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)

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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.

15. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 5 days *

15 September 1917:

In tents at position N20a3.3. Grandpa Bertie is billeted with the other officers in a farmhouse. The camp is a busy places with horse carts coming and going, wood fires fed by empty shell boxes, the smell of cooking. The bivouacs look like pinned butterflies with brown wings. A company cooker has been set up in the farmyard beside a well and produces endless cups of coffee and hot stew. Infantry columns are pouring east, into the maw. A party of prisoners marches west into captivity. Lucky buggers.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE OFFENSIVE: MEDICAL & SALVAGE

The regimental medical officer will be stationed at battalion HQ. Advanced dressing stations to be situated at Dammstraase and Onraet Farm. The walking-wounded collecting post is at North House.

Salvage will be gathered by battalions. Material likely to be immediately required is to be salved forward to where it can be made use of. It must be impressed on all troops that the question of salvage is daily becoming more important owing to the increased difficulties of production and over-sea transport.

‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent: the aftermath of a mustard-gas attack.

 

14. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 6 days *

14 September 1917:
The battalion is in position N16c2.3, near Kemmel. Grandpa Bertie registers the wheezing sound of an incoming barrage. He drops to the ground. Wild horses of the Apocalypse riding through the air of no man’s land, storming banshees, the lofted arcs of dark rainbows. The sound up-built to a terrible crescendo. Shells come to land like bloated arrows, bracketing their position. A second’s split of ancient silence. Earth broken, rent, its blooded soil sprayed in directions every. A planet unhinged, wobbling on a broken gyre. The drum drilling patter of red-rimmed shrapnel. Satan’s manna. Oh God, Oh God.

Incoming fire. (photo: Wiki)

13. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 7 days *

13 September 1917:

The battalion moves to camp at N16c2.3, near Kemmel. The front line is close now. Suddenly, there’s a whooshing sound and every man throws himself to the ground. Grandpa Bertie tastes mud between his teeth, presses his eyes tightly shut, willing the earth to admit him into its dark-brown womb. The shell lands 30 yards to his left and erupts in a shower of earth clods and chalk. Alive? Yes, he’s still alive. His body is shaking uncontrollably.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE OFFENSIVE: CLOTHES & EQUIPMENT

Officers: same as other ranks, with revolver

Other ranks: arms and clothing as issued

full water bottle

entrenching tool

haversack (towel, soap, Oxo and iron rations)

mess tin and cover

box respirator and tube helmet

170 rounds of ammunition

2 Mills grenades

4 sandbags slung through belt

wire cutters

Raining lead on the enemy. (photo: emaze)

The barrage continues, day and night. (photo: Pinterest)

12. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 8 days *

12 September 1917:
We are in Corunna Camp, southwest Belgium. Grandpa Bertie is up early. The air is filled with the sound of singing larks and there are periods of silence, some almost a minute long, without any firing. It is almost peaceful. Now comes the distant drum roll as a machine gun opens up, followed by a few rifle shots, like an orchestra tuning up. A couple of 5.9s cough and the British 18-pounders respond. Another unquiet day on the Western Front has begun.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE OFFENSIVE: PACK TRAINS
Battalions must be prepared to provide at short notice 6 animals complete with pack saddles to form a brigade pack train. Details as to type of work will be issued. Pack animals must be used in preference to wheeled transport whenever it is possible to push them forward further than wheels can go.

Artillery barrage. (photo: Canadian War Museum)

A water cart stuck in the mud near Ypres. (photo: Wales at War)

 

11. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

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

11 September 1917:

Today, our battalion will move forward to Corunna Camp, near Westoutre. Reveille is at 05h00. Sleepy-eyed stretching soldiers, the murmur of voices, kettles on campfires. Bread, bacon, lukewarm tea. Tents are taken down, groundsheets unlaced and folded. Men pack their haversacks. Grandpa Bertie prepares his kit: water bottle, field-glasses, revolver, map case. The stamping of feet like the hooves of horses. Soldiers form up silently in platoons two deep. They move off to the thud of a thousand boots: four companies, each platoon at 50-yard intervals, marching along a paved road heading east into Belgium.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE OFFENSIVE: WATER & RATIONS

Great care will be taken that the men start Z-day with full water bottles. A small divisional reserve of 500 tins will be formed at the top of the pipeline. One day’s rations will be carried by each man. A dump of petrol tins will be formed at the new battalion HQ as soon as possible after ZERO HOUR…

Advancing to the front. (photo: Australian War Memorial)

10. PASSCHENDAELE, 100 YEARS AGO TODAY

* Live blog from the trenches, T-minus 10 days *

10 September 1917:

Grandpa Bertie feels the first chill of autumn. The poplars are a bright, Van Gogh yellow. The ground is a quagmire from the incessant rain. At the front line, men and horses are drowning in the mud.

Bertie reads through the plan of attack once again. At ZERO HOUR the three leading battalions will advance under an artillery barrage. The first line will move in extended order; the second line in sections in file; the third line will also go in file and be detailed for mopping up. Each battalion will consolidate the objective allotted to it along the BLUE LINE. In order to assist in finding the exact position of the new line, a measured string should be pulled out as you advance. Trenches are to be dug immediately. Work is to be commenced, as far as possible, during daylight…

Attack! (photo: Pinterest)

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