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Paths of Glory: Ypres Salient

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

In one of Nevinson’s most famous paintings, we see the bodies of two dead British soldiers behind the Western Front. The title is a quote from ‘Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard’ by Thomas Gray. ‘The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Whereas the poet reflects on bodies dead and buried in a church-yard, the so-called ‘Paths of Glory’ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland.

Paths of glory, Ypres Salient, Battlefields of Belgium, WW1
IWM Art.IWM ART 518 The corpses of two dead British soldiers lying face down in the mud among barbed wire. Their helmets and rifles lie in the mud next to them

Death in war is random. A few soldiers believe that they will die and equally they fear being wounded and to be left disabled. It is a fact that in every war ever fought that the first casualties are caused by accidents in training. Figures in the British Medical Service volume ‘Medical Services, Casualties and Medical Statistics’ make for rather stark reading

on British army casualties on the Western Front between 1914 to 1918. They number 3,528,486 non-battle casualties, this includes death, injury, and periods when on the sick list, compared to 2,690,054 battle casualties.

The term casualty refers not just to the dead but also to the wounded and sick. It is clear that casualties as a result of combat were likely to be fatal, however, simply being in the army and surrounded by lethal weapons, was a dangerous place to be and this was before facing the enemy was taken into consideration. Accidents and disease were an ever-present hazard and the average wastage was fifty-eight men per day with casualties resulting from accidents in training, both at home and overseas, from such causes as falling from horses, bayonet exercises to being run over by wagons and motor vehicles. Live ammunition training was another cause with faulty handling of hand grenades being one of the causes of death and injury.

Death from drowning whether at home or overseas was another hazard. The Falkirk Herald of 23 January 1915, reported on the tragic accident of Private William Hastie, 'F' Company, 7th Battalion The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), who fell into the water while on guard duty at Grangemouth Docks. He is buried in Grandsable Cemetery, Polmont.

Establishing the precise cause of death in the field was not a requirement. There was not enough time to do this and it was not necessary when the obvious cause was from enemy action. The causes of death were classed as ‘killed in action’ or ‘died of wounds’ unless the medical records of the men showed differently. We will never know as these records were deliberately destroyed in the 1980s. In the case of the men from Falkirk District, there are fragmentary records within the burnt records that I have found, that help to establish the cause of death but not in all cases. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records occasionally give more information on the cause of death, especially were a Victoria Cross is posthumously awarded. Other accounts written after the war, especially by medical officers, give vivid accounts of how men died. It is a fact that half of the Royal Flying Corps casualties were as a result of flying accidents when the pilots were in training. We can also add in the losses from illness and diseases that were common in the civilian population, or from illnesses that would have proved fatal whether the man was in the army or not.

Suicide, although not covered in any detail there are instances of men taking their own lives. At Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery 10/3067 Private Thomas Henry Reynish, 1st Battalion Wellington Regiment, N.Z.E.F., died 30 September 1917. He committed suicide at Mill Camp shooting himself through the forehead with his rifle. Grave XXV.G.2 Two of his three brothers also died in the War. Robert is buried in Christchurch (Bromley) Cemetery grave 2.17.A and Roger, killed in action on 30 November 1917, has no known grave and is commemorated on the Buttes New British Cemetery (New Zealand) Memorial at Polygon Wood.

Excepting those deaths in the military and civilian population from the flu pandemic of 1918, the miliary deaths of the First World War exceeded those due to disease and sickness. In ‘Digging the Trenches, the Archaeology of the Western Front’, Andrew Robertshaw and David Kenyon, calculated that: ‘During the period of routine trench warfare from mid-December 1915 to the first day of the Somme, casualties in the BEF were in excess of 125,000 men. This can be broken down to a little less than 4,500 casualties per week, at a time when no major action was happening.

