- James Houser
November 6, 1917 - The Battle of Passchendaele/3rd Ypres
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
November 6, 1917. Misery hasn’t even begun to describe the last three months on the Western Front. On this date, the Canadian Corps captures the village of Passchendaele from the Germans, ending almost 100 days of straight combat. The British offensive has turned the fields of Flanders to mud, blood, and ruin in this climactic struggle that swallowed hundreds of thousands. And no one to this day knows what it was all for.
In the list of terrible British battles of the First World War, from Loos to the Somme, from Gallipoli to the Spring Offensive and the Hindenburg Line, no battle is more deliberately evocative in their memory than Passchendaele. Even if it was not the costliest battle in human lives, Passchendaele (or the Third Battle of Ypres) somehow exemplifies the futility, the misery, the trauma and the nightmare of the Great War on the Western Front. The battlefield conditions were abysmal, the burden borne by the frontline troops nearly destroyed British morale, and worst of all the great cataclysm ended with no real gains. It seemed to many, then and since, that Passchendaele was fought for nothing.
In cultural memory, Passchendaele is inextricably linked with one factor: mud. So much mud. The British were waging this battle in Flanders, an area of Europe that lies only slightly above sea level. The intricate set of Belgian and Dutch dikes that had drained Flanders for years, making it fit for human habitation, had in large part been broken by years of war. When the struggle was set to begin, though, good weather was expected for several months and the British generals thought that it might be possible to attack over Flanders’s sandy, marshy soil without too much incident. Unfortunately for the British soldiers, Flanders unexpectedly had its wettest autumn in decades, and the torrential rains turned the area around Ypres and Passchendaele into nothing more than a massive morass.
The great British offensive of 1917 came about because, well, the Allies HAD to attack somewhere to keep up pressure on the Germans, at least in theory. After the great apocalyptic battles of the Somme and Verdun in 1916, the Western Front had settled once again into the massive network of trenches that ran from the Atlantic Ocean to the Swiss border, while both sides licked their wounds and prepared for next year. It was evident that the Allies would have to launch another attack to keep the Germans from sending troops to achieve a decisive result elsewhere, and hopefully this one (after three years of false hopes) would be the breakthrough. The United States had entered the war early in 1917, which was nice, but the bulk of their forces wouldn’t arrive for two more years and public opinion could not wait that long for action. For political and military reasons, the perception was that someone had to attack *something* in 1917.
The French were raring to go at first. They had a new Commander-in-Chief, General Robert Nivelle, and he planned for a large attack in April in central France. The British agreed to launch their own smaller campaign at Arras in order to cooperate. Though the British forces gained some ground at Arras, the French offensive dissolved into slaughter amidst the nearly unbreakable German defenses. With the French soldier utterly demoralized after three years of jaw-dropping casualties and no visible end to the constant suicide attacks, entire divisions mutinied and refused to attack when ordered. Nivelle was quickly fired and replaced by the inspiring General Philippe Petain, who set about restoring order and rebuilding the confidence of the French Army. It was now clear, however, that the French weren’t going to be making another big attack in 1917. It would have to be a British show.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, was all for it. I’ve barely touched on the Haig controversy in this year’s posts, mainly because A.) it’s a post all on its own and B.) I haven’t read the twenty books I apparently have to read to understand it. Let’s just say that Douglas Haig is one of the most controversial military figures of the 20th Century. In popular memory he is the archetypal World War I “tent general,” the man who sent thousands of boys to their death through carelessness, incompetence, and callousness. To his defenders (and there are many), no one could have done any better in Haig’s place and his attacks in 1916, 1917 and especially 1918 did permanent damage to the German Army. The 1918 attacks in particular led to the total unraveling of Germany’s Western Front and the need for an armistice. But Haig will be forever tarred with the massive casualties of the Somme and Passchendaele, which have become synonymous with the bloodshed and futility of World War I.
