The third battle of Ypres - World War One

Having suffered over a hundred and seventy thousand casualties during the Arras Offensive one may have assumed that the British High Command would have had enough of costly offensives. Nothing could be further from the truth. As early as November 1916 Haig had begun preparations to mount an operation in the Ypres Sector to clear the Germans from the ridges overlooking the city, and if this had gone well, subsequently launching a sea borne attack on the enemy’s U boat bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend.

The British government appalled by the huge casualties of the Somme and Arras offensives had been against any fresh British offensive on the Western Front and had initially favoured a campaign on the Italian Front, however, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George, and the country’s War Policy Committee had reluctantly sanctioned Haig’s plan albeit with the proviso that his Flanders campaign of a proposed unlimited duration only be allowed to go ahead on a limited scale. In other words, in the event of the first phase of the operation being successful it would be allowed to continue, if on the other hand, it were to degenerate into a slogging match like the Somme it would be terminated and the attention of the military would be turned elsewhere.

The operation in Flanders had begun in the early hours of the 31ST of July 1917, by midday it had begun to rain, the downpour had never ceased for the next three months turning the battlefield into a veritable bowl of porridge. Despite the appalling conditions the men of both sides had been forced to continue a campaign which would eventually kill maim and break over half a million souls and conquer a patch of mud which could have been walked round in a day. ‘The Flanders Operation’ had officially been named the Third Battle of Ypres, but the name that had lingered on the lips of British people more than any other over the ensuing generations had simply been ‘Passchendaele’, the embodiment of everyone’s image of everything that had been most frightful of the First World War.

At the hub of the offensive had been the Western Flanders town of Ypres. Better known as ‘Wipers’ by the ‘Tommies’ of the Great War, the shell torn town had been home to many units of the B.E.F. since 1914 and had already been the scene of two blood soaked battles, First Ypres in 1914 and Second Ypres the following year. Battered beyond recognition by German Artillery firing from a series of ridges to the east and south during the ensuing two years, Ypres had nevertheless refused to yield and had been the centre of a death riddled salient which had jutted into the enemy’s positions situated on three sides of the town, the most heavily fortified sector of the German front line.

Haig’s intention had been for his forces to advance north eastwards out of the Ypres Salient in two phases, firstly as far as the Passchendaele ridge and then onwards from there as far as the towns of Roulers and Thourout, the former an important enemy railway centre whose capture would almost certainly force a German tactical withdraw from the Belgian coast and its hinterlands. The second stage of the offensive would see the attack turning northwards towards the coast, coinciding with an amphibious landing which would take place behind the German lines.

Overall responsibility for the planning of the operation had initially been placed into the capable hands of Sir Herbert Plumer, the Commanding Officer of the British Second Army. Known as ‘Old Plum’, the sixty years old General had been in control of the British effort in the Ypres Sector for two years and had known the Salient intimately. He and his staff had drawn up a plan during November 1916 which had suggested a preliminary attack to drive the enemy from the Messines—Wytschaete [more commonly know to the ordinary soldier as ‘Whitesheets’] Ridge to the south of Ypres, thus depriving them of the high ground from which they would overlook and dominate the right flank of the subsequent main assault.

These assaults would be ‘phased’, the rate of advance being dictated by the speed at which artillery could be moved forward to support the next ‘phase’. Plumer’s idea of a phased assault had found little favour with Haig, who had perceived it as too reminisant of the style of the Somme Offensive. Haig had realised that previous set battles like the Somme had lacked momentum and had asked Plumer to review his plans accordingly. Clearly no lover of Plumer, and unconvinced by his ability to come up with the goods despite his intimate knowledge of the ground, Haig had asked the Commander of Fourth Army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson to submit his own idea, which in the end had resembled Plumer’s.

By this time Haig had been looking for a commander who could share his vision of producing a decisive breakthrough, someone with a more ambitious philosophy; in short, in the language of the day, a ‘thruster’. Extraordinarily the final selection had fallen onto the shoulders of a man who had had little or no knowledge of Flanders, the forty seven years old Sir Hubert Gough, the commander of the Fifth Army. A cavalryman like Haig, ‘Goughy’ had been considered by those under his command as an impetuous leader who had demanded results regardless of the cost in lives, indeed, during the Somme Offensive it had been Gough who had thrown his troops at the strong enemy positions on Pozieres Ridge, where despite appalling losses the British, Australian, and Canadians had taken the ridge. Not satisfied with this, Gough had ordered his divisions to pursue the enemy into the low ground east of the ridge where the Empire troops had spent a fearful winter.

Gough had been told on the thirtieth of April that he would command the northern part of the operation, that is to say, the main assault, the official order being confirmed on the 13TH of May. Plumer would take command of the Messines—Wytchaete operation, while Rawlinson would remain in reserve near the coast ready to execute the sea borne operation. Between the above dates at the Army Commanders Conference at Doullens on 7TH of May, it had been decided that ‘the main blow will be struck by the British forces operating from the Ypres Front, with the eventual object of securing the Belgian coast and connecting with the Dutch frontier. There the operations would be continued in two phases; the attack on Messines—Whitesheet Ridge, about 7th of June; and ‘Northern Operations’ to secure the Belgian coast some weeks later’. And so the dye had been cast.

Part One ‘Magnum Opus’ The Battle of Messines Ridge 7TH –14TH of June 1917

In Remembrance of
- Sergeant George Duncan Matson
- Private Thomas Stanley Etches
- Private Francis William Waugh

Barely a hundred feet above sea level the Messines—Wytchaete Ridge is set in an otherwise flat landscape similar to our own Vale of York and lies about midway between Ypres, and the French town of Armetieres just over the nearby French border. Running from the village of St Eloi in the north to St Yves and Ploegsteert [Plugstreet]Wood in the south, the ridge had already been associated with some extraordinary events in the war, including the gallant but futile defence of Messines by the Territorials of the London Scottish and 6TH Dragoon Guards throughout Halloween night 1914, the Christmas Truce, and the ‘other’ war which had fought below ground beneath Hill 60 to Ploegsteert Wood and St Yves, a conflict under the surface of Flanders which was to play a vital role in the forthcoming battle.

