“I died in hell. They called it Passchendaele.” In this one sentence the poet Siegfried Sassoon not only captured the sheer horror of Passchendaele, what became known as the Battle of Mud, but the Great War itself.
More than half a million troops –including 325,000 Allied soldiers – died in the battle, officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, that lasted for more than three months before coming to an end in November 1917.
There were around 110,000 British casualties in October alone, one of the worst casualty rates in the entire war. Among them was my grandfather Robert Hudson, from Leeds.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Arthur Hudson served in Flanders with the 8th (Territorial) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own). His war ended abruptly on October 9, 1917, when he was killed, reportedly by sniper fire, during the battle for Poelcapelle which was a precursor to the main advance on the Passchendaele ridge planned for three days later.
The Third Battle of Ypres was an unforgiving battle of attrition. Hudson, aged 37, was commanding officer of a battalion that over two days of action lost eight out of 23 officers and suffered 301 casualties from other ranks – all for gains of just 300 yards.
Passchendaele has become infamous for the mud, with atrocious weather throughout the summer leading to battlefields becoming an impossible quagmire. This was compounded by inadequate artillery and repeated breakdowns in communication.
To our 21st century eyes, Passchendaele is synonymous with the horror, futility and huge loss of life that many people associate with the Western Front.
It was unquestionably one of the most costly and controversial offensives of the war, and my grandfather paid the ultimate price. I believe his story, like so many others, deserves to be told.
He lived on Headingley Lane, Leeds, one of three sons of Robert and Hannah Hudson. In civilian life he was a director of Robert Hudson Ltd of Gildersome, an engineering firm.
He initially joined a Volunteer Battalion of the Territorials in 1898. A decade later he was a captain in the 8th Battalion (Leeds Rifles) and, according to an obituary notice in the Yorkshire Post, had taken an active interest prior to the war in the work of the Church Lads’ Brigade.
He was the senior major when the battalion went to France in February 1915. Later that year the battalion was known to have been on the Boezinge canal site where what is known as the Yorkshire Trench is sited. It also took part the following year in the Battle of the Somme – the year my grandfather was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
When he died, he left behind a widow Mary Vere, daughter of the Leeds artist Mark Senior, and a son, Robert, aged eight and a daughter, Margaret Helen (Peg) who was just three years old.
Poignantly his widow was expecting a third child, who was born in 1918 and named Arthur. Both sons later served with distinction in the Second World War.
One of the most haunting aspects of the war – and one that bereaved families struggled to accept – was that so many men died with no known grave. Robert Hudson was one of those 34,863 servicemen and the only record of his service is carved in stone on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing near Ypres.
What does survive is his Burberry cavalry coat, popular among officers of the time, which was handed down through the family and is now an exhibit held by the Museum Service of Hampshire. A small, but personal token of a soldier – one of so many that gave their lives for their country a century ago.