau Wood for Glencourse Wood, their actual objective, the men of 30th Division erroneously signalled its capture, propelling the vanguard of 18th Division into a vortex of fire from positions they imagined had already been vanquished.
By the time, the 8th Norfolks started forward at 8.50am the two leading battalions, 8th Suffolks and 6th Royal Berkshires, were already being 'horribly shelled' as they struggled through Sanctuary Wood.
With the original plan shot to pieces, the decision was taken not to add to the slaughter. The message, sent shortly after 10am, was in time to prevent three companies of the Norfolks moving into the killing zone, but too late to stop Arthur Patten's C Company out in front.
Unaware what was happening in front or behind him, Patten stoically pushed on to reach the wrecked remains of the first German line where he discovered that the division on his left was held up.
Edging forward through intensifying fire, he left his three platoons in what little cover existed and scouted forward only to find a scattering of men from his own and a neighbouring division in danger of being overwhelmed by an enemy counter-attack.
Patten rose to the occasion magnificently. Recognising the threat, he quickly brought some order to the chaos, bringing up his company and reorganising the fractured line just in time to beat off the advancing German troops.
By the afternoon his command had swollen to 200 men from a variety of splintered units who were occupying a necklace of shell-holes and improvised strong-points.
Inspired by his example, they clung on with what one historian has called a 'grim determination' in the face of a continuous bombardment which was directed by low-flying enemy aircraft.
During a day of setbacks and failure on the Gheluvelt Plateau, Arthur Patten's gallant stand represented one of the few bright spots. But it came at a heavy cost. By the time his disparate force was finally relieved C Company, 8th Norfolks had suffered more than 40 casualties, nearly half its strength.
Around dawn on August 1, the survivors were back where they started, 'dog-tired, soaked through to the skin and no doubt thankful to be alive'.
It was a grim augury of much worse to come.
Campaign that became a byword for blood-soaked futility
Passchendaele has become a potent symbol of both the horrors and the horrendous waste of the conflict which ravaged France and Flanders a century ago.
Haunting images of men fighting and dying in a sea of mud have come to define many people's conception of the First World War with all its desolation and despair.
Now synonymous with folly and futility, Passchendaele, otherwise known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was, ironically, intended to end the murderous stalemate on the Western Front with a breakthrough designed to liberate a chunk of Belgium including the strategically-important Channel ports.
Waged between July 31 and November 10, 1917, the British offensive involved a series of attacks, many of them over ground reduced by shelling and torrential rain to a quagmire, which achieved modest success at disproportionately heavy cost.
During the eight battles leading to the capture of the ruins of Passchendaele, the British army sustained around 275,000 casualties, of whom roughly 70,000 were killed. In return, they had advanced no more than five miles in 99 days.
For all their extraordinary efforts and enormous sacrifices, they had failed to achieve the much-vaunted breakthrough. Contrary to the expectations of some senior British commanders, the German resistance, built around lines of concrete pill-boxes and fortified farm buildings, did not crumble.
Despite suffering 200,000 casualties, the German army's position, following the final collapse of Russia, was actually strengthened by the end of 1917.
Conversely, it was the British army, its morale sorely tested, which had fought itself to the point of exhaustion. And for what?
In the opinion of the British general who took over the newly-captured positions on Passchendaele ridge, the line was untenable. He added: 'We must therefore be prepared to withdraw from it, if the Germans show signs of a serious and sustained offensive on this front.'
His words proved prophetic. The following spring all the ground captured at so high a cost was given up in just three days!
Little wonder that the events of 100 years ago in Flanders continue to cast a shadow over our understanding of the 'war to end war'.
How the Norfolks paid a terrible price
Two battalions of the Norfolk Regiment were embroiled in the 3½-month long campaign fought around Ypres.
Of these, only the 8th Norfolks played a prolonged part in the struggle. The so-called New Army unit, raised in 1914 in answer to Lord Kitchener's call to arms, was engaged on the opening day of the offensive and again in August before capping their achievements in October with the capture of the key village of Poelcappelle.
That same month the 1st Norfolks were involved in the struggle to eject German troops from their heavily-fortified positions near Polderhoek Chateau. Like so many other attacks during the campaign, it was launched in drenching rain across ground resembling a swamp and ended in predictable failure with the survivors exhausted.
Losses totalled almost 300 men, with almost half of them killed, to add to the more than 450 casualties suffered by the 8th Battalion during its Flanders travails.
Next week: The Norfolks' finest hour during the Passchendaele campaign.
Thanks to Dick Rayner, historian of the 8th Norfolks, for his assistance with this article.