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Battle of Vierstraat Ridge

On this day, three young men from East Meon died in the same battle, and are buried alongside each other at Voormezeele Enclosure No.3, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. This is David Hopkins’ report on the battle in which they lost their lives.

War cemetery at Voormezeele Enclosure No.3, Ypres, where three soldiers from East Meon are buried in adjoining graves

War cemetery at Voormezeele Enclosure No.3, Ypres, where three soldiers from East Meon are buried in adjoining graves

The first was George Sylvester, Lance Corporal 204876, aged 21, who lived at Peake Farm. He had been born at Hoe Farm Bishop’s Waltham., a farmer’s son working on a farm

The second was Norton Broadway, Private 205501, aged 23 who lived at Lythe Farm. He was born at Exton, another farmer’s son working on a farm.

Charles Collyer was the third, Private 45594, aged 19, the son of John and Esther Collyer of 70 Old Idsworth, Horndean, Hampshire. He was born at Primrose Cottage, Liss,, The 1911 census shows him as a ‘scholar’ (i.e., at school) and living at Hambledon Farm, Rogate.

They died alongside each other on 04/09/1918 at Vierstraat, in Belgium, in a sadly bungled action. At this point, the Allies, now bolstered by the arrival of American units, were pushing back through the old battlefields of northern France and south Belgium. Vierstraat is near Ypres, which had seen horrific losses earlier in the War.

During 1917 the British Army on the western front learned many lessons from the disastrous losses earlier in the Great War. They refined their tactics and training, no longer relying on sheer numbers in attack, and on “the British fighting spirit” which had resulted in such severe losses at the Somme. Instead, they adopted the German approach of “defence in depth” whilst in attack playing to Britain’s growing superiority in air reconnaissance and greater production of artillery and shells. The standard British mode of attack became meticulous reconnaissance, elimination of German Artillery by counter-battery fire, suppression of strong points, advance immediately behind a rolling artillery barrage, which suppressed enemy machine gun fire, and rigorous “cleaning-up” of captured positions.

Unfortunately, all these tenets were neglected, largely beyond their control, in the action of the 15th Hampshires from the night of 2nd September until the unit was withdrawn from the front line on the night of 5th September.

The main thrust of the Allied advance. The 15th Battalion, Hampshires was part of the force (‘King Albert’) advancing along the line of the blue arrow at the top of this map.

The main thrust of the Allied advance. The 15th Battalion, Hampshires was part of the force (‘King Albert’) advancing along the line of the blue arrow at the top of this map.

The action centred on Vierstraat, to the South West of Ypres, flanking Mount Kemmel. Ypres was a vital Allied salient to the northern end of the Western Front, which had seen see-saw battles throughout the war. 1918 was to see the 4th and 5th Battles of Ypres (the latter also known as the “Advance into Flanders” and “The Battle of the Lys”). Ypres was a saucer-shaped depression, the town at its centre surrounded by low hills. The Allied salient was occupied by a joint army, nominally under the command of King Albert of the Belgians, which comprised British, French, Belgium, and American troops.

In spring 1918 the Germans launched a massive offensive across the whole Front, calculated to end the war with the newly released troops from the Eastern Front (Russia having withdrawn from the War) and before the fighting potential of the Americans was available.

At Ypres the Germans over-ran Mount Kemmel and most of the Allied positions gained in the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele, etc.), giving them strategic dominance over the salient. However, the Allies’ defence in depth, together with a massive reinforcement programme, brought the German advance to a halt with heavy losses.

All British maps of this part of the campaign have been lost, but we are fortunate in having a US army map which shows the Vierstraat Ridge.

All British maps of this part of the campaign have been lost, but we are fortunate in having a US army map which shows the Vierstraat Ridge.

In August the Germans were forced to “straighten and shorten their lines” due to lack of resources. In Britain, huge drafts of new recruits were moved to the Front. The minimum age for front line duty was lowered and inhibitions on recruitment of those employed in agriculture relaxed. Hence, probably, the recruitment of George Sylvester (a farmer’s son from Peake Farm), Norton Broadway (farmer’s son from Lythe Farm) and Charles Collyer (agricultural labourer living in East Meon), who all joined up at Petersfield, where the 15th Battalion, The Hampshires (also known as the “Portsmouth Pals 2nd Battalion) was training.

At the end of August 1918 it was reported that the Germans were abandoning their positions on Mount Kemmel and the British 2nd Army was ordered rapidly to press this withdrawal and to exploit it to the full. Caution seems to have been thrown to the winds. On the 1st -2nd September the American 105th and 106th Regiments fought the Battle of Vierstraat Ridge. Their battle map (above) defines the area and features of the Hampshire’s following disastrous action. The Americans were charged with hingeing from a North to South position to a West to East frontage and taking the eastern end of the Kemmel heights. The map significantly shows the “reported final position of their advance. Sadly (and as the map hints) this was inaccurate. The commanding and relatively safe position had not been achieved, the Germans were not in full flight but dug in on higher ground in wooded cover with strong machine gun resources and able to deploy both frontal and flanking fire.

The British Command, with a degree of over-confidence, put aside most of its hard-learned tactical approach. The field was not reconnoitred, the battle was launched with inadequate preparation with misconceived awareness of positions resulting in the detailed orders needing to be abandoned at the start, and to cap it all… a failure for any artillery support to materialise. To quote the Battalion War Diary of the day (see Appendix 2) “An attempt to comply with battalion Operational Order D.F.1 was unsuccessful owing to the fact that the posts therein stated as occupied by the Americans were in possession of the enemy….. Orders were given at very short notice and Company commanders were unable to arrange all they wished….” And in a masterpiece of understatement: “Artillery arrangements were not quite satisfactory as the barrage came down to the east of the railway … leaving a number of enemy M.G. posts… unmolested to fire on our advancing troops”.

The advance from the Vierstraat-Kemmel Road start-line towards the hills began at 4.00am. The advancing Battalion was decimated by the heavy unsuppressed machine gun fire from multiple directions, snipers, and gas shelling. It eventually reached the light railway at the foot of the hills … but was unable to hold it due to the accuracy and strength of the enemy M.G. fire and shortage of men”.

Finally …”About dusk 2nd Lieutenant J J Potter, M.C., collected and reorganised all the men that remained of the Battalion and formed a line…” (all senior officers being dead or wounded by then). The Battalion sustained 323 casualties from sniper fire, machine gun, and gas – more than half its fighting strength.

George Sylvester, Norton Broadway and Charles Collyer were all killed, probably together as they are buried in adjoining graves at Voormezeele Enclosure No.3, Ypres, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium next to each other On the night of 5/6th September the Battalion was withdrawn from the line to Lappe for “…rest and cleaning up…”, followed a few days later by “…specialist training and reorganisation” and including what must have been a very poignant church parade at the YMCA Hut in Remy.