Myths of Messines

For the centenary of the Battle of Messines of 7-14 June 1917 I have written four blogs examining often-repeated misconceptions about the battle.

Times 08061917 LG claims to hear Messines minesCrop

The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street:’ How far away were the mines heard and felt?


Hausler miner 9June1917

Did the Messines Mines Really Kill 10,000 Germans?


Lone Tree Cem CWGC

Killed by their own mine? Were the soldiers in Spanbroekmolen Cemetery killed by the falling debris of the mine?


H15258

The Lost Mines: how many unexploded mines remain beneath the Messines ridge battlefield?


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Myths of Messines: Killed by their own mine?

There is an often-repeated claim that many of the British soldiers buried in a cemetery on the Messines Ridge battlefield were killed by the falling debris of their own mine, 150 yards away at Spanbroekmolen.  What is the truth behind this claim?

Lone Tree Cem CWGC

Lone Tree Cemetery, Belgium, where many of the British soldiers are said to have been killed by the British mine at nearby Spanbroekmolen. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

The signal for the advance at the Battle of Messines was the detonation of nineteen mines, to be fired at Zero Hour at 3.10am on 7th June 1917. The decision to fire them exactly at Zero, rather than to allow time for the debris to fall, resulted from a disastrous error made at the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, when one of the mines was fired ten minutes in advance and served to warn the German defenders in the entire sector of the imminent attack.

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The three Kruisstraat mine craters with the Spanbroekmolen crater to the north.

To fire the mines exactly at Zero was a risk. Although efforts were made to synchronise exactly the detonation of the Messines mines, in the event there was a delay of up to 30 seconds between the explosions. The first wave of attackers advancing to the Spanbroekmolen mine was comprised of men from the 14th Royal Irish Rifles but there are no eyewitness accounts from this unit to confirm that they suffered any loss from the mine. The after-action report by the battalion commander records confusion caused by the slight variation in the times of detonation. When a mine detonated, the men got up to attack from where they were lying ready in no man’s land but, as they advanced, another exploded in front of them, throwing them off their feet and causing them to lose direction in the dust and darkness.[1]

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Part of the report by Lt.-Col. G. R. H. Cheape, Commanding 14th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, 12/6/1917. (TNA WO95/2511)

The detonation of the Spanbroekmolen mine was also witnessed by an officer of the Tunnelling Companies, Major Ralph Stokes, who was at the tunnel entrance about 570 yards away. He recorded that the  Peckham mine, 500 yards to the northeast, detonated 20 seconds before Spanbroekmolen.[2]  It seems therefore that the Peckham mine detonation caused the 14th Royal Irish to stand up and begin to advance only to be caught by the shock wave of the Spanbroekmolen. The absence of a reference to casualties from the Spanbroekmolen mine in the CO’s report does not mean that none occurred among the 14th Royal Irish.

36 Div Deployment

The attack by the 36th (Ulster) Division at Messines on 7th June 1917. The first and second waves are shown alongside one another whereas the 14th Royal Irish Rifles led the 10th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers attacking at Spanbroekmolen and the 8th Royal Irish Rifles led the 15th attacking Kruisstraat, where three mines were blown. (Detail from a map in the Harington Papers, King’s Regiment Collection, National Museums Liverpool)

However, the origin of the story of the Spanbroekmolen casualties may be traced to a widely-read book published in 1978, in which an account the attack on mines at Kruisstraat, 650 yards to the southeast, was confused with that on the Spanbroekmolen mine. In They Called It Passchendaele the author Lyn MacDonald quoted from an account by Lieutenant T. Witherow, 8th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, describing how his battalion also advanced prematurely (perhaps again owing to the Peckham mine firing before the others) and the death of a Lance-Corporal by falling mine debris:

We’d made it through the machine-gun fire and had almost got to the German positions, when a terrible thing happened that nearly put an end to my fighting days. All of a sudden the earth seemed to open and belch forth a great mass of flame. There was a deafening noise and the whole thing went up in the air, a huge mass of earth and stone. We were all thrown violently to the ground and debris began to rain down on us. Luckily only soft earth fell on me, but the Lance-Corporal, one of my best Section Commanders, was killed by a brick. It struck him square on the head as he lay at my side. A few more seconds and we would have gone up with the mine.[3]