In ‘War Surgery 1914 - 18’, Thomas Scotland gave the numbers operated on at CCS’s during Third Ypres: 'During the battle, 61,423 of the wounded were operated on in casualty clearing stations. Some would be relatively lightly wounded, undergoing surgery before going back to the front line. Others would be the most seriously wounded, undergoing limb or life-saving surgery. This figure of 61,423represents 30% of the total admissions.' The death rate at CCS’s during Third Ypres is put at 3.7%. This percentage can be given because of the cemeteries located near to the sites of the CCS where the dead can be identified compared to those in sites known as concentration cemeteries near the front line were between 60% to 70% of the graves are ‘Known Unto God’ During Third Ypres, 14.30 per cent casualties were suffered by the British during late July and early August however, this figure is rather dwarfed by the 36 per cent suffered by the British 5th Army during the German spring offensive of late March and early April 1918.

Robertshaw and Kenyon calculated that 7.61 per cent of the wounded and less than 1 per cent of the sick died after reaching medical care. As a consequence, they estimated that 82 per cent of the wounded returned to their units and that 9.3 per cent of sick did likewise. Around 11 per cent of those who served in the British armed forces died. The total number from the United Kingdom who were mobilised numbered some 5.7 million. Therefore, 5.07 million came home. In the case of the Ypres Salient, the cemeteries and memorials to be found there represent a significant minority of those who died there however, not the millions that are regularly presented.

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
IWM Sgt Pilkington Bodies of 4 Officers waiting burial at Ypres Cem 1 Nov 1914

Establishing the Categories of Death

To establish the categories of death I have used Soldiers Died in the Great War and there are three categories listed there:

· Killed in Action (KIA) – As a direct result of the action in which they took part in

· Died of Wounds (DoW) – Those who died at a Regimental Aid Post or Casualty Clearing Station. Soldiers Died records that 146,443 men DoW in the First World War

· Died – Those who died from disease, sickness, or accident in training. Other causes included ‘killed (air raid)’, drowned, died (gas poisoning).

There was no official definition between ‘killed in action’ and ‘died of wounds’ however, ‘killed in action’ would appear to be defined from the man being killed by enemy action, by friendly fire, or if he did not reach a medical post, then ‘killed in action’ applied. This definition did not take into account the length of time it took the man to die, he could have died immediately, or been lying out in no man’s land for a considerable length of time unable to be reached by stretcher bearers.

The category ‘died of wounds’ is easier to establish, if the man had reached a medical post and been recorded as ‘wounded’ and subsequently died, he was deemed to have ‘died of wounds’. Very rarely cases of suicide are recorded and those men shot at dawn are not listed in Soldiers Died in the Great War however, the CWGC record their death but not how they died.

Private George Kyles, 1st Infantry Labour company, Seaforth Highlanders (13th Labour Company, Labour Corps). The 13th Labour Company was engaged in salvaging ammunition when they came under air attack on 9 January. A bomb struck a loaded truck and killed forty one men. George is buried in a mass grave at Duhallow Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery with forty of his comrades. The headstones show a variety of cap badges, many from the Seaforth Highlanders.

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
Authors image. Plot II and the mass grave. George is buried in II.F.12

His headstone does not mention he was a member of the Labour Corps. In 1919 it was decided that the headstone of a member of the Labour Corps, who previously served in any other unit, should record his connection with his previous regiment.

Who Are The Missing

One of the more enduring popular beliefs is that as the conditions on the Western Front were so grim, in both bottomless mud and the endless artillery barrages, that all the men simply disappeared. They were absorbed into the morass and been consumed by the man-eating monster. This idea is prevalent in the poetry and literature that the war somehow needed to be fed with the lives of the poor bloody infantry. The idea that a man or men could simply just disappear and that the army would make no attempt to account for them is not credible. The army, despite the accusations of how good or bad they were at fighting, knew how to count and they had created returns and lists for everything. In addition, roll calls were regularly held as the men had to be paid, fed, equipped, and sent on leave. One of the critical parts of the accounting process was that of recording the dead, simply because the army did not like paying for soldiers who no longer had a usefulness and the army liked to know who was alive and who was dead.

