World War One: Third Battle of Ypres / Passchendaele

A correct decision was not so easy to make at the time as it appears now: wrote Sir William Robertson after the war about the projected Flanders offensive. It was a just comment. So many factors lay misted in uncertainty. Would Russia stay in the war? Gloomy reports by allied observers with the Russian army contradicted earlier optimism about Russia’s new regime. What of France? Pétain categorically promised Haig French military support. Even though the French carefully concealed from their ally the full appalling dimensions of the mutinies in their army, the British were well aware that France and her army were suffering a severe crisis of moral. Could Pétain’s promises be depended on? The enemy was also having his strikes and demonstrations; how near to breaking point was his own will to wage war? Then there was the U-boat. Admiral Jellicoe warned the War Cabinet in June that with the then rate of merchant-ship losses it was pointless to even think about 1918, and urged the vital importance of eliminating the U-boat bases along the Belgian coast.

Haig argued that his prolonged offensive offered the best strategic answer to all these puzzles. It would encourage the Russians. It would give French hope, in his words, ‘something to feed on’ during the long interval before the Americans arrived in force. It would clear the Belgian coast. If all went well, and the British advance reached the Dutch frontier, it might even, Haig contented, induce Germany to make peace in 1917. On the basis of the 6-mile advance at Arras in April and a successful capture of the Messines Ridge on 7 June, Haig was confident that he had solved the technical problem of the breakthrough.

Lloyd George in relentlessly cross-examining Haig and Robertson, expressed profound doubts as to whether such a breakthrough could be achieved; fears lest the British army should be sucked into another Somme battle. He advocated instead that on the Western Front the Allies should do little more than wait for the Americans, while transferring a mass of artillery to support the Italian offensives against Austria. ‘If the Germans came to the assistance of the Austrians, then you would be fighting them and wearing them out,’ he told the War Policy Committee in June. He Cynically added: ‘but this would take place at the expense of the Italians and not our own men.’ Haig and Robertson, the ‘Westerners,’ contended, however, that this ‘Easterners’ strategy would dangerously weaken the Western Front while inflicting little or no damage on the main enemy, Germany.

Through May, June and July the argument revolved without a decision, even though-with Cabinet sanction-the vast preparations for Flanders offensive continued, including the preliminary bombardment itself 15 July. No meeting of minds took place, but instead a sterile confrontation between sides that deeply mistrusted each other. Finally on 20 July the War Cabinet authorized Haig ‘to carry out the plans for which he has prepared….’ For even though Lloyd George remained totally opposed to the offensive, he had in the end shrunk from asserting the Cabinet’s constitutional responsibility over British strategy.

Thus unsatisfactorily ended perhaps the most crucial British strategic debate of the war; and thus the army of the British Empire came to be committed to the experience ever after to be remembered as ‘Passchendaele’, the name of the final objective attained, and one of those assigned to the first day.

The main offensive was preceded by an attack to secure its southern flank by capturing the strong German position on the Messines Ridge. Mounted by the Second Army under Sir Herbert Plumer, it was a masterpiece of meticulous organization. On 7 June 19 huge mines that had been two years in secret underground preparation exploded beneath the German defenses, and the infantry went in behind a creeping barrage from 2,330 guns and howitzers. By the end of the day the whole ridge lay in British hands, and the Germans had lost 24,000 men and 67 guns to the British losses of 17,000 killed, wounded, and missing. It seemed a brilliant omen for the coming of the Third Battle of Ypres.
Haig’s plan for this fell into two phases. He would first strike northeast from the Ypres Salient and seize a rim of high ground running from Staden through Passchendeale and Gheluvelt. Then, in conjunction with the seaborne landing near Nieuport (cancelled in the event), he would drive north towards Ostend and Bruges, with the Dutch frontiers as his ultimate objective. He hoped at least to get as far as the railway line Roulers-Thourout, 12 miles behind the German front. Because he hoped for a rapid advance he gave command of the offensive to General Sir Hubert Gough and the Fifth Army, Gough being the youngest army commander and enjoying a reputation as a thruster, rather than to Plumer, the expert in set-pieces.

