Bloody epilogue to Bellewaarde battle

Hellfire corner.
Hellfire corner.

THE campaigns at Ypres, Arras and on the Somme brought names of Belgian and French towns into the everyday conversation of the nation.

Four major struggles took place in defending or attempting to break out from the bulging salient of the small remnant of Belgium which did not fall under occupation by the enemy in front of the town of Ypres in 1914.

These were long, drawn-out battles which were to cost the lives of more than 200,000 British and Dominion troops.

It has been argued that the best interests of the British in Ypres would have been served by withdrawal from the area in front of the town to allow a straightening of the line of trenches and the creation of more easily defensible positions.

For reasons of politics and morale they held on at all costs to no strategic purpose but only to demonstrate a commitment to the principle of Belgian neutrality and to assure the population that they had not been abandoned.

The second battle of Ypres took place from April 25 to the end of May, 1915, and produced no significant gains or recovery of territory from German occupation.

At the conclusion of the battle near the town of Hooge, the closeness of the German front lines was seen to be a threat to the connection along the Menin Road through the notorious Hellfire Corner back to Ypres.

British HQ therefore decided to launch a relatively small-scale attack to try to push back a bulge in the German lines.

The complex of trenches, facing the attacking British forces, including the men of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, were not a series of parallel lines.

Bellewaarde Farm to the North of Hooge and the area of Dead Man’s Bottom were the objectives which would consume the lives of more than 1,000 British soldiers in just six hours.

Three companies of Northumberlands (W X and Y) advanced, just after 4.15am following on a series of artillery bombardments.

The German first line trench was taken quickly at some cost but the further advance towards the second objectives, beside the farm, could not be sustained; and eventually the attacking forces were pushed back to the German front line trench coming under sustained artillery counter-barrage.

The great defect of this attack was said to be the inability of the British Artillery Forward Observation officers to give precise information to ensure their fire was directed ahead of their own troops as they advanced.

By later in the day all that had been achieved was to hold onto the German frontline trench and the remnants of the attacking troops were relieved by fresh units.

An example of the cost of a relatively minor event in the long and ghastly fighting around Ypres can be read in The Fifth in the Great War, by Brigadier H R Sandilands (1938).

Sandilands had been in command of W Company of the 1st Battalion on that day and was wounded in action.

He records the casualties the three companies had sustained – 124, 108 and 121 killed, wounded or missing respectively.

The loss of more than 75 per cent of the men who went into battle in just six hours is indicative of the costs of the war. Eight men on the Tynemouth Roll of Honour were killed or died of wounds in this action.

Amongst them was James Elliott Mavin, whose picture has been supplied to the project by relatives after he was listed in the casualty column.

Anyone interested to learn about the project and how to get involved can visit the workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, from 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday.

THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men from the former Borough of Tynemouth who were killed or died in June 1915.

Battle of Bellewaarde, June 1915, 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers: Coser, George, KIA; Mavin, James Elliott, KIA Smythe, Robert, KIA; Crowe, William, DOW , 18, Hall, James Henry, DOW, 18, McEwan, Charles, KIA; Peek, George Charles, DOW, 18th.

Anyone with information on those named above is requested to contact the project.

The following former pupil of Tynemouth High School was killed in a little known operation in German south west Africa – now Namibia. Cooper, Harry E, Corporal, South African Post and Telegraph Corps, KIA, June 24, Kalkfield, buried Omarum Municipal Cemetery. Details needed.