Flanders Offensive
Entente offensive in the Flanders region
7 June - 10 November 1917
author Paul Boșcu, April 2018
During the Flanders offensive a battle for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres took place. Although the Entente forces managed to gain some initial ground they failed to force a German general retreat.
After the debacle of Nivelle’s offensive, Entente attention turned to General Douglas Haig’s long-awaited Flanders offensive. The final splutterings of the Arras offensive had been diversionary in nature, fought to deflect attention from both the problems of the French and the burgeoning preparations already being started in Flanders. But now underpinning everything was the necessity of focusing German attention on the British Expeditionary Force and thereby allowing the French Army more recovery time.

At the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, the BEF had succeeded in closing the gap between the open wing of the French army and the Flemish coast, thus completing the Western Front. In the Second, in 1915, the BEF had sustained the first gas attack of the war in the Western Front and, though surrendering critical ground in front of the city of Ypres, had held the line.

Douglas Haig's plan for the BEF's Flanders offensive split the projected operations into two stages. The first would consist of an attack on the Messines Ridge, south of Ypres. The second, taking place some weeks later, would be a 'Northern Operation' designed to capture the Passchendaele Ridge and Gheluvelt plateau to the east of Ypres before seizing the Thorout-Roulers railway link and then clearing the Belgian coast, aided by an amphibious landing.

Haig had originally intended to swiftly follow up the capture of Messines Ridge with his Ypres Offensive. But the delays multiplied, reflecting the logistical difficulties of waging a war which required thousands of guns and millions of shells to be amassed in the muddy ground of the Ypres Salient. The infantry, too, had to be moved up to the line. Training and planning had to be perfected. All this took time.

The ‘Flanders Position’, as the Germans called it, was one of the strongest on the Western Front, both geographically and militarily. From the low heights of Passchendaele, Broodseinde and Gheluvelt, the German front line looked down on an almost level plain from which three years of constant shelling had removed every trace of vegetation; it had also destroyed the field drainage system, elaborated over centuries, so that the onset of rain, frequent in that coastal region, rapidly flooded the battlefield's surface and soon returned it to swamp.

In the end there was nothing surprising in the slow rate of the British advance: the Germans were simply backing up, and exacting a heavy price for each stage. At this rate it would take years to get through Belgium — assuming that the United Kingdom had the manpower to keep it up.

Before any operations to clear the Ypres Salient could begin, it was necessary to push the Germans back from their positions on the ‘heights’ of the Messines Ridge to the immediate south. General Herbert Plumer was inclined to restrict his horizons initially to just the Messines and Pilckem Ridges. Seeking a more aggressive approach than that offered by Plumer, Haig selected General Sir Hubert Gough to command the main Ypres offensive, while Plumer commanded the opening assault on Messines Ridge. There would, however, still be a delay of some weeks after Messines as the artillery were moved northwards to amass in front of Ypres.

Preparations had long been underway, by Plumer’s Second Army, and since 1915 an incredible series of deep-driven tunnels had been burrowed under the ridge and filled with explosives. Early in 1917, the process had been accelerated in anticipation of the attacks planned to capitalize on the promised success of the Nivelle offensive.

The planning for the Flanders offensive was dogged throughout by the necessity of choosing between the ‘bite and hold’ approach with restricted objectives and the natural desire to maximize possible gains and capitalize on the enormous allocation of resources represented by such an offensive.

The original plan was that the BEF attack would be supported by a parallel French attack, but this had to be abandoned when mutinies proliferated across the French Army. Haig would have to go it alone, which meant that the Germans would be free to concentrate all their attention on Flanders. This may have benefitted the weakened French but it promised pain and suffering for the BEF.

The Messines plans produced by Plumer represented another high point in the development of the ‘bite and hold’ tactics. There would be a 4-day barrage followed by the intended detonation of twenty-one mines underneath key German defensive positions all along the length of the ridge. Plumer originally planned an advance of only 1,500 yards but Haig, not unnaturally in view of the almost incalculable expenditure of valuable military resources, wanted to attempt both the seizure of the German second line at the back of the ridge and the Oosttaverne Line on its rearward slopes. All together this would entail a total advance of some 3,000 yards.

