1917 St Julien
On the 31st July 1917 the Hertfordshire Regiment took part in the opening battle of the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as 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.
During July 1917 the Hertfordshire Regiment underwent special training in offensive tactics alongside other units who were to take part in the Third Battle of Ypres. They were also given detailed rehearsals of the plan of attack ahead of the start of the battle at 3.50am on 31st July.
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, and under the command of Lieutenant- Colonel Frank Page. Their aim was to attack towards and beyond the remains of the village of St Julien.
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.
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.
The result was devastation. Lieutenant-Colonel F. Page, ten officers and more than 130 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.
At this point, the 1st Battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment had almost ceased to exist and the battalion took some time to regain its fighting strength. It was ready for action on September 20th for the Battle of Menin Road where it held newly won positions under hostile shelling which caused over 200 casualties.
Reverend A.E. Popham
The Reverend Edgar Popham was a chaplain throughout the First World War. He was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in 1915 and his actions at the Third Battle of Ypres gained him a Bar to the Military Cross.
Lieutenant Colonel Gripper wrote of his actions at St Julien:
During the whole of this time the Chaplain, with total disregard for personal safety, did all possible to aid the wounded, and when we retired, he was the last to leave and brought with him, almost carrying him, a man who was wounded in the leg.
After the war he became a parish priest, finishing his ministry at the parish of Boxgrove in Sussex.