The Third Battle of Ypres, often called the Battle of Passchendaele, is one of the most horrifying battles of World War One. The size of the battle, and the deplorable conditions in which it was fought, have given in this distinction. The battle was fought in these conditions due to errors in the British battle plan.
The Battle of Passchendaele was part of the British campaign in Belgium of 1917. The campaign had been organized by the British Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, and this phase took place around Ypres. The goal was to take the Gheluvelt and Passchedaele ridges on either side of the villiage of Passchendaele (Hart, 339). Haig replaced the commander in the Ypres Salient from the previous two years, General Herbert Plumer, with an outsider, General Hubert Gough. Plumer was well liked by his men, and his tactics were slow but effective. Gough was much bolder, and this style better suited Haig’s offensive (Wolff, 187).
Unfortunately for the British, the Germans knew that Passchendaele was going to be attacked. They withdrew most of their men from the multi-layered trenches and put them into recently built concrete bunkers known as pillboxes (Marshall, 215). The other factor that gave the Germans a strategic advantage was the oncoming rainy season. The drainage for the fields of Belgium had been destroyed by three years of fighting, and thus when the rains came, the ground became muddy and hard to navigate. (Terraine, 140) On July 22nd, the largest land bombardment in the history of military warfare commenced. 3091 British guns fired 4.25 million shells into the German lines. This was spread out over a 15 mile area however, greatly diminishing its effectiveness (Grolier, 91). Thus, when the British attacked, they faced fairly intact German lines.
The battle itself is customarily divided into three phases. July 31-August 16, August 16-October 4, October 4-November 10. The first phase’s action took place mostly on the opening day of the offensive, where British troops made modest gains and held them against counterattacks (Livesey, 124). That night however, it began to rain, and the offensive was stalled for 10 days, before launching another attack on the 10th of August. The Battle of Langemarck on 16th August was a sound defeat of the British forces, and upon that defeat Haig reinstated Herbert Plumer as the commander of the offensive (Winter/Bagget, 200). Thus begins the second phase of the battle. Plumer had his men well trained, and at Menin Road Ridge on September 20th, the British advanced and held the ground easily against massive German counterattacks. The same situation occurred on September 26th, a hot dry day, quite contrary to the normal weather during the battle. Again, on October 4th, Plumer executed a successful attack in front of massive artillery and defended the position, but on the afternoon of October 4th, the skies opened up (Keegan, 2297). The worst rain for the area in 75 years drenched everything. This was to be the third phase of the battle.
This was the part of the battle known for its “sea of mud” image (Stokesbury, 242). The battlefield would swallow men, animals, and vehicles whole, and casualties mounted. The first and second battles of Passchendaele village on 12 and 26 October yielded almost no gains with very heavy casualties. After the disaster at Caporetto, Plumer was sent with a few divisions to Italy, and on November 10, Canadian troops captured the remains of the village, as well as most of the two major ridges. (McCarthy, 12) With this, the offensive was ended. The three month battle had 300,000 British casualties along with 50,000 French, and on the other side, the Germans lost 230,000 of their own troops (Grolier, 91).
The battle of Passchendaele marked a turning point in WWI warfare. This was the battle that perfected the bite and hold tactic, the massive artillery bombardment, and the pillbox defense. It served to help wipe out an entire generation of British soldiers, and at the same time, decimated the German forces in the area. Passchendaele was to be the final major attrition battle and the horror of those months still stand as legendary in the minds of the British today. It is debatable whether or not the massive casualties could have been prevented, but the fact of the matter is that Field Marshall Haig made a number of drastic mistakes, and this cost the lives of thousands of men.
