Passchendaele: The German Experience

Posted on Tuesday 31st July 2012


The Battle for Passchendaele involved the use of no less than eighty-six German divisions, twenty-two of them being pushed into the battle more than once. This compares to the fifty-one that Britain and her Dominions employed – though it must be taken into account that the Germans were approximately a third smaller in numbers of bayonets than the British, i.e. they had three fewer infantry battalions; even then, the British total approximates to about seventy German divisions.
It does mean, however, that the vast majority of the British army on the Western Front experienced the horrors of the Passchendaele battle – more so by some seven divisions than those who suffered in the longer (by about five weeks) and bloodier (by about 190,000 casualties) Somme offensive.
From the spring of 1915 the Germans steadily reduced their regiments to three battalions instead of four, a process which the British undertook in 1918. In October 1917 German battalions had bayonet strengths of about 800. There were four companies in each battalion, but they were numbered throughout the regiment from 1 to 12. The theory was that a regiment was commanded by a Colonel (Oberst) with a Lieutenant-Colonel as second in command, a battalion by a Major and a company by a Captain. In practice a regiment was usually being commanded by a Major, a battalion by a Captain and a company by a Lieutenant. NCOs carried out many of the functions of British junior officers; an Unteroffizier, whom many people think was an officer cadet, was not an officer, but rather a Corporal.
Nearly all of the writing on Passchendaele concentrates on the British and Dominion experience; that of the Germans is skated over. This gives rise to an apparent feeling held in popular circles in Great Britain that her armies almost uniquely suffered the miserable – indeed hideous – conditions of the final weeks of the Third Ypres. Jack Sheldon has begun to rectify this situation and restore a balance to the historiography of the First World War in his works, which focus on the equally horrific day-to-day experiences of the men in the trenches, pillboxes and muddy shell-holes on the other side of No Man's Land; those of the German Army at Passchendaele.
Following fierce battles at Poelcappelle and the First Battle of Passchendaele, German Regiments of 195th Infantry Division held their positions around Passchendaele village. The high numbers of casualties, coupled with the constant drum fire, inadequate rations, unpleasant weather conditions and little time to rest meant low morale amongst the troops. They encountered great difficulties when moving positions due to the thick mud and giant shell craters; as well as problems with orientation due to the loss of landmarks.
Both the Germans and the Allies suffered heavy casualties during weeks of fighting in October in the lead up to the Second Battle of Passchendaele.
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Struggling to move an observation balloon through the craters on the Gheluvet Plateau, September 1917.

