At the very start of the Great War, in August 1914, the city of Birmingham asked for a thousand volunteers to form a battalion for the coming conflict. Within days, enough men stepped forward to form 1st, 2nd and 3rd City of Birmingham Battalions, 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. They were known as the Birmingham Pals, and their handsome memorial is on the north side of the nave.
All three battalions took an active part in the war, in France and Flanders. Each took part in all the major battles, including the Third Battle of Ypres, often known as Passchendaele, being fought exactly a hundred years ago. It was during that terrible battle, in the morning of 9th October 1917, that the 16th Battalion suffered its worst losses.
In the five days before they were in the front line, mainly a series of water- and mud-filled shell holes, in relentless rain and often under accurate artillery fire. Lieutenant Colonel Grahame Deakin, the Commanding Officer described them as ‘in a deplorable condition…it rained heavily, soaking everybody, and it was quite impossible to get them any hot food.’
However, they were set the task of capturing Polderhoeck Chateau, a key position in a ruined house on a rise that had been heavily reinforced by the German army. It was a formidable place, too well defended by artillery and machine guns. Although members of the Battalion briefly reached the objective they couldn’t hold it, and had to withdraw, exhausted and with very heavy casualties.
More than half the 514 soldiers that started the day were casualties – 52 killed, 28 missing and 213 wounded – and of twenty officers, thirteen were killed, wounded or missing. As a result the battalion had to withdraw to rebuild. Soon afterwards, 16th Battalion was moved to the Italian front before returning to France and Flanders in 1918.
On the hundredth anniversary of this heartbreaking event, please pray for the souls of the dead, and for their families.