A last-minute addition to our Tour of Langemark, and thus not on the trench maps seen in previous posts, the new memorial to the Hertfordshire Regiment can be found in the fields outside St. Julien (now Sint-Juliaan), less than a mile south east of the outskirts of modern Langemark.
Unveiled as recently as July 2017, this is the first memorial to the men of the regiment to be erected outside the U.K., and its position, on the slopes of the Pilckem Ridge to the north east of St. Julien, in the distance in many of these shots, is no coincidence.
The Hertfordshires were a pre-war territorial regiment who, on 31st July 1917, the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, were tasked with attacking the German third line trenches across these fields to the north of St. Julien and south of Langemark. That morning the 39th Division, at the southern end of the British attack, had achieved all its objectives for minimal casualties, including the capture of the first two German lines and the village of St. Julien itself, and it was left to the Hertfordshires to complete the days’ advance from the Steenbeek* up this slope to capture the German third line (the Wilhelm Stellung).
*if you haven’t been following this tour, we have encountered the watery obstacle that was, and is, the Steenbeek before, the section of the stream from the outskirts of Langemark to St. Julien running roughly parallel to the road on the left of many of these pictures, about half a mile away to the south west (beyond the trees in the previous shot).
Attacking from right to left across the fields behind the memorial, the Hertfordshires advanced as far as the road on the left to find the German wire, strung along the far side of the road, undamaged by the earlier artillery bombardment and, in the face of increasingly heavy fire and German counterattacks, they were forced to fall back.
The day would prove to be the most costly day of the war for the Hertfordshires. Of the 620 officers and men of the regiment who took part in the attack, all the officers would be either killed or wounded, alongside 459 other ranks either killed, wounded or captured, and all in the space of some two hours.
The map shows the memorial marked with a black arrow in the foreground, the light blue arrows indicating the progress of the attacking Hertfordshires until they encountered the German wire just beyond the road. The battalion war diary for 31st July tells us; ‘About 3.50am the Bn moved forward in 4 lines behind the 116th & 117th Inf. Bdes. east of the river Steenbeek. Up till this time the casualties had been very slight indeed but as the Bn advanced from the Steenbeek toward the Langemarck line (the Bn objective) casualties grew heavier from sniper and machine gun fire. However the Bn continued advancing. About half way to the objective some of No.3 Coy came upon a German strong point which they gallantly charged, capturing or killing most of the garrison and sending the remainder back as prisoners. On reaching the enemy wire this was found to be practically undamaged (except in one place) & very thick. 2/Lieut Marchington & a handful of men of No.3 Coy got through the only gap and got into the enemy trench & killed a lot of Germans. The remainder of the Bn, being unable to get through the wire and suffering severe casualties from enfilade MG fire & the Germans making a strong counter attack from our left flank about this time, had to fall back having suffered exceptionally heavy casualties. The remnants of the battalion subsequently dug themselves in in line with the 1st Cambs Regt. on the west side of the Steenbeek. Estimated casualties to the other ranks were 29 killed, 5 missing believed killed, 132 missing, 68 wounded & missing, 223 wounded & 2 died of wounds, making a total of 459 casualties to other ranks. Died of wounds; Officers 2, OR’s 6. Missing; Officers 9, OR’s 120. Wounded; Officers 8, OR’s 180.’
What amazes me are the entries in the war diary for the following few days. The entry for 2nd August says that ‘Major Phillips, Captain Whitfield and 2nd Lieut. E.M. Paul went up to the line to take charge of the 130 Other Ranks who remained from the fight on the 31st July. This party remained at Tower Post and Irish Farm.’, and for 3rd August, ‘The party went forward in support of the 116 Bde, staying in the old German front line system until the 5th; the trenches being in a terrible condition owing to the almost continuous rain since the evening of the 31st July.’ And finally, on 5th August, the remnants of the regiment were withdrawn to billets at Reigersburg Chateau. It is surely staggering that men who had been through such a traumatic time on 31st July were still in the line a full five days later.
Hertfordshire territorials; one wonders how many of these young men died in this very field.
What we do know for a fact…
…is that many of these men did. This is No. 7 platoon, No. 2 company, taken during a spell in reserve only weeks before the attack, and many of the men in this photograph would indeed die in the fields beyond the memorial on the first day of Third Ypres.
Some may still be there. With thanks to Herts at War.
One more cemetery to see on this tour, so click here for Part Nine.