July 31st 1917: 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)

One of the greatest disasters of the War – Lloyd George

Islay men fought and died in this battle. It was a battle that did not have to be fought. The Americans entered the war in April 1917. Millions of men were being trained in the USA to join the fight against Germany on the Western Front. There would be little assistance from the French. Following their disastrous defeat at Chemin Des Dames in April, 50 front line divisions of the French Army mutinied. French troops refused to take part in any more futile offensives to be ‘slaughtered like cattle.’ There was a very strong case for just maintaining a defensive line and awaiting American reinforcements.

British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, did not agree. He firmly believed it was essential to engage the enemy. In this he was guided by his inner beliefs. He was regarded by his contemporary officers as a thorough planner and strategist. Despite 420,000 casualties suffered at the failed Somme offensive the previous year, he remained convinced a massive attack would break through German lines at the Ypres Salient and bring about the defeat of the German Army on the Western Front. Prime Minister Lloyd George was sceptical about the strategy. Very aware of the colossal losses at the Somme he worried that a similar loss of life for little gain could turn public opinion against the war. He also knew that the Germans matched the British in numbers of troops and artillery along the Ypres sector of the Front. Lloyd George felt it would be better to wait until superior force made victory inevitable. It was the immediate U-boat threat to British and Allied shipping that tipped the argument in favour of launching the offensive. Part of the plan was to capture the Belgian ports which had been used as U-boat bases.

Over a million shells had been fired at German lines before the start of the Battle of the Somme. This time over 4 million shells were fired in a bombardment which lasted fifteen days. The idea was to not only crush the enemy’s defensive positions but also to leave the defender’s morale shattered. It did neither.

The attack began at 3.50 a.m.on the 31st July. With the support of 136 tanks, steady progress was made and several objectives reached before the usual problem of poor communication between infantry and artillery occurred. At 2 p.m. the Germans launched a series of fierce counter-attacks which began with an intense artillery bombardment which was so effective that the leading British troops fled back to their own lines. At the same time there began a very heavy downpour which quickly turned the battlefield into a quagmire. It continued raining heavily for the next three days. The mud and rain meant very little progress was made and the attack was halted on the 4th August. It was however only a temporary stoppage. Passchendaele is more accurately described as a series of battles rather than one major battle. Twice, first in September and then again in October, senior officers argued that the conditions were so bad, and losses so great, that a breakthrough was impossible. They argued that further fighting would be futile. Haig however, remained utterly certain of the rightness of his battle plan and ordered the attacks to continue. The rising numbers of pointless deaths left him apparently untroubled. The battle was finally concluded with an assault on the 10th November. Hardly any
ground had been gained. The morale of the surviving soldiers had been very badly affected.

Over 70,000 British soldiers had been killed and another 170,000 wounded. Many of the bodies of the dead were never recovered. The Memorial at Tyne Cot Cemetery lists almost 35,000 men whose bodies were never found. Among the names are eight men from Islay and Jura. At least sixteen men from Islay and Jura were killed in the battle.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium, where Islay and Jura men are among those commemorated.

Men from Islay and Jura who were killed in the battle:

July 31st: Pte Duncan Maclean (Scots Guards) from Port Wemyss. Pte Archibald Torrie (A & SH) from South Side, Port Ellen. Pte Donald Shaw (Seaforth Hldrs) from Keills.

August 5th: Pte William Alexander Dewar (A & SH) resided at Dunlossit.

August 19th: Cpl Duncan Bell (Canadian Infantry) originally from Bowmore. Pte John MacArthur (Scottish Rifles) also from Bowmore.

August 26th: Pte Colin McIntyre* (A & SH) from Mulrush, Ballygrant.

Sept. 20th: Pte J. MacCallum* (A & SH) born Campbeltown, enlisted at Port Ellen.

Sept. 21st: Pte Archibald MacNiven (A & SH) from Eallabus Cottages, Bridgend.

Sept. 22nd: Pte Arch. McLellan* (Seaforth Hldrs) from Upper Cragabus, Port Ellen.

Sept. 26th: Pte Alexander MacDougall* (H.L.I.) from Craighouse, Jura.

Oct. 12th: Pte Donald Gray* (Black Watch) from Eallabus Cottages, Bridgend.

Oct. 17th: Pte Donald MacKay* (Machine Gun Corps) from Port Ellen.

Oct. 22nd: Pte John MacDougall* (Scottish Rifles) son of ‘Pioneer’ skipper, Port Ellen .

Nov. 4th: Sgt David Dick (Canadian Mounted Rifles) originally from Bruichladdich.

Nov. 25th: Pte Donald Highlands* (H.L.I.) from Kilmeny.

If these men could talk – what would they tell us about whether they thought they died in vain or not?