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British victory at Passchendaele

British victory at Passchendaele

After more than three months of bloody combat, the Third Battle of Ypres effectively comes to an end on November 6, 1917, with a hard-won victory by British and Canadian troops at the Belgian village of Passchendaele.

Launched on July 31, 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres was spearheaded by the British commander in chief, Sir Douglas Haig. After a major Allied offensive by the French failed the previous May, Haig determined that his troops should launch another one that same year, proceeding according to his mistaken belief that the German army at this point in World War I was on the verge of collapse, and could be broken completely by a major Allied victory. As the site for the offensive Haig chose the much-contested Ypres Salient, in the Flanders region of Belgium, a region that had seen two previous German-led offensives. Ostensibly aimed at destroying German submarine bases located on the north coast of Belgium, Haig’s Third Battle of Ypres began with significant Allied gains but soon bogged down due to heavy rains and thickening mud.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

By the end of September, the British were able to establish control over a ridge of land east of the town of Ypres. From there, Haig pushed his commanders to continue the attacks towards the Passchendaele ridge, some 10 kilometers away. As the battle stretched into its third month, the Allied attackers reached near-exhaustion, while the Germans were able to reinforce their positions with reserve troops released from the Eastern Front, where Russia’s army was in chaos. Refusing to give up the ghost of his major victory, Haig ordered a final three attacks on Passchendaele in late October.

On October 30, Canadian troops under British command were finally able to fight their way into the village; they were driven back almost immediately, however, and the bloodshed was enormous. “The sights up there are beyond all description,” one officer wrote weeks later of the fighting at Passchendaele, “it is a blessing to a certain extent that one becomes callous to it all and that one’s mind is not able to take it all in.” Still Haig pushed his men on, and on November 6 the British and Canadian troops were finally able to capture Passchendaele, allowing the general to call off the attacks, claiming victory. In fact, British forces were exhausted and downtrodden after the long, grinding offensive. With some 275,000 British casualties, including 70,000 dead—as opposed to 260,000 on the German side—the Third Battle of Ypres proved to be one of the most costly and controversial Allied offensives of World War I.


Battle of Passchendaele: 31 July - 6 November 1917

Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele became infamous not only for the scale of casualties, but also for the mud.

Ypres was the principal town within a salient (or bulge) in the British lines and the site of two previous battles: First Ypres (October-November 1914) and Second Ypres (April-May 1915). Haig had long wanted a British offensive in Flanders and, following a warning that the German blockade would soon cripple the British war effort, wanted to reach the Belgian coast to destroy the German submarine bases there. On top of this, the possibility of a Russian withdrawal from the war threatened German redeployment from the Eastern front to increase their reserve strength dramatically.

The British were further encouraged by the success of the attack on Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917. Nineteen huge mines were exploded simultaneously after they had been placed at the end of long tunnels under the German front lines. The capture of the ridge inflated Haig's confidence and preparations began. Yet the flatness of the plain made stealth impossible: as with the Somme, the Germans knew an attack was imminent and the initial bombardment served as final warning. It lasted two weeks, with 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns, but again failed to destroy the heavily fortified German positions.

The infantry attack began on 31 July. Constant shelling had churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems. The left wing of the attack achieved its objectives but the right wing failed completely. Within a few days, the heaviest rain for 30 years had turned the soil into a quagmire, producing thick mud that clogged up rifles and immobilised tanks. It eventually became so deep that men and horses drowned in it.

On 16 August the attack was resumed, to little effect. Stalemate reigned for another month until an improvement in the weather prompted another attack on 20 September. The Battle of Menin Road Ridge, along with the Battle of Polygon Wood on 26 September and the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October, established British possession of the ridge east of Ypres.

Further attacks in October failed to make much progress. The eventual capture of what little remained of Passchendaele village by British and Canadian forces on 6 November finally gave Haig an excuse to call off the offensive and claim success.

However, Passchendaele village lay barely five miles beyond the starting point of his offensive. Having prophesied a decisive success, it had taken over three months, 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties to do little more than make the bump of the Ypres salient somewhat larger. In Haig's defence, the rationale for an offensive was clear and many agreed that the Germans could afford the casualties less than the Allies, who were being reinforced by America's entry into the war. Yet Haig's decision to continue into November remains deeply controversial and the arguments, like the battle, seem destined to go on and on.


