Captain Noel Chavasse (VC and Bar, MC) medal group on public display in Liverpool for the first time at Museum of Liverpool until Jan 2018. Image Courtesy of the Lord Ashcroft Collection © IWM
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.
Similar to the Somme the year before, the battle lasted for several months into autumn. Very little ground was captured and it is estimated that combined total of casualties on both side easily reached more than 500,000.
The Allies and Germans had wrestled for control of the town of Ypres from almost the beginning of the First World War in late 1914. For Allied command control of Ypres had always been a key strategy in keeping German forces from reaching the Belgian coast. The Front line formed a salient around the town and in the summer of 1917, the Allies planned a major offensive to push back the enemy lines.
A preparatory attack in June had seen 19 mines exploded under the strategically strong, German held, observation point at Messines Ridge.
The Third Battle of Ypres began on 31 July at Pilkhem Ridge. Of the 21 battalions of the Kings Liverpool Regiment, in action on the Western Front in the summer of 1917, 10 Battalions would take part in the first few days of the battle: the four (17th – 20th) Pals battalions and the six (1/5th -1/10th) Territorial battalions of the 55th Division.
Battle of Ypres, 1917
On the first day, the Pals were at the southern end of the line and fought their way through Sanctuary Wood, through the German first line trenches and pushed on towards their objective. They came under heavy machine gun fire and shelling and were forced to halt their advance south of ‘Clapham Junction’.
Their losses in the first few days were 84 Killed, 537 wounded and 37 missing.
The Territorials were further North, attacking from the Wieltje trenches, and had a little more success in the ground they gained. The 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th Battalions attacked between 3.50 and 4.30am. Several machine gun posts were captured, including the strongpoints of Plum Farm and Pommern Redoubt, enabling the troops to push further forward and capture the German second line.
The 10th (Scottish) Battalion moved off at 3.30am crossing the Steenbeek River and, with the aid of tanks, which disabled the enemy Machine Guns, were able to capture the enemy trenches. The consolidation of the trenches began immediately. It was during this action that the battalion Medical Officer, Captain Noel Chavasse was awarded the Victoria Cross for the second time. Sadly, it was also during this action that he received the fatal wound that led to his death on 4 August.
The 8th (Irish) Battalion in the role of ‘Moppers up’ left their trenches at 8.30am following behind the main attack. The going across the already heavily shelled, battle-damaged ground was difficult. Progress was further hampered by heavy shelling from the German Artillery and attack by snipers and they incurred heavy losses.
In the first few days of the Battle, the cost of the ground gained for the Liverpool Territorials was high. Over 200 men were killed and more than 1200 wounded and missing.
The Third Battle of Ypres would continue for several months, and more King’s Regiment men would enter the fray, but the losses in those first few days must have left Liverpool reeling from the news.