Capturing the village of Passchendaele

Ninety-nine days and three hours into the Third Battle of Ypres, on 6 November 1917, the first Allied troops reached the shattered village of Passchendaele. Losses for both sides were heavy in the 11-day final assault by Canadian troops. During the attack, Reg Le Brun posed for a picture with his machine gun unit. By the end, Reg’s five pals were dead.

Reg managed a hint of a smile for the Canadian journalist who took the photo. It was close to his 23rd birthday and he had come a long way. He was born in Brixton, South London, in 1894, after his parents had returned to Britain after emigrating from their native Jersey to Australia. Reg emigrated to Canada and was a steam fitter in Vancouver when he volunteered in April 1916.

Reg Le Brun
Reg Le Brun (first man in the foreground) was the only survivor from this photo taken on the battlefield. Credit: DPA/PA Images

Private Le Brun joined 16 Company Machine Gun Corps, part of the Canadian 4th Division called up for the final push on Passchendaele. On 26 October 1917, after a 35-mile march from Lens, Reg arrived at Ypres, settling down to rest by the ruined cathedral. As pots of mulligan stew and tea were being prepared there was a huge explosion; the cook had set his fire on top of a buried stash of five-inch shells. Reg said:

“Stretcher bearers took him away but he didn’t stand much of a chance. We were depressed. We felt heartbroken. We lay on our groundsheets. None of us slept much that night.”

The day before the attack Reg came across a wounded comrade:

“He was on the ground propped up on his elbow with his tunic open. I nearly vomited. His insides were spilling out and he was trying to push this awful stuff back in. When he saw me he said: ‘Finish it for me, mate. Put a bullet in me. Go on. I want you to. Finish it!’. He didn’t have a gun himself. When I did nothing he started to swear. He cursed and swore at me even after I turned and ran. I didn’t have my revolver. All my life I’ve never stopped wondering what I would have done if I had.”

Reg described the final hours of the attack, firing his water-cooled Vickers gun into the darkness to stop German counter-attacks:

“The bodies of our men were piled up all over the place, including Lt Gauvereau, who had been killed by a shell. We’d buried him and I stuck a rifle on his grave but his body had been blown up again and what was left of it was lying a few feet away. We were taking terrible casualties. By midday we had lost two machine guns out of four. By the afternoon we had lost two men of our own team of five.

“There was nothing between us and the Germans across the swamp. During the night they shelled us heavily. By morning, out of our team of six, only my buddy Tombes and I were left. After that terrible night, the mist of morning creeping over the sea of mud, my hands were covered with blood, steaming from the work of dressing the wounded. Then came the burst that got Tombes. It got him right in the head. His blood and brains, pieces of skull and lumps of hair, spattered all over my greatcoat and gas mask. I stood there trying to wipe the bits off. It was a terrible feeling to be the only one left.”

More than 15,000 Canadians were killed, wounded or lost in just eight weeks of fighting at Passchendaele. Reg, who was wounded in the knee in September 1918, returned to Canada after the war.

He moved just across the border to Anacortes, Washington State, where in his later years he would welcome visitors to a maritime museum. He died in 1982 aged 87.

Passchendaele 100

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