An extraordinarily strong sector of the Ypres front, the German positions on the ridge had formed a massive salient nearly ten miles long shaped like an archers bow formed by the front line, with the draw string or chord, known to the Germans as ‘Sehnen Stellung’, forming the principal depth position centred on the village of Oosttaverne. Dubbed the ‘Oosttaverne Line’ by the British, this second main defence line would have to be taken in order to secure the main Messines—Wytchaete Ridge.

Tunnellers had begun digging into the blue clay of the ridge during August 1915, two years later, due to the superhuman efforts of British, Canadian, and Australian ‘clay kickers’, and despite the arduous and dangerous working conditions twenty four mines had been completed, a unique feat of wartime mining and engineering that had been largely unsuspected by the enemy. These mines had been dug at depths of between fifty and a hundred feet, with some galleries extending a mile or more into the ridge, and were positioned all along the front, although twelve had been clustered around the apex of the salient. The total weight of explosives packed into these mines had been over 800,000pounds [nearly 400tons] of Ammanol.

During May Second Army’s artillery had gradually been reinforced by guns brought from the Arras Sector, resulting in a total of 2,266 field guns and howitzers[compared with 1,537 for the opening of the Somme Offensive] being brought into action to provide the preliminary bombardment of the enemy’s positions. Their task had been to destroy strongpoints and machine gun nests in the initial bombardment, while at the same time, harassing the enemy lines of communication, and providing a ‘creeping barrage for the advancing infantry. On the 21st of May the artillery had begun their preliminary bombardment, it had gone on intermittently until the thirty first of the month when it had been expanded to its full capacity until the day of the assault, by which time the gunners would have fired over four million shells into their targets.

While all the other preparations had been in progress the ‘poor bloody infantry’ had begun to make ready for the forthcoming show. The plan of operation had called for an attack by twelve divisions of infantry [supported by 72 tanks] from three Infantry Corps, 2ND A.N.Z.A.C., and the 9TH and 10TH of Second Army. Throughout the days leading up to the assault, ‘Daddy’ Plumer, a General renowned for meticulous and thorough planning, and care of those under his command, had had all the units to be involved in ‘the show’ rehearse over and over again their part in the attack on huge models of the battle field which had been constructed in the British rear areas, until everyone had known the part they had to play in the grand scheme

At dusk throughout May and early June the roads had come alive with continuous streams of transport limbers, wagons and pack mules carrying ammunition to the front, whilst in the distance could be heard the thunder of artillery fire as the British artillery continued to cause the enemy grief, nonetheless, the constant roar had been good for the morale of the one hundred or so battalions of British, Irish, and ANZAC[Australian and New Zealand Army Corps] infantry as they had moved into their assault positions.

Amongst those units had been the 8TH Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, which with the 9TH Yorkshire’s, 11TH West Yorkshire’s, and 10TH Duke of Wellington’s, had formed the 69TH Brigade of the 23RD Division, which in turn had been attached to Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Morland’s Tenth Corps. Veterans of the Somme Offensive, and many months of trench warfare, the unit’s War Diary reports;

‘On the night of the 5TH of June, the Battalion left for the trenches, passing the 2ND Battalion of the Regiment en route, and meeting on the way with heavy enemy shelling with occasional bursts of Lachrymatory [tear gas] and gas shells, and some eleven casualties were incurred. Headquarters and ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies with two platoons from ‘C’ went to Larch Wood Tunnels, while ‘A’ Company and the rest of ‘C’ went to strong point No9. The 6TH of June passed uneventfully and all rested as much as possible in preparation for the great events that were awaited’…[1]

Unknown to the men of the battalion ‘Zero Hour’ for the launch of the attack had been set for two days hence, Thursday the seventh of June 1917.

Tenth Corps, positioned in the extreme north of the assault had been responsible for the capture of the St Eloi Salient, Mount Sorrel, some formidable strongpoints around the village of Dammstrasse, and in addition a position known to the British as ‘White Château’. The capture of this summit position on the northern edge of the ridge had been considered of vital importance as it provided an uninterrupted view towards the German rear areas as far as Zandevoorde and the southern slope of the Gheluvelt Plateau.

The Germans defences in that area had, however, been considerably strengthened to prevent the sectors loss and the three Divisions of Tenth Corps [from north to south, 23rd, 47th, and 41st] would be up against two crack German Divisions [the 204th[Wurttenberg], and 35th [Prussian]] across a six thousand yard frontage. In addition, the German artillery positions had had a considerable concentration of guns in the Zanvoorde area, thus making this sector potentially vulnerable to enemy artillery counter attack. Both the 23RD and the 47TH[2ND London]Divisions had been tasked with capturing the high ground of the ridge astride the Ypres—Comines Canal and railway, in addition, using the 69TH and 70TH Brigades, the 23RD Division had been given the capture of the crest of Mount Sorrel.

By 3am on the seventh of June with dawn just sky lining the ridge, all the assaulting troops had been in their assembly trenches, where every man had fixed his bayonet, and waited. Just then the British artillery had stopped firing. After all the weeks of incessant drumming from the guns and the general hubbub of an army preparing for battle there had been an eerie uncanny silence which had been broken for a few moments by the singing of nightingales in the woods behind the British front line heralding another day on the Western Front.