The plans for the creeping barrage to protect the advancing troops were also gaining in complexity, for it was now mixed with barrages directed at a sequence of identified strongpoints further ahead of the troops. Once these objectives had been achieved, the creeping barrage would then settle as a standing barrage just ahead of the new lines in order to protect them from the inevitable German counterattacks.

With his ruddy face, white moustache and corpulent figure, Plumer looked more like an elderly country squire than a successful general. But few could match his profound understanding of the principles of modern trench warfare or his concern to minimize casualties. Plumer and Major-General Charles Harington, his Chief of Staff, were a formidable team. Typically, their meticulous preparations for the Messines operation included the construction of an enormous contour model of the Ridge.

The eye-catching innovation was the sheer size of the mines used by the British to blow up the German defences from underneath. The explosion was cataclysmic – and even before the ground had settled the massed British artillery had burst into life. For the Germans, the impact of the massive explosions was incredible.

Captain Oliver Woodward of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company was on tenterhooks as he waited to detonate his mine under Hill 60: ‘I approached the task of final testing with a feeling of intense excitement. With the Wheatstone Bridge on an improvised table, I set out to check the leads and as each one in turn proved correct I felt greatly relieved. At 2.25 am I made the last resistance test and then made the final connections for firing the mines. This was a rather nerve-racking task as one began to feel the strain and wonder whether the leads were correctly joined up. Just before 3 am, General Lambart took up his position in the firing dugout. It was his responsibility to give the order, “Fire!” Watch in hand, he stood there and in a silence that could almost be felt he said, “Five minutes to go.” I again finally checked up the leads and Lieutenants Royle and Bowry stood with an exploder at their feet ready to fire should the dynamo fail. Then the General, in what seemed to be interminable periods, called out, “Three minutes to go!” “Two minutes to go!” “One minute to go!” I grabbed the handle firmly and in throwing the switch over, my hand came in contact with the terminals, so that I received a strong shock that threw me backward. For a fraction of a second I failed to realise what had happened, but there was soon joy in the knowledge that Hill 60 mines had done their work.’

‘Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go halfway up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic darkroom. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write at 3.40am, but it makes one laugh to think of their little efforts compared to the ‘Ausgezeichnete Ausstellung’ that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance.’ (Major Ralph Hamilton, Headquarters, 106th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery)

‘The earth roared, trembled, rocked – this was followed by an utterly amazing crash and there, before us in a huge arc, kilometres long, was raised a curtain of fire about one hundred metres high. The scene was quite extraordinary; almost beyond description. It was like a thunderstorm magnified one thousand times! This was followed by thousands of thunderclaps, as the guns opened up simultaneously, adding their contribution to the power just unleashed. The wall of fire hung in the air for several seconds, then subsided to be replaced by the flashes of the artillery muzzles, which were clearly visible in the half light. For an instant we just stood, mesmerised by the spectacle. There was no question of returning to the rear to have wounds dressed, because hardly had the wall of fire died away to nothing than the entire earth seemed to come to life. Scrabbling their way forward from hundreds of starting points came steel-helmeted men. Line upon line of infantrymen emerged and the enemy launched forward.’ (Second Lieutenant Meinke, 176th Infantry Regiment)

The infantry went over the top, sweeping over the utterly shattered German front line positions on the forward crest. The Germans were unable to hold them and Haig was proved right as his men pushed through to take the fortified village of Wytschaete. The Oosttaverne Line was safely in British hands before the end of the day. Subsequent painful tidying-up operations would finally succeed in attaining all the British objectives within the week. With the Messines Ridge under British control, the way was open for Hubert Gough’s assault on the German lines that almost encircled Ypres.

Nearly three weeks of bombardment, during which three and a half million shells had been fired, had preceded the attack. When the assault waves arrived on the Messines crest, now permanently altered by the devastations, they found such defenders as had survived unable to offer resistance, and took possession of what remained of the German trenches with negligible casualties. At a blow the British had driven the enemy from the southern wing of the Ypres salient. Haig's ambition to drive in the center and thence advance to the Flemish coast was greatly enhanced.

The Oosttaverne Line was totally in Second Army's grasp after four days and all gains were consolidated within a week. The Messines attack was, in most respects, a model set-piece assault.The attack also succeeded because it was limited and staged. It gave the British a foothold on the end of the ridge that swept round to the east of Ypres, and it secured the right flank of the main thrust.