British attempts to take Gheluvet village and the final remaining piece of high ground in the area failed, the German defence having been thoroughly alerted before-hand. A further attack by the British on 22 October meant yet more casualties for both sides, including the loss of many officers, and heavy machine guns were rendered inoperable due to the mud. The interrogation of British prisoners after the attacks of 25/26 October yielded a wealth of information for German intelligence regarding past operations and forthcoming attacks.
The following accounts are from German troops stationed around the Passchendaele area in October 1917.
Offizierstellvertreter von Gelshorn 6th battery Field Artillery regiment 62
We were pulled out of Biache, immediately loaded and transported to Renai, which is a beautiful, friendly region. Unfortunately we only spent a day there and had to set off for the front. We were deployed near Tenbrielen to the west of Menen. Just as we were taking over the position Leutnant Pütz was wounded in the head. The same shell killed Böttcher and seriously wounded Dillich. Dillich was badly hit in the shoulder; apparently he is no longer at death’s door and is said to be in Oldenburg. I handed Böttcher over to the field hospital in Wevelgem where the limbers were housed. He was later buried at the cemetery in Menen. His wound must have been mortal; it was a serious neck wound.
'It upset all of us. Böttcher was an excellent chap; I shall never forget what he did during those hard days at Biache. A few days later Sprenger was slightly wounded in the neck at the same spot. He is in Germany as well. The position was really bad, in full view of ground observation with filth and mud everywhere. The last few days we were there the British kept us under heavy fire and we were fired at continuously for seven days.
'The crews were withdrawn so that there were no more casualties. A house immediately by the position burnt down and, with it went everyone’s kit; it was a sad sight. Some of the guns were unserviceable and could not be pulled out of the position. We took the guns from the battery that relieved us and are now deployed a bit to the north near Vierkavenhoek. The position is good. We get hardly any fire; we are a long way back. Sadly we have lost two men next to one of our advanced guns.
'Kanonier Lampe is dead (head wound) and Kanonier Hinz slightly wounded (neck wound).
'Yesterday the whole battery went forward to fire a gas shoot, but because of the stormy weather nothing came of it. It would probably have gone badly for us. It is really busy here. Almost everyday there is drum fire and attacks, both great and small. I do not know what the overall situation is like. We never hear anything here … The Hauptmann has [recently] said, "May the Homeland prove itself worthy of our army." It made a deep impression on me. We have all been talking about it a lot. A lot of what has been going on in Germany is shameful for our Fatherland. All the blood would have flowed in vain. We must now win or go under. That is what I feel anyway. The guns have just opened up once more … '
The men of Infantry Regiment 164, the left forward formation of 111th Infantry Division, who had been occupying a position in the craters west of the Goudberg, found themselves confronting the attack by 8 Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division on 26 October. The 3rd Battalion had already endured a terrible night move forward in miserable conditions.
Gefreiter Puhse 1st machine Gun Company infantry regiment 164
'One behind the other in a seemingly endless line, we made our way forward. Every step was heavy and laboured and our bodies were bent right forward. All our faces were serious, but determined. Nobody spoke a word; all were pre-occupied with their own thoughts of parents, wife and child. Everyone knew that we were to be confronted by an utterly appalling and chaotic situation. Initially we made reasonable progress, because the craters were not too tightly packed together and it was possible to go round them. Now and again a salvo of shells disturbed our movement. Now and then there was the sound of cursing and above the monotonous tramp of the feet could be heard low shouts of, "Wire!" From the rear came the call of, "Step short in front!" to be matched by calls from the front of, "Keep up!"