At ten minutes past three precisely the nineteen mines under Messines Ridge had been blown taking thousands of unsuspecting Germans with them. At Hill 60 and a position known as ‘The Caterpillar’, huge clods of earth the size of farm wagons had been thrown into the air forming a crater 430 feet across. Philip Gibbs the war correspondent for the ‘Daily Chronicle’, a witness to the blast, had subsequently reported to his readers;

’The most diabolical splendour I have ever seen. Out of the dark ridges of Messines and Wytscaete and the ill famed Hill 60, there gushed out and up enormous volumes of scarlet flame from the exploding mines and of earth and smoke all lighted by the flame spilling over into mountains of fierce colour, so that all the countryside was illuminated by red light. Where some of us stood watching, aghast and spellbound by this burning horror, the ground trembled and surged violently to and fro. Truly the earth quaked’…

The shock waves of the blast had been felt many miles back. Many people had thought they had been experiencing an earthquake, whilst German troops in the French town of Lille, some fifteen miles away had ran through the streets in panic. The sound of the blast had also reportedly been felt by Lloyd George, the British Prime minister, in his office at No 10 Downing Street, and as far away as Dublin.

The equally deafening din of the 2,266 British artillery guns had matched the shattering roar of the mines almost immediately as they had resumed their bombardment. Standing almost axle-to-axle the flashes from the guns had given the impression that the whole of the British front line had been ablaze.

As this barrage had erupted over 80,000 infantrymen in the leading assault Divisions had left their assembly trenches or advanced from their forward jumping off positions out in No Man’s Land. The Ninth Yorkshires, advancing over the shattered Hill 60 had later reported in their ‘War Diary’;

‘The advance was difficult as the darkness [due to smoke and dust] was intense, but it was steadily maintained, Captains Lambert and Pearson handling their companies [‘A’ and ‘B’] with much skill moving round the great craters with which the front was studded, broadening their front, closing and changing direction as became necessary. The red line [their first objective] was captured with great dash, while ‘C’ Company under Captain Atkinson advanced upon and captured the two mine craters; consolidation was in progress by 3-20am’…[1]

The assault, for once unhindered by machine gun and artillery fire, had gone in as planned, the attackers meeting little or no resistance. On the extreme left flank of the entire operation, the men of the 23RD Division had bypassed Mount Sorrel Ridge, and had pushed onwards towards their second objective, the crest of the ridge, or ‘Black Line’, with the Yorkshiremen of 69TH, and 70TH [11TH Sherwood Foresters, 8TH King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and 8TH and 9TH Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment] Brigades in the lead.

On the way, these units had met with some resistance from isolated groups of German troops but these had soon been overwhelmed, the survivors surrendering;

‘A further advance was made, and by 3-30 Headquarters was established on the eastern slope of Hill 60 at the Mound, in accordance with the instructions received from Brigade. In the meantime ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies, having hardly checked on the Red Line, had pushed on to the Blue Line close under the British barrage. These companies slightly overran the Blue Line wing to the fact that as the companies drew near the enemy bolted from the shell holes they were occupying and the men could with difficulty be held back from the pursuit; further, the enemy trenches had been so knocked about by shell fire that it was not easy to recognise the line they had occupied. Both companies now sent patrols forward’…[1]

To the right of the 23RD Division, the second objective for the 47TH[2ND London]Division had been the White Chateau, by then little more than a large mound of stones. It had fallen to the Londoners, but not without a fight. A screen of smoke had covered the initial stage of the assault but once the leading battalions had reached the forward edge of the Chateau grounds, they were hit by machine gun and mortar fire together with volleys of stick grenades. This first assault had failed, but a second, after reorganisation had managed to secure a toehold on the edge of the ruined château. Stiff German resistance had been maintained until 7-50am, when a severe bombardment by trench mortars, supported by a heavy machine gun barrage had at last broken the defences causing one German officer and sixty three men to surrender.

On the right, or southern part of Tenth Corps assault had been the 41ST Division. This unit had been tasked with the capture of Dammstrasse, a mile long roman road, which had, ran from the White Chateau to the St Eloi—Wytschaete road. Festooned with well sited concrete machine gun bunkers the capture of the road had been expected to be a hard nut to crack, indeed, at the out set of the operation there had been some bitter fighting, however, the Division’s Home Counties battalions had been in no mood for this to hold them up. The German garrison there had soon been forced to surrender and the various British units had swept onwards to their next objective, the forward trenches of the enemy’s second line of defence.

By 5am the sun had begun to show and it had become apparent that it was going to be a hot day, at about the same time the British forces had reached the summit of the ridge and had begun to consolidate their prized possession. By 9am the whole of the Messines Ridge had been in British hands, the troops expecting at any moment, the inevitable enemy counter attack, however, for the moment there had been some respite for the men, a time to soak in the scene around them;

‘ Apart from the shell bursts of the protective barrage, the scene, to quote the words of an Australian officer, was more like a picnic than a battle. Behind was a ploughed up wilderness of shell holes and battered trenches, with a litter of tangled wire, broken rifles, and discarded equipment; it reached back as far as a clean cut line in the original No Man’s Land, beyond which grass still grew. In front however, was a green countryside with woods of leaf-covered trees, and tree-lined hedgerows intersected the gentle sloping grassland. The lower half of this eastern slope, where lurked most of the German batteries, was out of sight owing to its convexity, but in the distance could be seen the towns, woods and water meadows for many miles along the Lys valley. The panorama slumbered under a bright sun which already gave promise of a hot day’…[Edmonds; Military Operations France and Belgium. Vol.2. 1917].

By midday however, there had been definite signs of an enemy build up. At about this time some of the thousands of men digging in along the ridge had seen large formations of German troops marching towards them from the direction of the village of Werviq and crossing the Ypres—Comines Canal. This attack had eventually been launched at around 2pm but had quickly been broken up by artillery and machine gun fire.

The next, and final phase of the day’s operations had been the establishment of a line to the east of Oosttaverne . Zero Hour for the beginning of the assault had been set ten minutes after three, exactly twelve hours after the beginning of the offensive. Taking centre stage on that occasion had been the Second Army’s three Reserve Divisions, 4TH Australian, and the British 11TH [Northern], and 24TH. At the appointed hour, preceded by a ‘creeping barrage’ the infantry had surged forward towards the Oosttaverne Line, which by this time had been reinforced. The Australians, attacking the southern end of the line had met with strong opposition from pill boxes equipped with machine guns, and although their casualties were severe, succeeded in penetrating the defences. Further north the resistance had been much lighter and the two British Divisions had achieved their objectives with little interference.

