: BRITISH POLITICAL HISTORY
This page is in memory of all those who lost their lives or who’s lives were never the same again after Passchendaele.
In particular it is dedicated to two brothers; George and Frank Hill. George, who was killed at the Battle of Broodseinde, and Frank, who’s bravery and survival through this horror 100 years ago means I am here and able to share this with you today.
Elizabeth Hill-Scott – Editor
Third Battle of Ypres 31 July – 10 November 1917
Called Flandernschlacht (The Battle of Flanders) by the Germans and officially named the Third Battle of Ypres by the British, today it is more commonly known as Passchendaele.
David Lloyd George had replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minster in December 1916 and was now at the head of a coalition government. Lloyd George wanted to place more of the burden of fighting the war onto Britain’s Allies, particularly in Italy. The British Army’s Commander In Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, believed that the only way to win the war was to defeat the German Army on the Western Front. Lloyd George disliked Haig’s penchant for launching large scale operations which inevitably resulted in heavy British casualties.
Haig was convinced that the German Army was nearing collapse and he wanted to deliver a decisive blow to the Germans before they lost this advantage. The Russian Revolution in March 1917 made Russia’s continuance in the war increasingly unlikely and raised the prospect of German troops being released from the Eastern Front. America had declared war on Germany in April 1917, but it would be some months before American troops arrived at the front. The failure of the Nivelle offensive in the spring of 1917 had proved disastrous for the French. High casualties and low morale resulted in a near mutiny by the French soldiers as ‘acts of collective indiscipline’ spread throughout the French Army. The weakened state of the French meant that any offensive on the Western Front in the summer of 1917 would fall mainly to the British.
Haig’s decisive attack would be in Flanders. The British Army would break out of the Ypres Salient and capture the surrounding high ground before advancing north eastwards to Roulers and Thourout and then on to the Belgian coast. At which time there would be a further attack by British forces along the coast and an amphibious landing of troops behind enemy lines to capture the Belgian ports from where German submarines threatened Allied shipping.
As early as November 1916 Haig had ordered General Sir Herbert Plumer of the British Second Army to come up with a plan of attack. Plumer had held the Ypres Salient since 1915 but his limited plan to capture the surrounding high ground did not suit Haig. Haig sought alternative plans from Colonel C. MacMullen of the General Staff, whose suggestions proved unworkable, and General Sir Henry Rawlinson, who also favoured Plumer’s proposal of limited objectives.
On 7 May 1917 Haig announced to his army commanders at Doullens that he had decided to split his Flanders offensive into two phases. First would be the capture of the Messines Ridge to secure the southern flank followed ‘some weeks later’ by an attack east of Ypres that would break the German defences and lead to a major advance.
The Battle of Messines 7-14 June 1917
The attack was put in the hands of General Plumer and the British Second Army. True to his reputation, Plumer left nothing to chance and extensive preparations were made in the run up to the battle.
The success of the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge earlier in the year had shown the importance of artillery in overcoming the German defences and Plumer had over 2000 guns at his disposal. The production of guns and ammunition in terms of quality and quantity had improved since the Somme and targets were now being hit with much greater accuracy. Counter-battery work was given high priority and barrages would be used to protect the infantry. The preliminary bombardment began on the 21 May and increased in intensity as the day of attack neared. In all some 3.5 million shells were fired at the German lines during this bombardment. There were also a series of mines, containing just short of a million pounds of high explosive buried under the ridge.
At 3.10am on the 7 June, nineteen mines detonated under the German front line. The sound of the blast was heard in London. Flames erupted along the ridge crest and tons of earth and debris shot hundreds of feet into the air. Large sections of the German front line were obliterated and with it hundreds of German soldiers. At the same time all of Second Army’s artillery opened fire.
80,000 men from X Corps, IX Corps and II ANZAC Corps went over the top and advanced behind a slow moving curtain of shells, known as a creeping barrage. The German front line was swiftly captured followed soon after by the ridge crest and the villages of Messines and Wytschaete. The men advanced over the ridge and down towards the German’s next line of defences known as the Oosttaverne Line, which Haig had insisted should be a first day objective. The infantry came under artillery fire as they massed on the ridge crest and their progress slowed. The Line was eventually captured on the 14 June. Messines was hailed as a great success with the ridge now in British hands.