Between July and November , in a small corner of Belgium, more than , men were killed or maimed, gassed or drowned - and many of the bodies were never found. The Ypres offensive represents the modern impression of the First World War: splintered trees, water-filled craters, muddy shell-holes. The climax was one of the worst battles of both world wars: Passchendaele. The village fell eventually, only for the whole offensive to be called off. But, as Nick Lloyd shows, notably through previously unexamined German documents, it put the Allies nearer to a major turning point in the war than we have ever imagined. The French hamlet of Passchendaele became the location of one of the defining battles of World War I. A combination of poor weather and poor coordination with the British High Command caused a failed

Between July and November , in a small corner of Belgium, more than , men were killed or maimed, gassed or drowned - and many of the bodies were never found. The Ypres offensive represents the modern impression of the First World War: splintered trees, water-filled craters, muddy shell-holes. The climax was one of the worst battles of both world wars: Passchendaele. The village fell eventually, only for the whole offensive to be called off. But, as Nick Lloyd shows, notably through previously overlooked German archive material, it is striking how close the British came to forcing the German Army to make a major retreat in Belgium in October Far from being a pointless and futile waste of men, the battle was a startling illustration of how effective British tactics and operations had become by and put the Allies nearer to a major turning point in the war than we have ever imagined. Published for the th anniversary of this major conflict, Passchendaele is the most compelling and comprehensive account ever written of the climax of trench warfare on the Western Front.


Passchendaele: The Lost Victory of World War I – Review By Stuart McClung

World War I on the Western Front can mostly be described as an exercise in futility. Once the initial 1914 German offensive through Belgium and into northern France had been stopped, it degenerated into the well-known trench warfare with the front lines extending from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.

Those front lines changed relatively little over the course of the next three years despite offensives by each side, generally over the course of several months, in various sectors of the front. These efforts each resulted in little more than minimal territorial gains and casualty lists running into the hundreds of thousands.

Passchendaele, sometimes called Third Ypres, was another of those multi-month offensives. With the near collapse into outright mutiny of the French Army, it was essentially left to the British, guarding the Channel ports in northern France alongside the Belgians, to launch a large-scale assault ostensibly intended to finally achieve a breakthrough to the Belgian coast, eliminate the U-Boat bases there and roll up the flank of the German defenses.

By 1917, weapons technology focused on the dominance of machine guns and artillery on the battlefield. The Germans had the edge in the former and the Allies meanwhile were superior in the latter. As well, aircraft were now a factor on offense, defense and reconnaissance.

The generally accepted formula for success in the attack means having at least a 3-1 edge. However, this was complicated by the elaborate defenses of interlocking fields of fire from trenches, pillboxes, destroyed homes and ruined villages and the often-times rainy weather, which, along with artillery, made the terrain a near impossibility in which to operate and maneuver.

A soldier in the mud during the Second Battle of Passchendale

The cratered landscape with shell holes filled with mud and water obliterated what roads there were previously and made logistical efforts to get food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to the front just as much of a nightmare behind the lines as the actual fighting. The presence of the remains of the unburied dead in no man’s land was also a problematic consideration for more reasons than one.

At Passchendaele, not only were the British taking over the offensive from the exhausted French but British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander-in-chief Douglas Haig also needed to be seen to be doing something, anything, which would mitigate political pressures at home on both himself and Prime Minister Lloyd George who had little confidence in this offensive in the first place.

In the event, the attack, as with many others, was a multi-phase operation and not one continuous battle. From July through November, the British made gains at the expense of the Germans with their preponderance of artillery but there was no breakthrough to accompany the long casualty lists and there was also disagreement among higher ups as to intended tactics

What success was experienced had the Germans on the ropes at times and seriously concerned that they would not be able to hold on. Their tactical doctrine, however, called for judicious counterattacks by divisions behind the front lines before the British could consolidate their gains via their “bite and hold” tactics which ultimately conceded any possibility of a breakthrough.

A Mark IV tank at Passchendaele

The end of the campaign, in November, showed a change of, at greatest extent, approximately five miles in the front at an immense cost in men and materiel. Technically, it was a British victory yet did not achieve the desired objective of clearing the Belgian coast or defeating the German army and ending the war. Trench warfare would continue for another year.

Thirteen excellent, detailed maps accompany the text, ranging from the situation in June to the final line in November. A section of twenty-four photographs is also included. They show the blasted landscape and related conditions under which the battle was fought, some of the primary commanders and their men and equipment.

The Battle of Passchendaele, July-November 1917

Extensively researched, the lengthy bibliography includes national archival sources, official histories and reports, memoirs and personal accounts, unit histories and general works and articles.

This story, told from both sides but with more emphasis on the British perspective, is as emblematic of the futility of World War I as any other. Yet there is an object lesson to be learned here, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the war’s sheer and utter waste of life and resources even as the old mainland Europe monarchical order brought about its own demise.


Passchendaele: The Lost Victory of World War I – Review By Stuart McClung

World War I on the Western Front can mostly be described as an exercise in futility. Once the initial 1914 German offensive through Belgium and into northern France had been stopped, it degenerated into the well-known trench warfare with the front lines extending from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.

Those front lines changed relatively little over the course of the next three years despite offensives by each side, generally over the course of several months, in various sectors of the front. These efforts each resulted in little more than minimal territorial gains and casualty lists running into the hundreds of thousands.

Passchendaele, sometimes called Third Ypres, was another of those multi-month offensives. With the near collapse into outright mutiny of the French Army, it was essentially left to the British, guarding the Channel ports in northern France alongside the Belgians, to launch a large-scale assault ostensibly intended to finally achieve a breakthrough to the Belgian coast, eliminate the U-Boat bases there and roll up the flank of the German defenses.

By 1917, weapons technology focused on the dominance of machine guns and artillery on the battlefield. The Germans had the edge in the former and the Allies meanwhile were superior in the latter. As well, aircraft were now a factor on offense, defense and reconnaissance.

The generally accepted formula for success in the attack means having at least a 3-1 edge. However, this was complicated by the elaborate defenses of interlocking fields of fire from trenches, pillboxes, destroyed homes and ruined villages and the often-times rainy weather, which, along with artillery, made the terrain a near impossibility in which to operate and maneuver.

A soldier in the mud during the Second Battle of Passchendale

The cratered landscape with shell holes filled with mud and water obliterated what roads there were previously and made logistical efforts to get food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to the front just as much of a nightmare behind the lines as the actual fighting. The presence of the remains of the unburied dead in no man’s land was also a problematic consideration for more reasons than one.

At Passchendaele, not only were the British taking over the offensive from the exhausted French but British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander-in-chief Douglas Haig also needed to be seen to be doing something, anything, which would mitigate political pressures at home on both himself and Prime Minister Lloyd George who had little confidence in this offensive in the first place.

In the event, the attack, as with many others, was a multi-phase operation and not one continuous battle. From July through November, the British made gains at the expense of the Germans with their preponderance of artillery but there was no breakthrough to accompany the long casualty lists and there was also disagreement among higher ups as to intended tactics

What success was experienced had the Germans on the ropes at times and seriously concerned that they would not be able to hold on. Their tactical doctrine, however, called for judicious counterattacks by divisions behind the front lines before the British could consolidate their gains via their “bite and hold” tactics which ultimately conceded any possibility of a breakthrough.

A Mark IV tank at Passchendaele

The end of the campaign, in November, showed a change of, at greatest extent, approximately five miles in the front at an immense cost in men and materiel. Technically, it was a British victory yet did not achieve the desired objective of clearing the Belgian coast or defeating the German army and ending the war. Trench warfare would continue for another year.

Thirteen excellent, detailed maps accompany the text, ranging from the situation in June to the final line in November. A section of twenty-four photographs is also included. They show the blasted landscape and related conditions under which the battle was fought, some of the primary commanders and their men and equipment.

The Battle of Passchendaele, July-November 1917

Extensively researched, the lengthy bibliography includes national archival sources, official histories and reports, memoirs and personal accounts, unit histories and general works and articles.

This story, told from both sides but with more emphasis on the British perspective, is as emblematic of the futility of World War I as any other. Yet there is an object lesson to be learned here, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the war’s sheer and utter waste of life and resources even as the old mainland Europe monarchical order brought about its own demise.


The Battle of Passchendaele

On 6th November 1917, after three months of fierce fighting, British and Canadian forces finally took control of the tiny village of Passchendaele in the West Flanders region of Belgium, so ending one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. With approximately a third of a million British and Allied soldiers either killed or wounded, the Battle of Passchendaele (officially the third battle of Ypres), symbolises the true horror of industrialised trench warfare.

General Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief in France, had been convinced to launch his forces at the German submarine bases along the Belgian coast in an attempt to reduce the massive shipping losses then being suffered by the Royal Navy. General Haig also believed that the German army was close to collapse and that a major offensive …“just one more push”, could hasten the end the war.

Thus the offensive at Passchendaele was launched on the 18th July 1917 with a bombardment of the German lines involving 3,000 guns. In the 10 days that followed, it is estimated that over 4¼ million shells were fired. Many of these would have been filled by the brave Lasses of Barnbow.

The actual infantry assault followed at 03.50 on 31st July, but far from collapsing, the German Fourth Army fought well and restricted the main British advance to relatively small gains.

Shortly after the initial assault, the heaviest rains in more that 30 years began to fall on Flanders, drenching the soldiers and the low lying fields over which the battle was taking place. The artillery shells that had bombarded the German lines only days before had not only torn up the land but had also destroyed the drainage systems that were keeping the reclaimed marshland dry. With the continued pounding, the rain drenched ground quickly turned into a thick swamp of mud.

Even the newly-developed tanks made little headway unable to move, they quickly became stuck fast in the liquid mud. With each new phase of the offensive the rain kept falling, filling the shell holes with water. The clinging mud caked the soldier’s uniforms and clogged their rifles, but that was the least of their worries as in places the mud had become so deep that both men and horses were drowned, lost forever in the stinking quagmire.

The only solid structures in this sea of desolation were the enemy’s concrete pillboxes from here the German machine-gunners could scythe down any Allied infantry that had been ordered to advance.

With the hopelessness of the situation apparent, General Haig temporarily suspended the attack.

A fresh British offensive was launched on the 20th September under the command of Herbert Plumer which eventually resulted in some small gains being made including the capture of a nearby ridge just east of Ypres. General Haig ordered further attacks in early October which proved less successful. Allied troops met stiff opposition from German reserves being poured into the area, and many British and Empire soldiers suffered severe chemical burns as the Germans employed mustard gas to help defend their position.