By the onset of darkness on the seventh of June Second Army had captured over five thousand prisoners, and the estimated German losses had been around the 20,000 mark, half of which were missing, presumed dead. Second Army’s casualties for the day on the other hand, had been less than 11,000 in total, killed, wounded, and missing. Despite their seemingly untroubled day the Eighth Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment had reported heavy casualties. Two officers and thirty five other ranks had been killed, eight officers and a hundred and ninety five non commissioned officers and men wounded, while another fifteen men had been reported as ‘missing’. Amongst the latter had been the twenty four years old; 22932 Sergeant George Duncan Matson

Born in Scarborough at No 1 Peacock’s Yard, Longwestgate, on the 31ST of October 1893, George had been the youngest of four children of ‘Charwoman’, Harriet Matson

[George’s father’s name is not included on his birth certificate]. Baptised at St Mary’s Parish Church on the 23RD of November 1893, George had spent his formative years in the ‘bottom end of town’ with his mother, and step father, Labourer, Thomas Pexton, at the family home at No 5 Porrit’s Yard, Cook’s Row and had eventually begun his education at the age of four at the nearby Friarage Board School, where he had remained until 1905 and the age of twelve, when Matson had left the institution to begin working for John Smith’s Tadcaster Brewery Bottling Stores, which had been situated in Clifton Street. [2]

At the outbreak of war Matson had still been working for John Smith’s, however, during March 1915 he had forsaken his job by answering Kitchener’s call for recruits for Britain’s ‘New Army’ which had been forming at the time by enlisting into the army with his forty four years old stepfather, at Scarborough’s Court House, which at the time had been situated in Castle Road [a younger step brother, [born during 1899], Tom Pexton Junior, had already been serving as a Boy Rating in the Royal Navy].

Following enlistment Matson had been posted to the Yorkshire Regiments Depot at Richmond North Yorkshire where he had joined the 3RD [Reserve] Battalion of the regiment. Followinge the customary eight weeks of ‘square bashing’, route marching, and ‘physical jerks’, which had, and always will be, the lot of the infantry recruit, Matson had been transferred to the 8TH[Service] Battalion, a formation which had bee formed in September 1914 and had consisted of men which had volunteered for three years service, or the duration of the war.

At the time that Matson had joined the unit, the Eighth Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment had been stationed at Borden, in Hampshire, where it had been undergoing a final round of intensive battle training prior to the unit’s embarkation for overseas duty. The unit had received it’s orders to proceed abroad on the 20TH of August 1915, and nine days later had been congregated around the town of Tilques, a few miles to the north west of St Omer.

Composed predominantly of Battalion’s of northern origin, the 23RD Division had entered the Somme Offensive of 1916 on the fourth of July, and had subsequently served in the Battle of Albert. The following day the Eighth and Ninth Battalions of the Yorkshire Regiment had taken part in an operation to secure an enemy position known to the British as ‘Horseshoe Trench’. Here Temporary 2ND Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell of the 9TH Yorkshire’s had gained a Victoria Cross for an act of bravery, which, according to the citation accompanying the award had; ‘Saved many lives and ensured the success of the attack’ [Bell had unfortunately lost his life during a similar act of bravery ten days later].

On the tenth of July the division had gained another feather in it’s cap by assisting with the capture of the stronghold village of Contalmaison and had gone on to take part in the fighting at Pozieres Ridge, where on the sixth of August, whilst in action at ‘Munster Alley, Private William Short, of the Eighth Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment had gained another, albeit posthumous, Victoria Cross; ‘for most conspicuous bravery’. The battalion had remained on the Somme throughout that dreadful summer and equally terrible autumn seeing action at the Battles of Flers/Courcelette, Morval, the Transloy Ridges, and Le Sars, which had taken place between September and October 1916.

By the beginning of 1917 Matson and the Eighth Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment had been attached to Tenth Corps of Second Army and had been in trenches in the Ypres Sector, where the battalion, according to their War Diary, had ‘not been concerned in any event of importance’, and much time had been given to patrol work and trench raiding. To break the monotony of trench life at the end of February 1917 the unit had moved to a training area near the town of Houlle, however, by mid April the battalion had been back at Ypres, where the battalion had been billeted near to the village of Steenvoorde. Whilst there the men had inevitably been detailed to working parties for the Royal Engineers, mainly for carrying stores up to the front line at night During the third of June the unit had been moved to Ouderdom, where the 23RD Division had been concentrated in readiness for the forthcoming operations at Messines.

Owing to the recent death of his mother, Harriet Pexton, [at the age of fifty seven on the 25TH of January 1917] news of George Matson’s death had initially been received by his eldest sister, Charlotte Ann Wright, who had lived with husband Richard Mattison at No15 Auborough Street in Scarborough. The tiding had been included in a casualty list, which had appeared in ‘The Scarborough Mercury’ of Friday the 22ND of June 1917;

‘A Sergeant killed - News has been received by his sister, Mrs. Wright, 15 Auborough Street, in a letter from his Company Quartermaster that Sergt. G. Matson, Yorkshire Regiment, was killed in action on June 7TH. Deceased, who was 24 years of age, joined up about two years ago. He made his home with his sister after the death of his mother who resided at 21 Cook’s Row. He was formerly employed at Messrs. John Smith’s Brewery’…

The remains of George Matson had never been recovered from the battlefield of Hill 60, and his name had eventually been included with those of fifty four thousand other officers and men who had lost their lives in the Ypres Salient, and for whom there is no known grave on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, which is located in the town of Ypres. George’s name can be located on Panel 33 of the memorial.

Although a life long member of the community of the East Ward, or ‘Bottom End’ of Scarborough George Matson’s name is not commemorated on the ‘Roll of Honour’ located inside St Mary’s Parish Church, which commemorate the many members of the parish who had lost their lives during the war of 1914—19, neither is it to be found on the memorial which had once belonged to the ‘Fisherman’s, or St Thomas’s Church, [which can also be found in St Mary’s].

