3rd Ypres – 1917

The Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele (after the Flemish village which was the final objective captured by British and Empire troops), was a major Allied campaign in Flanders during the First World War. Its strategic aim was to break through German defences and capture German naval bases on the Belgian coast from where U-Boats were launching attacks on British Royal Navy and merchant ships. The campaign failed to achieve this objective, but did inflict heavy casualties on the German Army.

Third Ypres was preceded by the Battle of Messines (7-14 June 1917) which opened with the British exploding 19 huge mines under German lines. The attack, in which 15th Hampshire took part, succeeded in capturing the strategically important high ground along the Messines ridge and paved the way for the much larger operation further north which began on 31 July.

14th Hampshire and the Battle of Pilckem Ridge:   Rather than one battle, the Third Ypres campaign was in fact a series of operations. The first of these, the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, began on 31 July 1917. The 14th Hampshire were in action as part of 41st Division’s attack from just northwest of Wieltje towards St Julien – a distance of around 3,000 yards. The battalion captured three German lines and 200 prisoners at a cost of 63 killed and 161 wounded. At one stage during the attack, 2nd Lieutenant Denis Hewitt was reorganising his Company when a shell burst nearby, hitting him and setting fire to the signal lights in his haversack and to his clothing. Having put out the flames, and despite his burns, Hewitt led his men forward in face of heavy German machine-gun fire and played a major part in the capture of the battalion’s final objective. Having reached it, however, he was shot and killed by a sniper. For his gallantry 2nd Lieutenant Hewitt was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The 14th Hampshire then held their position for two days before being withdrawn on 3 August.

2nd Hampshire and the Battle of Langemarck:   The Battle of Langemarck (16-18 August 1917) was the second Allied attack of the Third Ypres campaign. 2nd Hampshire, part of 29th Division, had been in reserve during the Pilckem Ridge operation, but they did not have to wait long to see action. On the night of 15 August the battalion moved across very boggy ground (some men who fell into waterlogged shell holes had to be hauled out using ropes) to an assembly point northeast of Pilckem. At 4.45am the following day the Hampshires advanced behind an accurate creeping barrage and secured their two principal objectives. During the fighting Sergeant Finch led an attack on an enemy strongpoint, dashing ahead of the British barrage, killing four Germans single-handed and taking the blockhouse with some 20 prisoners. The Corps commander, Lord Cavan, warmly congratulated the Hampshires for their achievement when he inspected them on 19 August. On 25 August the battalion was pulled out of the line to begin nearly a month’s respite from the fighting.

15th Hampshire and the Battle of the Menin Ridge Road:    By 25 August 1917, British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig had become dissatisfied with the limited gains made during the opening phase of the Third Ypres campaign. He therefore passed responsibility for operations from Fifth Army commander General Sir Hubert Gough to General Sir Herbert Plumer of Second Army. After a three-week pause in fighting, the Battle of Menin Ridge Road (20-25 September) opened in fine weather. Focusing on more limited objectives and with additional heavy artillery support, the British attacked on a 14,500-yard front and by mid-morning had captured most of their objectives to a depth of 1,500 yards.

Among the units taking part were 15th Hampshire who successfully secured their first two objectives before becoming involved in a desperate struggle to seize the third objective, Green Line. This was close to Tower Trench and the German strongpoint of Tower Hamlets, a mass of concrete dugouts and pill boxes. Only about 130 men could be collected for the attack, but these pressed forward and established themselves in the Green Line, taking 40 prisoners. This included 30 Germans seized in one big dug-out by 2nd Lieutenant Montague Moore, supported by only half a dozen men, who then consolidated the position and repulsed several counter-attacks. They also came under fire from their own artillery who were unaware of their position.

By the following day 2nd Lt Moore was the senior officer left in the Green Line. He showed great resourcefulness and composure, withdrawing his men slightly to avoid the British barrage but then reoccupying the position directly it stopped. Early next morning another British barrage destroyed the rifles and rations of the surviving Hampshires, at last forcing 2nd Lieutenant Moore and his men back to the line of the second objective. Of the 130 men who had started the attack 36 hours earlier only ten remained. For his gallantry 2nd Lieutenant Moore was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In all, the 15th Hampshires lost six officers and 83 men killed or missing and seven officers and 251 wounded.

14th Hampshire and the Battle of Polygon Wood:  The remnants of 15th Hampshire were relieved by the 14th Battalion which took part in the opening of the Battle of Polygon Wood (26 September-3 October). This finally saw the British capture Tower Hamlets. On 27 September 39th Division, to which the 14th and 15th Battalions were assigned, was relieved.

1st Hampshire and the Battle of Broodseinde:  In early September 1917, the 1st Hampshire moved from the Arras sector to Flanders where, on 4 October, they took part in the Battle of Broodseinde, the last of the Allied autumn attacks to take place in fine weather. The battalion attacked northwest of Poelcappelle, suffering 50 per cent casualties before returning to Monchy, near Arras, on 18 October.

2nd Hampshire and the Battle of Poelcappelle:    The Battle of Poelcappelle which opened on 9 October 1917 was dogged by bad weather and supply problems. The attack saw 2nd Hampshire involved in heavy fighting north of Langemarck. The battalion, together with the 4th Worcestershires, successfully secured the Namur Crossing and then their second objective before being held up in front of the third. After dark the Hampshires relieved the Newfoundland Regiment in what was now the front line astride the Poelcappelle-Les Cinq Chemins road. Despite the wet ground, the battalion worked to consolidate the line the next day.

That afternoon a detachment under Captain Phillip Cuddon attacked and captured a troublesome German strongpoint near Cairo House. Cuddon was given a bar to his Military Cross for his role in the assault while Lieutenant-Colonel T.C. Spring, who displayed exemplary leadership and courage throughout the operation, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The Hampshires were relieved on the night of 7 October, bringing to an end the Regiment’s active involvement in the Third Ypres campaign.

11th Hampshire:    Although the 11th Hampshire Pioneer Battalion didn’t fight at Third Ypres, they nevertheless played an important logistical role – building roads, digging wells and working on light railways often under heavy shellfire. In August they moved into Ypres to work on screening the Menin Road from German gunners as far as the notorious Hell-Fire Corner. This meant more casualties, many from gas. The battalion, part of 16th Division, was transferred south to Third Army on 17 August 1917.