Unwilling to accept failure, General Haig ordered three more assaults on the Passchendaele ridge in late October. Casualty rates were high during these final stages, with Canadian divisions in particular suffering huge losses. When British and Canadian forces finally reached Passchendaele on 6th November 1917 hardly a trace of the original village structures remained. The capture of the village did however give General Haig the excuse to call an end to the offensive, claiming success.

In the three and half months of the offensive the British and Empire forces had advanced barely five miles, suffering horrendous casualties. Perhaps their only consolation was that the Germans had suffered almost as badly with around 250,000 killed or injured. In the aftermath of the battle, General Haig was severely criticised for continuing the offensive long after the operation had lost any real strategic value.

Perhaps more than any other, Passchedaele has come to symbolise the horrors and the great human costs associated with the major battles of the First World War. British Empire losses included approximately 36,000 Australians, 3,500 New Zealanders and 16,000 Canadians – the latter of which were lost in the last few days / weeks of the final bloody assault. Some 90,000 bodies were never identified and 42,000 never recovered.

These battles and the British Empire soldiers that perished in them are today commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, the Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing.


Pigeons at Passchendaele

For Major Alec Waley, the commanding officer of the British Expeditionary Force’s Carrier Pigeon Service, 31 July 1917 was a peculiarly tense day, but ultimately a very satisfying one.

It was the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres – or ‘Passchendaele’, as it is more often remembered. The conduct of this offensive was facilitated by the most destructive technologies yet devised: modern artillery, machine-guns, tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, and poison gas. Total casualties, Allied and German, were probably in excess of 500,000.

What place, in the midst of industrialised slaughter on this scale, could there be for Waley’s fragile little birds, carried ‘up the line’ in their delicate wicker baskets? By the evening of the first day, Waley had an answer: visiting the BEF’s II Corps, he was told that 󈦫% of the news which had come in from the front-line had been received by pigeon’.

OLD TECH OR NEW TECH?

Where cumbersome, insecure, and unreliable wireless sets, along with telephones, signal lights, and flares failed, pigeons succeeded. When human runners could not pass through walls of barrage fire, pigeons rose above the explosions and the gas and flew swiftly to their lofts, bearing dispatches in tiny cylinders attached to their legs.

The usefulness of pigeons in modern warfare had come as something of a surprise to the British. Pigeons were a proven, indeed time-honoured, form of communication. Originally domesticated around 4500 BC, they had marched (or rather flown) with the armies of Ramesses II, King Solomon, Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan. Yet, by the latter half of the 19th century, while pigeon fancying was becoming an increasingly popular hobby, especially among the working class, for military purposes they seemed to have been entirely supplanted by the telegraph.

Events during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, however, had reaffirmed their military utility. Prussian cavalry patrols pushing rapidly into France had severed telegraph lines, and isolated French garrisons soon resorted to sending dispatches by carrier pigeons loaned by local fanciers.

Officials in Paris, besieged for four months during the conflict, also organised a carrier-pigeon service that delivered hundreds of thousands of messages for the beleaguered city. The military implications of this achievement were not lost on Continental soldiers, and by 1914 extensive networks of lofts had been established across Europe by the armies of all the leading powers.

BEHIND THE CURVE

The British were the exception. Believing the birds to be unreliable under wartime conditions, being apt to ‘get discouraged or lost’, the War Office abolished the Army’s small carrier-pigeon service in 1907. The nature of the fighting on the Western Front soon revealed that decision to have been an error.

Alec Waley, a lieutenant in the Intelligence Corp in late 1914, had borrowed some pigeons from the French and, as a fellow officer remembered,

under his enthusiastic impulse [the pigeon service] proved its value, for when … the Germans were closing in on Ypres, and the roads through the town became shell traps, Alec Waley was a well-known figure taking to the front-line the pigeons that saved the life of many a dispatch rider.

The following July, this extemporised Carrier Pigeon Service was officially taken over by the Director of Army Signals, with Waley as ‘officer commanding’.

PIGEONS MOBILISED

Over the same period, back in Britain, A H Osman, editor of the Racing Pigeon journal , was commissioned into the Army and given responsibility for organising a carrier-pigeon service for home defence, and for supplying both birds (thousands of which were freely given to the war effort by patriotic fanciers) and suitably qualified men for both the Army and volunteer trawler crews involved in minesweeping at sea.

Waley only ever had around 380 men under his direct command, but Osman made sure they were experienced with birds in civilian life and could not only manage the Army’s lofts but, crucially, train infantrymen to care for and ‘toss’ the birds.

By the end of the war, Waley and his ‘pigeoneers’ would be responsible for lofts operating around 20,000 birds and for having trained some 90,000 soldiers (British Empire, Portuguese, and American) to handle pigeons.

Building this organisation took time . While pigeons proved their worth in the battles of 1915 and 1916, there were never enough available in those years to meet demand, which came not just from the infantry, but from the artillery, the ‘Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps’ (that is, tanks), and the Royal Flying Corps.

