Encouraged by the success of the attack on Messines Ridge in June 1917 General Sir Douglas Haig, who had long awaited a British offensive in Flanders, wanted to reach the Belgian coast to destroy the German submarine bases there. The infantry attack began on 31 July 1917. Constant shelling had churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems on the reclaimed marshland. Shortly after this the heaviest rains in more than 30 years began to fall on Flanders.
On 6 November 1917 British and Canadian forces took control of the small village of Passchendaele the name by which the final stages of the Battle of Ypres is known. In 3 ½ months of the offensive the British and Empire forces had advanced barely 5 miles. The British lost an estimated 250,000 casualties including 36,000 Australians, 3,500 New Zealanders and 16,000 Canadians; the Germans 220,000.
UNKNOWN WARRIORS by KATE LUARD
THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES
July 23rd to September 4th 1917 with the 5th Army (Sir Hubert Gough)
LETTERS FROM BRANDHOEK
Kate Luard was Sister in Charge of the most important ‘Advanced Abdominal Centre’ of the war – which also became the most dangerous when her unit was relocated in late July 1917 to Brandhoek and where she had a staff of forty nurses and almost 100 nursing orderlies.
July 23rd. St Omer. Orders came yesterday for us to move and we are just off.
July 25th. Brandhoek. We got to Railhead (Poperinghe) about 5 p.m. The station was being shelled. Everyone was turned out of the train about 1½ miles before the station … and at last the D.M.S. [Director of Medical Services] sent five Ambulances. . …. but here we are. Ten other Sisters had arrived to-day, which makes twenty, and six more come to-morrow. I shall probably have 30. There are about 30 Medical Officers, including some of the pick of the B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Force]; we are for Abdomens and Chests – 8 Theatre Teams.
It is a brilliant starlight night and the battle line, four miles away, is blazing with every conceivable firework and the noise is terrific. We’ve been dished out with gas helmets and tin hats.
Friday July 27th. Yesterday everything went so well one knew it couldn’t last. The hospital had only been pitched since last Saturday and it was really splendid. This venture so close to the Line is of nature an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back.
We are entirely under Canvas, with huge marquees for Wards, except the Theatre which is a long hut. The Wards are both sides of a long, wide central walk of duckboards.
Sir Anthony Bowlby turned up later [Consulting Surgeon to the 2nd Army and Advisor on Surgery to the British Army]. It is his pet scheme getting operations done up here within an hour or two of getting hit, instead of further back or at the Base. That is why our 30 Medical Officers include the largest collection of F.R.C.S.’s ever collected at any Hospital in France before, at Base or Front, twelve operating Surgeons with Theatre Teams working on eight tables continuously for the 24 hours, with 16 hours on and 8 off.
Monday, July 30th, midnight, Brandhoek … By 6 a.m. our part will have begun and everything is organised and ready up to the brim. That we have 15 Theatre Sisters tells its own tale. We have 33 sisters altogether, and they are all tucked into their bell-tents with hankies tied on to the ropes of the first ones to be called when the first case comes in.
Tented nurses’ quarters at a casualty clearing station
We have had a Gas Drill to-night. It is a beastly job and rather complicated, and has to be done in six seconds to be any good; we all take about six minutes! Some Grandmothers (15-inch guns) on each side of us are splitting the air and rocking the huts. Fritz is sending his over too. The illumination is brighter than any lightening: dazzling and beautiful. Their new blinding gas is known as mustard-oil gas; it burns your eyes – sounds jolly doesn’t it? and comes over in shells.
4.15 a.m. The All-together began at 5 minutes to 4. We crept out on the duck boards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible. There was the glare before day-light of the searchlights, star shells and gun- flashes, and the cracking, splitting and thundering of the guns of all calibres at once. No mines have gone up yet.
6.30 a.m. We have just begun taking in our first cases. The mines have been going off since 5 like earthquakes. Lots of high explosive has been coming over, but nothing so far into this Camp. I am going now to the Preparation and Resuscitation Hut.