'Detachments which had already been relieved loomed up towards us. In passing there were many exchanged whispers, but nobody stopped because they were in a hurry to reach their well-earned billets. The concentrations of fire became heavier. A stifled cry and muffled moaning told of the first wounded. The way forward became worse and worse. The soft earth which was raised up above the water had become trampled by the passage of the feet of hundreds of soldiers into a uniquely saturated and almost bottomless morass. It was rare to cover more than a few paces without sinking in over the ankles. Right and left were craters full of black filthy mud and water. They represented a terrible danger. We negotiated them with the utmost care in the darkness in order to avoid slipping and falling into the water-filled holes, a fate which soon befell one of our number.
'It was important not to make too much noise during the rescue, but unfortunately the involuntary cry of the man who fell seemed to have alerted the enemy, because suddenly there was a burst of firing. Once having begun, the firing never let up. In the end we arrived and occupied the muddy shell holes. In order to make ours as homely as possible, we shovelled the water out, then erected a platform for the gun and tried to orientate ourselves with our surroundings as well as we could in the darkness. The sky was full of lights, flashes and flares and heavy bangs and crashes were heard from near and far. Spread out among the craters the men maintained a sharp look out forwards, for the enemy was not far away. The cold night air was viciously cold, so we huddled close together in our crater for warmth. From time to time we were forced to shift our position because the water kept running in over the tops of our boots.'
Uncomfortable their position may have been, but they did not have long to wait before they were fighting for their lives.
Melder pagenkamper 3rd company infantry regiment 164
'When the drum fire began I was on my way between the KTK and the front line. The only man I could find there was Leutnant Hartmann who was ducked down in a shell hole. All the other company commanders had been forced to change positions because of the weight of fire. I took cover in the hole of Vizefeldwebel Einig. The fire was coming down so heavily on the rear that it was completely unthinkable to try to get through. In any case every man was needed forward. Towards morning shells started landing one after the other right on our position. Gas and smoke clouds blocked any view of the ground to our front. Then came the moment of relief, as shells started landing beyond us. It was the sign for an attack.
"Look, here they come through the fog!" bawled Einig, "Fire! Fire!" One assaulting wave after another flooded up over the crest of the hill. Pack animals were moving ammunition and trench stores forward, amongst them wooden hurdles, which the assaulting troops threw down over the shell holes and patches of mud in order to get the assaulting troops forward faster and more concentrated. Everybody leapt up, aimed their weapons and started firing. The machine guns then opened up as well. Red flares curled upwards. I took a quick glance to the rear. The signal for defensive fire was being repeated and passed on everywhere.
With a crash the German guns opened fire. When it arrived it was exactly on target, all along the hills in front of Passchendaele and right in amongst the enemy lines of assaulting troops. The combination of artillery fire, machine gun fire and the courage of the brave fighters in the front line kept the British [sic] at bay, but more and more columns swarmed over the hill.'
The Canadians succeeded in penetrating the forward positions of 11th and 12th Companies, but 9th Company was already on standby to launch an immediate counter-stroke.
Reserve Leutnant Patz 9th Company Infantry Regiment 164
'An appalling weight of barrage fire cut us off from the front line. As soon as we set off a direct hit landed on the company, but notwithstanding all the fire and the mud, which made progress extremely difficult, the counter-attack succeeded, despite the gaps that had been torn in its ranks. The front line was restored. The British [sic] who, because of the mud, could only pull back slowly, offered amazing targets. As a result numbers of escaping British [sic] were brought down by German bullets.
'This small-scale action was typical of many that day as the companies tried individually and collectively to force back the attack across the full width of the regimental sector. At times the fighting was hand to hand, but in the end the Canadians were beaten back with heavy losses and barely perceptible gains in this area.'
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German and British dead, killed in a hand-to-hand fight for a machine gun post.

