Monday 31 July 2017

A New Offensive Begins Successfully at Ypres

 This map shows the original front line in pink with the line gained at the Battle of Messines in orange and today's front line in blue

Tuesday 31st July 1917

A major offensive began today around the Belgian city of Ypres. So far news is very encouraging and everyone is in high hopes that significant progress can be made. Readers will remember comments on past offensive operations to the effect that a successful first day does not necessarily mean continuing success over future days; the enemy is tough and shrewd and will usually launch determined counter-attacks to regain lost ground. Also, much planning goes into the beginning of an offensive, where enemy positions are known and can be countered. After the first day the situation becomes much more fluid and planning, accordingly, much less precise. This often means offensives halting after a few days for an appraisal of the new situation to be made and new plans made accordingly. Thus modern offensives are often a series of starts and stops rather than a free-flowing advance.

On 1st July last year the first day of the great Somme offensive was a very mixed picture. Some thirteen divisions went into the attack, of which two were completely successful (18th (Eastern) including the 7th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment and 30th Division, including the 2nd Battalion), one was partially successful and the other ten were not able to make any progress. Today fifteen divisions attacked across a front stretching, in an arc from Warneton in the south to Boesinge in the north. All of these had at least a little success and some obtained all their objectives, making this a much more satisfying day.

Despite this being the last day of July the weather, though warm enough, has been wet, with nearly an inch falling during the day. As can be imagined this added to the difficulty of the troops. They had to cope with a certain amount of mud, where the rain mingled with the fresh earth thrown-up by shells exploding and the humidity made one sweat of one was simply sitting idly, never mind rushing into a life-or-death attack. In conditions like these a man’s water bottle can empty horribly quickly.

To look at each division’s activities in detail would make a very long piece, so your correspondent will content himself with an overview. He will try to illustrate each action in this battle with maps but craves readers' pardons as information is not aways accurate, he is not a natural artist and the conditions in his dugout are not always conducive of concentration!

From what we have been able to glean so far the attack has been most successful at either end of this arc, north and south. The smallest progress has been made in the centre of the battlefield, around the infamous Menin Road and it is here that, by chance, 18th and 30th Divisions have again found themselves, though we understand that no battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment has been engaged in the attack today.

In all maps the area hatched in blue is ground gained during the attack and orange lines, if shown are boundaries between the attacking units

The southernmost attack, undertaken from the vicinity of Messines towards the town of Warneton (which is a border town and actually lies in France) has been undertaken by the New Zealand Division and 3rd Australian Division. So far both these formations seem to have reached their objectives, which are short of Warneton itself. Both these colonial divisions have a fine reputation which they seem to be upholding today, particularly the New Zealanders, who effectively represent their small nation’s entire army.

Immediately north of the Australians is 37th Division. This formation has also taken a number of its objectives. Only one brigade has been in action and we understand that the brigade including 6th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, is still well back and not involved. Progress here seems a little less than that made by the colonials but the attack by 19th (Western) Division on the left flank of 37th Division seems to be doing splendidly.

Moving north we come next to 41st Division. Their attack was difficult insomuch as they had one brigade south of the canal from Yser to Commines and another north of it. The canal here does a dog-leg south so that by the end of the attack the brigade south of the canal was west of it and that to the north was east of it. The two brigades, 122nd and 123rd, have, we are told, taken their two objectives and are only a little short of the final objective.

It is the two divisions north of here which have had most difficulty as they are attacking across the middle of the battlefield, which has seen the most action in past campaigning seasons and where defences are at their strongest for this reason. 

24th Division has attacked through Shrewsbury Forest which, we understand, they have taken. However, they have not been able to go much further. In places they have reached their first objective and in others they are still short of it. 

30th Division, so successful on the first day of the great Somme offensive last year, has had a trying day today. 21st Brigade, which includes 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, has taken Bodmin Copse, a little short of its first objective, but could get no further. The Bedfords have not been involved in their brigade’s attack. The adjutant told me a few moments ago that they had received orders at 4.50 this afternoon to attack Glencorse Wood(1) but fifteen minutes later the order was cancelled and the Bedfords were withdrawn 200 yards, when they came under heavy shellfire. This wood was one of the division’s objectives but this evening is still firmly in enemy hands. 90th Brigade has taken Clapham Junction and Stirling Castle astride the Menin Road and, in places, reached its first objective.

One Brigade of the 18th Division, 53rd, was to leap-frog 30th Division once Glencorse Wood had been taken`. In the event, it seems as if 30th Division’s attack was so ill-co-ordinated that 53rd Brigade assisted them by taking a fortification known as Jargon Trench a few hundred yards short of Glencorse Wood at the northernmost part of the division's line(2). The 7th Bedfords are in 54th Brigade and their adjutant informs me that during the day they have moved up close to the battlefront.

North of Glencorse Wood the 8th Division took Bellewaarde Lake(3) and are currently just short of their second objective. 

15th (Scottish) Division have also had a reasonably successful day, taking the hamlet of Frezenburg and their first two objectives. North of them 55th (West Lancashire) Division has been even more successful, taking their first two objectives and also capturing, we are hearing, no less than five batteries of enemy field guns, so rapid was their advance.

39th Division, attacking towards Saint-Julien, took both their first two objectives and are currently part way to their final objective. Our old friends, 51st (Highland) Division, whose war base was in Bedford until they moved to France in 1915, have, by all accounts had a great day. Attacking towards Langemarck they have taken all their objectives and, indeed, gone some way beyond their final objective. Well done the Highlanders!

In the northern part of the battlefield the 38th Division have also taken all three objectives and, like the Highlanders, have overshot and advanced some way beyond. Those magnificent men of the Guards Division, on the left flank of the British Armies and side by side with the 201st French Regiment, attacked towards Wijdendrift from the neighbourhood of Boesinge and again took all their objectives and advanced on beyond them almost to Wijdendrift.

As I write these lines the enemy are massing for counter-attacks in a number of places so this first day of the great offensive is not yet spent. Let us hope that tomorrow will see another successful day(4)

Sources: X550/3/wd; X550/7/1; X550/8/1

(1) This wood would be attacked by the 7th Bedfords on 10th August.
(2) This trench formed the jumping-off point for the 7th Battalion’s attack on Glencorse Wood.
(3) Today a water-based amusement park

(4) These counterattacks were frequently dispersed by British artillery, though they did make some progress against 37th Division near its boundary with 19th Division.

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