CCB and the Third Battle of Ypres

Here is the text of an article I drafted for the Old Campellians’ Society as part of the project I’m doing at CCB. This was posted on their website.

Commemorating the centenary of the The Third Battle of Ypres (or the Battle of Passchendaele), remembering the 12 OCs killed during the battle

W J Porter, 1235

The Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele as it is known, started on 31 July 1917 and lasted three months, one week and three days; ending on 10 November of that year.

Twelve OCs [Old Campellians] were killed during the battle, the majority as officers and serving in the 36th (Ulster) Division. This article (courtesy of Dr Tom Thorpe, MCIPR, MA, BA (hons) currently working on the Heritage Lottery project that will protect WW1 heritage held at the College and improve its interpretation by opening up the College archives for all) outlines the course of the battle and profiles three of those OCs who perished fighting in the mud of Flanders:

The British objectives for the offensive were bold; aiming at a breakout to push the Germans out of Belgium. Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Sir Douglas Haig, wanted to advance up the Belgian coast to destroy U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge, both in German held territory. This had become important, as in February 1917, the Germans had started unrestricted submarine warfare, which threatened to starve Britain into submission.

The operation opened on 31 July with the BEF’s Fifth Army attacking east of Ypres, under the direction of Lieutenant General Gough. Initial progress was good; the attack on the left wing achieved its objectives but the assault on the left wing failed completely.

One of the first OCs to die was William Porter (Old Campellian number 1235), who was wounded on the opening day and died three days later from his injuries. Porter was a Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, Leinster Regiment and served along side OC Frank Hitchcock (1185).

Hitchcock wrote a famous memoir of his service with Moore that was published after the war.[1] At age 21, Porter was the youngest OC to die during Third Ypres and he was one of the seven members of the CCB 1914 1st XV to die in the First World War.[2]

The offensive ground on and constant preparatory shelling had churned the clay soil and smashed the agricultural drainage systems. A few hours into the battle, the weather turned and the heaviest rainfall for 30 years fell upon the battlefield. This turned the terrain into a swampy quagmire, producing thick mud that clogged up rifles, immobilized tanks and brought the initial operations to a halt.

On 16 August, the attack was resumed but with little effect. The 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions were involved in this assault and the former suffered 3,600 casualties, and the latter, 4,200.

One of those casualties in the 36th Division was Second Lieutenant William Moore (879). He was serving in the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. He was commissioned in 1914, after graduating from QUB. He had initially joined the 10th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (RIF) in January 1916 and was involved in the suppression of the May 1916 Easter Rising. In June 1917, he was posted France to join the 9th Battalion.[3]

The failure of the initial offensive led to Haig replacing Gough with Lieutenant General Plumer, Commander of the Second Army, in late August. Plumer changed British tactics and executed a series of limited objectives operations, known as ‘bite and hold’, that achieved significant progress. These assaults went on during September and October, once the weather had improved.

They included the Battles of Menin Road Ridge (20 September), Polygon Wood (26 September) and the Broodseinde (4 October). These resulted in British possession of the ridge east of Ypres. Subsequent attacks in October and November managed to push the British line into what remained of Passchendaele village, on Passchendaele ridge (this is where Tyne Cot cemetery is located today). The offensive was then called off.

The last OC to be killed in the battle was John Simms (1048); he died on 26 October 1917. He was a Captain in the 2/12 Battalion, London Regiment (Rangers). He was at CCB from September 1908 to December 1912 and came from in Newtownards, County Down.[4]

To this day, the Third Battle of Ypres remains a controversial subject. Many people subscribe to the interpretation of the battle put forward by veteran historian, A.J.P. Taylor, that it was the ‘blindest slaughter in a blind war’.[5]

More recently scholars have challenged this view. For example, Dr Nick Lloyd from King’s College London has suggested that Third Ypres was a ‘lost victory’ for the British. He argues the battle could have been won had the British played to their tactical and technological strengths, in the manner Plumer had done during the operations in September and October.[6]

For CCB, the legacy of Third Ypres is the 12 OCs who did not come back.

Only five of the 12 have a known grave, the other seven are commemorated on memorials to the missing. Four are remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial and the other three on the Menin Gate memorial.[7]

#Ne Obliviscaris

[1] F.C. Hitchcock, Stand To: a Diary of the Trenches (London, 1937).

[2] K. Haines, Only in the Memory of a Friendly Woman (Belfast, n.d.), pp.40-42.

[3] K. Haines, Only in the Memory of a Friendly Woman (Belfast, n.d.), pp.45-47.

[4] Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

[5] A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War (London, 1966), p.194.

[6] N. Lloyd, Passchendaele: A New History (London, 2017).

[7] CWGC.