Five minute history: the battle of Passchendaele

The third battle of Ypres or the battle of Passchendaele as it is commonly known has become a defining moment of the first world war – it is remembered for its horror, the mud and the senseless slaughter of men. But What happened and was it actually a terrible failure?

Third Ypres was fought in Belgium between 31st July and 10 November 1917 – though there were some further attacks in the salient in December also.

The fighting was intense, the weather was often terrible and over 500,000 men were killed or wounded during the battle.

The British and Empire troops of 1917 were a hardy bunch, experienced, well trained and well armed with grenades, Lewis guns, rifle grenades and stokes mortars. They understood fire and movement and the importance of flank attacks – they had learnt hard lessons on the Somme.

Hubert Gough and his 5th army were chosen for the assault. Gough was a protégé of Haig – a “thruster” who believed in the decisive breakthrough.

They were to secure the Passchendaele Ridge and the crucial railway lines, thus facilitating an amphibious assault at Ostend, which would allow for the ‘possession of the Belgian coast’.

The first stage of the battle was known as the battle of Pilckem ridge. The preliminary bombardment last two weeks – the longest in BEF history.

While it was a terrifying show of force it was over too broad an area and also managed to chew up the ground destroying the drainage systems and making life hard for both tanks and infantry.

1024px-USMA_-_Third_Battle_of_Ypres

The British needed good weather and firm ground for the attack to have any hope of success. They didn’t get it.

Zero hour was 0350 on the morning of the 31st July. The weather was overcast and misty meaning the Royal Flying Corp was unable to help and confusion was inevitable.

The main British effort was made by II Corps across the Gheuvelt Plateau, on the southern flank of the Fifth Army.

There was some success, particularly on the northern flank but concrete pill-boxes slowed them down and then the inevitable German counterattacks began to be felt. That afternoon the rain began and any chances of a breakthrough disappeared.

The attack wasn’t a complete failure though. The fifth army had advanced about 3000 yards and had taken it’s first and second objective. Casualties were 32000 which, while by today’s standards would be considered horrific, in the first world war weren’t thought to be disastrous.

Heavy rain continued and the battle paused until the 10th August when the 18th and 25th British divisions of the II Corp attacked.

It had been really difficult to move up enough guns to support the attack and the two attacking divisions had already been at the front for the best part of a week. The troops were tired, wet through and thoroughly exhausted.

They took a hammering but the 25th division did manage to capture and hang on to the village of Westhoek. The bad weather continued and the British had to break off the attack again.

The next man British assault is known as the Battle of Langemarck and was fought from the 16th-18 August.

The plan was for II and XIX Corps to push on to the German Third Line between Polygon Wood and the Zonnebeke Spur an advance of about 1,500 yards.

But again the ground was too difficult, the tanks couldn’t move and the men were quickly separated.

The assault was a disaster. Cyril Falls, the Ulster divisional historian, said that ‘The story of the attack, alas! is not a long one.’ The Germans were well dug-in the ground was awful and there was great confusion.

After a series of further small attacks throughout the month, even the CIC Sir Douglas Haig realised that they needed to halt until the weather improved. He also decided that the 2nd Army, under General Plumer would take over the main attack. It was clear that Gough wasn’t up to the job and his men’s morale was suffering.

Plumer was a “bite and hold” guy. Small well-planned advances, draw the German counter attacks and slaughter them before repeating.

The weather had begun to improve and the dashing Australians were now at the forefront of the offensive.

The German defenders on the Gheluvelt plateau were overstretched and tired from being in the line for three weeks without relief.

The second army’s attack began on 20th September – what was known as the Battle of Menin road.

Battle_of_Menin_Road_-_wounded_at_side_of_the_road
The battle of Menin Road. Wounded soldiers at the side of the road. (Public Domain)

The artillery was well concentrated and a wall of fire moved in front of the attacking infantry. A textbook display of the creeping barrage.

The British and ANZAC troops captured most of their objectives that day including Borry Farm and Potsdam House, Glencorse Wood and a small copse known as Nonne Boschen.

The German counter-attacks that came in the afternoon were repulsed.

A very impressive Victoria Cross was won on this day by Sergeant William Burman of the Rifle Brigade:

“When the advance of his company was held up by a machine-gun at point-blank range, Sergeant Burman shouted to the men next to him to wait a few minutes and going forward to what seemed certain death killed the enemy gunner and carried the gun to the company’s objective where he used it with great effect. Fifteen minutes later it was seen that about 40 of the enemy were enfilading the battalion on the right. Sergeant Burman and two others ran and got behind them, killing six and capturing two officers and 29 other ranks.”

An interesting fact is that of the sixty-one Victoria Crosses that were awarded for conspicuous gallantry during the battle, more than forty were given to individual attacks on enemy pillboxes or machine-gun nests.

General Plumer’s success was worrying for the Germans – not that they had lost ground but that they had failed to retake it.

His second step – the Battle of Polygon Wood – opened at 5.50 a.m. on 26 September. The fighting was similar to that of the 20th September. Well-planned artillery schedules, creeping barrages, a 1200 yard advance and the subsequent defeat of the German counter-attacks.

The Germans then retreated to the main defensive line – the Broodseinde Ridge which was attacked on 4th October.

There would be no heavy bombardment before the attack on Broodseinde.

It was a wet morning when the attack went in and on the ANZAC part of the line it coincided with a German attack –the two forces met in no-mans land and the Germans were scattered.

The battle was quickly won – the British had advanced another 1200 yards into the German front – it was another clear victory for the British and Empire troops and for Plumer.

Common sense would have made the British stop the battle here, but Haig wanted to continue and push on for Passchendaele. But between the newly won British position and the village at the top of Passchendaele Ridge was a terrible flooded plain filled with barbed wire and covered with machine guns – not a good place to attack, even in fine weather.

Heavy rain now played havoc with Plumer’s logistics. Guns were difficult to move and when they were eventually able to fire there accuracy was poor due to the lack of a solid firing platform.

The attack on the 9th October was a disaster. Stuck in mud with patchy artillery support and rifles clogged with mud the men were slaughtered. Flush with the success at Broodseinde they had rushed things and paid the price.

On the 12th October, the British tried to take Passchendaele and yet again the poor weather, lack of artillery and overstretch meant that the attacking units floundered and failed. There were 13,000 Allied casualties, including 2,735 New Zealanders

Even Haig realized that a breakthrough was unlikely and agreed to wait until the weather had improved and roads had been built up to the front.

It was now that the Canadian Corp, arguably the best unit the in the entire British and Empire army was brought forward to try and capture Passchendaele and bring the battle to a close.

The first stage of the assault began on the morning of 26 October – they made slow progress and the further they advanced the more vulnerable they became to German artillery and machine-gun fire.

Second_Battle_of_Passchendaele_-_16th_Canadian_Machine_Gun_Company
16th Canadian Machine Company, 2nd battle of Passchendaele (Public Domain)

On the 30th they attacked again and despite the horrific weather and dogged German resistance they ground forward step by step. Laying the groundwork for the eventual capture of the village.

After a short pause, and slightly improved weather the Canadians attacked again on 6th November and within hours had achieved the impossible and secured the village.

The battle was as good as over.

It had been a horrific, monumental struggle.

Despite the horrific casualties the British had improved their positions around Ypres. They had also given the battered French army breathing space to recover after the mutinies that had almost destroyed their army.

The battle had been important for the British army and it contributed to the developments in tactical skill and weaponry that would culminate later in the war during the 100 days campaign.

 

A special thanks to Nick Lloyd – his book “Passchendaele: A new history” was the inspiration and main source for this article. https://amzn.to/2I4PORo

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