By mid-morning, having suffered comparatively light losses, Plumer's Second Army held the crest of the Ridge. During the afternoon the advance continued against the Oosttaverne Line, which ran across the eastern, or reverse, slope of the Ridge. At this stage casualties began to increase as the Ridge became overcrowded and some units were even fired upon by their own artillery.

More careful observation reveals that the positions occupied by the Germans dominated those of the British all the way to the only true high ground in Flanders, Mount Kemmel and the Mont des Cats, while denying the British observation into the German rear areas between Ypres and Lille.

Haig’s motives in the great Flanders offensive of the Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele, have often been questioned, but he had several compelling reasons. He was required, by the situation the French army was in, to distract the Germans and prevent them from launching a devastating attack on the wavering poilus. Tactical objectives included the Passchendaele Ridge overlooking Ypres, the German rail junction at Roulers, clearing the German threat to the Channel ports, and removing the necessity of maintaining the Ypres Salient, which was a constant drain on British manpower.

The British plans featured the usual tensions over the question of advancing in stages or attempting to maximize initial gains by going for the Second and Third Lines. This argument could never be fully resolved, as it all depended on what happened. If the attack was a success then it would be irresponsible not to be ready to leap successive German lines. But then again, if the deeper lines were included in the original barrage, then its impact might be diluted, and total failure ensue. In the end Haig resolved to maximize gains within the overall context of a staged advance – not, therefore, an attempt to secure an immediate breakthrough.

Haig believed that more attacks might bring the German Army to the point of collapse. He based this on the reports of his chief intelligence officer, Brigadier General John Charteris: ‘It is a fair deduction that, given a continuance of the existing circumstances and of the effort of the Allies, Germany may well be forced to conclude a peace on our terms before the end of the year.’ This would prove an optimistic assertion, as the German armies on the Western Front would ultimately be refreshed by the divisions freed from the Eastern Front following the collapse of the Russians.

The plans emphasized the importance of artillery – this was the British way. The Fifth and Second Armies amassed 3,091 guns, which was twice as many as the Germans had in that sector. The bombardment would last for fifteen days, followed by a thunderous creeping barrage to accompany the attacking infantry across No Man’s Land. They would also be accompanied by tanks, although these were restricted in what they could do by the difficult ground conditions.

The third battle of Ypres, which culminated in a muddy morass at the village of Passchendaele, has become for the British the embodiment of the First World War’s waste and futility. But it had a clear strategic purpose. If the army could advance to Roulers, it would command the key German railway junction in the northern half of the western front. Its very ambition appealed to Haig: it might win the war in 1917. It also worked on the imagination of the prime minister. But Lloyd George’s cabinet colleagues were wary of Haig’s ambition: they did not want another Somme. A victory on that scale would work political wonders, both domestically and internationally. Lloyd George’s position, as a Liberal prime minister dependent on Conservative backing, would be secured; in alliance terms, Britain would not have to defer to American wishes at the peace talks.

When the Cabinet members finally gave the battle their blessing, they specified that it was to be a step-by step battle, which could therefore be broken off as and when it ceased to deliver results commensurate with its losses. That was an endorsement not for breakthrough but for attrition.

When Nivelle’s failure to achieve a breakthrough was evident, the Chief of Imperial General Staff, General Sir William Robertson, wrote to Haig: ‘The best plan is to go back to one of the old principles, that of defeating the enemy’s army. In other words instead of aiming at breaking through the enemy’s front, aim at breaking down the enemy’s army, and that means inflicting heavier losses upon him than one suffers oneself.’ That indeed was how Robertson packaged and sold the offensive, both in London and to his allied colleagues.

Haig's Flanders plan had received the War Cabinet's general approval on the understanding that the French would similarly be taking offensive action. Now that the latter could no longer be counted upon, Lloyd George believed that it would be folly for the BEF to attack virtually on its own. Haig, however, still confidently anticipated decisive results in 1917 and there were sound strategic reasons for sticking with his scheme. The Americans were far from ready, and Russian military power was nearing collapse. There was a distinct possibility that the Germans would deliver a fatal blow to the French Army if the BEF failed to maintain the pressure.

