1916 and the battle of the Somme was to be a bad year for the families and men of East Brent. However, 1917 would be even worse, with eight serving men known to have died, at least four of them in the horror of the 3rd Battle of Ypres better known as ‘Passchendaele’.
Dozens of young men from East Brent served on the Western front during World War One. But of those who were at Passchendaele in late 1917 most were volunteers, or conscripted men and this was their first experience of real warfare!
Despite huge losses during the earlier battles for Ypres – even the use of gas by the Germans in 1915 – it was the last Belgian city to be held throughout the war by the British and Belgian forces in defiance of several mighty German assaults – Surrounded by German forces on three sides, the famous Ypres ‘salient’ was a terrible place to be, with the Germans holding the slightly higher high ground of Passchendaele and Messines Ridge giving them the advantage of easier use of artillery and machine gun fire etc.
In defence of Ypres during the course of the war Britain lost over 400,000 men killed, wounded or missing. The Canadians and French also suffered heavy casualties. Among them in 1917 in Flanders fields were several young men from our parish of East Brent. Passchendaele will always be known for the mud and atrocious conditions in which our forces were expected to fight in.
The objective of taking the small village of Passchendaele from the Germans just N E of Ypres was for the BEF to break out of the Ypres Salient and try to retake the Belgian ports on the North-sea coast from where the German U-boats were operating unrestricted sinking of merchant and passenger vessels in the Atlantic and causing deep concern.
The lead up to Passchendaele 1917 began at Arras and with the capture by the Canadians of Vimy Ridge. By June at Messines Ridge 21 deep mines had been dug under the German lines and filled with explosives. Just after 3-00am on June 7th the mines were blown killing many German troops while others simply surrendered. It is said that the noise of the explosion could be heard in London? With Messines captured, instead of pressing the advantage, General Haig planned for the third Battle of Ypres to take place at the end of July after reinforcing his troops with more men tanks and supplies etc. But this also gave the opportunity for the German forces to do the same. The Germans were masters at building deep almost indestructible defences using barbed wire, trenches and concrete ‘pill-boxes’
The Allied attack began at 3-50am on 31st July after a heavy artillery bombardment, Pilckem Ridge was taken. But the Germans still held some of the high ground giving their artillery a clear advantage and inflicted heavy casualties on our troops.
To add to the misery, on August 1st it rained heavily! Apart from some higher ridges, the land where the battle was being fought was very similar to what we have here in East Brent very flat and drained by waterways. The drainage ditches were destroyed by shellfire. The heavy rain and shellfire had soon turned the battlefield into a morass of water filled shell holes and a sea of mud. Now the use of tanks was out of the question. Men and horses could drown in mud exhausted and unable to pull themselves out. Men had to endure horrendous conditions spending days lying in literally shell holes soaked to the skin eating cold rations where they were available, sometimes managing a brew of tea in a mess tin over some burning rags! The Generals commanding the operation were mostly well behind the line and had no idea of the conditions. One who did venture to the front burst into tears and asked, "Did we send men to fight in this"?
The Menin Gate memorial lists the names of 54,000 ‘Missing’ and the Tyne Cot Cemetery list another 35,000. Apart from dying in the mud and with very little protection from enemy shelling, many of the men who did not answer Roll Call next morning were listed simply as ‘Missing presumed dead’. In many cases nothing was found to identify a soldier, sometimes possibly just a bloodstained dog tag? Sometimes just a piece of uniform that might give a clue such as.. ‘A Sergeant of the Light infantry’?
Among the BEF forces who defended the city of Ypres and fought at the battle of Passchendaele were many from East Brent and at least eight of these brave men would become casualties. Four would die during the four months it took to capture the small village of Passchendaele which stood on a slight ridge of higher ground.
The four East Brent men who died during the Battle of Passchendaele were: 34 year old Private John DURSTON of the Canadian Infantry killed on 22 Jun 1917 during the taking of Vimy Ridge. 27 year old Sergeant John DERRICK of the Yorkshire regiment died 27 Aug 1917 at Langemarck Nr Ypres. 19 year old Private William GRANT of the Royal Lancs. 7 th Battalion who died 23 Sep 1917 Ypres. 25 year old Gunner Alfred GRANT of the Royal Artillery died 03 Oct 1917 at Flanders and was brother of William GRANT (above).
Other East Brent soldiers who died in 1917 in defence of the Ypres Salient were: 34 year old L/Cpl Gerald STUDLEY of the Australian Imperial Force died 29 Jan 1917 at Armentieres. 31 year old Private Charles POPLE of the Gloucester Regiment died 23 Apr 1917 at Arras. 23 year old Ernest FISHER Private in the Dorset Regiment died 12 May 1917 at Messines Ridge. 24 year old Wilfred COMER Gunner in Royal Artillery died 21 May 1917 in Flanders.
Much more information on these men and over a hundred others and their families can be found in the Booklet “East Brent Remembers” published by the East Brent Parish History Group which is available direct from Rooksbridge Post Office, or by contacting: Colin Loader at email@example.com or John Rigarlsford at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is also available from ebay with free postage.