The Third Battle of Ypres By Jon Sandison I met, before I went to France, a Shetlander who had been wounded several times, and who had been home on draft leave prior to "going over" to "collect another bit of Jerry's shrapnel," as he put it. We met on a train and he told me he was last hit in Ypres. He also told me about Ypres, and the more he spoke of the horrors of it, the more enthusiastic I felt, and keener to get there and see what it was like. We are built that way. Extracted from Doing His Bit: A Shetland Soldier in the Great War, by Robert M Greig. Soldier Greig, along with most others, came home. Many of course did not. Manson's Roll of Honour and Service listed over 4,300 men in the services. More, across all services, continue to be added with research work currently being done both locally and nationally on the Roll. A trawl of the Roll estimates that just over 1,070 Shetland men served in the various parts of the army during World War One. Today, it is hard to believe that our community contributed such numbers to the army, given our natural connections and links to the sea. Yet answer the call to the army they did, not least the men of Lerwick who did so in large numbers. Many of these worked in the fishing industry, while others worked in shops, offices and trades. Others lived elsewhere, but had Shetland connections. It is estimated that Shetlanders who joined the regiments of the British Army, including Dominion Forces, came to around 30 percent of the Shetlanders who served during World War One. Early in the war, only a few Shetlanders served in the army, with small numbers volunteering. But numbers increased throughout the war with recruitment and conscription. Local Territorials aside, the men with Shetland connections served in the Scottish, British and Imperial Regiments; The Highland Light Infantry, Northumberland Fusiliers, New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and local Gordons to name just a few. From this total, over 270 were lost. This total amounts to roughly 26 percent of those who served in the army. Within the RNR and Navy, 330 were lost. Many more men from Shetland served in the these services than the army, but the ratio of those lost in the army was higher. There is understandably, and rightly, much focus and commitment to ensure that the wider Shetland story, at both home and abroad, is told; one that stretched far beyond the Western Front. The strategic position of Shetland itself is without question. The story of Shetland at home is also significant since it was one which affected all the Shetland population. Most people were not in the armed forces. In Shetland, like other communities throughout Britain, there is no escaping that our local story was also inexorably linked to the Western Front. Regularly in the local press there were stories from soldiers, sad and continuous poignant obituaries, as well as detail of local campaigns to support the soldiers with socks or cigarettes. One such campaign in The Shetland News was noted earlier in the Spring of 1917 under the heading 'Shower of Gifts Day'.
Wednesday was shower of gifts day in Lerwick, when the Town Hall was open in the evening to receive gifts of articles for soldiers and hospitals. The gifts day had been organised by the Queen Mary Needlework Guild, and a number of very attractive posters exhibited along Commercial Street made a striking pictorial appeal to the public. On each poster there were illustrations of the kind of articles required, cardigans, socks, body belts, cigarettes etc, and also an eloquent verbal appeal. These posters had been very artistically prepared by the Misses A and E Stout. A very generous response was made by the general public, quite a large number of articles of all kinds being handed in at the Town Hall between 6 and 8pm. Afterwards a most enjoyable musical programme, at which a silver collection was taken, was gone through and was well attended. Images from World War One of rain soaked mud, blood and waste of life in the trenches on the Western Front are today often associated with what happened in and around Ypres in summer to autumn of 1917. Pictures such as these are still gripping. It is perhaps little wonder that such popular conceptions continue; as every community felt its impact via sombre telegram notices that came through front doors. Clichés and popular conceptions are easy to make, being built up and added to over time. The Battle of Ypres is the stereotypical image, often repeated today, of the First World War and the Western Front. Something which many have become fixated by ever since its wrath swept our continent. At the time, the story of Ypres was covered less in our local press. Perhaps, after the local loss of the Ancre and Arras of late 1916 and early 1917, even the newspaper men had become weary of war. Many writings since have the Western Front as their focus. In turn it is often difficult to appreciate the global nature of the total conflict. Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Britain, had been appalled by the Somme. He did not want to see it repeated. But this is what was to happen at Ypres. The world context of the Great War ensured that this repetition was the case. The Russians and the French were not launching any further offensive effort. The Americans were not ready. At this time food shortages were severe, political alienation and pacifism was growing at home. Lloyd George sought to re-direct British military resources to Palestine or Mesopotamia. This caused conflict with his Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson who viewed that the weaknesses of the French and Russian armies meant that the British army had to also play a full part in defeating the Germans. This could only be done on the Western Front where the bulk of the German army was deployed on the territory of Britain's closest ally. Therefore, Shetland men were caught up in Ypres, as elsewhere. It was just accepted as 'their duty' as hard, often, as that is to understand today. Their story on the Western Front, is, and continues to be, part of our local story here at home. Any memorial or grave with a Shetlander on it in France and Belgium, is also part of our own local heritage. One hundred years on, a Shetlander lying in a grave abroad is as important as one on our own shores. What these young men endured, so far away from home, was appalling.
Pictures of Ypres from the past were distant to us on a crisp, sunny October day as we were shown around some key features. The town of Ypres was the most important within a salient, or 'bulge' in the British Lines. It had been the site of two previous battles, that of First Ypres, October to November 1914, and Second Ypres, April to May 1915. The first of a few cemeteries we visited was the Essex Farm Cemetery, to the north of Ypres on what was the British front line. Immediately the carefully laid out headstones, the immaculately kept grass are telling features of the importance of such burial grounds. Two things stood out about this place of remembrance. First was our visit to the graveside of rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick, Surrey, Service No 3750. He served with the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade. He was aged just 15 when he died on 14th January 1916, and was one of the youngest British casualties of the Great War. This was a stark and poignant reminder of our own youth who arrived and also some of whom remained in the field. The issue of 'boy soldiers' was one of embarrassment to the military authorities during the First World War. There were many. Officially, the minimum age for army recruits was 19, but boys as young as 13 were known to have joined up, lying about their age in order to be involved, and ultimately fight in the trenches. This was the case with Strudwick. Our tour guide informed us that he would have entered the field when still 13. Young men from Shetland did the same. Our own Grandfather was 13 at the time of the 1911 Census. With the outbreak of war in 1914, and the departure of the Territorials in 1915, he would have been 17, but joined while 16. He wasn't alone in this regard. Granddad, like many others, thankfully returned to his native islands. However, a tally from the Roll of Honour suggests that of the Shetland soldiers who died, spread across Scottish, British and Imperial Regiments, eighteen were 19 years old, while four were just 18. One of the 18 year olds was Gunner Magnus Smith, Service No 307453, of the 2/1st Lowland Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery. He was the son of Magnus and Joan Smith, Houlland, Sandwick. He was killed in action in France on 13 July 1917, and is buried in St Martin Calvaire British Cemetery, St Martin-Sur-Cojeul. Some of those lost as part of the RNR were 17. Boy soldiering is still unfortunately a major issue in the world today in many areas of conflict The second thing that stood out about the Cemetery was the John McCrae memorial. It was believed that the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station was the place where, in May 1915, Canadian Army Doctor, and artillery brigade commander Major John McCrae composed the now famous poem "In Flanders Fields". Apparently, McCrae was inspired to write the poem as a result of seeing the red poppies blooming in the warm spring weather among the military graves near to a temporary medical bunker where he was working. It is said that the symbol of the red poppy and the death of a friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, had a huge affect on McCrae during his involvement in the Second Battle of Ypres:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields. A young man with Shetland connections at the time McCrae wrote this poem was Corporal James Spence, Service No 3/7175, 1st Gordon Highlanders. James was killed on 20 May 1915. The 3 prefix denotes he was originally 3rd Battalion which was always the reserve battalion for the 1st Battalion, and part of the British 3rd Division. It is likely that James would have left for France as part of the Regular Army, and was not a Kitchener volunteer. He landed in France on 3 December 1914 making him a draft for the losses afflicted during 1st Ypres. Son of James and Mary Spence, formerly of Lerwick. James Spence senior had been a tailor in the town. All the family were in Cruden in 1901 census and young James was a cooper. James was born in Cruden. There were five children. Between 13 and 24 May the 3rd Division were situated to the south of Ypres between Vierstraat and St Eloi. The 1st Gordons War Diary states that May began 'quietly' with, heavy shelling on the 6th, which killed three and wounded five. By 11 May, the Brigade was ordered to relieve the 13th Brigade in front of Hill 60. Located around three miles south-east of Ypres, it is not a natural feature. The Hill was made from the earth removed during the construction of the railway line nearby. It was a small area of raised land in an extremely flat landscape, it had strategic importance in the battles in the Ypres Salient. By mid-May, patrols carried out at Hill 60, with bombing continuing and parapets blown in. They were relieved by the Dorsets on 20 May, and marched back to billets at La Clytte. The body of James had been lost and his body was never found. His name is on the Menin Gate Ypres, Panel Reference 38. At the Essex Farm Dressing Station, we had a glimpse of the harsh reality of war. Here the ghosts of the maimed of Ypres found themselves into our consciousness. Stretchers, as shadows of light, passed the sides of our eyes as we became fixated upon the dressing station with added sounds of pain coming into our imagination.
