Third Ypres

The map is not the territory.

Alfred Korzybski’s famous expression has been used here before while discussing World War 1, and with good reason. It's meant to highlight the fact that there is often a big difference between reality and belief.

In the case of the First World War, the saying is doubly apt, because very often a map did actually represent the way a commander thought about the terrain his men were fighting on; meanwhile, the gripe of men on the ground was that the reality of battle was far different (read: less rosy) than their senior commanders believed.

Third Ypres
A panoramic of the Passchendaele battlefield from BiblioArchives

At least, that’s what is summed up in an episode reported by the historian Captain B H Liddell Hart in his 1930 book ‘The Real War 1914-1918’.

The scene: Belgium in November 1917, at the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, later dubbed ‘Passchendaele’ after a village that came to be the campaign’s final objective.

It was everyone’s perception of what the Western Front was like - a bleak, overcast and flooded plain mutilated by artillery and lashed by months of torrential rain.   

Canadian soldiers survey a destroyed German bunker Nov 1917
Canadian soldiers by a destroyed German bunker

Surveying what was effectively, by that point, a swamp carpeted by so much artillery that the lunar battlefield had given way to flooded pools formed of joined-up shell holes, Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell was aghast.

The Chief of General Staff under the BEF’s (British Expeditionary Force’s) Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Kiggell was now apparently seeing, for the first time, the conditions Tommies had been fighting in for about three months:

“Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”

He was informed that, in fact, things were even worse further up. 

Korenmarkt, Ghent (pictured ca. 1890-1900), was the scene of the start of the first Tour of Flanders in 1913
Ghent - another town in Flanders - shown around 1900; this gives a flavour of how Ypres would have looked before it was destroyed by shellfire (below)
Cloth_Hall,_Ypres,_after_bombardment_(19893177755)
(image: University of Victoria Libraries)

If Kiggell had wondered just how much worse, he might have read the incisive poetry of First World War soldier Siegfried Sassoon, whose ‘Memorial Tablet’ sums up the experience of many who did not return from the battle: 

“Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight, 
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme.*) I died in hell;
(They called it Passchendaele.) My wound was slight
And I was hobbling back, and then a shell 
Burst slick upon the duck-boards; so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.”

(*The Derby Scheme was a method of encouraging men to join the armed forces and then tracking them when they did so to determine if conscription would eventually be required to meet the government’s recruitment targets. It eventually was, and in the end, the Battle of Passchendaele would see old hands fight alongside both volunteers and conscripts within the British Army).

Combo Ypres
Ypres today

While Passchendaele came to symbolise the futility of some of the fighting during the First World War, drowning in mud came to symbolise Passchendaele. 

But for all the passion in Passchendale, the veracity of Kiggell’s sudden and shocking epiphany has been disputed, not least by Nick Lloyd, military and imperial historian at King’s College London and author of ‘Passchendaele: A New History’. 

His book, released for the centenary of the battle (which lasted from July 31 until November 10, 1917) provides a detailed blow-by-blow account while also exploring the controversies surrounding the campaign.

Along the way, he challenges our enduring perceptions of, what was known at the time as Third Ypre, but also draws unexpected conclusions from the detailed information he provides.

WHY THERE? WHY THEN?

On the face of it, attacking in Flanders was madness.

Belgium and Holland aren’t known as ‘the Low Countries’ for nothing.

Already below sea level in some places, their drainage systems had been interfered with by the war.

The terrain had been ground up by continuous shelling, saturated by the thaw from a particularly frosty 1916/1917 winter, and then drenched by what would be an incredibly wet summer and autumn.

Anyone could see that Flanders was the worst place to pick a fight, especially in 1917.

But two considerations converged earlier in the year that made Sir Douglas Haig choose to do battle there. 

One was the concern of former Admiral of the Fleet and current First Sea Lord John Jellicoe that the regular sinking of merchant shipping by U-boats might force Britain out of the war in 1918. 

Richtofen wounded from FE 2b slash d vs Albatros Scouts
The Allies managed to establish air superiority over Ypres before the battle, but bad weather would reduce RFC activity during it (image from ‘FE 2b/d vs Albatros Scouts’ by James F Miller © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The other was Haig’s belief that a fight must be started with the Germans in order to relieve pressure on the French.

Following the disastrous Nivelle Offensive in the spring of 1917, the French Army had suffered from widespread mutinies.

