Friday, 11 November 2011

The Tragedies of War

A poppy from our garden for Remembrance Day

Yesterday, in The Challenges of War I started telling you about my husband’s great grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Moorhouse and Harry’s son, Ronald who fought together at the front from September 1915, first on the Somme and later at Passchendaele. I got as far as 1916, when Ronald was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.

Today’s story takes us into 1917, and the Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele. It was named for the village that it obliterated, and it was one of the bloodiest and most widely remembered battles of the First World War.  Lloyd George, who had become Prime Minister just the year before, later wrote that Passchendaele together ‘with the Somme and Verdun, will always rank as the most grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war’. He was probably right.

It’s easy to simplify a battle, nearly 95 years after the event, but of course it wasn’t simple. It’s easy to judge too, and many have stood in judgement over Field Marshall Haig, but he, Plumer – all the architects of that offensive – were only trying to win the war, to do their best for King and country against all the odds. They probably did make mistakes, but I’m not a military strategist. Even so, looking back, it's possible to identify several things that must have compounded to make the horror of Passchendaele inevitable.

At the time, the front line basically extended from Belgium to the French/Swiss border, with one of the areas most under pressure being Ypres – a place within easy reach of the Channel. At all cost – and it was at a cost – Haig needed to prevent the Germans from reaching the Channel, and every year the battles to defend the front line became bloodier and bloodier. By 1917 the scene was set for something pretty catastrophic.

There had been a two year operation – the biggest of its kind in military history – to undermine the German lines with miles of tunnels and galleries in order to blow up their front line. A ‘landscape makeover’ waiting in the wings, if ever there was one. Bear in mind also that this part of Flanders was already reclaimed land, full of dykes and drains, criss-crossed by streams – a flat landscape that could, and often did, get very wet. So the terrain alone was a serious hazard.

The Third Battle of Ypres began in June and went on until November. It started with the explosion as the German lines were blown up – the mines and galleries had been filled with 1 million pounds of high explosive (450,000kg). The after-shocks were felt in London. Then the Allied guns started firing. They fired over 4 million shells to launch the offensive. At this stage, I would imagine that no part of the area was recognisable. And – about a month or so into the battle, it started to rain. It was the worst rainfall for 30 years. Tanks bogged down, soldiers and horses drowned in the unending mud, troops were unable bury the dead. The archetypal pictures of the First World War were born out of scenes such as this.

During the four-month battle, the Allies lost 310,000 men, the Germans 260,000. The Allies gained a few feet here and there, and lost them, and gained them again. It has been estimated that they gained roughly 2 inches (5cm) of ground for each soldier lost. By any calculation, that is expensive ground. But, perhaps even more important than ground gained was that they held the line.

When you consider how appalling life must have been at the front, it’s not surprising that letters home said so little. What could they possibly say? All they could do was send their love, say ‘I’m all right’.

By October 1917, Harry had been given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and had assumed command of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry's 4th Battalion. Ronald, at the age of 22, was a Captain. The 4th Battalion were being held in reserve, ready for action at any moment. That moment came on the night of 8/9 October. In intense darkness, Harry led his men forward, towards the old German positions. The terrain was so bad that progress was slow, and when the 5th Battalion came under heavy fire, Harry’s men were needed as reinforcements. They too were now in the firing line, and having to make detours to get through land that was an impenetrable morass.

I have seen that ground. Now, over 90 years on, it is a quiet field where cabbages and potatoes are grown. It rises gently up a slope to that rare thing in Flanders, a low ridge. On one side is Wolf Copse, on the other Belle Vue. On 9th October 1917, the Germans held the high ground, and the fire raining down on the two Battalions was so devastating, it was preventing any advance. Ronald – Captain Moorhouse, bravely led a company of men up the slope in an attempt to capture the high ground and silence the guns. In the ensuing battle, he was badly wounded.

Captain Ronald Wilkinson Moorhouse

He was carried to his father’s headquarters, not far behind the front line. As soon as Harry saw how seriously injured his son was, he insisted on setting out to find a doctor to tend his wounds. Several people tried to go detain him, and go in his place, but his concern for Ronald was so great that he set out himself.

He was shot by sniper fire and died in the arms of one of his men.
Ronald died within the hour.

We understand that this is the only known case of a father and son dying together at Passchendaele. The King and Queen sent a telegram to Susanna, Harry’s wife, to tell her of their deaths. The soldier who had held Harry as he died also wrote to her.

Unsurprisingly, she never really recovered. There weren’t even any graves to visit in the years after the war. It wasn’t until much, much later that the family were able to see their memorial, but eventually the time came to pay a very public tribute to Harry and Ronald, and honour the sacrifice they so gallantly made.

I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

You can find the first part of this story in The Challenges of War

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ah, go on! Make my day - leave a comment!