In 1917 the British mustered their resources for one last great offensive to break through German positions outside Ypres.
Editor’s note: In his World War II memoir, Crusade in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower recalled his 1942-43 difficulties in persuading his British counter parts to concentrate on a cross-Channel invasion. Eisenhower wrote of constantly trying to dissuade them from planning operations that would delay the direct Allied confrontation with Nazi Germany on the European continent. Ike attributed this British proclivity to their fear of repeating the tragedies of World War I trench warfare. In particular, the American general cited the immense loss of life at Passchendaele in 1917.
In his new book, The First World War, John Keegan provides a vivid description of this relentless yearlong struggle that is still recalled with particular dread in Britain and has come to symbolize the futility and horror of World War I.
The German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, had the effect of driving Britain to undertake what would become its most notorious land campaign of the war, the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, so called after the Belgian village destroyed in the course of the offensive, which became its ultimate objective. At the First Battle of Ypres in October and November 1914, the old British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had succeeded in closing the gap between the open wing of the French army and the Flemish coast, thereby completing the Western Front. In the second battle, in April 1915, the BEF had sustained the first gas attack of the war on the Western Front and, though surrendering critical ground in front of the city of Ypres, had held the line. In 1917, the military situation in the British army’s sector was a novel one. The Germans, despite their success against the French and Romanians, and despite the progressive enfeeblement of the Russian army, were no longer in a position, as they had been in 1916 at Verdun, to undertake offensive operations. Their armies were overextended, and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff awaited a strategic shift of balance–perhaps to be brought by a U-boat victory, perhaps by a final Russian collapse–before they could realign their forces for a new and decisive effort. In the meantime, the British, who had assumed the burden of carrying on the war in the West after French General Robert Nivelle’s aborted May 1917 Chemin des Dames offensive, considered their position.
Douglas Haig, the hero of the first battle and defender of Ypres in the second, had long nurtured plans to make the Ypres salient the starting point for a counteroffensive that would break the German line, while an amphibious attack cleared the coast, depriving the Germans of their naval bases at Blankenberghe and Ostend, and thus also dealing, it was hoped, a deadly blow to the U-boats. Haig had first proposed the scheme on January 7, 1916, soon after he succeeded Field Marshal Sir John French in command of the BEF. He reworked the plan for consideration at the Allies’ conference at Chantilly in December, only to see it set aside in favor of Nivelle’s project for a breakthrough on the Chemin des Dames. With the failure of Nivelle’s offensive, Haig’s Flanders plan took on a certain inevitability. It was discussed at an Anglo-French conference in Paris on May 4-5, 1917, when General Philippe Petain, Nivelle’s successor, gave assurances that the French would support it with up to four attacks of their own. By June the French could no longer conceal from their British allies that such attacks could not be delivered. On June 7, Haig met Petain at Cassel, near Ypres, and was told that “two French Divisions had refused to go and relieve two Divisions in the front line.” The true figure was more than 50 and Petain’s assurance that “the situation in the French army was serious at the moment but is now more satisfactory” was wholly meretricious. Lloyd George had, at Paris, guessed at the truth when he had challenged Petain to deny that “for some reason or other you won’t fight.” Petain had then merely smiled and said nothing. By June, with the truth of the French mu tinies no longer deniable, it was clear that the British would have to fight alone. The matter of the moment was to find a justification for them doing so.
Haig was adamant that the British troops should attack on their own and believed they would win a victory, the best of all reasons for fighting a battle. South of the Ypres salient, local events in June lent credence to his case. There on June 7, the same day he heard from Petain the first admission of the French army’s troubles, General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army had mounted a long-prepared assault on Messines Ridge with complete success. Messines continues the line of Flemish heights east of Ypres–elevations held by the Germans since the first battle of October 1914–southward toward the valley of the Lys, which divides the plains of Belgium from those of France. So gradual are the gradients that, to the eye of the casual ob server, no commanding ground presents itself to view. More careful observation reveals that the positions occupied by the Germans dominated those of the British all the way to the only true high ground in Flanders, Mount Kemme! and the Mont des Cats, while denying the British observation into the German rear areas between Ypres and Lille, France.