Nevertheless, Matson’s name can be found on a gravestone, which can be found in Scarborough’s Dean Road Cemetery [Section B, Row 19, Grave 3], which also bears the name of his mother, Harriet Matson/Pexton, and brother in law Richard Mattison Wright, who had died on the 25TH of January 1951 at the age of sixty-five years. George’s eldest sister had subsequently died on the 27TH of October 1964 at the grand old age of eighty one years; her name is also commemorated on the stone. Also to be found on the gravestone is an epitaph dedicated to the lost son, which reads "May his reward be as great as his sacrifice’.

Following the overwhelming successes of the first day of operations at Messines the British Press had inevitably regaled their readers with dramatic accounts of the taking of the ridge. Very little had been said, however, of the fighting, which had developed over the next few days. Once the Germans had recovered from they’re initial shock they had retaliated with their customary verve, which by the end of the battle exactly a week later, on Thursday the fourteenth of June had resulted in the British forces incurring over twenty thousand casualties. The toll which had been exacted on the British, had however been told in the casualty list which had appeared daily in the nations newspapers. Scarborough’s ‘Mercury’ had been no exception. In the same edition [Friday June 22ND 1917] that Sergeant Matson’s name had appeared, the newspaper had reported a loss to yet another Scarborough family;

‘Second son killed - A comrade has written that Private Thomas Stanley Etches, the third son of Mr. T. R. Etches, 3 Osborne Park, Scarborough, has been killed in action. This is the second son Mr Etches has lost, and sympathy will go out to him, his wife, and other members of the family. The other son who was killed was Lieutenant Alfred Joseph Etches [23], Royal Flying Corps, who had spent some time in Canada, and came, at the beginning of the war to enlist.

Private Thomas Stanley Etches was only nineteen years of age, and when he joined his group last September he was a student at Ushaw College, Durham. He joined the R.F.A., but was transferred to an infantry regiment—the Loyal North Lancashires.

The letter from his comrade speaks very highly of the esteem in which he was held, and states that he was killed on Sunday morning June 10th, and a striking statement in the letter runs; ‘It was only two days before his death that he brought in eight German prisoners, and one of our men wounded all alone, and I am not very certain whether or not he was to be recommended as he had to go before the Commanding Officer for his gallant conduct in the field under very heavy fire’…

Born in Scarborough at No 39 Garfield Road on the tenth of December 1897, Thomas Stanley Freeman Etches had been the son of Sardle Jane England Etches [formally Freeman] and Thomas Robert Etches, a Master Tailor, who had carried on a business, ‘Etches and Son’, at No 42 Huntriss Row. Initially a pupil of Scarborough’s Central Board School, Tom Etches had eventually gone on to St Martins Grammar School where he had remained until the age of sixteen, when he had transferred to Ushaw College, at Durham, where he had taken a degree in mathematics.

A member of the college when war had broke out in August 1914 Etches had enlisted into the Army at Newcastle Upon Tyne during 1916 and had served in the Royal Field Artillery [Regimental Number 174115] until December of the same year when he received a new Regimental cap badge and number [36122] before transferring to the 8TH [Service] Battalion of the Loyal [North Lancashire] Regiment, which had been serving in France with the 7TH Brigade of the 25TH Division.

A typical Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ formation, and veterans of the Somme Offensive, Major General E.G.T. Bainbridge’s 25TH Division had been attached to the Second A.N.Z.A.C, whose objective on the opening day of the offensive had been the capture of the southern shoulder of the ridge, including the taking of the ruined village of Messines the river Douve and St Yves areas as far south as that to the east of Ploegsteert Wood. Positioned on the extreme left of ANZAC’s assault, following the explosion of the mines on the seventh the division had moved swiftly to link up with the New Zealand forces stationed on their right.

After going about six hundred yards from their assembly trenches of some higher ground just east of the destroyed village of Wulverghem, the formation had moved down a gently sloping ground into, and across a dried up ditch known as the Steenbeck, the 8TH Loyal’s and other units of 7TH Brigade had been able to advance rapidly despite the damage caused by the mines and had soon reached their first objective, a fortified farm known as ‘Ontario Farm’, which had been totally obliterated by the exploding mines.

The formation had thus far met little resistance, and within minutes had reached, and passed through the destroyed German forward positions. Moving between ‘Ontario Farm’ and ground marking the boundary with the next unit in the assault, Ninth Corps, the 3RD Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment [7TH Brigade] had encountered stout opposition at ‘Hell Farm’, positioned just below the ridge line, where a bitter but short battle had taken place. The farm had eventually been taken, along with fifty prisoners and eight machine guns. One hour and fourteen minutes after they had begun their advance, and fighting their way over nine trench lines the division had gained the high ground of the ridge and had reached the Messines to Wytscchaete road, where the unit had stopped it’s advance to take stock, reorganise, and prepare for the next move.

During the ensuing three days of his life Etches had been involved in the capture of the Oostaverne Line and the subsequent advance into ‘No Man’s Land’ beyond the ridge, and had been in trenches near to the Belgian village of Gapaard when he and a number of other men had been killed by enemy artillery fire during the morning of Sunday the tenth of June 1917. The 1917 edition of St Martins school magazine, ‘The Martinian’, had included a segment of a letter that had been written to Etches’s father, which had also acted as the epitaph to their former student;

’I was present at the time of his death’, wrote 2ND Lieut C.W. Kay. ‘On the tenth, after the battle of the 7TH we held an extremely dangerous portion of the advanced line near Gapaard; we were enfiladed by heavy artillery fire, and one of the shells hit the trench directly, your son was killed instantaneously’. ‘He was always bright and cheerful, and above all quietly efficient’. ‘Yes, Etches, as we knew him at school, was always quietly efficient’…