The bodies of the dead, if the body existed, in some cases the body simply consisted of various parts, see the account of recording the battlefield dead here The dead were buried as quickly as possible. Bodies were unidentifiable because their identity tags were missing, blown to bits or, in the case of battlefield burials during an action, simply no time to look for any form of identity. In my blog above ‘Recording the Dead’ I cover this in more detail. Any man pronounced as ‘missing’ was – usually after a period of 12 months – declared as ‘presumed dead’

Falkirk District man Second Lieutenant Eric Jamieson, 11th Battalion Argyle & Sutherland Highlanders. Eric was posted as missing in the War Diary and his family informed of this. His death was confirmed in April 1918. In October 1920 his body was found in an unmarked grave on the old battlefield and exhumed and reburied at Dochy Farm New British Cemetery. He had been identified from his disc, badge, and pince-nez glasses.

Private James McCarrol, 'C' Company, 2nd Battalion Royal Scots. In October 1924. James McCarrol’s body was found in an unmarked grave west of Sanctuary Wood. He was identified by his Gas Helmet bag which was inscribed with his service number and initials, ‘2272 J.M.C.' His body was reburied at Railway Dugouts Burial Ground (Transport Farm).

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
Authors image

The men listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing are those with no known grave. However, this does not mean that their deaths were not observed and recorded, or that they were not buried under a named marker by their comrades. It simply means that when the cemeteries were being created after the war, and the GRU were drawing up the lists, a grave with the man’s name on it could not be identified. It is easy for visitors to the Menin Gate to assume that the names of the 55,000 men recorded there or, the 38,000 at the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, are lost in the morass of the battlefield and that they still lie beneath Flanders Fields awaiting discovery. In fact, many lie in ‘Known Unto God’ graves in the many cemeteries in the Salient. Today, archaeologists digging in the Salient acknowledge that a significant number of soldiers remains are likely to be present on any excavation site, and many have been found.

Died Instantaneously

This is a very popular form of death! It can be seen in the many letters written by the friends of the dead to the dead man’s next of kin or from their Company commanding officer. These letters were done to console the bereaved and to reassure them that they did not suffer in death. Nonetheless, these letters did contain some graphic accounts of the action and the not so instantaneous death. Falkirk District man Private William Easton, 17th Battalion, (Rosebery) Royal Scots, was killed while carrying his Colonel on a stretcher. He is buried at Nine Elms British Cemetery. The battalion chaplain wrote to William's wife that: You will probably have heard by now of your husband’s death… Our Colonel was wounded and your husband was carrying him in a stretcher along with another soldier, when a shell came over and killed all three…’ The Company commander of Private James King, 1st Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, wrote to the parents of James that: ‘… he died as you would have him die, with his face to the enemy, upholding the traditions of our dear country and the famous regiment that now mourns his loss… It is a loss that can never be replaced.’ Lance Corporal Michael McGowan, 'B' Company, 8th Battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. In a letter to his parents his Company commander wrote that: ‘… he died instantaneously and suffered no pain may be some help to you in your great sorrow.’ The Commonwealth War Graves Commission record his death as 25 August however, the Concentration of Graves & Reburial Form shows he died on 26 August 1917. His body, along with four of his comrades, was exhumed and moved to Perth (China Wall) Cemetery on 14 March 1919. This cemetery was used as a concentration cemetery after the Armistice. At his time of death, only one front line cemetery was in use, Gordon House Cemetery No.2, ZILLEBEKE, at Gordon House, which contained the graves of 30 soldiers from the United Kingdom who fell in 1915 and 1917.

Killed in Error

Today, the term ‘Friendly fire’ is used to describe this form of death. However, in the First World War this was not a description that was used. One Falkirk District man was killed on the first day of Third Ypres while advancing behind the protective barrage, a shell fell short and he was killed. Such ‘accidents’ happened on a regular basis and this was accepted as part of war. Artillery pieces wear out with use, the barrels are worn and the artillery piece becomes worn and the gun becomes increasingly less accurate as a result of the driving bands of the shell eroding and corroding the rifled barrel of the gun. This resulted in the shell falling short onto their own troops. The 4.7” field gun, originally a naval gun, had a notoriety for this type of accident, the troops named it ‘strict neutrality’.

