Battle of Passchendaele

Battle of Passchendaele

The third major battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, took place between July and November, 1917. General Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief in France, was encouraged by the gains made at the offensive at Messines. Haig was convinced that the German army was now close to collapse and once again made plans for a major offensive to obtain the necessary breakthrough. The official history of the battle claimed Haig's plan "may seem super-optimistic and too far-reaching, even fantastic". Many historians have suggested that the main problem was that Haig "had chosen a field of operations where the preliminary bombardment churned the Flanders plain into impassable mud." (1)

The opening attack at Passchendaele was carried out by General Hubert Gough and the British Fifth Army with General Herbert Plumer and the Second Army joining in on the right and General Francois Anthoine and the French First Army on the left. After a 10 day preliminary bombardment, with 3,000 guns firing 4.25 million shells, the British offensive started at Ypres a 3.50 am on 31st July.

Allied attacks on the German front-line continued despite very heavy rain that turned the Ypres lowlands into a swamp. The situation was made worse by the fact that the British heavy bombardment had destroyed the drainage system in the area. This heavy mud created terrible problems for the infantry and the use of tanks became impossible.

Percival Phillips of The Daily Express commented: "The weather changed for the worse last night, although fortunately too late to hamper the execution of our plans. The rain was heavy and constant throughout the night. It was still beating down steadily when the day broke chill and cheerless, with a thick blanket of mist completely shutting off the battlefield. During the morning it slackened to a dismal drizzle, but by this time the roads, fields, and footways were covered with semi-liquid mud, and the torn ground beyond Ypres had become in places a horrible quagmire." (2)

As William Beach Thomas, a journalist working for the Daily Mail, pointed out: "Floods of rain and a blanket of mist have doused and cloaked the whole of the Flanders plain. The newest shell-holes, already half-filled with soakage, are now flooded to the brim. The rain has so fouled this low, stoneless ground, spoiled of all natural drainage by shell-fire, that we experienced the double value of the early work, for today moving heavy material was extremely difficult and the men could scarcely walk in full equipment, much less dig. Every man was soaked through and was standing or sleeping in a marsh. It was a work of energy to keep a rifle in a state fit to use." (3)

On 31st July 1917, Lieutenant Robert Sherriff and his men of the the East Surrey Regiment were called forward to attack the German positions. "The living conditions in our camp were sordid beyond belief. The cookhouse was flooded, and most of the food was uneatable. There was nothing but sodden biscuits and cold stew. The cooks tried to supply bacon for breakfast, but the men complained that it smelled like dead men.... At dawn on the morning of the attack, the battalion assembled in the mud outside the huts. I lined up my platoon and went through the necessary inspection. Some of the men looked terribly ill: grey, worn faces in the dawn, unshaved and dirty because there was no clean water. I saw the characteristic shrugging of their shoulders that I knew so well. They hadn't had their clothes off for weeks, and their shirts were full of lice." (4)

In the first few days of fighting the Allies suffered about 35,000 killed and wounded. Haig described the situation as "highly satisfactory" and "the losses slight". David Lloyd George was furious and met with Sir William Robertson, the Chief of Staff, and complained about "the futile massacre... piled up the ghastly hecatombs of slaughter". Lloyd George repeatedly told Robertson that the offensive must be "abandoned as soon as it became evident that its aims were unattainable." (5)

The German Fourth Army held off the main British advance and restricted the British to small gains on the left of the line. Eventually, General Haig called off the attacks and did not resume the offensive until 26th September. These attacks enabled the British forces to take possession of the ridge east of Ypres. Despite the return of heavy rain, Haig ordered further attacks towards the Passchendaele Ridge. Attacks on the 9th and 12th October were unsuccessful. As well as the heavy mud, the advancing British soldiers had to endure mustard gas attacks. This gas caused particular problems, because its odour was not very strong. (6)

Three more attacks took place in October and on the 6th November the village of Passchendaele was finally taken by British and Canadian infantry. Sir Douglas Haig was severely criticized for continuing with the attacks long after the operation had lost any real strategic value. Since the beginning of the offensive, British troops had advanced five miles at a cost of at least 250,000 casualties, though some authorities say 300,000. "Certainly 100,000 of them occurred after Haig's insistence on continuing the fighting into October. German losses over the whole of the Western Front for the same period were about 175,000." (7)

Floods of rain and a blanket of mist have doused and cloaked the whole of the Flanders plain. It was a work of energy to keep a rifle in a state fit to use.

The weather changed for the worse last night, although fortunately too late to hamper the execution of our plans. During the morning it slackened to a dismal drizzle, but by this time the roads, fields, and footways were covered with semi-liquid mud, and the torn ground beyond Ypres had become in places a horrible quagmire.

It was pretty bad in the opinion of the weary soldiers who came back with wounds, but it was certainly worse for the enemy holding fragments of broken lines still heavily hammered by the artillery and undoubtedly disheartened by the hardships of a wet night in the open after a day of defeat.

I talked today with a number of wounded men engaged in the fighting in Langemark and beyond, and they are unanimous in declaring that the enemy infantry made a very poor show wherever they were deprived of their supporting machine guns and forced to choose between meeting a bayonet charge and fight. The mud was our men's greatest grievance. It clung to their legs at every step. Frequently they had to pause to pull their comrades from the treacherous mire - figures embedded to the waist, some of them trying to fire their rifles at a spitting machine gun and yet, despite these almost incredible difficulties, they saved each other and fought the Hun through the floods to Langemarck.

Every man of ours who fought on the way to Passchendaele agreed that those battles in Flanders were the most awful, the most bloody, and the most hellish. The condition of the ground, out from Ypres and beyond the Menin Gate, was partly the cause of the misery and the filth. Heavy rains fell, and made one great bog in which every shell crater was a deep pool. There were thousands of shell craters. Our guns had made them, and German gunfire, slashing our troops, made thousands more, linking them together so that they were like lakes in some places, filled with slimy water and dead bodies. Our infantry had to advance heavily laden with their kit, and with arms and hand-grenades and entrenching tools - like pack animals - along slimy duckboards on which it was hard to keep a footing, especially at night when the battalions were moved under cover of darkness.

At dawn on the morning of the attack, the battalion assembled in the mud outside the huts. They hadn't had their clothes off for weeks, and their shirts were full of lice.

Our progress to the battle area was slow and difficult. We had to move forward in single file along the duckboard tracks that were loose and slimy. If you slipped off, you went up to your knees in mud.

During the walk the great bombardment from the British guns fell silent. For days it had wracked our nerves and destroyed our sleep. The sudden silence was uncanny. A sort of stagnant emptiness surrounded us. Your ears still sang from the incessant uproar, but now your mouth went dry. An orchestral overture dies away in a theatre as the curtain rises, so the great bombardment faded into silence as the infantry went into the attack. We knew now that the first wave had left the British front-line trenches, that we were soon to follow...

All of us, I knew, had one despairing hope in mind: that we should be lucky enough to be wounded, not fatally, but severely enough to take us out of this loathsome ordeal and get us home. But when we looked across that awful slough ahead of us, even the thought of a wound was best forgotten. If you were badly hit, unable to move, what hope was there of being carried out of it? The stretcher bearers were valiant men, but there were far too few of them...

The order came to advance. There was no dramatic leap out of the trenches. The sandbags on the parapet were so slimy with rain and rotten with age that they fell apart when you tried to grip them. You had to crawl out through a slough of mud. Some of the older men, less athletic than the others, had to be heaved out bodily.

From then on, the whole thing became a drawn-out nightmare. There were no tree stumps or ruined buildings ahead to help you keep direction. The shelling had destroyed everything. As far as you could see, it was like an ocean of thick brown porridge. The wire entanglements had sunk into the mud, and frequently, when you went in up to the knees, your legs would come out with strands of barbed wire clinging to them, and your hands torn and bleeding through the struggle to drag them off...

All this area had been desperately fought over in the earlier battles of Ypres. Many of the dead had been buried where they fell and the shells were unearthing and tossing up the decayed bodies. You would see them flying through the air and disintegrating...

In the old German trench we came upon a long line of men, some lolling on the fire step, some sprawled on the ground, some standing upright, leaning against the trench wall. They were British soldiers - all dead or dying. Their medical officer had set up a first-aid station here, and these wounded men had crawled to the trench for his help. But the doctor and his orderlies had been killed by a shell that had wrecked his station, and the wounded men could only sit or lie there and die. There was no conceivable hope of carrying them away.

We came at last to some of the survivors of the first wave. They had reached what had once been the German support line, still short of their objective. An officer said, "I've got about fifteen men here. I started with a hundred. I don't know where the Germans are." He pointed vaguely out across the land ahead.

"They're somewhere out there. They've got machine guns, and you can see those masses of unbroken barbed wire. It's useless to go on. The best you can do is to bring your men in and hold the line with us."

We were completely isolated. The only communication with the rear was to scribble messages in notebooks and give them to orderlies to take back. But the orderlies wouldn't have the faintest idea where the nearest command post was, even if they survived.

We found an old German shelter and brought into it all our wounded that we could find. We carried pocket first-aid dressings, but the small pads and bandages were useless on great gaping wounds. You did what you could, but it was mainly a matter of watching them slowly bleed to death...

It came to an end for me sometime that afternoon. For an hour or more we waited in that old German trench. Sometimes a burst of machine-gun bullets whistles overhead, as if the Germans were saying, "Come on if you dare".

Our company commander had made his headquarters under a few sheets of twisted corrugated iron.

"I want you to explore along the trench,' he (Warre-Dymond) said to me, and see whether you can find B Company (it was in fact D Company). They started off on our right flank, but I haven't seen anything of them since. If you can find them, we can link up together and get some sort of order into things.'

So I set off with my runner. It was like exploring the mountains of the moon. We followed the old trench as best we could...