Witherow’s 8th Royal Irish at Kruisstraat was separated by another battalion from the 14th Royal Irish Rifles attacking at Spanbroekmolen. Stokes recorded that a group of three mines at Kruisstraat went off two seconds after the Spanbroekmolen mine (i.e. 22 seconds after the Peckham mine). [4]  References in the text of They Called It Passchendaele indicate that Lyn MacDonald appeared unaware that Witherow’s battalion was far closer to the mines at Kruisstraat than to that at Spanbroekmolen.[5] A footnote in the book to Witherow’s account compounds the error:

Many of the Irishmen, both Southerners and Northerners, who were killed by the fall-out from the Spanbroekmolen mine lie where they fell in tiny Lone Tree cemetery, just down the hill from the Spanbroekmolen mine crater.[6]

Men of the 8th Royal Irish were indeed buried in Lone Tree Cemetery, even though they were killed some distance to the south, and it is quite possible that Witherow’s Lance-Corporal was buried there. No men from Northern Ireland, that is from the 36th (Ulster) Division, were killed by the Spanbroekmolen mine, the closest attackers being a third of a mile to the north.  Unless further eyewitness accounts come to light, there is no evidence that more than one British soldier was killed by the debris falling at Kruisstraat, and none that any were killed at Spanbroekmolen.

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The Spanbroekmolen crater, known today as the Lone Tree crater or Pool of Peace. (Wikimedia Commons)


References:

[1] War Diary, 14th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, TNA WO95/2511.

[2] Maj. R. S. G. Stokes RE Visits Diary, 7-8/8/1917, TNA WO158/137.

[3] Lyn MacDonald, They Called It Passchendaele, (London 1978), pp. 46-7; the informant may be identified as Thomas Hastings Witherow (1890-1989). MacDonald does not give details of the source for the account but it may be a typescript memoir of which a copy is held in the Liddle Collection, University of Leeds https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/30002/witherow_t_h.

[4] Maj. R. S. G. Stokes RE op. cit.

[5] MacDonald, op. cit., pp. 39-40, 46-7.

[6] MacDonald, op. cit., p. 47.


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Times 08061917 LG claims to hear Messines minesCrop

Myths of Messines: ‘The Big Bang heard in Downing Street’


Hausler miner 9June1917Myths of Messines: Did the Messines Mines Really Kill 10,000 Germans?


H15258

Myths of Messines: The Lost Mines of Messines


Myths of Messines: The ‘Lost Mines’

How was it that in 1955 a massive mine charge detonated in a Belgian field? When nineteen mines were detonated along a six mile front at the opening of the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917, six more huge explosive charges totalling over 80 tons were left to lie dormant and forgotten deep beneath the battlefield. For decades, until the records in the British archives were examined, the number of ‘lost’ mines and their location remained unknown.[1]

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Troops on the rim of one of the Messines mine craters, probably Peckham, shortly after the battle. (Imperial War Museum Q 2325)

Abandoned: the Birdcage Mines

The charge that went off was in fact one of four, planted close together on the far southern flank of the attack front. Laid with great effort by miners of 171st Tunnelling Company, they were at the end of two 700 feet long tunnels beneath a German salient known as the Birdcage which jutted towards the British lines. The charges of 20,000, 26,000, 32,000 and 34,000lbs, laid at between 65 and 80 feet depth, were designed to utterly destroy the Birdcage. Laid in the spring of 1916, they were intended for an the attack on the Messines Ridge originally projected to take place in June.  But this attack, already scaled back after the German assault at Verdun, was postponed when the decision was taken in July to continue the Somme attack. The Battle of Messines was not to take place for another year.

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The cluster of four Birdcage mines on a British plan. The German trenches are red, British galleries green, British front line black, over a modern aerial photograph. To the north are the Factory Farm and Trench 122 mines which were fired in the battle. (WO153/909 The National Archives /GoogleEarth)

When the new attack was ordered for June 1917, the four mines were not required but were kept in readiness. The 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company had taken over the mines from 171st, and Lieutenant B C Hall was immediately ordered to inspect the Birdcage galleries to ascertain whether the mines could be blown in case of counterattack.  Exhausted after the successful detonation of two mines nearby, he found the shaft damaged but was able to climb to the bottom. He found the detonator leads to be intact but, looking down the gallery, he could see that the timber props had all splintered in the middle, giving it the appearance of an hourglass or letter ‘X’. He was just able to squeeze through by crawling along the lower portion of the X, recalling that:

The going was very slow, extremely hard work and it was stiflingly hot.

