30 July 1915 – Hooge Crater

This post was originally published a month early due to a clerical error on my part. You can read the post which was scheduled for today, but should have run on a month ago, right here. I apologize for the mixup.

Just to the south of Bellewaarde Farm, the German stronghold near Ypres where thousands of British men died reclaiming a few acres of Belgian soil in June, British sappers detonated a mine three days later which ripped a 120-foot wide, twenty-foot deep hole in the German line, throwing a twenty-foot high lip of dirt onto the preexisting ridgeline. As British artillery fired up a curtain of shrapnel to deter German counterattacks on the position, two companies of men from Middlesex took possession of the crater and began to dig the shelters seen in the above photograph.

Shortly after three o’clock this morning, a sheet of flame suddenly wraps the remnants of a stable in final immolation. As liquid fire falls on British fighting positions at close range, accurate German artillery fire strikes the roads out of Ypres, the support trenches, and nearby British defenses. A hail of grenades, mortar rounds, and arcing machine gun fire fills the crater, which is smack in the middle of the sector held by 41st Brigade of the 14th Division. When the German infantry follow up the flamethrowers with an assault, they find many of the British positions abandoned and relatively few cooked corpses.

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A sandbag trench near Hooge. Targeted by German artillery, the support trenches were all above ground, too

Nevertheless, there is bitter close-quarters fighting before the crater — and almost all of the 41st Brigade’s area of responsibility — is in German hands. It is the first time that they have tried their terrible new weapons on the British Army, and the surprise attack by the 126th Infantry Regiment is a complete success.

The 41st Brigade is hit hard and knocked backwards, but the units on either flank hold. Division headquarters quickly dispatches reinforcements who brave the German artillery fire to consolidate a new line of defense behind the lost section of battlefield, organizing a counterattack before noon. This is delayed into the afternoon to await artillery support, yet the preparatory bombardments are still too short, and two attempts to regain the lost ground fail amid the buzzing storm of German shrapnel. The 41st repulses another night attack with flamethrowers, but all further attempts to regain the crater tomorrow will also be stifled by German shellfire.

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Supposedly taken today, a photo of a German flammenwerfer being used on a British strong point before the infantry assault

At the end of the day, 14th Division has suffered 2,500 casualties, losing even more dead, wounded, or captured men tomorrow. The poor communication trenches in their sector, especially the ones leading right up to the lip of the crater, have doomed their defense and their counterattacks. It will take a bloody surprise attack by the 6th Division on August 9th to finally dislodge the Germans from the ground lost today, and then the line here will remain relatively static into 1916.

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The edge of Hooge Crater today. The reverse-slope behind it may be the low rise under attack in the photo above