Passchendaele. The very word has become synonymous with the suffering of the Great War.
A remorseless slog by Allied soldiers up towards the village itself, through mud, rain, cold, and the dead, it was the most horrific of battles.
By the time the fighting in the sector paused on November 10, 1917, hundreds of thousands on both sides had been killed or wounded. The landscape was scarred and desolate, and the men who fought there and survived would never forget the experience.
The British summer offensive of 1917, officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres but more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele, was fought in Belgium from July 31 1917, and lasted a total of 103 days.
The battle is of particular resonance for Wales as it claimed the lives of many Welsh soldiers including the renowned Welsh language poet, Hedd Wyn, who was posthumously awarded the bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod when it was unusually held on English soil in Birkenhead in 1917.
The 38th (Welsh) Division played a central role in the battle, capturing key positions on the ridge at Pilkem and in total about 3,000 Welsh soldiers died or were injured at the Battle of Passchendaele, which began 100 years ago this week.
Today the countryside between Ypres and Passchendaele is a mixture of green arable land and industrialisation, but the memorials and headstones are never too far away, reminding one of its bloody past, and of the fact that many of the men still lie in Flanders Field, including those whose final resting places are in graves marked ‘Known Unto God’ – and those who have no known grave at all.
One such man was 20-year-old Thomas J Williams, of Sychdyn, who joined the Army in December 1914 when only 17. In the 1911 census Thomas and his family were recorded living at Pen y Bryn in Sychdyn.
His father was Thomas, 44, who worked as a plate worker and his mother was 47-year-old Elizabeth. She had given birth to seven children all of whom had survived and listed at home on the census were Thomas John, 14, also a tin plate worker, Roda was 11, Jane was 10, Ellen was seven and Elizabeth was four.
Thomas enlisted in Flint and joined up with the 10th Btn Royal Welsh Fusiliers who were raised in Wrexham on October 16, 1914. By the time the Battalion reached Paschendaele, they had seen action at the Somme, Arras and the Actions of the Bluff and St Eloi Craters.
The 38th (Welsh) Division was ordered to attack German positions on the ridge at Pilkem at 3.50am on July 31, the first day of the battle.
The creeping barrage fired to launch the assault was the mightiest delivered by the British artillery during the war.
Second Lieutenant Stephen Glynne Hughes described what he saw as the soldiers of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, South Wales Borderers, Welsh Regiment and Welsh Guards advanced: “At daylight we could see Pilkem Ridge literally heaving up and down – the whole ridge was boiling – we saw the Guards leave the trenches – walking slowly and laboriously over ‘no man’s land’. One moment you would see a number of men – then the blanket of an exploding shell would hide them – clear away – and the stragglers marching on.”
The exact circumstances and date of Thomas’ death in 1917 are not known. Military information gives it as August 4, with the Flintshire Roll of Honour stating he was Killed in Action on July 31.
The Williams family were Welsh speaking and they were members of the Bryn Seion Chapel, where Thomas is commemorated on the memorial inside the chapel.
He is also remembered on the family gravestone in Northop churchyard, the Sychdyn War Memorial and on the Menin Gate at Ypres, where he takes his place with other soldiers with no known grave. Thomas’s mother, it is said, never got over his death and she died in 1925.
The ridge was eventually captured but the battle continued for three more months, with Welshmen taking part in each phase, including the war in the skies above. When the fighting ceased, only to then resume on November 20 at the Battle of Cambrai in France, the British casualties had exceeded 244,000 and the total of German dead, wounded and missing had reached nearly 400,000.
General Ludendorff, commander of the German Army, described the final days of the battle: “Enormous masses of ammunition, such as the human mind had never imagined before the war, were hurled upon the bodies of men who passed a miserable existence scattered about in mud-filled shell-holes.
“It was no longer life at all. It was mere unspeakable suffering.
A memorial plaque to the 38th (Welsh) Division was placed on a German bunker at Gournier Farm sometime after 1918. It reads ‘IN MEMORY OF COMRADES OF 38TH (WELSH) DIVISION 1914-18’. In August 2014 a magnificent Welsh dragon sculpture was unveiled alongside the road that runs from Pilkem to Langemark.
It now serves as a fitting memorial to those who participated in that dreadful conflict. As the accompanying plaque states: ‘In remembrance of all those of Welsh descent who took part in the First World War.’
l Special thanks to Dr Jonathan Hicks, author of The Welsh at Passchendaele 1917 which is available from all booksellers and via Amazon. Dr Hicks’ next book – Wales and the First Air War 1914-1918 - will be published in November 2017.
l Thanks to www.flintshirewar
memorials.com – a virtual memorial for those who died in The Great War 1914 -18 and are remembered on the war memorials of Flintshire.