For the last three years or so, I have been post occasional extracts from my WW1 concise history book Lest We Forget, published by Endeavour Press of London.
July 31st marks the centennial of yet another of the landmark actions of the First World War, namely the dreadful Third Battle of Passchendaele.
Passchendaele is another of one of the epic battles that shook the western front between the British and Allied soldiers against the Germans. It all took place on the low ridges to the south and east of Ypres, in the Belgian region of Flanders between July and November 1917.
British High Command hoped to take the vital railway junctions at Rosslare, only 5 miles away but it was an objective that would go unmet until 1918. Though the Battle of Passchendaele is a distinct event in itself, it was just part of the wider and endless conflict in the area as evident by its alternative name the Third Battle of Ypres.
The conditions at Passchendaele were nothing short of an abomination and with hundreds of thousands dead on both sides. It is a name that sends shivers down the spines of anyone who knows anything about WW1 not because of the casualties which it took for Britain to narrowly win a strategic victory but primarily due to the awful conditions that the battle took place in.
The terrain in this section of the Western Front that even a very modest hill of a few dozen feet became tactical strongholds that were fiercely fought over. The slight elevation, no matter how slight, was still relatively higher than the surrounding land which meant it was more defendable, allowed observation of the enemy and particularly in trench warfare, was less likely to get bogged down.
Passchendaele was a controversial campaign from the off as British Prime Minister David Lloyd George didn’t agree with it and didn’t even approve it. The decision to proceed with it was down to the much aligned and often rightly so, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, who was anxious to make the attack, unwilling to wait for the looming American re-enforcements.
Haig though believed the Germans were worn out and yet couldn’t refuse to fight here as it would make their surrounding front line untenable following the recent Allied victory at Messines Ridge. The Germans themselves knew that they were in a tough situation and opinion amongst German High Command was divided over whether they should retreat their forces slightly further east.
On July 31st 1917, British forces launched an attack known as the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Though their attack was hindered by dense low cloud, they pushed the Germans back by around 3,700 metres before the Germans counter-attacked from the sides which pushed the British a long way back towards the starting point before the Germans too were fought to a standstill courtesy of machine gun fire and heavy mud. The British had suffered 70% casualties in the battle.
Early August saw the British capture Westhoek though at some cost in lives whilst the Canadians assaulted and captured Hill 70 and incurred a costly defeat on the Germans which meant German plans were wrecked for relieving their ‘fought out’ forces in Flanders. Other smaller battles were fought throughout August with British advances often being small and temporary for the loss of many men.
Things weren’t going to plan and many British and other Allied resources were diverted to fight in Italy, the German forces remain doggedly resistant but perhaps worst of all was the weather.
The soil type at Passchendaele is different to the sandy composition at Ypres or the balanced soil at the nearby Messines Ridge and is instead similar to London Clay. Allied Intelligence knew the area before the war to be well drained but for some reason unbeknownst to them, most of the drains and streams in the area had been destroyed by the war meaning that only a small amount of rain would lead to a wet, sticky and boggy surface. The problem was that the Battle of Passchendaele just happened to take place during the wettest summer that Passchendaele had suffered in years and the washout summer soon turned into a washout autumn and an early winter.
Duckboards were laid out and accidentally stepping off one was a major disaster for the individuals involved. Horses unlucky enough to step in the mud would soon be forever lost in a swamp of water, mud and craters. A British officer recalled seeing a man who had accidentally fallen off the duckboard and had become stuck up to his knees in a shell-hole. The man couldn’t get out himself and his friends tried relentlessly to pull him out but failed and they couldn’t dare walk out and get him as they too would be well and truly stuck. Two days later the officer passed by again and was alarmed to see that the stuck man had now sunk up to his neck in mud, his exhausted friends forced to abandon him, he had gone completely mad.
Duckboards were laid out and accidentally stepping off one was a major disaster for the individuals involved. Horses unlucky enough to step in the mud would soon be forever lost in a swamp of water, mud and craters. A British officer recalled seeing a man who had accidentally fallen off the duckboard and had become stuck up to his knees in a shell-hole. The man couldn’t get out himself and his friends tried relentlessly to pull him out but failed and they couldn’t dare walk out and get him as they too would be well and truly stuck. Two days later the officer passed by again and was alarmed to see that the stuck man had now sank up to his neck in mud, his exhausted friends forced to abandon him, he had gone completely mad.
The weather improved in September and the British were no longer fighting both the enemy and the conditions. The Germans were forced to change their defensive deployments and every machine gun that could be found was brought up to the front line and orders were issued for gas attacks to be made at every opportunity. The British too were reinforced particularly by big gun artillery and as the British advances had been relatively modest, they had taken time to dig in meaning that German attacks had little effect.
Not that they didn’t try as between 26th September and the 3rd October the Germans made 24 attacks.The 20th-25th September saw the Battle of Menin Road Ridge where the British used their new artillery to destroy German machine gun nests and concrete pillar boxes and there was an increase in the use of Aircraft to observe on German movements. By mid-morning on the 20th, the British had pushed the Germans back about a mile over a wide section of the front and though the 25th saw the Germans retake some positions despite heavy casualties, they were entirely swept away the next day in the Battle of Polygon Wood.
October saw further bad news for the Germans as the British continued to make small and occasional tangent advances but the losses they inflicted on Germany was severe. British artillery was for a time almost unanswered and eventually senior German officers were planning to make an orderly retreat from the Ypres salient despite the terrible casualties they had taken to win and keep it for so many years and regardless of the fact it would leave German forces to the north compromised right up to the Belgian coast.
The 12th October saw an attempt to advance again but the terrible weather and mud hampered operations. The Allied soldiers were thoroughly exhausted and understandably suffering from low morale and a German counter-attack pushed the Allies back with over 13,000 casualties with New Zealand suffering their worst day in their military history.
Bad weather in October meant that British advances stalled in the mud until supply roads were strengthened allowing the heavy artillery and after repeated British requests, the French fought an overwhelming victory at La Mamaison taking over 11,000 German prisoners.Despite all of this, the front line in the area was pretty much the same as it had been in April 1915. A series of small-scale assaults continued at the end of October before the rain, at last, paused for a few days allowing the Allies to prepare to attack the village of Passchendaele itself and on 6th November Canadian troops finally occupied the village just 3 hours after launching their attack and when they occupied Hill 52 just to the north of Passchendaele the tragic muddled battle had finally come to an end.
A series of small-scale assaults continued at the end of October before the rain, at last, paused for a few days allowing the Allies to prepare to attack the village of Passchendaele itself and on 6th November Canadian troops finally occupied the village just 3 hours after launching their attack and when they occupied Hill 52 just to the north of Passchendaele the tragic muddled battle had finally come to an end.
The Battle of Passchendaele was condemned by both sides. PM Lloyd George wrote that it was one of the most senseless battles of the war and totally indefensible whilst the German High Command believed that the battle had brought Germany to her knees and faced almost certain destruction.
There were around 500,000 casualties during the battle and having visited there on numerous occasions it is hard not to be affected by the countless graves and memorials and the knowledge that countless thousands lay dead inches below the fields.
Memorial Tablet by Siegfried Sassoon Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight, (Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight, And I was hobbling back; and then a shell Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light. At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew, He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare; For, though low down upon the list, I’m there; ‘In proud and glorious memory’…that’s my due. Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire: I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed. Once I came home on leave: and then went west… What greater glory could a man desire?
If you enjoyed this account then perhaps you might like my book, Lest We Forget which is available in Kindle and Paperback formats in all good on-line outlets and literary stores too. The Kindle version is published by Endeavour Press of London, one of the world’s leading digital publishers. The paperback version is available too for those folk like me who prefer an excellent book and the paperback includes a number of maps and archive photos as well as some personal photos of my family members who like millions of others, fought for our freedom only never to return home.
You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from Amazon.com in Kindle for $4.58and paperback for $9.99 and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world as well as all good online and high-street book shops.