Reading the 11 DLI Battalion War Diary for August 1917 for the days after the capture of Pilckem Ridge, it would be easy to imagine that it was some uninterrupted two-three weeks where the Pioneers repaired roads, built bridges over the canal and constructed artillery dumps (other than C Company, which specialised in railway work – possibly repairing the Ypres-Staden Railway as well as constructing new tracks). Essentially this was correct in a very functional sense, but buried within these matter of fact records were some telling remarks.
On 2 August, it was commented that ‘men now have a march of 14 miles daily and in addition have 6 hours work to do’. They were moving between work in and around the bank of the Yser Canal to and from Canada Camp to the west of Elverdinghe, several miles away. And it was raining cats and dogs most of the time. On 5 August, A, B and D Companies were road making in the area below Pilckem Ridge and it was commented that ‘Huddleston Road now passable up to Cactus Trench, here there was an impassable swamp’. Respite of a sort came when, on the night of 7-8 August, 11 DLI took over the camp on the Canal bank from the Pioneers of the Welsh Division, before starting more road and railway work as before but without the long trek. The same work continued uninterrupted, until 15 August, apart from a bombardment of gas shells at 11 pm on 14 August (yes, they were working at night as well).
Meanwhile, the rest of 20th Light Division was making preparations for an attack across the Steenbeck to capture Langemarck, though most of their early attempts were thwarted by the bad weather, which had allowed the Germans to consolidate their defences on the east bank of the stream.
The Objective and the Obstacles
As a starting point, the aim was to secure the ground to the east of the Steenbeck, which was heavily fortified with a complex of concrete blockhouses at the centre of which was one ironically named Au Bon Gîte.
There were several attempts from 11 August by units of 10 and 11 Rifle Brigade to seize this area, only partially successful and at enormous cost. The blockhouse at Au Bon Gîte was still not suppressed by 15 August, despite repeated attacks by 10 and 11 King’s Royal Rifle Corps. However, there was sufficient consolidation of positions on the east of the Steenbeck to permit the final attack on 16 August, as part of a broader assault along the British sector lines. There were two major questions. Were the infantry battalions of 20th Division still strong enough after the previous two weeks of attrition? Would the Pioneers of 11th DLI be able to keep the communications for both infantry and artillery up to scratch in the awful conditions visible in the photograph above?