The offensive was dogged with the ill-fortune from the start. Haig had originally hoped that massed tanks would enable him to break through without the need for a massive preliminary bombardment that would smash up the ground, but owing to continued production difficulties only 150 were available in July. A bombardment there had to be. Since the offensive had been delayed some months beyond the date first envisaged by Haig because of the changes in Allied commanders and planers since Joffre’s dismissal, it now happened to coincide with the wettest August for years. The combination of a huge weight of artillery fire and drenching rain proved disastrous. With all the ditches and land drains destroyed, the battlefield became an immense bog.

For the British command the results of the first day’s assault on 31 July offered a perplexing picture of partial success. While the left wing had advanced some two miles, the centre and right had finished up less than half way to their objective, the Passchendaele-Gheluvelt ridge. For the enemy had once again sprung his own surprises: a new system of defense in depth, shell-proof concrete bunkers, and powerful counter-arrack groups which stuck the attackers at the moment of maximum exhaustion and disarray.

Though Haig ordered Gough to continue attacking, the incessant rain delayed further actions until 10 August, when the British failed again to capture the Gheluvelt Plateau. After another vain floundering forward in the mud at Lanemarck on 16 August, Gough advised Haig that tactical success was impossible and the offensive should be abandoned. Haig believed that if only the weather improved there was still a chance of clearing the Belgian coast before autumn, and that in any case the general war situation demanded that the British army should grip the enemy by the throat. The British were not fighting alone. On 17 August the Italian army under Count Luigi Cadorna launched the eleventh battle of the Isonzo; three days later Pétain carried out at Verdun the first of his promised limited operations, with complete success. The apparently futile attacking through the mud at Ypres was having its effect on the defenders. Ludendorff wrote in his memoirs: The costly August battles in Flanders and at Verdun imposed a heavy strain on the western troops. In spite of all the concrete protection they seemed more or less powerless under the enormous weight of the army’s artillery. At some points they no longer displayed that firmness which I, in common with the local commanders, had hoped for.

At the end of August Haig transferred command of the battle from Gough to Plumer. The weather changed; September proved fine and dry. Plumer and his outstandingly able Chief-of-Staff Charles Harrington organized three of their meticulous set-piece attacks (Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde) during the month and the first week of October. At the Menin Road Ridge there were 1,295 guns, one to every five yards of front, the largest concentration ever achieved by the British army. The rolling barrage in front of the troops was 1,000 yards deep, composed of five separate belts of fire. The infantry occupied the area swept clean of the enemy by the guns, and then the huge battering engine was laboriously hauled forward and set up for the next advance. At the climax of the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October, the advancing Australians saw green fields-the German rear area beckoning.

Then the rain fell again; ‘our most effective ally’ in the words of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the defending German army group commander. The battlefield dissolved into porridge. The army of the British Empire still struggled on-all through October and into November. Believing with some reason that the enemy was strained to the limit, even though the general feeling of his army commanders was against him; even though he was very well aware that the battlefield was a swamp that swallowed men, guns and machines. This last stage of the Third Battle of Ypres provided the scenes of the nightmare that inspired some of the most deeply felt of all war poetry.

In the October fighting the Australians and New Zealanders struggled nearly to the crest of the Passchendaele Ridge before being withdrawn, utterly spent. Passchendaele itself, now no more than a brick-coloured smear in the welter of cratered mud, fell to the Canadians on 20 November. Six days later Haig closed down the Third Battle of Ypres at last.

Measured against Haig’s own stated prior intentions, the offensive must be accounted a complete failure. The losses were, as far as can be guessed amid uncertain and disputed statistics about equal around 250,000 killed, wounded, and missing on each side. It is impossible to judge which side suffered the greater moral damage, for both emerged exhausted and deeply shaken. Sir Philip Gibbs, a famous war correspondent, recorded: ‘for the first time the British Army lost its sense of optimism, and there was a sense of deadly depression among many officers and men with whom I came in touch.’ Yet perhaps it was worse for the Germans, forced slowly but inexorably back. Ludendorff wrote: ‘the troops had borne the continuous defensive with extreme difficulty…they thought with horror of fresh defensive battles and longed for a war of movement…’ By gripping the German army so remorselessly for more than four months (as many as 73 German Divisions rotated through the battle) Haig and certainly gave Pétain the respite he needed to restore the French army to health.

Perhaps the most important consequence of the Third Ypres lay far in the future-in the 1920 and 1930’s, when the image of futile slaughter printed on the public mind by the war writers and poets was to cause a wave of pacifist feeling in Britain that helped to prevent timely rearmament against Hitler.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

SOURCE: The Great War
BY Correlli Barnett
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan

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