He reached a point 400 feet beneath no man’s land, where the tunnel branched, but could go no further and with difficulty managed to turn around.[2] Two weeks later, the War Diary of the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company reported that the tunnels were being kept dry by pumping and baling but that the charges were not likely to be used.[3]

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Tunnellers excavate a dugout in the Ypres Salient. The mine galleries were much smaller than this. (Australian War Memorial E01513)

 

How Lost were the ‘Lost’ Mines?

Two other mines were laid for the Battle of Messines but were ‘lost’ when it proved impossible to maintain access to them, owing to German activity and the extremely difficult geological conditions.  The secret of the Messines mines was that they were laid in clay, known as ‘blue clay’, or a mixture of sand and clay, known as Paniselien or ‘bastard’ clay, which were impermeable to water. The thick bands of clay around 70 to 150 feet below ground are the cause of the high water table and waterlogged sands in Flanders. If a shaft could be sunk through the wet sand into the clay, then dry tunnels could be dug, but sinking a shaft required both great experience and special steel caissons or tubbing to keep out the tremendous pressures. Once a horizontal gallery was begun in the dry clay, there was still a danger of the clay membrane above breaking and the whole gallery flooding with a sudden inrush of sand and water.

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The central of the nineteen Messines mines in the geological section shows how they were laid in the Paniselien or ‘bastard’ clay, close to the running sand and above the deeper blue clay.

Lost through enemy action: the La Petite Douve mine

The shaft for a gallery aimed at a German position in the ruins of La Petite Douve Farm was started by the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company in March 1916. It was taken over by 171st Tunnelling Company who with much difficulty managed to sink it to 80 feet depth and drove a gallery 865 feet beneath the ruins. In mid-July they charged it with 50,000 pounds of explosives, then ran a branch tunnel to the left to prepare a second charge chamber. The Germans were suspicious and sank two shafts to search for the British tunnels but lined them with timber not steel, through which the water constantly forced its way in. On 24 August the British heard the Germans working so close to their branch gallery that they seemed about to break in. To have fired a charge to destroy the German working would probably also have detonated their main charge, and so 171st laid a small charge sufficiently large to rupture the clay membrane which would flood the workings with water and sand but leave their main charge intact. They could hear the Germans clearly, laughing and talking, and on 26th detected them breaking into the chamber where they had laid the smaller charge. The British immediately detonated it, killing nine Germans underground and sending a large cloud of grey smoke up the shaft in the German positions. The main British charge was undamaged and 171st laid a 1,000 pound charge in the branch gallery ready to blow again. However, the Inspector of Mines at GHQ was concerned that this would escalate underground warfare in the sector and lead to the loss of the main charge.  The Germans did retaliate with a heavy charge two days later which smashed 400 feet of the main British gallery and killed four men engaged in repairs. It also cut off access to the 50,000 pound charge but, as it was clear to the British that further activity was pointless, 171st was forced to abandon the gallery and the mine became ‘lost’.

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La Petit Douve mine on a British plan, top left. The German trenches and the farm ruins are red and the British galleries in dashed green, over a modern aerial photograph which shows the location of the rebuilt farm slightly to the north. (WO153/909 The National Archives /GoogleEarth)

Lost to quick sand: the Peckham branch mine

The liquid wet sand was also particularly troublesome at a drive towards a position at Peckham  Farm to the south. When the clay was exposed to the air it swelled with such force that it splintered the usual supports, necessitating the use of 7″ x 7″ timbers. After driving a gallery, started in December 1915, 1,145 feet beneath the farm the British laid a charge of 87,000 pounds, then attempted to drive branch galleries to a second objective but twice had to abandoned them, the Tunnellers escaping with their lives from the rapid inrush of water and sand. The third attempt appeared more successful until the ground again gave way. Eventually however, a 20,000 pound charge was laid by creating several small chambers. When the electric pumps broke down, access to the large and small charges was lost and the gallery had to be re-dug for 1,000 feet, with steel joists now replacing the wooden timbers, until eventually in March 1917 connection was again gained with the larger charge. The smaller charge however was judged to be too difficult to regain and was abandoned.

