Mix-up led to loss of early momentum in First World War battle

Northumberland Fusiliers at the Battle of St Eloi in March 1916.
Northumberland Fusiliers at the Battle of St Eloi in March 1916.

The First World War is remembered mostly for bloody and inconclusive campaigns, often many months long, that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives among combatants on both sides.

The Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele are names hard-wired into our collective national memory of the war, and none more so than the Somme campaign.

The British and Commonwealth nations will be marking the centenary of the opening of that campaign on Friday, July 1,this year.

Information about the preparations for that centenary here in North Tyneside will follow in the coming months.

This week, however, sees the centenary of a small-scale attack in the dreaded Ypres salient which resulted in a small gain for the British attacking forces but proved to be of little long-term value.

The Battle of St Eloi on March 27, 1916, was preceded by the blowing-up of numerous mines, and their explosions were supposedly heard across the English Channel in Kent.

In order to neutralise an area of relatively high ground, General Hubert Plumer, commander of II Corps, had determined to mine an area named the Mound, near St Eloi, south east of Ypres.

The commanders always sought to straighten out protruding bulges of land occupied by the enemy, so the plan was that, after a series of large mines had been blown and the Mound effectively levelled, its trench works would be circumvented and the enemy’s front line overrun.

Plumer had rightly understood that infantry could not hold the blasted landscape and would therefore need to get behind the newly-cratered areas and consolidate their positions in the enemy’s trench system.

The 1st Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, passing swiftly to the right, succeeded in getting to the point where they should have met up with the Royal Fusiliers coming around the cratered area from the left.

Unfortunately, in the confusion of battle and early counter-fire from the enemy, the Royal Fusiliers lost direction and ended up occupying land to the front of the newly-blasted area rather than getting behind and up to the front line.

It would be several days before the position could be consolidated and the British troops withdrawn, thoroughly exhausted and depleted in numbers, to be replaced by the newly-formed Canadian Second Division.

The Canadians were to have a very uncomfortable time at the St Eloi craters until the end of April, when they were withdrawn after a baptism of fire they could not have imagined.

Interestingly, the battle produced some of the most iconic photographs of the war, picturing the Northumberland Fusiliers showing off their captured German souvenirs shortly after their successful advance.

Now, 100 years later, the social media site Twitter has been buzzing with those cheerful images.

Sadly, Private Patrick Hennessey, of Willington Quay and latterly Bird Street in North Shields, could not join in the celebrations.

He was one of the 29 fusiliers killed that day. Some 125 of his comrades were wounded and 21 unaccounted for at the end of the action.

For further information on Pte Hennessey and other North Tynesiders killed during the First World War, go to
northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk