On the 31st July this year we commemorate a centenary since the terrible losses of the Third battle of Ypres, or the battle of Passchendaele, as it is often called. This campaign dragged on until the 6th November 1917, and led to around 260,000 casualties on both German and Allied sides.
The photo shows Private Jack Sanders, and it appeared in the Ilfracombe Chronicle in November 1917 with an article announcing he had been killed near Passchendaele. He is one of five Ilfracombe men that we know lost their lives there during the fighting. More about him a bit later. The other men killed were: John Henry Barwick who was waiting for leave at the time of his death, and one of five Barwick brothers serving in the army; his twin brother had been killed in 1916. George Challacombe, aged just 19; he had only been at the front for just two weeks and had been a railway employee. Alfred Dadds, also 19, had worked for the Ilfracombe Gas Company before enlisting. Ernest Rogers had worked for his father’s motor works company in the town, and was recently married, he died aged 23. They are all remembered on the Tyne Cot war memorial, which began as a small cemetery on the site of the battle but was enlarged to become the biggest cemetery for Commonwealth forces anywhere in the world. Here are buried almost 12,000 soldiers, and 80% of them are unidentified men. After visiting in 1922, King George reflected ‘’can there be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.’’
The Third Battle of Ypres was a controversial campaign before it began; Prime Minister Lloyd George opposed it, as did the French Chief of Staff. The aim was to defeat the Germans in Flanders and push through to the Belgian coast; it is said that Colonel Haig went ahead with it before the War Office gave approval. Poor weather and the resistance of the German 4th Army would lead to a gruelling campaign. The objective was to take the ridge of high ground at Passchendaele; this took months to achieve, and cost thousands of lives. Writing later in 1938, Lloyd George said that it was one of the greatest disasters of the war.
Our sad story continues with the tale of what happened to Jack Sanders. The newspaper article explains how Jack came to join the Australian Infantry. After leaving school in Ilfracombe he worked at sea for the Union Castle shipping company, and then took a job in Australia in 1916, enlisting there shortly afterwards. He was killed on the 12th October, serving with the Australian’s Lewis gun Team. Bogged down in the mud, the Australians were again attempting to capture Passchendaele on a wet October day. They tried to hold their ground in the mire, but were driven back by heavy fire and exhaustion. A letter sent back to Jack’s mother by his officer was printed with his photograph. It describes how Jack was killed by machine gun fire as they were trying to advance on Passchendaele. Unusually, the censors did not remove the bitter comments of the officer, who said ‘This war is terrible- to think of thousands of young men getting killed and crippled for life every day.’’
It seems appropriate to finish with a moving poem written by Ilfracombe’s Sergeant Fred Frost in 1917, in memory of his evening training at St Philip and St James School:
THE SATURDAY EVENING SOLDIERS
“Only a Territorial!” how often before this war
That’s been said by the regular soldiers, to men from a volunteer corps;
And our own particular people, mates at the shop, everywhere,
Whenever we donned our uniform and put on a martial air.
A fortnight a year in training, and a week-night or two at drill,
And a day now and then at manoeuvres when the workshops were idle and still.
But some people called us “Toy Soldiers,” and “England’s last hopes” as well,
But now their opinion has altered, as our casualty lists can tell.
So we played being soldiers in peace-time, and practised with bayonet and gun,
And paraded and route-marched some evenings, when our everyday’s labour was done,
Then packed up and went into training, a week or a fortnight in camp,
And we learnt how to grumble like regulars, when the weather was misty and damp.
And so when our land called for soldiers, to face Wilhelm’s hordes o’er the foam,
The “Terriers” put on their khaki, and left all their dear ones at home.
From John o’ Groats right down to Land’s End, and from Lincoln to Cardigan Bay,
The “Saturday evening soldiers” nobly answered the call that day.
And there’s many a grave in Flanders, and more at Suvla Bay,
And out on the burning desert, and up Mesopotamia way,
And they tell a silent story, that no man dare deny,
That the “Saturday evening soldier” wasn’t afraid to die.’’