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In the Great War - The Battle Passchendaele

What was the Battle of Passchendaele ?

image australian soldiers on duckboards, chateau wood

Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917. The leading soldier is Gunner James Fulton and the second soldier is Lieutenant Anthony Devine. The men belong to a battery of the 10th Field Artillery Brigade.
Image by Frank Hurley
Ownership : Australian government - out of copyright

Objectives

General Sir Douglas Haig set out a number of objectives for Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. His main aim was to access the coast of Belgium to destroy the German submarine pens. The British government had been advised by the admiralty that losses, particularly to merchant shipping, would lead to significant problems in 1918 should they continue.

The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, did not like this plan but agreed to it as there was no other credible way of stopping the U-boats.

Haig also believed, incorrectly, that German moral was at a particularly low point and that he would be able carry out his plan with the minimum of resistance.

The commencement of the battle

On 18th July 1917 the 3rd Battle of Ypres, of which the Battle for Passchendaele formed a part, began with the Allied barrage of the German lines began. The primary aim of this was to weaken their defences and to cut routes through the barbed wire which would otherwise have stopped infantry attacks.

An estimated 3,000 artillery pieces maintained the barrage for 10 days, firing over 4 million shells.

This barrage only confirmed the German army’s expectation that an attack was imminent and they were well prepared by the time the infantry started to advance on 31st July. The main assault was lead by Sir Hubert Gough’s 5th Army with units from the French 1st Army on his left and Sir Herbert Plumber’s 2nd Army on his right.

image barbed wire and mud

Mud and barbed wire at the Second Battle of Passchendaele
Image by William Rider-Rider
Ownership : Library and Achives of Canada - out of copyright

The difficulties encountered

The attack was launched across an eleven mile front and made good progress on the first day. However, in early August the region was saturated with the heaviest rainfall in 30 years.

The barrage prior to the start of the battle had destroyed the draining systems which maintained the low lying region. The whole area because a quagmire. Infantry found it difficult to move and could not take shelter in the craters caused by the barrage as they were filled with water. Tanks became trapped in the mud which also clogged the troop’s firearms.

Progress of the battle

The original plan was to make a major thrust towards the German lines and to break through in one major battle. This proved to be impossible and Field Marshal Haig replaced General Hubert Gough, whom he blamed for the slow progress, with General Herbert Plumber, who changed the tactics by fighting a number of small battles aimed at gaining and holding ground. These became known as the battles of Menin Road Bridge, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, fought between September and October 1917.

Haig was convinced that the German army was imminently due to collapse and pushed to continue towards the Passchendaele Ridge, seen as the key to the the German army’s supply routes.

The final battles

Two battles were fought between 9th and 12th October, Poelcappelle and the First Battle of Passchendaele.

The German army on the Passchendaele Ridge was further enhanced by the arrival of troops no longer required on the Russian front. These troops, together with the use of mustard gas, meant that the breakthrough never materialised.

Haig refused to concede that these attacks would not succeed and three more were made on the ridge. What was left of the village was finally taken in the Second Battle of Passchendaele on 6th November, largely by Canadian troops. This gave Haig the reason finally to call off the attack, which he deemed a success.

image map of passchendale battle progress

The progress of the battle
Ownership : History department of the US Military Academy West Point - public domain

Aftermath

The 3rd battle of Ypres was a very costly one. The allied forces that lost over 310,000 men and German losses were over 260,000, all to gain under 5 miles of ground.
Haig was heavily criticised after the attack for not understanding that the original strategy was not going to lead to success and continuing the attacks in appalling conditions.

Haig was defended by some, saying that he could not have anticipated weather conditions or the deployment of fresh German troops released from the Eastern front. It was also argued that the German submarine threat to Allied shipping had to be stopped and that success would have bolstered the moral of the French army, which had mutinied earlier in 1917.

Haig himself agued that the German army could not have sustained losses to anything like the extent that the Allies could, especially as the Americans had entered the war.