We heard the thin whistle of its approach, rising to a shriek. It landed on top of a concrete pillbox that we were passing, barely five yards away. A few yards further, and it would have been the end of us. The crash was deafening. My runner let out a yell of pain. I didn't yell so far as I know because I was half-stunned. I remember putting my hand to the right side of my face and feeling nothing; to my horror I thought that the whole side had been blown away.

On my nineteenth birthday, 17 June 1917, we were in the trenches at Passchendaele. We didn't go into action, but I saw it all happen. Haig put a three-day barrage on the Germans, and thought, 'Well, there can't be much left of them.' I think it was the Yorkshires and Lancashires that went over. I watched them as they came out of their dugouts and the German machine guns just mowed them down. I doubt whether any of them reached the front line.

A couple of weeks after that we moved to Pilckem Ridge. I can still see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces as we went over the top. We crawled because if you stood up you'd be killed. All over the battlefield the wounded were lying there, English and German, all crying for help. But we weren't like the Good Samaritan in the Bible, we were the robbers who passed by and left them. You couldn't stop to help them. I came across a Cornishman who was ripped from shoulder to his waist with shrapnel, his stomach on the ground beside him. A bullet wound is clean - shrapnel tears you all to pieces. As I got to him he said, 'Shoot me.' Before I could draw my revolver, he died. I was with him for the last sixty seconds of his life. He gasped one word -'Mother'. That one word has run through my brain for eighty-eight years. I will never forget it. I think it is the most sacred word in the English language. It wasn't a cry of distress or pain - it was one of surprise and joy. I learned later that his mother was already dead, so he felt he was going to join her.

We got as far as their second line and four Germans stood up. They didn't get up to run away, they got up to fight. One of them came running towards me. He couldn't have had any ammunition or he would have shot me, but he came towards me with his bayonet pointing at my chest. I fired and hit him in the shoulder. He dropped his rifle, but still came stumbling on. I can only suppose that he wanted to kick our Lewis Gun into the mud, which would have made it useless. I had three live rounds left in my revolver and could have killed him with the first. What should I do? I had seconds to make my mind up. I gave him his life. I didn't kill him. I shot him above the ankle and above the knee and brought him down. I knew he would be picked up, passed back to a POW camp, and at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Six weeks later, a countryman of his killed my three mates. If that had happened before I met that German, I would have damn well killed him. But we never fired to kill. My Number One, Bob, used to keep the gun low and wound them in the legs - bring them down. Never fired to kill them. As far as I know he never killed a German. I never did either. Always kept it low.

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(1) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) page 125

(2) Percival Phillips, The Daily Express (2nd August, 1917)

(3) William Beach Thomas, Daily Mail (2nd August, 1917)

(4) Robert Sherriff, No Leading Lady (1968)

(5) David Lloyd George, War Memoirs: Volume II (1936) page 1272

(6) Peter Liddle, Passchendaele in Perspective: The Third Battle of Ypres (1998) page 195

(7) John Laffin, British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (1988) page 116


Passchendaele: Britain’s Most Controversial WW1 Battle

Alfred Korzybski’s famous expression has been used here before while discussing World War 1, and with good reason. It's meant to highlight the fact that there is often a big difference between reality and belief.

In the case of the First World War, the saying is doubly apt, because very often a map did actually represent the way a commander thought about the terrain his men were fighting on meanwhile, the gripe of men on the ground was that the reality of battle was far different (read: less rosy) than their senior commanders believed.

At least, that’s what is summed up in an episode reported by the historian Captain B H Liddell Hart in his 1930 book ‘The Real War 1914-1918’.

The scene: Belgium in November 1917, at the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, later dubbed ‘Passchendaele’ after a village that came to be the campaign’s final objective.

It was everyone’s perception of what the Western Front was like - a bleak, overcast and flooded plain mutilated by artillery and lashed by months of torrential rain.

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Surveying what was effectively, by that point, a swamp carpeted by so much artillery that the lunar battlefield had given way to flooded pools formed of joined-up shell holes, Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell was aghast.

The Chief of General Staff under the BEF’s (British Expeditionary Force’s) Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Kiggell was now apparently seeing, for the first time, the conditions Tommies had been fighting in for about three months:

“Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”

He was informed that, in fact, things were even worse further up.

If Kiggell had wondered just how much worse, he might have read the incisive poetry of First World War soldier Siegfried Sassoon, whose ‘Memorial Tablet’ sums up the experience of many who did not return from the battle:

“Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme.*) I died in hell
(They called it Passchendaele.) My wound was slight
And I was hobbling back, and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.”

(*The Derby Scheme was a method of encouraging men to join the armed forces and then tracking them when they did so to determine if conscription would eventually be required to meet the government’s recruitment targets. It eventually was, and in the end, the Battle of Passchendaele would see old hands fight alongside both volunteers and conscripts within the British Army).

While Passchendaele came to symbolise the futility of some of the fighting during the First World War, drowning in mud came to symbolise Passchendaele.

But for all the passion in Passchendale, the veracity of Kiggell’s 'good-God' moment has been disputed, not least by Nick Lloyd, military and imperial historian at King’s College London and author of ‘Passchendaele: A New History’.

His book, released for the centenary of the battle (which lasted from July 31 until November 10, 1917) provides a detailed blow-by-blow account while also exploring the controversies surrounding the campaign.

Along the way, he challenges our enduring perceptions of the battle and draws unexpected conclusions from the detailed information he provides.

WHY THERE? WHY THEN?

On the face of it, attacking in Flanders was madness.

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The terrain had been ground up by continuous shelling, saturated by the thaw from a particularly frosty 1916/1917 winter, and then drenched by what would be an incredibly wet summer and autumn.

Anyone could see that Flanders was the worst place to pick a fight, especially in 1917.

But two considerations converged earlier in the year that made Sir Douglas Haig choose to do battle there.

One was the concern of former Admiral of the Fleet and current First Sea Lord John Jellicoe that the regular sinking of merchant shipping by U-boats might force Britain out of the war in 1918.

The other was Haig’s belief that a fight must be started with the Germans in order to relieve pressure on the French.

Following the disastrous Nivelle Offensive in the spring of 1917, the French Army had suffered from widespread mutinies.

Nivelle had been promptly removed and replaced by the ‘Saviour of Verdun’, General Petain.

The British were positioned in the most northerly section of the Western Front, with Flanders taking up a huge chunk of their line.

Haig believed that a breakthrough here could force a wider German retreat and allow the BEF to take the U-boat ports on the Belgian coast.

As a bonus, German reserves would have to be thrown into this battle, denying them the opportunity to be used against the weakened French Army.

There were, however, doubters in Downing Street.

Chief amongst these was the PM, David Lloyd George. He’d been elected on a promise of delivering a decisive victory, but it was one he wanted to fight for cautiously. (He also favoured pursuing that victory outside of the Western Front).

He later related how sceptical he’d been when the C-in-C had presented his plan of attack for the coming Battle of Third Ypres:

“When Sir Douglas Haig explained his projects to the civilians (in the Downing Street Cabinet) he spread on the table a large map, and made dramatic use of both his hands to demonstrate how he proposed to sweep up the enemy. First the right hand, brushed along the surface irresistibly, then came the left, the outer finger ultimately touching the German frontier with a nail across. It is not surprising that some of our number were so captivated by the splendour of the landscape opened out to our vision, that their critical faculties were overwhelmed.”

Lloyd George’s critical faculties clearly weren’t overwhelmed. He’d been sceptical of Haig for some time, particularly following the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

This was despite the PM having served his time in the metaphorical trenches, and having done more than perhaps anyone else to aid Western Front generals from the political side of the fence.

After the war had got into full swing in 1915, a shell shortage had hampered progress on the battlefield, something generals like Haig had had to contend with.

Fanning the flames of the scandal, and pushing for urgently needed reform, was the Daily Mail. One headline blared:

“THE TRAGEDY OF THE SHELLS. LORD KITCHENER’S GRAVE ERROR.”

To accuse a semi-deity like Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1 Earl Kitchener, the ‘Hero of Khartoum’, former Field Marshal and then Secretary of State for War of being complicit took guts, and showed just how must sway the Mail had. Lord Northcliffe, the owner, was the most influential newspaperman in the country. (However, after attacking Kitchener, the paper's daily circulation dropped from almost one-and-a-half million to 238,000).

For his part, Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer at that point, had joined in, railing against what he saw as his nation’s dangerous complacency:

“We are fighting against the best-organised community in the world (Germany) – the best organised whether for war or peace – and we have been employing too much the hap-hazard go-as-you-please methods which, believe me, would not have enabled us to maintain our place as a nation, even in peace, much longer. The nation now needs all of the machinery that is capable of being used for turning out munitions or equipment, all the skill that is available for that purpose, all the industry, all the labour and all the strength, power and resource of everyone to the utmost.”

As the BBC’s 1964 series ‘The Great War’ put it, “War had outgrown battlefields, it had become the test of a nation’s technology”, and Lloyd George, a dynamo of a politician, was the man tasked with maximising Britain’s efficiency. He was appointed Minister of Munitions.

From the beginning, he was forced to build the department up from some very humble origins, as he noted at the time, conversing in his Welsh Valley lilt with his assistant:

“There was a table. I forget whether there were one or two chairs, but by the orders of the Board of Works, there was no carpet. I believe I had a greater struggle over getting a carpet than I had over getting £50 million (£4.7 billion in today’s money) for munitions. I said to my assistant, ‘Look at that table. Look at those two chairs’. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘what is the matter with them?’ I said ‘Those are the ministry of munitions’.”

By the time the Battle of the Somme rolled around, Sir John French had been blamed for prior battlefield problems and replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as head of the BEF.

When Haig launched his set-piece battle on July 1, 1916, there were shells aplenty, Lloyd George’s efforts having paid off.

