Third Ypres, or Passchendaele, was a controversial battle at the time and has remained so ever since. Disagreement exists over whether it should have been fought at all, over the tactics used and over whether the casualties were worth the gains.
It is perhaps the battle that best fits the view of the First World War as a bloody, futile conflict fought in horrific conditions.
However more recent study has highlighted that, for all the hardship endured by the men fighting and the failures in planning, parts of the battle were much more successful than is often recognised, and that British achievements were significant.
This post aims to give a brief overview of the course of the battle and some of this controversy. Find out more about the background and planning for the battle here.
The Opening Stages
The battle began on the 31st July. The attacking British forces were drawn from 5th Army, commanded by General Hubert Gough. Planning and preparation was careful and detailed – lessons from the Somme and Arras had been learned, but his objectives were very ambitious, calling for long advances of up to 6000 yards across the front.
The attack stressed teamwork: infantry would advance supported by creeping artillery barrages, Engineers, Pioneers and Labour Corps personnel would prepare routes for supplies and bring them forwards, and the Royal Flying Corps would identify German positions for heavy artillery to fire upon.
Against the German front line these tactics worked well, however this was deliberately weakly held. As the British advanced they faced stronger defences and German counter attacks.
Overall the British advance was not as successful as had been hoped, with few units covering more than half their assigned distance. In some areas the counter attacks forced them to retreat.
To make matters worse in the afternoon of the 31st it began to rain and the battlefield soon turned to mud. This affected all arms. The infantry were slowed, artillery and logistics couldn’t move their heavy vehicles over the muddy roads, and the RFC couldn’t find targets through the cloud. The battle was paused on the 2nd August.
It’s worth noting that the weather in 1917 was much wetter than usual. The extent of the mud and flooding was far worse than anyone had expected.
Attacks at Gheluvelt on the 10th and Langemarck beginning on the 16th were largely unsuccessful. Field Marshal Haig, in command of British forces in France, was disappointed with Gough’s progress and transferred command of the battle to General Herbert Plumer’s 2nd Army.
Progress and Success
After 3 weeks of preparation Plumer attacked on the 20th September at Menin Road Ridge. His plans were less ambitious but more methodical than Gough’s and included a response to German counter attacks. Units were assigned objectives rarely more than 1600 yards away. This meant they wouldn’t outrange their artillery support. The British successfully broke into German positions, then waited for the counter attacks. These were defeated by intense artillery fire, between twice and three times as heavy as on the 31st July, and strong British reserves held for just this purpose.
The successes on the 20th September were stunning. There was an element of luck – it hadn’t rained – but the preparations were the key reason. Casualties were high, but the comparison with the 31st July was stark for both sides. British morale soared, but the Germans were seriously worried. Their defensive tactics had comprehensively failed.
At Polygon Wood on the 26th and Broodseinde on the 4th October the same pattern repeated itself. German casualties were mounting, and they seemed to have no answer as the British continued to advance.
The final stage of Third Ypres encompassed the Battles of Poelcapelle on the 9th October and Passchendaele from the 12th October to the 20th November. Continuing the fighting during this period is responsible for much of the controversy over the battle as a whole.
The successes of September were no more. The weather broke again, resulting in horrendous conditions on the battlefield. The infantry were exhausted just reaching the front line, roads disappeared into quagmires, supplies and guns couldn’t move forwards and communications broke down.
The shortage of guns weakened the barrage, reducing the effectiveness of the British attacks. The last acts of the battle, in early November, led to the capture of Passchendaele and surrounding high ground. Haig called off the offensive on the 20th November.
Controversy of Passchendaele
The battle cost the both sides around 260,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing). This level of loss undermined the British government’s confidence in their generals, which would have consequences in 1918.
The losses, the limited gains and the horror of the mud dominate the modern view of the battle, but it’s important to remember that after Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde a decisive success seemed within reach. Indeed we know now that German commanders were considering a withdrawal. Haig would have struggled to justify ending the battle at this point. It’s only hindsight that tells us Broodseinde was the high point.
Modern historians and students of the First World War still disagree over whether the achievements of Third Ypres were worth the cost.
Read more about the Battle of Passchendaele here.