Third Battle of Ypres

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Canadian nurses helping the wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele

The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres or simply Third Ypres, was one of the major battles of World War I. In this battle, British, ANZAC, Canadian and South African units engaged the Imperial German Army. The battle was fought for control of the village of Passchendaele (Passendale in modern Flemish, now part of the community of Zonnebeke) near the town of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) in West Flanders, Belgium. The plan was to drive a hole in the German lines, advance to the Belgian coast and capture the German submarine bases there. It was intended to create a decisive corridor in a crucial area of the front, and to take pressure off the French forces. After the Nivelle Offensive the French Army was suffering from extremely low morale, resulting in mutinies and misconduct on a scale that threatened the field-worthiness of entire divisions.

Although the period of the battle saw spells of good weather lasting long enough to dry out the land, Passchendaele has become synonymous with the misery of fighting in thick mud. Most of the battle took place on largely reclaimed marshland, swampy even without rain. The extremely heavy preparatory bombardment by the British tore up the surface of the land, and heavy rain from August onwards produced an impassable terrain of deep "liquid mud", in which an unknown number of soldiers drowned. Even the newly-developed tanks bogged down.

The Germans were well-entrenched, with mutually-supporting pillboxes which the initial bombardment had not destroyed. After three months of fierce fighting the Canadian Corps took Passchendaele on 6 November 1917, ending the battle, but in the meantime the Allied Powers had sustained almost half a million casualties and the Germans just over a quarter of a million. Passchendaele was the last gasp of the "one more push" philosophy which posited that the stalemate of attritional trench warfare could be broken by brute offensive action against fixed positions. Its comparative failure and the horrendous conditions in which it was fought damaged Field-Marshal Haig's reputation and made it emblematic of the horror of industrialized warfare.


Tactical Overview and Preliminary Battles

By this stage of the war, the commanders-in-chief,Field Marshal Douglas Haig (British Empire); General Erich Ludendorff (German Empire); and General Philippe Pétain (France) — regarded the Western Front as a single continuous battle which had started with the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. Thus, no sooner had hostilities ended in one sector then a fresh offensive started in another. The Allied objective was to keep Imperial Germany, who were also fighting the war on the Eastern Front, under constant pressure. Since the Somme, tactics and counter-tactics had significantly developed on both sides of the line.

The bridge to the north of Ypres had been lost to the Germans in the First Battle of Ypres, creating an allied salient sticking out into the German positions and overlooked by German artillery on higher ground. Haig decided to collapse the salient, break through the front and capture the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. A successful action would not only put the submarines out of action, but shorten the allied lines and potentially trap a number of German troops behind the new lines. Haig gave General Sir Hubert Gough command of the battle. This is widely regarded as a mistake, as Gough had neither the experience nor the temperament for the task ahead.

The build up of Allied troops in the sector had alerted the Germans to the possibility of an imminent offensive. In response, General Ludendorff sent his strategist, Colonel von Lossberg, to the salient as chief of staff of the German Fourth Army who were holding the line. Lossberg moved the German Army out of the trenches into a strong defensive line of pillboxes, designed to resist even very heavy artillery and to provide enfilading fire.

Messines Ridge

In order to take the salient, engineers had been digging under the Messines Ridge and planting a series of nineteen enormous explosive mines. This work did not go unnoticed, and the German forces dug a series of counter-mines in order to block their work. The German efforts were unsuccessful, and the mines were in place by early June. In late May the allies started bombarding the German lines, "softening up" the defenses. Early in the morning of June 7, at 2:50 AM, the shelling ceased, a signal that an infantry assault would begin in moments. The German infantry that had been sheltering in bunkers made ready for an attack, while their shift-change moved up from the rear to relieve them.

Instead of an assault, the mines were exploded right under the newly occupied trenchlines. The mines killed approximately 10,000 German troops. Assaults followed shortly thereafter, and were able to capture the trenches with almost no opposition. German counterattacks on the next two nights were completely ineffectual. The plan was a complete success.

Haig ordered General Plumer, the Second Army commander, to continue the battle, but was persuaded to delay further attacks until preparations could be made and the strategic Messines Ridge could be consolidated. The delay was fatal. Had the British pressed forward they would have found the Germans in disarray and the battle would have succeeded. In waiting to consolidate the British position, Haig allowed the Germans to consolidate their position.

July 1917

As a second stage of the action, General Sir Hubert Gough was put in charge of the attacks to secure the Gheluvelt Plateau which overlooked Ypres. Many field guns were moved into the area and started a four-day bombardment, but the Germans recognized the sign of an impending offensive, and moved more troops in to reinforce the defences.

In July the Germans used mustard gas for the first time. It attacked sensitive parts of the body, caused blistering, damage to the lungs and inflammation of the eyes, causing blindness (sometimes temporary) and great pain.

One problem in carrying the offensive forward was the Yser canal, but this was taken on 27 July when the Allies found the German trenches empty. Four days later, the offensive proper opened with a major assault at Pilckem ridge, when the Allies gained about 2000 yards. The Allies suffered about thirty-two thousand casualties — killed, wounded or missing — in this one action.