MILITARY ORGANISATION

By early 1917, however, the Carrier Pigeon Service had established an extensive network of lofts, both fixed and mobile, the latter either motorised or horse-drawn. In the interests of the speedy delivery of messages, mobile lofts were often boldly pushed up close to the front-line Waley, rather uneasily, recorded their presence within 2,000 yards of enemy positions on occasion.

Each was typically manned by a sergeant or corporal of the ‘pigeoneers’, commanding a small squad of a pioneer or two (soldiers trained for specialist labour and basic engineering duties), an orderly, and a couple of dispatch riders who carried the birds forward for units entering the front-line. When a pigeon flew in from the line , its message was immediately relayed to its intended destination, such as brigade or divisional headquarters.

Although this sounds like a cumbersome procedure, it delivered – by First World War standards – remarkably quick communications. Indeed, in some circumstances pigeons even out-paced the telephone. In May 1916, Waley recorded that,

[a divisional signals officer] mentioned that when messages were over 30 words the pigeon nearly always beat the wire, as a certain amount of time was always lost in re-transmitting the wire from Brigade to Divisional Headquarters.

PASSCHENDAELE

At Passchendaele, pigeons ensured that even the heaviest guns, although the batteries were placed well back, could be brought to bear very rapidly when infantry requested fire support. Waley recorded in August that ‘from the forward lofts birds are being sent to Heavy Artillery Groups and messages are coming in excellent times averaging 6 minutes’.

For the infantry, such timely support was often the difference between victory and defeat. On 3 August 1917, Captain H L Binfield’s company of the 13th Royal Sussex was defending a line of shell-holes in front of the village of St Julian, which they had just seized from the Germans. His men were now desperately short of ammunition and they could see enemy infantry forming up for a counter-attack before them.

Binfield released their last pigeon, calling for support from the gunners. Fourteen minutes later, and in the nick of time, the barrage fell between them and their attackers, whose assault withered away.

Yet, overall, August 1917 was a month of unremitting fighting with limited success. Sir Hubert Gough, who initially directed the main thrust, struggled to secure the crucial Gheluvelt Plateau. The German infantry suffered agonies under the relentless pounding of the British guns, but they endured, contesting every shell-hole line with bomb and bayonet.

PLUMER’S PIGEONS

Then heavy rain intervened, turning the battlefield into a swamp. Gough was replaced by the methodical Sir Herbert Plumer. He paused the offensive, built up his artillery, and meticulously planned the next move, aiming for limited but achievable objectives.

When the weather improved, in late September and early October, he struck. In three operations – Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde – he dealt hammer blows to the defenders, seizing narrow objectives in terms of ground, but relying on his artillery to destroy the ensuing German counter-attacks, inflicting heavy casualties.

Some have argued that Plumer’s victories forced the Germans to consider a major withdrawal that would have threatened their whole position in Belgium. Pigeons played their part fully in these victories. This entry in the war diary of the Carrier Pigeon Service for 21 September 1917, reveals the extent of their duties:

[the loft at Vlamertinghe Chateau] had supplied 80 birds to tanks, assaulting troops, and intelligence OPs [observation posts]. Forty messages had come in and a large number of birds had also brought in maps. [V Corps loft] had sent up 120 birds for the offensive and 50 messages had been received in excellent times from assaulting troops, tanks, artillery OPs, and intelligence OPs.

But the skies opened again and the offensive floundered in the mud. Most military historians agree that it was unnecessarily prolonged at this stage, reaching its dismal climax when the indefatigable Canadian infantry finally captured Passchendaele and its environs in early November.

Pigeons were still doing useful service to the end, but their losses were mounting. Many young, semi-trained birds were being sent up the line and released into gales, driving rain, and snow, only to disappear.

Even when the battle ended, Waley’s command never really got a chance to recover. The German spring offensives of 1918 saw many lofts and their birds destroyed, to avoid their capture.

Remarkably, Waley kept the service in being, salvaging all he could (and simultaneously establishing a messenger-dog service for the BEF too).

During the allied counter-offensives of summer and autumn 1918, the war became more mobile. As the distance between advancing troops and lofts opened up, the pigeons became more of a supplementary means of communication. They never entirely lost their value for attacking troops, but the plans laid for 1919 placed greater emphasis on dogs and wireless.

Passchendaele remains one of the most controversial battles of the 20th century, and historians still debate its significance, but, for Waley, his ‘pigeoneers’, and their gallant little birds, it was their finest hour.

Gervase Phillips is Principal Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He special­ises in human conflict, specifically looking at the military use and treatment of animals in war.

This article is from the November 2017 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.


Canada and the Battle of Passchendaele

The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was fought during the First World War from 31 July to 10 November 1917. The battle took place on the Ypres salient on the Western Front, in Belgium, where German and Allied armies had been deadlocked for three years. On 31 July, the British began a new offensive, attempting to break through German lines by capturing a ridge near the ruined village of Passchendaele. After British, Australian and New Zealand troops launched failed assaults, the Canadian Corps joined the battle on 26 October. The Canadians captured the ridge on 6 November, despite heavy rain and shelling that turned the battlefield into a quagmire. Nearly 16,000 Canadians were killed or wounded. The Battle of Passchendaele did nothing to help the Allied effort and became a symbol of the senseless slaughter of the First World War.