Nivelle had been promptly removed and replaced by the ‘Saviour of Verdun’, General Petain

The British were positioned in the most northerly section of the Western Front, with Flanders taking up a huge chunk of their line.

Haig believed that a breakthrough here could force a wider German retreat and allow the BEF to take the U-boat ports on the Belgian coast.

As a bonus, German reserves would have to be thrown into this battle, denying them the opportunity to be used against the weakened French Army.

There were, however, doubters in Downing Street. 

Chief amongst these was the PM, David Lloyd George. He’d been elected on a promise of delivering a decisive victory, but it was one he wanted to fight for cautiously. (He also favoured pursuing that victory outside of the Western Front).

He later related how sceptical he’d been when the C-in-C had presented his plan of attack for the coming Battle of Third Ypres:

“When Sir Douglas Haig explained his projects to the civilians (in the Downing Street Cabinet) he spread on the table a large map, and made dramatic use of both his hands to demonstrate how he proposed to sweep up the enemy. First the right hand, brushed along the surface irresistibly, then came the left, the outer finger ultimately touching the German frontier with a nail across. It is not surprising that some of our number were so captivated by the splendour of the landscape opened out to our vision, that their critical faculties were overwhelmed.” 

Lloyd George and Haig
Lloyd George and Haig

Lloyd George’s critical faculties clearly weren’t overwhelmed. He’d been sceptical of Haig for some time, particularly following the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

This was despite the PM having served his time in the metaphorical trenches, and having done more than perhaps anyone else to aid Western Front generals from the political side of the fence.

After the war had got into full swing in 1915, a shell shortage had hampered progress on the battlefield, something generals like Haig had had to contend with.

Fanning the flames of the scandal, and pushing for urgently needed reform, was the Daily Mail. One headline blared: 

“THE TRAGEDY OF THE SHELLS. LORD KITCHENER’S GRAVE ERROR.”

To accuse a semi-deity like Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1 Earl Kitchener, the ‘Hero of Khartoum’, former Field Marshal and then Secretary of State for War of being complicit took guts, and showed just how must sway the Mail had. Lord Northcliffe, the owner, was the most influential newspaperman in the country. (However, after attacking Kitchener, the paper's daily circulation dropped from almost one-and-a-half million to 238,000).

For his part, Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer at that point, had joined in, railing against what he saw as his nation’s dangerous complacency:

“We are fighting against the best-organised community in the world (Germany) – the best organised whether for war or peace – and we have been employing too much the hap-hazard go-as-you-please methods which, believe me, would not have enabled us to maintain our place as a nation, even in peace, much longer. The nation now needs all of the machinery that is capable of being used for turning out munitions or equipment, all the skill that is available for that purpose, all the industry, all the labour and all the strength, power and resource of everyone to the utmost.”

The Menin Road by Paul Nash, a depiction of the battle
The Menin Road by Paul Nash, a depiction of the battle

As the BBC’s 1964 series ‘The Great War’ put it, “War had outgrown battlefields, it had become the test of a nation’s technology”, and Lloyd George, a dynamo of a politician, was the man tasked with maximising Britain’s efficiency. He was appointed Minister of Munitions.

From the beginning, he was forced to build the department up from some very humble origins, as he noted at the time, conversing in his Welsh Valley lilt with his assistant:

“There was a table. I forget whether there were one or two chairs, but by the orders of the Board of Works, there was no carpet. I believe I had a greater struggle over getting a carpet than I had over getting £50 million (£4.7 billion in today’s money) for munitions. I said to my assistant, ‘Look at that table. Look at those two chairs’. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘what is the matter with them?’ I said ‘Those are the ministry of munitions’.”

By the time the Battle of the Somme rolled around, Sir John French had been blamed for prior battlefield problems and replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as head of the BEF. 

When Haig launched his set-piece battle on July 1, 1916, there were shells aplenty, Lloyd George’s efforts having paid off.

Many, unfortunately, were duds, something that would take a while longer to fix, but crucially, their effectiveness was also hampered by the way in which they were deployed.

The impressive number of shells fired in the preliminary bombardment (over a million) masked the fact that their impact was severely diluted.

General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the architect of the campaign, had wanted a more conservative ‘bite-and-hold’ operation.

This involved a huge amount of artillery support, including protective artillery screens that would fall in front of troops before they took enemy positions. 