Haig wanted to attack in the Flanders front, near the English Channel, in particular because he wanted to clear out the U-Boat bases on the English Channel. One of Haig’s positive qualities was optimism, though this could easily morph into the more negative overconfidence. Simply put, Haig believed his Tommies could win a victory. Local successes along the line in June had accomplished much along Messines Ridge, on the southern wing of the Flanders position, and Haig wanted to exploit this limited victory.
The primary opposition to Haig’s proposed attack in Flanders came from Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was under public pressure due to the rising casualty list and lack of any gains to show for Britain’s dead boys. Lloyd George looked for alternative strategies – the Middle East, the Balkans, Italy – anything but another slog forward on the Western Front. He preferred to delay action in France and Belgium until the Americans arrived in force, granting the Allies a greater numerical edge. But Haig’s commitment was unshaken, and he got a reluctant British government to agree to the new attack.
Haig’s desire to launch a major attack in Flanders was not in and of itself a mistake. What would end up being a truly terrible blunder was not quitting when it was clear that the attack would end up accomplishing nothing. The German “Flanders Position” was one of the strongest on the Western Front, overlooking a blasted, swampy plain where three years of fighting had removed every trace of vegetation and ruined the old drainage system. The German trench system was deep, linking together a set of concrete bunkers and pillboxes, often concealed beneath ruined farmhouses or churches. There were nine belts to the German defenses in Flanders, with counterattack units formed up in the rear areas where they wouldn’t be caught by the initial shelling. In short, Flanders was a German fortress, backed up by ten infantry divisions and over 1500 artillery pieces.
Against this array, Haig concentrated Hubert Gough’s 5th Army and Herbert Plumer’s 2nd Army, with the main attack to be borne by the Guards, 15th Scottish and Highland Divisions. Shoulder to shoulder on a narrow density, these troops would be backed by an enormous weight of artillery, almost 2,300 guns, or one for every five yards. They would be overflown by 180 aircraft and backed up by several tank battalions, but they were only the first wave. Eventually, almost every British, Canadian, Irish or Australian soldier on the Western Front would get a wonderful taste of Passchendaele.
The bombardment for the great attack began fifteen days beforehand, and expended over four million shells in that period. This enormous weight of metal and fire saturated the German lines with an ear-splitting din of destruction, though in their concrete bunkers and well-constructed dugouts most of the German troops remained safe. The long bombardment also helped signal to German high command where the great attack would be launched. On July 31, 1917, the British infantry went over the top and into the sandy soil of Flanders to launch the first of many assaults. The Battle of Passchendaele had officially begun.
At first, the British made significant gains. Although many men died or were mangled in the initial assault, the support of large tank brigades and the dryness of the soil allowed the infantry and armor to push through the first line of defenses. Progress was rapid along Pilckern Ridge on the first day of fighting. But soon the inevitable problems occurred: breakdown of communications, mechanical failure of the tanks, and the usual German counterattacks. Both the British and the Germans gave each other good measures of fighting on July 31, with the Germans admitting that “whole divisions burn out to slag within a few hours.”
But on August 1, the second day of the battle, Haig’s meteorologists became as discredited as modern political pollsters in the 2020 Election – because the weather broke. And it broke HARD. To the usual downpour of artillery was added sheets of rain, and then it just…kept raining. For the next three days, the infantry slogged forward in the thickening soil, which quickly grew to resemble something like treacle. Tanks bogged down, wagons sank, horses gave up and lay down in the muck. One British officer described the scene: “The ground is churned up to a depth of ten feet and is the consistency of porridge…the middle of shell craters are so soft that one might sink out of sight.”
The rain killed any hope the British had of succeeding in Flanders, and Haig caused a temporary pause to combat operations on August 4 until he could rethink his plans. He had suffered 35,000 casualties in five days of fighting, which compared to 60,000 on the First Day of the Somme was not so bad, right? The Germans had suffered about the same. But the Germans still held their positions, and the progress was not decisive. Haig was determined: the battle had to continue. And continue it did – for three months.
The rain kept coming, with clear days greatly outnumbered by cloudy and wet days, and soon the whole Flanders front was nothing more than a giant mosh pit, where men slept, lived, fought, and died. Division after division staggered forward into the great dark turmoil, with the British and Germans both suffering equally. Though the rate of casualties was not as bad as at the Somme, the experience of battle was widely regarded as one of the worst. The history books and the poems and the TV shows remembered the Somme, but the soldiers resembled Passchendaele.
It was a world of mud. Constant exposure on a barren, shell-swept and sniper-filled landscape caused men’s nerves to snap and morale to crumble. Wide areas were actually underwater, and men picking their way across the field had to be careful not to stumble and drown in a shellhole – a gruesome fate for many. At least some men tried to save their sinking comrades, only to be caught in the mess themselves, like some poor prehistoric creature stuck in a tar pit. Entire columns of men walked past wounded comrades shrieking in the bottom of a hole, with no one willing to risk being consumed in the syrupy morass below. This was without even bringing up the fighting, with its almost constant shelling churning up human and animal remains, along with poison gas residue and the detritus of war. Feet turned into miles, and machine-gun fire and the sodden landscape made even the nearest objective nearly unattainable.
Lieutenant Vaughan of the Warwickshire Regiment remembered that, during a rainstorm, “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 alone amongst the dead in the empty darkness. And we could do nothing to help them.”
Vaughan’s experience was typical of Passchendaele, and even though no serious objectives were being gained, Haig went to London in September to convince the government to continue the offensive. The attack had to continue, he said, to keep the Germans from intervening decisively elsewhere. This logic was growing more dubious all the time – if anything, the Germans were tying the British down instead of the other way around – but Lloyd George still assented. He didn’t have anyone to replace Haig with, really, and no one had a better plan at the moment.
Another pause in September, however, promised to brighten British fortunes at Passchendaele. General Herbert Plumer of the 2nd Army took over the main operations of the battle, and Plumer was widely known both for his innovative mind and the care he took for his soldiers. Plumer introduced a new kind of tactic to the Western Front. Rather than the massed infantry attack, he favored a strategy known as “bite and hold.” The key problem with every British attack so far was that, after initial success breaking through the first German line, their attacks would falter on the next successive trench system, leaving them vulnerable to a German counterattack.
Plumer’s new “bite and hold” plan was to plaster the first line with massive weight of fire, send the infantry in to seize that line and…stay there. No secondary attack. Inch the artillery forward, rinse, repeat. The downside was the enormous cost in shells and incredibly slow pace this entailed; at this rate, the British would get to Berlin around the year 2003. These extremely limited attacks were not the great breakthrough that Haig was looking for, either. But what they lost in time or potential, they saved in casualties – and they were almost always successful.
When Plumer unveiled his plan in three separate attacks on Menin Road (September 20), Polygon Wood (September 26) and Broodseinde (October 4), it worked like a charm. At Menin Wood, Plumer saturated the German first line with artillery fire, then the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions and the 23rd and 41st British Divisions sloshed forward through the Flanders mud, dropped into the evacuated German trenches, set up their machine guns, and blasted away the German counterattack. The next two battles went the same way. These struggles were costly for the Germans, and with the decided British artillery advantage they had no real response to “bite and hold.” They could do nothing but watch the British inch forward, slowly but unstoppably.
Here was yet another chance for Haig to call it quits. He could pass off Broodseinde in particular as a victory, since it had captured the much-coveted Gheluvelt Plateau and blasted apart a German counterattack, ruining several divisions. This should have been enough. Haig could wrap it up and say, “Good job lads” and be done. But he was determined to continue, believing that “the Enemy is faltering and a good decisive blow might lead to decisive results.” At a time when Lloyd George was literally stopping reinforcements from going to Haig out of fear he would just get them killed, Haig had made his call. The Ypres Offensive would have one final act.
The fighting in August and September had burned out many of the best divisions in the British Army. The Guards, the 8th, the 15th Scottish, the 16th Irish, the 38th Welsh, the 56th London – all had left many of their best and bravest facedown in the mud, drowned in the shellholes, or blown to unrecognizable fragments along the Flanders front. For the last phase of the battle, Haig relied on his most reliable assault divisions: the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, all of whom had been spared the worst of the battle so far. Their final objective would be Passchendaele Ridge, named after the small village that dotted its crest. Passchendaele Ridge was the linchpin of the first German defensive line overlooking Ypres, and its capture would mean a final, creditable victory.
The first attempt to take Passchendaele was borne by the ANZACs – the Australians and New Zealanders that were probably the best infantrymen of the First World War. The ANZACs’ abilities, however, proved insufficient on October 9, when they ran into the buzzsaw of the Passchendaele defenses and reeled back in horror. The ground was so wet that the shells of their supporting artillery had buried themselves in the mud without exploding. The New Zealand division suffered 3,000 casualties alone when they got hung up in an obstacle and subjected to bloody lashes from the German machine guns.
Finally, Haig turned to Sir Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps, the heroes of Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 earlier in the year, the most experienced and highly motivated shock troops on the Western Front. Currie was reluctant to undertake the attack, but finally accepted Haig’s order after protests. The early winter had once again deluged the ground, and the only way to the top of Passchendaele Ridge now was along two narrow causeways surrounded by bogs and swampy pits. On October 26, though, the Canadians launched their assault and at heavy cost in lives advanced 500 yards.
The Canadians staggered forward, slashing through the 11th Bavarian Division. The Canucks would be studded with medals and Victoria Crosses for their push up Passchendaele Ridge, but this did nothing to assuage Currie the losses of 15,634 killed and wounded – almost a quarter of his men. Currie never forgave Haig for the terrible losses his Canadians endured at Passchendaele, but the Canadian Corps always accomplished its mission. On November 6, 1917, the Canadians finally captured the wreckage of Passchendaele village. Although fighting would go on for several more days in other parts of the line, this was the last great struggle of the long, terrible Third Battle of Ypres, always remembered afterwards by its final objective of Passchendaele.
The point of Haig’s great Passchendaele battle defies explanation to this day. To be charitable, it may have relieved pressure on the French – though German records show that they never considered attacking in the West in 1917. They had too much trouble everywhere else, from propping up their allies and dealing with the chaos of Russia, to try to launch another Western Front bloodbath that year. 43 British and Dominion divisions had been blasted into the mud at Ypres, though, and they could barely stand the casualties either.
The key fact is that Passchendaele cost the British Expeditionary Force over 70,000 dead and 170,000 wounded. The Germans had probably suffered worse, especially thanks to Plumer’s “bite and hold” period – the British certainly gave as good as they got. But these were terrible casualties for an already staggering nation. By late 1917, Britain was already beginning to hit its manpower limits, and steady reduction of recruiting standards had begun. On the Somme the flower of British youth had been sent into the fire, and at Passchendaele the survivors either died or were burned out.
The fact that the British army would recover from this miserable experience to launch successful campaigns in 1918 was a miracle. Despite this, Passchendaele was seared into British memory like a wicked brand, one that still brings embitterment and low-boil rage to many of the historians that write about it. It was clear that Haig continued the campaign long after any hope of significant success was gone, in large part for the purpose of making it look a little more like a victory. Whatever his later successes, Haig deserves the lion’s share of the blame for Passchendaele, even if others have tried to whitewash his reputation ever since.
The misery of Flanders in 1917 was one of the big factors that turned so many British soldiers into postwar pacifists, men who would look for any other option than war. If this was war, wouldn’t any peace be preferable? What level of humiliation or dishonor would they NOT endure to spare a future generation the hell of Passchendaele, or something like it? As much hate as the British “appeasers” got in 1938 by allowing Hitler to take the Sudetenland, the dead marshes of Ypres had to always be in the back of their heads. So many men coming home from the Western Front had said “Never Again.” Even knowing what we know now about appeasement, it would be hard to blame them.
Book Recommendation: Check out Nick Lloyd, Passchendaele: A New History (London: Viking, 2017).