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Passchendaele: 100 years on

I was glued to the television at the weekend, watching the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Third Ypres, better known to the British as Passchendaele. My brother was in the audience at Tyne Cot cemetery. He was one of four thousand people with family in the battle who had won a seat in the ballot and had been invited to attend the ceremony.

He was remembering our great uncle, 2nd Lt S.H. Hawksworth of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Stanley Hawksworth was 21 when he vanished in the early hours of 20 September 1917. He was leading his platoon forward in a battalion attack during the Battle of Menin Road. Stanley disappeared somewhere in the fighting and was never seen again.

This rather dry account of the attack comes from the 7th Battalion’s war diary:

‘The assembly position of the battalion was a line of small holes and issue trenches in front of Pommern Redoubt. The battalion was in position at 4 a.m. The line of attack was due east and along the bank of the Zonnebeke. At zero the first lines advanced and got close under the barrage, followed by the rear waves. Almost immediately on leaving the assembly position, the battalion suffered casualties from machine guns at Kaynorth, Iberian Farm and Hill 35.’

It’s an all too familiar story. ┬áSeptember was a dry month at Passchendaele, but it had rained all night before the attack. The terrain was pitted with shell holes full of water as the battalion advanced. Great uncle Stanley was probably killed by a machine gun before he got very far. No one saw him die. His body was never found.

This is how The Times described the attack:

‘The attack was delivered shortly before 6 o’clock this morning. After a bright but windy day yesterday, clouds blew up in the afternoon, and about 9 o’clock it began to rain. It seemed incredibly cruel that the rain should interfere with our attack, and happily, though it rained more or less all night, the ground was surface-dry and no great harm was done. The rain stopped before the hour of attack, though the sky remained black and overcast, so that it was darker than it ought to have been, and none too easy going among the shell-holes. Every man I saw was coated with mud, some only to the knees, but many to their very throats, and it is to be feared that some wounded must slip into the holes and never get out again.’

Perhaps great-uncle Stanley was one of them. He fell too late in the war to have his name inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres, so all that remains of him now is a name on the wall at Tyne Cot. The best hope for his family is that one day his remains might be dug up in this field between Ypres and Passchendaele. Then we can bury him properly and give him the honour he deserves.



One comment

Very poignant and moving

by Oliver Keeble on September 21, 2017 at 2:00 pm. Reply #

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