Haig’s first major mistake was the timing of the campaign. Haig ordered the attack at Passchendaele fully knowing that the rainy season was drawing near. Some attribute this rush to attack to the ego of attacking without American help. The rain, however, would not have been a problem had it not been for the poor quality of the soil. As James Stokesbury writes, “The rain lay on the ground, and the clay dissolved into a clinging mud, thick, glutinous, and all conquering. With more rain, it became a nauseous semi-liquid.” (Stokesbury, 240) The conditions the men were forced to fight in were absolutely hellish. There are tales of men sinking into the mud and being sucked under and never seen again. The all consuming muck was hard to advance through and the Germans found it easy to kill the attackers. Morale after this battle was near an all time low, simply because of the squalor that the men had just survived. Had Haig realized that attacking in such conditions were folly, he would have saved many British lives. Furthermore, when the weather was good, during the second phase of the battle, the British made substantial gains with fairly light casualties. Also, in the German counter-offensive the following spring, the British were pushed back without much trouble. This shows the errors made in the time of attack on the part of the British.
The other major British error made early on was the replacement of the commander. When Hubert Gough relieved Herbert Plumer, a number of changes were made that affected the allies negatively. Firstly, Plumer was well liked by his men, and had been the commander in the area for the past two years. Gough on the other hand was new to the area, and was not as familiar to the terrain. Their styles of command were also drastically different. Plumer was the general who perfected the “bite and hold” tactic, advancing small areas under heavy artillery fire. Gough on the other hand exhibited a boldness that Haig liked. As stated in the Grolier Library of WWI, “Gough, a man who would push through to the objective as quickly as possible…the defenses on the Gheluvelt and Passchendaele ridges were formidable, but the headstrong Gough paid little attention.” (Grolier, 91) This boldness caused the attacks to be spread out too widely, and they were not effective, killing many men for little gain during the first phase of the battle. Had Plumer been in control the entire time, the entire offensive would have been much more effective.
Despite these major errors however, the Battle of Passchendaele did provide three of the most important innovations in warfare: The Pillbox defense, the hurricane artillery bombardment, and the bite and hold advance. This battle was the proving ground for these tactics, and they became widely used from that point on.
The pillbox defense was a German innovation. Instead of leaving most of the men in the trenches for the massive bombardment, the majority were placed in a self supporting network of bunkers. Previously, the bunkers had been used alone, and the British were able to easily attack and take them. With this new system, each pillbox supported the others, and it became very hard to take entire bunker groups.
Artillery and Bite and Hold were used together to form a powerful British advance machine. The heavy artillery would pound a concentrated area with fire, and then the infantry would advance within the means of their defense to take that area. The results were staggering. British soldiers could easily push Germans off of a position, and then be dug in and supported by artillery, this annihilating the German counter attackers. This was a far cry from the long sweeping advances favored by Gough and during the second phase of the battle, was very effective in advancing the British lines.
At the end of the battle however, neither side saw that much positive had been gained. The British were in low spirits and were for the most part decimated. The Germans felt the defense had been a total failure, and were also nearly wiped out. Both sides saw the battle as a great waste, much like the other great battles of attrition such as Verdun and the Somme.
Hart, Captain B.H. Liddell; The Real War 1914-1918 (1930, Boston, Atlantic/Brown Books) p. 337-343
Wolff, Leon; In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign (1958, New York, Time Inc. Book Division)
Marshall, S.L.A. and American Heritage; American Heritage History of World War One (1964, New York, American Heritage Books) p. 213-215
Terraine, John; The Western Front 1914-1918 (1965, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippencott co.) p. 134-156
Dupont, Ellen (editor); 1917: The U.S. Enters the War Grolier Library of World War One Volume 5 (1997, Singapore, Grolier Educational) p. 90-95
Livesey, Anthony; Great Battles of World War I (1989, New York, Macmillan Publishing) p. 120-131
Winter, Jay & Baggett, Blaine; The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (1996, New York, Penguin Books) p. 195-207
Keegan, John (editor); Marshall Cavendish WWI Volume 7 (1984, New York, Marshall Cavendish) p. 2282-2300
Stokesbury, James; A Short History of World War I (1981, New York, William Morrow and Company) p. 239-243
McCarthy, Chris; the Third Ypres Passchendaele: The Day-by-Day account (1995, New York, Sterling Publishing)