Battle of Passchendaele

(Third Battle of Ypres)

31 July 1917 to 10 November 1917

Passchendaele (now Passendale), West Flanders, Belgium

United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France German Empire

15,654 Canadians (over 4,000 killed)

A Canadian soldier walks across the blasted, mud-soaked Passchendaele battlefield during the First World War in 1917.

Preparation and Initial British Offensive

By the spring of 1917, the Germans had begun unrestricted submarine warfare — sinking Allied merchant ships in international waters. Although the attacks had brought the United States into the war on the Allied side, they threatened the shipping routes that carried war supplies, food and other goods into Britain. British naval leaders urged their government to force the Germans from occupied ports on the Belgian coast, which were being used as enemy submarine bases. General Douglas Haig, commander of the British armies in Europe, said that if the Allies could break through the German front lines in Belgium, they could advance to the coast and liberate the ports.

At about the same time, legions of French soldiers, weary from years of grinding war, had begun to mutiny following the failure of a large French offensive on the Western Front. With some French armies temporarily unwilling or unable to fight, General Haig also believed that an aggressive British campaign in the summer of 1917 would draw German resources and attention away from the French forces, giving them time to recoup and reorganize.

Haig proposed a major offensive in the Ypres salient, a long-held bulge in the Allied front lines in the Flanders region of Belgium. The salient had been an active battlefield since 1914, and Canadian troops had fought there in 1915 (see Second Battle of Ypres). Haig argued that capturing the plateau overlooking the salient — including Passchendaele ridge and the crossroads village of the same name — would provide a suitable jumping-off point for Allied forces to advance to the Belgian coast.

Map showing progress in the Ypres area, 1 Aug to 17 Nov, 1917. 8th edition. GSGS 3588. 1:40,000. War Office.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was skeptical of Haig’s scheme. Britain only had a small superiority in forces over the enemy. Even if German lines could be broken at Ypres, the coastal ports might not be captured, and the offensive in Belgium wouldn’t end the war, in any case. The only certainty was heavy loss of life. Despite these fears, Haig’s plan was approved by the British war Cabinet. The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, would begin in July.

Canadian Corps

The Canadian Corps, Canada’s 100,000-man assault force (see Canadian Expeditionary Force) was initially spared involvement in General Douglas Haig’s 1917 campaign. The Corps, fresh from its April victory at Vimy Ridge, was instead assigned the task of attacking Germans occupying the French city of Lens (see Battle for Hill 70) in the hopes that this would draw German resources away from the main battle in the Ypres salient.


In mid-July, as the Canadians prepared to attack Lens, British artillery began a two-week bombardment of a series of scarcely visible ridges rising gently around the salient, on which the Germans waited.

Previous fighting since 1914 had already turned the area into a barren plain, devoid of trees or vegetation, pockmarked by shell craters. Earlier battles had also destroyed the ancient Flanders drainage system that once channelled rainwater away from the fields. The explosion of millions more shells in the new offensive — accompanied by torrential rain — quickly turned the battlefield into a swampy, pulverized mire, dotted with water-filled craters deep enough to drown a man, all made worse by the churned-up graves of soldiers killed in earlier fighting.

British and ANZAC Assault

British troops, supported by dozens of tanks (seeArmaments) and assisted by a French contingent, assaulted German trenches on 31 July. For the next month, hundreds of thousands of soldiers on opposing sides attacked and counterattacked across sodden, porridge-like mud, in an open, grey landscape almost empty of buildings or natural cover, all under the relentless, harrowing rain of exploding shells, flying shrapnel and machine-gun fire. Few gains were made. Nearly 70,000 men from some of Britain’s best assault divisions were killed or wounded.

By early September, Haig was under political pressure from London to halt the offensive, but he refused. In September, Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) divisions were thrown into the fight alongside the worn out British forces. Despite some limited gains, the result was mostly the same: the Allies would bombard, assault and occupy a section of enemy ground only to be thrown back by the counterattacking Germans.

Haig was determined to carry on despite the depletion of his armies and the sacrifice of his soldiers. In October, he turned to the Canadians.

Canadians Join the Battle of Passchendaele

General Douglas Haig ordered Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corps’ new commander, to bring his four divisions to Belgium and take up the fight around the village of Passchendaele. Currie objected to what he considered a reckless attack, arguing it would cost about 16,000 Canadian casualties for no great strategic gain. Ultimately, however, Currie had little choice. After lodging his protest, he made careful plans for the Canadians’ assault.

The four divisions of the Canadian Corps moved into the Ypres salient, occupying sections of the front that Canadian troops had earlier defended in 1915 (seeSecond Battle of Ypres). Two years later, the ground had been subject to so much fighting and continuous artillery fire that it still contained the rotting, unburied bodies of dead soldiers and horses from both sides. “Battlefield looks bad,” wrote Currie in his diary. “No salvaging has been done and very few of the dead buried.”