As well as faulty guns ammunition was also equally guilty of causing accidental deaths. For heavier calibre artillery pieces, the charge that propelled the shell could be faulty due to uniformity or quality and this resulted in the shell landing short or even going over. There were shells that simply failed to explode on contact, much of today’s iron harvest

WW1- The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
Iron harvest on the wall at Welsh Cemetery (Caesar's Nose)

Ammunition could also explode in the gun barrel resulting in the deaths of the gunners. There is no statistic to show the number of men killed as a result of these types of accidents and it may run into tens of thousands.

Death from Shrapnel, Shell Fragment, Bullet, Bayonet & Gas

This took the form of shrapnel, shell fragments, bullets, bayonet, or gas. By far the largest battlefield killer was shell fire. It is not difficult to imagine the effect on the human body of being in the immediate vicinity of a piece of ordnance designed to destroy a building, underground dugouts, or bunkers. In addition to High Explosive (HE) designed to blow in trenches and kill or maim. Being struck by shrapnel, not shell fragments, but round lead balls of various dimensions, was akin to being hit by rifle and machine gun bullets.

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
IWM Image. The man with his hands to his head has been struck by shrapnel

Shrapnel was originally designed to explode over the heads of the infantry and were later used, in varying degrees of success, in cutting barbed wire. Shells of various calibres held different numbers of shrapnel bullets for example an 18-pounder filed gun shell (the shell weighed 18lbs) had approximately 380 shrapnel bullets. Being struck by a shell fragment, they varied in size from small pieces to very large pieces of steel and came from the disintegrating high explosive shell. Some men received minor wounds

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
IWM Sgt Christopher Pilkington 1st casualty of 2nd Bttn Scots Guards Drummer Steer killed by direct hit from shell 20 Oct 1914 Gheluvelt

from the smaller pieces of shell fragment however, those struck by the larger pieces ended in death with many men blown to bits or mutilated and unrecognizable.

Falkirk District man Private Richard King, 'B' Company, 15th Battalion Royal Scots. On the 24 April 1918, the Battalion was on a working party digging trenches on the new Poperinghe (now named Poperinge) Line. While passing through the town one man was killed and nine wounded (all ’B’ Company) by a shell. Richard was one of those wounded and was taken to the nearby Casualty Clearing Station at Remy Farm, Lijssenthoek.

Bullet wounds came in various forms such as flesh wounds, wounds in the arm, leg, head, chest, or stomach. It was not uncommon for death to result from all of these. Shock or gas gangrene resulted in the wounded man dying. The effect of a bullet striking the body at close range is described by Captain Noel Chavasse VC and Bar, RAMC officer to the Liverpool Scottish: ‘ take an instance of a wound in the fleshy part of the thigh, the entrance wound was neat and punctured, but the exit was a gaping burst, a big hole that I could put my fist into, with broken muscles hanging out. As a matter of fact, I believe that at such near range, the bullet turns over and over, and practically bursts its way out.’ It was essentially the high velocity hydraulic pressure of a close-range bullet that caused these traumatic wounds and this applied to British or German bullets. Bullets had a built-in instability which was from the composition of the round. German bullets tended to be made of solid lead underneath a covering or lead or steel. ‘Dum-Dum’ bullets designed to expand when hitting flesh – these were banned under various international conventions – and if a soldier was captured with these in their possession retribution could be immediate

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
Authors image.


Had gas warfare in the First World War been as effective and devastating as the myth states, only 5899 deaths are recorded from gas attacks, then the war would have been over after its first use. Gas warfare was anything but as reliable and effective as the myths suggest, indeed, gas was never decisive and the casualties from gas have always been overstated. This fact does not lessen the agonies of the victims. The use of chemical or biological weapons in warfare was not restricted to the First World War as this form of warfare had been in use for centuries. From hurling dead horses into besieged castles to spread disease to pouring hot oil onto attackers. The use of poison gas and other chemical weapons had been something that the military had seen the potential of for some time.

