From Messines to Passchendaele 1917: Kildare men at war
The Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) was scheduled to commence on 31 July 1917 and designed as a follow-up operation to exploit the British success at Messines. Third Ypres ran from 31 July to 10 November and actually consisted of eight officially listed ‘battles’: those of Pilckem Ridge (31 July-2 August); Langemarck (16-18 August); Menin Road Ridge (20-25 September); Polygon Wood (26 September-3 October); Broodseinde (4 October); Poelcapelle (9 October); First Passchendaele (12 October); and Second Passchendaele (26 October-10 November).
These ‘battles’ are best looked upon as phases in a continuing struggle. Some battles lasted only a day, others several days, the final one over two weeks. However, though the fighting never stopped the phases are not continuous. General Haig for all his dourness was a great optimist and his plan offered various objectives and even if only one was taken it would be a valuable gain. If the Wytshaete-Passchendaele Ridge could be taken, the German position around the Ypres Salient would be untenable. If the railway line at Roulers and Thourout could be cut, the German position in the northern flank would be fatally compromised. If Bruges, Ostend and Zeebrugge could be taken, German forces in northern Belgium would be forced to surrender or withdraw. And if all else failed, the offensive would certainly cause further heavy losses to the German Army, as well as appease the French.
The offensive began with a three division attack on 31 July, with the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division in support. The 2nd Irish Guards were heavily involved in the battle for Pilckem Ridge. Four Kildaremen were killed on 31 July, two of them serving with the Irish Guards. Private John Cooke died of wounds received in action. From Sunnyhill, Kilcullen, John Cooke had enlisted at the Curragh Camp and had been at the front since 1914. His brother William had died in the Gallipoli campaign. Also killed was Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Beresford Greer, 2nd Irish Guards. Born at Curragh Grange, Co. Kildare, he was the son of Capt. Henry and Mary Greer. Eric enlisted in the British Army in 1911 and was the youngest officer holding the rank of Lt. Col. in the Brigade of Guards. He had earlier won the Military Cross. His brother, Francis St. Leger Greer, was killed in action on 1 February 1917.
Although encouraging gains were made on 31 July, not all objectives were taken. The attack was to be renewed the following day, but that evening heavy rain fell and the attack was postponed. Even though it went on raining for several days the effect of the downpour was almost immediate. At the end of the first day shell holes were filled to the brim, while the open ground was turning into a quagmire under the relentless shelling. Haig wrote in his diary: ‘A terrible day of rain. The ground is like a bog in this low-lying country.’ On 4 August, he noted, again in his diary, that ‘In view of the bad weather and wet ground General Gough has cancelled the orders he issued for the furtherance of his attack.’
Gough’s army attacked three times in August, at Pilckem, at Langemarck and along the Menin Road. Every time an assault was launched the rain came down with renewed intensity, until as Robin Neillands wrote, ‘men came to believe that the thunder of the guns was causing the clouds to deliver their torrents’. Even so, the Fifth Army advanced, slowly, damply and painfully. Casualties by the end of August totalled 68,000 which were deemed ‘light’ compared to the 57,000 suffered on the first day of the Somme Offensive.
August was a bad month for Kildaremen at the Passchendaele front – twenty-three were killed, while dozens more were wounded. Most of the deaths occurred at the Battle of Langemarck (16-18 August), a savage clash, which also led to the loss of the much-loved chaplain of the 16th Irish Division – Fr. Willie Doyle, S.J. He was desperately trying to drag a wounded comrade back to safety when he was blown to pieces by a German shell. Unlike the many to whom he had given a Christian burial, Fr. Doyle’s remains were hastily interred in a makeshift communal grave, while all around the battle raged on. His body was never recovered, but he is commemorated at Tyne Cot Memorial. General W. Hickie, the commander-in-chief of the 16th Irish Division, described Doyle as ‘one of the bravest men who fought or served out here’.
During the Battle of Loos, in 1915, Fr. Doyle was caught in a German gas attack and for his conduct was mentioned in dispatches. A recommendation for a Military Cross was rejected as ‘he had not been long enough at the front’. Doyle was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the assault on the village of Ginchy in September 1916. He was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross and Distinguished Service Order but was passed over, deemed to have a triple disqualification: Irish, Catholic, and Jesuit. Fr. Doyle was proposed for canonisation in 1938, but this was never followed through.