July 31st, 11 p.m. Everything has been going at full pitch – with the 12 Teams in Theatre only breaking off for hasty meals – the Dressing Hut, the Preparation Ward and Resuscitation and the four huge Acute Wards, which fill up from the Theatre; the Officers’ Ward, the Moribund and German Ward. Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he [Fritz] began putting over high explosives. Everyone had to put on tin hats and carry on. They burst on two sides of us, not 50 yards away – no direct hits on to us but streams of hot shrapnel. …. they came over everywhere, even through our Canvas Huts in our quarters. Luckily we were so frantically busy. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again. Of course, a good many die, but a great many seem to be going to do. We get them one hour after injury, which is our ‘raison d’être’ for being here. . It is pouring rain, alas, and they are brought in sopping.
(Australian casualty clearing station)
Wednesday, August 1st. Soaking hopeless rain, holding up the advance. Everything is a swamp and a pond, and tents leaking and dropping. Water in some of the Wards is half-way up the legs of the beds
11.30 p.m. Just finished my last round. Soaking rain all day still going on, complete hold-up of British Army. Absolute silence of our guns and only an occasional reminder from Fritz. The abdominals coming in are very bad to-day – both Boche and British. We are to take Chests and Femurs too, as soon as No.44 and the Austr. C.C.S.’s [Casualty Clearing Stations] open which are alongside. It is getting very ghastly; the men look so appalling when they are brought in, and so many die.
12.15 midnight. It has been a pretty frightful day – 44 funerals yesterday and about as many to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is terrific.
Thursday, August 2nd, 11.45 p.m. The uproar went on all night. It made one realise how far up we are to have streams of shells crossing over our heads. The rain continues – all night and all day since the Push began. The men are bought in with mud over their eyes and mouths, and 126 have died in 3 ½ days.
Yesterday morning Capt. C. [Chavasse], V.C. and Bar, D.S.O., M.C., R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps] was brought in. He was quickly X-rayed, operated on, shrapnel found, salined and put to bed. He is just on the borderland still but not so well to-night. He tries hard to live; he was going to be married.
Sunday, August 5th, 11.30 p.m. Capt. C. died yesterday. At his funeral to-day his horse was led in front and then the pipers and masses of kilted officers followed. After the blessing one Piper came to the graveside (which was a large pit full of dead soldiers sewn up in canvas) and played a lament.
The weather has cleared and it has been hot and the ground is drying up a bit. They are going over the top to-morrow. … ‘Lizzie’ splitting her jaws, shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. There’s no sort of cover anywhere. We shall be busy to-morrow, so I’ll have a shot at going to bed.
12 p.m. Monday, August 6th. It has been a very quiet day after all – very few coming in and a nice lot of recoveries evacuated by Ambulance to the nearest Train 5 miles back.
Tuesday, August 7th. The patients establish their personal relationship with us all – Sisters, Orderlies and Medical Officers – as soon as they are out of the anaesthetic. Nothing is spared to pull them through; eggs at any price, unlimited champagne, port, stout, fresh milk, chicken, porridge and everything you can’t get at the Base. The Quartermaster scours the towns every day in a lorry. I get loads of Red Cross stuff nearly every day from the B.R.C.S. at Lillers, and Oxygen, drugs, instruments and Medical Stores pour in.
A boy called Reggie in the Moribund Ward was wailing ‘I do feel bad and no one takes no notice of me’. When I comforted him he said ‘You’re the best Sister in the world – I know I’m a nuisance, but I can’t help it – I’ve been out there so long and I’m so young – Will you give me a sleeping draft and a drop o’champagne to make me strong?’ He had both and slept like a lamb, but he died to-day.
There is a fine broad duck-walk down the middle of the Hospital with the Wards (huge tents) on each side, which in the evenings is a sort of Rotten Row for Surgeons and Sisters on their late round, where you compare notes and watch the barrage. The topics are exclusively abdomens, guns, Huns, shells and bombs!
Part 2 will be posted on August 8th