Many, unfortunately, were duds, something that would take a while longer to fix, but crucially, their effectiveness was also hampered by the way in which they were deployed.

The impressive number of shells fired in the preliminary bombardment (over a million) masked the fact that their impact was severely diluted.

This involved a huge amount of artillery support, including protective artillery screens that would fall in front of troops before they took enemy positions.

In some instances on the Somme, this meant lifting an artillery barrage before attacking troops would climb out of their trenches and rush across no man’s land to kill or capture the stunned German defenders, or so it was envisioned.

In other instances, a much more sophisticated ‘creeping barrage’ was employed, whereby artillery support and troop movements would be carefully calibrated so that soldiers could advance right behind a protective curtain of artillery fire.

This would keep the enemy’s heads down until it was, at a pre-arranged time, lifted in small stages, allowing attacking soldiers to rush German defenders before they could surface from their dugouts and trenches.

In the end, it was this protocol that became the standard, but even before it had become so, Rawlinson’s plans might have worked out better if Haig’s goals for the battle had not been so ambitious.

He was impatient to take more territory and laid out objectives for the first day (July 1) that would, in the end, take until the middle of November to achieve.

Consequently, many guns had to be allocated to more distant targets, whereas Rawlinson had originally intended to use all his artillery pieces to bombard nearer objectives. The result was that attacking soldiers received far less artillery support than they otherwise would have.

By mid-1917, however, two recent actions had demonstrated the wisdom of combining Rawlinson’s more limited bite-and-hold approach with overwhelming support for attacking infantry.

One was the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a small British portion of Nivelle’s larger spring offensive.

This had seen Germans stunned by enormous underground mines that blew up many of their positions before the attack.

The other was a preliminary attack meant to prepare the right flank of the battlefield for Haig’s coming offensive at Ypres.

It took place at Messines Ridge, and its architect, Second Army commander General Herbert Plumer, had a similarly strong commitment to the bite-and-hold approach as Rawlinson.

Like at Vimy Ridge, a line of enormous mines would devastate the German lines at the opening of the battle, but its success did not hinge on this spectacle alone.

Plumer employed tanks, gave his men in-depth training (including to lower ranks, so that they could continue to operate effectively if their officers and NCOs were killed), used a creeping barrage (with lighter artillery used on trenches and heavier artillery on enemy gun emplacements in the rear) and, most importantly, only required his men to advance a short distance.

This last part was key and was a vital component of bite-and-hold operations. By moving forward only incrementally, infantry would be assured of proper artillery support.

For all Haig's grand sweeping gestures over his map, it was a Plumer-style step-by-step approach that the Prime Minister consented to when he approved of the coming Third Battle of Ypres.

Unfortunately, Haig would disobey him.

LIONS LED BY DONKEYS

The argument over First World War generalship has raged for a century now and has gone through various stages.

The official line after the war was that the generals had done their duty, and done it well.

This was later challenged, in the late 20s and early 30s, by the likes of Liddell Hart, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon (who, admittedly, had begun his protests against the war during it).

This school of thought was summed up by the notion that fine British soldiers were ‘lions’ led by bad commanders, ‘donkeys’.

Although the pendulum has swung the other way in more recent decades, with ‘revisionist’ historians like Gary Sheffield arguing that British generals like Haig were, in fact, competent and that they overcame great odds to win the war, the ‘lions led by donkeys’ notion has remained.

The writers of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ capitalised on this stereotype and played it up to the full in the guise of the ridiculously idiotic General Melchett, played by Stephen Fry, who sits miles behind the line in his chateau.

In one instance, he asks his adjutant, Captain Darling, where his map is. When Darling hands it to him, Melchett looks aghast at it:

“God it’s a barren, featureless desert out there, isn’t it?”

Darling informs him that he is, in fact, looking at the blank paper on the back.

As well as the idiocy, Melchett also encapsulates the foolhardy courage he expects to see in his men:

“I’ve always had my doubts about you trench-type fellows. Always suspected there might be a bit too much of the battle-dodging, nappy-wearing, I’d-rather-have-a-cup-of-tea-than-charge-stark-naked-at-Jerry about you.”

The reality was that many generals did not live in chateaus, many were not idiotic, and many were brave.

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The problem, at least as Nick Lloyd explains it, is that the good generals weren’t in charge.

Plumer, the methodical, conscientious and brilliant technocrat who’d engineered the victory at Messines, was not the one given the job of running Third Ypres.

Haig turned instead to Fifth Army commander General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough.

This is because he had a solid reputation as a ‘thruster’, a rather unfortunate term for First World War generals who were deemed to be sufficiently aggressive.

But whereas Plumer’s approach can be described as bite-and-hold, Gough’s might be summed up as biting off more than he could chew.

Nick Lloyd describes his battle preparations in the following manner:

“The weight of firepower that Gough was relying upon to unlock the German defences had one drawback: it was, quite literally, destroying the landscape. The delicate drainage system of Flanders, which kept water at bay, had already been badly damaged by three years of heavy fighting. But now, with what Gough was throwing at it, it was beginning to fail. Whatever else the British needed, they urgently required a period of dry weather in which to break out of the Salient. Unfortunately, fate conspired against them.”

And that was the other big problem. The weather, usually the perennial ally of the British, also turned against them.

German defenders knew full well that dry conditions were favourable to the attackers, while in wet weather this was reversed. And just as the battle opened on July 31, 1917, wet weather is what the British got.

During the first day and the initial phases of the battle, tanks sank into the mud and troops, slowed by the horrendous sucking swamp they were now trying to cross, lost their creeping barrage.

Calibrated for a pace that worked far better when things were dry, the artillery disappeared into the distance and left the attacking infantry stuck in the mud and exposed.

When the Germans emerged from their shell holes and strong points, they had plenty of time to get ready to meet their opponents, just like at the Somme.

Indeed, Gough seemed to be playing right into German hands.

Following the losses they’d sustained the previous year, the Germans had elected to shorten their line by strategically withdrawing.

The salient (bulge) – their most westerly position – was transformed into a straight line known as ‘The Hindenburg Line’.

This freed up a number of infantry divisions and guns with which the Germans could create a strategic reserve, ready and able to plug any gap that might be punched in their line by Allied attacks during 1917.

They also developed a new defensive doctrine that was employed particularly heavily at Ypres.

It was called ‘defence in depth’ and consisted of a zone roughly 2,000 – 3,000 yards deep, the front of which would be relatively lightly defended.

This worked well at Ypres, as, apart from on the ridges further back on the German side, it was difficult to build any kind of substantial trench line.

Instead, shell holes were connected into scattered lines, while concrete blockhouses, or pillboxes, were dotted throughout this zone and formed strongpoints along it. (For their part, while in the Ypres salient, the British were largely consigned to building above-ground breastworks out of sandbags instead of traditional trenches).

The doctrine called for isolated troops to be placed in these forward areas who, after hopefully surviving the initial bombardment by the British, would then machine gun and snipe attackers from mutually reinforcing positions at various points across the battlefield.

Meanwhile, special ‘Eingreif divisions’ would rush up from behind and counterattack assaulting British infantry.

The idea was for this main force to catch the British just as they tired and their momentum slowed so that they could be hit full-bore and knocked back out of the positions they’d taken.

Unpleasant as it must have been for German soldiers right out on the frontier of their defensive zone, and difficult as it was to get Eingrief troops through the more distant British barrage, defence in depth largely defeated Gough.

It would take a change in command to finally break this cycle.

A LION IN CHARGE

Cyril Falls of 36 Division, contrasted his experience under Gough with the one his unit had under Plumer at Messines:

“The System of liaison was practised by the Second Army as in no other. General Harington’s car (he was Plumer's Chief of Staff) stopped at every door, and the cheerful young staff officers, who knew every communication trench on the Army front, who drank with company commanders in their front-line dug-outs before coming back to tea with a Brigadier, or with General [Oliver] Nugent [GOC 36th Ulster Division] at his Headquarters, formed a very real link between the Higher Command and the troops… The difficulties at Ypres were infinitely greater than at Messines that everyone recognised. But (there was a real difference in) the (level of) precision, care, and forethought (between Second and Fifth Armies). The private soldier felt a difference.”

Following the failure of Gough’s ‘thruster’ approach throughout August and the beginning of September, Haig was forced to turn back to Plumer.

When he did, the whole character of the battle changed.

To begin with, Plumer advocated attacking in and, luckily, got better conditions. The combination of this and his meticulous preparations gave the whole affair a kind of Messines Ridge-like quality of quiet confidence.

The Australian troops who went into battle under his command did so casually, keeping up with the barrage so easily that they were walking along smoking pipes and cigarettes.

And that is a key point made by Lloyd in his book. Whereas Passchendaele was about mud and blood, it wasn’t only about that.

There was a period in the middle when conditions, and the overarching strategy, improved:

“Apart from in a handful of locations – around Schuler Farm and Tower Hamlets – both Second and Fifth Armies had been able to secure their objectives (including Inverness Copse, Glencorse Wood and large sections of the Wilhelm Line) and, crucially, hold on to them, doing enormous damage to the Eingreif divisions as they did so. It had certainly not been an easy battle, but they were – inexorably and doggedly – inching their way up the high ground. Indeed, General Plumer had seemingly done the impossible: reversed the tactical dilemma that he had faced in late August. This time the further the Eingreif advanced, the more disorganized they became and the stiffer the resistance they faced. Plumer had turned their famed defence-in-depth totally on its head.”

With sufficient support and time to establish themselves, the British were able to put up enough resistance to hold onto what they’d taken. It looked like Plumer had the magic formula.

Lloyd points out though, that this notion has been challenged.

If captured ground is used as a metric of success, as is considered by historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, then Plumer was actually less successful than Gough.

