The innocence of the morning of 31 July was quickly dispelled by the hard realities of war in the Ypres Salient during August 1917 (see previous post). 11 DLI were engaged in road making and railway work under heavy and continuous bombardment. As reported in the war diary for 2 August, “the men now have a march of 14 miles daily and in addition have 6 hours work to do. ‘C’ Coy continued work on railway from 11 am to 7 pm.”
Most of the work was carried out along the bank of the Yser Canal, often harried by gas shells as well as artillery fire. The work continued like this without respite until 18 August. They marched from ‘G’ Camp, via Malakoff Farm, to Elverdinghe, from where they entrained for Proven. While this was nominally a rest period until the end of the month, as well as the usual drill, baths and re-equipment, the men continued to work on railway tracks and sidings, the Lewis gunners practised anti-aircraft work and there was continuous training.
Nominally, the battalion had a full complement of 34 officers and 957 men by 31 August, though twice as many had dropped from their numbers as had newly arrived. Among the casualties were seven men killed on one day, 16 August 1917, and all buried in Bard Cottage Cemetery at Boezinge: Privates Buckle, Donkin, Hildreth, Hodgson, Hunt, Tansey and Taylor. That day was when 20th Light Division struck across the Steenbeck to suppress the concrete machine gun bunkers on the other side and take the strategic village of Langemarck. It barely registers a mention in the war diary as, technically, 11 DLI was just doing their normal Pioneer work on communications – only blasted to hell by German artillery. It was just another day’s work and their casualties were dwarfed by those of the infantry battalions.
Much reproduced, including on page 132 of my book, is the Imperial War Museum photo Q2641. On the morning of 31 July 1917, 11 DLI went forward to support the first day of the battles of Third Ypres. Their job was to build artillery tracks and other communications devices. They were transported from Elverdinghe by Decauville railway in the characteristic D class wagons. On their way up to the front, Lt Ernest Brooks captured several of the trucks in what has become an iconic image.
Among descendants of 11 DLI men I am not alone in searching along the line of cheering, waving men, searching for an ancestor, in my case Sergeant Thomas Bashforth. I have searched in vain, but maybe others have been more fortunate. There is something about this photograph, however, that is disturbing. We see the men in great spirits, seemingly unaware that they were part of what has become equally iconic – the dreadful quagmire leading to Passchendaele that for many sums up what the Great War meant. I am sure they were not entirely naive, battle-hardened as many were by this date, having survived months on the Somme and served a previous stint in the Ypres Salient. Friends and relatives will have been lost. But in this photograph we see the men respond to the sight of the photographer at the side of the line and momentarily forget what they are about to be involved in. It is that contrast that hits home for us today when we see this image.
August 1917 would see much less happy days and moments than this.
The period of rest and recreation continued at Domart for the first couple of weeks and leave allotments were increased to give the men a break. It would not last of course. All leave was stopped on 13 July. On 19 July, the battalion marched to Doullens and the next day boarded trains for Hopoutre, where they got off and marched on to Proven overnight. Marching at night might seem odd, but this was the Ypres Salient, overlooked by German artillery spotters. After a week of settling in, training, drilling and inspections, the men were moved to ‘G Camp’ on 30 July. The first day of the month had been a Sunday with Church Parade. The last day of the month was making roads and railways, behind the lines, but under heavy shell fire.