To head his offensive in Flanders Haig appointed General Sir Hubert Gough. General Rawlinson was put in command of the coastal operation, but this all hinged on the progress of Gough’s Fifth Army.
The main attack would be launched along an 8 mile front from Kleine Zillebecke in the south to the Houthulst Forest in the north. Gough’s plan for the first day was ambitious and involved an advance of some 4000-5000 yards, almost three miles. Haig considered the high ground of the Gheluvelt Plateau to be of strategic importance and that no major breakthrough would be achieved without its capture.
Extensive preparations were made and the infantry were given detailed training for the battle. The preliminary bombardment began on the 16 July, raining down artillery and gas shells on the German lines. By the time the attack went in at the end of the month over 4 million shells had been fired. The recent success at Messines had once again demonstrated that the weight of artillery was crucial to breaking the German defences. The infantry would advance behind a creeping barrage, while standing barrages would protect them from counter-attacks as they consolidated their positions at each objective. Gough had nearly 3000 guns but here they would be firing over a much wider front and to a much greater depth. These measures were essential as the German defences the infantry faced were considerable.
Defence in Depth
The German Fourth Army had not been idle during the 7 week delay since Messines. Certain that the British would attack again they had brought in reinforcements and proceeded to strengthen their defences.
Beyond the German front line lay a further five defensive lines. The fourth of these, known as the Flandern I Line was a distance of 6-7 miles and it ran in front of Passchendaele village down towards the Gheluvelt Plateau and to the rear of Polygon Wood. Between here and the front line the Germans were rapidly constructing a series of defensive zones some 2000 to 3000 yards deep. Due to the high water table and often boggy ground the Germans had been unable to build deep bunkers as they had on the Somme. Instead they had constructed numerous concrete pillboxes and blockhouses housing soldiers and machine gun posts. The villages, now mostly in ruins, had been fortified to create defensive strongpoints. 61 Victoria Crosses were awarded for bravery during the Third Battle of Ypres, of these over 40 were for individuals taking out enemy pillboxes.
Most of their batteries of heavy guns were located behind the Passchendaele Ridge and the Gheluvelt Plateau, which prevented direct observation from the British lines and these had not been silent during the British build-up. The German’s fired artillery and gas shells at the British lines hampering preparations. This included the first use of mustard gas on the 12 July.
The Germans had changed their defensive tactics since the Somme and now relied on defence in depth. Forward positions were only weakly defended but beyond this the attackers would come up against strengthening opposition. Strong reserves of infantry were held only a few miles back. These Eingreif divisions would launch counter-attacks before the attackers could consolidate their positions, pushing them back to their own lines.
31 July 1917
At 3.50 am on the 31 July 100,000 men advanced into No Man’s Land. Due to the early start and bad weather they went over the top in the dark. To the left and centre of the line the German forward positions were quickly over run. Here were the day’s greatest successes with an advance of around 3000 yards and the capture of the Pilckem Ridge.
It was on the right of the line facing the Gheluvelt Plateau where the attack had not gone well. Held up by boggy ground and uncut wire the men of the 24th and 30th divisions lost the protection of the creeping barrage. Here the preliminary bombardment had failed to destroy many of the German defences and the men of II Corps came under heavy fire from machine guns and artillery. By the end of the day they had advanced some 1000 yards beyond the German front line. The Gheluvelt Plateau remained in German hands.
In August 1917, 127 millimetres of rain fell in Flanders, almost double the monthly average. The network of drainage systems that covered the fields around Ypres had been destroyed by the heavy shelling and the battlefield quickly turned into a quagmire. It was just as bad behind the lines where miles of duckboards had to be laid. It was extremely difficult to move the guns and bring up supplies. The infantry were exhausted and spent much of their time soaked to the skin and covered in mud. The bad weather hampered the work of the Royal Flying Corp and the artillery observers making counter battery work virtually impossible. It rained almost every day so there was no extended period of dry weather to allow conditions to improve.
On the 10 August Gough resumed his attack, this time over a narrow front opposite the Gheluvelt Plateau. No effective artillery support could be given due to the bad weather. 18th Division came under heavy fire before they had even left their trenches and were forced to fall back to their own lines. 25th Division managed to advance some 450 yards and capture Westhoek.
