High hopes end in the Belgian mud
On 29th November 1913, a group of four young men boarded the P&O steamer Nyanza in London, bound for Hong Kong
and a career as colonial policemen. Ernest Carpenter and Edward Charles Silliss had resigned their posts in the London Metropolitan Police to take this chance, while John McLellan, from the very north of Scotland and John Delahunty from Co. Kilkenny, in the south of Ireland, had also perhaps left their respective police forces, for that was Hong Kong’s favoured way of recruiting new blood. What would their new home be like? What would their police duties be in this very distant colony? Of the few other passengers for Hong Kong on that ship, one lady might have been able to give them a few hints. Lady Helena May, wife of the governor—who was formerly head of the police—was returning with her two youngest daughters, at the conclusion of their six month holiday in the British Isles.
They were only 8 months into their new roles when war was declared and there was much talk about “going home to fight”, but they quickly learnt that they were unlikely to be spared immediately. However, by mid-1915, the newly formed Police Reserves, volunteers from across the population, were taking over some duties. Now a group from the men who had put their names forward could be allowed home to enlist. Those selected were the subject of much envy by their colleagues, but by the end of the year a larger contingent received the news they were hoping for. Twenty-one men set sail that November: Carpenter, Delahunty and Silliss amongst them. McLellan would have to wait another 18 months before his chance came. But of these four, only two were destined to resume their police careers when fighting had ceased. Ernest Carpenter followed many of the first contingent into the King’s Royal Rifles, and John Delahunty and Edward Silliss became guardsmen. Edward, who had been Private 6810 in the Coldstream Guards before his 15 months in the Met, rejoined this regiment, posted to the 2nd Battalion, while John, who had no previous military experience, joined a regiment of his countrymen, the 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards.
In the summer of 1917, both were in southern Belgium, west of Ypres. Here they found towns and villages devastated by three years of war, with buildings in ruins and fields mere churned-up mud, for the weather that summer was truly awful. Still, the battle over this land, the 3rd Battle of Ypres, was soon to start. By mid-July, the 2nd Coldstream were south of the Yser Canal, near Herzeele. There was sporadic fighting for the first weeks, but the soldiers spent most of the time preparing for the attack on German positions scheduled for the end of the month.
At last, they marched the 15 miles to the outskirts of Elverdinghe, ready for zero hour, dawn on 31st July. They divided into four companies and formed up in two columns, with intervals of 200 yards between each platoon. Thus they crossed the Yser canal and marched some three miles. The enemy were putting up a regular barrage of shelling, but so consistent was this that they could time their advance to avoid it. After that, the hostile fire became heavier and the casualty list started to mount. Still only 8.50 am, they readied for the assault on their final objective, a position near to Poelkapelle.
The Royal Flying Corps (precursor of the RAF) flew ‘contact aeroplanes’, between 150 and 500 ft above the action, reporting the situation to headquarters. Such a plane flew over at 9.30 am, and flares were lit to assist it. Unhappily, another plane then flew over, much lower, perhaps only 100 ft above the ground. It was a captured British plane with an indistinctly painted German black cross. Very soon after, the German shelling became much more accurate and lethal. The battalion pressed forward, now also through continual sniping, which extracted a dreadful toll. Such was to continue over the next 48 hours. The Coldstream’s situation was becoming ever more difficult. One company lost all its officers and sergeants, and a corporal had to take command.
1926 newspaper map of the Third Battle of Ypres
And still it rained. The trenches became flooded ditches, with the men standing in water up to their thighs and chilled to the bone. The war diarist spoke of the gruelling ‘carry’ to get the wounded back to safety, when, under continual fire, every step the stretcher-bearers took was through 18 inches of mud or more. Eventually, on the night of 2nd/3rd, they were relieved by the 3rd Battalion Coldstream, and the remnants of the 2nd marched back to Elverdinghe. In the words of the war diarist, “So the first phase of the 3rd Battle of Ypres ended, with the loss of 4 officers dead and 4 wounded and 175 OR (other ranks) killed, wounded or missing.” Included in this death toll was Private Edward Silliss, former London and Hong Kong policeman.
The original objective of Field Marshall Haig, to decisively push the Germans back through Belgium and regain the channel ports, had now been abandoned in favour of a gradual whittling away of the enemy defences. The fighting must go on, despite the ever-mounting list of dead and wounded and despite it being one of the wettest summers in memory, with this part of Belgium already one big quagmire. While in early October thousands of troops were massing close to Ypres for what would become the 1st Battle of Passchendaele, the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards were making their way to Elverdinghe and the same territory that Silliss and his comrades had fought upon weeks earlier. With his battalion, it was now John Delahunty’s turn to spend weeks preparing for the big offensive. Ground was marked out and the men were shown exactly where to be and what to achieve, until a final ‘dress rehearsal’ met with the approval of the commanding officers.
Zero hour was 5.20 am on 9th October. For once, it was not raining and a strong wind was drying the ground a little. In waves such as the Coldstream Guards had formed, the Irish Guards crossed the Canal, and advanced over the ground gained earlier, pushing on up to Poelkapelle. When the Battalion had returned to its base on 10th, it was found that one officer and 20 men had lost their lives, with a long list of the wounded. Since the time of the Coldstreamers assault, only three miles had been gained. Amongst those killed in this battle was Private John Delahunty. The twenty-seven-year-old former farm labourer had spent just two years in Hong Kong and almost as long on the battlefields of France and Belgium.