The K.O.Y.L.I. in August 1917

At 10 to 4 in the morning on the 31st of July 1917, the Battle of Pilckem Ridge launched the Battle of Passchendaele. Briefly, the 7th Battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I. supported the Guards and Welsh Divisions. K.O.Y.L.I. Officers came forward to Pilkem ridge and saw the village of Langemarck decimated by gunfire in only 3 hours, within a few weeks many of them would die advancing through the ruins of Langemarck.

On the 4th of August the 7th Battalion travelled by train and then road to Malakoff Farm. They were close enough to the frontline to see the artillery being set up, at night they faced constant bombing. The next day saw the whole Battalion first tour the trenches of Pilkem ridge. On the 6th of August the 7th Battalion was attacked with mustard gas for the first time, on the same day the 6th Battalion began intensive training. After 2 days in the Pilkem trenches the 7th Battalion withdrew, 7 of the men were dead and 28 had been gassed.

The 7th Battalion rested until the 14th of August when they advanced on the front near Langemarck. They spent that night lying still in shallow trenches so as not to be seen. After midnight on the night of the 15th the 7th Battalion crossed the Steenbeke River with the 59th Infantry under shellfire. B Company suffered heavy losses.

The German guns didn’t stop until half 3 in the morning, the French guns started at 4 and the English at quarter to 5. At 10 to 5 the K.O.Y.L.I. began a creeping advance past flooded shell holes in the dawning light. Men were often sucked into the mud so bad they had to be pulled out. As they crested a ridge they came under heavy fire from machine guns in 2 concrete forts. Before they had gone 700 yards nearly half the Battalion was killed or injured.

Private W Edwards of D company took the initiative. He bravely crawled ahead and threw a bomb into the fort at Reitres Farm. This stopped the guns and he led a charge into the fort. For his heroism private Edwards would later be awarded the Victoria Cross. Another D Company man, Captain Joseph Havenhard, led a similar successful assault on the second fort. With these forts dealt with they took Langemarck. 12 machine guns and 75 prisoners were taken in total including 5 German officers.

The 7th Battalion had 600 further yards to advance through the grounds of a chateau. The rain had formed a swamp in their way; A Company led the way around on the right and B Company on the left. They met little resistance this time. Lieutenant Robinson went to take control of the forward line, and a new Battalion headquarters was established at Reitres farm. The troops dug in for a well-deserved quiet night and were relieved on the night of the 17th. In the attack at least 23 men had died and 177 had been injured.

The pressure was off for the 7th Battalion, but Passchendaele was just starting for the 6th.  On the night of the 21st they moved into deceptively named Sanctuary Wood under gunfire. In the dark narrow paths they suffered their first gassing and fumbled on their box respirators. The next day they supported 2 other Battalions in an attack on Inverness Copse, mostly by digging trenches, 3 men from the Battalion were killed and 73 wounded.

The 23rd of August was spent consolidating a new position north of Inverness Copse. They were bombarded from 9 that night until 5 on the morning of the 24th. 7 more men were killed. At half 2 German attacks had resumed so at quarter past 5 the 6th K.O.Y.L.I. was sent to fight them on the right until reinforcements relieved them in turn.

At 11 in the morning the English guns returned fire and another attack was repelled at half 1. A hellish assauly of heavy artillery, trench mortars and flamethrowers followed, backing up Germany infantry attacks. Such a vicious attack couldn’t be sustained, and by evening it had subsided. The 6th K.O.Y.L.I. was relieved at 9 that night, retiring to dugouts further back. On the 22nd of August they had gone into battle with 543 men, only 190 of whom remained unwounded. Deaths were much lower at around 22 men.

 

Further Links

Sanctuary Hill is now a museum with original trenches still intact

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