Melder Pagenkamper 3rd company infantry regiment 164
'There was no more ammunition. We had fired off the lot and the first of the enemy attackers were within thirty metres. Vizefeldwebel Einig fired off the last of the flares. We had to leave our pillbox. Racing from shell hole to shell hole, we broke free of the enemy, but they continued to press us hard. Suddenly we were saved. Our airmen had understood our signals from the bunker and threw out ammunition and food to us. In a few paces we had both collected it and were once again resupplied. Then we saw that the enemy had turned away. They were pulling back all along the line.
'Reaching a swift decision we headed back to the concrete pillbox. There we ate the iron rations that the airmen had thrown to us. Oskar Winkelmann had brought in a sandbag which contained several water bottles full of rum. We all took a good drink but, while we were still eating, we heard the crash of hand grenades once more. For a moment we were taken aback. Had the Tommies not had enough? Our machine gun opened up immediately. The enemy attackers had thrown their grenades too early, which alerted us in good time. Nevertheless, a section of ten men fought their way right up to our pillbox, despite the machine gun fire. We killed them all in hand-to-hand fighting and the remaining British [sic] soldiers withdrew once more through our destructive defensive artillery fire.'
A few days earlier, during the night of 20/21 October, 11th Bavarian Infantry Division had taken over the key sector which ran northwest – southeast from Wallemolen to the railway embankment of the Ypres-Roeselare railway south of the southeast tip of Passchendaele village. This was quite a broad area, so it was necessary to have all three regiments in the line in the order from north to south: Bavarian Infantry Regiment 22, Bavarian Infantry Regiment 3, Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 13. The edge of Poelkapelle still formed part of the newly created Outpost Zone, with the villages of Passchendaele, Beselare and Gheluvelt just in rear of the main defensive position. This deployment meant that on 26 October, 11th Bavarian Infantry Division was directly responsible for the defence of Passchendaele.
Each regiment was echeloned deeply. One battalion was deployed forward, manning the Outpost Zone with one company and the main defensive line with three more. Behind each were the immediate readiness support battalions and the reserve ones even further to the rear. The entire sector had been under heavy artillery fire throughout the four days since the fighting of 22 October. This rose in intensity to drumfire several times during the night 25/26 October, only to slacken in the early hours of the morning, before coming down once more with full force at 6.00 am. Simultaneously the men of 9 Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division and 10 Brigade of 4th Canadian Division were observed advancing towards the Bavarians in three distinct waves.
Out in front of Bavarian Infantry Regiment 3 in the outpost line was their 8th Company, one of whose platoons was commanded by Vizefeldwebel (Offizierstellvertreter) Leonhard Abt of 8th Company, who came originally from Bobingen. Such was the speed of the Canadian advance that the outpost line was overrun so swiftly that it contributed almost nothing to the defence. However, Abt was quick-witted enough to pull back rapidly, together with a sizeable part of his platoon, as far as the ruins of a house forward of Passchendaele. Despite being wounded in the arm and being pressed severely from three sides by the Canadians (who were described as British in his medal citation), he held this pocket of resistance for ten hours, defeating all attempts to destroy it and acting as a considerable thorn in the side of the attackers, until he was relieved by a local counter-attack mounted during the afternoon. Even then he led a charge at the head of an assault group which succeeded in recapturing a machine gun that had had to be abandoned that morning. His leadership and gallantry, on a day marked by remarkable courage on both sides, was quite outstanding. Appropriately, he was awarded the Bravery Medal in Gold, the highest award available to other ranks in the Bavarian contingent and one of only 1,003 won throughout the war.
Although Abt’s work was clearly in a class of it own, there were numerous other acts of bravery during a day of close quarter fighting in filthy weather and a largely featureless swamp. Reserve Leutnant Michael Melzl was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class, as was Offizierstellvertreter Michael Schild of 6th Company, whose citation praised his exemplary bravery and for repeatedly leading local counter-attacks throughout the day with complete disregard for his own safety. This remarkable platoon commander was later awarded the Bavarian Bravery Medal in Silver for his conduct throughout the heavy fighting in Flanders. On a day when the defence buckled, but generally held, on the Passchendaele front, the Canadian 46th Battalion, of 10 Brigade succeeded in capturing a key hill, which provided observation over the entire front of 11th Bavarian Infantry Division. The divisional commander, Generalmajor von Kneußl, ordered a counterattack to recapture this hill and an eyewitness from 2nd Battalion Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 13 has left us a vivid account of the savage cost of this successful operation which was launched in the late afternoon:
'Our regiment was deployed to Flanders on 20 October. On a small rise alongside the railway line from Roeselare to Ypres lay the village of Passchendaele. The first time we saw it it was lit up by the glare of the morning sun. The smashed walls reached up towards the sky, as did the wrecked and torn remains of the destroyed church. Lower down and close to the railway were the remains of a destroyed gasworks; whilst amidst an expanse of swamp lay the foundations of the Jägerhof and the demolished station. In all directions there was yawning emptiness, ruins, rubble and destruction. Between the railway and the village was where our 2nd Battalion had its position. In fact there was no position at all; there were no trenches, just shell holes in which our men took cover. The crater field stretched forward for three kilometres. There was barely any cover, no accommodation for the artillery, the infantry, or the machine guns and almost none for the staffs.
'Our battalion headquarters was located at Osthof, a mean farmstead, which did have some trees and bushes which provided cover from view, but the wooden ceiling was virtually useless as protection. Every morning and evening drum fire raked across our position. On the rear areas, especially where the enemy assumed that staffs were located, fire came down almost all day long. Hauptmann Eidam, heroic, tireless, always faithful to his duty, could not rest until he had seen the entire position for himself.
'The first great day of battle came on 26 October. Enemy drum fire started coming down at 5.00 am. This was not the noise of thunder; rather it was an incessant [drum] roll. The 3rd Battalion was in the front line, with Leutnant Fleischmann of 9th Company manning the outpost line. We of 2nd Battalion were in reserve. The fire roared on. Passchendaele could no longer be seen through the dust and smoke. It was 7.00 am when suddenly a white cloud rolled over the ground as far as the artillery positions, which were under heavy fire. The enemy had smoked off the entire battlefield.
'The first information arrived at 8.00 am. The British [sic] had been thrown back by Bavarian Infantry Regiment 3, but had broken through in the sector of Bavarian Infantry Regiment 22. There was still no news from our forward troops. To our front it seemed to be somewhat calmer, but the artillery battle was still in full swing. At 2.00 pm a carrier pigeon arrived bearing information from our regiment. The enemy had overrun and captured the outpost company, so quickly that it had no time to react. The hill between Passchendaele and the railway had been captured. From there the enemy had an overview into the rear area and could observe all our movements. They simply had to be driven off. At 4.00 pm our battalion received the order to launch a counter-attack. Autumn mist was already settling gently on the ploughed-up terrain, the rubble and the corpses.
'Our companies lined up along the railway embankment. All our batteries concentrated a short period of drum fire on the enemy. Then we stormed forward. Of course it was nothing of the kind. Wading up to our knees in the bog, we made our way forward from crater to crater and on up the hill. Enemy machine gun fire mowed down many, but the courageous troops pressed on, with Leutnant Schmitt, who had heard only one hour previously about his promotion to officer rank, in the lead. Suddenly flares went up! The enemy had fled; the position was ours once more. Some prisoners – they were Canadians – and a few machine guns were the extent of the booty.
'But many, many, faithful comrades, including the courageous Leutnant Schmitt lay still on the captured field and much noble blood mingled with the water and mud of the captured position. Shells were still howling overhead in the direction of the Osthof, which the morning after our departure collapsed in ruins, burying all its occupants. Out on the railway embankment entire sections of men lay dead next to the shell holes. We were relieved at 2.00 am and were very happy about it. It had become an eerie experience, rather as though we could hear the beat of the wings of death, which had already reaped a dreadful harvest earlier that day. Dog tired and exhausted, our little band, those who were still alive, stumbled along the road in the pale moonlight. Nobody spoke a single word. Deadly serious, the dark forms with the heavy helmets on their heads, headed back to their billets, sick to the heart with mourning for the fallen.'
The casualties on this day of intense fighting were extremely heavy. The total battle casualties were 30 officers and 1,469 junior ranks. Added to this grim total were two officers and 203 junior ranks sick in hospital, meaning that the price of holding on at Passchendaele as the month drew to an end was thirty-two officers and 1,672 men, a casualty rate mirrored by the experience of other divisions during the October battles and quite unsustainable over a long period.
Throughout the day enormous numbers of casualties accumulated in holding locations all over the battlefield. They lay packed into concrete pill boxes where they could be squeezed in, in folds in the ground and shell holes and, in some cases where the stretcherbearers had been hard at work moving them to the rear, they were assembled at collecting points waiting for transport to the rear. Inevitably, such were the delays, that many who might have been saved succumbed to their wounds and in any case, all the time that they remained in the forward battle area, they were still vulnerable to being wounded or killed by random shell fire. A padre from 234th Infantry Division, which only formed up on 16 January 1917, but which was heavily engaged in the autumn battles, left a dramatic account of an attempt made during the night of 26/27 October to clear some of the backlog of casualties from 11th Bavarian Infantry Division.
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Still life with Pillboxes: A scene of desolation in the Wilhelm Stellung west of Passchendaele, October 1917.

