The hell of Passchendaele

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An image that came to represent the tragedy of WWI An image that came to represent the tragedy of WWI

Gerald Prenderghast recounts the story of the Third Battle of Ypres in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders.

After a series of rapid deployments during the autumn of 1914, the Western Front had gradually developed into an unbroken line of trenches stretching from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, garrisoned on both sides by men who lived in mud and squalor, afflicted with boredom and bad food, their lives occasionally enlivened by massed infantry attacks which usually left the majority of their mates dead, gassed or horrifically wounded.

However, in the early months of 1917 the mistakes of Mons, Loos and the Somme seemed to be behind the British Army, its senior commanders having finally begun to grasp what this very modern war required in the way of overall strategy and unit tactics. Even Douglas Haig, neither the deepest nor most flexible thinker in the British Army, had been persuaded to implement substantial changes in training, equipment and tactics at all levels which were expected to yield significant results in the forthcoming Flanders campaign.

Map of the Western Front showing the positions of Allied and German forces between 1915 and 1917 Innovation
The disaster on the Somme between July and October 1916 had highlighted certain flaws in Allied strategic and tactical thinking and so, in February 1917, British troops were issued with Training Manual SS143 by Haig’s newly formed BEF Training Directorate. This document specified that there would be no more reliance upon wasteful and largely futile attacks made by infantry in line, with a few detached specialists acting independently. According to SS143, platoons were to be divided now into five groups: a HQ section, a second section with two grenade throwers, a third consisting of a Lewis gunner and nine men carrying 30 drums of ammunition, another composed of a specialist sniper, a scout and nine riflemen and a fifth section made up of nine men equipped with four rifle-grenade launchers. These four sections were to be deployed in a diamond formation with the rifle section ahead, rifle grenade and grenade sections to the sides and the Lewis gun section in the rear. When resistance was met, the Lewis-gun and rifle-grenade sections engaged, while the riflemen and hand-grenade section moved sideways to outflank the enemy and attack from the rear.

To facilitate the infantryman’s progress, strategic organisation was also improved, using another recently issued manual, SS135. This recommended that artillery bombardments should be organised at divisional level by officers who knew best their own artillery requirements and subsequently were required only to confirm them with the corps commander. Corps passed these instructions for the timing and weight of the barrage to GOCRA (General Officer Commanding Royal Artillery) and his staff, who liaised with GOCRA of the adjacent corps in the line, these artillery groups then becoming responsible for controlling the creeping barrage and counter-battery and anti-howitzer fire which supported the advancing troops. Consequently, bombardment and anti-artillery measures were very tightly organised and the benefits of this approach became abundantly clear during the mercilessly accurate artillery bombardment at Messines Ridge. The efficiency of the artillery operations was also greatly facilitated by improvements in the quality of British artillery ammunition (30% of British-made shells had failed to explode upon contact during the Somme offensive) and the construction of an extensive railway network specifically to supply the Flanders offensive of 1917.

The German army now had Ludendorff in command but was, by comparison, poorly supplied with materiel and particularly men so would have to rely upon their well-developed system of defence-in-depth trench fortifications. Offensive operations, with the exception of counter-attacks, would be next to impossible.

 

Allied preparations and objectivesMap of the progress made between July and December 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres
Planning for what would become the Third battle of Ypres had begun in January 1916 and, after Verdun and the Somme, a new offensive at Ypres once again reached the planning stage in February 1917. Despite British objections however, Robert Nivelle, the new C-in-C, refused to accept these plans. Instead, he insisted upon a three-stage offensive in a more southerly region of the Front, involving diversionary attacks by the BEF at Arras and the French between the Somme and Oise rivers, before Nivelle’s main force mounted a breakthrough on the Aisne, forcing the defeated German armies to retreat, possibly as far as their own frontier. Unfortunately, the plan failed in its final phase and the huge casualties which resulted caused half the French divisions on the Western Front to mutiny. They returned to the trenches only after Petain, the new commander, promised to order no more suicidal attacks and provide better treatment for the enlisted men. It was against this background of potential chaos that the British Army began the Third Battle of Ypres.