The British Prime Minister marshalled his arguments against the offensive to considerable effect: ‘The Cabinet must regard themselves as trustees for the fine fellows that constitute our army. They are willing to face any dangers, and they do so without complaint, but they trust to the leaders of the nation to see that their lives are not needlessly thrown away, and that they are not sacrificed on mere gambles which are resorted to merely because those who are directing the War can think of nothing better to do with the men under their command. It is therefore imperative that before we embark upon a gigantic attack which must necessarily entail the loss of scores of thousands of valuable lives, and produce that sense of discouragement which might very well rush nations into premature peace, that we should feel a fair confidence that such an attack has a reasonable chance of succeeding. A mere gamble would be both a folly and a crime.’

Lloyd George appealed to the Cabinet for more resources for the Italian campaign. Here Haig and Robertson stood together on solid ground, able to demonstrate the crucial importance of concentrating on the main enemy – Germany – on the Western Front, rather than embarking on any Italian adventures. In the end, Cabinet approval of the offensive was granted, although with the provision that it should be abandoned if things went wrong.

Haig and Robertson saw considerable risks in the projected transfer of divisions to Italy, a policy which could only weaken the Entente’s strength on the Western Front. As shipping losses to U-boats remained perilously high, Haig's scheme to clear the Flanders coast was given powerful support by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jellicoe.

By supporting Nivelle, the prime minister had revealed his hand: he was ready to accept an offensive on the Western Front, provided it was not under Haig’s command. The fact that he had backed the wrong horse undermined his authority in British strategic counsels. The Prime Minister could see good reasons for avoiding a battle: it would lose many men for little material gain; it would not win the war – though Haig at times spoke of ‘great results this year’ –; neither the French nor the Russians would help; the Americans were coming; and thus the best strategy was for a succession of small attacks, rather than a repetition of the Somme.

Despite Lloyd George's fears about casualties, compounded by the difficulties in finding any more men from civil life to replace those lost, Haig insisted that ‘it was necessary for us to go on engaging the enemy’. He was quite confident he could reach the first objective, which was the crest of the Ypres ridges. This was the nub of the difference: Haig wanted to fight, Lloyd George did not.

The German defences at Ypres were carefully laid out in accordance with the principles of defence in depth. A thinly held front line and forward zone ran along the low Pilckem Ridge, with a second line tucked away on the reverse slope. Behind this were a series of additional lines stretching back up onto the Passchendaele Ridge, while the whole area was dotted with concrete pillboxes and fortified farm buildings. These were carefully positioned to catch advancing troops in deadly machine gun crossfire.

The Germans, despite their success against the French and the Romanians, and despite the progressive enfeeblement of the Russian army, were no longer in a position, as they had been in the year of Verdun, to undertake offensive operations. Their armies were overstretched and Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff awaited a strategic shift of balance, perhaps to be brought by a U-boat victory, perhaps by a final Russian collapse, before they could realign their forces for a new and decisive effort.

Since the digging of deep trenches was ruled out by the boggy Ypres terrain, the German Fourth Army based its defence upon concrete pillboxes and fortified farms behind a thinly-occupied forward zone. The pillboxes were built above ground, were positioned in such a way as to support each other with interlocking fire and were thick enough to withstand anything less weighty than 8-inch howitzer shells.

The overall concept was to slow down and break up the British attacks, leaving the survivors vulnerable to German counterattack divisions held back beyond the reach of the British artillery.

During the 3rd Battle of Ypres, the Germans attacked using a new and deadly weapon: they started heavy shelling of the Ypres positions with dichloroethyl-sulfide gas shells. The Germans called this new and deadly gas ‘yellow cross’, after the emblem on the shells. British troops called it mustard gas, and the French called it Yperite, after where it was first used. Whatever it was called, its effects at Ypres were devastating. The gas shelling forced the offensive to be delayed.

Falling with an almost inaudible ‘plop’ and relatively odorless, this gas caused severe blisters, temporary blindness and dreadful internal damage if inhaled. As it lingered both in the air and on the ground, soldiers were forced to wear their gas masks for days.