William Orpen’s Zonnebeke, another depiction of the battlefield
William Orpen’s Zonnebeke, another depiction of the Passchendaele battlefield

In some instances on the Somme, this meant lifting an artillery barrage before attacking troops would climb out of their trenches and rush across no man’s land to kill or capture the stunned German defenders, or so it was envisioned.

In other instances, a much more sophisticated ‘creeping barrage’ was employed, whereby artillery support and troop movements would be carefully calibrated so that soldiers could advance right behind a protective curtain of artillery fire.

This would keep the enemy’s heads down until it was, at a pre-arranged time, lifted in small stages, allowing attacking soldiers to rush German defenders before they could surface from their dugouts and trenches. 

In the end, it was this protocol that became the standard, but even before it had become so, Rawlinson’s plans might have worked out better if Haig’s goals for the battle had not been so ambitious.

He was impatient to take more territory and laid out objectives for the first day (July 1) that would, in the end, take until the middle of November to achieve.

Consequently, many guns had to be allocated to more distant targets, whereas Rawlinson had originally intended to use all his artillery pieces to bombard nearer objectives. The result was that attacking soldiers received far less artillery support than they otherwise would have.

By mid-1917, however, two recent actions had demonstrated the wisdom of combining Rawlinson’s more limited bite-and-hold approach with overwhelming support for attacking infantry.

One was the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a small British portion of Nivelle’s larger spring offensive.

This had seen Germans stunned by enormous underground mines that blew up many of their positions before the attack.

The other was a preliminary attack meant to prepare the right flank of the battlefield for Haig’s coming offensive at Ypres. 

Plumer and Gough
Plumer (left), architect of Messines Ridge, and Gough (right), who would be asked to run Third Ypres by Haig

It took place at Messines Ridge, and its architect, Second Army commander General Herbert Plumer, had a similarly strong commitment to the bite-and-hold approach as Rawlinson.

Like at Vimy Ridge, a line of enormous mines would devastate the German lines at the opening of the battle, but its success did not hinge on this spectacle alone.

Plumer employed tanks, gave his men in-depth training (including to lower ranks, so that they could continue to operate effectively if their officers and NCOs were killed), used a creeping barrage (with lighter artillery used on trenches and heavier artillery on enemy gun emplacements in the rear) and, most importantly, only required his men to advance a short distance.

This last part was key and was a vital component of bite-and-hold operations. By moving forward only incrementally, infantry would be assured of proper artillery support.

For all Haig's grand sweeping gestures over his map, it was a Plumer-style step-by-step approach that the Prime Minister consented to when he approved of the coming Third Battle of Ypres.

Unfortunately, Haig would disobey him.

LIONS LED BY DONKEYS 

The argument over First World War generalship has raged for a century now and has gone through various stages. 

The official line after the war was that the generals had done their duty, and done it well.

This was later challenged, in the late 20s and early 30s, by the likes of Liddell Hart, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon (who, admittedly, had begun his protests against the war during it). 

This school of thought was summed up by the notion that fine British soldiers were ‘lions’ led by bad commanders, ‘donkeys’. 

Although the pendulum has swung the other way in more recent decades, with ‘revisionist’ historians like Gary Sheffield arguing that British generals like Haig were, in fact, competent and that they overcame great odds to win the war, the ‘lions led by donkeys’ notion has remained. 

Harold_Septimus_Power_-_Bringing_up_the_guns from Archives New Zealand
‘Bringing up the Guns’, the way it was normally done – the mud at Ypres would make this difficult (from Archives New Zealand)

The writers of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ capitalised on this stereotype and played it up to the full in the guise of the ridiculously idiotic General Melchett, played by Stephen Fry, who sits miles behind the line in his chateau. 

In one instance, he asks his adjutant, Captain Darling, where his map is. When Darling hands it to him, Melchett looks aghast at it:

“God it’s a barren, featureless desert out there, isn’t it?”

Darling informs him that he is, in fact, looking at the blank paper on the back.

As well as the idiocy, Melchett also encapsulates the foolhardy courage he expects to see in his men:

“I’ve always had my doubts about you trench-type fellows. Always suspected there might be a bit too much of the battle-dodging, nappy-wearing, I’d-rather-have-a-cup-of-tea-than-charge-stark-naked-at-Jerry about you.”

The reality was that many generals did not live in chateaus, many were not idiotic, and many were brave.

A good number of British generals were killed during the war. 

