One hundred years on historian GORDON LUCY looks back at a WWI battle which saw the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions sustain heavy casualties and receive criticism from two senior officers
The Second Battle of Langemarck, which took place between August 16 and 18 1917 may be regarded as the second phase of the wider Battle of Third Ypres.
The First Battle of Langemarck took place in October 1914 during the Battle of First Ypres.
The Second Battle of Langemarck was fought in a quagmire because of unseasonably heavy rain and because of the weight of the British bombardment, which destroyed the area’s drainage system.
Major-General Oliver Nugent, the commanding officer of the Ulster Division, wrote to his wife: ‘The weather conditions are simply indescribable. My headquarters are in a grove of trees about a quarter of a mile of the main road, and there is only one track to it. The mud in the camp is only surpassed by the mud in front. I met [Lieutenant-Colonel] Audley Pratt [the commanding officer of the 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers] looking rather curious up in front. He had not had a wash or his clothes off for three days, nor shaved and was caked in mud, but still cheerful.’
On August 16 five British divisions (including the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions) and two French divisions attacked the German positions. Weary British troops were pitched against well-constructed German bunkers, concentrated batteries and clusters of heavy machine guns.
Of the Ulster Division’s role in the battle, Cyril Falls wrote: ‘So heavily had the battalions lost since the division took over the line, and particularly during the last 24 hours in the trenches, that 70 men was about the average strength of the company. There were assuredly not two thousand infantrymen in the force that went “over the top”. The foremost wave must have consisted of less than three hundred men, probably reduced to a third within half a minute. Not unfitting was the description of a sergeant who took part in the attack: “It looked more like a big raiding party than anything else”.’
Falls continued: ‘In the circumstances, after what they had endured, with ranks so thinned, against such opposition, it may be said, without calling upon superlatives or high-flown words, that none but troops of the highest quality would have gone forward at all.’
Of Langemarck, Major-General Nugent wrote (on August 16) to his wife: ‘It has been a truly terrible day. Worse than 1 July  I am afraid. Our losses have been very heavy indeed … ’ Audley Pratt was one of the casualties. As the assault began he stepped out of his command post and was mortally wounded by an exploding shell.
On August 17 Douglas Haig, the commander of the BEF, visited Hubert Gough, the commander of the Fifth Army and the man in charge of the campaign at this stage. In his diary Haig recorded that Gough was displeased with the performance of the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions. General Watts, the commander of the XIX Corps, also gave a bad account of the two divisions.
Haig proved to be much more sympathetic to the two Irish divisions: ‘… I gather that the attacking troops had a long march up to the evening before the battle through Ypres to the front line and then had to fight from zero 4.45 am until nightfall. The men could have had no sleep and must have been dead tired. Here also a number of concrete buildings and dugouts were never really destroyed by artillery fire, and do not appear to have been taken. So the advances made here were small.’
The diary of Captain Martin Littlewood of the RAMC, who was in a charge of a dressing station on the eastern outskirts of Ypres, evidences the horror and awful conditions experienced by the wounded at Langemarck. On August 24 a sergeant in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was stretchered in, heavily wounded, his uniform plastered with mud. He had lain in a shell hole for nine days. Another Irish soldier whom he treated had been on the battlefield for 11 days. He had been tending two wounded men, and it was only when they died that he made his way, crawling, back to his own lines.
A post-action report focused on five reasons for the failure of the attack:
• The divisions were holding the line for 13 days prior to the attack. They were under near continuous shelling and had to supply from their resting battalions to various working parties, sometimes up to a 1,000 men a day, again these had to work under fire from enemy artillery.
• The waterlogged ground; many areas were under water that was up to knee deep. This water also concealed shell holes, barbed wire and decomposing bodies of men and animals.
• The machine guns in pill boxes, the vast majority of which were undamaged by British guns and a defence that had been organised ‘in depth’ as opposed to linear.
• The British were outgunned in artillery, both in numbers and in firepower.
• The failure of the British guns to cut the wire as effectively as it [sic] had done at Messines.
There is one other comparison which may be made with Messines (which this analysis omits) and it is the contrast between operations at Messines under Plumer’s command and at Langemarck under that of Hubert Gough. Whereas Plumer was a meticulous planner, Gough was a thruster who did not enjoy the confidence of his subordinates. Plumer’s legendary care and attention to detail made a profound difference.
Langemarck is usually viewed as an unmitigated disaster from a British perspective and understandably so, but the military historian Gary Sheffield has highlighted the fact that Ludendorff, the effective commander of Germany’s armies and war effort, described the battle as ‘another great blow’ that landed on the defenders – a striking reminder that success and failure can only be properly adjudicated by considering both sides of no man’s land. It is important to appreciate that in August 1917 the Germans lost several important positions in the Ypres Salient.
Furthermore Ludendorff conceded that some of the German defenders were ‘no longer displaying that firmness’ that their commanders expected. These are important correctives to the prevailing British understanding of Langemarck.