General John Pershing, the American Expeditionary Force commander, noted in his diary that the BEF had twenty-six thousand gas casualties in July at Ypres. There was, in other words, a reason why the French tagged the gas Yperite. In July, even though the Messines Ridge fighting was over and Third Ypres hadn’t yet begun, the BEF suffered 84,695 casualties (killed, missing, and wounded).

The BEF had also been allotted 180 aircraft. Their role was to achieve air superiority above the front to a depth of five miles, where the German observation-balloon line began. During 1917, the war in the air remained largely stuck at the level of artillery observation, ‘balloon busting’ and dogfighting to gain or retain air superiority. The outcome of the Third Battle of Ypres would be decided, however, on the ground, not in the skies above it.

The French air service, though a branch of the army, was unaffected by the disorders which paralysed the ground formations during 1917. It lent important support to the Royal Flying Corps during the Third Battle of Ypres. Its best aircraft, the Spad 12 and 13, were superior to most of those flown by the Germans at the beginning of the year and it produced a succession of aces – Georges Guynemer and Rene Fonck the most celebrated – whose air-fighting skills were deadly.

The year of 1917 was also to see the emergence of the most famous German aces, including the legendary ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, whose achievements were owed not just to their airmanship and aggressiveness but also to the delivery to the German air service of new types of aircraft, particularly the maneuverable Fokker Triplane, which displayed a significant edge in aerial combat over the British and French equivalents.

Aeronautical technology during the First World War permitted very rapid swings in superiority from one side to the other. ‘Lead times’ in the development of aircraft, now measured in decades, then lasted months or sometimes only weeks; a slightly more powerful engine or a minor refinement of airframe could confer a startling advantage.

The British air force also began to produce its own aces to match those of the French and German air forces, the most famous being Edward Mannock, James McCudden and Albert Ball. McCudden, an ex-private soldier, and Mannock, a convinced Socialist, were cold-hearted technicians of dogfighting from backgrounds wholly at variance with the majority of public school pilots whom Albert Ball typified.

When the Allied infantry attacked, they did so with varying degrees of success. Two divisions of the French First Army on the left flank reached all their objectives and even pushed on to contest the streets of Bixschoote. On their right the British swept up the low rise of the Pilckem Ridge and over into the shallow Steenbeek Valley that lay behind to capture St Julien. There they encountered a steadily increasing resistance centered around pillboxes and the Gheluvelt-Langemarck Line lying in front of the London Ridge promontory of the main Passchendaele-Gheluvelt Ridge.

If one man’s story tells the story of thousands, let it be that of Company Sergeant Major John Handley of the 1/6th King’s Liverpool Regiment, who went over the top with his company headquarters in the third wave: ‘Following the white tape, I was horrified to find myself tangled up in our own wire. Knowing from experience that the enemy would rain a deluge of blasting shells on our front line within three minutes – at the most – I frantically tore myself through the obstructing wire, hurrying forward out of the most dangerous area. When I felt clear I looked about me, but in the darkness could see no one. There was no sign of those who should have been following me i.e. the acting captain, his servant, signallers, first aid men, stretcher bearers, and so forth. As far as I could make out I was alone. But I went forward, till suddenly I fell, tripped up by the German wire. As I plunged into the mud several rifle shots flashed and cracked from the enemy trench just in front of me. The bullets whizzed past my head and, incidentally, for weeks afterwards, I was partially deaf in the left ear. My rifle was useless, choked with mud. Pulling out a hand grenade, I released the lever and lobbed it as near as I could to the area from which the shots came. Bobbing up to see the explosion, I saw several heads silhouetted against the flash. I had aimed well. At that moment one of our Lewis gun teams came up and I led them into the German trench where, in the half light of dawn, we only found one badly wounded Hun.’