Whether Thomas Etches had been blown to bits by the shell, or his grave had been lost during the war is not known, at the end of the conflict the Imperial War Graves Commission had unable to locate a grave containing his remains, therefore his name, like Sergeant Matson’s, had been commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ypres. It is located on Panels 41 and 43 of the memorial. In Scarborough, apart from the town’s War Memorial, Thomas Etches’s name is commemorated on a ‘Roll of Honour’ located inside St Martins Church, and on a memorial outside St Peters Roman Catholic Church. His name is also included on a memorial in Dean Road Cemetery [Section G, Roman Catholic, Row1/0], which also bears the name of elder brother [born 19TH of January 1894] Alfred Joseph who had been killed in action whilst serving with the Royal Flying Corps on the 11TH of April 1917, at the age of twenty-three years. [3]

Unlike those of his younger brother, the remains of Alfred had been recovered and eventually interred in Gouzeaucourt New British Cemetery [Section 6, Row B, Grave 1], near to the village of Gouzaucourt, which is located in Northern France. The memorial in Manor Road Cemetery also bears an inscription dedicated to the Etches’s two lost sons - ‘May they rest in peace’.

The principal objective of 2ND ANZAC had been Messines, its pivotal position on the southern edge of the main ridge had made it one that had been vital to hold whatever the cost. The Germans had therefore turned the village into a veritable fortress of deep trench systems, wire entanglements, shellproof dugouts, and five large concrete strongpoints. The main assault on this seemingly impenetrable nightmare had been undertaken by the Kiwi’s of the New Zealand, First, Second, and Third Infantry Brigades.

The Second and Third Brigades had advanced on the left and right flanks of the village. Men from Third Brigade had immediately rushed and captured two machine guns which had been emplaced at the edge of the village been wreaking havoc amongst the attacking force. In the centre of the assault 1ST Brigade had fought their way through the battered remains of buildings, which had once been Messines. Here they had come up against the remnants of the elite 18TH Bavarian Regiment, who had fired on the Kiwi’s from prepared positions in windows, doorways, heaps of rubble, and strongpoints which had been linked by tunnels running throughout the length and breadth of the village, Nevertheless, despite the fierce opposition the attackers had swept onwards.

On the left flank, the advance had been stalled by a machine gun which had sprayed the Kiwi’s from a position known as ‘Swayne’s Farm’, about four hundred yards to the north of the village. This had eventually been subdued by one of the tanks, which had been allotted to the assault. This monster had clambered up the hill at its maximum speed of three miles per hour to smash its way through the defences at Swayne’s Farm, causing thirty members of the German garrison there to surrender almost immediately, along with their machine guns.

German opposition had been stronger than expected, due mainly to the quality of the Bavarian garrison of Messines. Small parties of Germans had sniped at the New Zealanders from doorways and cellar entrances, while others had lobbed grenades into the cautiously advancing Kiwi’s. Machine guns had eventually opened up from all sides and for a moment the previously rapid advance had been halted to make way for the classic characteristics of street warfare, a slow and methodical advance interspersed with desperate close quarter, often hand-to-hand struggles. Despite this setback the New Zealanders had not lost the initiative and had gone on to capture, or knock out a dozen more machine guns before the battle for the village had ended at around 9am on the seventh when the commandant of the Messines garrison had been captured with his retinue in a massive bunker which had been constructed under the ground of the former Institute Royale, on the edge of the village. ‘Mopping up’ had continued throughout the morning, the last pockets of enemy resistance being either been captured, or killed.

On the extreme right, or southern flank of 2nd ANZAC had been the 9TH Brigade of Major General Sir John Monash’s recently arrived Third Australian Division, which had been going into action for the first time that day. Positioned before the assault near ‘Plugstreet Wood’, the formation had been bombarded with gas shells in the hours leading up to ‘Zero’. Many of the ‘Diggers’ had not been wearing gas masks and as a result the unit had suffered over five hundred casualties. Despite this initial set back the new boys on the block had stuck to their task and by Zero Hour the various unit of the Brigade had undertaken a tricky three mile approach march through ‘Plugstreet Wood’, to the accompaniment of the ‘plop’ of Phosgene and tear gas shells hitting the ground, and had arrived at their allotted jumping off points just as the mines under the nearby ‘Trench 127’, and ‘Trench 122/Factory Farm’, had exploded.

Many of the men had not stopped, going straight into the assault from the approach march. Like most assaults that day, the 9TH [and 10TH] Brigade had been forced to veer either to the left or right of the huge two hundred feet diameter mine craters which had been left by the explosion, thus initially causing confusion and loss of direction, nonetheless within minutes, due to the quality of the training, orders, and rehearsals the men had received the various companies had sorted themselves out and continued on the original line of assault.

Being the newest Australian Division on the front, and therefore eager to prove their mettle had inevitably made the men of Ninth Brigade a very determined bunch of soldiers, non more so than Private John Carroll of the 33RD [New South Wales] Battalion. As soon as the mines had gone off and the creeping barrage had fallen Carroll had leaped out of his trench and had sprinted across the shell scarred ground to the enemy’s first line of trenches where he had encountered a group of stunned Germans belonging to the Fourth Bavarian Division. Bayoneting and killing four of these men he had gone on to assist with the consolidation of the position before sweeping onwards with the advance. Minutes later, Carroll had assisted a badly wounded man, and later in the day he had attacked a German machine gun crew of four, killed three of them, and turned the gun around to fire on some retreating enemy, killing, or wounding most of them. Despite heavy shelling and machine gun fire Carroll had also dug out two members of his battalion who had been buried by an exploding shell. [During the ensuing four days of action the courageous Private Carroll had performed many more brave deeds, which had eventually earned him the Victoria Cross, which had been presented to the soldier personally by King George the Fifth at Buckingham Palace on the 23rd of March 1918. Carroll had survived the war, and had eventually returned to Australia].

