The Ypres Salient – a bulge in the front line, in front of and to the east of the Belgian town of Ypres, was formed during the First Battle of Ypres in October and November 1914, when a small British Expeditionary Force succeeded in securing the town before the onset of winter, pushing the German forces back to the Passchendaele Ridge.
The Second Battle of Ypres began in April 1915 when the Germans released poison gas into the Allied lines north of Ypres. This was the first time gas had been used and the violence of the attack forced an Allied withdrawal and a shortening of the line of defence.
There was then little significant activity on this front until 1917, when an offensive was mounted by Commonwealth forces to divert German attention from a weakened French front further south. This became known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
An initial attempt in June to dislodge the Germans from the Messines Ridge, on the right flank of the British forces, was a complete success. [The Battle of Messines, 7-14 June 1917] The offensive at Messines forced the Germans to move reserves to Flanders from the Arras and Aisne fronts, which relieved pressure on the French, and deprived the German 4th Army of the high ground south of Ypres. This was a necessary precursor to a planned British advance to the Passchendaele Ridge which was intended to allow a ‘break-out’ and the capture the Belgian coast up to the Dutch frontier.
There was also a later successful French operation just north of Poelcapelle in the Houthulst Forest, on the left flank of the British forces.
The main assault north-eastward, the Third Battle of Ypres, was launched on 31 July 1917, and became a struggle against determined opposition, with progressively worsening weather.
The ground had been severely damaged by shelling and rapidly deteriorated in the rains, which began again on 3 October, turning some areas into a swamp. The campaign finally closed in November with the capture of Passchendaele on 6 November.
Third Battle of Ypres was not a single action, but comprised 8 separate phases:
Battle of Pilckem Ridge (31 July – 2 August 1917)
Battle of Langemarck, 1917 (16 – 18 August 1917)
Battle of the Menin Road Ridge (20 – 25 September 1917)
Battle of Polygon Wood (26 September – 3 October 1917)
Battle of Broodseinde (4 October 1917)
Battle of Poelcapelle (9 October 1917)
First Battle of Passchendaele (12 October 1917)
Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 October – 10 November 1917)
The actions from September to the beginning of October were comparatively successful, but the later actions from Poelcapelle onwards were not. The final capture of Passchendaele, which was declared to have been the objective, provided a political justification to end this phase of the campaign.
In the period 30 July to 10 November 1917, some 22 Rugby infantrymen were killed in action; as well as a member of the infantry machine gun corps; six artillery men and two members of the Royal Engineers. A member of the Royal Flying Corps also lost his life on 12 October 1917. Elsewhere, Rugby lost three men killed in the Egypt/Palestine theatre.
J S Watts of the 10th Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment was killed on 30 July just before the Battle of Pilckem Ridge (31 July – 2 August 1917), whilst Sergeant G E Reynolds of the 2nd Bn. Rifle Brigade and Acting Bombardier A J Wingell of the 23rd Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery, were killed on the opening day of that action. Sergeant Reynolds’ brother was killed less than two weeks later.
Five men were killed in the run up to the next main action, which illustrates the fact that soldiers were being killed day by day, on patrols, and by ‘routine’ shelling of their positions and sniper fire, as well as in the major assaults of the named battles. They were: Lance Corporal L G Daniels of the 4th Bn. Grenadier Guards on 4 August; and G Hanwell, 1st Bn. Worcestershires and T H Reynolds of the 15th Bn. Royal Welsh Fusiliers on 12 August. Reynold’s brother was killed just two weeks before. An Engineer Officer, Lieutenant A C Boyce of the 397th Field Company Royal Engineers was killed on 10 August and an artilleryman, Sergeant A Deakin, of the Royal Field Artillery, on 14 August.
Lance Corporal F E Boyes of the 6th Bn. Oxford and Bucks was killed on the first day of the Battle of Langemarck, (16 – 18 August 1917) and then a further four of Rugby’s men were killed in later August and early September: W E Summerfield of the 1st/6th Bn. Royal Warwicks on 20 August; Lance Corporal Warden F H B of ‘C’ Compay 1st/7th Bn. Royal Warwicks on 27 August; and G Ruddle of the 2nd/6th Bn. Royal Warwicks on 3 September. These three were all serving in the 143rd Brigade of the 48th Division. Gunner C H Meadows of ‘D’ Battery, Royal Field Artillery, was killed on 4 September.
Four men were killed during the period of the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge (20 – 25 September 1917): J C Smith of the 11th Bn. King’s Royal Rifle Corps, on the opening day; Lance Corporal A G Stay, of the 122nd Company Machine Gun Corps (infantry) on 21 September; a Sapper, G J Worster, of the 94th Field Company on 22 September; and E G Bradshaw of the 2nd/6th Bn. Royal Warwicks on 24 September.
The Battle of Polygon Wood (26 September – 3 October 1917) seems not to have claimed any of Rugby’s infantrymen, but two artillerymen, L S Lennon and W S Saville, who were both Gunners in the 2/A Battery of the Honourable Artillery Company were both killed on 29 September.
Then on 5 October, the day following the start of the action of the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October 1917), J Lindley of the 15th Bn. of the Royal Warwicks was killed.
The Battle of Poelcapelle on 9 October 1917, claimed three more Rugby men: I H Allen 16th Bn. Royal Warwicks; H T E Amos and C B Jones, both of the 1st/6th Bn. Gloucestershires. Company Sergeant Major G H Hayes of the 1st/7th Bn. Royal Warwicks was killed on the following day. These last three were all in the 144th Brigade of the 48th Division.
2nd Lieutenant K H Willard of the 45th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps was killed on the first day of The First Battle of Passchendaele on 12 October 1917. There were no Rugby infantry losses on that first day, but four men were killed on the following days: a Sapper, A E S Meddows, of the 5th HQ Signal Company, attached to the 34th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, on 14 October, and infantrymen, H M Cowley, of the 10th Bn. Royal Warwickshires and Lance Corporal R W Dugdale of the 20th Bn. The Kings (Liverpool Regiment) on 19 October and Lieutenant S G Wolfe of the 18th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers on 22 October.
The Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 October – 10 November 1917) claimed two Rugby men on its opening day: A Collins of the 15th Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment and H C Williams of the 1st Bn., Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment).
B E[or C] Lane of the Rifle Brigade who had been wounded at the time of the Battle of Arras and discharged on 25 April, died in Rugby, just after this period on 9 November 1917.
Biographies of the soldiers listed above, giving fuller details of their families, and military service where known, will be published on this site on the centenaries of their deaths.
– – – – –
This article on Rugby Men in the Third Battle of Ypres was researched and written for the Rugby Family History Group [RFHG] project, by John P H Frearson and is © John P H Frearson and the RFHG, June 2017.