As Sgt. Handley pushed on across a near-featureless wilderness pounded by the constant shellfire, he was soon lost: ‘I had to find Jasper Farm and set up the Company headquarters. On the map it was shown as halfway down a central communication trench. Going down the first connecting trench I failed to find it, so came back to the German front line and went down the next one. As trenches they were difficult to discern, for our bombardment had almost erased them. It was a case of plodding through shell holes and round small earth mounds. Skirting one mound I came into full view of Jasper Farm. It was a huge mound of bare concrete with gun slits – a pillbox. Stark and bare, it looked grotesque, our bombardments having blown away the earth which concealed it. I was surprised and even more so when I saw six Germans lined up in front of it. They immediately put their hands up in surrender. Pointing my useless rifle at them, I released an arm to wave them forward in the direction of the British lines. On reaching the old German front line I handed them over to one of my sergeants for escorting back to captivity.’ (Company Sergeant Major John Handley, 1/6th King’s Liverpool Regiment)

The condition of the stunned German troops should not have been a surprise. Even the concrete walls and roof of a blockhouse could not protect them from the British bombardment: ‘The fire increased to an intensity that was simply beyond our power to comprehend. Our blockhouse and a nearby mortar battery received more than a thousand large caliber shells. The earth trembled, the air shimmered. My pillbox heaved and rocked as though it was going to collapse. Almost by a miracle it received no direct hits. Everyone who dared to go out was wounded. At 6.00 am there was a gas alarm. I went outside and watched as a cloud of gas 10 metres thick drifted slowly by. The entire pillbox stank of it. I had every tiny gap wedged up with wet cloths. At 7.00 am the firing reached a peak of intensity. It was simply ghastly. The men in the outer room were wounded or died of gas poisoning. The small reserve of gas masks was exhausted because many men needed replacements for masks which had been shot through. The enemy followed up behind the gas cloud.’ (Lieutenant Colonel Freiherr von Forstner, 164th Infantry Regiment)

The initial results were heartening as much of Pilckem Ridge fell, and the seizure of key observation points there and at the western extremity of the Gheluvelt plateau robbed the Germans of advantages they had enjoyed since May 1915. Plumer's troops took Hollebeke and the German outpost line west of the Lys while the French captured Steenstraat and reached the outskirts of Bixschoote.

The troops facing Sanctuary Wood had an almost impossible task. In the dreadful ground conditions they soon lost touch with their creeping barrage and were thus exposed to the unsuppressed fire of the German garrison. In addition, the masses of German batteries concealed behind the Gheluvelt Plateau had not been dealt with and their shells tore the advancing battalions to shreds. The British tanks which were meant to help overcome the opposition were not only vulnerable to the artillery but most were very soon bogged down in the glutinous mud, unable to liaise properly with the infantry around them.

Clapham Junction, where seventeen tanks were wrecked, became known as the ‘tank graveyard’. They had done little to help the infantry. Although the advance managed to overrun the German front line positions, it was brought up sharply by the German second line stretching across Gheluvelt Plateau.

At this stage, the overall advantage may have seemed to be with the French and British troops. But the German tactics were based on counterattacks and they had fresh divisions ready for action safely positioned in the folds of ground behind the Gheluvelt Plateau and Passchendaele Ridge. The German barrage opened up in the early afternoon and soon their infantry were swarming forward across the ridges and pushing forward on the British gains at St Julien and in the Steenbeek Valley. Driving in at the flanks, the Germans forced the increasingly exhausted British troops back.

The setback in this sector effectively halved the Fifth Army's attack frontage. The rain which appeared during the afternoon changed from a drizzle to a persistent downpour, greatly reducing visibility. In several places German counterattacks drove the British back. The initial assault had carried the Fifth Army forward about 3,000 yards but Gough's divisions were still a long way short of their first-day objectives.

Gough’s willingness to try to maximize gains on the first day had rendered his troops vulnerable to German counterattacks through having over-stretched themselves and run beyond the cover that their artillery could provide. The heavy casualties, particularly in the Gheluvelt Plateau sector, meant that British options were significantly reduced. Certainly, it was now clear that any thoughts of swiftly breasting the main Passchendaele Ridge were fanciful. Indeed, the biggest obstacle to British progress was left largely unscathed – the Gheluvelt Plateau was still an inviolable fortress. It would be a long, hard slog: another battle of attrition.

There was another serious unforeseen problem. On the first day of the battle it had begun to rain. The rain poured down for most of August – indeed, there were only three dry days in the whole month. In these circumstances, moving the guns and millions of shells forward became a horrendous task; finding suitable gun positions was near impossible; and, worst of all, the bad weather prevented the Royal Flying Corps from flying the photographic and artillery observation patrols essential to make the best use of the guns.

