The forgotten triumphs of Passchendaele
It may have become a symbol of pointless slaughter but the infamous 1917 offensive saw Allied forces inflict a series of shattering defeats on their German foes. Nick Lloyd explores...
For 100 years, the third battle of Ypres – more commonly known as Passchendaele – has symbolised the horror, slaughter and futility of the First World War. No other battle, not even the Somme or Verdun, has acquired such a horrific reputation. The battle was, so it was said, fought knee-deep in mud and water, with British and Commonwealth troops being sacrificed by stubborn commanders for useless gains. The historian AJP Taylor memorably called it “the blindest slaughter of a blind war”, and subsequent generations of historians have done little to challenge this depressing narrative.
There is, however, much more to the third battle of Ypres than is popularly assumed. In this centenary year (2017) it is absolutely vital to look again at the battle and consider it afresh. When writing a new history of Passchendaele, I was struck by just how much of the fighting did not conform to the popular image of the battle – the mud and folly – and how effective the British Army had become by 1917.
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In particular, it is illuminating to focus on the forgotten middle phase of the fighting – between 20 September and 4 October – which reveals another, much more compelling, story. Not only did these battles bring the German army to the brink of defeat, they also illustrated how the campaign should have been fought since the beginning of the attack. Together they offer a different side to the battle: an unknown battle of Passchendaele.
Paralysis by mutiny
The battle emerged after the spring of 1917 when the British and French armies on the western front were facing a particularly bleak time. The French spring offensive – the so-called Nivelle Offensive – had failed spectacularly, and during April and May serious outbreaks of indiscipline and mutiny paralysed the French army. With French troops demanding better conditions and pay, more leave and an end to mindless offensives, it fell to the British Expeditionary Force, under Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, to take the initiative. Haig believed that British forces should be concentrated in the north, in Flanders, for an ambitious drive towards the railway junction at Roulers, while breaking out along the coastal sector and securing the German U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge, which were an increasing menace to shipping across the Channel.
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Despite serious reservations in London about the scope of what Haig was proposing, the offensive began on 31 July with a mass assault by the British Fifth Army commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough. The initial attack achieved some success, with British forces advancing about 3,000 yards along most of the front, although failing to gain the important high ground on the Gheluvelt Plateau (on Gough’s right), which overlooked the town of Ypres.
There had also been heavy fighting throughout the afternoon as the advanced British positions came under heavy counterattack from German reserves – so-called Eingreif divisions – which pushed the British back. This was the essence of German defensive tactics in 1917: the front trenches were evacuated while the bulk of her manpower would be deployed deeper into their defensive positions (where they would be less vulnerable to British guns), while relying on counterattacking units to restore their position. This was exactly what had happened on 31 July.
Far from being the beginning of a war-winning offensive, the battle now ground to a halt. British casualties had been heavy (more than 31,000) and the arrival of unseasonal and unusually persistent rainfall, which swept in during the afternoon and continued for days, prevented any further exploitation. “Frightful weather. The worst experienced this year. Put a stop to everything except gun fire,” remembered a junior British officer, AH Roberts.
It was not until 16 August that Gough could restart major operations, but it was a hopeless exercise. The battlefield was sodden, preventing supplies from moving up and exhausting the infantry, which now made their way up to the front along perilous duckboards that had been laid over the moonscape of mud. The battle of Langemarck, which took place on that day, was a bitter disappointment. Progress was extremely costly – another 15,000 casualties – and only limited gains were made, and none whatsoever on the crucial high ground.
The failure at Langemarck did not dent Gough’s determination to move forward, and he authorised small-scale attacks throughout the month, with his men clawing their way forward – fighting through nests of enemy pillboxes and concrete strongpoints, while struggling to drag enough guns and ammunition forward over the wet ground. It was this part of the battle that seemed to epitomise the failings in the British Army at this point in the war: battalions pressing forward without sufficient preparation and often without flanking support; commanders gambling with men’s lives in the hope that something would turn up. As the war correspondent Philip Gibbs noted scornfully, the view after Langemarck was that the men were “victims of atrocious staff-work” and that Gough’s Fifth Army had ‘“an air of inefficiency” about it that was extremely costly.
