Today, 10th November 2017, we are looking back a hundred years. A hundred years ago today, at this very hour, men were fighting, men were wounding and men were killing.
On 10th November 1917, the Second Battle of Passchendaele was reaching its conclusion. It was only a small part of the greater Third Battle of Ypres which had raged since 31st July. For 103 days, men of the British Fifth Army had slogged through the wettest summer on record when it rained for 28 out of 31 days in August. The ground around Ypres is low-lying and prone to flooding. The miles upon miles of drainage ditches made by generations of farmers were useless – smashed to pieces by constant shell-fire. The earth turned to mud: an oozing, bottomless mud which sucked at men’s boots and rendered all transport almost impossible.
Tracks were made of wooden duckboards. These were the only way to get around. Under heavy shell-fire or in the rain, these tracks became treacherous. A man carrying all his equipment in battle order would have 25 kg on his back. If he lost his balance and fell off the duckboards, he would sink up to his waist in the mud. Very often the weight of his pack would mean he couldn’t pull himself out. Hundreds of men drowned in the mud at Ypres.
The British were attacking uphill from Ypres towards the village of Passchendaele, only 35 metres above sea level. The Germans, from their relatively high position, could see everything the British were doing. In many ways they were sitting ducks and an easy target for German artillery.
Historians disagree about the casualty figures of the Third Battle of Ypres, but those whom I would consider reputable would seem to suggest that in that period of over 100 days, 260,000 British and a similar number of German men were killed, missing or wounded. Apparently, General Kiggell, Field Marshal Haig’s chief of staff, visited Passchendaele after the battle. He is reported to have burst into tears when he saw the appalling mud and exclaimed “Good God, did we really send men to fight in this?”
The conditions on Passchendaele Ridge in 1917 are accepted by most historians to have been the worst faced by soldiers on the Western Front.
A hundred years ago today, at this very moment, the battle was drawing to its conclusion as British and Commonwealth troops were on the edge of the village of Passchendaele. And on that ridge amidst foetid mud, a hailstorm of bullets and shrapnel and festering human remains, a 25 year-old man was in action. His name was George Brooks – Private 49636 George Brooks of the 18th Canadian Infantry. But on Kingham Hill, 235 miles away, he would be better known as George Brooks of Bradford House: a boy who had worked in the gardens for some time; a boy who was very fond of music and played in the school band; a boy who had won the house prize for smartness in Christmas 1906. Our man, George, was there right in the thick of it.
George Brooks was born in 1892 and lived in Brentford on the western edge of London. At the age of seven his father, who was a labourer, died, leaving behind his mother and three children. George, his mother and his sisters went to live with his grandparents and two uncles in north London. Even with the grandfather, the mother and an uncle bringing money into the household there was very little to go round. George’s grandmother had heard of the founder, Charles Edward Baring Young whose house at Oak Hill was only three miles away. She met him, explained the family situation and George was taken in by our Founder and he came to Kingham Hill in June 1900. Straightaway he moved into Bradford House.
By all accounts we can find, George was a really pleasant boy. Mr Scarfe, the Headmaster, said that he would be remembered by his chums as a good chap, and for his quiet and good influence.
When he left Kingham Hill he emigrated to Canada with many of his friends from Kingham Hill. Once there he was given work on the Founder’s farm at Havelock in Ontario. It appears he made a success of his time there. There is even a stained glass window in St George’s Church in London, Ontario which mentions him.
Like many of the Havelock boys he volunteered to join the army after war had been declared and he sailed back across the Atlantic Ocean to the UK on a troopship at risk of being torpedoed by German U-boats. He was then transferred across the Channel to undergo nine months of training with the Canadian Infantry on the north coast of France. After that he was taken onto the staff of the 1st Canadian Veterinary Hospital where he worked with horses. It seems that he was transferred to work with animals because of his farming experience back in Canada. He spent a year there out of harm’s way until in April 1917 the Canadian Army Corps attacked the Germans at Vimy Ridge. Despite a convincing victory, high casualties meant that there was a need for more men. George was transferred to a front line battalion, leaving the animal hospital behind, and he had to get used to a whole new life in the trenches.
By October, George’s battalion were on the move from Vimy Ridge north to Ypres. They spent their first weeks helping repair duckboard tracks, bury cables and dig trenches. Some of the time they were up to their waists in mud. They took over a section of front line opposite the Germans on the edge of Passchendaele village in the early hours of 9th November. Let me read from the official battalion war diary:
Owing to bad weather and the continued shelling by the enemy, the Front line and supports were in poor condition, the mud and water in many places being waist deep. During the whole of the tour, the Officers and men held this part of the line under the most severe conditions possible. Great difficulty was experienced in the evacuating of casualties from [the] front line to Regimental Aid Posts and dressing stations. Front line trenches were subjected to frequent barrages and the rear country was also heavily shelled and bombed. The supports on this front were reached by a series of tracks, being trench mat walks, and rations had to be carried by mules up these tracks. Each track being subjected to continual shellfire, the transport and ration parties were fortunate in escaping with the loss of three men killed and one mule which fell off the duckboard track and owing to the depth of the mud had to be shot. Splendid work was done by the Battalion stretcher bearers in tending and evacuating the wounded.
The total casualties from this tour were approximately:
Killed in action – 45 other ranks;
Wounded – 6 officers and 60 other ranks;
Gassed – 1 officer and 25 other ranks.
This is a vivid account which does not even come close to explaining what George and his battalion experienced. We will never understand what it would have been like. I was particularly struck by the line that “the Officers and men held this part of the line under the most severe conditions”.
At some point during this time, George Brooks was instantly killed by the explosion of an enemy shell. His body was never found and so his name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres alongside 55,000 other men who died in the Ypres Salient who have no known grave.
His name is also recorded on our war memorial here in Chapel with 63 other old boys of the School. Behind all of those names there is a story. We have looked at just one of them today: a man who died 100 years ago today. How would we have dealt with that situation ourselves? Put yourselves in George Brooks’s boots and think what emotions would have been going through his head. He had had a tough life in his 25 short years, but he certainly would have known a degree of comfort and acceptance at Kingham Hill and at Havelock Farm that he would not have otherwise known. But as he stood in that support trench with the shrapnel shells bursting around him, up to his waist in water, seeing men drowning in the mud, he would have known that he could well be living the last few minutes of his life. And knowing that, he stood in support of his chums (as his Headmaster would have said) to sacrifice his own life. Would we have done the same? Could we ever do the same?
When we think of George’s act of self-sacrifice, it reminds us of the supreme act of self-sacrifice – the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus, was fully God and yet fully man. He came not to show good morals, or to be a good teacher, or to work miracles (though, of course, he did all these things). Jesus came to die on the cross.
Jesus was perfect and without sin. And yet he died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment we deserve for rejecting God in our lives. Only by believing and trusting in him can we live in a right relationship with God and not fear his judgement.
When we look at George Brooks’s act of self-sacrifice, we see someone acting like Jesus in a small way. George sacrificed his life because he had to, because he was ordered to. Jesus willingly sacrificed his life for us because he had to: nothing else could pay the price of our sin, but he sacrificed his life for us because he loves us.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
When we remember the sacrifice of all those who gave their lives in war, including our men from Kingham Hill, we should give thanks for what they did in the past, but we should put our faith and trust in Jesus for the future.
- Kingham Hillians
- Kingham Hill Remembers