Ypres Salient was transformed into a gloomy expanse of mud and water-filled craters. All troops moving up to the front line had to negotiate treacherous duckboard tracks or plank roads that were targeted by enemy gunners.

The British assault divisions were already weakened and the relentless German barrage forced Gough to relieve them earlier than he would have wished with troops originally intended for the second stage of the offensive. But now these troops were exposed to endless shellfire and they, too, were gradually degraded as they waited for the weather to let up and give them the chance to attack. A pattern of desperate, unimaginative assaults, crushing German counterattacks and an overwhelming sense of despair began to afflict the British campaign in Flanders. The gains were minimal and the casualties high, in the near-futile assaults which were launched.

The Germans recognized the key importance of the Gheluvelt Plateau and concentrated the bulk of their batteries on its reverse slopes. In contrast, the British guns were spread more evenly along the whole front, thus allowing the Germans to establish an artillery superiority just where it most mattered. The Germans also used their massive experience of attritional battles to good effect. They opened a heavy continuous barrage on the British divisions in front of the Gheluvelt Plateau, with the effect of putting them through the ‘mincing machine’.

The task ahead of the assaulting divisions got more and more difficult in the Gheluvelt Plateau sector, which stretched from the Westhoek Ridge to the Shrewsbury Forest. On Westhoek Ridge they had some considerable initial success and captured the village before being halted by German machine guns.

‘The state of the ground was by this time frightful. The labour of bringing up supplies and ammunition, of moving or firing the guns, which often sunk up to their axles, was a fearful strain on the officers and men, even during the daily task of maintaining the battle front. When it came to the advance of infantry for an attack, across the water-logged shell holes, movement was so slow and so fatiguing that only the shortest advances could be contemplated. In consequence I informed the Commander in Chief that tactical success was not possible, or would be too costly, under such conditions, and advised that the attack should be abandoned. I had many talks with Haig during these days and repeated this opinion frequently, but he told me that the attack must be continued.’ (Lieutenant General Sir Hubert Gough, Headquarters, Fifth Army) Gough had failed to grasp that the offensive could not just be called off; the real necessity was for him to concentrate his forces and overcome these very considerable obstacles.

The British took Langemarck but two more attempts to seize the Gheluvelt plateau proved abortive, despite heavy fighting at Inverness Copse and Glencorse Wood close to the Menin Road.

The drainage system of the flat, well-tilled land was broken up by shellfire, and the mud meant shell supply had to be performed by mules. ‘If animals slipped off the planks into the quagmires alongside,’ a British officer recalled, ‘they often sank out of sight. On arrival, shells had to be cleaned of the slime coating before they could be used.’ Every time a gun was fired, its trail sank into the soft ground, thus wrecking its bearing and elevation: rapid, predicted fire was impossible.

Lloyd George was dubious, and he held a conference in London whose main objective was to bring a halt to military operations of this sort, and particularly Third Ypres. But at this point the military, including the navy, presented a united front. The military carried the day and the battle continued in the mud and rain all through the fall, not winding down until the middle of November.

The civilian argument was that with Russia out of the war and France on the ropes, the British should husband their resources and wait for the Americans. The military simply took the same facts and turned them backward: since everyone else was dropping out, it was imperative that someone show some fight.

The failure of the attacks caused a review of the campaign. One thing stood out: further progress was almost impossible without the reduction of the series of German lines and interlinked fortifications chained across the Gheluvelt Plateau. If Gough and his Fifth Army were incapable of doing this, then Haig was quite prepared to go back to Plumer. But Plumer needed time to prepare, so Gough and the Fifth Army would have to struggle on into September. This led to a further series of small-scale actions which achieved no worthwhile objective.

For all the British confusion, the German Army was also suffering. For the Germans the improvements in British offensive tactics were nothing short of ominous: ‘In spite of all the concrete protection, they seemed more or less powerless under the enormous weight of the enemy’s artillery. At some points they no longer displayed the firmness which I, in common with the local commanders, had hoped for. The enemy had managed to adapt himself to our method of employing counterattack divisions. There were no more attacks with unlimited objectives, such as General Nivelle had made in the Aisne-Champagne Battle. He was ready for our counterattacks and prepared for them by exercising restraint in exploitation of success. In other directions, of course, this suited us very well. I myself was being put to a terrible strain. The state of affairs in the West appeared to prevent the execution of our plans elsewhere. Our wastage had been so high as to cause grave misgivings, and had exceeded all expectation.’ (General Erich Ludendorff, General Headquarters) Up until this point in the war the French had always been the real danger to the Germans. Now it was the British.