It was evident that something else was required. Haig’s plans for a mass breakout in Flanders had never been popular in Whitehall, and the lack of progress brought the spotlight back onto his army where questions would inevitably be raised about what was going on. In late August, Haig was forced to relent. He asked General Sir Herbert Plumer, commander of the British Second Army, to take over responsibility for a renewed push on the Gheluvelt Plateau. But unlike Gough, who had tried to drive as deep as possible into the German line, Plumer was a much more cautious, careful general. He was one of the leading advocates of so-called ‘bite and hold’ attacks: limited advances into the German line (perhaps no more than 1,500 yards) based upon overwhelming firepower and exhaustive preparation. He requested as many guns as possible and three weeks to prepare, which Haig granted him. His attack would go in on 20 September 1917.
What followed was the most decisive phase of the third battle of Ypres and showed how the campaign should have been fought since 31 July. The battle of the Menin Road (as it would subsequently be known) was a world away from the muddy slaughter of July and August. Benefiting from a spell of warm weather that allowed the ground to dry up, Plumer’s attack was spearheaded by two Australian divisions which smashed into the German line and advanced on schedule. With an intensity of firepower almost double that achieved on 31 July, Plumer’s men crept forward into a wasteland of smoke and fire and met a demoralised, terrified enemy. Lieutenant Alexander Hollyhoke, serving with 7/Australian Battalion, remembered “a wall of dust and fumes, intermingled with shell bursts… Here and there a dead German was seen – killed by the barrage or a shot from the advancing troops. Prisoners, cowed and broken, began to come in in groups, or crouched in shell holes until sent to the rear.”
Crucially, German defensive tactics, which had proved so successful earlier in the battle, failed to dent Plumer’s advance. Whereas Gough’s attacks on 31 July and throughout August had been based upon pushing the British infantry as far as possible, Plumer ordered a strictly limited advance that would not exhaust his men or leave them strung out and unable to hold on. Three German Eingreif divisions were sent forward that day, but they ran into a trap. With good observation from Royal Flying Corps aircraft above the battlefield, pre-planned barrages were fired on their concentration points and approach routes, which crippled the momentum of the German divisions. By the time they arrived on the battlefield they were met by a phalanx of steel as shell bursts tore up their columns as quickly as they came up. When they did manage to close with the attackers, they found them dug-in and supported by an impressive array of machine-guns.
Giant, invisible fists
Plumer was only just getting started. Another attack was launched six days later – the battle of Polygon Wood – and it largely repeated the story of Menin Road. Once again, British and Australian troops pushed forward under a heavy bombardment and captured their objectives on time. And when the German counterattack units tried to recapture the lost ground, the British were waiting for them. Running into a storm of machine-gun and shellfire, they could only make minor advances towards their objectives and suffered heavily for it. “Geysers the size of houses consisting of soil, metal splinters and rocks erupt everywhere,” recorded a German regimental history. “It is as if giant invisible fists were pounding, clobbering everything without mercy. Everyone who hasn’t been hit yet looks for a gap in the horrible wall of fire, half insane from breathlessness and terror.” Another 1,200-yard ‘bite’ had been taken into key German positions around Polygon Wood and Zonnebecke.
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The German response was one of disbelief, shock and confusion. “We are living through truly abominable days,” wrote a staff officer, Albrecht von Thaer. “I no longer have any idea of what should be undertaken against the English… The last few days have brought us the bitterest loss of life here.” At the German high command, Erich Ludendorff was equally appalled. On 30 September he informed the general staff that the “latest British attacks – artillery barrage, smoke, machine-gun fire against our massed divisions on a comparatively narrow front – are almost irresistible”.
The Germans’ front-line garrisons had been smashed and their counterattacks were ineffective, which called into question their whole defensive posture and whether their reliance on defence-in-depth tactics was still appropriate. In response, Ludendorff authorised the heavier manning of the German front line and ordered a major counterattack to go in on the morning of 4 October, hopefully knocking the enemy off balance and regaining the initiative.