After two days of very heavy rain an attack was launched on the 16 August over the same wide front as on the 31 July. Lack of sufficient preparations and bad weather meant that the preliminary bombardment had failed to knockout many of the German strong points and artillery batteries. The infantry struggled under heavy fire over the boggy ground. The greatest gain of the day was the capture of the village of Langemarck, but to the centre and right of the line virtually no advance was made. There were 15,000 casualties. Many of the men succumbed to their wounds or drowned in shell holes before they could be brought in. Gough blamed his own men for the failure, claiming they had fallen back too easily in the face of German counter-attacks. Haig blamed the weather and lack of artillery preparation.
Gough continued to launch attacks until early September. Lack of preparation, appalling conditions and strong German resistance led to little gain for heavy losses.
Bite and Hold
Plumer’s Second Army now took control of the line facing the Gheluvelt Plateau. Plumer recognised that the infantry could not succeed without sufficient artillery preparation and support during the battle. To advance the 4000 yards needed to capture the plateau, Plumer planned a series of ‘bite and hold’ attacks. These would have limited objectives and be well within the range of British artillery. Gough’s Fifth Army to the north would advance towards Zonnebeke. On securing these objectives the intention was to head for the Passchendaele Ridge after which Haig still hoped for a major breakthrough.
True to form, Second Army’s preparations were meticulous. A task greatly aided by an improvement in the weather. The weight of artillery fire in the preliminary bombardment was unprecedented, with Second Army firing a concentration of shells three times higher than that on the 31 July. The infantry were to go over the top protected by a deep creeping barrage which would halt at set intervals allowing them to consolidate their positions and allow further units of men to move up. The artillery would continue this barrage well after the final objective had been achieved to prevent the German Eingreif divisions from launching any counter attacks.
The first of Plumer’s attacks went in on the 20 September. The Battle of the Menin Road was hard fought and there was strong resistance from the German defenders. Most of the day’s objectives were achieved and the artillery barrage ensured most counter attacks failed. It was a similar story for Plumer’s next attack, The Battle of Polygon Wood on the 26 September.
The Battle of Broodseinde on the 4 October advanced the line another 1000 yards but intense fighting resulted in just over 20,000 casualties. These attacks were regarded as a great success with most of the Gheluvelt Plateau now in British hands. Haig, still convinced the German Army was on the point of collapse, urged Plumer to press home the advantage.
The German High Command were worried as their defensive strategy was failing to counter Plumer’s bite and hold tactics which prevented the effective use of the Eingreif divisions, and they were sustaining heavy casualties. While Plumer’s strategy was working it was also one of diminishing returns, as each step resulted in higher casualties for smaller gains. Furthermore the weather had turned and the rain, once again, had reduced the Flanders countryside to a crater strewn quagmire.
“I died in hell – they called it Passchendaele”
Haig was determined that the offensive would continue with a final push to the Passchendaele Ridge. Conditions continued to deteriorate during October and into November. In places the terrain became impassable and the men struggled to negotiate the sea of mud and water filled shell-holes. Falling into the mud could mean death. It was virtually impossible to move the guns or find a stable platform to put them on. The artillery could never be effective under such conditions. The casualties mounted and only meagre gains were made.
Haig brought in the Canadian Corps to tackle the Passchendaele Ridge. General Arthur Currie commanding the Corps insisted on two weeks of preparations and would use bite and hold tactics to take the ridge 500 yards at a time. The first attack went in on the 26 October. By early November the Canadians had captured Passchendaele village and the ridge crest behind it. Their final attack went in on the 10 November. The Canadians had sustained around 16,000 casualties during their time in Flanders.
It was the weather which finally brought the Battle of Passchendaele to an end.
Total casualties for the battle are estimated at half a million men, with around 250 000 of those being from British and Commonwealth forces. By the end of the battle the British Army had advanced a distance of five miles.
In March 1918 the Germans launched their spring offensive and the British Army was forced to fall back towards Ypres. General Plumer reluctantly ordered his men to withdraw from the Passchendaele Ridge.
- Passchendaele, A New History: Nick Lloyd, Viking 2017
- Passchendaele, The Sacrificial Ground: Nigel Steel and Peter Hart, Cassell 2001
- Passchendaele: The Untold Story: Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, Yale University Press 2002
- Douglas Haig, War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918: Edited by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005
- The German Army at Passchendaele: Jack Sheldon, Pen and Sword 2007
- They Called it Passchendaele: Lyn Macdonald, Penguin Books 1993