It’s a chilly, misty morning as we debus, or decoach, at the little crossroads beside this roadside calvary, Calvarie Van Kranenburgstraat, three quarters of a mile east of Klein-Zillebeke. The coach is parked on the main road between Zillebeke, two miles, and then Ieper (Ypres), a further mile and a half, away to the west, and Zandvoorde and eventually Wervik behind us to the east. Anyway, probably best if we get off the main road.
After all, it’s a Tuesday morning, and there might be a car every few minutes. Might be. Love Belgium. Now, before we go on, it has come to light that all is not as it seems with regard to the rest of the post. In that it has been brought to my attention, and big thanks to Peter Crook for so doing (see comments at the end of the post), that the Official History is incorrect in its dealings with what happened here on 31st July 1917, one of the dates we shall be looking at shortly, and thus so am I. The action happened as described, but the brigades involved need to be redesignated in the text, as Peter explains, and some of the maps will need modifying, all of which I shall do in due course.
So, we congregate a short distance down Kranenburgstraat itself, the calvary now in the background. With profound apologies to those present, the specific reason for this group of reprobates debussing here is actually of no great interest to us, so, panning to the right from this shot,…
…allow me to introduce you to a misty Flanders field, and at the same time take the opportunity, you lucky people, to show you a bunch more photos of this same field and its neighbours,…
…accompanied by an overview of what happened here on just two separate days during four years of war.
So for the duration of this post, this is ‘our’ field, and the site of the calvary is ‘our’ crossroads, okay?
Our field had seen serious action as far back as November 1914, as the Germans closed in on Ypres, but the two days in question, 31st July & 20th September 1917, saw the only two British attacks in this area during the five months of the Third Battle of Ypres. 31st July was the first day of the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, indeed the first day, as it turned out, of the five months slog towards Passchendaele, and 20th September was the first day of the Battle of the Menin Road (officially, the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge).
The Third Battle of Ypres would begin with attacks towards Pilckem, six miles north and a little west of here (top left), to as far south as Warneton (bottom of map – this one doesn’t enlarge, by the way), four and a half miles south of our current position, down on the border with France. People tend to think of the thrust towards Passchendaele village itself (blue circle) as the Third Battle of Ypres, but the initial attack on 31st July 1917 actually covered a front of some ten miles, and this morning we are near the centre, as the orange ellipse shows. The gains made at Messines in June are shaded in red, the dotted red line showing the eventual gains after Third Ypres.
This first trench map, dated April 1917, shows the German lines south east of Zillebeke, the area of the orange ellipse on the previous map, a couple of months before the Battle of Messines. It is in Square 31, at the bottom of the map, that we find ourselves this misty morn, where the green dot marks our crossroads, a mass of German trenches between us and the front line a mile away to the west.
Close up of the same map; note the Bassevillebeek (‘Steep banks marshy bottom 2ft. deep. Obstacle to cavalry’) to the right, a serious obstacle to attacking troops, and mentioned more than once in the text.
Following the successful attack at Messines in June 1917, the Germans were forced off Hill 60 (far left of map) and pushed back about a mile in this sector, their new front line before the upcoming Third Battle of Ypres clear to see on the right of the map, much nearer our crossroads, which is still marked by the green circle in Square 31. A short distance to the north, at the time just to the west of Kranenburgstraat, the moated Groenenburg Farm is marked on all the maps in this post,…
…and there is a Groenenburg Farm to this day, although now on the east side of Kranenburgstraat, and moatless, the land opposite, where the farm once stood, fine for agriculture, but presumably no longer stable enough for building.
Panning west from Groenenburg Farm, the German front line in July 1917 just beyond the crest of the ridge, where the maps show a small wood once separated our field from that to its west.
Two German trenches once crossed our field, one a communication trench, marked in red, leading to the front line in the distance, the other, known as Jordan Trench, and part of the Albrecht Stellung (second line) of German defences, crossing this photograph from left to right and marked in magenta,..
