Monday, 7 October 2013

Ivor Gurney at Third Ypres

A British tank stuck in a German trench at Cambrai
Today's Telegraph features a story of extraordinary courage at Third Ypres, recounting how the crew of a tank stuck in a crater endured three days of enemy attack before the survivors made it back to British lines. Tanks had been introduced into battle by the British in 1916, but like Hannibal's elephants, they often proved so unreliable that they shocked and awed friend and foe alike. Crews gave their tanks endearing nicknames like 'Fray Bentos', because they felt squashed like meat inside them. A direct hit would turn the tank into a cooker.

Ivor Gurney was a machine-gunner at Third Ypres, practising (he tells us) his 'Scales and arpeggios' on the unlikeliest of musical instruments. Better that than killing Germans at close hand, although he was criticised by comrades for having taken what they considered to be a 'cushy' job. Machine-gunners were often targeted by artillery fire, although that may have still seemed preferable to going over the top with the battalion. From his hill overlooking the battlefield, Gurney 'watched Gloucesters go in a smother / Of gun smoke'. His closest friend, Don Hancox, was injured in the assault of 22 August 1917, and died of wounds the next day.

Years later, in the asylum to which he had been confined, suffering from what was probably schizophrenia, Gurney remembered 'The stuck tanks' which had disappeared into the Belgian mud. Several remain there to this day. He won his ticket back to Blighty a fortnight later having inhaled gas, but he felt that the 'Real reason' had been the involuntary shaking of his body 'at such Hell of din'. Still, he could think admiringly of Passchendaele 'exalted and gilded' by September sun, and the courage in the faces of the men who went over'many for the last time'.

The battlefield of Third Ypres today. © Brian Davies


  1. On the 1911 census Ivor Bertie Gurney is aged 20 and his occupation is Musician. He is living with his family - his father David is a Master Tailor and his older sister Winifred is a School Teacher. Leonard Donald Hancox lived about half a mile away from Ivor and he was seven years younger. Following his battlefield injury on 22/8/1917 Corporal Hancox must have been moved to a casualty station a mile SW of Poperinge because he is buried nearby at Lijssenthoek Cemetery. He was either 19 or just 20 when he died.

  2. Yes, I went to Hancox's grave, when we were filming the BBC documentary.