During Plumer's attack, the British sustained 21,000 casualties (or just over 20,000 in other sources, see below) - presumably caused largely by fending off the 11 German counterattacks they sustained, 10 of which they repulsed.

For this, they gained five square miles. This amounted to 3,800 casualties per square mile.

(It is worth momentarily pausing to consider how ridiculously bloody the First World War was).

Meanwhile, Gough’s approach saw casualties of ‘only’ 1,500 per square mile captured because his plan was more territorially ambitious.

But this misses the point. Plumer aimed to limit his territorial gains while trying to do maximum damage to the enemy. If looking at things from that perspective, then a different picture emerges.

However, two things need to be considered.

Firstly, by this point, Plumer had only launched one of the three more successful battles that he would conduct during the Passchendaele campaign (the Battle of Menin Road Ridge the other two would be the Battle of Polygon Wood and the Battle of Broodseinde, see below).

Secondly, German casualty figures during Plumer's later battles are combined into larger periods (in the German official history 'Der Weltkreig 1914 bis 1918: Militarischen Operationen zu Lande') and so it is difficult to prize them apart.

Thus, to make a fair comparison, it is worth comparing just one of several battles that were fought by both generals within the Passchendaele campaign.

For just Gough's first engagement - the Battle of Pilckem Ridge - total British and French casualties were 33,120 (out of 13 divisions that took part) German casualties were 35,626 (5,626 as prisoners) out of seven divisions.

By comparison, for the Battle of Menin Road Ridge (from Sept 20 to 26), in Plumer’s first assault, the British are said to have actually suffered 20,255 casualties by Everard Wyrall (out of 11 divisions) while causing 28,243 German, from five divisions. (Naturally, one must remember that figures, particularly German ones, have been disputed, such as by J H McRandle and J Quirk in 'The Blood Test Revisited: A New Look at German Casualty Counts in World War I').

So if the size of the forces involved is taken into account as an alternative metric to the territory gained, then Gough’s attacks led to 2,548 casualties per division for BEF forces, and 5,089 per division for German forces.

Plumer’s attack generated 5,649 German casualties per division while sustaining 1,841 per division himself. That is a considerable difference.

As Lloyd points out, the Germans, frankly, were scared stiff of the unassuming and methodical Plumer.

He appeared to have their number – they simply couldn’t figure out how to beat him, and he continued hammering them into October.

THE LION THAT DIDN'T ROAR

Had Third Ypres ended when Plumer wanted it to, it might have been dubbed ‘The Battle of Broodseinde’ instead of Passchendaele.

This had been Plumer’s latest victory as he stomped his way ever deeper into the German lines.

But he knew that, particularly on this terrain, weather conditions had to be good enough to facilitate proper artillery preparation and troop movement in battle.

What happened next is that Haig essentially denied him this.

Buoyant, ironically, because of the success of Plumer’s more cautious attacks, he used this as a reason to push for more ambitious and continuous gains.

The tragedy of Passchendaele - apart from the fact that the village and the ridge it sat upon turned out to be strategically rather useless once the Canadians had finally taken it on November 6 (and secured it on November 10) - was that Plumer couldn’t get Haig to stop.

Lloyd points out that, beyond both he and Gough (who was now as cautious as his colleague) once telling Haig that the offensive should stop, as well as thinking that the ‘breakthrough’ Haig asked them to exploit would never occur, Plumer had a knack for following orders too much.

He seemed to resign himself to pursuing an impossible goal simply because his C-in-C had ordered him to do so, and did not protest any more than he had done initially.

What’s more, the one man who could stop Haig, PM David Lloyd George, was hamstrung by political considerations.

The CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff, a bit like today’s US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) was William Robertson, and he supported Haig.

He too wanted a bite-and-hold approach but had defended Haig from the Prime Minister’s efforts to move the war away from the stalemate on the Western Front and onto more ‘decisive’ theatres, like Italy (which, as it would turn out, would go even worse for the Allies in 1917).

Firing Robertson to get control of Haig would have provoked a backlash from the conservatives in the coalition Cabinet. Additionally, Lloyd George was powerless to act on the information he received about the battle because, by the time it had trickled through military channels, it was several weeks out of date and useless as a basis for making any kind of political or strategic decision.

What’s more, the one time he was in France, inspecting what was happening directly, was during the heady days of late September while Plumer’s offensive was in high gear.

He couldn’t have stopped the offensive then, not when it was going so well.

DONKEYS LED BY LIONS

So the attack continued because Haig wanted it to, despite the fact that the weather got far worse.

So much so, in fact, that supplies could no longer be brought up by trucks.

Instead, beasts of burden like mules had to be saddled with eight shells, four on each side, and led through the mud to supply the artillery guns bombarding the front.

Soldiers spoke of how much admiration they had for these animals, enduring not just the horrendous conditions, but also German bombardments, standing still and staying perfectly calm until the shelling had stopped.

Beyond continuing through the appalling weather, Haig’s other mistake during this period was haste, pushing for three attacks in quick succession with only a few days in between to prepare for them.

Plumer had been used to a schedule of five days, and the steadily worsening conditions probably should have meant even more time being given than this.

But Haig insisted on hurrying things along, with predictably bad results. As Lloyd tells us:

“For Plumer’s fourth step, II ANZAC Corps would make the main assault, not with Australian or New Zealand units, but two British divisions, 49th and 66th, which had assembled around Frezenberg by the evening of 8 October. It was pouring with rain. They had two and a half miles to go to reach the front line. This should have taken no more than five hours, but some attacking battalions took almost twice as long, before collapsing, exhausted and soaked through, into their jumping-off positions, shortly before the attack began.”

Problems, it seems, were piling on top of one another:

“The urgent need to get as many guns as possible forward meant that infantry routes were neglected in the days before the assault, leaving the attacking battalions to rely upon inadequately maintained duckboards that rapidly exhausted the men. Moreover, because priority had been given to the construction of single-track roads that could carry artillery, there were not enough double-track pathways to carry men and materials up and down the line, producing extra delay and what seemed like endless traffic congestion.”

Focusing on just the 49 Division, this unit’s records give a clear indication of just how severely their attack was hampered by the weather and poor preparations.

To begin with, they didn’t notice when the barrage was lifted off in front of them because it was so much weaker than it should have been. And in any case, they failed to keep up with it in the clinging mud.

They were required to cross the Ravebeek, a feature that had been a modest stream prior to the battle, but that had now swollen to a river about 50 yards wide in some places, and was waist deep in the middle.

They, of course, had to cross this while being shot at by German soldiers who’d survived the ineffective bombardment.

One unit in the centre of this maelstrom was the 1/7 West Yorkshire Regiment, the Leeds Rifles (a Territorial formation).

According to ‘West Riding Territorials in the Great War’ by Laurie Magnus, every single officer and senior NCO (i.e. sergeants and warrant officers) in three out its four companies were killed or wounded.

Small wonder the attack ground to a halt – it’s a miracle that the division's first objectives were even taken at all (the second objectives were obviously not).

One driver with the 49 Division, Stanley Roberts, talked about how the battle was altering his perceptions. He now saw battle differently, as:

“. no longer a Darwinian survival of the fittest, but the survival of those who stay safely away from this terrible holocaust, whether in civilian occupation or comfortable billets, either at the Base or in England. The strongest, healthiest man cannot refuse death when a shell hits him and smashes his body to blood clots. My faith in war is wavering…”

This is a poignant reminder that ‘German aggression’ did not exist in isolation.

To one degree or another, the European powers in general thought of war as normal and even desirable.

In the Social Darwinian sense, it was thought of, by some, as cleansing for society as it got rid of those with weaker genes (although the term ‘gene’ would not be coined until later).

Perhaps Roberts’ faith in war would have wavered sooner if he’d reflected on the fact that the ‘fittest’ might also include the ‘smartest’ and bravest men.

People who, in other words, would have been moved into positions of front-line leadership of one form or another once the horrors of war had become apparent and the quick victories that were promised never materialised.

Naturally, being in such positions would have made these men more likely to have been killed.

Far from killing off the weak and preserving the strong, war, and particularly the First World War, may have in fact disproportionately killed the best. (Where luck wasn’t involved, of course, which it was a lot).

SO WHY PASSCHENDAELE?

After several more costly assaults in which countless numbers disappeared into the mud amidst the ever worsening horrific conditions, Haig eventually turned to the commander of the Canadian Corps.

Well-organised and determined, General Sir Arthur Currie was very much like Plumer.

He was methodical and intelligent and worked like mad to make sure his troops had as much support as he could muster.

What he could not understand was just why Haig had to take Passchendaele Ridge.

He was simply told over and over again that it was difficult to explain and that Haig would do so one day. He never did, and Lloyd surmises:

“The truth was that without (the ridge) he had little to show for an offensive that had been conceived in over-optimism and which had failed to achieve its grandiose objectives (of taking the U-boat ports on the Belgian coast)… Haig would have to go barehanded back to the War Cabinet (in Downing Street) and beg for their forgiveness. Therefore, the capture of Passchendaele was not about breaking the line or fixing the enemy in place, or even getting a better line for the winter – it was about saving Haig’s own skin.”

If this is true, it is a truly horrendous condemnation of Haig. Just being in Ypres was dangerous, much less continuing to fight there.

According to Martin Marix Evan’s ‘Passchendaele and the the Battles of Ypres 1914-18’, during the Poelcapelle battle in early October, Sergeant T Berry of 1 Rifle Brigade was alerted to the plight of one wounded man who appeared to have sought shelter in a shell hole. He soon regretted it:

“We heard screaming coming from another crater a bit away… it was a big hole and there was this fellow of the 8th Suffolks in it up to his shoulders. So I said, ‘Get your rifles, one man in the middle to stretch them out, make a chain and let him get hold of it.’ But it was no use. It was too far… The more we pulled and the more he struggled the further he seemed to go down. He went down gradually. He kept begging us to shoot him. But we couldn’t shoot him. Who could shoot him? We stayed with him, watching him go down in the mud. And he died.”

