12th October 1917 - 1st battle of Passchendaele

As promised, a sort of explanation of the heavy casualties suffered between the 11th and14th October.

On those days, the battalion was in the front line for the first Battle of Passchendaele. A very significant feature of the battle was the rain. Torrential rain fell on a battlefield where all the field drainage system had been destroyed in the fighting.

In the two days up to the 9th October an inch of rain had fallen, over half the normal rainfall for the month. The whole battlefield was a sea of mud. October 1917 was the wettest October that century.

While Harry’s battalion was in the front line, the main attack on the 12th October was carried out by the Australian and New Zealand troops. Their losses were enormous. They had little success. The casualties experienced by the 9th battalion York & Lancaster Regiment must have been incidental to the main attack, drawing significant casualties from the fighting resulting from it.

Some quotes from accounts of the battle may help set the scene.

http://www.flanders1917.info/ The New Zealanders account of the battle

"Recovering the New Zealand wounded from the battlefield took two and a half days days even with 3,000 extra men from the Fourth Brigade, artillery and other units plus a battalion from the British 49th Division. The conditions were horrendous and six men were needed to carry each stretcher because of the mud and water. The Germans suffered the same problems and an informal truce for stretcher-bearers came into force, although anyone without a stretcher was fired on. By the evening of October 14 there simply was no one left alive on the battlefield."

Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig’s account of the battle paints a sorry picture of brave men engaged in a totally futile task.

“They advanced every time with absolute confidence in their power to overcome the enemy, even though they had sometimes to struggle through mud up to their waists to reach him. So long as they could reach him they did overcome him, but physical exhaustion placed narrow limits on the depth to which each advance could be pushed, and compelled long pauses between the advances.”

Throughout the duration of the war Haig never once visited the front line to see, first-hand, what his troops endured. (My tame History teacher informs me)


There has been a rash of comments that were simply used to put an advertising URL on the blog.

I've, sadly, resorted to moderating comments. Any comments containing a URL will be rejected.

Letter to Jack October 27th

Dear Jack,

I was very pleased to have another letter from you I have not had many lately. I have not heard from Kate yet will you send me her address at once I think some of her letters must have got lost. We have had a busy time in the trenches since seventeenth of September till just now. We are out for a rest we have earned it we were in the trenches five Sundays out of six so you can tell, we want another draft now there is not many left now. I think there is more military medals in our company than any other in france. No 1 &2 in our gun team has got one so you see we are proud. The General said we can’t all get them if we earn them but I’m alright and I don’t bother about one. There is above twenty in our company now with them, as long as I am alright I don’t care. I was going up to the trenches last month and on the road got talking to an artillery man. It come to his home was in Oxford. he said there was some East Oxford lads with him. I told him my name but he did not know me as he went to school at Henley. He gave me a packet of chocolate a package of cigs of box of matches and two candles not a bad sort what you think. The pillbox we took over was one the Australians had taken a day or two before. The Germans would not come out so they burnt them out it was in a state. We have been on the range today firing. I did not do at all bad only I am not much good at rapid firing but at 300 yards application, fires you like, plenty of time I got 19 points out of 20 4 bulls and one inner. I was very pleased to hear that you are thinking of getting married. I should not wait a day. I should not like to be single again and I think that you will say the same let me know as soon as possible. They tell me Willie likes his mug and is very pleased with it. I got your packet alright. I should be glad when the war is over so that I can come and see you. Don’t forget Kate’s address when you write and write soon yourself
with best love from

This letter was undated. However, reference to the Battalion's War Diary makes it possible to date it with some confidence to 27th October - the day on the rifle range.

3 days in the Front Line, Heavy Casualties

The Batallion War Diary merely records the casualties for the three days from the 11th -14 October 1917. There is absolutely no account of any action or of the events of those days.

The casualties were heavy. Around 10%of the notional strength were killed or wounded - over 4 times the losses of the 30th September - 1st October when the War Diary gave a relatively detailed account of the action.

I will try to research further the background to these three days - any help would be appreciated.

This was part of the infamous Passchendaele offensive when the troops suffered great losses for minimal gain.

Radio 4 article

Sunday 7th October, Radio 4 programme, "Broadcasting House" presented an article about the blog. That day it had around 8,000 hits.

Note in the heat of the live broadcast, I exaggerated the amount of explosives set off at messines ridge. Half a million Kg of explosives were used rather than the very optimistic (pessimistic) "half a million tonnes I mentioned. (Only 1,000 times as much!)

Click here to hear the broadcast.

I've had a couple of comments from potential school users. I'd love to comment/help but can't reply to contributors who haven't registered with an email address. My direct email address is bl@pool.cornwall.sch.uk (No junk mail, please)

October 9th 1917

An incorrectly dated letter was posted her. I have moved the letter to the correct posting date, 28th October. Apologies for any confusion.

Letters to Jack, and to Kate,October 3rd 1917

3rd October 1917

Dear Jack

Just a line to let you know I’m going on all right. In my last letter I told you we was waiting for the lads coming out well that night I had to go up the line to help them out with the guns. we brought them part way in the lumber waggons on the way we had a smash a motor lorry ran into us smashed the wheels of the lumber wagon and tipped us all out but we only got a few bumps which we are used to. Three days after, we were called up the line again of course I went this time. We had to go to the front line were it was on the Menin Road no doubt you have heard about it. We were there for three days it was awful the shelling day and night. We relieved the KOYLI about 10 o’clock and what do you think Fritz came over about 5 o’clock next morning we had an exciting time for about one hour and a half I can tell you. but we beat him off he never got in our trenches he was about two hundred strong it was a picked storming party so the prisoners say that captured, they brought liquid fire with them and bombs and all sorts but not many got back we had twenty casuals and the captain got killed a jolly good fellow too. I was pleased to get out of it but did not feel nervous when I saw them coming over. No 1 in our section was on the gun and we used our rifles. Our Coy as to go before the general for the good work we have done. We have just been given a long trousers again as we have had had Short ones all summer. I hope you are going on alright as was pleased to hear you are keeping in good health, write again as soon as possible. I am always ready for a letter. I think the mug will be very nice for Willie

With best love


Oct 3rd

Dear Kate,

Just a line to let you know I’m going on alright. We had an exciting time and this time up the line. We had only been in about six hours when fritz’s came over to us. We had an hour and a half of it but we beat them back and they lost a good many men too not many got back I can tell you. We lost #### (pencilled out –censored?) which I’m sorry to say and about #### wounded. I think the mug will be all right for Willie which Jack is getting for him. If you send me anything it will come in very nice the chocolate is very good I should like a bit of cake, if you could afford it really gets crushed so if it is not packed careful. Write as soon as possible. I hope you’ll get on alright at your fresh place

with best love

from Harry

These letters are remarkably parallel to the account in the battalion's war diary for the 30th September / 1st October. Click to link to the War Diary

Scroll down to find the entry for 30th September

1st October - more front line action for Harry

The battalion war Diary for today, 1st October 1917 makes for more chilling reading.

The trenches were bombarded at 5 a.m. and again at 12.30 p.m. All day aeroplanes fired on the trenches and at 6.30 p.m. another bombardment started. At 7 p.m. an enemy attack was imminent, prevented by an artillery barrage. "After this, the night was quiet."

Follow the link to the war diary to read the whole account of the last two days.

9th Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment War Diary