TAKING OF PASSCHENDAELE
FROM PHILIP GIBBS. WAR CORRESPONDENTS’ HEADQUARTERS, FRANCE, SUNDAY.
There has been heavy fighting on the ground to the north of Passchendaele all yesterday. That has not broken out on account of any attempt by the enemy to recapture Passchendaele itself – he has made no big effort to do so after his defeat there – but followed an attack delivered by our own troops – English, Irish, and Canadian – early yesterday morning to widen their defensive positions on the ridge and drive the enemy further down. The German troops have resisted more desperately this time than they did in the battle for Passchendaele itself, and all day yesterday there was hard inand-out fighting among blockhouses between Tourant Farm and Vapor Farm, and northwards by vindictive cross roads. It was foul weather again, dark, with a wet enveloping mist, at the hour of attack, and with a driving rain storm all day long, last night and again this morning, the enemy has apparently been regrouping his guns since our capture of the crest, and yesterday his answer to our barrage lines, which were laid down ahead of our men, was violent and tremendous. “Bigger than anything we saw before,” say the men who have come out of the fighting. They speak of it as a frightful spectacle, and wonder at their escape from such a hurricane of high explosives, which ravaged all the ground about them. It seems clear that the enemy used all his batteries for miles around to concentrate the most deadly fire on these outer lines of the Passchendaele heights. This bombardment was renewed last night and early this morning, in spite of the gale and rain, which lashed down upon their gunners. The British troops reached the enemy’s pillboxes after passing through the storm of shells, and round those places and then fought at close quarters with the German machinegunners and riflemen. The Canadians had better ground than the English, and were quicker to their objectives, which they overran, leaving parties of their comrades to deal with the small garrisons of the concrete houses which still held out.
STUBBORN GERMAN DEFENCE
On the left our attacking troops had a hard time, but also took some of the blockhouses, including Vat and Veal Farms. Owing to the stubbornness of the German defence few prisoners were taken, and many of the enemy were killed. From the direction of Westroosebeke a number of counter-attacks were delivered. Our outposts were driven back from some of the ground they had gained and retired from some of the blockhouses for which they had fought successfully. Later in the day the heavy shelling and the difficulty of holding a defensive flank caused the Canadians to draw back also from some of the ground they had won in their first assault. But Passchendaele and its neighbourhood is held securely, and the enemy’s counter-attacks yesterday did not menace even this key position of the ridge. I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday the Canadian general and his staff, who, when the history of this war is told in detail, and as long as it is remembered, will be famous as the commander of the troops who captured Passchendaele. I saw him before he went up to that attack, and he was wonderfully confident, though he knew all the difficulties of the ground and conditions. He was confident of his men, and because of that he said then, “We shall get it.” Yesterday, when I met him, he looked up and smiled and said, “Well, we have got it.” Then he spoke of his men again, and said how splendid they had been. There were no shirkers or scrimshankers among them. Every man had gone forward gallantly, fired by a most grim resolution to take that crest at all costs. There had been desperately anxious hours for the general and his little staff, all crowded into a small shelter, with a great fire outside. It was not for themselves they were anxious, but for the men. The assembly was difficult and dangerous, and the enemy was searching the ground with his shells. But by midnight before the attack, the men were in position and the enemy’s barrage was falling behind them for the most part. It was very dark when they went away, but from the headquarters, they could be seen later crossing the crest – little blurred figures among the shell craters, like ants on an upturned heap – and those watching them knew then that all was well, and that Passchendaele was taken. For six days and nights there was only a snatch of sleep for the staff, and it was lack of sleep that wore them most, and not the shell-fire that always menaced them. One of the staff officers who has been long in this war and in many battles had to write his orders sitting on a duckboard in the open, all wet and cold and cramped, and sometimes the desire to sleep was a great poignant agony to him, but he had to keep awake because men’s lives depended on his vigilance. So it was with the general, but yesterday, when I saw him, his eyes were bright, and there was no sign of strain upon him, and because his men had taken Passchendaele, the crown of the ridge, he was happy. “The men were fine,” he said, and it was good to hear his praise of them.