31st July 1917 Tuesday

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The Third Battle of Ypres (now they call it Passchendaele)

The Great Day had arrived

Once more after months of planning and following on from the disappointment of the Somme, General Douglas Haig was to commence with his next “Big Push”. The objective was to clear the Germans from the salient that had been created east of the town of Ypres, resulting in a long stalemate and to push on through to the German submarine bases on the coast of Belgium.

Months of planning had taken place. Political wrangling in Westminster questioned whether it should take place or not, but now Haig had his way and battle was to commence.

“Tuesday, July 31st, was the ‘Great Day’. At 3.40 a.m. a terrific bombardment began. Every British, French and Belgian gun from the coast to Messines went full blaze. The din was terrific, and the Bosche line was a sight worth seeing. It was a mass of flame. I stood outside a dug-out near the canal bank and watched the hellish performance. As dawn broke one couldn’t see the Pilckem Ridge for smoke. The ground trembled, and the air was filled with the shrieking and swishing of shells as they rushed along to deal death and destruction to the enemy. 

I was detailed to report for duty to the A.P.M. at the prisoners of war cage at McMahon Farm. Here I was to attend to German wounded. Soon they came rolling in. During the day the 38th Division took about 800 prisoners, and about 300 of them were wounded, some pretty badly.

The division did well taking the whole of Pilckem Ridge, and getting to within a few hundred yards of Langemarcke. Three counter-attacks were easily repulsed. Many Germans were killed, and all the prisoners looked very much exhausted and terrified by our terrific shell-fire. They had been unable to get food or reliefs for five days owing to our continuous bombardment. They were all from the Prussian Guards, and were a fine lot of men. Our Division had a large number of casualties, but not so many as had been expected. The 17th R.W.F. suffered most, all the officers being either killed or wounded. Our guns all moved forward during the day, and everybody was in good spirits. I slept in a small dug-out near the ‘cage’ that night.”

Haig was buoyed by news of early successes. General Gough had told him they had taken as many as 5000 prisoners, but others put it as low as 3000. Nevertheless he saw it as a great achievement. Colonel Eugene “Micky” Ryan was the Chief Medical Officer at GHQ and as such Douglas’s ultimate boss. Ryan was one of the few men to have the complete confidence of Haig and was able to talk to Haig in a totally frank manner. Such was their respect for each other, they remained friends until Haig’s death. He reported around 6000 wounded, mainly from shellfire, had been treated in the ten hours up to 6pm. Haig wrote what now seems hard to equate, “Wounded very cheery indeed”. Maybe thankful that they were still alive and hoping their war was over.

Col. Eugene Ryan

Col. Eugene Ryan

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here