Between July and November 1917, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War took place, officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, but to many it is also known as Passchendaele.
Here in our archives, in the collection of the Kings Royal Rifles and Rifle Brigade, is a handwritten volume, one of three, by Victor Shawyer, bandsman, 1st battalion, Rifle Brigade, in which he movingly recalls his time on the Western Front, including that of Passchendaele. ( reference 170A12W/D/2375). The following are extracts taken from his journal …
[Victor is shown on the left in the picture]
‘My memories of this period are such awful sights and sounds as to make me pause and wonder if my limited vocabulary and education could ever begin to describe them.
The sights that met our eyes when we moved into the line were appalling and sometimes drove your soldiers crazy – new and youthful intakes mostly – when they first tasted modern battle.
Far more facile and abler pens than mine have poured out scores of thousands of words in an effort to describe this terrible battle of Passchendaele. ..Obviously a man of such limited education as mine is not in a position to discuss military tactics so let Colonel Hutchison do it for me. He writes
“History must write of Passchendaele that it remains a military crime. No possible excuse, no extenuating circumstance, political, strategic, tactical, exists for the futilities of this battle.”
Surely I can be forgiven for feeling bitter when I think of the young soldiers like Rifleman Westbrook, thousands of them, lost in the foul slime of the Salient; the numbed, strained to breaking point knowing full well we must go back in again in a few days; and try to compare our filthy, weary, battered appearance with that of General Plumer and his staff as we once saw them as we marched past, all of them spick and span, astride lovely horses, highly polished riding boots that had never been mud splashed, tailor made uniforms, clean shirts and underwear and so much medal ribbon they looked like a miniature edition of the Chelsea Flower Show.
September 27th 1917 was the date, if I am not mistaken and according to gossip and general belief, we were bound for a very sticky sector, a forward position on the ill-famed Menin Road.
From the gently sloping ridge in which the deep underground dug out housed Brigade H.Q. we could look both forward and backward across this terrible man-eating battleground of Passchendaele.
From my ammunition dump I could look back only a few hundred yards to where the railway sleeper road ended and the duck board tracks began, like the spokes of a wheel spreading out from the hub, and winding across the stinking festering sore of the Salient. Hardly a tree stump was to be seen although we know that according to maps, copses and woods once grew in many places…..
October 4th 1917 For me it was to be a memorable day, with every detail of every event of it as clearly and deeply etched on my mind, that I doubt if anything, even old age – if ever I attain old age, – will completely erase the impressions the day produced.
Dawn broke, the chilliest of Autumn so far, with a thick mist of drizzle of rain made to appear even worse because of the smoke or our crashing, thundering bombardment, which was slow to clear. Soon, the first of our “walking wounded” was coming down the duck boards, almost all of them asking with unfailing regularity, “where’s the dressing station, Corp ?” or “Got a fag, chum ?”
They were mud coated, strained, pale beneath the tan of exposure.
Later came many of the stretcher cases, men whose injuries were much more serious and who were lucky enough to be picked up early instead of lying out in the mud for days and die in the end. One chap, heavily bandaged along both legs, one of them in a rough splint, was contentedly pulling on a cigarette butt. Another with yards of bloody bandage around his head and face, was yelling at the limit of his voice. He was tied to the stretcher. It was a safe bet that as soon as he got to that dressing station, dug out of the ridge down the track, a jab from a syringe needle would put a stop to the noise he was creating. Other burdens on the stretchers were strangely quiet and motionless. All were soaked in mud. The harvest of Passchendaele was being gathered in…..’.
Gina Hynard, Search Room Team