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The Peckham mine crater and the ‘lost’ mine to the northeast. The German trenches and farm ruins are red and the British galleries in green, over a modern aerial photograph which shows the location of he rebuilt farm on top of the unexploded mine. (WO153/909 The National Archives /GoogleEarth)

How Dangerous are the ‘Lost’ Mines?

The Messines charges were carefully waterproofed by packing the explosives in tins covered in tarred canvas. The detonators were sealed in bottles and the leads protected by rubberised canvas hoses inside coiled steel. It was perhaps this armoured hose running up to the surface that carried the electrical current to the detonators of one of the Birdcages charges 65 feet below ground, from a lightning strike nearly forty years after it was laid.  It caused the detonation of the easternmost of the four mines but thankfully the only casualties were cows, an electricity pylon and some roadway. The other three Birdcage mines still lie nearby beneath the former battlefield. After the war La Petite Douve Farm was rebuilt about 100 yards to the north of the location of the old farm, still uncomfortably close to the abandoned 50,000 pound mine. The farm close to Peckham mine was rebuilt 100 yards to the northeast, exactly over the location of the ‘lost’ 20,000 pound mine.

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The location of this warning sign is not known but it may have been placed over the Birdcage mines after the Battle of Messines. (Australian War Memorial H15258)

Notes

[1] Sources used for this article may be found in my book Underground Warfare 1914-1918 (Barnsley 2010).

[2] B. C. Hall, Round the World in Ninety Years, (Lincoln, 1981), p. 66.

[3] War Diary 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, 22/6/1917, Library and Archives Canada [accessed 30 April 2017].

Detail from geological section of Second Army Offensive Mines 7/6/1917 from The Work of the Royal Engineers in the European War, 1914-19. Work in the field under the Engineer-in-Chief, B.E.F., Geological Work on the Western Front, (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 1922)


Times 08061917 LG claims to hear Messines minesCropMyths of Messines: ‘The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street’


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1917 Practice Tunnels on Salisbury Plain

These tunnels from the First World War have only recently been uncovered. Constructed close to Larkhill Camp, they are part of a large number of trench networks created on Salisbury Plain for troop training during 1914-1918. Almost every camp had a system of practice trenches aiming to replicate what would be found at the front. entrances crop DSCN2925

In April 2017 I was lucky enough to be invited to view the last parts of the tunnels found before they were covered to make way for a housing development. My thanks go to archaeologists  Martin Brown and Si Cleggett.

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The galleries are low in height and comparatively shallow, no more than 25 feet beneath the surface, reminiscent of those dug at the front early in the war in 1915.

Peter Doyle via Twitter ez04lSEW

(Photo © Peter Doyle)

They do not appear to be the work of professional miners and were probably dug either by an Engineer Field Company or Infantry Pioneers.  It is probable they were being developed into dugouts.

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The tunnelled galleries were cut with a flat headed pick or mattock and feature an unconventional form of timbering with just one vertical prop and the other end of the sill slotted into the chalk wall. Soot from a candle can be seen on the wall to the right.

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Tiny Union flags drawn on the wall a hundred years ago were easily missed.

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Four men of the 3/4th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment left their names on 13th October 1917. At least one of them, Oswald Thomas Gardiner Rhodes, served overseas and survived the war.

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The site has been laser surveyed and compared to a 1917 trench map. What was found had clearly been developed beyond that shown in the map as successive units extended the trenches and tunnels.

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The artefacts bear witness both to training activity and the daily lives of soldiers spending several days at a time in the trenches. Here can be seen a British Long Lee Enfield rifle, commonly used for training and possibly damaged by shellfire.

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A broken practice grenade. Finds included both live and inert grenades.

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Tins which contained Craven A cigarettes and Coral Flake tobacco. The trenches were believed to have been filled in soon after the First World War and contained much detritus including cigarette and ration tins.

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8th Royal Berkshire Regiment training at Sutton Veny, 1915 (Photo © Simon Jones).

