The Battle of Poelcappelle, Ypres 9/10/1917

1/7th and 1/8th Worcestershire Regiment

The background to the attack

The ground over which the 48th Division attacked on the 9th October was a morass of shell-holes. To reach the front line, the troops had to make their way accross the valley of the Steenbeek, and thence past the captured strongholds of Vancouver and Springfield to the swamps of the Stroembeek and the Lekkerboterbeek. There the 143rd Brigade had attacked on the 4th, and with great difficulty had captured nearly all their objectives. After that battle the line ran just in front of ‘Adler’ and ‘Vacher’ Farms through the Cemetery to join the line of the 11th Division at ‘Terrier Farm’. The attack of the 144th Brigade on the 9th was to be made from that line. The First Objective included ‘Inch Houses’ and ‘Oxford Houses’ and the Second objective was a line drawn beyond Wallemolen and ‘Berks Houses’.

On paper such an attack might have appeared simple, but even the assembly for that attack was a matter of incredible difficulty. To make matters worse, the heavy rain of the 7th let to the postponement of the 144th Brigade’s move up to the line. Had the move been made early, the attacking troops would have had twenty-four hours in the front line in which to rest and examine the ground. The relief was postponed from the evening of the 7th to the evening of 8th; and that postponement proved most unfortunate.

Preparation and assembly

In preparation for that relief, the 1/7th and 1/8th Bns had marched forward on October 7th form Dambre Camp to the canal bank north of Ypres. There the two Battalions lay in dugouts until the night (October 8th/9th) before the battle. Then in darkness and pouring rain the 144th Brigade moved forward.

As planned, the attack of the Brigade was made with three battalions, the 1/7th Worcesters, the 1/4th and 1/6th Glosters, in front line, with the 1/8th Worcesters behind them in support. The latter battalion followed the others to a support position at Springfield, the scene of the battle of August 27th. Even that preliminary journey proved most tiring to the laden troops, but the further progress of the other three battalions was an indescribable difficulty. The heavily-equipped troops sank to their waists and to their arm-pits in the mud. Many such unfortunates were overlooked and were left there to struggle helplessly in rain and darkness under the enemy’s fire.

By dint of superhuman efforts the 1/7th Worcesters and the 1/6th Glosters had all their platoons in position before dawn but further to the left the 1/4th Glosters could not reach their station on time. The last companies of the attacking troops had only just struggled up when the attack started, and they had to advance at once as best they could, having already been more than fourteen hours under arms.

The attack

Elaborately though the barrage had been timed, the struggling troops could not keep up with it. Soon they had been left far behind the curtain of shells, exposed to the enemy’s machine-guns, which opened fire from many concealed positions among the shell-holes.

The 1/7th Worcesters attack on Adler Farm and Inch Houses and Wallemolen

On the right of the line, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Coys of the 1/7th Worcesters attacked Adler Farm and the trenches just north of it. A protracted struggle raged around those defences. The attacking troops were reorganised by Capt T C F Harris who led the final successful attack on Adler Farm. He was awarded the Military Cross. In the attack CSM J N Brooks led his platoon with notable initiative and determination and captured 9 prisoners single-handed. He was awarded the DCM. The enemy were finally outflanked and captured; some 70 surrendered, but despite the troops of the 1/7th holding up biscuits for them, they surrendered to the Division on the right. Another 50 were found dead, and nine machine-guns were taken.

Then through the mud ‘A’ and ‘D’ Coys ploughed their way forward and went through to attack Inch Houses and Wallemolen. Those strongholds, however, defied attack. Their machine-guns swept away everything to their front. The leaders of the two companies were shot down, indeed every offer of A Coy was hit, and Capt Harris of B Coy took over command; however the advance came to a standstill. Reinforcements were asked for, and orders to advance were sent to the Brigade reserve the 1/8th Worcesters.

Reinforcements – the 1/8th Battalion

The 1/8th Worcesters, commanded by Major J P Bate MC, after reaching Springfield at midnight, had rested until the attack had started. Then the Battalion moved forward across the Stroembeek to a position below the spur at Winchester Farm. By that time the enemy’s guns were putting down a heavy barrage along the line of the Stroembeek, and the rear company of the Battalion (‘B’ Coy) suffered heavily – with one man killed and twenty wounded.