It had long been an ambition of the British commanders at Ypres to take possession of the Messines crest, and during 1917 their tunneling companies had driven forward nineteen galleries, culminating in mine chambers packed with a million pounds of explosives. Just before dawn on June 7, 1917, the mines were detonated with a noise heard all the way to England, and nine divisions, including the Third Australian, the New Zealand, and–veterans of the first day of the Somme–the Sixteenth Irish and Thirty-sixth Ulster moved forward. Nearly three weeks of bombardment, during which three and a half million shells had been fired, had preceded the attack. When the assault waves arrived on the Messines crest, permanently altered by the exploded mines and shelling, they found the surviving defenders unable to offer resistance, and they took possession of what remained of the German trenches with negligible casualties. At a blow the British had driven the enemy from the southern wing of the Ypres salient. Haig’s ambition to drive in the center and thence advance to the Flemish coast was now greatly enhanced.
The obstacle to a second major Western Front offensive, to follow the Somme offensive of the previous year, remained the hesitation of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He was oppressed by the rising tide of British casualties, already a quarter-million dead, and the paltry military return gained by the sacrifice. The prime minister looked for alternatives in Italy against the Austrians, even against the Turks in the Middle East–policies that came to be known as “knocking away the props” of Germany’s central military position. None commended themselves, and Haig’s insistent demand for permission to launch a great Flanders offensive gained strength. Haig’s belief in its promise was not shared by Lloyd George’s principal military adviser, General Sir William Robertson, a former cavalryman whose innate intelligence and strength of character had carried him to the British army’s highest position. Yet he, despite his doubts, preferred Haig’s military single-mindedness to the prime minister’s political evasions and, when required to throw his weight one way or the other, threw it behind Haig.
In June Lloyd George formed yet an other inner committee of the cabinet, in succession to the Dardanelles Committee and the War Council, to assume the higher direction of the war. The Committee on War Policy, which included Lords Curzon and Milner and the South African General Jan Smuts, first met on June 11. Its most important sessions, however, took place on June 19-21, when Haig outlined his plans and asked for their endorsement. Lloyd George was relentless in his interrogation and criticism. He expressed doubts all too accurate about Haig’s belief in the importance of Russia’s Kerensky offensive, an abortive attempt to drive back the Germans and Austrians; questioned the likelihood of capturing the U-boat ports; and inquired how the offensive was to be made to succeed with a bare superiority, at best, in infantry and nothing more than equality in artillery. Haig was unshaken through out two days of debate. Despite Lloyd George’s fears about casualties, com pounded by the difficulties in finding any more men from civilian life to re place those lost, Haig insisted that “it was necessary for us to go on engaging the enemy…and he was quite confident, he could reach the first objective,” which was the crest of the Ypres ridges.
This was the nub of the difference: Haig wanted to fight, Lloyd George did not. The prime minister could see good reasons for avoiding a battle: It would lose many men for little material gain, it would not win the war (though Haig at times spoke of “great results this year”), and neither the French nor the Russians would help. The Americans were coming, and, in consequence, the best strategy was for a succession of small attacks (“Petain tactics”) rather than a repetition of the Somme. Lloyd George weakened his case by urging help for Italy as a means of driving Austria out of the war, but his chief failing, unexpected in a man who so easily dominated his party and parliamentary colleagues, was a lack of will to talk Haig, and his supporter, Robertson, down. At the end, he felt unable, as a civilian prime minister, “to impose my strategical views on my military advisers” and was therefore obliged to accept theirs.
The consequences would be heavy. The “Flanders Position,” as the Germans called it , was one of the strongest on the Western Front, both geographically and militaril y. From the low heights of Pass chendaele, Broodseinde, and Gheluvelt, the enemy front line looked down on an almost level plain from which three years of constant shelling had removed every trace of vege tation. It had also destroyed the field drainage system, elaborated over centuries, so that the onset of rain, frequent in that coastal region, rapidly flooded the battlefield ‘s surface and soon returned it to swamp.
To the quagmire and absence of concealment the Germans had added to the BEF’s difficulties by extending the depth of their trench system and its wire entanglements and by building a network of concrete pillboxes and bunkers, often constructed inside ruined buildings, which offered concealment to the construction teams and camouflage to the finished work. The completed Flanders position was actually several layers thick: In front, a line of listening posts in shell holes covered three lines of breast works or trenches in which the defending division’s front-line battalions were sheltered; next a battle zone consisting of machine-gun posts was supported by a line of pillboxes; finally, in the rear ward battle zone, the counterattack units of the division were sheltered in concrete bunkers interspersed between the positions of the supporting artillery batteries.
As important as the physical layout of the defenses was the deployment of troops. The German army had, by the fourth summer of the war, recognized that the defense of a position required two separate formations and had reorganized their divisions accordingly. The trench garrison, which was expected to bear the initial assault, had been thinned out to comprise only the companies and battalions of the division in line. Behind it, in the rearward battle zone, were disposed the counterattack divisions, whose mission was to move forward once the enemy assault had been stopped by the fixed defenses and local ripostes of the troops in front.
The defenders of the Flanders position belonged, in July 1917, to 10 divisions, including such solid and well-tried formations as the Third Guard and the 111th, in which German author Ernst lunger was serving with the Seventy third Hanoverian Fusiliers. On the main line of defense, that to be attacked by the British Fifth Army, 1,556 field and heavy guns were deployed along seven miles of front. The British had concentrated 2,299 guns, or one every five yards–ten times the density seen on the Somme 14 months earlier. The Fifth Army, commanded by the impetuous cavalryman General Sir Hubert Gough, also deployed more than a division to each mile. They included the Guards, the Fifteenth Scottish, and the Highland divisions, arrayed shoulder to shoulder between Pilckem, where the British Guards faced the German Guards north of Ypres, to the torn stumps of Sanctuary Wood, south of the city, which had given shelter to the original BEF in 1914.
The Fifth Army had also been allotted 180 aircraft, out of a total of 508 in the battle area. Their role was to achieve air superiority above the front to a depth of five miles, where the German observation balloon line began. Visibility, in good conditions, from the basket of a captive balloon was as much as 60 miles, al lowing the observer, via a telephone wire attached to the tethering cable, to correct the artillery’s fall of shot with a high degree of accuracy and speed. Improvements in wireless communication were also allowing two-seat observation air craft to direct artillery fire. The war in the air, which in 1918 would take a dramatic leap forward into the fields of ground attack and long-range strategic bombing, remained during 1917 largely stuck at the level of artillery observation, “balloon busting,” and dogfighting to gain or retain air superiority.
The French Air Service, though a branch of the army, was unaffected by the disorders that paralyzed the ground formations during 1917. It operated effectively against the German air raids over the Aisne in April and May and lent important support to the Royal Flying Corps during the Third Battle of Ypres. Its best aircraft, the Spad 12 and 13, were superior to most of those flown by the Germans at the beginning of the year, and it produced a succession of aces, the most celebrated being Captain Georges Guynemer and Captain Rene Fonck, whose air-fighting skills were deadly. When Guynemer was killed during Third Ypres on September 11, the French Senate ceremonially enshrined the victor of 53 aerial combats in the Pantheon. The year was also to see, however , the emergence of the most famous German aces, including Lieutenant Werner Voss and the legendary “Red Baron,” Captain Manfred von Richthofen, whose achievements were owed not just to their airmanship and aggressiveness but also to the delivery of several new types of aircraft, particularly the maneuverable Fokker Dr.I triplane, which displayed a significant edge in aerial combat over its British and French counterparts.
Aeronautical technology during the First World War permitted very rapid swings in superiority between one side and the other. “Lead times” in the development of aircraft, now measured in decades, then lasted months, sometimes only weeks. A slightly more powerful engine–when power output ranged between 200 and 300 horsepower at most–or a minor refinement of airframe could confer a startling advantage. During 1917 the Royal Flying Corps received three rapidly developed and advanced aircraft, the single-seat Sopwith Camel and SE-5 and the two seat Bristol Fighter, which provided the material to make its numbers, inexperienced as many of its pilots were, tell against the German veterans. The Royal Flying Corps also began to produce its own aces to match those of the French and German air forces, the most famous being Major Edward Mannock, Major James McCudden, and Captain Albert Ball. McCudden, an ex-private soldier, and Mannock, a convinced Socialist, were coldhearted technicians of dogfighting from backgrounds wholly at variance with the majority of public-school pilots whom Albert Ball typified. Of whatever class or nation, however, all successful participants in the repetitive and unrelenting stress of aerial fighting came eventually to display the characteristic physiognomy described by pilot Alvin Kernan: “skeletal hands, sharpened noses, tight-drawn cheek bones, the bared teeth of a rictus smile and the fixed, narrowed gaze of men in a state of controlled fear.”