Feldgeistlicher k foertsch, padre 234 infantry brigade
'I was on night duty at the main dressing station, which is where all the wounded arrived having received initial first aid right forward. Because all the wounded had already been sent back to the field hospitals I had nothing to do, so I lay down on a camp bed. It must have been about 10.00 pm, when I heard the senior doctor say on the telephone "Seriously wounded?"
'"How many? Fifty? OK! I’ll come forward with some ambulances." At that I thought that I might as well go too. The senior doctor agreed and a few minutes later we were rattling forward with two ambulances, each towing a trailer. The senior doctor drove the leading ambulance and I followed on in the second, sandwiched between the two drivers. Initially the journey went well, but then we arrived in the area covered by enemy fire. Crashes and flashes came down to our right and left. On one occasion there was an enormous thump as a shell landed to the right of the road, sending up showers of earth. A large shell splinter whirred glistening through the air towards the vehicle, smashing our lamp and hitting the steering wheel. As one, all three of us ducked. That was our introduction. The journey became harder all the time; great shell craters in the road slowing us right down, as our lead vehicle attempted to find a way forward.
'After a long journey we arrived at an aid post, where a great many wounded were waiting to be evacuated. We could have loaded up in no time and been on our way back, but this was not the casualty collecting point that had sent for us, so we had to continue the search. We carried on forward, branching off to the right towards Passchendaele. The first of the houses loomed up then we saw a vehicle coming towards us. It was our lead ambulance. "Turn round!" shouted the senior doctor, "the houses have collapsed into the road and behind them the road is completely destroyed. It is nothing but craters." There was nothing for it but to try to find another route to Passchendaele station where we were expected. It got even darker. We came across some soldiers. "Who are you?" I called. "Ration party from the Bavarian regiment." It was my old Würzburg regiment. I asked them if my nephew was amongst them, but he was not. Did they know the way to Passchendaele station? Yes one Gefreiter did. He lit a cigarette and held it up as a lantern to guide us. The first vehicle followed him and we stuck close behind the dark monster that threatened to disappear at any moment from view.
'The road was extremely narrow. We suddenly skidded and slid into a ditch and got stuck and unable to drive straight out. The ambulance in front disappeared into the night. I called and shouted, but they did not hear me and continued on their way. The engine roared, one driver and I pushed with all our might, the other drove and cursed. Suddenly, with a lurch, we were free and back on the road. We set off hurriedly, hoping to catch up. Our route met another at right angles. Which way now? Right or left? I got out and shouted, but there was no reply. Something moved in the bushes nearby. "Who’s there?" It was a gunner who was guarding the horse and limbers of his battery. "Which way did the ambulance go?" Of course, he had seen nothing. I went a little way to the right. No, that could not be the way, so we set off left. We had hardly covered any distance when we were called on to halt. It was the senior doctor. "Stop there is a hole here." Sure enough our vehicle was just in front of an enormous hole in the road. We could just make out the outline of the other vehicle.
'We cannot drive to the station. We shall leave the ambulances here and fetch the wounded,’ the senior doctor decided. In about ten minutes we arrived at the casualty collection point. The worst cases were selected, the stretcherbearers took up their burdens and we set off to follow the railway embankment. "Padre, take this Leutnant with you," called a young doctor, with whom I had spent eight months at Field Hospital 190, "he must be got to the rear without delay." He had been shot in the back, but could still walk. I took him by the arm and led him away. He had been a young student who had been studying for the priesthood, but had become an officer during the war. We spoke animatedly, picking our way carefully past boggy areas and deep holes; not even the occasional shell splinter whizzing through the air to bury itself in the ground near us, put us off and we arrived safely at the place where the ambulances had parked.
'All too soon the ambulances were full to capacity and we had not even collected half of the wounded, so I gave up my seat for a wounded man and stayed behind. ‘I shall be back in an hour or so,’ said the senior doctor. You can come back with the next load. I accompanied the medical orderlies back along the railway embankment. This time it was so pitch black that Lichterloh had lit an enormous torch in Passchendaele from the flames of a burning house. The sparks flying up from it looked strangely beautiful in the dark night. I was soon standing amongst the wounded in the station yard. There they were laid in rows in the open air … Initially I checked all of them. Some were lying completely still; others were unusually animated in their pain and anxiety to be evacuated. All I could do was offer words of comfort: "Be patient. You will be taken to the rear in an hour’s time." One was calling for water. Fortunately I was able to find some coffee. Another groaned that the ground was so hard to lie on. I was able to place my coat under his shoulders.