Research into Salisbury Plain during 1914-1918 and discoveries such as this are changing the understanding of its importance in preparing soldiers for battle. By 1916, training was highly realistic, incorporating the latest tactics.  In particular, Major-General Monash’s 3rd Australian Division trained here August to November 1916 making use of the opportunity for highly realistic training in conjunction with artillery and aircraft. The proximity of gunnery and aviation schools facilitated co-operation with the infantry to develop the ‘all-arms’ battle which became a highly effective feature of British fighting methods in 1918.

Myths of Messines: ‘The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street’

When nineteen underground mines were detonated at the opening of the Battle of Messines south of Ypres in Belgium, at 3.10 a.m. on 7 June 1917, the sound is frequently said to have been heard in 10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.[1]  There is evidence that the earth tremor caused by the explosion of around one million pounds of explosives was felt at a great distance.  Charles Barrois, a geologist in Lille, 12 miles away, later told his Australian counterpart, Sir Edgworth David, that the effect was such that people rushed from their houses thinking that there was an earthquake.[2] Tremors were detected by seismographs near Utrecht, at 130 miles distance, and on the Isle of Wight, 180 miles away.[3]

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The Caterpillar Crater, the result of 70,000 pounds of explosives laid 100 feet beneath the German lines. It is one of the 19 Messines mines detonated at 3.10am on 7th June 1917.

The claim that the mines were heard in Downing Street appears to have originated as a report in The Times the following day which stated that Lloyd George heard them at his home at Walton Heath in Surrey. This was 140 miles from the mines and, by coincidence, the same distance as Downing Street. The Prime Minister was said to have given orders to be called at 3 a.m. and with others had ‘heard clearly the tremendous shock’.  The report further stated that at the same time ‘persons in the neighbourhood of the premier’s official residence in London also heard what they judged to be heavy guns across the Channel’.[4]

Times 08061917 LG claims to hear Messines mines

The Times, 8 June 1917.

The science journal Nature repeated the claim that the Prime Minister had heard the explosions but, a fortnight later, printed a correction after receiving information from two Royal Engineer officers who had witnessed the detonations. One, a mile away from the mines, described the noise as ‘not so very great’, while the other, eight miles away, ‘saw the flash, waited for the noise, and heard only a slight “phit.”‘[5]

Other observers left accounts which enable a clearer idea to be gained of what might have been heard in England, if it was not the sound of the mines. Another Royal Engineer officer, a Tunneller Brian Frayling, observing from Kemmel Hill two miles away, described the tremor as ‘a violent shaking of the ground’ with a distinct interval before columns of flame rose.[6]  The Tunnelling officer Hugh Kerr ‘saw the whole area leap into the air – a never to be forgotten sight.’ But he expressed the view that to have heard the mines in London was ‘bunkum or wishful thinking!’ and ‘due to lively imagination’. It was the guns, he said, which had made the sound: ‘What about the barrage! That was a noise!’[7]

Eyewitnesses describe a sequence of three events: a powerful earth tremor from the mines, flames streaking into the air, and then the artillery opening fire.  For the first time in an attack, the detonation of the mines was used by the gunners as the signal for the opening of the British barrage and, within a few seconds, more than 2,000 guns opened fire. Only in describing the guns do the eyewitnesses describe a noise.  An artillery officer, Ralph Hamilton, watching the detonation of the Hill 60 and Caterpillar mines, experienced the tremor, the flames and then the guns:

First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. [8]

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The Daily Telegraph, 5 June 1917.

There is much evidence that gun fire from the Western Front was audible in England during the First World War, including in the days before the Messines attack was launched. The Daily Telegraph reported that one of their staff had heard it clearly, in a southeast London suburb at 2am of 4 June, resembling ‘the distant thudding of a steam-launch’s engines on the river upon a calm day’, punctuated by heavier sounds thought to be large howitzers which caused a ‘slight rattling of ill-fitting villa windows’.  In other parts of London, ‘from Hounslow to Highgate’, gunfire was plainly heard.[9]

If Lloyd George heard something at Walton Heath therefore, it seems more likely that it was the synchronised firing of more than 2,000 guns.

See below for references.