We peeked into small spaces where the lucky would have been treated, the chaos and desperation that such a place would have had was then promptly put away again to the back of our minds. Always best not to think too much about it. This area, after all, was where men came to die. If they were lucky they would get home to hospital, or be killed outright on the battlefield. Hard to believe that this whole concrete structure was one of many dressing stations that stretched across to the rear of the front line. Men would be sectioned off between 'having a chance' and 'having no chance'. If you were the latter, then you were left. The concrete back sections, with grass growing over the top, and the sound of the guns just that bit more distant, might have offered some security after coming out of the trenches; but not much. Nearby, we visited a sample reconstructed trench at Boezinge, just north of Ypres. This was the Yorkshire Trench. It gave us a fleeting initial glimpse of what trenches were like. Reconstructed concrete sandbags, duckboards, and parapets, all rebuilt on this original trench location. It all looked very authentic. The small section of trench, lay oddly juxtaposed within an industrial site building, and a wind generator next to it. Odd to think that work men going back and forth in their vehicles each day would pass it, perhaps not thinking too much about it. The activity was very different 100 years ago with this being the British front line on the Ypres salient. The trench was originally dug by the British in 1915. Work was completed by archaeologists on the trench with the development of the industrial site in the late 1990s. With this relatively small piece of digging, 205 soldiers of three different nationalities were recovered. A reminder of the scale of loss, and the men who still are missing all over the Ypres Salient. The trench was laid out, with a warehouse just behind some newly grown trees. The bright October sky continued above us, with newly fallen leaves on the grass. Walking around the trench, there was a dugout, filled up with water, the corrugated iron still on its edge, but with wood rotten at its front. A small poppy cross was on the mesh wire that kept it blocked. Thoughts entered our minds as to what might be below. In front was a rusty metal shutter, with an entrance for a gun to poke out. If this had been opened too long, a snipers bullet would more than likely have come your way. Looking east just over one hundred years ago, would have been attack positions, objectives and somewhere in the distance, the Germans. We looked back at more of the industrial estate, and some surrounding trees, then back to the hotel at Hooge for a reflective night in the Hotel. Tragically, not far from here last month, a shell or grenade exploded, killing two workmen on a building site where a factory is being built. This is a reminder that the former battlefields of throw up hundreds of Great War armaments. Most of these are destroyed without incident by a special Belgian army bomb squad. Yet the remnants of 100 years ago can still cause suffering today. In one case, two people were killed and at least two others were injured when a shell from the Great War exploded in Ypres. Trudging out of our hotel next morning slightly to the west of Ypres, a cemetery was just down the road. At every turn, there is evidence of this conflict. Walking around the hotel upon the gravel chip path, it was impossible not to miss bits of metal lying around. Thoughts that the hotel was next to a metal junk yard were soon dispelled.
The rusted metal merged with the colour of the rustic autumn leaves. Objects were carefully laid out for display like ornaments for sale outside a garden centre. Closer inspection showed that the pieces of rusted metal were implements of destruction. All colours merged well together. Barbed Wire, wire holders, a German stick grenade, shells, broken gas canisters and trench shovels. A garden of death. Further down the path, a bunker, and the remnants of a meandering, yet orderly, trench system, edged with corrugated sheeting, reinforced where exactly we were. Slowly, we worked our way around. In the midst of it all, there was a tranquil small lake next to the hotel. Some reassurance maybe that thoughtful environmental planning had been made upon building this hotel in the middle of a battle zone. Sweeping evergreen trees appeared to confirm that. Like so much in these parts, all was not what it seemed.
All this occurred during a time of relative quiet on the British part of the Western Front, when few major assaults were made. Hooge, having been earlier lost, had been retaken in May 1915. Hooge Chateau and its stables were the scene of very fierce fighting throughout the War. The Chateau had been Divisional Headquarters early in the war hosting Major General Monro, as well as Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig. It was destroyed with a German attack that took place on 31 October 1914, suffering a direct hit from a German shell. The hotel was just along the road from this site, which now contains a theme park. On 31 October 1914, the staff of the 1st and 2nd Divisions were wiped out when the chateau was shelled; from 24 May to 3 June 1915, the building was defended against German attacks and in July 1915, the crater was made by a mine sprung by the 3rd Division. The 4th Battalion Middlesex Regiment stormed it assisted by the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders. On 30 July, the Germans took the chateau, and on 9 August, it and the crater were regained by the 6th Division. The Germans retook Hooge on 6 June 1916 and on 31 July 1917, the 8th Division advanced 1.6 Kms beyond it. It was lost for the last time in April 1918, but regained by the 9th (Scottish) and 29th Divisions on 28 September.
