A History of the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division During the Great War
June 1917 - NIEUPOORT – Life At The Seaside
In late June the Division was once again on the move this time to the coast at Nieuport via Bethune. This was the Division’s first major move, a prodigious feat of organisation and logistics, and also its first move by London Omnibus. In all 100 busses were required by each Brigade. The first week in July was spent in very necessary training, but by 15 July the 66th Division found themselves on the coastal sector under XV Corps command. There was also a change of engineer command with GC Williams now in the role of CRE. Williams had previously been OC 173rd Tunnelling Coy and First Army Controller of Mines. He would later become the Kings Engineer.
Despite the fresh sea air and sand dunes the coastal sector was no picnic. The Germans were especially active with their artillery, gas was much used and the sandy ground was a nightmare to dig defences in. Once again the 66th found itself in a badly maintained sector demanding much improvement. Manpower became a real problem. In 199 Brigade alone two battalions were required for front line defence with the other two battalions – 1350 men in all - being used as carrying parties and on general work. This meant that training could not be carried out.
This was important, as the 66th had been allocated to take part in Haig’s grand scheme to break the German lines in Flanders. The 66th’s part in all this was as one of the divisions earmarked to assault the German coastal defences once the Passchendaele Ridge had been taken and the 66th prepared accordingly.
The preparation was in vain. On 10 July the Germans mounted a spoiling attack at the coastal sector seriously dislocating plans, but the real problem lay to the east in the Ypres Salient.
September 1917 - Third Ypres
Despite repeated attempts throughout July and August, Gen. Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army had yet to break through the German defences on the Passchendaele Ridge and command of the operation was given to Gen. Herbert Plumer of Second Army.
Beginning on 20th September with the Battle of Menin Road and followed by Polygon Wood (26th September) and the Battle of Broodseinde (4th October) Plumer launched a series of very successful short ‘Bite & Hold’ operations utilising overwhelming amounts of protective artillery. It appeared that Plumer had found a ‘system’ to defeat the Germans. It was system that would eventually fail, and the 66th Division that would pay the price in one of the most nightmarish and disastrous battles of the war – the Battle of Poelcappelle, which took place on 9 October 1917.
The fighting in the Salient had been hellish and had exhausted far more divisions than had originally been planned for. Subsequently in late September the 66th received its orders and proceeded to the Salient to receive their baptism of fire. On 27 and 28 September the Division made its move into the ‘Tent City’ of Vlamertinghe just west of Ypres prior to taking over the line in the vicinity of Tyne Cot site of the famous cemetery. On 30 September the 66th began to plan its attack.
The 66th had been earmarked along with the 49th (West Riding) Division for the fourth in Plumer’s series of assaults designed to carry the ridge at Passchendaele. Once carried the assault along the coast and the amphibious landings at Ostend could then go ahead and Haig’s grand strategic plan realised. However time was running out. Unless the ridge was carried by mid-October the last high tide (vital to the amphibious landings) would be missed. If this were missed then the whole strategic element of Haig’s plan would fail. The attack must succeed.
Its chances of success were diminishing for a number of reasons:
1) Despite the slow nature of Plumer’s operations the leading edge of the BEF was now too far in advance of its guns, especially the crucial medium and heavy guns. What was needed now was a long pause in order to construct the forward roads and tracks that were necessary to move the guns and ammunition.
2) II ANZAC Corps under Lt.-Gen. AJ Godley had failed to organise the forward area in a coherent manner. In a shocking lapse of command responsibility II ANZAC in effect just left Divisions to “get on with it”. Consequently forward communications were being built in a haphazard and piecemeal manner leading to supply and movement chaos on the battlefield. The last duckboard tracks petered out of existence a full 1½ miles from the actual front line. The 66th Division CRE Guy Williams along with many other engineers and divisional commanders was particularly scathing about II ANZAC preparations.
3) The weather had turned from bad to appalling. On 4 October the heavens opened and rain described as having a ‘tropical intensity’ fell. The already overloaded drainage system collapsed completely. Where there was once mud there now existed swamps, especially in the Ravebeek Valley area, slap bang in the middle of the assault zone.
The omens did not look good, but a conference of Army and Corps Commanders, including Plumer, argued in favour of an attack.
It is difficult to find words that can even begin to describe the appalling conditions under which this attack took place and history has not been kind to 66th Division. The Australian Official Historian CEW Bean castigated the abilities of the 66th Division and blames them for the failure of the assault. However Bean neglects to mention the appallingly bad roads and tracks or the spectacular operational mismanagement of II ANZAC Corps.
9th October 1917 - POELCAPELLE
Nevertheless preparations went ahead and the basic plan was as follows:
1) 197 and 198 Brigades were earmarked for the attack with 198 Brigade on the left and 197 Brigade on the right.
2) 199 Brigade would be holding the front line on the day of the assault and would act as divisional reserve.
3) The area of the assault ran from VIENNA COT on the right (with the 2nd Australian Division providing flank support) through TYNE COT – FLEET COT as far as KRONPRINZ FARM in the Ravebeek Valley where it joined the 49th Division.
4) The depth of the assault was about 1,500 yards and would bring the 66th into the outskirts of Passchendaele Village itself.
