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November 2017

A Literary Hour: Arras, Passchendaele, U Boats

John Willmer

Literary Hour, 15th November, 2017, at 1.00 pm

. . . . . “I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele); my wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back, and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards; so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.”
Siegfried Sassoon

You may have thought that 1916, the year of the Somme and the subject of last year’s remembrance literary hour, was about as bad as you could get.  But 1917 can well be regarded as worse.  The main feature of this year’s remembrance literary hour must be the third battle of Ypres, now better known as Passchendaele.  It began on 31st July and did not finally end until 10th November.  By that time over 250,000 Allied soldiers had lost their lives.

The battle was fought in appalling conditions.  At the beginning of August it began to rain and this persisted with hardly a break for weeks.  It was the wettest summer for 30 years, with 5 or 6 times the rainfall of 1915 or 1916.  This, together with the constant shelling by heavy guns on both sides, resulted in the ground becoming a quagmire, with mud knee deep or worse, with shell holes a mess of mud and water.  Men who fell over with wounds literally drowned in the mud and if one fell into or had to take refuge in a shell hole it could sometimes require 3 or 4 men to pull him out.  Tanks and guns could get stuck.

Nor was the rest of the year devoid of action on the Western Front, with the battles of Arras and Messines earlier in the year and Cambrai near its end.

One of the principal reasons for the Allied attacks in Flanders in 1917 was to try to break through the German lines in order to recapture the Belgian ports.  These were being used as bases by the German U Boats.  The U Boat menace was a feature of 1917, not only because of attacks against non-combatant shipping but also because they were badly affecting the British food supply.  This, and also the Home Front, are aspects of the year which cannot be ignored.

The readings will include many in the words of those on the ground and also some of the war poems, not all of which may be well known.  One hour is too short fully to cover everything, but we shall give the best picture that we can.

Entry free.  Retiring collection for the church fabric fund.
Tea and coffee afterwards.

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