We later discovered that this location was also the site where the first German flame thrower attack against the British took place in July, 1915. All this was hard to imagine as the ducks swam across the middle of this scenic small lake next to the hotel. We learned that they were swimming across one of three German mines that were blown up in June 1916. This mine small fry in relation to the original Hooge Crater that was blown, but impressive and scenic nevertheless! The Battle of Messines Ridge, was a preliminary offensive to the forthcoming major assault at Ypres. To the south of Ypres, the Ridge had been held by the Germans since the end of 1914. It provided a commanding view of the Ypres salient and gave the Germans good observation of the British trench system, as well as what lay behind. Men with Shetland connections fell in and around Ypres. On 7 June 1917, British Commander-in Chief, General Haig launched the first part of this offensive which had the main aim to break out of the Ypres Salient, and – in turn – relieve the pressure on the French army following the Nivelle Offensive. In preparation, between 26 May and 1 June, the Royal Artillery fired 3.5 million shells into the German lines. At the start of the assault on 7 June, 19 heavy mines detonated under the German trenches at Messines Ridge, this being the largest man made explosion in recorded history. This blast was so intense that it was heard in London. Apparently an observatory on the Isle of Wight detected it on its seismograph, while the professor of geology at Lille University, over 12 miles away, sprang out of his bed thinking that there had been an earthquake. Immediately after the blasting, the British artillery opened fire and the infantry moved forward to the first German trench line. It was taken quickly with understandable confusion and disorder on the German lines. A few hours later Messines Ridge had been captured; a valuable position. In turn, the British front line was straightened. The battle lasted from 7 to 14 June. Private James Arthur Tait, Service No 25125, of the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps, No 2 Company, was killed a Messines on the 8th of June. Five companies of Machine Gun Corps were spread across the New Zealand Divisional front. Their job was twofold. One was to protect the advancing infantry and keep they covered while they secured their objectives. The other was to provide guns and personnel to consolidate captured objectives. No 2 Company, along with 1st and 3rd, were given the barrage work. It is recorded that by the 8th, two sections of the 2nd Company were 'detailed to assist the assaulting battalions of the 2nd Brigade, moved forward across No Man's Land and entered the German front trenches close in the wake of the infantry'. James was aged 23, and was a son of James Brown and Catherine Tait, Ballance, Pahiatua, Wellington. They were formerly of Saltness, Walls. In New Zealand, he had worked as a farmhand. Arriving in the field on 4 November 1916, James was listed as 'sick in the field' from 12 to 14 April 1917. He rejoined his unit on 28 April. He is commemorated on the Messines Ridge, New Zealand Memorial, situated south of Ypres. Further north, killed a few days before on 6 June was Captain David Gray of the Royal Garrison Artillery, 234th Siege Battery. The Siege Batteries were usually used for destroying enemy artillery, or putting devastating fire upon strong points, roads, or stores behind enemy lines. He was aged 31, and is buried at the Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery, grave reference IV.B.2.
This cemetery is situated just to the west of Ypres. David was the second son of Ogilvy Gray, a Seaman, and Ellen Gray, of Commercial Street, Lerwick.
By late June, the 51st Highland Division moved further north to take part in the planned Battle of Ypres. The Division was still battered and bruised from Arras. This battle, which had inflicted such local loss upon Shetlanders in the Spring of 1917, had barely finished. Ypres too had been scarred following the battles of 1914 and 1915. From the outskirts to the north of the town, the land rises approximately 70 feet to Passchendaele Ridge. The German lines were on the West of the Ridge, around two to four miles from Ypres. In turn, the British lines were exposed. As the 'preliminaries' continued, lost at this time was Private William Robert Oakes, 7th Gordon Highlanders, Service No 292538. Aged 21, he was killed on 1 July. The Battalion had moved up to the north of Ypres with the 153rd Brigade going into the line on the night of 22-23 June. Over the following days, the Germans heavily bombarded. Five other men from the Gordon Highlanders were killed that day. William had been wounded at the Ancre in 1916. The Shetland Times noted that 'writing to his parents, Mr and Mrs Edwin Oakes, 9 Church Lane, Lerwick Pte William Oakes informs them that he is wounded and in hospital. Pte Oakes was a member of the local Territorials when war broke out, and left Shetland with the first detachment. It is hoped that his wounds are not of a serious nature.' Mr and Mrs Oakes got news by the summer of 1917 which was even more ominous. It was noted that they received word this morning of the death of their youngest son, Pte William R Oakes, Gordon Highlanders, who was killed in action on 1st July. The sad news was contained in the following letter from an officer:
Dear Mr Oakes – I am very sorry to have to inform you that your son, William, was killed on the morning of 1st July. I know it will be a great blow to you and your wife, but hope it will be some consolation for you to know that he died suffering no pain. His death was instantaneous. I always found him to be a smart, willing and good soldier. He will be greatly missed by us all, and his comrades all wish me to send you their sincere sympathy. I may say I was present at the burial service, when William’s body was laid to reset alongside two of his comrades. Trusting you will be comforted in your great loss. It was added that at the time he was employed by Mr Andrew Tait, Grocer. After completing his training he had crossed to France, where he had been some fifteen months. The customary complimentary, supportive line was given: He was a quiet, likeable boy, but despite his youth he had many soldiery qualities, as is borne out the letter from his superior officer. Sincere sympathy is extended to Mr and Mrs Oakes in their bereavement. William is buried at New Irish Farm Cemetery, Grave reference XXV.B2, just to the north west of Ypres. The cemetery which is situated to the north-east of Ypres and is positioned just off the road that takes you to St Julien and beyond. This area was heavily fought over in 1917 and would become the start lines for 3rd Ypres which began on 31 July 1917. His older brother, Leading Seaman Magnus James Alexander Oakes, Royal Naval Reserve, died on 2 August 1918, age 29. Battlefield Guide and historian Steve Smith visited the grave in November last year. Commenting on his visit, Steve mentioned that 'New Irish Farm is one of the most poignant cemeteries in the Ypres Salient and it is one of three situated in close proximity to each other which were used between August and November of 1917 during the fighting that occurred further east. Today it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit and the graves within are beautifully kept and many of them have red rose bushes planted around them. William can be found by going through the main entrance and then by turning immediately right because his grave is situated close to the front of the cemetery. He lies with a number of other Gordon Highlanders who were killed in action during this period of the war in Flanders Fields'. Another Shetlander, Major Harry Cheyne, of the Royal Field Artillery, Territorial Force, 'D' Battery, 189th Brigade, was killed on 10 July. Harry was aged 24. Harry was a son of Harry and Dora Cheyne of Edinburgh. His grandfather Henry Cheyne, was born at Northmavine and had become a Solicitor in Edinburgh. He is buried at Dickenbusch New Military Cemetery Extension in Ypres, grave reference II.D.26. The preliminaries of Messines and other smaller engagements were over. At this point, the 'charge was set', and the fuse 'just had to be lit'. As the days of July passed, more Shetland men would be waiting to eventually have their part in the mammoth battle that was the Third Battle of Ypres. It was to last from 31 July until 6 November.