Hausler miner 9June1917

Myths of Messines: Did the Messines Mines Really Kill 10,000 Germans?


H15258

Myths of Messines: The ‘Lost Mines’


Lone Tree Cem CWGC

Myths of Messines: Killed by their own mine?


Underground Warfare

Buy a signed copy of Underground Warfare 1914-1918 at a reduced price


Grave of Wilfred Owen Ors

Words, Music and Landscapes: the War Poets Tour 25th-28th July 2017


Notes to ‘The Big Bang Heard in Downing Street’:

[1] The internet, passim.

[2] Tunnellers’ Old Comrades Association Bulletin, No.  1, 1926, pp. 11-12.

[3] Koninklijk Nederlandsch Meteorologisch Instituut, Seismische Registrierungen in De Bilt, Vol. 5, 1917 (Utrecht, 1920), p. 41; Nature, No. 2485, Vol. 99, 14/6/1917, p. 312.

[4] The Times, 8/6/1917.

[5] Nature, No. 2485, Vol. 99, 14/6/1917, p. 312; Nature, No. 2487, Vol. 99, 28/6/1917, p. 350.

[6] Brian Frayling, ‘Back to Front’ by B.E.F. TS memoir Brian Frayling, Royal Engineers Museum and Archives.

[7] H. R. Kerr, letter to Alexander Barrie 8/3/1962, Barrie Papers, RE Museum & Archives.

[8] Ralph G. Hamilton, The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven (London 1924), p. 304; see also the account ‘Messines’ by ‘Tunneller’, Tunnellers’ Old Comrades Association Bulletin, No. 5, 1930, p. 23.

[9] The Daily Telegraph, 5/6/1917.


Q3999 cropThe Story of the Lochnagar Mine


Who was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’? The night attack by the 2/5th Glosters on 6-7 April 1917

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© Vincent Faupier.

In Ivor Gurney’s poem about his experiences in the First World War ‘The Silent One’, the musician and poet describes a failed night time attack in which a non-commissioned officer is killed and left hanging on the uncut barbed wire. With the attack held up, Gurney is politely asked by an officer to try to get through a possible gap in the wire but, with equal politeness, he declines.

The poem has been described by his biographer as ‘this most truthful report from the battlefield’.[1] Although he was writing in the 1920s, the preciseness of the details suggest that Gurney was recalling an actual event.  In 2010, while I was guiding a group on a literature-themed tour of the Western Front, we visited the place where Gurney was wounded during an attack on the night of 6th – 7th April 1917 and we realised that this was clearly the event that Gurney was describing in ‘The Silent One’.[2]  It was one of many minor attacks made by the British as they pursued the German withdrawal from the Somme battlefield to the Hindenburg Line. Typically the Germans held positions for a few days, inflicting casualties with machine guns, before pulling back. The British attack had been planned for two days earlier only to be cancelled. Every such attack required soldiers to prepare themselves mentally for death or wounds and Gurney described his feelings to his friend Marion Scott:

           My state of mind is — fed up to the eyes; fear of not living to write music for England; no fear at all of death.

He hoped a ‘Nice Blighty’ would come soon, by which he meant a wound serious enough to require treatment in the UK.[3]  A fortnight after the attack had taken place, Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott, explaining that he was indeed ‘wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough’ for he did not have a Blighty wound but was in hospital in Rouen.

           It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm just underneath the shoulder…[4]

Guney Rouen May 1917 Gloucestershire Archives

Ivor Gurney in Rouen while recovering from the wound in his right arm received during the attack of 6- 7 April 1917. (The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © The Ivor Gurney Archive, Gloucestershire Archives).

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Part of Ivor Gurney’s service record showing the date of his wound on 7 April 1917, the abbreviation indicating ‘gunshot wound right arm’. (National Archives WO363 via Findmypast.com).

The attack was made by two battalions of Gurney’s Brigade. On the left was the 4th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry while on the right was Gurney’s battalion, the 2/5th Gloucestershire Regiment.  The Glosters (as they were known) attacked with two companies, Gurney’s B Company was on the left and C Company on the right. The 59th Division was also supposed to attack to the left of the Ox and Bucks.