…as it is here, running roughly parallel to the front line (Imperial Trench to the south of the road, becoming Jehovah Trench to its north). The blue arrow shows the direction in which we are looking in the previous photograph, the communication trench again marked in red,…
…at which point this map, from March 1916, and therefore the earliest of the maps in this post, is of interest because it shows that the communication trench was the long-standing feature across this field, and it was actually some time after April 1917* that Jordan Trench was constructed as a second line of defence.
*see the very first trench map, where once again you will find no Jordan Trench.
So what was it that our field witnessed on the two days in question? This heavily doctored map tells all. Our crossroads, still marked as a green dot, can be seen in the bottom right quarter, Groenenburg Farm to its north, the two trenches crossing our field still marked in red & magenta, and to their left, a light green line shows Jehovah Trench along our field’s western boundary. The various black and coloured bars show British dispositions on both the days in question, the black bars on the left showing the approximate positions of the relevant brigades of 24th & 41st Divisions on the morning of 31st July 1917. Which is where we begin our narrative.
At 3.50 am on the morning of 31st July, following a preliminary artillery bombardment that had lasted two weeks, the British attacked. In our sector, the three brigades of 24th Division left their trenches and attacked through Shrewsbury Forest (background above) towards Lower Star Post (brown circle on map), whose 360° field of fire would have a major bearing on the day’s events, and across the fields to the south of the forest, including our field. It was an overcast, wet day, and still dark, as the attack began, and initially, despite heavy German resistance, progress was made. Some troops from 72nd Brigade, furthest north, actually managed to reach the Bassevillebeek, just off the map top right (although it does peek into the map in the bottom right hand corner), but under heavy fire from both Dumbarton Wood (also off the map top right) and Lower Star Post, were forced to withdraw to Bodmin Copse, marked at the very top of the map.
73rd & 17th Brigades faced heavy fighting both in the forest and in our field, but they managed to reach Jehovah Trench and the continuation of Jehovah Trench within the forest, where it becomes Jeep Trench, men of 73rd brigade also capturing Groenenburg Farm. Jordan Trench, flooded and unusable beyond the farm (above – a small beek still runs just behind the farm if you check Google maps or whatever you use), was also captured, and men of 17th Brigade even continued their advance to within a few yards of the Bassevillebeek, but enfilading fire from machine guns, in particular those in the bunkers at Lower Star Post, stopped them in their tracks, the British falling back some distance, and digging in just in advance of Jehovah Trench at the top of our field.
123rd Brigade, 41st Division, attacking across the fields south of our crossroads, also met strong opposition, and although their initial objectives were taken, a line of German bunkers proved impossible to capture and the advance stalled. Along the whole sector about 1,000 yards of territory had been gained, but determined German resistance all along the line prevented any further progress that day, and indeed in those that followed, the British by and large digging in along what was the German front line at the start of the day, our field now in No Man’s Land just in front of the new British front line. It would be another seven weeks, after a period of poor weather (the wettest August, as it turned out, in thirty years) and regroupment, before the Battle of the Menin Road, between 20th & 25th September, would see the next attack in this sector. At which point I’ll show you the map again, to save you scrolling back too far:
The three coloured bars show the positions of the British units in the front line on 20th September 1917, from the top; 117th Brigade, 39th Division (orange), and 57th & 58th Brigades, 19th Division, in yellow and lime green respectively, all of whom would attack at 5.40 am on the morning of 20th September. Objectives would be more limited on this occasion than on 31st July, the British now using the ‘bite and hold’ tactics – attack under a hurricane of artillery fire, grab some enemy territory, and consolidate the captured ground before the inevitable counter-attack – that would define the rest of the battle.
On an overcast but dry morning, accompanied by a concentrated artillery bombardment, the attack began. The main thrust would be along and to the north of the Menin Road, a mile and a half north of our field, but the German defenders on the southern flank of the attack would need to be kept busy, hence the attacks made by 39th & 19th Division in our sector. Furthest north, 117th Brigade left their trenches in Shrewsbury Forest and, capturing a series of blockhouses on the way, fought their way to the western edge of Bulgar Wood (above) by 7.00 am, spending the rest of the day pushing on through the wood and reaching the Bassevillebeek beyond its eastern edge, where three German counter-attacks were repulsed and the positions consolidated.
