Today I went to the small village of Passendale in Belgium as it is spelt here in Flemish, the language of Flanders. This small farming community bore the brunt of about 100 days of terrible shelling and fighting in what has come to be referred to by many as one of the most futile of all the battles of WWI. Commencing on 31 July 1917 and ending on 10 November, the Third Battle of Ypres, or as it is now commonly referred to the Battle of Passchendaele, was a heartbreaking affair with 12 October 1917 being a particularly bad day for the men and officers of the 34th Battalion AIF and many others!
Lieutenant Lilja along with the other officers started their march at 6pm on the night of 11 October to the assembly jumping off point at the Zonnebeke-Roselare railway line and cemetery, just south of Augustus Wood. The first 7 kilometres to Zonnebeke station were without casualties but were extremely difficult due to the rain and state of the shell-holed track. From then on they suffered heavy shelling and many casualties, but nevertheless reached their rendezvous point at 2.45am. The shelling appeared to be coming from south to south west of Passchendaele.
The Brigade formed up at the jumping off point with 35th and 36th battalions behind the 34th. Heavy shelling passed over 34th and the two rear battalions were very badly shot up with many casualties according to Harold’s battalion history. At 5.25am the Allied barrage came down but was too weak and hard to determine whether allied or the enemy’s, making it difficult for the men to keep up with the barrage.
Quote from 34th Battalion history: “However, the greatest obstacle met in the advance was the condition of the ground….there were many men lost altogether in the mire. The pace of the advance was slowed up owing to the assistance it was necessary to give to men who had sunk into the shell holes and could not extricate themselves without assistance. In a number of cases the helpers became engulfed in the awful morass and many of the wounded had to left where they fell.”
Despite all this horror the 34th battalion pressed on towards the “Red Line” and overcame the enemies’ two pill-boxes with a bombing party, securing 35 prisoners and 4 enemy machine guns. Throughout the advance they suffered heavy machine gun fire. On reaching the Red Line the battalion began digging in but were continually harassed by machine gun fire on their right flank from about 200 yards away. Captain Jeffries organised a party to capture the enemy post but died in the attempt. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The NCOs carried on and captured the post after a gallant fight, securing two machine guns and 40 prisoners.
The men of the 34th battalion assisted the 35th and 36th battalions, who had suffered severely, to continue on to the Blue and Green Lines but were continually harassed by heavy machine gun fire. The instructions came in to hold the line at all costs. Under murderous fire and vilest conditions the new line was constructed from Deine Crossing to the Ypres-Roselare railway.
The poignant entry in Harold’s battalion history reads “In the advance to the Red Line all the officers of the Battalion had been either killed or wounded with the exception of three, who became casualties before reaching the Blue Line.” One of those was my grandfather, Lieutenant Harold Lilja. The bulk of the work fell on the NCOs who, although suffering heavy casualties, did remarkably fine work.
As I started writing this post I was sitting at Varlet Farm, our B& B in the heart of the Passchendaele battlefields, in fact the dining room was in Passendale (Flemish spelling) and the kitchen in Poelkapelle. At 8.30pm in Ypres on our last night in Belgium I wandered in to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission office, still open after the Last Post ceremony, and two young men found Augustus Wood on a trench map and overlaid it over the locality map. It turns out Harold was passing by what is now Tyne Cot cemetery on his march to the attack point on the early morning of 12 October. We had been there just that day, so I did literally walk in my grandfather’s footsteps after all.
I had collected some fallen autumn leaves at Passchendaele Street, Lithgow in May and brought them with me to Passendale. At the end of our tour on Sunday I found a memorial garden to the Australians in the grounds of the Passchendaele Museum and that is where I placed them along with some poppies from Australia. In memory of Harold Lilja, John Mitchell and Frank Uther (another relative wounded and killed at Passchendaele) – lest we forget!
While in the village of Passendale at the memorial we read the following:
“There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Nature was as dead as those Canadians whose bodies remained where they had fallen the previous autumn. Death was written large everywhere.” (Private R A Colwell, Passchendaele, January 1918).
Frank Hurley, the Australian WWI War photographer said of Passchendaele “…for there was NO place in eternity that is more hellish.”
Stelios picked up a beautiful fallen autumn leave in the village of Passendale for me and I will bring it home to Australia in memory of my grandfather.
Below: Autumn leaves from Passchendaele Street Lithgow placed with poppies at the Australian Memorial Garden in the grounds of the Passchendaele Museum in Zonnebeke, together with some rosemary picked from under the Acropolis in Athens. Lest we forget!