At 3.50am on 31st of July 1917, the 1st Bn Hertfordshire Regiment advanced into the opening battle of the Third Battle of Ypres, also referred to as St Julien or Passchendaele. Despite a successful morning during which they achieved their two main objectives, the afternoon’s fighting, outside the small village of St Julien was the single costliest fight for the Hertfordshire Regiment in the entire war.
These operation orders for the battle were written by Commanding Officer, and former Mayor of Hertford, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Page DSO. Throughout July, under his leadership, the Regiment underwent special training in offensive tactics alongside other units who were to take part. They were also given detailed rehearsals of the plan of attack.
The battle was fought for control of the village of Passchendaele (or Passendale as it was shown on maps of the time) near the Belgian town of Ypres. The Regiment was part of the 118th Brigade at this time, part of the 39th Division. Their aim was to attack towards and beyond the remains of the village of St Julien, and given the reputation the 1st Herts had gained for their courage and success in previous battles, they were positioned in the centre of the advancing force.
The battleground was reclaimed marshland and the inadequate drainage could not cope with the intense bombardment which tore up the surface and this, together with the heavy rain, resulted in deep mud in which many soldiers and animals drowned. As the Battalion proceeded under persistent fire, the four support tanks became bogged down, whilst the enemy launched a counter-attack supported by two aircraft. The Battalion reached the ruins of St Julien but could go no further without support.
The result was devastation. Lieutenant Colonel Page, ten officers and more than 230 men perished. All the remaining officers and more than 200 men were wounded and the 130 or so men who were still fit for duty finished the day commanded by the Regimental Sergeant Major ably assisted by the Padre, Reverend Popham.
In a letter to the Daily Mail in August 1917 Sir W. Beach Thomas wrote:
The highest sacrifice in the third Battle of Ypres was perhaps paid by the 1st Hertfordshire Regiment, who with other Territorials as gallant as themselves, took St. Julien and pushed forward deep into the enemy’s country beyond [..] Losing men all the time, but never checked, these troops pushed on a good 1200 yards to the next line of German trenches.