Advancing to their immediate south, 57th Brigade, attacking across the fields, including ours, to the south of Bulgar Wood, would capture North Farm (yellow circle on the map and somewhere in the distant mist in the centre of the photo below),…
…but their advance would be slowed by the treacherously muddy conditions, and from fire from a group of bunkers north of Top House (red circle on the map). ‘House’ and ‘farm’ are often interchangeable on trench maps, and Top House was almost certainly a farm building,…
…and there’s still a farm visible through the mist where Top House is shown on the trench maps, the bunkers once stretching across the field to its left, the field of fire for the machine guns located within obvious from these photos. South of our crossroads, serious opposition was encountered from machine guns in Wood Farm (turquoise circle) and Belgian Wood behind, the latter finally taken at the point of the bayonet. Further south 58th Brigade also encountered considerable fire as they advanced, in particular from German defences to their south, and therefore off the map. These defences, particularly enfilading fire from Hollebeke Chateau (off the map to the south), and from the railway embankment (the railway can be seen in the bottom left of the map to the right of Battle Wood) could sweep much of the battlefield and caused problems for both 57th & 58th Brigade. Nonetheless, 58th Brigade managed, despite faltering more than once, to advance the best part of a mile, even capturing Funny Farm (mauve circle).
The final, well-worn, map extract in this post takes us to December 1917. The Third Battle of Ypres is over. Passchendaele, or the piece of land that was once Passchendaele village, six miles away from us to the north east, has been taken. And south of Shrewsbury Forest, our crossroads still marked by the green circle, this map, dated 17th December 1917, a dotted red line marked ‘Approximate British’ (to which ‘Front Line’ can be added), running along the eastern edge of Bulgar Wood, shows the extent of the final British advance in this sector by the end of Third Ypres in November 1917. The fighting of 20th September had seen maybe another 1,000 yards of territory gained, and objectives, for what they were worth, achieved, but as conditions worsened through the autumn, the British withdrew, most sensibly, to slightly drier land to the west of the Bassevillebeek, now running through the centre of No Man’s Land, as the map shows, the focus of Third Ypres having long moved further north. There would be no more attacks here in 1917, and for six months our field would see the to and fro of men heading towards the front line, or returning, perhaps wounded, perhaps not, until April 1918, when it would be the Germans doing the returning, and our field would change hands once again.
What a mess. If you are wondering why I have failed to shade our field on any of the maps used in this post so that you can see it better, well that’s exactly why I haven’t; the very concept of a single field, bearing in mind the state of the ground by 1917, was by this time in itself a seriously dubious one, as this aerial photograph – I am unsure of the date – shows, with roads, trenches, wood and field boundaries now intermingled.
As both the trenches crossing our field are pretty clear to see, it seems most likely the photo was taken during, or after, Third Ypres, I would have thought. The original German front line on 31st July – Jehovah Trench – can still be seen in light green; the yellow-marked trench could be either part of this system, or perhaps the line the British dug on the evening of 31st July, the new front line, once the fighting for the day had died down.
A few minutes field walking, nothing of significance turning up, and it’s time for us to bid au revoir to our field, but not before revealing what is, I suppose, the real point of this post, in that each and every field within at least a seventy square mile area to the north, east & south of Ieper, and across 1,500 days of war, not just two, has a multitude of stories to tell, and many we are quite capable of revealing, if not necessarily in fine detail, all this time later. Worth bearing in mind the next time your coach flashes through Flanders Fields on its way to Tyne Cot.
British casualty figures eventually allotted for the three days of the Battle of Pilckem Ridge amounted to just under 32,000 men, and for the six days of the Battle of the Menin Road just over 20,000. German casualties I do not know, but what I do know is that men – only God knows how many – died in our field, and, whatever their nationality may have been, we must never forget. Hallowed ground.