The outcome of the Third Battle of Ypres would be decided, however, on the ground, not in the skies above it. As at Verdun and the Somme, the key question at the outset was: Could the weight of artillery preparation crush the enemy’s defenses and defenders sufficiently quickly and completely for the attackers to seize positions within his lines from which counterattack would not expel them? There was to be no initial attempt, as Nivelle had desired on the Aisne, for an immediate break through. Instead, the first objectives had been fixed 6,000 yards away from the British start line, within supporting field gun range. Once those had been taken, the artillery was to be moved forward and the process recommenced, until, bit by bit, the German defenses had been chewed through, the enemy’s reserves destroyed, and a way opened to the undefended rear area. The key feature to be taken in the first stage was the Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres and two miles distant from the British front line, whose slight elevation above the surrounding lowland conferred important advantages of observation.
The bombardment, which had begun 15 days earlier and expended more than four million shells–a million had been fired before the Somme–reached its crescendo just before four o’clock on the morning of July 31. At 3:50 a.m., the assaulting troops of the Second and Fifth armies, with a portion of the French First Army lending support on the left, moved forward, accompanied by 136 tanks. Although the ground was churned and pockmarked by years of shelling, the surface was dry; only two tanks bogged–though many more ditched later–and the infantry also managed to make steady progress. Progress on the left, toward the summit of Pilckem Ridge, was rapid, at Gheluvelt less so. By late morning, moreover, the familiar breakdown of communication between infantry and guns had occurred; cables were everywhere cut, low cloud cover prevented aerial observation, historian Martin Farndale noted, and “some pigeons got through but the only news from the assault was by runners, who sometimes took hours to get back, if indeed they ever did.”
Then, at two in the afternoon, the German counterattack was unleashed. An intense bombardment fell on the soldiers of Eighteenth and Nineteenth corps as they struggled toward Gheluvelt, so heavy that the leading troops were driven to flight. To the rain of German shells was added a torrential downpour that soon turned the broken battlefield to soupy mud. The rain persisted during the next three days as the British infantry renewed their assaults, and their artillery was dragged forward to new positions to support them. On August 4 a British battery commander, the future Lord Belhaven, wrote of “simply awful [mud], worse I think than winter. The ground is churned up to a depth of ten feet and is the consistency of porridge…the middle of the shell craters are so soft that one might sink out of sight… there must be hundreds of German dead buried here and now their own shells are re-plowing the area and turning them up.”
Rain and lack of progress prompted Sir Douglas Haig to call a halt to the offensive on August 4 until the position could be consolidated. He insisted to the War Cabinet in London, nevertheless, that the attack had been “highly satisfactory and the losses slight.” By comparison with the Somme, when 20,000 men had died on the opening day, losses seemed bearable; between July 31 and August 3 the Fifth Army reported 7,800 dead and missing and the Second Army more than a 1,000. Wounded included, total casualties with those of the French First Army numbered about 35,000, and the Germans had suffered similarly. The Germans, however, remained in command of the vital ground and had committed none of their counterattack divisions. Crown Prince Rupprecht, on the evening of July 31, had recorded in his diary that he was “very satisfied with the results.”
Yet, the battle had only just begun.
Rupprecht could not reckon with Haig’s determination to persist however high the losses mounted or wet the battlefield became. On August 16 he committed the Fifth Army to an attack against Langemarck, scene of the BEF’s encounter with the German volunteer divisions in October 1914 where 500 yards of ground was gained. Simultaneously, he committed the Canadian Corps to a diversionary offensive in the coal fields around Lens, that awful wasteland of smashed villages and mine spoil heaps where the BEF had suffered so pointlessly during the winter and spring of 1915. He also continued a series of fruitless assaults on the Gheluvelt Plateau, from which the Germans dominated all action on the lower ground. Little ground was gained and much life lost.
On August 24, after the failure of a third attack on Gheluvelt, Haig decided to transfer responsibility for the main effort at Ypres from Gough’s Fifth Army to Plumer’s Second. Gough, a young general by the war’s gerontocratic standards, had recommended himself to Haig as a fellow cavalryman, noted for his dash and impatience with obstacles. His troops had already learned reasons to feel less confidence in his generalship than his superior held. Plumer, by contrast, was not only older than Gough but looked older than he was and had an elderly caution and concern for those in his charge. He had commanded the Ypres sector for two years, knew all its dangerous corners, and had endeared himself to his soldiers, insofar as any general of World War I could, by his concern for their well-being. He now decided that there must be a pause to allow careful preparation for the next phase, which would take the form of a succession of thrusts into the German line even shallower than Gough had attempted.