Things weren’t much better for the Germans.

Lloyd shares descriptions of them being crammed into their concrete pillboxes, worried that British shells might disappear into the soft mud only to explode underneath their feet. (Their blockhouses were, after all, specifically targetted by the guns).

Worse yet was being rocked around by artillery while inside these pillboxes, like they were in ships on a violent ocean. Men feared that these shelters might be knocked sideways and the doorways blocked, trapping them inside. (And, presumably, they fretted about the fact that they might then sink into and drown in the mud).

But despite the difficulties and the horrific conditions, Currie agreed to send his Canadians on to Passchendaele:

“All ranks made the assault with great dash. Under heavy machine-gun fire, they pushed on into the village of Passchendale, clearing cellars and bayoneting any Germans who refused to surrender.”

For their part, the heavy artillery fire stopped Eingreif divisions from being able to get in to help their comrades, and, in any case, with all the telephone wires having been destroyed by the incessant shelling, it was impossible for those in the rear to establish if the village was even still in German hands.

They had to send isolated patrols out to skirt and get through the barrages, and when they did, they found the Canadians had, in fact, taken it.

But was it worth it? Lloyd asks this question over and over again:

“Over the decades, historians have not failed to point out Haig’s errors at Third Ypres: his inexplicable optimism in believing that he could clear the Belgian coast the fatal delay after Messines his decision to appoint an unsuitable commander in Gough his failure to thrash out the details of the plan and order Gough to take the Gheluvelt Plateau and his decision to continue attacking when all hope of a decisive result had gone.”

He points out that, in justifying the assault on Passchendaele, Haig had invoked, both before, and afterwards, the plight of the French Army. Yet Nivelle’s disastrous attack had so over-extended his troops that it produced a mutiny.

His replacement, Petain, then told Haig not to make the same mistake. He very nearly did just that, stretching his army to the absolute limit during Third Ypres. (The British did, in fact, suffer a small mutiny of their own at Etaples in September of 1917).

Remembering The Wounded Survivors Of Passchendaele

However, if the offensive was going to be fought, Lloyd points out that it should have been done so the way Plumer had advocated:

“Had the Second Army commander been in charge from the beginning, had the offensive begun a month earlier, and had ‘bite and hold’ been the guiding principle upon which British operations were based, who knows what could have been achieved? It is possible that a major victory could have been won in the late summer and autumn of 1917. While this might not have entailed the complete liberation of the Belgian coast, it is not inconceivable that continued British pressure, heavier German losses and the effect of regular hammer blows might have convinced the German High Command that it was best to cut their losses… and raised the possibility of a compromise peace.”

Rounding out the book, Lloyd returns to the story of Haig’s Chief of Staff:

“The true story of Kiggell and the mud – which opened this history – is, in some respects, even worse than the legend would have us believe. Haig and GHQ were well aware of how bad conditions were, but still pressed ahead anyway. Both Haig’s diary and his despatch on ‘The Campaign of 1917’ are littered with references to the bad weather and difficult ground conditions.”

One must question the writer here though. Haig may have been aware that things were bad, but it's not clear that he knew just how bad 'bad' really was.

We may never know what really happened or what exactly what went wrong at GHQ, but what does seem clear from Lloyd’s account is that if the BEF had had Plumer, or someone like him, in command during 1917, a lot more would have gone right.

For more, read ‘Passchendaele: A New History’ by Nick Lloyd. Ken Hills’ ‘World War I’ provides a pictorial history suitable for children of any service personnel, while ‘Great Battles of World War I’ by Anthony Livesey and Osprey’s ‘Passchendaele And the Battles of Ypres 1914-18’ by Martin Marix Evans, ‘FE 2b/d vs Albatros Scouts’ by James F Miller and 'The Vickers-Maxim Machine Gun' by Martin Pegler provide visual histories of the period and weapons for adults. Visit Osprey Publishing’s website for more military history.


The Battle of Passchendaele

On 6th November 1917, after three months of fierce fighting, British and Canadian forces finally took control of the tiny village of Passchendaele in the West Flanders region of Belgium, so ending one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. With approximately a third of a million British and Allied soldiers either killed or wounded, the Battle of Passchendaele (officially the third battle of Ypres), symbolises the true horror of industrialised trench warfare.

General Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief in France, had been convinced to launch his forces at the German submarine bases along the Belgian coast in an attempt to reduce the massive shipping losses then being suffered by the Royal Navy. General Haig also believed that the German army was close to collapse and that a major offensive …“just one more push”, could hasten the end the war.

Thus the offensive at Passchendaele was launched on the 18th July 1917 with a bombardment of the German lines involving 3,000 guns. In the 10 days that followed, it is estimated that over 4¼ million shells were fired. Many of these would have been filled by the brave Lasses of Barnbow.

The actual infantry assault followed at 03.50 on 31st July, but far from collapsing, the German Fourth Army fought well and restricted the main British advance to relatively small gains.

Shortly after the initial assault, the heaviest rains in more that 30 years began to fall on Flanders, drenching the soldiers and the low lying fields over which the battle was taking place. The artillery shells that had bombarded the German lines only days before had not only torn up the land but had also destroyed the drainage systems that were keeping the reclaimed marshland dry. With the continued pounding, the rain drenched ground quickly turned into a thick swamp of mud.

Even the newly-developed tanks made little headway unable to move, they quickly became stuck fast in the liquid mud. With each new phase of the offensive the rain kept falling, filling the shell holes with water. The clinging mud caked the soldier’s uniforms and clogged their rifles, but that was the least of their worries as in places the mud had become so deep that both men and horses were drowned, lost forever in the stinking quagmire.

The only solid structures in this sea of desolation were the enemy’s concrete pillboxes from here the German machine-gunners could scythe down any Allied infantry that had been ordered to advance.

With the hopelessness of the situation apparent, General Haig temporarily suspended the attack.

A fresh British offensive was launched on the 20th September under the command of Herbert Plumer which eventually resulted in some small gains being made including the capture of a nearby ridge just east of Ypres. General Haig ordered further attacks in early October which proved less successful. Allied troops met stiff opposition from German reserves being poured into the area, and many British and Empire soldiers suffered severe chemical burns as the Germans employed mustard gas to help defend their position.

Unwilling to accept failure, General Haig ordered three more assaults on the Passchendaele ridge in late October. Casualty rates were high during these final stages, with Canadian divisions in particular suffering huge losses. When British and Canadian forces finally reached Passchendaele on 6th November 1917 hardly a trace of the original village structures remained. The capture of the village did however give General Haig the excuse to call an end to the offensive, claiming success.

In the three and half months of the offensive the British and Empire forces had advanced barely five miles, suffering horrendous casualties. Perhaps their only consolation was that the Germans had suffered almost as badly with around 250,000 killed or injured. In the aftermath of the battle, General Haig was severely criticised for continuing the offensive long after the operation had lost any real strategic value.

Perhaps more than any other, Passchedaele has come to symbolise the horrors and the great human costs associated with the major battles of the First World War. British Empire losses included approximately 36,000 Australians, 3,500 New Zealanders and 16,000 Canadians – the latter of which were lost in the last few days / weeks of the final bloody assault. Some 90,000 bodies were never identified and 42,000 never recovered.

These battles and the British Empire soldiers that perished in them are today commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, the Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing.


Remembered: The Battle of Passchendaele

Today - 31 July - marks one hundred years since the start of the Battle of Passchendaele.

Today – 31 July – marks one hundred years since the start of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres, 31 July-10 November 1917), Britain’s major offensive against German forces in the Flanders region of Belgium.

The ultimate aim was to liberate the occupied Channel ports to the north of Ypres, neutralising the U-boat threat to North Sea shipping and take the pressure of its hard-pressed French allies. We are commemorating the centenary by newly listing and upgrading 13 memorials, most with strong regimental connections to the battle.

Passchendaele has come to symbolise the horror of the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of Allied and German soldiers – under heavy machine gun and artillery fire the Allies supported by tanks – attacked and counter-attacked in an apocalyptic landscape devoid of buildings, trees or vegetation.

The explosion of over one million shells, accompanied by torrential rain, turned the battlefield into a quagmire of craters and oozing mud, deep enough to swallow up men and horses. After three months of fighting, Britain and her Allies advanced just 8km. The terrible price, according to Army estimates, was 300,000 dead, injured or missing, with Germany sustaining 260,000 casualties.

Spring 1917

By spring 1917, the only area of Belgium remaining in Allied hands was a bulge of land round Ypres known as the Ypres Salient. The commander of the British army, General Sir Douglas Haig, wanted to break through the German lines there and launch an assault from the high ground to liberate the occupied ports on the Channel coast that served as U-boat bases.

Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 and the resulting loss of unarmed merchant ships carrying food, coal and other essential supplies was bringing Britain to its knees.

Despite the misgivings of the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, Haig (wrongly) believed the German army was close to collapse and the assault went ahead. By early September, after huge losses, Haig was put under political pressure to halt the offensive. He refused. Australia, New Zealand and Canadian forces joined the battle. A final assault on 6 November secured the high ground above Ypres allowing Haig to call off the offensive and claim success. But in 1918 the territory gained there was lost, recaptured in a German offensive.

Haig was later severely criticised for continuing the assault for so little apparent strategic value. His actions, resulting in such a toll of human life on both sides, have remained a subject of controversy to this day. But the battle did contribute to an ultimate Allied victory and represents one of the key engagements of the First World War.