'Then I saw a Bavarian, deathly pale, with his arms folded across his chest. I whispered a short prayer of comfort to him … and over there was another man from near Würzburg. Wracked with pain, he called repeatedly on Our Lady, ‘Mary, Help!’ I sat a long time with him until he became quiet and resigned to his fate. Then there was another man, cold as ice. I laid my hands on his forehead and cheeks. ‘Your hands are beautifully warm,’ he said. He, too, was a Bavarian. Later when I was making a further round, he greeted me cheerfully: "Oh you’re the one with the warm hands!’"So naturally I spent a bit longer with him that time. Over there was a man of my regiment. He recognised me from my voice. "I know your voice from the church service in the park at Remaucourt." Yet another cried out for thirst. I went and fetched him some water and, as I lifted his head to give him a drink, I found that my hand was covered in thick fresh blood. I fetched the doctor who, by the light of a torch discovered a deep gash to the rear of his head, which had not been treated. The poor lad’s arm had been broken in three places and, in the haste to treat that, the wound to the back of his head had been overlooked – either that or he had perhaps fallen back on a sharp stone. Later a medical orderly had to stay with him permanently. In his delirious state he kept trying to crawl away.
'Hour after hour slipped by, but the vehicles did not return. The regimental medical officer checked his watch anxiously. ‘They cannot afford to leave it much longer, because the artillery fire will soon begin again.’ Close behind us there was a battery of field artillery, immediately to our front the guns of a heavy battery were dug in, whilst the limit of the British defensive fire zone was located only a short distance from the station. Sure enough the firing soon started. Odd shells had already been landing nearby from time to time, but now things really started to happen. Ker-rump! Left, right, over and behind us shells were landing, then there was a noise like a thunderclap and I was blown straight between the doctor’s legs. There was clatter of splintering beams and the crash of breaking glass. Stones were being sprayed everywhere and the air was full of powder smoke: the station buildings had taken a direct hit. I quickly made the rounds of the wounded. Nothing had happened, nobody had been wounded again. Not the tiniest splinter had hit the poor lads.
'However, the shells had unsettled them. "Padre, where’s the vehicle?" "Padre, get me out of here." "I cannot stay here. Move me somewhere else." There really was nowhere safer, but we moved them to by the wall of a wooden hut where the first aid equipment was stored. "Don’t leave me Padre," said one young man. So I dropped down on the ground next to him and took his hand. There was a short roar and another thunderclap. It was the second direct hit. Quite involuntarily I ducked down towards the wounded man who lunged up and threw his arms round me. Finally he lay still, but he would not let go of my arm. As I crouched next to him he talked to me about his home, his parents, his relations with his God and we recalled church services we had both attended. We managed a really intimate discussion despite the fact that all hell had broken loose around us. The British barrage roared away ceaselessly answered by the duller, but lighter, tones of our guns. Everywhere there was the crashing and droning of shells, with bangs and flashes in all directions.
'Another three direct hits landed on or around our aid post. This continued for about another two hours, but I must admit that I did not spend the entire time with our dear comrades. After half an hour I was aching in every bone. I was already completely soaked, a light rain began to fall and the temperature dropped gradually towards zero. "Comrade, you will have to let go of me. I am really stiff. I’ll come back later." He was happy at that. I made my way down into the deep cellar beneath the station from where my regiment was being commanded. I warmed up a little then obtained a jug of red wine and went back up. The poor lad, who had had his arm shot off, had need of a stimulant, as did that pale-faced one over there. In no time the jug was empty. In the meantime night was fading; day was dawning and the whole misery of the situation became clear. The poor young Pole, with the wounded foot, was lying across a path way and every now and then someone tripped over his foot. I moved him somewhere else.
Fortunately the questions about the ambulances ceased. They had still not arrived. It was now daylight and the shooting had stopped. Now troops began to arrive from Zonnebeke, three kilometres from the station. There had been bitter fighting there in the village the previous night. Now gathering at the station were several companies of the regiments from Bamberg and Würzburg, together with companies from my two regiments. Lots of happy greetings were exchanged, but there was not much time for talking.
'They had brought wounded with them and they were very thirsty. I brought a large can of water up and some of them were able to take a large swig from it. At long last the ambulances arrived. "What took you so long?" Then I heard all about the terrible return journey. The dark night and damage to the road meant that it lasted five hours. Now it was matter of loading them up quickly and, in between, to carry out a sad task. Next to the station square we laid in a line on the grass the dear comrades who had succumbed during the night. Seven brave men had died of their wounds. Soon we were ready. The wounded were all arranged in the ambulances and the little convoy rattled off back to the main dressing station. Believe me I shall never forget the night of 26/27 October as long as I live. Nevertheless I am grateful that I experienced it.'
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The German Iron Cross 1st Class.