Before the pause, there was to be one last action on August 27 to attempt the capture of two long vanished woods, Glencorse Wood and Inverness Copse, just north of the remains of Gheluvelt village. The British army’s official history of the war admits that the ground was “so slippery from the rain and so broken by the water filled shell holes that the pace was slow and the protection of the creeping barrage was soon lost” by soldiers who had been marched up during the night and kept waiting 10 hours for the battle to start. When it did, just before two in the afternoon, the advance was soon held up by impassable ground and heavy German fire. Edwin Vaughan, a wartime officer of the First Battalion, Eighth Warwickshire Regiment, described the effort of his unit to get forward:
Up the road we staggered, shells bursting around us. A man stopped dead in front of me, and exasperated I cursed him and butted him with my knee. Very gently he said, “I’m blind, Sir,” and turned to show me his eyes and nose torn away by a piece of shell. “Oh God! I’m sorry, sonny,” I said. “Keep going on the hard part,” and left him staggering back in his darkness….A tank had churned its way slowly behind Springfield and opened fire; a moment later I looked and nothing remained of it but a crumpled heap of iron; it had been hit by a large shell. It was now almost dark and there was no firing from the enemy; plowing across the final stretch of mud, I saw grenades bursting around the pillbox and a party of British rushed in from the other side. As we all closed in, the Boche garrison ran out with their hands up…we sent the 16 prisoners back across the open but they had only gone a hundred yards when a German machine gun mowed them down.
Inside the pillbox Vaughan found a wounded German officer. A stretcher bearer party appeared with a wounded British officer who greeted Vaughan cheerily. “‘Where are you hit?’ I asked. ‘In the back near the spine. Could you shift my gas helmet from under me?’ I cut away the satchel and dragged it out; then he asked for a cigarette. Dunham produced one and he put it between his lips; I struck a match and held it across, but the cigarette had fallen on to his chest and he was dead.”
Outside the pillbox Vaughan came across a party of German soldiers eager to surrender. The prisoners clustered around me, bedraggled and heartbroken, telling me of the terrible time they had been having,“Nichts essen, Nichts trinken,“ always, shells, shells, shells….I could not spare a man to take them back, so I put them into shell holes with my men who made a great fuss of them, sharing their scanty rations with them.
From other shell holes from the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning. Horrible visions came to me with those cries, [of men] lying maimed out there trusting that their pals would find them, and now dying terribly, alone amongst the dead in the inky darkness. And we could do nothing to help them; Dun ham was crying quietly beside me, and all the men were affected by the piteous cries.
This was almost the end of Lieutenant Vaughan’s experience of August 27. Just before midnight his unit was relieved by another, and he led his survivors back to the lines they had left on August 25:
The cries of the wounded had much diminished now, and as we staggered down the road, the reason was only too apparent, for the water was right over the tops of the shell holes….I hardly recognized [the headquarters pillbox], for it had been hit by shell after shell and its entrance was a long mound of bodies. Crowds [of soldiers] had run there for cover and had been wiped out by shrapnel. I had to climb over them to enter HQ and as I did so a hand stretched out and clung to my equipment. Horrified I dragged a living man from amongst the corpses.
Next morning, when Vaughan awoke to take part in a muster parade, “my worst fears were realized. Standing near the cookers were four small groups of bedraggled, unshaven men from whom the quartermaster sergeants were gathering information concerning any of their pals they had seen killed or wounded. It was a terrible list…out of our happy little band of 90 men, only 15 remained.”
Vaughan’s experience was typical of what the Third Battle of Ypres was becoming. Despite losses lighter than those suffered on the Somme in a comparable period–18,000 killed and missing (the dead drowned in shell holes accounting for many of the missing), and 50,000 wounded since July 31–the fighting was assuming for those caught up in it a relentlessly baleful character: constant exposure to enemy view in a landscape swept bare of buildings and vegetation, sodden with rain and in wide areas actually under water, on to which well-aimed shellfire fell almost without pause and was concentrated in lethal torrents whenever an assault was attempted against objectives that, near by in distance, came to seem unattainably remote as failure succeeded failure.