Australian wounded during the battle
Australian wounded during the battle (image: Frank Hurley and State Library of New South Wales)

The problem, at least as Nick Lloyd explains it, is that the good generals weren’t in charge.

Plumer, the methodical, conscientious and brilliant technocrat who’d engineered the victory at Messines, was not the one given the job of running Third Ypres.

Haig turned instead to Fifth Army commander General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough.

This is because he had a solid reputation as a ‘thruster’, a rather unfortunate term for First World War generals who were deemed to be sufficiently aggressive. 

But whereas Plumer’s approach can be described as bite-and-hold, Gough’s might be summed up as biting off more than he could chew.

Nick Lloyd describes his battle preparations in the following manner:

“The weight of firepower that Gough was relying upon to unlock the German defences had one drawback: it was, quite literally, destroying the landscape. The delicate drainage system of Flanders, which kept water at bay, had already been badly damaged by three years of heavy fighting. But now, with what Gough was throwing at it, it was beginning to fail. Whatever else the British needed, they urgently required a period of dry weather in which to break out of the Salient. Unfortunately, fate conspired against them.”

And that was the other big problem. The weather, usually the perennial ally of the British, also turned against them.

German defenders knew full well that dry conditions were favourable to the attackers, while in wet weather this was reversed. And just as the battle opened on July 31, 1917, wet weather is what the British got.

Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917 by Australian War Memorial
An iconic image, the Australian Division in the midst of the battle (image: Australian War Memorial)

During the first day and the initial phases of the battle, tanks sank into the mud and troops, slowed by the horrendous sucking swamp they were now trying to cross, lost their creeping barrage.

Calibrated for a pace that worked far better when things were dry, the artillery disappeared into the distance and left the attacking infantry stuck in the mud and exposed.

When the Germans emerged from their shell holes and strong points, they had plenty of time to get ready to meet their opponents, just like at the Somme.

Indeed, Gough seemed to be playing right into German hands.

Following the losses they’d sustained the previous year, the Germans had elected to shorten their line by strategically withdrawing.

The salient (bulge) – their most westerly position – was transformed into a straight line known as ‘The Hindenburg Line’.

This freed up a number of infantry divisions and guns with which the Germans could create a strategic reserve, ready and able to plug any gap that might be punched in their line by Allied attacks during 1917.

They also developed a new defensive doctrine that was employed particularly heavily at Ypres.

It was called ‘defence in depth’ and consisted of a zone roughly 2,000 – 3,000 yards deep, the front of which would be relatively lightly defended.

A depiction of Passchendaele (image from ‘World War I’ by Ken Hills
A picture of the Third Ypres area (image from ‘World War I’ by Ken Hills © Cherrytree Press Ltd)

This worked well at Ypres, as, apart from on the ridges further back on the German side, it was difficult to build any kind of substantial trench line.

Instead, shell holes were connected into scattered lines, while concrete blockhouses, or pillboxes, were dotted throughout this zone and formed strongpoints along it. (For their part, while in the Ypres salient, the British were largely consigned to building above-ground breastworks out of sandbags instead of traditional trenches).

The doctrine called for isolated troops to be placed in these forward areas who, after hopefully surviving the initial bombardment by the British, would then machine gun and snipe attackers from mutually reinforcing positions at various points across the battlefield.

Meanwhile, special ‘Eingreif divisions’ would rush up from behind and counterattack assaulting British infantry.

The idea was for this main force to catch the British just as they tired and their momentum slowed so that they could be hit full-bore and knocked back out of the positions they’d taken.

Unpleasant as it must have been for German soldiers right out on the frontier of their defensive zone, and difficult as it was to get Eingrief troops through the more distant British barrage, defence in depth largely defeated Gough.

It would take a change in command to finally break this cycle.

A LION IN CHARGE

Cyril Falls of 36 Division, contrasted his experience under Gough with the one his unit had under Plumer at Messines:

“The System of liaison was practised by the Second Army as in no other. General Harington’s car (he was Plumer's Chief of Staff) stopped at every door, and the cheerful young staff officers, who knew every communication trench on the Army front, who drank with company commanders in their front-line dug-outs before coming back to tea with a Brigadier, or with General [Oliver] Nugent [GOC 36th Ulster Division] at his Headquarters, formed a very real link between the Higher Command and the troops… The difficulties at Ypres were infinitely greater than at Messines; that everyone recognised. But (there was a real difference in) the (level of) precision, care, and forethought (between Second and Fifth Armies). The private soldier felt a difference.”