Over the next two weeks, Currie ordered the removal of the dead, and the building and repair of roads and tramlines to help in the movement of men, armaments and other supplies on the battlefield. Even so, transporting troops to the front lines from which they would launch their attack was a treacherous business. The battlefield was a vast expanse of mud, riddled with water-filled shell craters. Soldiers and pack animals had to pick their way across narrow “duck walk” tracks that wound among the craters. Slipping off the tracks carried the risk of drowning in craters big enough to swallow a house. Amid these conditions, troops and officers were given time to position themselves and prepare for the attack, which opened on 26 October.

Battlefield Conditions

For the next two weeks, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps took turns assaulting Passchendaele ridge in four separate attacks. During the first two — on 26 and 30 October — Canadian gains measured only a few hundred metres each day, despite heavy losses. So fierce was the fighting that one battalion, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, lost almost all its junior officers only an hour into the assault on 30 October.

Under almost continuous rain and shellfire, conditions for the soldiers were horrifying. Troops huddled in shell holes, or became lost on the blasted mud-scape, not knowing where the front line was that separated Canadian from German positions.

“Our feet were in water, over the tops of our boots, all the time,” wrote Arthur Turner, an infantryman from Alberta. “We were given whale oil to rub on our feet . . . this was to prevent trench-feet. To solve it I took off my boots once, and poured half the oil into each foot, then slid my feet into it. It was a gummy mess, but I did not get trench-feet.”

The mud gummed up rifle barrels and breeches, making them difficult to fire. It swallowed up soldiers as they slept. It slowed stretcher-bearers — wading waist-deep as they tried to carry wounded away from the fighting — to a crawl. Ironically, the mud also saved lives, cushioning many of the shells that landed, preventing their explosion.

“The Battle for the Passchendaele Ridge,” wrote Turner, “was without doubt one of the Muddy-est, Bloody-est, of the whole war.”

Wrote Private John Sudbury: “The enemy and ourselves were in the selfsame muck, degradation and horror to such a point nobody cared any more about anything, only getting out of this, and the only way out was by death or wounding and we all of us welcomed either.”

Soldiers carry a wounded Canadian to an aid-post during the Battle of Passchendaele, November 1917. Two wounded First World War soldiers - a Canadian and a German - light cigarettes on the muddy Passchendaele battlefield in Belgium in 1917. Canadian soldiers wounded during the Battle of Passchendaele, November, 1917. Laying trench mats over the mud during the Battle of Passchendaele, in Belgium, November, 1917.

Was the Battle of Passchendaele a Success?

On 6 November, the Canadians launched their third attack on the ridge. They succeeded in capturing it and the ruins of Passchendaele village from the exhausted German defenders. A fourth assault, which secured the remaining areas of high ground east of the Ypres salient, was carried out on 10 November — the final day of the more than four-month battle.

Nine Victoria Crosses, the British Empire’s highest award for military valour, were awarded to Canadians after the fighting. Among the recipients was Winnipeg’s Robert Shankland who on 26 October had led his platoon in capturing a series of German gun emplacements — and holding them against repeated enemy counterattacks — on a critical piece of high ground called the Bellevue Spur (see also George Randolph Pearkes).

DID YOU KNOW?
Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, an Anishnaabe sniper from Parry Island reserve (now Wasauksing First Nation), won the first bar to his Military Medal for bravery at Passchendaele. Pegahmagabow would become Canada’s most decorated Indigenous war veteran. An estimated 4,000 First Nations men enlisted in the First World War, but government records were incomplete and omitted non-Status Indians and Métis people.

More than 4,000 Canadians were killed and another 12,000 wounded — almost exactly the casualties predicted by Arthur Currie. These were among the 275,000 casualties (including 70,000 killed) lost overall to the armies under British command at Passchendaele. The Germans suffered another 220,000 killed and wounded. At the end, the point of it all was unclear. In 1918, all the ground gained there by the Allies was evacuated in the face of a looming German assault.


Significance and Legacy of the Battle of Passchendaele

A century later, the Battle of Passchendaele is remembered as a symbol of the worst horrors of the First World War, the sheer futility of much of the fighting, and the reckless disregard by some of the war’s senior leaders for the lives of the men under their command.

The campaign was not followed by an advance to the coast and the liberation of Belgium’s coastal ports — partly due to the onset of winter, and partly because in the spring of 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive of their own. Although the fighting at Passchendaele did occupy and wear down German armies on the Western Front through the summer and fall of 1917 — perhaps diverting the enemy’s attention from the internal strife and weakness among French forces — it also depleted the British armies. Britain’s future wartime prime minister Winston Churchill called Passchendaele “a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility.” A century later, Passchendaele remains one of the most controversial episodes of the war.

The sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in the battle is commemorated by the Canadian Passchendaele Memorial, located east of the city of Ypres (now called Ieper). The Canadians who died in the battle are buried and remembered at war cemeteries throughout the area, and also on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, which is inscribed with the names of 6,940 Canadians who died throughout the war in Belgium, with no known graves (see Monuments of the First and Second World Wars).

The graves of unknown Canadian soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of Passchendaele. These men were later buried nearby at the cemetary at Tyne Cot, Belgium. A detail of the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres (Ieper) Belgium, which is inscribed with the names of the 6,940 Canadians who died in Belgium during the First World War with no known graves.

Allied infantry and artillery performed well

The infantry and artillery had come a long way since the Somme in the summer of 1916. In 1917 the British Army was increasingly adept at using artillery and infantry together, rather than viewing them as separate arms.

Even in the early unsuccessful attacks at Ypres, the Allies skilfully combined infantry attack with creeping and standing barrage. But Plumer’s bite and hold tactics really showcased this combined arms approach.

The successful use of combined arms and all arms warfare was an important contributing factor to Allied victory in the war.


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The Canadian commander Arthur Currie took one look at the ground before the attack and concluded it was not worth one drop of blood. With wearying accuracy, he predicted this shelled abyss would cost his men 16,000 casualties.

Military disaster

Passchendaele was a military disaster, but Lloyd contends it was almost a success. He describes it as a “lost victory” on the basis that the middle phase of the battle, conducted by the Second Army’s redoubtable general Sir Herbert “Daddy” Plumer, could have achieved the breakthrough Haig so desperately wanted, but for the weather and the lateness in the year.

In an otherwise meticulously researched and well-argued book, Lloyd makes an unconvincing case for Passchendaele being a “lost victory”. The Germans were left reeling in late September and early October by a series of massive onslaughts, but neither their line nor their spirits were broken. It would take the combined might of the British, French and millions of fresh American soldiers to finally break the Germans a year later.

The author himself appears to contradict himself by stating that the battle was a failure judging by its original objectives. Haig had conceived of the Flanders campaign as leading to a decisive breakthrough.

By breaking out of the Ypres salient, the British would then capture the vital railway junction of Roulers before pushing on to clear the Belgian coast of German submarine bases. Haig maintained his offensive could win the war for Britain in 1917 or in early 1918.

By any objective measure, he came nowhere near achieving of any of these goals.

The novelty of the book, hence the word new, is that the author devotes much of his book to the German account of the battle whereas previous accounts only dealt with it from a British point of view.

He gives due regard to the resourcefulness and courage of the German defenders of the Ypres salient. As one German officer memorably wrote: “You do not know what Flanders means. Flanders means endless endurance. Flanders means blood and scraps of human bodies. Flanders means heroic courage and faithfulness even unto death.”

Lloyd apportions blame for the failure of the Flanders offensive widely. He begins with the British prime minister David Lloyd George. He and Haig loathed each other. Lloyd George never had any faith in Haig’s plans, but suffered a rare failure of nerve. He felt unqualified as a civilian to call the whole thing off and unable, as a result of the coalition government he headed, to sack Haig who had many friends in high places.

Opportunities

The author believes Lloyd George had opportunities to end the battle, but he is broadly sympathetic to his dilemma. He is not sympathetic to Haig, the architect of the Flanders disaster.

In recent years there has been a concerted attempt to rehabilitate Haig’s reputation. Haig made serious mistakes, but learned from them and the culmination of that learning was the 100-day offensive which defeated the Germans in the autumn of 1918, or so the argument goes.

Lloyd rightly eschews such an approach. He judges Haig on his conduct of this battle and finds him wanting. He excoriates Haig for the reckless manner in which he pursued the battle in such appalling conditions, for his over-optimism about the weakness of the German defences and his general disregard for the welfare of his men.

These are familiar failings which were also apparent at the Somme. Far from being a cautious commander, Haig was, as Lloyd points out, a “compulsive gambler with the compulsive gambler’s habit of throwing good money after bad”. In this case the chips were not money but thousands of men’s lives.

Haig had choices. He could have done what the French commander-in-chief Marshal Philippe Pétain did after the disastrous Nivelle offensive of May 1917. Pétain chose to remain on the defensive, husbanding his forces until the expected arrival en masse of the Americans in 1918.

The book ends with an anecdote featuring Tim Harington, the chief of staff of the Second Army and Plumer’s deputy.

Looking around the row after row of crosses in Tyne Cot Cemetery after the war, Harington was seized with a sense of guilt. “I have prayed in that cemetery oppressed with fear lest even one of those gallant comrades should have lost their life owing to any fault of neglect on that part of myself and the Second Army staff.”

No such guilt or remorse assailed Haig’s conscience. He died in 1928 and was given a State funeral. He should have been buried at sea.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist and the author of Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front published by the History Press. The Irish Times’ documentary United Ireland: how nationalists and unionists fought together in Flanders will be screened as part of the Dublin Festival of History on October 12th at 6pm in The Irish Times AV room, Tara Street. The trailer can be viewed here


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