On September 4, Haig was summoned to London to justify the continuation of the offensive, even in the limited form proposed by the prudent Plumer. The prime minister, reviewing the whole state of the war, argued that, with Russia no longer a combatant and France barely so, strategic wisdom lay in husbanding British resources until the Americans arrived in force in 1918. Haig, supported by Robertson, insisted that, precisely because of the other Allies’ weakness, Third Ypres must continue. His case was bad–Ludendorff was actually withdrawing divisions from the Western Front to assist the Austrians–but because Lloyd George advanced worse arguments of his own, in particular that there were decisions to be won against the Turks and on the Italian front, Haig got his way. Henry Wilson, the superseded subchief of the general staff and a fanatical supporter of maintaining the effort on the Western Front, commented with characteristic cynicism in his diary that Lloyd George’s scheme was to give Haig enough rope to hang himself. The assessment that the prime minister wished to relieve his principal military subordinate but dared not until he was compromised by overt failure was probably accurate. There was, however, no obvious successor to Haig, and so, however ill-judged his strategy and harmful its effect on his long-suffering army, it was to be continued for want of a better man or plan.
Plumer’s “step-by-step” strategy, for which the pause in early September was the preparation, was conceived in three stages. In each, a long bombardment was to precede a short advance of 1,500 yards, mounted by divisions on a frontage of 1,00 yards, or 10 infantrymen for each yard of front. After three weeks of bombardment, the First and Second Australian divisions, with the Twenty-third and Forty-first British, attacked up the Menin Road east of Ypres. The accompanying barrage fell on a defensive belt a thousand yards deep, and, under that devastating weight of fire, the Germans fell back. The same results were achieved in the Battles of Polygon Wood, September 26, and Broodseinde, October 4. Plumer’s “bite and hold” tactics had been successful. The Gheluvelt Plateau had at last been taken, and the immediate area in front of Ypres put out of German observation (troops, nevertheless, continued to march out of the ruined town through its western end and circle back to reach the battlefield, as they had done since the salient had been drawn tight around it in 1915, to escape long-range shelling on the only roads that rose above the waterlogged plain).
The question was whether the next series of bite and hold attacks could be justified. The first three, particularly that on Broodseinde, had hit the enemy hard. Plumer’s artillery barrage had caught the German counterattack divisions massed too far forward on October 4 and had caused heavy casualties, particularly in the Fourth Guard Division. As a result , the Germans once again decided to refine their system of holding the front. Before Broodseinde they had brought their counterattack divisions close up into the battle zone, to catch the British infantry as they emerged from their protective barrage. As the result had been merely to expose them to the ever heavier weight and deeper thrust of the British artillery, Ludendorff now ordered a reversal: The front was to be thinned out again and the counterattack divisions held farther to the rear, in positions from which they were not to move until a deliberate riposte, supported by a weighty bombardment and barrage, could be organized.
In essence, British and German tactics for the conduct of operations on the awful, blighted, blasted and half-drowned surface of the Ypres battlefield had now been brought, as if by consultation, to resemble each other exactly. The attackers were to shatter the defenders with a monstrous weight of shellfire and occupy the narrow belt of ground on which it had fallen. The defenders were then to repeat the process in the opposite direction, hoping to regain the ground lost. It was, if decisive victory were the object, a wholly futile exercise, and Haig might, from the evidence with which events almost daily confronted him, have declined to join the enemy in prolonging the agony the struggle inflicted on both sides.
Even the most enthusiastic technical historians of the Great War, ever ready to highlight the overlooked significance of an improvement in the fusing of field artillery shells or range of trench mortars, concede that Haig should have stopped after Broodseinde. He determined adamantly otherwise. Before Broodseinde he told his army commanders, “the Enemy is faltering and…a good decisive blow might lead to decisive results.” Immediately after, at a time when Lloyd George was surreptitiously trying to limit the number of reinforcements sent to France to make good losses suffered at Ypres, he wrote to Robertson, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, “the British Armies alone can be made capable of a great offensive effort [so that] it is beyond argument that everything should be done…to make that effort as strong as possible.”
The battle of the mud at Ypres- Passchendaele, as it would become known, after the smear of brick that represented all that remained of the village that was its final objective–would therefore continue. Not, however, with British soldiers in the vanguard. Some of the best divisions in the BEF–the Guards, the Eighth (one of t he old regular divisions), the Fifteenth Scottish, the Sixteenth Irish, the Thirty-eighth Welsh, the Fifty sixth London–had fought themselves out in August and early September. The only reliable assault divisions Haig had left were in his Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and Canadian Corps, which had been spared both the first stages of the battle and the worst of the Somme a year earlier.
