‘… I will not attempt to describe what I saw, heard and felt because it would be impossible. I got through without a scratch.’ Private Arthur William David Roberts, Pilckem Ridge, 31 July 1917

RICHARD MADDOX

IN THE EARLY HOURS OF 31 JULY 1917 THE TWO-WEEK BARRAGE OF A THOUSAND GUNS AND FOUR AND A HALF MILLION SHELLS RUMBLED INTO SILENCE.

The attack on Pilckhem Ridge would mark the start of the Third Battle of Ypres (perhaps better known as ‘Passenchdaele’). The British had wanted to carry out the operation the previous summer, before they had joined French in the battle of the Somme – a battle that would leave perhaps a million from all sides dead.

PRIVATE ARTHUR ROBERTS' DIARY with his picture, taken between February and June 1917 while serving with the King's Own Scottish Borderers in the First World War Gallery at IWM London. Image © Rmaddox 2018.

PRIVATE ARTHUR ROBERTS’ DIARY with his picture, taken between February and June 1917 while serving with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in the First World War Gallery at IWM London. Image © Rmaddox 2018.

Soon the whistles would blow in the British and Commonwealth trenches and the Pilckhem attack – supported by French troops – would begin.

Soldiers would move towards the well-established German lines with the aim of breaking through and advancing towards Bruges.

They would be supported by the latest equipment and tactics – tanks and aircraft, used not just for scouting (aerial reconnaissance) and anti-scouting missions but also directly supporting the army by bombing the enemy.

The German positions would be pulverised and any remaining troops too demoralised to respond.

But no plan ever survives contact with the enemy – You can only control your own forces.

Not those of the enemy and not the weather.

That afternoon the rain fell.

Over the coming days and weeks the whole battleground would be turned INTO an ocean of fetid sucking mud punctured by mast-like splintered trees.

The enduring image of the whole Passchendaele operation – perhaps the whole war – would be formed.

THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES (BATTLE OF PASSCHENDAELE, JULY-NOVEMBER 1917). Stretcher bearers wade in mud up to their knees carrying a wounded man to safety near Boesinghe, 1 August 1917. Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference Q 5935. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193365

THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES (BATTLE OF PASSCHENDAELE, JULY-NOVEMBER 1917). Stretcher bearers wade in mud up to their knees carrying a wounded man to safety near Boesinghe on1 August 1917. Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference Q 5935. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193365

Among the thousands of troops involved was Private Arthur Roberts and his diary and photograph can be found on display in the First World War Gallery at IWM London.

Of Trinidadian heritage, born in Bristol, England in 1897 to David (a ship’s steward) and his wife Laura (née Dann), Arthur would grow up in the Tradeston area of Glasgow on the south side of the River Clyde. (2)

Later he would be apprenticed in the Harland and Wolff shipyards at nearby Govan. (3) 

By January 1916 he was serving British army as a member of No. 883 Area Employment Company, Labour Corps. (4) 

These units provided support personnel with specialist skills that could be used in the military ‘behind the lines’ such as butchers, telephone operators, police or those with salvage experience and many more.(5) 

This appears to have been a ‘holding’ position as he joins the Kings Own Scottish Borders on 3 February 1917. He arrived in France three months later, transferring to 2 Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers in June 1917.(6) 

As his diary makes clear Private Roberts survived the three-day long Pilkchem Ridge Battle.

But the British endured 27,000 men killed, wounded or missing – according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission most of those lost have no known grave. (7)

His Battalion experienced some 208 casualties – around a 25% loss on 31 July alone. (8) 

The Third Battle of Ypres lasted 99 days – as opposed to the 141 days that the Battle of the Somme continued for. Casualties under British command during the Battle of the Somme were in the region of 420,000. (9) For the Battle of Passchendaele the comparable figure is estimated at 275,000. (10) 

On 1 July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme – nine Victoria Crosses were won by British and Commonwealth personnel.(11) 

For actions on the opening day of the Battle of Passchendaele fourteen copies of the same medal – the highest award for valour in the face of the enemy – would be awarded. (12) 

Arthur would survive the whole war. But he became a casualty on two occasions when he was gassed 19 September 1917, was diagnosed with trench foot – a serious condition that affects the nerves, blood vessels and muscles of the foot and is caused by severe cold, wet and insanitary conditions.  He was evacuated for treatment in the UK. (13) (14) 

At some point in his career he was also accused of deliberately destroying a pair of boots. Lack of evidence prevented him from being court-martialed on a charge of ‘wilfully destroying property without orders’. (15) If convicted he would have faced a period of  imprisonment with hard-labour.(16) 

Following his discharge in December 1919 he wrote:

‘I have filled many breaches.

I have been company-runner, batman, guide, dining-hall attendant, bugler, cycle-orderly, aircraft-gunner, hut-builder, stretcher-bearer and one or two other things.

The strange thing is that according to my discharge, my military qualifications are ‘Nil”.

Arthur would return to Glasgow and spend the rest of his working as a maritime electrical engineer.

Married twice he would die on 15 January 1982 aged 84. (17)

His diary was discovered twenty years later in an attic, together with paintings and photographs created by him. (18)

SOURCES

(1) https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/blog/2014/07/31/on-this-day-31st-july-1917-the-battle-of-passchendaele-aka-third-battle-of-ypres-commenced – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(2) https://blackpresence.co.uk/good-man-scotlands-black-tommy/ – retrieved 28 October 2018

(3) http://www.theyard.info/yards/glasgow/govan.asp – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(4) https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/3759411 – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(5) https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/definitions-of-units/what-was-a-divisional-area-or-home-service-employment-company-of-the-labour-corps/ – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(6) https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/163871-in-newspapers-today-private-arthur-william-david-roberts/ – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(7) https://www.cwgc.org/learn/news-and-events/news/2017/08/08/13/53/7-facts-about-the-battle-of-pilckem-ridge – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(8) Caption in First World War Gallery, IWM London.

(9) https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-battle-of-the-somme – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(10) https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/passchendaele-an-almost-universal-experience – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(11) http://www.hellfirecorner.co.uk/9vcs.htm – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(12) https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/blog/2014/07/31/on-this-day-31st-july-1917-the-battle-of-passchendaele-aka-third-battle-of-ypres-commenced – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(13) https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/163871-in-newspapers-today-private-arthur-william-david-roberts/ – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(14) https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/3759411#facts – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(15) https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/3759411#stories – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(16) http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/soldiers/a-soldiers-life-1914-1918/military-crimes-1914-1918-british-army/

(17) https://www.britishlegion.org.uk/community/stories/remembrance/i-saw-sights-that-i-never-saw-before-or-wish-to-see-again/ – retrieved 28 October 2018.

(18) https://blackpresence.co.uk/good-man-scotlands-black-tommy/ – retrieved 28 October 2018.

Much of the information for this post has come from IWM’s ‘Lives of the First World War’ online project.

To learn more about the lives of many of the almost 8,000,000 British and Commonwealth men and women who served during the conflict or to contribute to the project, visit https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/