Robert M Greig had something more say about Ypres: When we hear of some great discomfort, or great danger and actually meet some who have undergone it, we immediately feel keen to go through it. But when we get to it and find out that discomfort is really uncomfortable and that danger is really unhealthy, we grumble and want to get away from it with the speed of aeroplanes. So it was with me. Hindsight is a great thing. For the Shetland men on the Ypres Salient, there was to be more looking at watches, waiting, and thinking. No hindsight. The first few days, and men from home, 31 July - 2 August
A kind of peace, a sense of lethargy descended, and men's thoughts strayed away to happier scenes and people far away, mothers, lovers and homes. Everyone knew there was no reason to retreat, that before the sun went down there must be slaughter and chaos in the quiet fields. Men's spirits sank with the waiting, and they secretly looked at each other and wondered which would die. But whatever his private feelings nobody could admit he was afraid". Waterloo: A Near Run Thing, by David Howarth Just over 100 years later, in not so quiet fields, human thoughts could have changed little. Just over 86 miles to the West, the concentration of British and Imperial forces congregated in and around Ypres, a matter of months after the Battle of Arras.
As we enjoy summer days now, and sometimes complain about the weather, we can be thankful that there is no July to be endured such as the one experienced in and around Ypres in 1917. Today upon a summer visit to this area in Belgium, fairer weather can be experienced than home in Shetland, a countryside green lush with the odd clue as to the summer of 1917. It was then a barren and obliterated landscape, with images of mud and water logged shells holes. One very closely related of how we often view the Western Front today. Encouraged by the success of the Battle of Messines, General Haig believed that the German army would not be able to hold out from an attack in the north-east of Ypres. An Allied breakthrough was hoped for. It was carefully planned, and launched on 31 July 1917. After loss on the Somme, preparation meant little. Officially labelled the Third Battle of Ypres, it was to be more popularly known from its final phase, Passchendaele, or, as Lloyd George labelled it, the 'Battle of Mud'. The conflict witnessed an estimated 310,000 British and Imperial casualties; 70,000 of them killed or drowned in mud. The Germans lost an estimated 260,000. Lasting from 31 of July until 6 November 1917, it had eight phases, the first being the Battle of Pilckem, from 31 July to 2 August. The offensive resulted in gains for the Allies but it was by no means the breakthrough Haig intended. Such gains as were made came at great cost in human terms. The British front on 30 July was to the east of Ypres. The attack comprised two main aims. One was the capture of Roulers, a vital railway centre and of importance to German positions in Flanders. This involved an attack to the east of Ypres through the Gheluvelt plateau in along the Roulers Railway line, and later in August to Hill 35. The second was the clearance of the Belgian coast. This was to follow and attack to the north east, the assault on Pilckem eventually following through to a natural stream called the Steenbeck. If a breakthrough of the German Front Line could be achieved, the British could hold strategic views of the high ground of the Passchendaele Ridge. From here on, they would in theory be in a good position to continue to the German held ports and UBoat bases of Ostend and Zeebrugge which were taking their toll on mercantile marine. The ground was churned up by consistent shellfire and it turned to mud. Not long after the start of the battle, the rain began to fall. It did not stop and continued for weeks. As a result, conditions were unsuitable for the movement of men, animals and heavy equipment such as artillery and tanks. The original objectives of Ostend and Zeebrugge were, unsurprisingly, given less priority. The bombardment lasted for 10 days. It was estimated that 3000 guns fired 4.25 million artillery shells. The fight was waged along an 11 mile front. The French First Army was on the left, with the British Fifth army in the centre, and a corps of the British Second Army on the right. On the first day the Shetland stories were immersed in events that followed. Divisions gathered together for the attack were in an apparent state of high confidence. Twelve British Divisions, plus one Brigade were put on the offensive. The 9th and 15th Scottish Divisions were involved, as well as the 51st Highland Division, each with this broad service of Shetland men.