Attrition or Trench Wastage

Throughout the war there were many set piece battles and engagements but there were far more days when no engagements took place. Trench life in the front and support lines became a routine however, death and wounds from enemy snipers and trench mortars was still a fact of daily life and is reflected in the War Diaries of the units. The battalions suffered casualties during reliefs when the companies rotated in and out of the front line and support trenches. Falkirk District man, 9518 Corporal Edward Gilbert, ‘A’ Company,1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, 8th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Division. The Battalion was in the line at Vierstraat. The War Diary records that it was quiet with intercompany reliefs being carried out. They record two casualties. Edward died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen sustained on 6 March 1915 and he died in Locre on 7 March.

The British policy was also one of aggression designed to demoralize the enemy and to instil a sense of purpose in the troops. This aggression took the form of trench raids involving dozens and sometimes hundreds of men and the later involved pitched battles in the local area they occurred. Casualties inevitably occurred. Falkirk District man, S/40878 Private Andrew Scott, 8th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, 44th Infantry Brigade, 15th (Scottish) Division. The battalion were in the line at Verlorenhoek at Cambridge Trench. At 01.30am on 8 July the battalion took part in a raid on the German trenches opposite. Battalion casualties are reported as 1 officer missing, Other ranks 12 missing, 2 killed, and 15 wounded. Andrew was one of the wounded and subsequently died of his wounds.

Even when there was no actual fighting casualties still occurred it could be as a result of smoke from a cooking fire bringing artillery fire down on the trench or a working party clearing an area of the trench during the day and their shovels appeared over the top of the trench which could bring either trench mortar or artillery fire down on them and resulting in dead or wounded men.

Death Could Strike at any Moment

Once a soldier had come face to face with the enemy his chances of death or injury increased significantly. This was true whether he was in a quiet sector or an active sector. Death came from snipers, random shelling or from enemy raids. The men who took part in patrols into no man’s land, or a wiring party to erect barbed wire entanglements, put themselves at risk of death or injury with enemy flares exposing their position and bringing down machine gun, rifle fire, or an artillery barrage. This was sufficient to ensure that death could strike at any moment. Falkirk District man Private James Imrie, 9th Battalion Gordon Highlanders. This was a Pioneer Battalion created as an expedient in 1914, and were a new concept in the British Army. Intended to provide the Royal Engineers with skilled labour and to relieve the infantry from some of its non-combatant duties. The Pioneers became the work horses of the BEF. The Battalion was engaged in repairs and maintenance of the trenches and communication trenches at Cambridge

Road, near Potijze. The War Diary records the Work Report for the Battalion on 9 July 1917. This was dangerous work as they were under artillery fire. James died of wounds received at the Field Ambulance located in Vlamertinghe. He is buried in Vlamertinghe New Military Cemetery.

Kipling’s poem ‘A Death Bed’ uses the war and is not about the war. It is a poem about death which is both a complex and disturbing statement on the theme. His son John was shot through the head and was listed as missing and buried in a ‘Known Unto God’ grave. His remains were identified in 1992 when a mistake was discovered in the CWGC paperwork by Norm Christie then Records Officer with the CWGC. He is buried in St Mary’s ADS Cemetery, Haisnes. His death haunted Kipling, it was not helped that others wrote to him gloating at his son’s death as a reward for Kipling being a vociferous advocate of the war and British imperialism.

‘This is the State above the Law

The state exists for the State alone.’

(This is a gland at the back of the jaw,

And an answering lump by the collar bone.)

Some die shouting in gas or fire;

Some die silent, by shell and shot.

Some die desperate, caught on the wire;

Some die suddenly. This will not.

Sources and Further Reading

· British Medical Service volume ‘Medical Services, Casualties and Medical Statistics’

· War Surgery 1914 - 18, Thomas Scotland

· Digging the Trenches, The Archaeology of the Western Front, Andrew Robertshaw & David Kenyon

· Poetry & Myths of the Great War, Martin Stephen

British Newspaper Archive the Falkirk Herald

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