Contents

Tactical developments Edit

In July 1917, Field Marshal Douglas Haig began the Third Battle of Ypres campaign to advance from the Ypres Salient. At the Battle of Messines, the far (east) side of the Messines Ridge had been captured down to the Oosttaverne Line and a substantial success gained in the subsequent Battle of Pilckem Ridge. [2] At the Battle of Langemarck there was only an advance of 1,500 yd (1,400 m) around Langemarck village by XIV Corps and the French First Army on the northern flank. The failure of the Fifth Army to advance on the Gheluvelt Plateau in August, led Haig to send artillery reinforcements to the south-east, along the higher ground of the Gheluvelt plateau, Broodseinde Ridge and the southern half of Passchendaele Ridge. [3] The Gheluvelt Plateau was taken over by the Second Army ( General Herbert Plumer), which continued the evolution of bite-and-hold tactics that had been used in July and August. [4]

The Second Army planned to attack with a succession of bodies of infantry on narrower fronts, to the first objective about 800 yd (730 m) forward the second objective was 500 yd (460 m) beyond and the final objective was 300 yd (270 m) further on. [4] Pauses on the objectives would become longer and attacks would be protected by a bigger, deeper, multi-layered creeping barrage. Standing barrages beyond the objectives were to be fired during pauses to obstruct German counter-attacks, to confront them with defensive areas based on the British objectives. The British infantry would be in communication with its artillery and have much more local support from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). [5] Beyond the "creeper", four heavy artillery counter-battery double groups, with 222 guns and howitzers, covered a 7,000 yd (4.0 mi 6.4 km) front, ready to engage German guns with gas and high-explosive shell. [6] At the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge (20 September), Battle of Polygon Wood (26 September) and Battle of Broodseinde (4 October), these methods produced a 4,000 yd (2.3 mi 3.7 km) advance in two weeks, inflicted many German casualties. The Germans changed tactics several times against the refined British methods but all failed. [7]

In the lower ground west of the Passchendaele Ridge, three months of shelling had blocked the watercourses that normally provided drainage. On the night of 4 October, it began to rain intermittently for the next three days. Much of the battlefield again became a quagmire, making movement extremely difficult. [8] Had the German defence collapsed during the Battle of Poelcappelle on 9 October, the reserve brigades of II Anzac Corps were to have passed through later in the day, to advance to far side of Passchendaele village and the Goudberg spur to the north. [9] On 7 October, the afternoon attack had been cancelled by Haig because of the rain and the final details of the plan for the renewed attack of 12 October, were decided on the evening of 9 October. [10] Plumer had received misleading information about the progress of the attack that day and believed that "a sufficiently good jumping-off line" had been achieved, passing the erroneous information back to Haig. [11] [a] The decision was made to continue the offensive to gain higher ground for the winter, to assist the French with their attack due on 23 October (the Battle of La Malmaison) and to hold German troops in Flanders for the Battle of Cambrai due in November. [8]

British offensive preparations Edit

Encouraged by the unusually high German losses during the Battle of Broodseinde and reports of lowered German morale, Haig sought quickly to renew the Allied offensive and secure Passchendaele Ridge. [13] The Battle of Poelcappelle began on 9 October and was costly to both sides most of the ground captured opposite Passchendaele was lost later in the day to German counter-attacks. [14] News of this German defensive success was slow in reaching the higher British commanders, because the usual collapse of communications during an attack was exacerbated by the rain and mud. Late on 9 October, Plumer erroneously informed Haig that II Anzac Corps had reached the first objective, which made a good jumping-off position for the attack due on 12 October. [15] [b] Many British guns had sunk in the mud, bogged down while being moved forward or run short of ammunition. German artillery fire had become much heavier as British heavy artillery counter-battery fire almost ceased from 9 to 12 October, as attempts were made to move the guns forward, although the defenders were still caused considerable difficulty by British bombardments. [17] [18]

The 3rd Australian Division and the New Zealand Division relieved the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division and the 49th (West Riding) Division on the night of 10/11 October. Patrols discovered that the 49th (West Riding) Division had reached the Wallemolen spur east of the Ravebeek creek but the advance beyond had been stopped by new barbed wire entanglements around the Flandern I Stellung. The 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division, on the right flank, was found to be back near its start line of 9 October. [19] The New Zealand Division made hurried preparations to restore communications and reconnoitre the ground, because information from the 49th (West Riding) Division headquarters was insufficient some wounded were still stranded in no-man's-land when the attack began on 12 October. [20] Many field guns needed for the attack remained bogged in the mud and other field guns were placed on improvised platforms, when their new sites had proved impossible to reach, from which they fired slowly and inaccurately or sank into the mud. [21] A German bombardment took place on the morning of 11 October and later in the day the British shelled the German defences on Wallemolen spur, to little effect. Some progress was made in the building of plank roads since the attack on 9 October and a few more guns had reached their new positions by 12 October. [14] The Commander, Royal Artillery (CRA) of the New Zealand Division reported that adequate artillery support for his division could not be guaranteed. [22]

Plumer discovered that the line near Passchendaele had hardly changed and that the main reason for the failure on 9 October was uncut barbed wire 30 yd (27 m) deep, in front of the pillboxes at the hamlet of Bellevue on the Wallemolen spur. [23] The New Zealand Division commander, Major-General Andrew Russell, later wrote that accurate information had arrived 24 hours too late to ask for a postponement or radically to alter the barrage plan and unit orders. [24] [c] The true position of the front line meant that the advance of 1,500 yd (1,400 m) to the final objective would actually have to cover 2,000–2,500 yd (1.1–1.4 mi 1.8–2.3 km). [26] The opening barrage line planned for the 3rd Australian Division was moved back 350 yd (320 m) but this still required the infantry to advance for 500 yd (460 m) to reach it. [27] Duckboard tracks had been extended to the line held on 9 October, which allowed infantry to move up on the night of 11 October in time for the attack, despite rain and a German gas bombardment on Gravenstafel spur. High winds and heavy rain began about zero hour ( 5:25 a.m. ) and lasted all day. [28]

Plan of attack Edit

The II Anzac Corps and the Second Army headquarters were misinformed as to the extent of the advance achieved on 9 October. The objectives set for 12 October required an advance of 2,000–2,500 yd (1.1–1.4 mi 1.8–2.3 km) to the final objective, rather than the intended 1,000–1,500 yd (910–1,370 m). [29] The I Anzac Corps with the 4th and 5th Australian divisions, in place of the exhausted 1st and 2nd Australian divisions, was to provide a flank guard to the south. [30] The I Anzac Corps was to advance across the Keiberg Spur and dig in on the flank of the main assault, at the first and second objective lines only, 1,200 yd (1,100 m) and 880 yd (800 m) forward. [31]

The main attack was to be undertaken by the Second Army, with the 3rd Australian Division and the New Zealand Division of the II Anzac Corps, on a front of 3,000 yd (1.7 mi 2.7 km). The 3rd Australian Division would attack Passchendaele ridge and the village and the New Zealand Division was to capture the Bellevue Spur. [32] The first objective (Red Line) was practically the same as the second objective of the attack on 9 October, 1,200 yd (1,100 m) forward, beyond the Bellevue pillboxes. The second objective (Blue Line) was 880 yd (800 m) beyond, at the junction of the Wallemolen Spur and was the jumping-off line for the attack on the village of Passchendaele. The final objective (Green Line) lay 400 yd (370 m) beyond the village. [33]

Although short of fresh troops, the Fifth Army was to establish the northern flank of the main attack. In the XVIII Corps area, the 26th Brigade of the 9th Division was to advance 2,000 yd (1,800 m) to the ridge north of the Goudberg re-entrant and the 55th Brigade of the 18th (Eastern) Division was to attack for a similar distance north of the Lekkerboterbeek creek. In the XIV Corps area, the 12th Brigade of the 4th Division, the 51st Brigade of the 17th Division and the 3rd Guards Brigade of the Guards Division, were to advance beyond Poelcappelle and close up to Houthoulst Forest, on the boundary with the French First Army. [34]

In the New Zealand Division sector, the two attacking brigades each had a machine-gun company and three other machine-gun companies were to fire a machine-gun barrage. The division had the nominal support of a hundred and forty-four 18-pounder field guns and forty-eight 4.5-inch howitzers The artillery was expected to move forward after the final objective was gained, to bombard German-held ground from positions 1,000–2,000 yd (910–1,830 m) beyond Passchendaele village. [35] On the southern flank, the I Anzac Corps was to capture ground south of the Ypres–Roulers railway, the X Corps and IX Corps attacking on the right. [21]

German defensive preparations Edit

From mid-1917, the area east of Ypres was defended by six German defensive positions the front position, Albrecht Stellung (second position), Wilhelm Stellung (third position), Flandern I Stellung (fourth position), Flandern II Stellung (fifth position) and Flandern III Stellung (under construction). In between the German positions lay the Belgian villages of Zonnebeke and Passchendaele. [36] After their defensive success on 9 October, the Germans brought fresh divisions into the line but the tempo of British operations caused considerable anxiety among German commanders. [37] The 18th Division took over in the Poelcappelle area on a 1,000 m (1,100 yd)> front, the division had 17 heavy machine-guns and large numbers of MG 08/15 machine-guns distributed among its infantry companies. [38]

Ludendorff's defensive changes had been implemented in some parts of the front, despite a certain reluctance by some of the local commanders. Outposts beyond the German advanced defensive zone (Vorfeld) were to hold the front line in enough strength to stop the British from sapping forward. The garrisons were to withdraw to the main line at the rear of the Vorfeld when attacked, signalling to the artillery with rockets and Very lights for barrage fire. The German artillery would place the barrage in front of the main line of resistance, before the British infantry reached it and if possible, the troops in the front position were to attempt to defeat the attack without calling on the supporting Eingreif Division, to limit casualties. [39]

