1st Battalion in the Third Battle of Ypres (1917)
After the battle of Monchy-le-Preux, the 1st Border Regiment spent the remainder of May and the majority of June at a small village called Candas, located in the Picardy region of the Somme. They spent their time away from the rigors of battle in pleasant surroundings, as the war diary states, a "comfortable, clean little village, beautifully situated." However, the peace and tranquillity of Candas would not be their home for too long and just when they the men of Battalion had become accustomed to a slightly more relaxed lifestyle, all be it temporarily, they would find themselves on the move again. It was the 26 June and the journey before them would take them back to Belgium on the banks of the Yser Canal. They entrained at Doullens for Proven where they were moved by bus and then route march to their new accommodation in the support trenches of the Canal. Without any delay they were involved in active patrolling on the front line, a duty that more often than not amounted to needless casualties. A few days later, on the 1 July, a young second-lieutenant by the name of D. Macleod, M.C., was killed on this duty along with three other men. Macleod’s body could not be reached at the time because of heavy sniping; however, they knew where his body lay and could only wait for circumstances to change in their favour before making the attempt to go out into the open to retrieve it. This was achieved when Private Williamson, who on the 5th, managed to beat the odds in recovering Macleod’s body.
The next three weeks were spent at Proven, the small village they had spent time at more than once before. It was a place they were getting to know well, like many of the other small villages they had stopped at or passed through on their journeys, both in France and Belgium. On the 31st the Battalion was employed in working parties very close to the front line for the construction of roads from Clarges Street to the Canal at Boesinghe and then across the canal to Artillery Wood. The weather during this period was dreadful, particularly at a time when they would have benefited from drier conditions. As with any activity close to the front line, it was obvious that there would be some casualties; Captain A.V.H. Wood and 13 N.C.O.s and men were wounded while C.S.M. Randolph and 8 men were killed. In addition to these, 3 men were also missing but when the time came, they were able to safely get the field guns across the Canal ready for the advance.
The weather showed no sign of improving and on the 2 August, the diary states it "was another fearfully wet day, fighting practically impossible. St. Julien was lost during the night and retaken this morning." Ten days later the Battalion were under heavy shelling in the front line and in a short space of time, no more than a day, there were over 50 casualties. There didn’t seem to be and end to the number of casualties that were mounting almost on a daily basis. Some days were far better than others but it seemed that not even a single day would pass by without someone from the companies becoming victim of shelling, machine gun fire or sniping, not to mention those that were falling sick due to a multitude of different illnesses rife in the trenches. A few days later on the 15th each of the companies of the Battalion began to leave their position at intervals to a new assembly point east of the Steenbeek. This was done in preparation for the second phase of the Third Battle of Ypres. The route took them from bivouacs at Bluet Farm via Bridge Street, Saules Farm, Captain’s Farm and Signal Farm. It was here that the Battalion Headquarters was established for the time being.
Two Brigades, the 88th and 89th, of the 29th Division, were to form the front line whilst the 86th was to remain in support. The 1st Battalion Border Regiment was still located east of the Steenbeek behind the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in a formation of B and D Companies in front and A and C Companies in support. The companies were commanded by the following officers:
- A Company – Captain W.F.H. Chambers and Second-Lieutenant M.C. Nicholson;
- B Company – Captain J.W. Ewbank, M.C., and Second-Lieutenants H.R.C. Lucas and W.D.C. Thompson;
- C Company – Captain R.E.S. Johnson and Second-Lieutenants J.L.P. Gamon, W.S.M. Ruxton and Watson;
- D Company – Captain W.B. Butler and Second-Lieutenants A.J.F. Danielli and C. Helm.