5) The assault was due to begin at 5:20 a.m. on the morning of 9 October.
The nightmare began on 8 October. 197 and 198 Brigades assembled in the vicinity of the FREZENBERG RIDGE at 6 p.m. and were subjected to very heavy shelling even as they assembled suffering a number of casualties. Only one track was allocated for each brigade and these were already torn up by pack animals. The troops were subjected to constant shelling as they filed along the tracks in the inky darkness. Frequent stops were made to save those who had been blown off the tracks into the quagmire. By 12:30 a.m. on 9 October it was clear that troops would not be in position on time unless they got a move on. The order went out – they were not to stop for any reason. The troops marched on desperately trying to ignore the screams of their fallen comrades who were drowning in the liquid mud. 1½ miles before the jump off point the tracks ended and the men struggled on through driving rain in knee deep mud. Despite Herculean efforts they arrived late. In the case of 197 Brigade the head of the 3/5 Lancashire Fusiliers was at the start line. The 2/8 LF’s were still 400 yards behind the start, whilst the 2/7 and 2/8 LF’s were still some 6-800 yards in the rear. Anticipating this problem 199 Brigade was put on alert and the 2/5 and 2/7 Manchesters suddenly found themselves ordered into the attack.
The opening barrage was feeble and most troops could not even see it let alone follow it. What followed rapidly descended into tragic chaos.
At first despite everything the attack appeared to be going to plan. The 2/7 Manchesters pushed their way into the CEMETERY (just to the right of TYNE COT) capturing 19 prisoners and clearing the area. However hostile artillery fire prevented them from pushing further forward. By midday the remainder 197 Brigade had come forward.
The situation was as follows:
1) 2/6 LF (197 Brigade reserve) –Sending support companies forward
2) 2/7 LF – Advancing towards final objective
3) 2/8 LF – On final objective. At first they faced no opposition and captured a large number of prisoners. By 11:15 the Germans began to counter-attack but were beaten back by rifle fire. Another German attack developed but was again beaten back.
4) 3/5 LF – On final objective
A report sent at 11:50 declared the final objective captured and consolidation beginning. However over the next 24 hours the situation was to change dramatically. By mid afternoon the 2/8 LF’s were being counter-attacked and were desperately short of reinforcements. More worryingly there was no sign of 198 Brigade on the left.
198 Brigade had their own problems and was still some 2-300 yards behind even the first objective. At first everything went well with 2/9 Manchesters clearing dugouts, capturing prisoners and leaving a general trail of carnage in their wake. However heavy casualties were sustained from MG and sniper fire cutting across their front from BELLEVUE SPUR. In addition the exhausted men were simply unable to cross the swamp of the RAVEBEEK VALLEY where the mud was up to 6 feet deep. The same mud and MG fire had held up the 49th Division as well.
Meanwhile on 197 Brigade front advanced patrols were sent forward to reconnoitre. These patrols under the commands of Capt. Miller (2/8 LF) and 2/Lt. Bentley (3/5 LF’s) have the singular honour of being the first BEF troops to enter Passchendaele. However both the 3/5 and 2/8 LF’s were in an exposed position with both flanks in the air and subject to very heavy shelling. To their left no touch could be obtained with 198 Brigade, and on their right it appeared the Australians had retired too. The situation appeared desperate. The Australians had gone forward on time but because of the delays faced by 66th Division they could see no troops to their left. Facing powerful enfilade fire from BELLEVUE SPUR they decided to retire just as 197 Brigade had reached their final objective. The absence of any left support and the sight of retiring Australians on their right created a sense of panic. With their officers either killed or wounded, the 2/8 and 3/5 LF’s pulled back to the first objective.
On 198 Brigade front small parties of 2/4 and 2/5 Manchester’s had managed to get forward to the second objective but devastating German fire prevented the brigade as a whole from moving forward though German counter-attacks were easily broken up.
By the evening of the 9 October there was a great deal of unease in 66th Divisional HQ. The Division’s flanks were in the air and communication from Brigade HQ’s forward was none existent. Lawrence issued the order – all units are to pull back to the first objective.
The Failure of POELCAPELLE & After
The morning of 10 October dawned bright and sunny with a brilliant blue sky. RFC contact patrols were sent up and gradually the position became clear. The attack was a complete disaster. The division as a whole had hardly moved at all from their start positions on 9 October though small groups of men were seen in isolated forward positions. Hundreds of wounded men were clustered around the two pillboxes that now form the entrance of TYNE COT.
Unbelievably, as the 66th withdrew from the line to count the cost, the New Zealand Division passed them heading east. On 12 October the New Zealanders along with the Australians attacked along the same front as the 66th. They met exactly the same fate for exactly the same reasons.
Casualties were very heavy. 197 brigade sustained 1295 casualties, half the brigade strength, and it would be fair to say that 198 Brigade suffered similarly. Even 199 Brigade, who had barely been in the fight, lost 650 men. It would be another month before the Canadian Corps finally took the Ridge.
After the Canadian victories the 66th Division stayed on in the Salient as, in effect, an ‘engineering’ Division with a new Divisional Commander Maj.-Gen. Neil Malcolm, previously Fifth Army Major General, General Staff (MGGS).