But it is much warmer here than to the north, around Passchendaele, Belgium, where 100 years ago today my young grandfather Lieutenant Lilja was no doubt preparing his men for the forthcoming battle. After a summer with so much rain, the battlefields on the Western Front were a muddy quagmire. Add to that some very cold weather, and you have a scene of utter misery and impossible conditions for foot soldiers to advance an attack on the entrenched enemy who had held the higher ground for so long. In just four days from now Harold and his men and many thousands of others would fight, what has been described, as possibly one of the worst battles of WWI – the Third Battle of Ypres, or now commonly referred to as the Battle of Passchendaele.
We leave Greece for France and Belgium on Thursday 12 October, the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. So today I want to share some new information about my grandfather that I have received while I’ve been here in Athens.
After separating from my grandmother, Harold met Mary Patricia and started a new family. His son Tony Lilja, whom I met briefly in 2009, has just shared some photos of Harold with me and some extracts from Charles Bean’s History of WWI that mention his father, my grandfather. It is especially meaningful to me to re-establish contact with Tony at this time.
Here is an extract from John Laffin’s guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western Front: “Meanwhile Lieutenant H W Lilja of the 34th battalion was on patrol in the dark and his Lewis-gunner, hearing noises in the sunken road, was about to open up when a German flare illuminated No Man’s Land. Fortunately for [Brigadier General Charles] Rosenthal, he was a very large man and his bulky shape was well known to his men, Lieutenant Lilja stayed the gunner’s trigger finger.”
And quotes from Charles W Bean’s History of WW1 Vol 6 Morlancourt, The AIF in France May 1918 pp 71 & 86:
“The patrols then lay up very close to enemy’s front line; so close, indeed, was Lieut Lilja’s patrol at the thick wire-entanglement of a German strong-post, that one of his men, who could speak German, spent the time translating to his young officer the conversation of the Germans in the trench. Behind them the platoon commanders of the 34th marked out the sites of the eight new posts.”
A few days later, Lieutenant Lilja, anticipating that his platoon was to carry out an attack, crawled back to the rear along the Bray Corbie road to headquarters to ensure that the covering barrage arrangements were satisfactory. After arranging with Col Fry for the attack to be carried out at 2pm and to be covered by stokes mortars Lilja then visited Lieut Mailer in command of the mortars and asked him to lengthen the range. Mailer was loath to change the range as observers had confirmed the previous range as correct.
“Don’t worry about what others say”, urged Lilja “I’ve got to do the job and if there’s anything wrong with the barrage it’s I who catch it. Put it down 300 yards in front of where you did last time, and that’ll do me.”
On finding out that it wasn’t his platoon to carry out the attack after all “….Lilja accordingly crept out along the road ahead, and from a sump-hole beside it, when the Stokes opened, fired rifle-grenade after rifle-grenade along the line of pot-holes which from where he directly enfiladed.”
From Wikipedia: Enfilade and defilade are concepts in military tactics used to describe a military formation's exposure to enemy fire. A formation or position is "in enfilade" if weapons fire can be directed along its longest axis. A unit or position is "in defilade" if it uses natural or artificial obstacles to shield or conceal itself from enfilade. The strategies invented by the English use the French enfiler ("to put on a string or sling") and défiler ("to slip away or off") which the English nobility used at that time.
Enfilade fire, a gunfire directed against an enfiladed formation or position, is also commonly known as "flanking fire". Raking fire is the equivalent term in naval warfare. Strafing, firing on targets from a flying platform, is often done with enfilade fire. And from Thesaurus.com enfilade as a noun means a position of works, troops, etc making them subject to a sweeping fire from along the length of a line of troops.
The Stokes mortar according to Wikipedia was a British trench mortar invented by Sir Wilfred Stokes KBE that was issued to the British, Empire and U.S. armies, as well as the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (CEP), during the latter half of the First World War. The 3-inch trench mortar is a smooth-bore, muzzle-loading weapon for high angles of fire.
Again from Wikipedia, the Lewis gun is a First World War-era light machine gun of US design that was perfected and mass-produced in the United Kingdom, and widely used by British and British Empire troops during the war.
My next post will be from the Passchendaele battlefields for the centenary.