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The right of the position along which the 2/5th Glosters deployed for the attack on the night of 6th April 1917, about 1,000 yards from the German positions. Neither the farm nor the cemetery were there at the time. (GoogleEarth).

The Germans held trenches along high ground, protected in front by belts of barbed wire which were concealed from British observation by a depression. The speed of the German retreat left the British without maps of the German positions and this lack of information contributed to the failure of the attack.[5]  On the night of 6th, Good Friday, the attackers moved forward to a position about 1,000 yards from the German positions. The night was wet and very dark with no moon. Their orders were to deploy by 11pm and they will have lain down and waited for the British guns to open up.  Gurney’s B Company was occupied a line about a third of a mile in width. 

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British Trench Map with the attack of 6th-7th April 1917 marked. This map, corrected to 30th January 1917, did not show the German trenches or wire; woods are also incorrectly plotted. (Map: McMaster University Creative Commons).

At midnight, the artillery began a forty-minute bombardment of the German positions, building to an intense fire for the final five minutes. The Brigade commander afterwards stated that the British shells fell short but there were no reports of any British casualties from this cause.  At 12.40am two companies from each of the two battalions rushed forward and the British guns advanced their targets by 100 yards every four minutes: this formed a ‘creeping barrage’ that the attackers were supposed to follow.

Lieutenant Brown, of the Ox and Bucks attacking to the left of Gurney’s Company, said that his men started ‘in quick time’; as they neared the German positions, they broke into a rush towards the wire and some were shouting. There were shouts heard also from the Germans and two or three were seen to climb out of their trenches and run away. But the attackers did not see the German wire until they were right on it: they found that the shelling had missed it, it was uncut, about ten yards deep and about five feet high.  The Germans at once targeted their wire with machine guns and grenades, in the darkness sparks flew where the bullets hit. Brown reported that his own light machine guns were unable to suppress the German fire; consulting with Gurney’s Glosters on his right, he found that they were also held up.

Gurney’s men too had found the wire uncut: Lieutenant Pakeman was reported in the Glosters’ War Diary to have:

rallied his men and made 3 efforts to get through, though himself wounded. He led his men up to the wire & cut a certain amount himself.

Pakeman was to be awarded the Military Cross for his part in the unsuccessful attack, the citation recording that:

He led his company in the most gallant manner and personally tried to cut gaps in the enemy’s wire. Later, although wounded, he remained at his post.

The War Diary also mentions that in C Company, Sergeant Davies ‘distinguished himself cutting a gap large enough for 5 men to get through. All of whom were killed.’ This man was actually Lance-Sergeant Frank Davis, awarded the Disguised Conduct Medal with the citation:

He led his platoon in the most gallant manner, and personally tried to cut a gap in the enemy’s wire. He was severely wounded.

GE street 11.50pm line towards German cem Gurney2

The area attacked by the Glosters. The German trenches were just beyond the crest line which is marked by trees on the right. The German wire was above and behind the area of trees in the middle ground (Cooker Quarry). The track is where the Glosters and Ox and Bucks withdrew before their second attempt to get through the wire. (GoogleEarth).

These attempts to get through the wire were fruitless and the two battalions withdrew to a partially sunken track to reorganise.[6] Brown again spoke to the commander of the Glosters’ B Company and they decided to make another attempt to get through the wire. Taking place at about 1.30am, this also failed and they withdrew his men to the track.  This withdrawal and failed second attempt is described by Gurney’s two final lines:

retreated and came on again,

Again retreated a second time, faced the screen.

Brown again conferred with the two Glosters company commanders and an officer of the 59th Division to his left: none had got through the wire and they decided to withdraw on the grounds that it appeared impossible.[7]

43849_3066_0-00665CropContr

2/5th Glosters War Diary entry for 7 April 1917. (National Archives, WO95/3066).

The 2/5th Glosters’ War Diary records that 15 men were killed from the battalion, and seven officers and 27 men wounded, including Lieutenant Pakeman. Six of the wounded were evacuated, one of whom will have been Gurney.[8]  The bodies of the dead, originally buried near to the German wire, were moved to Vadencourt British Cemetery in 1919.[9]

Vincent Faupier19698175Res

A German cemetery is now on the site of the German trenches attacked by the Glosters. This view looks back across the ground over which they advanced and shows the dead ground in front of the German positions which apparently prevented the artillery from bombarding the German wire. © Vincent Faupier.