Ludendorff would find, however, that his tactical tweaking was exactly the wrong medicine for the embattled German army. General Plumer had planned his third step – the battle of Broodseinde – for the morning of 4 October and it would be his most successful battle so far. Ten minutes before Ludendorff’s counterattack was to go in, Plumer’s divisions surged forward behind a “wall of flame” that decimated the German defenders. Capturing Zonnebecke and Broodseinde, the Australians ran into crowds of German prisoners and stepped over the bodies of dozens of their compatriots, killed by the bombardment that morning. “What were the horrors of the Verdun and of the Somme in comparison to this?” asked a German divisional history. “The whole earth of Flanders shook and seemed to be on fire.” Yet another advance had been made into the German positions, which seemed, at long last, to be on the verge of collapse.
Broodseinde would mark the high point of the third battle of Ypres. What Plumer had achieved was remarkable: conducting three major blows in just two weeks that brought the British to the Gravenstafel Ridge, the penultimate area of high ground before the heights of Passchendaele. In doing so, he had rescued Haig’s offensive, done enormous damage to the German army and dealt adroitly with the defensive tactics that had proved so effective earlier in the battle. It was a masterclass of operational art, of combining the tools of warfare – artillery, infantry, armour and air power – to achieve realistic objectives against a formidable enemy (and over difficult ground).
Thickets of barbed wire
The only problem was that it was now October and the good weather that Plumer had benefited from over the last month was at an end, and over the next few days heavy downpours returned the battlefield to its earlier state of water-filled shell holes, mist and low cloud. The weather was, as the German commander Crown Prince Rupprecht noted, their “most effective ally” and, once more, it would save the day.
Under such conditions there was simply no way that Plumer could continue to be effective, not with Haig at GHQ urging him to attack again after a pause of only a few days. While Haig was convinced that a breakthrough was imminent, Plumer was not so sure, but did as he was told and mounted further pushes towards Passchendaele on 9 and 12 October. Both failed. The attackers found themselves under heavy fire, struggling to cross the waterlogged battlefield and caught out by insufficiently smashed defences and thickets of barbed wire that blocked their way up the ridge. After a pause of two weeks, the final phase of the battle began in mid-October with Canadian troops taking the lead and eventually securing the village of Passchendaele on 6 November 1917. Within days the battle was called off.
Given the abject failure to achieve Haig’s ambitious objectives for the 1917 campaign – to break out of the Ypres salient and secure a series of major ports along the Channel coast – it is not surprising that the battle has been judged a failure. Yet had it been conducted differently, and had General Plumer been in charge from the start, it is not too difficult to imagine a different result: a series of hammer blows that put the German army under intolerable pressure. Indeed, had Plumer been able to secure another two or three victories on the lines of Menin Road, Polygon Wood or Broodseinde, then the German army may have been left with no choice but to give up most of western Belgium and retreat to a stronger line. Better that than enduring the terrible pounding Plumer was giving them. But this is not the story that we know so well from Passchendaele.
The success that Plumer and the Second Army achieved between 20 September and 4 October has never been properly recognised. Charles Bean, the Australian official historian, later wrote that Broodseinde was “an overwhelming blow”, the importance of which “has never been fully recognised except by the commanders and forces that took part”. Yet Bean’s insight has faded from view as the other side of Passchendaele – its mud and futility – became the dominant interpretation (helped in part by a series of superb, shocking photographs of the stark landscape).
But this is only part of the story. As Broodseinde showed, when well led and fitted into an appropriate battle plan, British soldiers (alongside their compatriots from Canada, Australia and New Zealand) could achieve remarkable success, taking objectives and doing great damage to the enemy. Let us hope that in this centenary year our understanding of this iconic battle will rise above the old myths of mud and blood and stupidity, and that we’ll then appreciate the unknown battle of Passchendaele.
This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine
Passchendaele: The anatomy of a battle
Dates: 31 July–10 November 1917
Location: Ypres, Flanders, western Belgium
Phases of the Battle:
- 31 July 1917 Battle of Pilckem Ridge
- 16 August 1917 Battle of Langemarck
- 20 September 1917 Battle of the Menin Road
- 26 September 1917 Battle of Polygon Wood
- 4 October 1917 Battle of Broodseinde
- 9 October 1917 Battle of Poelcappelle
- 12 October 1917 First battle of Passchendaele
- 26 October–10 November 1917 Second battle of Passchendaele
- British: 244,897
- German: between 217,000 and 240,000
Victoria Cross Awards: 61
Nick Lloyd is Professor of Modern Warfare in the Defence Studies Department at Kings College London. He has published widely on military and imperial history in the era of the Great War.
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