In his diary, Rupprecht wrote that he was doubtful about the changes of tactics required by Ludendorff, especially his instructions for more counter-battery fire, since in previous battles the German artillery had engaged British infantry. An anticipated French attack on the Chemin des Dames, meant that fewer reinforcements could be expected by the 4th Army, making a fighting withdrawal the only possible response to the British attacks. Rupprecht wrote that the fighting power of German troops in Flanders was declining and that all attempts to counter the British artillery had failed, requiring a greater retreat, far enough back to force the British into a laborious artillery redeployment. [40] After being postponed from 2 October, due to delays in the transport of ammunition, Unternehmen Mondnacht (Operation Moonlight) took place at midnight on 11/12 October. A strip of ground from Messines to Dixmude was bombarded with gas, which high winds dispersed with little effect on Allied troops. [14]

Second Army Edit

The two Anzac Corps of the Second Army conducted the main attack. Rain fell all night on the night of 11/12 October, with only one dry interval during the day. The Germans opposite the New Zealanders had been alert all night, sending up many flares and bombarded the New Zealand front line at 5:00 a.m., which hit the New Zealand trench mortar personnel and destroyed their ammunition. [41] [d] The 12th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division, advanced on time at 5:25 a.m. but saw no infantry from the 3rd Australian Division beyond the railway. The brigade captured the Keiberg cutting and consolidated, along with the rest of the first objective, although with many casualties. [43] The 9th Brigade of the 3rd Australian Division, managed to reach the first objective and the battalion due to advance to the second objective went straight on. As soon as those troops began to descend from a slight rise, they were engaged by German field and heavy artillery. The brigade kept going to the second objective, although part of the advance remained bogged down short of the first objective. The 10th Brigade (3rd Australian Division) suffered many casualties from machine-guns in pillboxes but found some cover at a fold near the first objective, despite increasing machine-gun fire from the Bellevue pillboxes. [44]

The New Zealand advance was obstructed by uncut barbed wire on the Wallemolen spur the creeping barrage was very thin, as some guns were bogged and others had been knocked out by German artillery. The creeping barrage diminished as it moved forward and howitzer shells, plunging into wet ground around the Bellevue pillboxes exploded harmlessly. [44] The German artillery fired all the way to the rear of the New Zealand divisional area and machine-gun barrages from the German pillboxes raked the advance. [44] The division captured the cemetery at Wallemolen and reached Wolf Copse, the right of the advance stopping on the rise astride the Ravebeek creek. North of the Gravenstafel–Metcheele road, the division gained some ground but was stopped by belts of barbed wire 25–50 yd (23–46 m) deep and were swept by machine-gun fire. [44] [41] The infantry tried to cut their way through the wire of the German Flandern I Stellung on the Wallemolen spur and small numbers of troops got through both belts but were killed after being stopped by more wire around the German pillboxes. Further south, the New Zealand Division captured two pillboxes, with help from 3rd Australian Division troops in the area. An advance began up the northern slope of the Ravebeek creek but broke down quickly around Laamkeek. At 8:00 a.m. the surviving New Zealand infantry were ordered to dig-in. [41]

The advance of the Australians towards the second objective began at 8:25 a.m. but the 10th Brigade had suffered too many casualties to advance and dug-in to wait for reinforcements. [45] A party from the 10th Brigade kept going and arrived at the pillbox near Crest Farm, whose occupants promptly surrendered. The party then advanced into Passchendaele village before German troops rallied and re-occupied the pillbox. [45] Small groups from the 12th Brigade got across the Keiberg spur but suffered many casualties and the brigade repulsed two German counter-attacks between 3:00 p.m. and 4.00 p.m. [43] An attempt was made to use the reserve battalion of the 9th Brigade to outflank the Bellevue pillboxes, combined with a new attack by the New Zealand Division around 3:00 p.m. [46]

The attack was eventually cancelled, as the 9th (Scottish) Division to the north and the 3rd Australian Division to the south were forced back by the fire of the Bellevue machine-guns. The artillery bombardment went ahead, dropping on some New Zealand positions but also dispersing two German parties massing for a counter-attack. [46] By 3:30 p.m. the 10th Brigade had filtered back to its start-line, due to fire from the Bellevue Spur. [43] The 9th Brigade was exposed by this retirement and fell back from the second objective in the face of artillery, machine-gun and sniper fire, with many casualties. [43] When the Anzac advance broke into the front between Passchendaele and the Keiberg Spur, I Battalion, Reserve Infantry Regiment 55 of the 220th Division was attached to the 195th Division and II Battalion, Reserve Infantry Regiment 55 to the 233rd Division. With the divisions in the front line, the German reinforcements reoccupied the areas vacated by the Australians and New Zealanders, capturing 56 unwounded and many wounded Australians. [47] In the evening, most of the New Zealand Division withdrew to a line on the lower slopes of the Wallemolen spur. [46]

Fifth Army Edit

Protection of the northern flank of the main attack by the Second Army was provided by the Fifth Army, with a brigade each of the 9th (Scottish) and 18th (Eastern) divisions of XVIII Corps. The brigades attacked from north of Goudberg to north of the Lekkerboterbeek stream, adjacent to the northern boundary of the Second Army. The 26th Brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division was to advance 2,000 yd (1,800 m) on a 1,500 yd (1,400 m) front, with its left flank on the Lekkerboterbeek, into an area dotted with fortified farm buildings. The 55th Brigade of the 18th (Eastern) Division attacked north of the Lekkerboterbeek, over ground soaked after rain all day on 11 October. A low-flying German aircraft had reconnoitred the area near the 55th Brigade so the position of the jumping-off line was altered, to avoid a possible German counter-barrage as the brigade formed up for the advance. [48]

XVIII Corps Edit

The 9th (Scottish) Division was hampered by the effect of rain and mud on supply routes, which stranded guns and caused shortages of ammunition, particularly in smoke shells. At midnight on 11 October, torrential rain fell and a German gas and high explosive bombardment fell on the divisional forming-up areas. The wide front left numerous gaps in the line, as the 26th Brigade advanced behind a barrage moving at 100 yd (91 m) in eight minutes, assisted by a machine-gun barrage from 16 Vickers machine-guns. The creeping barrage began at 5:35 a.m. and was described as "thin and ragged". The advancing troops lost direction and communication broke down, as carrier pigeons were hindered by the high wind and messenger dog handlers became casualties. The infantry continued their advance and on the right of the captured Adler Farm and reached the green line at Source Trench. [49]

In the centre, the attackers had to dig in after a 100 yd (91 m) advance. Small parties reached Source Trench and some may have advanced as far as Vat Cottages. On the left of the brigade the ground was even worse, the infantry were unable to keep up with the barrage and lost direction but managed to capture a pillbox and move forward. Some of the troops on the left flank inadvertently crossed the Lekkerboterbeek, advanced 80 yd (73 m) and then formed a flank with troops from the 18th (Eastern) Division. Except on the right flank, the attack was stopped by the Germans only 100 yd (91 m) from the start line, despite the 27th Brigade being sent to reinforce the attack, in which some of the British infantry drowned in shell-holes. The new front line ran from the junction with the New Zealand Division at the cemetery near Wallemolen, to Oxford Houses then back to the old front line. [49]

The barrage began at 5:20 a.m. and the 55th Brigade of the 18th (Eastern) Division, infantry advanced in "snake formation". The divisional field artillery suffered the same fate as those of the divisions to the south, many guns sinking into the soft ground. A German counter-barrage began within a minute of the advance and as British troops took cover, German machine-gunners fired at the crater lips of shell-holes, through which bullets penetrated and hit the soldiers sheltering inside. The effect of the German barrage was worst on the right flank and added to German machine-gun fire from the Brewery and Helles House strong points the situation at Requette Farm was not known as all runners sent from the area were killed. Mud clogged weapons of all types and at 11:00 a.m., a British trench-mortar battery and some supporting machine-guns had to cease fire, because of wet and dirty ammunition. At noon, German counter-attacks towards the west end of Poelcappelle began and lasted all afternoon, the Germans trying to exploit a gap between the British 4th and 18th divisions. Defensive positions in shell-holes were held by the survivors of the British attack. [48]

XIV Corps Edit

The northern flank of the Fifth Army, on the boundary with the French First Army, was held by XIV Corps, which also attacked with a brigade of each division to close up to Houthoulst Forest. [50] After dark on 11 October, tape was laid beyond the front line in the corps area, for the troops to form up on, beyond a possible German counter-barrage. To avoid detection, scouts patrolled further forward, to ambush German patrols. [51] The 3rd Guards Brigade of the Guards Division moved up on the night of 11 October, through heavy rain and a German gas barrage (Operation Mondnacht), which caused many casualties in this part of the front. [52] The artillery barrage began on schedule at 5:25 a.m. and the German counter-barrage was slow to begin, falling mostly behind the attacking waves. The XIV Corps divisions had much better artillery and machine-gun barrages than the divisions further south and the creeping barrage moved at a very slow rate of 100 yd (91 m) in ten minutes, in two 300 yd (270 m) bounds. [50]

The 12th Brigade headquarters (4th Division) next to the XVIII Corps area, was to attack with a composite force of two battalions of the 10th Brigade and two from the 12th Brigade. Two battalions were to lead, with a battalion each in support and reserve, following on to a first objective about 200 yd (180 m) forward, then pivoting on the right to the final objective another 300 yd (270 m) forward at Water House. The ground had been soaked again by overnight rain and the advance by the right-hand battalion was stopped at Requette Farm by determined German resistance and massed machine-gun fire, during which contact with the neighbouring battalion of the 18th (Eastern) Division was lost. The left-hand battalion advance faced less opposition and by 6:20 a.m. had crossed the Poelcappelle–le Cinq Chemins road, captured Memling and Senegal farms and then made contact with the 17th (Northern) Division. After the capture of Requette Farm by the right-hand battalion, more German machine-gun fire was received from the Brewery and Helles House, which stopped the attack on the right flank. Requette Farm was lost to a German counter-attack around noon and attempts by reinforcements to re-take the farm were abandoned as dark fell. [53] The brigade extended a defensive flank on the right to maintain contact with the 18th (Eastern) Division. The new front line curved back through Besace Farm to west of Helles House, south-west of Requette Farm, north of Poelcappelle. [54]

