25. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T+100 years *

21 September 2017

Grandpa Albert (Bertie) Fox was mentioned in despatches by Field Marshall Haig, signed by Churchill, a citation that hung in a big black frame above my bed throughout my childhood. I understood none of it. Now, I think I partially do. What horror, what futility. Grandpa suffered from shell shock all his life, and died from its affects before I was born. If those loyal Welch fusiliers had not dug him out on that fateful night in 1917, my family would not exist today.

Me at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, standing beside the names of fallen Royal Welch Fusiliers, Grandpa’s band of brothers.

Grandpa Bertie Fox in the 1940s.

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24. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 1 minute *

20 September, 1917:

Midnight. Grandpa Bertie has taken shelter in a dugout in Imperfect Copse, Klein Zillebeke (36 on the map). The barrage of a German counterattack rains down on his position. A shell explodes in the doorway of the dugout, killing or wounding most of his men. Bertie staggers to his feet, but is buried alive by the next shell.

Soldiers manage to dig him out five hours later. The Battle of Menin Road is his last act in the war. Bertie will spend the next 8 months in hospital in Britain being treated for severe shell shock. He’ll be sent back to South Africa in June 1918.

A reconstructed dugout at Passchendaele today.

A soldier is dragged from the rubble after shelling. (photo: d.ibtimes.co.uk)

Imperfect Copse lies just to the left of the number 36 on this trench map, housed in the British Library, London.

I planted this cross of remembrance to Grandpa in a field outside Klein Zillebeke, near Ypres. The trees of Imperfect Copse are visible in the background.

23. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live from the trenches, T-minus 4 hours *

20 September 1917:

7.30pm: Dusk. Battalion headquarters has been established in Imperfect Copse, position I36d4.3, with ‘C’ Company in reserve. The positions are to be held through the night. Battalion casualties for the last 24 hours:

officers – 3 wounded

other ranks – 21 killed (including 7 died of wounds), 73 wounded and 12 missing

Aftermath. (photo: IWM)

I’m still here to protect you. (photo: Pinterest)

22. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 9 hours *

20 September, 1917:

2.30 pm: ‘D’ Company reinforces front line on right of ‘B’ Company. German counter attacks underway.

In the firing line at Passchendaele, we repulse repeated Bosche counter attacks of great violence. (photo: http://www.irishtimes.com)

Repel the counter attack! (photo: Canadian War Museum)

21. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 11 hours *

20 September, 1917:

12.30pm: The Hun has been routed: the BLUE LINE is taken! ‘B’ Company reinforces the front line at Hessian Wood, P1c2.8.

Taking the BLUE LINE! (photo: Pinterest)

20. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 18 hours*

20 September 1917:

1.15am: Assembly is completed.

5.40am: ZERO HOUR.

‘Fix bayonets!’ The clink and scrape of blades. Your tongue is dry. The fear lies so heavily upon you that you might not be able to climb the ladder. The air is sucked from your brain. Somewhere deep inside you, the booming of your heart: the excited organ’s last hurrah? Lips unkissed, babes unborn, a life unlived.

All along the line, officers wait, whistles at trembling lips. ‘Closely follow the barrage. Don’t let anyone fall behind. One foot in front of the other. Men of Harlech.’

Whistles rip the air.

‘Attack, boys, attack!’

You clamber out into the salmon dawn, suddenly aware of sky and air and openness after the warren of the trenches. You lean forward to the task, your body braced for puncture, flesh pressed softly against a uniform that will be the first to greet the arriving lead. A flash of sunlight on bayonet, the thud of feet on earth. The land is gun-flash filled, adrift with smoke. Your battalion moves in artillery formation, company by company, drawing through the barrage as if on parade.

And the Hun is yielding!

VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkKKTLbvatk

‘Into the breach, lads!’ (photo: Pinterest)

19. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 1 day *

19 September 1917:

The battalion moves to its assembly position in preparation for the attack. Grandpa Bertie marches with his men towards the line. The mood is sombre. We pass a row of covered British bodies laid out beside the road. Blood stains the ground around the tarpaulins. The trees are skeletons, split-fingered uprights, mangled arboreal crucifixes. The ground is poxed and pitted, all its grass razed.

We pass a field of dead horses, their hides carved into hunks of meat by the shrapnel that has ripped through a wagon train. It reeks like an abattoir. The men turn their heads away. The column marches through an artillery position camouflaged with greenery against aerial reconnaissance. Large-calibre pieces are firing haphazardly. Fangs of flame, trembling earth. The sting of cordite in the nostrils. Shells arc into the sky like wheezing, lumbering comets. Flashes and muffled rumples as they land on the enemy lines. Armageddon here we come.

Infantry heading up the line at Passchendaele. (photo: 1914centenary.com)

18. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 2 days *

18 September 1917:

The 58th brigade is being inspected by the big cheese, Sir Douglas Haig, GOC-in-Chief. ‘The offensive on Menin Road is imminent,’ he says, seated on his horse. ‘Go cheerfully into battle, Fusiliers. I know you will honour the memory of the men of this regiment who bore the colours before you. You will honour your king and your country. Some of you may fall, but I know that all of you will uphold the magnificent traditions of this great regiment.’ Blah-blah, fish-paste.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas ‘Over the Top’ Haig upon his steed. (photo: http://www.britishbattles.com)

17 PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 3 days *

17 September 1917:

In camp near Kemmel. Tonight there’s a half moon and a full complement of stars. The eastern horizon is ignited in flashes, the air quivers with rumbling as though a thunderstorm is on the brew. Parachute flares drift to earth in fireworks of great beauty. The men break into song. Grandpa Bertie’s heart quickens. He knows the lyrics by heart. Back in Cape Town as a child, his Welsh mother used to sing him to sleep with these very words:

“Men of Harlech on to glory,

This will ever be your story,

Keep these burning words before ye,

Welshmen will not yield.”

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRtnWVvDX6k)

Watching the enemy lines. (photo: Pinterest)

‘The Ypres Salient at Night’ by Paul Nash (photo: IWM)

16. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 4 days *

16 September 1917:

‘A’ Company moves to Irish House and is attached to the 9th Battalion Cheshire Regiment for operations. The rest of the battalion remains at N20a3.3, near Kemmel. 2nd-Lieutenant W Daniel reports his arrival. Young, bright-eyed, keen – fresh off the boat from Folkestone. Poor bastard.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE OFFENSIVE: BURIAL OF THE DEAD

Two cemeteries will be established in the forward area. One chaplain and 10 OR have been detailed to GHQ to assist in the burial of the dead in the forward area. All ranks must be informed that green identity disks are under no circumstances to be removed from bodies. If a body has been stripped of personal belongings, a note to that effect must be left with the body stating who has removed such effects.

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