Osprey publishing
A depiction of fighting in September, 1917, showing a British machine gun team who have carried their weapon forward to attack a pillbox (image from 'The Vickers-Maxim Machine Gun' by Martin Pegler © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Following the failure of Gough’s ‘thruster’ approach throughout August and the beginning of September, Haig was forced to turn back to Plumer.

When he did, the whole character of the battle changed. 

To begin with, Plumer advocated attacking in and, luckily, got better conditions. The combination of this and his meticulous preparations gave the whole affair a kind of Messines Ridge-like quality of quiet confidence. 

The Australian troops who went into battle under his command did so casually, keeping up with the barrage so easily that they were walking along smoking pipes and cigarettes. 

And that is a key point made by Lloyd in his book. Whereas Passchendaele was about mud and blood, it wasn’t only about that.

There was a period in the middle when conditions, and the overarching strategy, improved:

“Apart from in a handful of locations – around Schuler Farm and Tower Hamlets – both Second and Fifth Armies had been able to secure their objectives (including Inverness Copse, Glencorse Wood and large sections of the Wilhelm Line) and, crucially, hold on to them, doing enormous damage to the Eingreif divisions as they did so. It had certainly not been an easy battle, but they were – inexorably and doggedly – inching their way up the high ground. Indeed, General Plumer had seemingly done the impossible: reversed the tactical dilemma that he had faced in late August. This time the further the Eingreif advanced, the more disorganized they became and the stiffer the resistance they faced. Plumer had turned their famed defence-in-depth totally on its head.”

With sufficient support and time to establish themselves, the British were able to put up enough resistance to hold onto what they’d taken. It looked like Plumer had the magic formula.

‘Mud Road to Passchendaele’ by Douglas Calhum
‘Mud Road to Passchendaele’ by Douglas Calhum

Lloyd points out though, that this notion has been challenged.

If captured ground is used as a metric of success, as is considered by historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, then Plumer was actually less successful than Gough.

During Plumer's attack, the British sustained 21,000 casualties (or just over 20,000 in other sources, see below) - presumably caused largely by fending off the 11 German counterattacks they sustained, 10 of which they repulsed.

For this, they gained five square miles. This amounted to 3,800 casualties per square mile.

(It is worth momentarily pausing to consider how ridiculously bloody the First World War was). 

Meanwhile, Gough’s approach saw casualties of ‘only’ 1,500 per square mile captured because his plan was more territorially ambitious. 

But this misses the point. Plumer aimed to limit his territorial gains while trying to do maximum damage to the enemy. If looking at things from that perspective, then a different picture emerges.

However, two things need to be considered.

Firstly, by this point, Plumer had only launched one of the three more successful battles that he would conduct during the Passchendaele campaign (the Battle of Menin Road Ridge; the other two would be the Battle of Polygon Wood and the Battle of Broodseinde, see below).

Secondly, German casualty figures during Plumer's later battles are combined into larger periods (in the German official history 'Der Weltkreig 1914 bis 1918: Militarischen Operationen zu Lande') and so it is difficult to prize them apart.

Thus, to make a fair comparison, it is worth comparing just one of several battles that were fought by both generals within the Passchendaele campaign.

For just Gough's first engagement - the Battle of Pilckem Ridge - total British and French casualties were 33,120 (out of 13 divisions that took part); German casualties were 35,626 (5,626 as prisoners) out of seven divisions.

Poppies in Flanders today
Poppies in Flanders today (image: Tijl Vercaemer)

By comparison, for the Battle of Menin Road Ridge (from Sept 20 to 26), in Plumer’s first assault, the British are said to have actually suffered 20,255 casualties by Everard Wyrall (out of 11 divisions) while causing 28,243 German, from five divisions. (Naturally, one must remember that figures, particularly German ones, have been disputed, such as by J H McRandle and J Quirk in 'The Blood Test Revisited: A New Look at German Casualty Counts in World War I'). 

So if the size of the forces involved is taken into account as an alternative metric to the territory gained, then Gough’s attacks led to 2,548 casualties per division for BEF forces, and 5,089 per division for German forces.

Plumer’s attack generated 5,649 German casualties per division while sustaining 1,841 per division himself. That is a considerable difference. 

As Lloyd points out, the Germans, frankly, were scared stiff of the unassuming and methodical Plumer.