By the time that dawn had been breaking the Australians had captured three lines of enemy trenches and had reached the crest of Messines ridge where they had begun to consolidate their newly gained positions and await the arrival of their next wave. Shortly after 5am the advance had been continued by the second wave of ‘Diggers’, who had shortly taken another line of trenches and a strongpoint known as ‘Schnitzel Farm’ and had continued onwards towards ‘Ungodly Trench’ and the ruined ‘Bethleem Farm’, which had lain just beyond the trench.

The Australians had known that ‘Bethleem Farm’ would be a well-defended strongpoint, and had expected heavy resistance from its Bavarian garrison. As the Australians had warily approached the farm infantry and a machine gun mounted on the roof of a concrete pillbox had fired into the Diggers, until an officer [Captain F. Fairweather] and three men had worked their way behind to find the Bavarians ready to either surrender or had already fled. The Australians had pressed on past the farm where they had found a field gun whose crew they had killed, and another gun, which had recently been abandoned. It had been here that the Third Division had finally dug in, using shovels they had found at the farm, safe in the knowledge that they had quitted themselves admirably throughout the day.

By late afternoon of the seventh virtually all of the Oosttaverne Line had been in Commonwealth hands. However, there had been a gap in the centre of the line near the village of Wambeke which, owing to a tragic misunderstanding had led to the men of Fourth Australian Division coming under fire from their own artillery, resulting in their withdrawal from the southern portion of the line. By the following day, however, units of Third and Fourth Australian had retaken the line.

Throughout the ensuing two days the Australians had expected the Germans to counter attack with their customary vigour at any moment. In the event the enemy had never launched an attack, instead they had elected to subject the Australians to a constant bombardment by High Explosive, and gas shells. Despite this the Third Division had carried out numerous operations.

One of these had taken place during the night of Sunday the 10TH June when the 36TH [New South Wales] Battalion of Ninth Brigade had launched an attack on a strongpoint known as ‘La Potterie Farm’. On the way over the formation had come under intense artillery fire, which had badly injured Lieutenant Richard Henry Doyle, the Commanding Officer of ‘B’ Company. Seeing their officer lying mortally wounded in a shell hole three soldiers, who had been acting as Doyle’s messengers had gone to his assistance only to be hit by another shell, which had killed Doyle and the three privates outright. One of the men had been the nineteen years old 2407 Private Cecil Wright, the others had been the thirty one years old 2387 Private Frank Horace Crow Sharman, and his twenty seven years old ‘mate’; 2406 Private Francis William Waugh.

Born in Scarborough on the twentieth of July 1889, at No2 Springfield Place, Frank had been the only son of Ann Elizabeth, and Fisherman, Francis Waugh [Francis Waugh and Ann Elizabeth Owen had married at Scarborough’s St Mary’s Parish Church on the 6TH of April 1885]. Frank had spent his formative years in the labyrinth of Scarborough’s East Ward, or ‘Bottom End’ of town, and had been a pupil of the district’s Friarage Board School between the ages of four and thirteen. Frank had left Friarage during 1902 to begin work as a labourer for George Cockerill, whose farm had been situated at ‘Cumboots’, near to the village of Scalby.

Frank had remained with Cockerill until 1911, when, like many other local young men in search of a better way of life he had migrated to Australia. In ‘the New World’, Waugh had settled in the Eastern Australian Province of New South Wales, where he had found work as a farmhand in the township of Adamstown.

Waugh had enlisted into Australia’s Imperial Forces at Adamstown during February 1916. At the time, the twenty-six years old had been described as being ‘about 5feet 8inches high, fairly slight build’, and of ‘medium complexion’. The new recruit had subsequently been posted to No7 Platoon of ‘B’ Company of the newly formed 36TH Infantry Battalion, a unit which had been formed as a result of a recruiting drive amongst the rifle clubs of New South Wales by the Province’s Minister for Public Information, Ambrose Carmichael [giving rise to the original battalion becoming known as ‘Carmichael’s Thousand], which had been training at Broadmeadow Camp, in Newcastle, New South Wales.

A part of the 9TH Brigade of the brand new 3RD Australian Division Waugh had left Sydney with the battalion on the 13TH of May 1916, bound for England in a Transport named the ‘S.S. Border A. 30’ during May 1916. Following their arrival at Plymouth, during early July, the Battalion had taken up residence at Larkhill Camp, situated on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire, where Waugh and Privates Sharman, and Wright, had inevitably undergone further training over the ensuing four months. During late November the battalion had received orders to proceed abroad, arriving in Northern France during December, moving into trenches on the fourth in a section of the Armentieres Sector, just in time for the onset of the third, and bitterest winter of the war.

Considered the baby of the A.I.F., unlike the four other Australian Divisions [1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th], all hard baked veterans of Gallipoli and the Somme Offensive, the Third Division had been training on Salisbury Plain, and languishing in the ‘quiet’ Armentieres Sector whilst the others had been slaughtered piecemeal at Pozieres Ridge, and enduring the subsequent miseries of the Somme winter of 1916-17. This had caused a certain amount of animosity between the various units, chiefly through a half humorous but very definite grievance of the Division’s apparent lateness of ‘entry into the war’, which had resulted in the 3rd Division’s men being nicknamed ‘the neutrals’, Larkhill Lancers’, or more generally, the ‘Eggs-a-cook’ [due to the oval shape of the men’s divisional shoulder patches], a term used by the Egyptian hard boiled egg sellers that the veteran ‘diggers’ of the Gallipoli campaign had encountered whilst on leave in Egypt.

Waugh and the remainder of 3RD Australian had spent that terrible winter in a sector of the Armetieres Line known as ‘The Nursery’. An idea of the conditions that he had endured can be gleaned from an account written by Private Leslie Jungwirth of the 10TH Machine Gun Company [10TH Brigade];

‘It has been snowing all day. Our clothes are wet and we had no chance to get dry. I’ve felt so miserable…I am in my dugout trying to sleep but it is impossible, my limbs are aching with cold…The cold; It started to freeze about 12 January and kept freezing. The temperature was down to 10 below Zero. A number of men got frozen feet and hands’…

Regardless of the atrocious conditions the Third Division had rigorously enforced Haig’s winter policy of ‘keeping all possible strain on the Germans by constant activity’. This had been carried out almost on a nightly basis with the various units of the division conducting some form of raid into enemy territory, for the purpose of gathering information, and if possible, capturing prisoners. The Third Division had become particularly adept at ‘trench raiding’ and throughout January and February 1917 the division had mounted a number of minor operations, which had culminated on the 13TH of March in ‘the big raid’, on enemy positions at Grande Porte Egal Farm, which had involved six officers and four hundred men from the division’s 11TH Brigade.