In its original form the plan for Third Ypres called for the occupation of the Menin and Passchendaele Ridges to the east of Ypres, before an advance to Roulers and Thourout closed the main railway line supplying German positions on the Western Front. The forces occupying these forward positions would then consolidate, while a second group advanced along the coast, joining with an amphibious force which was to be landed north of Nieuport (Operation Hush). This combined force would then move in the direction of Ostend and capture the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast, an important consideration for Haig and Lloyd George because of the resumption of attacks by German U-boats on ships travelling to Britain from America. If resources proved insufficient, the coastal offensive was to be abandoned.
The ruins of Ypres in 1919

 

Right: The ruins of Ypres in 1919 

 

 

 

Passchendaele began with an attack on Messines Ridge, to deprive the German 4th Army of this high ground south of Ypres, which overlooked both the British defences, the back areas further north and the easiest route to Passchendaele Ridge. Operations had begun in 1915, with tunnels dug under the German positions in which 26 mines containing 454 tons of explosive were subsequently laid, despite German attacks, which had been unable to stop the tunnelling. British bombardment of the ridge began early in June and on 7 June, the attack began at 3.10am with the detonation of the mines, resulting in the loudest man-made explosion recorded up to that time. This was followed by a deadly accurate creeping barrage which covered the advancing Australian, British and New Zealand troops as they secured the forward slope and the top of the ridge, aided by support from tanks, cavalry patrols and aircraft. Unfortunately, once the advancing Allied troops had moved over the crest, artillery spotting became more problematic, affecting the accuracy of the barrage so badly that few of the remaining German artillery and machine gun posts were neutralised, resulting in a greater number of Allied casualties than had been sustained earlier. However, all the final objectives were captured by the time night had fallen, although fighting continued on the lower slopes of the ridge until the Allied positions were consolidated on 14 June.

Mark IV tank which saw service at Messines Ridge, fitted with an unditching beam

 

Right: Mark IV tank which saw service at Messines Ridge, fitted with an unditching beam, which was used if the tank became stuck in mud

 

 

 

Messines Ridge was a well-organised tactical and strategic success, removing the German Army from its dominant position on the southern face of the Ypres Salient and clearing the threat to the Allied right flank, which would have made it difficult and costly to assault Passchendaele Ridge later in the summer. On 30 April 1917, Haig had appointed Hubert Gough to command the summer offensive in Flanders and Gough took command of the Ypres Salient north of Messines on 10 June. Knowing that Haig wanted a more ambitious offensive than the one originally proposed, Gough revised the earlier plans and included several more objectives for the first day, which was planned for 31 July.

The first Allied attack was directed against the German 4th Army, which was occupying a line from Lille in the south to the Ypres Salient in the north. The main assault was carried out in the southern sector by the British II Corps, which was tasked with capturing the Ghelveult Plateau. Although II Corps initially made significant gains, by late afternoon they had been pushed back to lines intended to be their first and second objectives and the German counter-attack was only halted by the mud and intense British artillery and smallarms fire.

Elsewhere, Allied forces had more success, particularly in the north, where the British XIV Corps and the French First Army advanced two miles to reach the Steenbeek stream. The XVIII Corps and XIX Corps were also successful, advancing to the Steenbeek, and then continuing for another mile to reach their final objectives on the evening of 31 July. Although another attack was planned for 2 August, this was cancelled due to the unusually heavy rain, which fell unrelentingly from the afternoon of 31 July until 5 August. The Allied armies tried desperately to consolidate and improve their defences in the face of this downpour, which both hampered their efforts and formed a sea of mud over the area they would use to attack the German positions. Also adding to their difficulties was the effective German defence-in-depth trench system, a line of four trenches covering several miles and containing reserve forces, ammunition and supplies ready for quick and effective counter-attacks.

