The Essex Regiment at Langemarck

Two hundred and fifty kilometres from Melbourne, Australia in the western district of Victoria is a place called Paschendaele. Not actually a town it is an area of rolling hills dotted with isolated farmhouses amongst fields of long grass. Here and there scattered trees mark the hillsides and herds of dairy cattle graze overlooking the Wannon river which winds through the countryside.

Paschendaele, Australia is a long way from the place after which it is named  in the Flanders region of Belgium. But it was here after the 'Great War'  that returning veterans came to 'Soldier settlement' farms. My Grandfather Les Eagles was one of those soldiers.

In 1930 he arrived at Paschendaele with his wife Freda and two young children to begin a new life on a dairy farm of around eighty acres. Even these days Paschendaele is a long journey by car from Melbourne. But seventy years ago it was even more isolated from the rest of the world, weeks by ship from Les and Freda's homeland of England from their families in London and from the battlefields of Europe.
[Image] But thirteen years before on 16th August 1917 Les had been in Flanders as the 'Battle of Passchendaele' or 'Third Battle of Ypres' was under way. A 21 year old Lieutenant with the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment he had joined up nearly two years earlier and arrived in France July 1916. But like many others this would be his first experience of the kind of attack for which the Western Front is best known.

It was around three o'clock in the morning as Les commanding 7th platoon of X company marched slowly forward following tapes along duckboard tracks near Boesinge north of Ypres. In all the four companies of the Essex Battalion had 17 officers and 535 other ranks on the move. But the rain soaked ground made the going difficult with many men sinking knee deep into the mud. Nevertheless they had to be in position by Zero hour because all along the line to the north east of Ypres thousands of troops were going forward as the second phase of the battle was about to begin. The battalion as part of the 29th Division would attack with the 20th Division on its right and the French 2nd Division to the left.

By 3.45am the Essex troops were deployed on the west side of the Steenbeek stream a canal a few metres wide which ran roughly parallel to the forward German positions some 200 metres away. On their right a railway line ran east towards the ruined German held  village of Langemarck while in front of them on the near side of the Steenbeek were the reserve companies of the Hampshire and Newfoundland Regiments. Already their leading companies were on the far side of the canal having moved across under cover of darkness.

With the units in position the troops kneeled or lay down and waited. The orders had been that they should not lie down. Did somebody expect them to go to sleep?

What lay ahead of them? The trench maps showed machine gun posts and dugouts scattered through No-Man's Land in front of 'Leopard' trench-the final objective-which lay some 1500 metres away. There had been fourteen days of bombardment. But what remained of the  German defences?

With a minute to go before Zero hour a lone British aircraft flew over a German strong point to the south of the railway line and opened fire on its garrison. Then at 4.45am the British guns opened up as planned. 18 pounders and 4.5 inch howitzers bombarded the line of German positions 200 yards to the east of the Steenbeek then began to creep forward at the rate of 100 yards every 5 minutes. The attacking troops rose and advanced over the muddy fields to the east. Forty machine guns stationed on the west side of the canal fired over their heads beyond the barrage while 6 inch howitzers pounded Leopard trench and beyond to the Broenbeek stream which ran behind it.

In the German lines the soldiers of the 79th Reserve Division huddled and waited for the attack they knew was coming. Many were just nineteen years old and their commanders doubted they could stand up to the shelling. They had been due to leave the line but instead they were being put to the ultimate test.

Overhead shells roared past from the German batteries but they exploded beyond the Essex positions. The attackers could only hope that the German gunners did not find their range.

As the leading companies of the Hampshires and Newfoundlanders moved forward close behind the barrage their reserve companies moved quickly over the Steenbeek. The Essex companies followed across the shellpocked ground maintaining artillery formation as the leading troops approached the battered remains of the German dugouts along the Widjendrift-Langemarck road which ran diagonally through No-Man's Land.

On the left the Newfoundlanders quickly took Denain Farm but to the right some German defenders opened up on the Hampshires with machine guns. Many were were cut down but the positions were taken and the troops pushed on to the ruins of Martins Mill just north of the railway line.

Beyond the frontline troops smoke shells began to fall to cover their advance while the stream of machine gun bullets overhead added to the thudding of the big guns. Could anyone survive such a pounding? The reserve companies of the Hampshires and Newfoundlanders moved to the front of the advance struggling in places through knee deep mud following the barrage forward to the marshy ground around Cannes Farm in the centre and the open fields towards Langemarck to the right. The German counter fire grew heavier but still it flew overhead to the other side of the Steenbeek.