'The combination of artillery fire, machine-gun fire and the courage of the brave fighters in the front line kept the British at bay, but more and more columns swarmed over the hill.'
(Melder Pagenkamper 3rd Company Infantry Regiment 164)

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A water-filled crater holds the remains of a German soldier. Scenes like this were a familiar sight for the men at Passchendaele. Deep and water-filled shell holes were a constant hazard for combatants on both sides.

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Men of the support battalion Infantry Regiment 418 waiting for orders at the BTK, 16 August 1917.

'It upset all of us... The position was really bad, in full view of ground observation with filth and mud everywhere. The last few days we were there the British kept us under heavy fire and we were fired at continuously for seven days.'
(Offizierstellvertreter von Gelshorn, 6th Battery Field Artillery Regiment 62)

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A sentry keeps guard whilst his exhausted comrades sleep. Passchendaele, 1917.

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The bags and dark rings under this weary German PoW's eyes highlight the misery of living under a constant artillery bombardment.

'All too soon the ambulances were full to capacity and we had not even collected half of the wounded...'

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'"Turn round!" Shouted the senior doctor, "the houses have collapsed into the road and behind them the road is completely destroyed."'


'All too soon the ambulances were full to capacity and we had not even collected half of the wounded...'

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Messines Village, June 1917.

'The shells had unsettled them. "Padre, where's the vehicle? Padre, get me out of here. I cannot stay here. Move me somewhere else."'

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The effect of counter-battery fire, Gheluvelt Plateau, September 1917.

'The wounded were all arranged in the ambulances and the little convoy rattled off back to the main dressing station. Believe me, I shall never forgeth the night of 26/27 October as long as I live. Nevertheless I am grateful that I experienced it.'

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A German soldier who was wounded, treated and bandaged then blown up and killed before he could be moved away from the firing line to safety.

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Further Reading


The German Army at Passchendaele
(Hardback - 352 pages)
ISBN: 9781844155644

by Jack Sheldon
Only £25.00

Even after the passage of almost a century, the name Passchendaele has lost none of its power to shock and dismay. Reeling from the huge losses in earlier battles, the German army was in no shape to absorb the impact of the Battle of Messines and the subsequent bitter attritional struggle. Throughout the fighting on the Somme the German army had always felt that it had the ability to counter Allied thrusts, but following the shock reverses of April and May 1917, much heart searching had led to the urgent…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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