As well as the Scottish Divisions, others involved were part of the wider Other British and Imperial Regiments were involved including elements of the Western and Eastern Divisions, Lancashire, and Australian and New Zealand groupings. Divisions were a self-contained fighting unit with infantry, artillery, engineers and support elements such as medical services. Each had a total strength of somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 men. Within a division, up until early 1918, there were 12 infantry battalions, each with a nominal strength of about 1,000 men. These were put into Brigades of four battalions each, thereby giving a brigade strength of just over 4,000 men. This gave a more manageable number to deal with and allowed the division to stay in a sector for a reasonable length of time while rotating its brigades to allow battalions to get some respite from the front lines. Although the British divisions still moved around quite frequently German divisions tended to be left in one place for considerably longer. By similarly rotating their brigades they could maintain their strength and effectiveness. A Lieutenant-Colonel commanded a battalion and a Brigadier-General commanded a brigade. These days they've dropped the general and they are just plain brigadiers, with a Major-General commanding a division. By 1917, the platoon was the battlefield tactical unit, divided into rifle and bayonet men, bombers, rifle grenadiers and Lewis gunners. Across Divisions, Shetland men served in all of these roles whilst on the front line. Prior to the attack, it was also mentioned how each infantry brigade had 'rehearsed its part thoroughly over taped courses on which were marked the outlines of the trenches and strong points to be attacked; special attention was given to the method of overcoming the "pillbox" strong points by parties of bombers, supported by Lewis gun fire and rifle grenades, which had proved so effective at Messines'. To the east of Ypres, the 15th Division attacked at 3:50 am with two Brigades in the sector. One was the 46th, and the other the 44th Brigade which contained the 8/10th Gordon Highlanders and the 8th Seaforth Highlanders, who attacked alongside them in support. The weather was dull and threatening, and the ground was in a terrible state due to the rain that had fallen prior to the 31st. In spite of this the troops went forward under cover of the barrage. Little opposition was met with at first. The German front line had been almost wiped out, but a number of concrete dug-outs were found still intact. These were to become a nemesis later on. The 8/10th Gordon Highlanders, was the leading battalion on the right and attacked on the frontage of 350 yards with two companies, each with two platoons in line and two in support. Among other Shetlanders were three Lerwegians. Up at the front was Lieutenant John Henry Clifford Grierson, from Helendale, Lerwick, aged 20. He was the eldest son of the then late Mr James Cullen Grierson, of Quendale, by his marriage with Alice, sister of Herbert Peake of Bawtry Hall. Another was Private Peter Hunter Johnston, Service Number S/41089, 2 Queens Place, Lerwick, aged 24. They pushed forward to the left of the Roulers Railway, just to the East of Ypres towards Frezenburg and reached the target line with little loss and kept up with the artillery barrage. Frezenberg, is a small hamlet spread across a main road which, as well as the ridge to which it gave its name, was a crucial focus. Another Lerwegian was within the 8th Seaforths in support of this attack. Alexander Ingram, Service Number 14918, was the son of Walter and Catherine Ingram, 7 Albany Street, Lerwick. He was aged 21. All young men who had grown up together in the town.
As the day unfolded, the wire around Frezenburg, and North Station Buildings around the foot of the hamlet ridge, was well cut and with the help of a tank. This company of tanks was allotted to the 44th and 46th Brigades, and had the task of capturing the first and second objectives. On the front of the 8/10th Gordons, the second objective was just over a mile distant from the start line. It ran across Frezenberg Ridge, only a few feet above the plain. The two Brigades fought through the village and on to the further line where they consolidated a line 500 yards to the east of it. The 44th Brigade advanced on through Frezenberg. At this stage, two counter attacks were pushed back, one taking place at 8.30am and the other 10am. The 46th Brigade, which was behind them, containing the 7/8th Kings Own Scottish Borderers and 10/11th Highland Light Infantry, also advanced to their first objectives. But, the King's Own Scottish Borderers encountered strong resistance. The Highland Light Infantry did not do much better, facing strong resistance at Square Farm, a typically well defended German position just north of Frezenberg, on the German line. The 45th Brigade, given the job of support, pushed through. What could have been going through the mind of John Henry Clifford Grierson that day? His father had died on 3 July 1915. On 4 April 1914 he departed Glasgow on the Hesperian bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He had originally enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 23 September 1914, and presumably arrived in the UK with that force but then was Commissioned to 2nd Lieutenant, 3rd Reserve Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at Aberdeen. On 29 May 1916, he joined the 2nd Regular Battalion, Gordons in France and Flanders. On 23 October 1916, he was wounded in the Le Touquet Sector, and evacuated back to Britain. The extent of his wounds was unknown. Following this, he came back as part of the 3rd Regular Battalion Gordon Highlanders. By June, 1917, he returned to France and Flanders to join the 8/10th Gordon Highlanders, within the 15th Scottish Division. The Official History of the Gordon Highlanders gives details of how Lieutenant Grierson met his fate: Third company moved in similar formation in rear of the two foremost. Fourth company brought up the rear in artillery formation, and with it moved two machine guns and stokes mortar. A company of tanks was allotted to the 44th and 46th Brigades, which had the task of capturing the first and second objectives. On the front of the 8/10th Gordons, the second was just over a mile distant from the start line. It ran across what was called Frezenberg Ridge. The Germans had taken four minutes to bring down their barrage, by which time the Gordons attacking were clear. The morning was apparently overcast, so that it was still dark. In a landscape that was so scarred, landmarks as existed were unrecognizable. Apart from the usual machine-gun fire, there was hand-to-hand fighting short of the first objective, one officer, Lieutenant J.H.C. Grierson, afterwards himself killed, was recorded as seen to kill a German with a bayonet. The fighting was fierce, but the first objective was secured by 4:45 without serious loss. The local press did not provide so many descriptive details. Within a few weeks, notice of his loss was filtered home to his widowed mother.
A telegram was received in Lerwick on the 8th inst. Stating that Lieut. J. Grierson, eldest son of the late Mr J.C. Grierson and Mrs Grierson, Helendale, Lerwick, was killed in action on 31st July. Deceased, who was in the Gordon Highlanders, had previously been wounded three times, on one occasion severely. Lieut. Grierson was a sturdily built, manly young officer, and there can be little doubt that he acquitted himself worthily in the great battles in which he gave his life. Deep sympathy is extended to Mrs Grierson in her loss. John's name is on Panel 38 of the Menin Gate, Ypres. His mother was to pass away in November of 1917. He was posthumously awarded the 1914-1920 War Medal, and the WW1 Victory Medal. Private Peter Hunter Johnston was also killed that day. Peter was son of David Neil and Tamar Johnston (formerly Simpson). His father was from Lerwick, and his mother was formerly of Whalsay. He had eight siblings. Peter was employed as a coal worker before enlisting in the Seaforth Highlanders at Fort George on 16 November 1916. He transferred to the Gordon Highlanders on 22 March 1917. He was aged 24 years and is buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery, Grave Reference X.E. 18. Peter arrived in France on 6 March 1917, then transferred to 'C' Coy of the 8/10th Gordons on 22 March 1917. After a long a period of tension, the German counter-offensive was launched in strength astride the railway at 3pm. The 8/10th Gordons right, now more in aid than ever, fell back 300 yards. The Germans pushed towards the crest of Frezenberg Ridge. The advance of the 44th Brigade reached about a mile. By the afternoon the advance was halted and pushed back in places by a carefully coordinated counterattack by specially trained troops. By August 2nd, the 8/10th Gordons were relieved. This small battalion were worn out by three days of heavy mud and continuous rain. There were 52 men killed from that Battalion on 31 July.
Also killed was Alexander Sandison Ingram. Throughout his time on the Western Front, Alexander had constantly sent letters home to his sister providing a picture of his experiences until he was killed. Upon Alexander's death the letter home from a comrade makes sombre reading: Ward 14, Horton C of Ldn Hospital, EPSOM, Surrey. 18 -11-17 George Maw, Esq: Capt. S.A. Lerwick, SHETLANDS. Dear Sir, In reply to yours of the 14th inst. re – No. 14918, Pte Alex Ingram, 'C' Coy, 8th Battn. the Seaforth H'landers. I am sorry that I cannot give you any clear personal knowledge of his death, as I only heard of his death amongst others, from a comrade. On the 31st July, I was sent down to the dressing station with a wounded comrade, and during the time of leaving my company, and arriving at the dressing station, I was told that a shell had burst in our trenches, killing instantly several of my comrades, amongst whom was Alex Ingram. He and the other boys who were killed were buried at YPRES, although I was not actually there at the time, owing to being separated for a short time from my battn. In the morning of the 31st we had made an advance into the enemy’s trenches, and were awaiting a further advance when the shell burst which killed Alex. I am very sorry that I cannot give you any clearer or more concise information than the above, for Alex Ingram and I were great chums, and for the sake of his Mother I should have liked to have been with him. When you see Mrs Ingram, or write to her, will you assure her of my sincere sympathy in this to her. I know that to her at least the world will seem very dark, but as a servant of God, impress on her, please, that her son has gone to a Higher and Nobler Service, where he can still comfort her. Please God, that we who are left behind to carry on, will prove ourselves worthy of those who are 'not lost, but gone before'. In closing, will you forgive me for quoting the Afghanistan War Song? If we go forward, we die; If we go backward we die; Better go forward and die. and I feel sure that it is in that spirit, that my friend, Alex Ingram, gave up his life, in defence of his God, of his country and all he held dear. Yours Very Sincerely, Robert Docherty, Pte 8th Battn Seaforth H'landers
His body was never found. His parents clung on to the idea that he may have been alive, possibly a Prisoner of War, suffering from shell shock. His name is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres. There were 24 other men from Alexander's Battalion killed on 31 July. Another Shetlander lost was Private William Williamson 6/7th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers, Service No 20650, aged 20 years. They were in support of the 15th Division attack on Frezenberg. The 45th Brigade, consisting of 6/7th Royal Scots Fusiliers, the 6th Cameron Highlanders, the 11th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 13th Royal Scots, were tasked as support, pushed through to the final objectives. At about 9am, the 45th Brigade began its advance from its assembly position between the Cambridge Road, just north east of Ypres, and the old British line towards the objective line. The 6/7th Royal Scots Fusiliers were on the right and the 6th Camerons were on the left, covering the whole Divisional front. In support were the 11th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders behind the Fusiliers, and the 13th Royal Scots behind the Camerons. Along this line, William was killed. William was the younger son of Peter and Janet Williamson, Roesound, Muckle Roe. His Service Record states that his trade was a 'Seaman', and that he enlisted on 26 November 1915 at the Army Recruiting Office, Leith Walk, Leith. He then embarked on 12 April, and was at training in Etaples by 13 April. He then proceeded to join the Battalion in the field and for duty on the 23rd. He was noted as suffering from shell shock on 22 September 1916. At this point the 6/7th Battalion were in the field at the Battle of Fler-Courcelette on the Somme. With the German counter attacks forced a retirement later in the day, they were forced to pull back. Their main task was to pass through the earlier waves that had got as far as what they called the 'Black Line', and 'Green Line'. On 31 July 1917, William's Battalion lost one officer, and 72 men. He, too, is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial, Panel Reference 19 and 33. Shetland involvement went beyond the Scottish Divisions, reflecting previous emigration to the Colonies, but also the continual attachment to the 'mother country'. The Australian Brigade were went forward just due east of Ypres on the Menin Road. Magnus Cheyne, was part of the 43rd Battalion, 11th Australian Brigade, 3rd Australian Division who attacked from east of Messines early that morning. The 3rd Division was raised in Australia early in 1916. The 43rd Battalion was South Australia’s contribution to the strength of the division. Along with the 41st, 42nd, and 44th Battalions, plus support troops, it formed the 11th Brigade. The 43rd battalion attacked alongside the 42nd Battalion. Their War Diary notes that the weather that day was 'dull, cloudy, slight rain'. The Battalion attacked the German positions east of Messines and advanced over 250 yards in a frontage of 500 yards and assaulted a number of enemy outposts only 100 yards from their front line.
The War Diary of the Battalion states that 'sharp fights with bomb and rifle took place, but they succeeded in capturing the ruins of the Windmill'. At about 8pm as the attacking battalions were about to be relieved the Germans countered and recaptured a windmill. The 43rd Battalion re-took it at 12.30am on 1 August.
Although born in Adelaide, Australia. Lance Corporal Magnus George Cheyne, Service No 2155, Australian Infantry, AIF, 43rd Battalion, had Shetland ties. In the Australian Nominal Roll, Magnus is listed as a Stock Owner. He was the second son of Magnus Cheyne, Melby, Sandness who had emigrated to Australia. They came from Rosewater, South Australia. Magnus was aged 30. He too is commemorated on the Menin Gate. The 43rd War Diary states that on 30 July, based at Messines, the Battalion was 'issued with equipment stores for operation'. They left camp at 8.00pm, and were 'conveyed by motor lorries to the old front subsidiary line' then 'marched by Platoon' to the new front line trench where they arrived at 3:40am on 31 July. The Battalion went into action north of the River Douve. The Battalion frontage was about 1,000 yards, and at about 3:50am it had 'pushed and captured the position which it held and consolidated until relieved by the 41st Battalion at midnight on 1 August'. Also killed was Private Andrew William Jamieson, Service No 383, Australian Infantry. He was aged 28. Andrew was born in Tiaro Queensland, and was the eldest son of James and Catherine Jamieson of Netherby. They were formerly of Clousta, Aithsting. Andrew joined up on 19 October 1915, and was part of 'B' Coy, 42nd Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. Before enlisting he was a farmer. He left Sydney on 5 June 1916, departing on the HMAT Borda, and arrived in Southampton on 23 July 1916. He then departed from Southampton again later in the year, arriving in France on 25 November 1916. At the end of 1916, he suffered from a bout of the mumps. On 31 July, the Battalion War Diary notes that they were in action at Messines. Their strength was listed as 33 Officers, and 946 men.
It says "the Battalion attacked enemy posts east of Messines and advanced on the line. 'A' and 'B' Companies were to form assaulting waves and follow up our barrage as closely as possible". Later, 'A' and 'B' Companies were to "fall back by sections at 15 minutes interval ... 'D' Company was to follow behind the assaulting wave, mop up and establish new posts". The diary notes further that "The operation was highly successful and every objective was reached and every post held".
After the war, there was communication between Base Records and Andrew's mother, Catherine, in respect of his possessions which included two notebooks, a photo case, a wallet, a pencil and photographs. Also, Catherine received a pension of £2.00 a fortnight from the end of October, 1917. Andrew is buried at Wulverghem-Lindenhoek Road Military Cemetery, grave reference II.F.21. It is situated to the south of Ypres. Like others, it seems likely from correspondence in his Service Record that he had been exhumed and moved. The Messines zone is close by to where he is buried. He had a younger brother, Private Magnus Thomas Jamieson, also of the Australian Infantry, who died on the 6 February 1917. With this area witnessing the worst weather for 75 years, the whole battlefield became a quagmire. The attack was stalled until 10 August. The same day, just to the north east of Ypres, the 51st Highland Division had begun their part of this attack on Pilckem Ridge. Many men who just previously had witnessed action during the Ancre and Arras, were still to have no respite, while others – fresh to battle – were perhaps secretly looking at each other and wondering which would die.