A battery of 18-pounder field guns in action at Passchendaele during 1917, showing the dangerously exposed ammunition dump

 

Right: A battery of 18-pounder field guns in action at Passchendaele during 1917, showing the dangerously exposed ammunition dump

 

 

 

 

 

Despite these adverse conditions, II Corps attacked again across the Gheluvelt Plateau on 10 August, achieving some initial gains, but nightfall saw the Allies driven back again to their original positions except in the area around Westhoek, which the 25th Division managed to retain at the cost of 1,290 men killed, wounded or missing. Five days later, on 15 August, the Canadian Corps began another offensive against Hill 70, 30 miles south of Ypres. Fighting continued until 25 August, resulting in the capture of the hill with heavy losses inflicted upon the Germans and, more importantly, preventing their generals from relieving the divisions which had become exhausted by the mud and fighting around Ypres. German difficulties were further increased when the French Army launched another series of attacks at Verdun, lasting from 20 August until October, Ludendorff’s reserves intended for Flanders having to be deployed here instead.

A Royal Horse Artillery gun and limber going through a cutting in the Canal du Nord

 

Left: A Royal Horse Artillery gun and limber going through a cutting in the Canal du Nord

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another British attack was launched on 16 August against the Germans’ third defensive line, which was intended to capture of Polygon Wood and the town of Langemarck, and effect the crossing of the Steenbeek further to the north. The attack was only partially successful – the British II Corps were again unable to advance across the Gheluvult Plateau, mud and the German Army forcing them back to their original starting point.

Other divisions fared better, however, and the XVIII Corps managed to capture and retain the north end of St Julien and the area south-east of Langemarck, while the XIV Corps captured Langemarck and the third German trench line, north of the Ypres-Staden railway near the Kortebeek. The French First Army also achieved their objectives, pushing up to the Kortebeek and St Jansbeck stream west of the northern stretch of the Wilhelm Stellung, where it crossed to the east side of the Kortebeek. Despite these qualified successes, on 25 September, Haig placed General Herbert Plumer in command of the Ypres Salient, sending Gough and his Fifth Army to the northern sector.

Men from a Yorkshire regiment moving up to the Front during the late evening. All the men are wearing Small Box Respirators, standard equipment by 1917

 

Right: Men from a Yorkshire regiment moving up to the Front during the late evening. All the men are wearing Small Box Respirators, standard equipment by 1917

 

 

 

 

 

Plumer began planning a series of less ambitious operations intended to capture the Gheluvelt Plateau in four stages, with a pause of six days between each attack, thus allowing time for artillery to be repositioned and supplies to be brought forward. New tactics were adopted, most importantly the leap-frog advance, when the first wave of troops achieved its objective and then consolidated, while the next two units moved forward past their comrades to attack their designated target. Integration between the infantry and both the RFC and artillery was also considerably improved, aircraft now specialising in the roles of air defence, contact-patrol, counter-attack patrol, artillery observation and ground-attack.

Australian wounded waiting for treatment after the attack on the Menin Road Ridge, on 20 September 1917

 

Right: Australian wounded waiting for treatment after the attack on the Menin Road Ridge, on 20 September 1917

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 20 September, after a barrage lasting approximately seven days, the offensive began. The Allies attacked on a front between the Gheluvelt Plateau and the Ypres Salient, capturing most of their objectives by mid-morning and advancing about a mile to the Menin Road Ridge and its surrounding strong-points. Early German counter-attacks proved ineffective, as did the major German attack launched on 25 September. There now followed two more battles in what was to be the last of the good weather: Polygon Wood, (26 September-3 October) and Broodseinde (4 October) which was more successful than expected and resulted in the capture of the remaining German positions in both areas. This major advance brought the Allied armies to within about a mile of Passchendaele Ridge, forcing the German commanders seriously to consider withdrawing and leaving the British in possession of the Belgian coast. Unfortunately for the Allies, on 4 October, heavy rain began to fall again.