He appeared to have their number – they simply couldn’t figure out how to beat him, and he continued hammering them into October.

So what went wrong?

THE LION THAT DIDN'T ROAR

Had Third Ypres ended when Plumer wanted it to, it might have been dubbed ‘The Battle of Broodseinde’ instead of Passchendaele.

This had been Plumer’s latest victory as he stomped his way ever deeper into the German lines.

But he knew that, particularly on this terrain, weather conditions had to be good enough to facilitate proper artillery preparation and troop movement in battle.

Canadian 16th Machine Gun Company late October or early November, 1917 by William Rider-Rider Library and Archives Canada
Canadian Gunners in the mud at Passchendaele (image: William Rider-Rider Library and Archives Canada)

What happened next is that Haig essentially denied him this.

Buoyant, ironically, because of the success of Plumer’s more cautious attacks, he used this as a reason to push for more ambitious and continuous gains.

The tragedy of Passchendaele - apart from the fact that the village and the ridge it sat upon turned out to be strategically rather useless once the Canadians had finally taken it on November 6 (and secured it on November 10) - was that Plumer couldn’t get Haig to stop. 

Lloyd points out that, beyond both he and Gough (who was now as cautious as his colleague) once telling Haig that the offensive should stop, as well as thinking that the ‘breakthrough’ Haig asked them to exploit would never occur, Plumer had a knack for following orders too much.

He seemed to resign himself to pursuing an impossible goal simply because his C-in-C had ordered him to do so, and did not protest any more than he had done initially. 

What’s more, the one man who could stop Haig, PM David Lloyd George, was hamstrung by political considerations.

The CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff, a bit like today’s US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) was William Robertson, and he supported Haig.

He too wanted a bite-and-hold approach but had defended Haig from the Prime Minister’s efforts to move the war away from the stalemate on the Western Front and onto more ‘decisive’ theatres, like Italy (which, as it would turn out, would go even worse for the Allies in 1917). 

Firing Robertson to get control of Haig would have provoked a backlash from the conservatives in the coalition Cabinet. Additionally, Lloyd George was powerless to act on the information he received about the battle because, by the time it had trickled through military channels, it was several weeks out of date and useless as a basis for making any kind of political or strategic decision.

What’s more, the one time he was in France, inspecting what was happening directly, was during the heady days of late September while Plumer’s offensive was in high gear.

He couldn’t have stopped the offensive then, not when it was going so well.

Australian wounded soldiers around a German blockhouse (image: Frank Hurley and State Library of New South Wales)
Australian Infantry wounded around a blockhouse (image: Frank Hurley and State Library of New South Wales)

DONKEYS LED BY LIONS

So the attack continued because Haig wanted it to, despite the fact that the weather got far worse.

So much so, in fact, that supplies could no longer be brought up by trucks.

Instead, beasts of burden like mules had to be saddled with eight shells, four on each side, and led through the mud to supply the artillery guns bombarding the front.

Soldiers spoke of how much admiration they had for these animals, enduring not just the horrendous conditions, but also German bombardments, standing still and staying perfectly calm until the shelling had stopped.

Beyond continuing through the appalling weather, Haig’s other mistake during this period was haste, pushing for three attacks in quick succession with only a few days in between to prepare for them.

Plumer had been used to a schedule of five days, and the steadily worsening conditions probably should have meant even more time being given than this.

But Haig insisted on hurrying things along, with predictably bad results. As Lloyd tells us:

“For Plumer’s fourth step, II ANZAC Corps would make the main assault, not with Australian or New Zealand units, but two British divisions, 49th and 66th, which had assembled around Frezenberg by the evening of 8 October. It was pouring with rain. They had two and a half miles to go to reach the front line. This should have taken no more than five hours, but some attacking battalions took almost twice as long, before collapsing, exhausted and soaked through, into their jumping-off positions, shortly before the attack began.”

Problems, it seems, were piling on top of one another:

“The urgent need to get as many guns as possible forward meant that infantry routes were neglected in the days before the assault, leaving the attacking battalions to rely upon inadequately maintained duckboards that rapidly exhausted the men. Moreover, because priority had been given to the construction of single-track roads that could carry artillery, there were not enough double-track pathways to carry men and materials up and down the line, producing extra delay and what seemed like endless traffic congestion.”

Focusing on just the 49 Division, this unit’s records give a clear indication of just how severely their attack was hampered by the weather and poor preparations.