The 51st Brigade of the 17th (Northern) Division was to advance for 1,600 yd (1,500 m) astride the Ypres–Staden railway, to meet the left flank of the 4th Division north of Poelcappelle and the right flank of the Guards Division, 400 yd (370 m) north of the railway. Beyond the railway, the advance of the 51st Brigade veered slightly south, away from a German strongpoint which caused many casualties and lost touch with the Guards Division. South of the embankment, astride the Broombeek and Watervlietbeek streams, several German farm strongpoints, pillboxes and shell-hole positions were overrun by the infantry, who were able to keep well up to the very-slow-moving barrage. The brigade reached its first objective by 8:00 a.m., despite a number of German reinforcements arriving through the British artillery barrages. The final objective was reached at 11:00 a.m. and on the right a defensive flank was thrown back from Memling Farm at the final objective, to link with the 4th Division. By noon the advance was complete, 218 German prisoners had been taken and no German counter-attack followed, resistance being limited to a small amount of rifle fire. [55]

In cold, wet weather, the 3rd Guards Brigade made a short advance behind a ragged barrage, took the higher ground on the edge of Houthoulst Forest and cut off the rest of the spur running north-east from Veldhoek. Contact with the 17th (Northern) Division on the right flank was lost, after the left flank formation of the 17th (Northern) Division veered south and the crew of a contact patrol aircraft failed to see the loss of direction. Two platoons due to meet the attacking brigade of the 17th (Northern) Division had to dig in near the Angle Point pillbox under machine-gun fire. After dark, the Guards and the 17th (Northern) Division closed the gap, by capturing the blockhouses at Angle Point and Aden House. Next day, conditions were so bad that the attacking brigade was relieved by the 1st Guards Brigade. The fresh troops patrolled vigorously to the southern edge of Houthoulst Forest against little organised German resistance, except for extensive sniping around the Colbert cross-roads and Colombo House. [56]

Air operations Edit

During the battle, forty-one British pilots made low-altitude strafing and bomb attacks. The British flew an additional 27 contact and counter-attack patrols and 124 zone-calls were made to the artillery, to engage German machine-gun nests, troops, artillery and transport. British aircraft observers made 26 calls to destroy German artillery batteries and an additional 37 calls for artillery battery neutralisation. The British flew four bombing raids on German encampments and railway stations, eight reconnaissance flights beyond the battlefront and engaged in twelve dogfights with German aircraft. The British squadrons lost fourteen aircraft five crew members returned wounded. [57] [e]


Passchendaele, 1917

In October 1914, the tiny British Expeditionary Force, with Belgian and French allies, clashed with the advancing German armies and only just held them in the First Battle of Ypres. This left the Germans in occupation of the Mesen (Messines in French) Ridge, south of Ieper (Ypres) and Hill 60, where the question mark-shaped ridge begins its curve through Hill 62 to Passendale (Passchendaele), also in German hands. The ridge overlooks the fertile, carefully-drained valleys under which are found impervious clay sub-soils. The ruin of the drainage system by shellfire was to create the most terrible fighting conditions encountered on the Western Front. Hill 60 was lost in December and was mined and counter-mined in a fearful subterranean battle until the end of the war as the tortured terrain still bears the scars.

The Second Battle of Ypres began on 22 April 1915 and saw a makeshift Allied force pushed back to a line much closer to the town, running north from Hill 60, yielding Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood, where the trenches survive even today. This was the starting point for the five-month fight in 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres, that culminated in the assault on Passchendaele. It was planned in two phases first, the taking of the Messines Ridge and, second, a swift break-out over the Passchendaele Ridge having secured the Gheluvelt Ridge which linked them.

The Second Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Plumer, had dug 21 mines as deep as 40m and as long as 2km to place explosives under the German defences. On 26 May 1917, British artillery bombarded those lines, and, on 7 June at 3.10am, the mines were blown up. The Germans were shattered. Australian and New Zealand troops rolled forward. The reality of the ridge as a lookout and obstacle can be appreciated from the New Zealand memorial in Mesen. Although the Germans recovered, the front line ran due south from Hill 60 by 14 June. Phase one had been a success.

The stolid, methodical Plumer was succeeded, in the north, by the dashing General Sir Hubert Gough, commanding Fifth Army. Over the next six weeks, in lovely weather, the supplies were gathered and the men assembled – and the Germans beavered about reinforcing their lines. On 31 July, after a massive barrage, the attack began. Pilkem Ridge, the first of a succession of low watersheds to be overcome, was soon in British hands, and General Erich Ludendorff noted, ‘…besides a loss of 2km to 4km of ground along the whole front, it caused us [Germany] very considerable losses in prisoners and stores …’ But that day it rained solidly, more than 21mm in all – 84% of July 1916’s total rainfall. Rain continued to fall, shell-holes multiplied and filled with water, and the streams draining from the crucial ridge were destroyed. The new German defensive system, a lightly held but deep front line with counterattack units in strength to the rear, was taking its toll.

Gough’s efforts were stalling, and while Sanctuary Wood had been regained on the first day, progress along the Gheluvelt Ridge, towards Polygon Wood, demanded increased action in the south. His II Corps was transferred to Plumer, who asked for three weeks to prepare for a fresh attack. The rain ceased, only to begin again on 19 September. The next day, battle resumed with the Australians, I ANZAC Corps, entering the Battle of the Menin Road which, at great cost, pushed the east along the ridge. The Battle of Polygon Wood followed on 26 September. The advent of October was celebrated with heavy rainfall and the Battle of Broodseinde, on the ridge south of Passchendaele. The Australians moved at such a pace that they nearly overtook their own shellfire, and only the northern end of the accursed ridge remained to the enemy. It was the morass the battlefield had become that halted the ANZACS in the First Battle of Passchendale on 12 October, and the Canadian Corps took their place in the line. The Second Battle of Passchendaele gave a first hold on the firmer ground of the ridge above Tyne Cot on 26 and 27 October. On 10 November the high ground was finally gained.

Visiting the battlefields

The superb museum, In Flanders Fields, housed in the great Cloth Hall in central Ieper, is the best place to begin a visit both for an overall understanding and to obtain, in the museum shop, specialist tour maps and guides to the numerous sites and museums in the area. The region is the scene of four First World War battles, of which the third is the best known – so beware of confusing them. If the visitor starts at Mesen and travels along the ridge (Hill 60, Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood, Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, Tyne Cot, and Passendale) and returns to Ieper across the ridges and valleys now restored to agriculture by way of Poelkapelle and Langemark, a good appreciation of the scenes of battle will be possible.

This article was featured in the February 2011 issue of the magazine. A 15-page special feature on Passchendaele will appear in issue 83 of Military History Monthly, on sale 13 July 2017.


Locals are still picking up the pieces

A hundred years after the battle, the Belgian countryside still regularly delivers up dangerous reminders of what history wrought. An entire unit of the Belgian military is tasked with disposing of this ‘iron harvest’ — unexploded shells from another century.

As the guns thundered in the battle’s initial bombardment, Allied artillerymen raked the sodden Ypres Salient with 4.25 million artillery shells. Millions more would follow in the months to come. Untold millions came from German batteries as well ranged behind the occupied heights. Inevitably there were duds, many which slammed into the mud and simply vanished. The earth has been pushing these relics to the surface for a century. In fact, more than 100 tons of unexploded ordinance is still discovered each year.

A more gruesome legacy can be found in the remains of unknown soldiers still buried in Flanders Fields. The bodies of 42,000 from the battle were never found, lost in the muddy wasteland. Their names are commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.


Battle of Passchendaele: 31 July - 6 November 1917

Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele became infamous not only for the scale of casualties, but also for the mud.

Ypres was the principal town within a salient (or bulge) in the British lines and the site of two previous battles: First Ypres (October-November 1914) and Second Ypres (April-May 1915). Haig had long wanted a British offensive in Flanders and, following a warning that the German blockade would soon cripple the British war effort, wanted to reach the Belgian coast to destroy the German submarine bases there. On top of this, the possibility of a Russian withdrawal from the war threatened German redeployment from the Eastern front to increase their reserve strength dramatically.

The British were further encouraged by the success of the attack on Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917. Nineteen huge mines were exploded simultaneously after they had been placed at the end of long tunnels under the German front lines. The capture of the ridge inflated Haig's confidence and preparations began. Yet the flatness of the plain made stealth impossible: as with the Somme, the Germans knew an attack was imminent and the initial bombardment served as final warning. It lasted two weeks, with 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns, but again failed to destroy the heavily fortified German positions.


Aftermath of the Battle

Having taken Passchendaele, Haig elected to halt the offensive. Any further thoughts of pushing on were eliminated by the need to shift troops to Italy to aid in stemming the Austrian advance after their victory at the Battle of Caporetto. Having gained key ground around Ypres, Haig was able to claim success. Casualty numbers for the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as Third Ypres) are disputed. In the fighting British casualties may have ranged from 200,000 to 448,614, while Germany losses are computed at 260,400 to 400,000.

A controversial topic, the Battle of Passchendaele has come to represent the bloody, attrition warfare that developed on the Western Front. In the years after the war, Haig was severely criticized by David Lloyd George and others for the small territorial gains that were made in exchange for massive troop losses. Conversely, the offensive relieved pressure on the French, whose army was being struck by mutinies, and inflicted large, irreplaceable losses on the German Army. Though Allied casualties were high, new American troops were beginning to arrive which would augment British and French forces. Though resources were limited due to the crisis in Italy, the British renewed operations on November 20 when they opened the Battle of Cambrai.


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