Bad as was the position on the right flank of the attack, that on the left flank was even worse. The attack of the 1/4th Glosters had been stopped dead in front of ‘Oxford Houses’, and the first orders received the 1/8th Worcesters were to send help in that direction. At 7.50 am, ‘D’ Coy were sent forward to gain touch with the 1/4th Glosters and attack Oxford Houses. ‘D’ Coy advanced into line with the Gloucestershire platoons, but in that wilderness of shell-holes it was impossible to find the Gloucestershire headquarters and arrange a concerted attack. Attempts were made to dribble small parties forward and to use rifle grenades against the hostile defences, but in the face of the enemy’s fire those attempts failed.

At 11.30 am, came the message already described from the 1/7th Worcesters asking for assistance, against Inch Houses, ‘B’ Coy of the 1/8th Worcesters advanced to their assistance, reached the support line of the 1/7th Worcesters, pushed on past Adler Farm and came into action; but no further advance was possible. The enemy’s fire was unsubdued and the British barrage also was bursting close in front.

Clearly nothing could be done without more effective artillery support. Messages were sent back and, after the inevitable delay, a fresh attack was organised. ‘A’ Coy of the 1/8th Worcesters was sent up to support ‘D’ Coy in a renewed attack on Oxford Houses.

D Coy’s advance on Oxford Houses

At 5pm ‘D’ Coy collected and reorganised, got into position at County Cross Roads. Behind them, ‘A’ Coy followed in support. The artillery opened a barrage fire on Oxford Houses and ‘D’ Coy advances.

The advance was met by machine-gun fire both from the front and from shell-holes on both flanks. One of the two officers with ‘D’ Coy was shot dead and the other fell wounded. The Company gained some 7- yards and had nearly reached a German block-house when a fresh burst of machine-gun fire shot down most of the leading platoons and forced the rest to cover in the surrounding shell-holes.

The two surviving sergeants discussed the situation. They decided that the attack could still succeed if only some covering fire could be brought to bear on the machine-gins which were enfilading their advance. A corporal and two runners volunteered to go back with this message, but they were shot down on their way back.

The desperate situation was nearly retrieved by Pte W Chesterton who with a bomb in his hand crawled forward alone to attack the block-house. He actually got within a few yards of it and was on the point of throwing the bomb when he was seen and shot dead. His brave act so scared the enemy and they evacuated the block-house and ran back; but the flanking machine guns stopped any attempt by ‘D’ Coy to advance, and presently the Germans returned to their position.

Then the enemy began to close round the remnants of ‘D’ Cy, working forward from shell-hole to shell-hole, and eventually the two sergeants decided to fall back.

Meanwhile, ‘A’ Coy in support had drifted somewhat to the right and had come into line near the Cemetery. Messengers were sent out to right and left to gain touch with the other troops; but no sure indicated of the position could be obtained, the enemy’s fire became heavier, and at last the commander of A Coy decided to stop where he was and entrench.

The aftermath

Thus the attack ended. On the right Adler Farm was securely held, but in the centre and on the left very little ground had been gained. During the night ‘C’ Coy of the 1/8th Worcesters was brought up to the front line to replace the remnants of ‘A’ and ‘D’ Coys, which were ordered back to Springfield to act as Brigade reserve. That night, entrenchment was carried out as far as possible. Hot cocoa and rum were brought up, and the divisional commander sent up two bottles of champagne for the officers in the front line. Losses were counted – in all the 144th Brigade had lost 800 of all ranks. The casualties of the 1;7th Worcesters totalled 10 officers (including Lieutenant Acworth of Malvern who was mortally wounded and died the next day) and 212 NCOs and men (54 killed, 135 wounded and 22 missing) and those of the 1/8th Worcesters 3 officers, and 109 NCOs and men (15 killed, 85 wounded and 9 missing).

Stacke, Capt H. FitzM The Worcestershire Regiment in the Great War Kidderminster 1921