The first two battles of Ypres had seen the Germans attack the British, but the Third Battle of Ypres saw Field Marshal Douglas Haig take the initiative with an attempt to break the German line and push through in the direction of Bruges. In the event, the gains were minimal- the Allies advanced just 5 miles at most- and the battle has gone down in history less as a victory than as period in which troops and tanks endured appalling conditions in a period of unprecedented weather.
As ‘The Western Front Companion’ by Mark Adkin notes, for once there was nothing wrong with the actual planning of the attack. The Battle of Pilckem Ridge, on 31st July, involved the II, XIV, XVIII and XIX Corps of General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army taking the lead, east of Ypres, with flanking operations on the right by the X Corps of Commander General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army and on the left by the French First Army, so the main thrust was well covered. Moreover, the entire British tank force available in France at that time, three brigades of 72 tanks each, were committed to support the operation, and were dropped by rail several days ahead of the battle to assemble in the nearby Oosthoek Wood four miles west of Ypres.
The preliminary barrage was exhaustive, starting on 16th July and using up 4.5 million rounds by the time the troops advanced. In fact, it was by far the most vicious of the whole campaign, but then it needed to be to crush the barbed wire surrounding six lines of deep, well-protected German trenches. When the soldiers finally did set off, they were protected by a rolling barrage. The attack was towards Pilckem, St.Julien, Zonnebeke and the Gheluvelt Plateau, en route to Passchendaele, and the Allies initially met with little resistance from the pulverised German front line.
By midday they were already moving beyond the former line, with the objective of the higher ground of Pilckem Ridge, when German counter-attack divisions mounted the ridge and bore down on them. The British were by now low on artillery ammunition, and pandemonium reigned, with some battalions holding their ground while others were pushed back, for two hours before the heavens opened and brought the fighting to a close. By that time the Allies had gained just 2,000 yards at the cost of 3,000 casualties.
The tanks, meanwhile, completely floundered. The expected ‘firm, level ground’ of the area was anything but, and it was very difficult to navigate when the terrain was sopping and featureless. Often the drivers were forced to go along roads rather to cut through the countryside, which left the vehicles extremely vulnerable to enemy attacks. A huge number were rapidly crippled or drowned in the mud, with 88 out of 107 tanks from the two southern Tank Brigades disabled, blown up or broken down by the end of that first day of fighting.
From then on, the troops on both sides endured the worst rains seen in the region for 30 years. These, combined with the churning of the ground (and drainage ditches) by the artillery barrages and the flatness and low altitude of the ground, turned the battlefield into a thick gluey mass of mud. The lack of altitude also proved problematic in that, by simply keeping control of a 180-400ft ridge, the Germans were able to view the full layout of the Allied advance. The Calvary, so useful in other battlefields, were completely unable to operate and spent the time instead forming working parties to patch up fast crumbling bridges, roads, rail links and trenches.
To add to the Allies’ misery, this was the first battle in which the Germans used mustard gas, the horrible weapon that was to inflict the vast majority of the gas injuries for the rest of the Great War. In trenches and woods, the places where sunlight couldn’t penetrate, the deadly mist lingered. The fact that this gas rarely killed made it all the more terrifying. Instead it maimed, inflicting at best excruciating blisters on the skin, at worst great gaping wounds to the bone causing permanent scarring. Lungs were eaten away, eyes blinded, and such awful pain experienced that the afflicted soldiers couldn’t help screaming and moaning while men with whole limbs blown off stayed resolutely silent. ‘The Western Front Companion’ notes that Hitler himself was temporarily blinded by mustard gas in the trenches of the First World War, and speculates that the memory of his own suffering perhaps prompted his refusal to use similar weapons in the battlefields of the Second World War.
The tanks largely continued to perform badly throughout the battle, which was not surprising considering that they were not built to cope with such conditions. General Gough, along with several other senior commanders, lost all faith in the Tank Corps, and suggested that it be abandoned. However, one or two tanks proved absolutely instrumental in securing rapid victories with little loss of life in several small skirmishes. This fact alone led High Command to give the tanks another chance - and, come the Battle of Cambrai, they’d certainly be glad they had!
The Battle of Passchendaele lasted for 99 dreadful days, until 6th November 1917. Progress continued to be slow, with the weather making advances of any sort, on either side, very difficult indeed. The British Expeditionary Force sustained 260,000 casualties, the French 112,000 and the Germans 260-300,000 (Field Marshall Haig almost got the sack because of the heavy losses, and indeed many of his senior staff did, but he remained simply because they couldn’t think of anyone better to replace him).
However, both sides learned a lot during the battle, with the Germans reducing the number of men protecting their front lines in the face of such overwhelming barrages, and both the Germans and the British reorganising their artillery so that only part would be used in most fights, with the rest held back hidden from view except in the most critical operations. The British leaders realised that the big advances they were hoping for could never be achieved through heavy shelling alone, only through surprise attacks utilising a combination of smoke screening, air force participation, more accurate arms and a much greater concentration of tanks. As for the soldiers, they fought bravely, as they always had and would, and 61 Victoria Crosses were awarded for Passchendaele, 14 for actions on 31st July alone. It may not have been the greatest hour for the Allies, but one thing was sure after the horrors of that battle; things could only get better!