Supported by Second Army’s unique travelling group of heavy artillery [known to the men as ‘the travelling circus’] the assault had been launched, despite the protests of a number of officers, in incessant rain, which, over a number of preceding days, had turned ‘no man’s land’ into a quagmire which had led to the attackers floundering in mud which had come up to their waists in places. The assault had been a disaster. For this the cost had been twenty Australian killed, and a further forty-five wounded.

All the trench raiding had come to an end on the 18TH of March when the 3RD Division had received orders to prepare to spearhead the assault of Second A.N.Z.A.C., at Messines, which had been code named ‘Magnus Opus’ by the Australians. The first to move northwards had been the 11TH Brigade, which by the 27TH of April had been concentrated just to the north of the River Lys. Shortly afterwards the remainder of Third Australian Division, had moved into Belgium, taking over from the New Zealand Division immediately in front of Ploegsteert Wood, facing their allotted target, Messines Ridge.

The news of Frank Waugh’s death had obviously initially been forwarded to his relatives in Australia, nonetheless, by the beginning of July 1917 the tidings had been received by a sister who had been residing in Scarborough, the information appearing in a Casualty List which had appeared in ‘The Scarborough Mercury’ of Friday the 6TH of July;

‘Fell fighting with the Australians - A comrade of Private Frank W. Waugh, who was with the Australian Forces, has written informing Private Waugh’s sister of his death in action. Private Waugh, whose parents reside at No.2 Barwick Terrace, and whose father is fishing out of Aberdeen, went to Australia from Scarborough about six years ago. Previous to this he had been in farm service. In Australia he had married, and there had been one child, which he never saw. He, and a comrade who joined with him were killed at the same time. He was about 27years of age. He was killed the second time that he went into action. Private Waugh, who has a married sister living at Wheatcroft, was in Scarborough in January for four days leave’…

Eyewitnesses had later reported that the four men had been buried together in the shell crater where they had been found, and crosses had been erected to mark the site. However, when the time had come to re-inter the men’s remains in a cemetery behind the line only those of Lieutenant Doyle, and Private Wright had been found, and despite numerous searches the remains of Frank Waugh [described as being ‘in good favour’ with his mates’], and his ‘mate’ Frank Sharman, the Melbourne born thirty one years old former boiler maker had never been located. The two friends names had eventually been included on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ypres and are commemorated amongst those of thousands of fellow Australians who possess no known graves on Panel’s 7-23-2729-31 of the Memorial.

The remains of Lieutenant Richard Henry Doyle, the thirty one years old former accountant, son of Julia Barnes, and Richard Doyle, and husband of Mrs. N.R. Doyle of Alfa, Laycock, Neutral Bay, New South Wales had been taken to the Strand Military Cemetery, which is located some thirteen kilometres to the south of Ypres, near to the village of Comines-Warneton. His grave is located in Plot V, Row B, [Grave 11] of the Cemetery. The remains of nineteen years old 2407 Private Cecil Wright on the other hand, had been taken to the Ninth Brigade’s burial ground in Ploegsteert Wood, which had been used by the unit between the seventh and tenth of June. This burial ground, now known as ‘Toronto Avenue Cemetery’, contains the graves of seventy six officers and men of the Brigade who had lost their lives between the seventh and tenth of June 1917. The grave of Private Wright [who possesses a regimental number which suggests that he had enlisted at the same time as Frank Waugh] is located in Plot B [Grave 23] of the Cemetery.

Although a bonefide Scarborian, Frank Waugh’s name had never been included in the list of over seven hundred Scarborough war dead, which had been submitted to Scarborough’s Town Council for inclusion on the Oliver’s Mount War Memorial. Waugh’s name is also not commemorated on any of Scarborough’s surviving church ‘Roll’s of Honour’. However, steps are being taken by the author to amend the omission.

The Messines Ridge operations had officially been closed down on the 12TH of June 1917, by this time Waugh’s 36TH Infantry Battalion had suffered 9 officers and 421 other ranks killed, wounded, and missing. As a whole 2ND A.N.Z.A.C. had incurred 12, 391 casualties. Overall, the cost to the British had been 20, 940 killed, wounded, and missing. On the German side of the wire it is estimated that the enemy had suffered around 23,000 to 27,000 killed, wounded, and missing, whilst a further 144 officers and 7,210 other ranks had been taken prisoner.

Although overjoyed by the complete success of the Messines Operation Haig had chosen to wait six weeks before opening the new offensive in Flanders. A mistake that had not only the British cost six weeks of good weather, but also the element of surprise. By the time that the British had renewed their offensive on July 31ST the Germans had recovered from the shock of the Messines mines and being well aware of the British intentions had reinforced their line at Gheluvelt Ridge, and the forces holding it, with fresh divisions of infantry and artillery until the position had been made virtually impregnable.

[1] The Green Howards in the war 1914-1918; Wylly

[2] Sunderland born Harriet foster had been married in Scarborough at St Mary’s Parish Church on the 31st of December 1883 to Joseph Matson. The union had produced three children; Charlotte Ann, born1883, Florrie, 1889, and Joseph, 1894. By the turn of the century, however, husbandless Harriet Matson had been residing with her children at No1 Peacock’s Yard, and had eventually married Thomas Pexton, this union had produced another son, Thomas, born during 1899.

[3] Alfred Joseph Etches is featured in ‘Bloody April’, April—May 1917.

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