To begin with, they didn’t notice when the barrage was lifted off in front of them because it was so much weaker than it should have been. And in any case, they failed to keep up with it in the clinging mud.

An image from ‘Great Battles of World War I’ by Anthony Livesey showing men of the 49 Division crossing the Ravebeek
A picture the Tyne Cot battle area showing men of the 49 Division crossing the Ravebeek (image from ‘Great Battles of World War I’ by Anthony Livesey © Penguin Random House)

They were required to cross the Ravebeek, a feature that had been a modest stream prior to the battle, but that had now swollen to a river about 50 yards wide in some places, and was waist deep in the middle.

They, of course, had to cross this while being shot at by German soldiers who’d survived the ineffective bombardment.

One unit in the centre of this maelstrom was the 1/7 West Yorkshire Regiment, the Leeds Rifles (a Territorial formation).

According to ‘West Riding Territorials in the Great War’ by Laurie Magnus, every single officer and senior NCO (i.e. sergeants and warrant officers) in three out its four companies were killed or wounded.

Combo tyne cott terrain
Fields near the Ravebeek (and Tyne Cot) as they look today

Small wonder the attack ground to a halt – it’s a miracle that the division's first objectives were even taken at all (the second objectives were obviously not).

One driver with the 49 Division, Stanley Roberts, talked about how the battle was altering his perceptions. He now saw battle differently, as:

“...no longer a Darwinian survival of the fittest, but the survival of those who stay safely away from this terrible holocaust, whether in civilian occupation or comfortable billets, either at the Base or in England. The strongest, healthiest man cannot refuse death when a shell hits him and smashes his body to blood clots. My faith in war is wavering…”

This is a poignant reminder that ‘German aggression’ did not exist in isolation.

To one degree or another, the European powers in general thought of war as normal and even desirable.

In the Social Darwinian sense, it was thought of, by some, as cleansing for society as it got rid of those with weaker genes (although the term ‘gene’ would not be coined until later). 

A wounded Canadian soldier being taken to an aid post (image: William Rider-Rider and Library and Archives Canada)
A wounded Canadian soldier being taken to an aid post (image: William Rider-Rider and Library and Archives Canada)

Perhaps Roberts’ faith in war would have wavered sooner if he’d reflected on the fact that the ‘fittest’ might also include the ‘smartest’ and bravest men.

People who, in other words, would have been moved into positions of front-line leadership of one form or another once the horrors of war had become apparent and the quick victories that were promised never materialised.

Naturally, being in such positions would have made these men more likely to have been killed.

Far from killing off the weak and preserving the strong, war, and particularly the First World War, may have in fact disproportionately killed the best. (Where luck wasn’t involved, of course, which it was a lot).

SO WHY PASSCHENDAELE?

After several more costly assaults in which countless numbers disappeared into the mud amidst the ever worsening horrific conditions, Haig eventually turned to the commander of the Canadian Corps.

Well-organised and determined, General Sir Arthur Currie was very much like Plumer.

He was methodical and intelligent and worked like mad to make sure his troops had as much support as he could muster.

What he could not understand was just why Haig had to take Passchendaele Ridge.

He was simply told over and over again that it was difficult to explain and that Haig would do so one day. He never did, and Lloyd surmises: 

“The truth was that without (the ridge) he had little to show for an offensive that had been conceived in over-optimism and which had failed to achieve its grandiose objectives (of taking the U-boat ports on the Belgian coast)… Haig would have to go barehanded back to the War Cabinet (in Downing Street) and beg for their forgiveness. Therefore, the capture of Passchendaele was not about breaking the line or fixing the enemy in place, or even getting a better line for the winter – it was about saving Haig’s own skin.”

Passchendaele before and after it was destroyed by shelling
Passchendaele before and after it was destroyed by shelling

If this is true, it is a truly horrendous condemnation of Haig. Just being in Ypres was dangerous, much less continuing to fight there. 

According to Martin Marix Evan’s ‘Passchendaele and the the Battles of Ypres 1914-18’, during the Poelcapelle battle in early October, Sergeant T Berry of 1 Rifle Brigade was alerted to the plight of one wounded man who appeared to have sought shelter in a shell hole. He soon regretted it: 

“We heard screaming coming from another crater a bit away… it was a big hole and there was this fellow of the 8th Suffolks in it up to his shoulders. So I said, ‘Get your rifles, one man in the middle to stretch them out, make a chain and let him get hold of it.’ But it was no use. It was too far… The more we pulled and the more he struggled the further he seemed to go down. He went down gradually. He kept begging us to shoot him. But we couldn’t shoot him. Who could shoot him? We stayed with him, watching him go down in the mud. And he died.”