The British were retaliating with a continuous barrage of gas shells to aid the march of the infantry whilst forming up to their projected attack positions. The Germans could only muster intermittent shelling as a result, nothing like their usual strength; the gas was obviously taking its toll. There were two casualties en route; Captain Butler was slightly wounded but after being treated briefly back at the aid post, he returned to his Company; Second-Lieutenant Danielli was in close proximity to an exploding shell and was knocked unconscious. Being carried along with the march he began to regain consciousness, eventually removing himself from the stretcher on which he was being carried, to rejoin the company just in time to lead his men. When the men were in their final positions ready for the order to attack, the main British barrage fell and the advance began. German retaliation shelled the wave of attacking force coming their way all along the British lines from Captain’s Farm to Fourche Farm and Signal Farm to Ruisseau Farm; however, there seemed to be little in the way of action on the Steenbeek.
As Wylly writes, the attack of the 29th Division started:
- “from the general line of the Steenbeek, Passerelles Farm was carried as was also Martin’s Mill on the right, then crossing the abandoned railway line, the village of Wijdendrift was reached and a line established well to the N.E. of that place. The first message sent back from the front and received at 6.40 came from Passerelles Farm and stated that the so-called “Blue Line” had been taken, but less than an hour later it was reported that the advance was held up on the Blue Line by machine gun fire, and later still a message from Captain Ewbank confirmed this, saying that the K.O.S.B.’s were stopped by machine gun fire from a “pill box” near what appeared to be Montmirail Farm.” 
This obstacle, deadly in every sense, was thus engaged when the Stokes mortar was sent forward to Passerelles Farm. Eventually, after further fighting, news had been received from all companies stating that they had all reached their objectives and further to this, with many captured men and guns along the way, were continuing their advance. As a result the Battalion Headquarters was swiftly moved from its current position at Signal Farm to a new location at Wijdendrift. The new lines were being consolidated and work continued on this task throughout the course of the morning, without incident. However, even though there were few casualties, heavy sniping became troublesome for the men during this time. German aeroplanes, in low level passes, flew over the British lines including Wijdendrift village itself in an effort to fire at the trenches before them. Meanwhile, German shelling had become heavier, attempting to destroy whatever part of the British lines they could, yet were somehow failing to find their targets successfully enough for the guns to cause any significant disruption or damage. German accuracy was at times very exact but in this instance their observers failed to find the 1st Battalion’s front line.
A report came in from B Company of the Battalion at around 1 pm. An attacking force was being amassed in preparation for action; 300 to 400 men seen in Ney Wood ready to take the British line opposite them. B Company drew their rifles, manned the machine guns and made good on their training. Men were being scattered in all directions, separated into much smaller numbers and eventually cut down. Those that found solace from the hails of bullets, if they were able to, managed to retreat to safer ground. These numbered in few as the aftermath caused heavy loss of German life. On the evening of the 16th, after enemy activity had died down considerably, the Battalion was relieved on the lines and moved to a camp in the area of Elverdinghe where they were, for now, out of direct and immediate danger.
The battle they had endured was a challenging one for several reasons, but simply owing to the nature of the ground they crossed, as well as fighting a formidable well-trained enemy, ensured they had a difficult time advancing to their objectives and reaching a successful outcome. The ground was, by its very characteristic, swampy yet "touch and direction were admirably kept throughout and endurance displayed by all ranks was beyond all praise, as the 'going' was in an appalling state, and during the previous three days the Battalion held the firing line for forty-eight hours and carried out two reliefs under shell fire." There was no escaping casualties even with the successful outcome. Those who became casualties up to week ending the 17 August 1917 amounted to Second-Lieutenant G.F. Hamlett and 25 other ranks killed; Captain A. Fulton, Second-Lieutenants J.B. Trotter and M.C. Nicholson and 105 other ranks wounded, in addition to Second-Lieutenant H.T. Thompson and 22 N.C.O.’s and other ranks missing.
A week later the Battalion, after a brief spell recuperating, found themselves back on the front line opposite Cannes Farm. Here, special patrols were sent out and the outcome was favourable. Shortly after this the Battalion moved on to another rest area. Here they remained until the middle of November when they were to once again take part in other major operations on the Western Front that would eventually lead the Battalion to seeing out yet another year in battle.
References / notes
- Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.145.
- The Steenbeek is the largest of several stream/rivers that ran across the British front line.
- Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.146.
- Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.147.