All along the line to the north and south the German defences were wilting.  Scattered blockhouses filled with German troops and machine guns held out for a time but outflanked and shaken by the barrage many surrendered to a few brave individuals who worked their way forward armed with hand grenades and small arms. In Leopard trench those who could stand it no more began to run. They knew the damage shrapnel could do. And the end of the barrage would only mean the enemy would be on them with bayonets. Would they live to see another day?

For an hour the advance halted while the barrage concentrated its fire on Leopard trench and the Eseex companies moved to the front of the line gathering in the fields north of Langemarck. X company on the left, W on the right. Y and Z in reserve echeloned to cover the flanks and fill any gaps in the line.

At 7.45am the barrage crept forward beyond Leopard trench and the Essex companies began the assault deploying from artillery formation to broad lines stretching across the battlefield. The orders were that they should "get as close to the barrage as possible".  That was easy to say. But if they held back and the German machine gunners beat them to the parapets as they had on July 1st 1916 they knew the consequences. As they moved forward X company opened fire on snipers who were holding up the Worcester troops to their left while W company advanced along the  railway line storming four strongpoints on the way exchanging fire with the  enemy and taking 20 prisoners.

Overhead both German and British planes flew low as their occupants peered  into the battlefield smoke and tried to make out the positions of friend and enemy alike. Below them the barrage crept on towards the Broenbeek stream and the attacking troops moved past the Langemarck Cemetery into Leopard trench with bayonets fixed. Here and there was the crackling of gunfire. but there was no massacre in front of the German barbed wire. The barrage had done its job and from amongst the ruins 30 Germans came forward into the hands of X company.

In the cover of the trench they trained their rifles and Lewis guns on the ground towards the Broenbeek and its crossings. To their right W company covered by Z pushed forward beyond Leopard trench taking a group of huts and a blockhouse in No-Man's Land with a further 23 prisoners there. Then seeing a gap between the two leading companies a platoon from Y company advanced to complete the capture of the line with another 18 Germans surrendering.

With the final objective in their hands the battalion watched and waited for sign of counter attack as the German aircraft directed artillery fire onto them. The British barrage too was falling close by and the W company garrison sheltering in the German blockhouse they had captured held on grimly as shells exploded around them.

On the far side of the Broenbeek a dozen Germans appeared across No-Man's Land, a mounted soldier conspicuous amongst them. But as X company opened up on them with rifle and machine gun fire the rider galloped away and the infantry scattered into shell holes pinned down in the mud by a hail of bullets.

Surely with a barrage of bullets and shells still boiling around the Broenbeek any counter attack at its crossings would have been suicidal? So as the barrage finally died down just after 9 o'clock, patrols from X and W companies reported no sign of German troops on the near side of the Broenbeek.

It had taken just over four hours to take the German lines along with one hundred and seventy prisoners six machine guns and one trench mortar. But it cost one hundred and twenty four killed, wounded or missing from the Essex battalion alone.

All along a front of some 12 kilometres from Knocke in the north through Langemarck to St Julien in the south the allies had taken one methodical step forward. Crushing artillery fire followed closely by advancing infantry had ensured that the German defences crumbled and that the front line troops were effectively sacrificed.

Part of the Langemark battlefield

Yet there was no breakthrough into open country. Nor had one been intended.   In the muddy conditions of Flanders there was no hope of the rapid movement of troops and guns which that would have required. There was still another three months of costly fighting to come in deteriorating weather. And by the end of the Passchendaele campaign a mere bulge had been created in the German front at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

The end of the war was over a year away.

After Langemarck the Essex battalion went on to fight in the battle of Cambrai in November 1917. I don't know if Les was there and I am still looking for information which might clarify that given the significance of Cambrai as the 'first tank battle'. I do know he was in the Ypres area in February 1918 after which he returned to England.

He remained in the army after the war being stationed in Cologne with the occupation forces in 1919 where he witnessed some of the post-war civil strife which wracked Germany. Then after demobilisation in 1920 he was employed as a surveyor in the Architects Department of the London County Council. But four years later shortly after marrying Freda, they sailed for Australia never to return to England.

Les at Passchendaele Victoria 1936

Like most veterans Les did not speak much of his war service though he did retain his uniform, medals, trench maps, orders and a set of German binoculars which I now have. He left no personal diaries and unfortunately died in 1970 about the time I was becoming interested in hearing of what he had done.

From a London office to a dairy farm in Australia. Certainly a 'culture shock'. And much more so in those days before aircraft, telephones and the internet made the world seem so much smaller.

Did Les just want to escape the restrictions of a London office for the open spaces and fresh air of Australia? Or did his experiences in the 'Great War' play their part?

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Mr Ian Hook of the Essex Regiment Museum for kindly supplying me with a copy of the battalion War Diary on which this account is based.

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Philip Eagles

Copyright Philip Eagles, November, 2002.

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