Ground conditions during the whole Ypres-Passchendaele action were bad because the ground was already fought-over and partially flooded. Continuous shelling destroyed drainage canals in the area, and unseasonable heavy rain turned the whole area into a sea of mud and water-filled shell-craters. The troops walked up to the front over paths made of duckboards laid across the mud, often carrying up to one hundred pounds (45 kg) of equipment. It was possible for them to slip off the path into the craters and drown before they could be rescued. The trees were reduced to blunted trunks, the branches and leaves torn away, and the bodies of men buried after previous actions were often uncovered by the rain or later shelling.

September 1917

A new strategy known as "bite and hold" was adopted for the actions of September and October, after the bad weather in August had contributed to the failures of earlier large-scale attacks. The idea was to make small gains which could be held against counter-attack. Sir Herbert Plumer replaced Hubert Gough in command of the offensive.

By now, 1,295 guns were concentrated in the area, approximately one for every five yards of attack front. On 20 September at the battle of Menin Road, after a massive bombardment, the Allies attacked and managed to hold their objective of about 1,500 yards gained, despite heavy counter-attacks, suffering twenty-one thousand casualties. The Germans by this time had a semi-permanent front line, with very deep dugouts and concrete pillboxes, supported by artillery accurately ranged on no man's land.

Further advances at Polygon Wood and Broodseinde on the south-western edge of the salient accounted for another two thousand yards and thirty thousand Allied casualties. The British line was now overlooked by the Passchendaele ridge, which therefore became an important objective. An advance on 9 October at Poelkapelle (Poelcapelle) was a dismal failure for the Allies, with minor advances by exhausted troops forced back by counter-attacks.


First Battle of Passchendaele

The First Battle of Passchendaele, on 12 October 1917 began with a further Triple Entente attempt to gain ground around Poelkapelle. The heavy rain again made movement difficult, and artillery could not be brought closer to the front owing to the mud. The Entente troops were fought-out, and morale was suffering. Against the well-prepared Triple Alliance defences, the gains were minimal and there were 13,000 Allied casualties.

By this point there had been 100,000 Allied casualties, with only limited gains and no strategic breakthrough.


Second Battle of Passchendaele

At this point two divisions of the Canadian Corps were moved into the line to replace the badly depleted ANZAC forces. After their successes at Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Hill 70, the Canadians were considered to be an élite force and were sent into action in some of the worst conditions of the war.

Upon his arrival, the Canadian Commander-in-Chief General Sir Arthur Currie expressed the view that the cost of the objective would be sixteen thousand casualties. While Currie viewed this figure as inordinately high in relation to the value of the objective, Haig was used to casualty figures in the hundreds of thousands after years of huge allied losses, and he ordered the offensive to proceed.

The Canadians moved into the line during mid-October, and on 26 October 1917, the Second Battle of Passchendaele began with twenty thousand men of the Third and Fourth Canadian Divisions advancing up the hills of the salient. It cost the Allies twelve thousand casualties for a gain of a few hundred yards.

Reinforced with the addition of two British divisions, a second offensive on 30 October resulted in the capture of the town in heavy rains. For the next five days the force held the town in the face of repeated German shelling and counter-attacks, and by the time a second group of reinforcements arrived on 6 November, four-fifths of two Canadian divisions had been lost.

Their replacements were the First and Second Canadian Divisions. German troops still ringed the area, so a limited attack on the 6th by the remaining troops of the Third Division allowed the First Division to make major advances and gain strong points throughout the area.

One such action on the First Division front was at Hill 52; the Tenth Battalion, CEF were called out of reserve to assist an attack on Hill 52, part of the same low rise Passchendaele itself was situated on. The Battalion was not scheduled to attack, but the Commanding Officer of the Tenth had wisely prepared his soldiers as if they would be making the main assault – a decision that paid dividends when the unit was called out of reserve. On 10 November 1917, the Tenth Battalion took the feature with light casualties.

A further attack by the Second Division the same day pushed the Germans from the slopes to the east of the town. The high ground was now firmly under Allied control.

Aftermath

Because of the Third Battle of Ypres there were insufficient reserves available to exploit the Allied success at the Battle of Cambrai, the first breakthrough by massed tanks, that restored somewhat the shaken confidence of the British government in the final victory. The politicians were reluctant however to fully replace the manpower losses, for fear the new troops would be sacrificed also. This made the British Army vulnerable to a German attack.

The major German offensive of 1918, Operation Michael, began on 21 March 1918, and a supporting operation which became the Battle of the Lys, began on 9 April. This regained almost all of the ground taken by the Allies at Passchendaele, with the Germans advancing about 6 miles. This meant that every inch of ground (that had taken 450,000 casualties and 5 months to take) gained in the offensive was lost to the Germans, in a space of about three days, further proving the point of many historians that the Ypres salient was "not the most strategically significant area on which to wage a major campaign".

These battles, and those British Empire soldiers who gave their lives, are commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, the Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world with nearly 12,000 graves.

More than any other battle, Passchendaele has come to symbolize the horrific nature of the great battles of the First World War and the uselessness of the tactics employed. The Germans lost approximately 270,000 men, while the British Empire forces lost about 300,000, including approximately 36,500 Australians, 3,596 New Zealanders and 16,000 Canadians — the latter of which were lost in the intense final assault between 26 October and 10 November; 90,000 British, New Zealand and Australian bodies were never identified, and 42,000 never recovered. Aerial photography showed 1,000,000 shell holes in 1 square mile (2.56 km²).

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