Blood and Iron

Posted on Tuesday 17th April 2012

Blood and Iron
By Jon Cooksey
Extracted from Blood and Iron.

I’m not particularly afraid of death, but I dislike the thought of dying because I enjoy life so much, and I want to enjoy it such a lot more. This dug-out life gives one plenty of time to think, I tell you, and the danger is, one gets down to a minor key and stays there... Anyway I feel that I’ve expiated every crime I’ve ever committed. I fancy that when we warriors fetch up at the Final Enquiry they’ll say, “Where did you perform?” We shall reply. “Ypres salient.”

German communication trench called the Roschmann Weg just behind the German third line on the Bellewaarde Ridge. The men 9/RB fought in trenches such as this. Courtesy Ralph Whitehead.
The ruins of Vlamertinghe.
The heavily shelled Ypres.
The casemates below the Ramparts at Ypres; used as dugouts, stores and an ADs. Photographed in 1919.

The chief objection to this trench is the fact that it is more or less littered with dead, and if you dig you in - variably hit some corpse...

Further Reading

Blood and Iron
(Hardback - 236 pages)
ISBN: 9781848842977

by Hugh Montagu Butterworth
Only £19.99

Until now Hugh Butterworth was just one of the millions of lost soldiers of the Great War, and the extraordinary letters he sent home from the Western Front have been largely forgotten. But, after more than ninety years of obscurity, these letters, which describe his experience of war in poignant detail, have been rediscovered, and they are published here in full. They are a moving, intensely personal and beautifully written record by an articulate and observant man who witnessed at first hand one of the darkest episodes in European history. Read more at Pen & Sword Books...
Second Lieutenant Hugh Montagu Butterworth of the 9th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, did not survive the Great War. He was killed in action, as he had foretold on the eve of battle, on 25 September 1915, during one of the three bloody diversions to the Battle of Loos, which opened the same morning 30 miles to the south. The letters of Hugh Montagu Butterworth, a first cousin of the composer George Butterworth who lost his life on the Somme in 1916, give us a telling insight into the thoughts and reactions of a highly educated, sensitive and perceptive individual confronted by the horrors of modern warfare. Butterworth was killed on the Bellewaarde Ridge near Ypres during one of a disastrous diversionary attack launched to distract German attention from the Battle of Loos, and his last letter was written on the eve of the action in which he died.The British at Hooge were fighting for their lives to hold on to a key position - militarily vital ground - which dominated the Ypres Salient.
Second Army Panorama 85 looking north to northwest from a position in the British front line opposite Bellewaarde Farm on 10 September 1915, just over two weeks before the battle. The pale sandbags which mark the breastworks of the German trenches running from the redoubt at the easterly end of Railway Wood (out of shot extreme left) and along the line of the sunken road on the other side of no-man’s-land can be seen clearly. No-man’s-land is an unkempt patch of long coarse grass, weeds, old trenches and the stunted stumps of bushes along old hedge lines. Hugh disappeared somewhere in this area.
By the end of May 1915, 9/RB had been well and truly welcomed into the Theatre of War by both General Sir Herbert Plumer, the recently anointed commander of the British Second Army in the Ypres Salient, and Lieutenant General Sir Charles Fergusson, commanding the British II Corps in whose area of operations 9/RB would first see action. Hugh had thus marched through Godewaersvelde under the gaze of General Plumer on 30 May and the following day had stood to attention in Zevencoten to listen to Lieutenant General Fergusson’s address before marching off at 7.00 pm that evening with an enlarged platoon of fifty men armed with rifles, picks and shovels to begin his war rather unglamorously, digging ‘entrenchments’ in the vicinity of ‘Belgian Battery Corner’, a few kilometres southwest of Ypres.
By the time Hugh wrote that he was ‘in the trenches and having a thoroughly satisfactory time... we are all being instructed in trench fighting’ on 10 June, his D Company had been in the front-line trench system for a day as guests of the 1/6 Battalion, the North Staffordshire Regiment of the 46th (North Midland) Division; one platoon attached to each of the four companies of the North Staffs in the trenches just north of the Franco–Belgian border opposite the German-held town of Messines.
The ground over which the coming British offensive was to be fought was already soaked with the blood of British, Irish, Canadian and German soldiers who had lost their lives in several bitter struggles for control of the relatively low but nonetheless militarily significant heights of the Bellewaarde Ridge and adjacent Hooge sectors. The ferocity of these encounters, instigated by both German and Briton in equal measure, was testimony to the tactical importance of this particular plot which, at that time, was at the very apex of the Ypres Salient.
When the time came for Hugh’s battalion to move forward in support of the coming attack, the opposing lines on the Bellewaarde Ridge had ebbed to and fro several times. On 25 May, the very day that Hugh had penned his first letter from that ‘ripping farm’ at ‘the back of the front’, the final scene of the final act of the Second Battle of Ypres had been played out in what later became known as the Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge – 24/25 May 1915. Just over two weeks earlier, however, in a previous scene of the Bellewaarde saga, the Canadians of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had stood firm on the Bellewaarde Ridge directly in the path of the German juggernaut that had steamrollered its way south-west down the slope from Frezenberg after that village’s earlier capture. The hammer blow had fallen on the 550-strong ‘Pats’ at 4.00 am on 8 May 1915 and they had fought for their lives; beating off a series of German attacks under an almost incessant rain of high explosive until finally relieved at 11.30 pm. Their losses had been staggering – over 350 men – but they had stood their ground and had helped save the Bellewaarde position.
Fierce but bloody localised struggles on 2 and 3 June succeeded in heaving the British from Hooge Château and dumping them into the Château’s stables some 50 yards distant to finally secure the sector. This left the British garrison in the Château stables dangerously exposed as the rest of the British line swept back across the Menin Road in a deep southerly arc to skirt the northern edge of Zouave Wood only to emerge back on the Menin Road roughly at the junction with Cambridge Road before snaking north towards the line of the railway. Now the Germans could get to work and concentrate on building, deepening and strengthening their new front-line system, which tied in a portion of Railway Wood on the forward slopes of the Bellewaarde Ridge, with Y Wood and the entire Hooge Château position. Just behind they made good use of what was left of the walls, finger-like chimney breasts and splintered roofing of the battered but highly prized Bellewaarde Farm which, due to its commanding position on the summit of the Bellewaarde Ridge, became a fortified position in their second line; its ruins and cellars concealing many loopholes and at least one machine-gun post, angled to sweep the ground dropping away to the south and southwest. Everywhere in this sector the German line dominated the British position; puffing out its chest on the crest of the ridge to correspond with the backwards kink of the British line. From Bellewaarde Farm and their foremost fire trenches, German observers had unrivalled and sweeping vistas out over the British lines to the west – towards what remained of the once majestic spires and towers of Ypres – and to the south, dominating the British lines of communication along both the Menin Road and the line of the railway to their junction at Hellfire Corner. Scanning further south, the Germans could see down to Sanctuary and Zouave Woods towards Zillebeke and beyond these their eyes could rest on the mound of desolation that was Hill 60.
It was a key position and the British determined to straighten the line and recapture the Bellewaarde Ridge on 16 June 1915 in a ‘minor operation’, which was also planned to divert German minds from another – and in the view of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French – more important attack at Givenchy to be launched on the same day some 30 miles to the south. The bulk of the task was handed to the battalions of 9 and 7 Brigades of the 3rd Division with 9/RB and other inexperienced units of the 14th Division drafted in to act as the V Corps reserve.
Although the British had, it seemed, always been plagued by a chronic shortage of shells of every type, the bombardment that began at 2.50 am on 16 June and lasted for just under an hour and a half, proved sufficient in duration, power and intensity to shatter the German trenches, scatter their wire and unnerve the front-line troops.
Two views of the ruins of Bellewaarde Farm in autumn 1915; the lower image is taken from the German trenches. It is clear from these photographs how the Germans were able to conceal their machine guns in the ruins. Unaffected by the British preparatory bombardment these weapons cut the right column of 9/RB and the left column of 5/OBLI to pieces.
Just 20 minutes after the opening of that bombardment, Hugh was sitting and whiling away the time writing a letter in a ‘very narrow packed trench’, somewhere near the railway embankment just east of the ramparts adjacent to the Lille Gate of Ypres. He had been there since midnight. After having set out at 10.00 pm on the night of 15 June, the battalion was to move forward only on the orders of the Corps Commander to either exploit an opportunity if the assault went well or help avert a disaster if the Germans turned defence into attack. Under a terrific bombardment Hugh observed that shells were ‘fairly hurtling through the ether’ and he was convinced that he was about to take part in ‘one of the biggest battles in History. With luck the sun ought to be up in half an hour – at about which hour my watch ends. But what a life!’
The move forward in the dark had been ‘cheerless’ only ending ‘by a double along a railway-track from sleeper to sleeper... have you ever seen a Company armed to the teeth and shovel doubling along a very much “Jack Johnsoned” railway line with splendid shell-holes all over the place? A delightful experience.’ Not so for the men who, after arriving, had been set to ‘digging latrines and making improvements’ whilst their CO awaited further orders. Hugh was still there, still scribbling under the canopy of the British barrage at 6.15 am:
A terrific bombardment has been going on for the last three hours... I expect the main attack will develop (good word that) in an hour or so. I shall probably not be in the limelight until a good deal later... Well, au revoir. This is June 16th, and we ought to get something done by Waterloo Centenary. Perhaps we are about to make history - perhaps not.
On this occasion Hugh’s battalion would not be required to ‘make history’, but by 6.15 am several battalions of the 3rd Division – including Royal Fusiliers, Royal Scots Fusiliers and Northumberland Fusiliers, the Lincolns, the Liverpool Scottish – including Noel Chavasse, later VC and Bar, whose brother Christopher had been beaten into second place in the Oxford Freshmen’s 100 yard by Hugh in 1904 – and the Honourable Artillery Company, had certainly contributed much to the annals of their respective regimental histories.
The attack had gone in at dawn two hours earlier; the first wave overrunning the German front line that ran along the eastern edge of the long arm which made up the shape of the letter ‘Y’ of Y Wood with ease. They were followed quickly by the second wave but, flushed with excitement, the inexperienced and eager troops of 7 Brigade behind, intended only to move if required, could not contain themselves and dashed across no-man’s-land into the smoke and fire towards the captured trenches and simply kept going, on up the slope towards the second and third German lines. Total chaos ensued. Men ran into their own barrage, officers were killed or wounded, units became mixed and no one knew who or where anyone was or was supposed to be. The Germans capitalised on this lack of command and control and mounted several determined counter attacks, particularly to the south, as their artillery pounded their old positions now held by the British. Just before 10.00 am, 9/RB along with the rest of 42 Brigade, received orders to move up to assembly trenches behind Witte Poort Farm but they were seen as they made their way forward and 9/RB was subjected to a heavy counter bombardment as Villiers-Stuart ordered his companies to dump their packs and advance in two lines either side of the railway embankment with him directing operations from the track-bed above. Hugh never got to ‘make history’, for about 1,000 yards east of the ramparts Villiers-Stuart received orders to halt. The assembly trenches up ahead were by now so crowded with many men of mixed units and streams of wounded and stragglers beginning to come down communication trenches in the direction of Ypres that the leading battalions just could not get on, causing chronic delays and tailbacks. Further efforts by the British to push on and regain the second and third German lines in the afternoon were bloodily repulsed.
By 3.30 pm, although the two leading battalions of 42 Brigade had slogged as far as the firing line under fire, 9/RB was told it was no longer required as there was simply no more room in the trenches. Caught out in the open at 3.15 pm along the line of the railway under a terrific rain of German high explosive, the men of 9/RB could do little but find what scant cover they could for the best part of 31⁄2 hours and hope for the best. A further 1,000 yards ahead, up at the sharp end, the attackers were gradually being forced back, pocket by diminishing pocket, to the old German front line. The attack was eventually called off at around 6.00 pm that evening with what remained of the assault units digging and wiring furiously under a vengeful German bombardment to reverse their stretch of ‘new’ front line and throw up some protection just beyond the easterly edge of Y Wood. The attack had succeeded in ironing out part of the kink in the line as had been intended and had pushed the very apex of the horseshoe that was the Salient even further out to the east but the cost had been enormous. Some battalions – the Liverpool Scottish for example – had practically ceased to exist and in all, more than 3,500 men of the 3rd Division had become casualties.
