The Allied objective for the Third Battle of Ypres, which began on 31 July 1917, was to break through the strong German defensive lines of trenches, thick wire entanglements and concrete pill-boxes, seize the high ground of the ridge upon which sits the village of Passchendaele (Passendale today) and from there capture the German-occupied Belgian Channel ports out of which their submarines operated.
Yet even after the official ‘closure' of the Third Ypres campaign on 10 November 1917, some very heavy and brutal fighting took place as the Allies continued to wrestle with the Germans for overall command of the ridge towards the village of Westrozebeke, north-east of Passchendaele, the intention being to secure a tactical advantage over the winter of 1917-18. It is ground seldom visited or studied today but its sweep can be viewed when looking north over the back wall of Passchendaele New British Cemetery which lies less than half-a-mile north-west of the centre of Passchendaele village.
At 01.55 hours on the bright, moonlit night of 2 December 1917, the 2nd Battalion of The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry launched an attack as part of the only large-scale night offensive during the entire campaign. The men moved out towards the German front from positions some 500 yards off into the fields north of the cemetery wall, moving diagonally cross country towards the north-east.
Silhouetted by the moonlight, the men were seen immediately as soon as they rose to the attack and were scythed down by a murderous cross fire from German machine-guns sited in a string of shell holes and the rubble of several farm buildings. The battalions on either side of the KOYLI - 2nd Rifle Brigade to the right and 16th Highland Light Infantry to the left - lost direction and everyone cut across each other's axis as they all struggled forward into the swamp. Absolute chaos reigned.
The attack failed with very heavy losses. Almost all the battalion's officers and senior NCOs became casualties. Six officers and twenty-three men were killed with 120 men wounded and forty-one missing. Later revisions put the total number of killed at fifty-two. Amongst the missing was pre-war regular soldier Private Albert Cooksey; my paternal grandfather's older brother, my great uncle Albert.
There exists an aerial photograph of the very same area taken just three days later and somewhere on that image - small and lost forever - Albert Cooksey's body, or what little remained of it, must lie.
Photo: An aerial photograph of the area shown in the assault map which was taken just three days after the attack, showing the strongpoint of Venison Farm - which is also marked on the map. No caption is required to explain the absolute and utter desolation of the battlefield which the men of the 2nd Battalion King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had to fight on.
Albert Cooksey has no known grave and his name - fading now as the grey stone upon which it is carved weathers away - can be found on Panel 108 of the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing in Tyne Cot Cemetery, along with the names of many of his comrades who also went missing that night (see photograph above).
Passchendaele New British Cemetery itself is often bypassed by the hundreds of visitors on the coach parties which rumble ever onward towards the vast majesty that is Tyne Cot, but it is well worth a visit in its own right. Begun when graves were brought in from the battlefields of Passchendaele and Langemarck after the Armistice, of the 2,101 burials most are from are from 1917. Tragically 1,600 are unidentified. Is one of these Albert Cooksey?
Article and images contributed by Jon Cooksey.
The above is part of an original article published by Britain at War in their November 2012 issue. Below you can download a PDF of Jon's contribution to the magazine, including the extract above.