In what was called the “First Battle of Passchendaele,” the New Zealand and Third Australian divisions tried on October 12 to reach the remains of the village on the highest point of ground east of Ypres, 150 feet above sea level, where the Germans’ Second Flanders Position of trenches and pillboxes marked the last obstacle between the BEF and the enemy’s rear area. “We are practically through the enemy’s defenses,” Haig told a meeting of war correspondents on October 9. “The enemy has only flesh and blood against us.” Flesh and blood, in the circumstances, proved sufficient. Caught in front and flank by machine gun fire, the ANZACs eventually retreated to the positions from which they had started their advance on that sodden day. So wet was the ground that shells from their supporting artillery buried themselves in the mud without exploding, and the New Zealanders alone suffered nearly 3,000 casualties in at tempting to pass through uncut wire.
Having consigned the Second ANZAC Corps to a pointless sacrifice, Haig then turned to the Canadians. General Sir Arthur Currie, commanding the Canadian Corps, had known the Ypres Salient since 1915. He did not want to lose any more of his soldiers there, and his precise, schoolmaster’s mind forecast that the assault Haig requested would cost 16,000 casualties. Although he had means of recourse to his own government and might have declined, he nevertheless, after protest, complied with Haig’s order. The early winter had brought almost continuous rain, and the only way forward toward the top of the ridge was along two narrow causeways surrounded by bogs and streams.
On October 26, the first day of the “Second Battle of Passchendaele,” the Canadians broke the First Flanders position and, at a heavy cost in lives, advanced about 500 yards. The Eleventh Bavarian Division, defending the sector, also lost heavily and was taken out of the line. On October 30 the battle was resumed and a little more ground taken, three soldiers of the Third and Fourth Canadian divisions earning the Victoria Cross. The First and Second Canadian divisions took over the front of attack for a fresh assault on November 6, which captured what was left of Passchendaele village, and a final assault was made on November 10, when the line was consolidated. The Second Battle of Passchendaele had cost the four divisions of the Canadian Corps 15,634 killed and wounded, almost exactly the figure Currie had predicted in October.
The point of Passchendaele, as the Third Battle of Ypres has come to be known, defies explanation. It may have relieved pressure on the French in the aftermath of the mutinies, though there is no evidence that Hindenburg and Ludendorff knew enough of Petain’s troubles to plan to profit by them. They had too much trouble of their own, in propping up their Austrian allies and in settling the chaos of the Russian front, to mount another Verdun. Moreover, by the autumn of 1917, Petain’s program of rehabilitation was having its effect on the French army, which staged an attack near the Chemin des Dames on October 23 that recaptured more than seven miles of front, to a depth of three miles, in four days–a result equivalent to that achieved wit h such effort and suffering at Ypres in 99. Sir James Edmonds, the official British historian, justified Haig’s constant renewal of the Passchendaele battle with the argument that it attracted 88 divisions to the Ypres front, while “the total Allied force engaged was only six French divisions and forty-three British and Dominion [Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian] divisions.”
Context puts his judgment in perspective: 88 divisions represented only a third of the German army, while Haig’s 43 were more than half of his. What is unarguable is that nearly 70,000 of his soldiers had been killed in the muddy wastes of the Ypres battlefield and more than 170,000 wounded. The Germans may have suffered worse–statistical disputes make the argument profitless–but, while the British had given their all, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had another army in Russia with which to begin the war in the West all over again.
Britain had no other army. Like France, though it had adopted conscription later and as an exigency of war, not as a principle of national policy Britain had by the end of 1917 enlisted every man who could be spared from farm and factory and had begun to compel into the ranks recruits whom the new armies in the heyday of volunteering of 1914-15 would have rejected on sight: the hollow-chested, the round shouldered, the stunted, the myopic, the overage. Their physical deficiencies were evidence of Britain’s desperation for soldiers and Haig’s profligacy with men. On the Somme he had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors into the slough of despond. MHQ
JOHN KEEGAN, an MHQ contributing editor, is the author of some 20 works of military history. He has taught at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and has been a fellow of Princeton University and a professor at Vassar College.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1999 issue (Vol. 11, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Breaking of Armies
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