Even as Corps reserve and not being heavily engaged in the fighting, the battalions of 42 Brigade had nevertheless suffered; 9 officers and 194 other ranks became casualties with 9/RB contributing two dead and seventeen wounded to that total. But the ultimate prize of securing the entire Bellewaarde position – including Bellewaarde Farm, Railway Wood and all – had slipped away; the Germans had managed to hold the ridge and they controlled it still when Hugh and 9/RB finally received orders, at 7.45 pm, to withdraw, first to the line of the ramparts and then to march all the way back to huts south of Vlamertinghe, many men losing their precious packs in the appalling confusion of the withdrawal. They arrived, ‘dead beat’, more than 24 hours after setting out; the men having had no food for almost the entire period. Their divisional commander, Major General Victor Couper, later wrote; ‘the conduct of the men, all raw troops under their first experience of shell fire, was very satisfactory’.
The comments were most encouraging given that 9/RB had not then served in the front line in its own right but the time was fast approaching when Major General Couper’s 14th Division would shoulder the burden that had hitherto been borne by the 3rd Division. Very soon now Couper’s command would assume responsibility for the Bellewaarde Ridge and Hooge sectors, stretching from beyond Railway Wood down to Hooge itself and extending further still, across the Menin Road to Zouave Wood, as more and more British divisions landed in France to take up more and more of the Allied line in order to meet the demands of the French.
British Dugouts by the Meinn Gate, 1915.
After the fighting of 16 June, Major General Haldane, commanding the 3rd Division, set out to tour the newly captured ground on the Bellewaarde Ridge. With him was his young aide-de-camp, William ‘Billy’ de la Touche Congreve – later to win the VC and to be killed at Longueval on the Somme in 1916 – who wrote vivid descriptions of the shattered woods and trenches in the immediate aftermath of battle in his diary. Making their way east from Ypres, out along the railway and then on towards Y Wood, Congreve and Haldane then turned north and headed for the crest of the ridge:
Eventually we worked our way to Railway Wood. Here the mess was very bad. Also the Germans were very close, only about 15 yards. A burial party of some sixty men arrived and got to work, so I hope that when the 14th Division takes over, things won’t be quite so bad, for it’s a shame to put new troops into so bad a place as that.
Within two hours they had completed the relief, accompanied by a welcoming deluge of gas shells from the German guns and Hugh, mixing ‘profanity and jest in equal measure’ to jolly along his ‘panicky’ charges, had got his platoon into their positions. Alas, the hope of Billy Congreve that the burial parties had done their jobs well had come to nought. At 3.15 am on 20 June, after being knocked ‘clean over’ by a shell and having had a sand bag whipped off the parapet just a whisker above his head two hours earlier, Hugh found a quiet moment or two to write: ‘The chief objection to this trench is the fact that it is more or less littered with dead, and if you dig you in – variably hit some corpse... It’s a gruesome business but perhaps we get used to it’. On his rounds a little later, he negotiated one of the traverses only to come face to face with, ‘a dead Englishman lying exactly as he fell with his sword fixed in front of him on the firing platform’.
As he went on he came across another ‘terrifying’ scene: ‘two German soldiers kneeling and actually aiming towards me. Of course they were both dead and it was horrible because as I brushed past them they fell to bits.’ Taking a message for Villiers-Stuart, one of his runners, Norman Wood, had also come across two men kneeling in a trench. This time, however, they had been British. As they hadn’t moved when Wood had asked if he could pass by he had tried to push past them and as he touched them they had ‘collapsed into pieces’. Wood had been very upset, so much so that he had knelt down immediately, said his prayers and had then gone on to deliver his message.
So ended the first night in the front-line trenches at the furthest extent of the Ypres Salient; manning the line on ground that had just been the scene of terrific fighting and, as Villiers-Stuart put it, ‘shot at from the front, from the flanks and sometimes from the rear as well’. A more vile location could not have been chosen for the first tour of duty proper for a New Army battalion and yet the CO was pleased with the way his men performed on that first day: ‘For a new lot the men had done very well.’

Of further interest...