Things weren’t much better for the Germans.

Lloyd shares descriptions of them being crammed into their concrete pillboxes, worried that British shells might disappear into the soft mud only to explode underneath their feet. (Their blockhouses were, after all, specifically targetted by the guns).

Worse yet was being rocked around by artillery while inside these pillboxes, like they were in ships on a violent ocean. Men feared that these shelters might be knocked sideways and the doorways blocked, trapping them inside. (And, presumably, they fretted about the fact that they might then sink into and drown in the mud).

Daily_Mail_Postcard_-_Ypres_after_two_years_of_war
A Daily Mail postcard showing Ypres after two years of war

But despite the difficulties and the horrific conditions, Currie agreed to send his Canadians on to Passchendaele: 

“All ranks made the assault with great dash. Under heavy machine-gun fire, they pushed on into the village of Passchendale, clearing cellars and bayoneting any Germans who refused to surrender.”

For their part, the heavy artillery fire stopped Eingreif divisions from being able to get in to help their comrades, and, in any case, with all the telephone wires having been destroyed by the incessant shelling, it was impossible for those in the rear to establish if the village was even still in German hands.

They had to send isolated patrols out to skirt and get through the barrages, and when they did, they found the Canadians had, in fact, taken it.

But was it worth it? Lloyd asks this question over and over again:

“Over the decades, historians have not failed to point out Haig’s errors at Third Ypres: his inexplicable optimism in believing that he could clear the Belgian coast; the fatal delay after Messines; his decision to appoint an unsuitable commander in Gough; his failure to thrash out the details of the plan and order Gough to take the Gheluvelt Plateau; and his decision to continue attacking when all hope of a decisive result had gone.”

He points out that, in justifying the assault on Passchendaele, Haig had invoked, both before, and afterwards, the plight of the French Army. Yet Nivelle’s disastrous attack had so over-extended his troops that it produced a mutiny.

His replacement, Petain, then told Haig not to make the same mistake. He very nearly did just that, stretching his army to the absolute limit during Third Ypres. (The British did, in fact, suffer a small mutiny of their own at Etaples in September of 1917).

George V Haig
King George V (second from right) and Haig (behind the King) at Tyne Cott Cemetery after the war (colourisation by Doug Banks)

However, if the offensive was going to be fought, Lloyd points out that it should have been done so the way Plumer had advocated:

“Had the Second Army commander been in charge from the beginning, had the offensive begun a month earlier, and had ‘bite and hold’ been the guiding principle upon which British operations were based, who knows what could have been achieved? It is possible that a major victory could have been won in the late summer and autumn of 1917. While this might not have entailed the complete liberation of the Belgian coast, it is not inconceivable that continued British pressure, heavier German losses and the effect of regular hammer blows might have convinced the German High Command that it was best to cut their losses… and raised the possibility of a compromise peace.”

Rounding out the book, Lloyd returns to the story of Haig’s Chief of Staff:

“The true story of Kiggell and the mud – which opened this history – is, in some respects, even worse than the legend would have us believe. Haig and GHQ were well aware of how bad conditions were, but still pressed ahead anyway. Both Haig’s diary and his despatch on ‘The Campaign of 1917’ are littered with references to the bad weather and difficult ground conditions.”

One must question the writer here though. Haig may have been aware that things were bad, but it's not clear that he knew just how bad 'bad' really was. 

We may never know what really happened or what exactly what went wrong at GHQ, but what does seem clear from Lloyd’s account is that if the BEF had had Plumer, or someone like him, in command during 1917, a lot more would have gone right.

For more, read ‘Passchendaele: A New History’ by Nick Lloyd. Ken Hills’ ‘World War I’ provides a pictorial history suitable for children of any service personnel, while ‘Great Battles of World War I’ by Anthony Livesey and Osprey’s ‘Passchendaele And the Battles of Ypres 1914-18’ by Martin Marix Evans, ‘FE 2b/d vs Albatros Scouts’ by James F Miller and 'The Vickers-Maxim Machine Gun' by Martin Pegler provide visual histories of the period and weapons for adults. Visit Osprey Publishing’s website for more military history.

Topics: