Some of the most familiar imagery of the First World War come from the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele. The rain, the mud, and the haunting landscapes marked by craters and the barren remains of trees, were specifically the hallmarks of the fighting around Ypres in the fall of 1917. The name Passchendaele comes from a village captured in the last wave of attack before the winter; accordingly, its name is often used to identify the entire operation. The fighting near Passchendaele was undertaken by British commanders largely in an effort not to seem powerless or irrelevant, although it resulted only in minor gains for heavy costs.
1917 began with ominous signs for the Entente. In February, the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. Although this action invited an American declaration of war, active American participation in the fighting was still a distant prospect, while the economic losses sustained by the British were heavy and all too immediate. Britain’s other major allies were invariably in worse straits. In March (February under the Russian calendar), the Tsar was overthrown and a divided government attempted to take his place. This Provisional Government attempted to mount one major offensive to honor Russia’s commitment to its allies, but the result was a disaster, and that government’s chances of survival withered along with its offensive. France seemed hardly more fit for continued war than that, having suffered a crippling mutiny in its army. For its part, Italy seemed incapable of doing anything more than sending thousands of men to die at the Austrian border.
British leadership was divided on the subject of what to do next. The politicians, led by Lloyd George, were inclined to hold existing positions and wait for more favorable circumstances. They noted that the advantages presented by full American involvement would be decisive, and there was no point in resorting to ruinous losses before success could be anticipated. Indeed, the coalition government led by Lloyd George had come to power precisely because of dissatisfaction over the Somme offensive of 1916. Lloyd George did not wish to tempt fate with another pyrrhic victory.
Many in the military leadership favored vigorous action. In part this was an emotional reaction stemming from traditional notions of martial honor, but this element was also supported by reasoned arguments pointing to the danger posed by the submarine war and the prospect of a German offensive if the Entente were unable to press the Germans on any front. In the long view, this second argument demonstrated a failure to grasp the realities of static warfare in World War I; because the defense was so much stronger than the offense under the circumstances of this war, it would have benefited the Entente if the Germans had undertaken such an offensive. When, in 1918, the Germans finally did so, the effort stalled and eventually met with disaster. Still, British planners clung to traditional ideas of maintaining the initiative, and so they argued for another big push.
The most compelling argument for such a push centered on the Ypres salient in northern Belgium. Just as the Germans had been drawn there in 1914 because it stood between them and the ports through which Britain drew supply and reinforcements, now the British saw this end of the Western Front as an important target because success at Ypres opened the way to attack ports being used by the Germans at Zeebrugge, Antwerp and Ostend. This factor brought Field Marshal Haig’s proposal key support from First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe; indeed, the Navy presented a case for the capture of these ports in terms so dire that Lloyd George openly questioned whether victory was even possible.
To be sure, the Germans did have U-Boats operating out of these ports, and under the circumstances, depriving the enemy of these resources was a valid goal. It is worth noting, however, that most U-Boats operated from ports in Germany, and so even the most optimistic success at Ypres would have little impact on the strategic battle on the seas. British policy had traditionally insisted on preventing other great powers from controlling too much of the coast along the English Channel; this consideration played a substantial role in Britain’s policy in guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, and so it touched on the heart of the reasons that had brought Britain into the war in the first place. In this way, realistic, factual reasoning and sentiments of pride and tradition blended into an argument in which it would have been difficult to distinguish the two.
The military commanders won the support of their political superiors. Haig’s plan involved three distinct stages: a preliminary attack at Messines Ridge to secure the British Expeditionary Force’s flank, a subsequent main attack around Ypres to drive the main body of the German forces back, and finally a follow-up phase that exploited these developments to capture Zeebrugge and Ostend. The plan was ambitious; the final phase included an amphibious operation, but naturally, this required a rapid victory.
The weather was as much of a factor in this requirement as anything else. The surrounding territory had been a reclaimed swampland before the war, and when the Yser canal became part of the front line, the landscape reverted to swamp conditions. Conventional trench creation was impractical in this area, and so the Germans reinforced their positions with the laying of reinforced blockhouses instead. With overlapping fields of fire and hard casings that could withstand most artillery conditions, this area was about as well-defended as the complex trenches to the south. An attack here would be difficult enough under good weather conditions, but late August brought rainfall that would turn the already sodden ground into a sea of mud. The British attack would need to make the most of the dry weather before the rains began.
First the flank needed to be secured. This was effected through General Plumer’s attack on Messines Ridge, which proved as successful as Haig might have dared to hope. With his flank secure, Haig could then prepare for the main assault. Several missteps cost him valuable time, however. The first was the decision to entrust the attack to General Gough, instead of Plumer, who had succeeded at Messines Ridge in the first place. Plumer was a cautious commander, while Gough showed a more aggressive temperament. On its face, this was a reasonable decision, if the speed of the operation remained a major consideration. Here there were two problems, however: Gough’s Fifth Army needed time to move into place, and drew German attention as it did so, while Haig had altered his plan without explaining the changes to Gough. Specifically, Haig was prepared to perform a slower, more methodical advance if it ensured success, but Gough still believed that he was expected to achieve his goals on an swift timetable.
Haig’s change of plans may have reflected the realization that the drive for the Channel ports was unrealistic. As important as this consideration was to securing political support for the operation, it depended on too many optimistic expectations coming to fruition. These are among the first casualties of an operation. The terrain around Ypres made secrecy impossible to secure, and the Germans responded to preparations by the Fourth Army with an artillery attack that effectively called off their efforts. Fourth Army was meant to participate in the follow-up attacks on the ports, and the amphibious operation was to come from their manpower. These facts did not override the main operation, however. Offensives in the First World War acquired their own logic, often operating in spite of verifiable facts on the ground. Messines Ridge had been too successful to allow the operation to be abandoned. If the Germans could be driven from their prepared positions before winter, it was enough of a success for Haig. The Channel ports had already performed their role by persuading the politicians of the need for the offensive.
Multiple delays ensured that the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, did not open until July 31. Educated estimates suggested that the British could hope for only three more weeks of dry weather before the rains began. This, too, proved wildly optimistic; the operation began under misty conditions that gave way to rain by the middle of the day and to heavy rain in the afternoon. The saturation of the ground began almost immediately, and any advantages offered by the tanks dedicated to the offensive were lost.
The attack was accompanied by an unusually heavy artillery barrage. This failed to break up many of the blockhouses, but did churn up the mud in ways that slowed down the infantry further. Gough’s soldiers gained only about half of the ground that he had expected on the first day, and further progress failed to develop for the rest of the month. The battle dragged on until November 10; even then, some of the objectives would not be taken.
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997
Ibid. The Historical Atlas of World War I. Henry Holt, 1994
Simkins, Peter. Essential Histories: The First World War (3): The Western Front 1917-1918. Osprey, 2002
Westwell, Ian. The Complete Illustrated History of World War I. Anness Publishing, Ltd., 2008
Wiest, Andrew. The History of World War I: The Western Front 1917-1918. Amber, 2008
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