Stretcher bearers at Pilckem Ridge during the attack on 1 August 1917

 

Right: Stretcher bearers at Pilckem Ridge during the attack on 1 August 1917

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 9 October, despite heavy rain and deep mud, the French First Army and the British Second and Fifth Armies attempted an unsuccessful advance towards Passchendaele, via Poelcappelle. Some progress was made in the north but, despite early gains, German counter-attacks, along with the appalling weather, forced the Allies back to their original starting point. This was followed on 12 October by the First Battle of Passchendaele in which the Allies made early gains only for German counter-attacks to recover the ground captured earlier in the day, helped again by atrocious conditions. Haig and the army commanders now agreed that attacks should cease until conditions improved and better artillery support could be provided. The next attacks were on 22 October, resulting in a small advance by the Canadians, and on 23 October at La Malmaison, during which the French Sixth Army captured the town, gaining control of the Chemin des Dames Ridge and forcing the Germans to withdraw to the north of the Ailette Valley early in November.

Troops laying duckboards during the 2nd Battle of Passchendaele

 

Left: Troops laying duckboards during the 2nd Battle of Passchendaele

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last major action in 1917 was the Second Battle of Passchendaele, which began on 26 October and resulted in the capture of Passchendaele and Passchendaele Ridge by the Canadian Corps on 10 November, for the loss of 30,000 Allied troops, killed, wounded or missing and 15,000 German casualties. The defeat of the Italians at Caporetto and the plans for the Cambrai offensive necessitated the movement of a number of divisions away from Flanders, causing a halt in the advance short of Westrozebeke and even further from the German rail links between Thourout and Routers, which had been one of the early objectives of the offensive. Deprived of resources, Haig ended the fighting on 20 November 1917.


Total casualties
Between August and November, Allied troops advanced approximately four miles. The best estimates of total casualties for that period are:
Allied troops killed, wounded or missing: between 200,000 and 448,000
German troops killed, wounded or missing: between 217,000 and 410,000

Perspectives
Haig’s conduct of the Battle of Passchendaele has remained controversial from the day the last shot was fired over that muddy ridge in Flanders. It has been claimed that he began his campaign knowing that Flanders always experienced torrential rain for much of the summer, he continued attacks when there was no hope of substantial gains and he was indifferent to the fate of the men serving under him. More importantly, he failed ever to appreciate the significance of modern weapons and their effect on the conduct of the war, and he should never have appointed Gough to command of the Fifth Army after his abysmal showing at Bullecourt and on the Somme.

Canadian troops carry a wounded man to the aid post

 

Right: Canadian troops carry a wounded man to the aid post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever his other shortcomings, the weather was a piece of bad luck no one could have predicted. In 1917 there were only three dry days and over 127mm of rain fell. It was unaccountably bad which, together with the shelling which destroyed much of the drainage system, resulted in a sea of mud which drowned men and horses; they simply slipped from the duckboards used to move about the battlefield, many disappearing below the surface before their mates had a chance to even think of rescue.
Haig and Gough could hardly be held responsible for these conditions, although their failure to appreciate the difficulties of delivering a proper artillery bombardment and insistence upon continued assaults under such conditions are not so easily dismissed. The Official History claims that Haig insisted upon the offensive continuing in the October mud, when both Plumer and Gough advised him, on 7 October, that further fighting was pointless, and Gough himself later admitted that appointing him to command the Ypres Salient was a mistake.

Haig was certainly on a steep learning curve during his command of the BEF, but it would be unjust to say he was indifferent to modern technology or tactics. Even though he may not have originated many of the new ideas, it says something about his appreciation of the change in conditions on the Western Front that he allowed the introduction of the BEF Training Directorate and even accepted innovative suggestions from his subordinates. Stubborn, opinionated and short-sighted he may have been, but the question still remains to be addressed: who of the senior officers on the Imperial General Staff could have been trusted to do better?

 

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