The German resistance was part of a holding operation and when more British troops repeated the attack, on the night of the 8th – 9th April, the Germans were found to have withdrawn.  A study of this short battle suggests that Gurney’s recall of events was precise and accurate and that his capacity for intense self-examination provides valuable insights in respect of his admission of his refusal to attack and the way that this was apparently accepted by his superior officer. Such disobedience of an order in the face of the enemy could have resulted in Gurney receiving the death penalty. Instead, the incident appears to illustrate the circumstances whereby, in a heavily civilianised British army, officers preferred  to lead by example, rather than compelling their men to carry out a task that they themselves would not. It also suggests circumstances in which orders were a matter of negotiation where disobedience in certain situations would be accepted.

Two individuals are described in the poem. It is impossible definitely to identify the probable officer who unsuccessfully asks Gurney, with ‘the politest voice – a finicking accent’, whether he might find a way through but he may have been Lieutenant Pakeman, decorated for his part in the attack. In 1916, Sidney Arnold Pakeman was a history master at Marlborough College, having graduated from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. After the war he became Professor of History at the University of Ceylon and died in London in 1975.

It is possible to offer a more confident identification for the other soldier. The poet characterises him by his Buckinghamshire accent and his  non-commissioned officer’s stripes:

Silent One MS detail Gloucestershire Archives

The opening of ‘The Silent One’ from Gurney ‘Best Poems’ notebook. (The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © The Ivor Gurney Archive, Gloucestershire Archives).

            The Silent One

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two  –

Who for his hours of life had chattered through

Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:

Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went

A noble fool, faithful to his stripes  – and ended.

In April 1917 Gurney’s battalion still had a strong Gloucestershire identity and, of the fifteen killed in the attack, all but four were born or enlisted in the county or in Bristol.[10] None was strictly from Buckinghamshire but one, a corporal, was born in Long Marston, Hertfordshire, in an area closely enclosed on three sides by the boundary of Buckinghamshire. It was in the Bucks Herald newspaper that the parents of a dairy worker, Corporal James Chappin, placed two announcements on 26th April 1917:Bucks Herald April 28, 1917aCropEnh2cl

Bucks Herald April 28, 1917cropenh

The Bucks Herald, 26th April 1917 (via FindMyPast.co.uk).

DSCN3058cr

DSCN3059cr2

The grave of James Chappin in Vadancourt British Cemetery with the inscription chosen by his next of kin.


Text © Simon Jones

Notes.

[1] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, (Oxford, 1984), p. 203.

[2] My thanks to Mrs. Joyce Kendell for pointing out the resemblance.

[3] R. K. R. Thornton (ed.), Ivor Gurney War Letters, (London, 1984), pp. 152.

[4] Letter postmarked 14/4/1917, Ivor Gurney War Letters, op. cit., p. 154.

[5] The latest map found is Sheet 62cS.E. Edition 2A Trenches, corrected to 30/1/1917. Later maps (2nd February 1918) shows a series of fire trenches on the crest and forward slope which, if German, would have been there on Good Friday 1917. The positions of small woods are shown incorrectly on the earlier maps.

[6] Brown discovered that the 59th Division on his left had not attacked and its troops were crowding into his sector. See note below.

[7] A report by 184th Brigade states that a third attempt was also held up before the withdrawal was made. ‘Report on attack on German trenches on night 6/7th April, 1917′; ‘Report on Operations carried out by 184th Infantry Brigade from the time of taking over from 183rd Infantry Brigade to the time of relief by 35th Division’; Lieutenant K. E. Brown, (commanding A Company, 4th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Infantry) ‘Report on attack on German trenches on 6/7th April 1917′, War Diary GS 184 Infantry Brigade, National Archives WO95/3063.

[8] War Diary, 2/5 Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, National Archives, WO95/3066.

[9] CWGC Burial Return via CWGC.org.

[10] Soldiers Died in the Great War, (HMSO, 1921) digitised version searched via Ancestry.co.uk.

Photograph of Ivor Gurney in uniform and detail of ‘The Silent One’ ms are from the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed April 3, 2017, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/6942, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/6931.


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