While Haig resisted pressure from Lloyd George to halt the bogged-down offensive, Plumer was given three weeks to prepare the next step. He used the opportunity to introduce more flexible assault tactics. Attacks would be led by lines of skirmishers, followed by small teams of infantry deployed loosely to outflank strong points and pillboxes. Other small groups, acting as mopping-up parties, would bring up the rear. Fresh reserves of infantry would be kept ready to deal with the expected German counterattacks, which would also be subjected to intense, well-planned artillery fire and machine-gun barrages.

Plumer presented his plans for the capture of the Gheluvelt Plateau to Haig. This was a strictly limited offensive; a ‘bite and hold’ par excellence. The Battle of Menin Road was not just a mechanistic artillery battle; it would also reflect the considerable advances being made in infantry tactics. The Second Army would advance in four bounds of about 1,500 yards, each followed by a six-day lull to allow for the preparation of the next step. The Fifth Army would use the same methodology to capture the protruding St Julien Spur and London Ridge. Then, and only then, would an attack be launched on the main Passchendaele Ridge.

A massed artillery force was lined up of 1,295 guns, of which 575 were the vital medium or heavy artillery that could destroy the German pillboxes and blockhouses. It would require millions of shells, but here again progress was being made as Decauville light railways were installed to help carry the shells at least part of the way to the guns.

The overall plan was simple: each attack would aim to seize the German forward defensive zone, then swiftly consolidate, thereby effectively inviting German counterattacks against well-prepared infantry backed up by massed machine guns and the full strength of the artillery. Plumer also proved to be a lucky general; September saw the onset of dry, sunny weather and the ground began to dry out. This was a great advantage to the Royal Artillery.

Rigid lines were all but useless against a pillbox-based defence and a great deal more flexibility was inculcated into the troops. In a gradual acceptance of the necessity for new tactics, the British were following on from the French: ‘The waves of attack which have hitherto been used, do not give sufficient flexibility, nor are platoons and sections sufficiently under the control of their leaders to deal with sudden opposition likely to be encountered under the new conditions. The leading wave, in one or two lines should be extended to force the enemy to disclose his positions, the remainder in small groups or file ready to deal with unexpected machine guns or parties of the enemy. It must be impressed on all subordinate leaders that rapidity of action is of paramount importance, and that any delay in assaulting these points adds to the seriousness of the situation and increases the difficulties of dealing with it. Known machine gun emplacements and defended points are dealt with by parties previously told off for the duty. Careful study of the ground and aeroplane photographs will go a long way towards increasing the ‘known’ and giving all leaders a clear idea of the points from which opposition may be expected. The rear waves must keep closed up until across No Man’s Land, and gradually gain the distance, after this officers must be trained to ensure this is done.’ (Brigadier Charles Harrington, Headquarters, Second Army)

When the guns opened up, it seemed to dwarf all preceding barrages. When the infantry advanced they were able to sweep forward exactly as planned, overrunning the German forward zone to a depth of just under a mile. It was not the ground taken that made the Battle of Menin Road such a remarkable achievement; it was the successful final capture of objectives that had cost literally thousands of lives in futile assaults in the previous month. Then the British troops stopped, consolidated and awaited the German response. The response came promptly, but the Germans were stopped in their tracks.

‘Just look at our artillery. Just look at it, at those countless flashes. See how they stab at the darkness from their hiding places, not in dozens but in hundreds, and yet these are only the heavies, the lighter guns are well up and we cannot see them. See the red glares that light up the country for miles where a Hun shell has landed amongst some cordite. The whole place seems ablaze as far as the eye can see: flash after flash some singly, some in groups when a battery fires together, but isn’t it all beyond description, beyond belief, even beyond imagination? Feel the terrific vibration and the jolting and hear the ear splitting, nerve-racking noise of it all. It is not a bit of use trying to talk, or even shout because bellow as you like no one can hear you.’ (Lieutenant Cyril Lawrence, 1st Field Company, AIF)

The infantry had done well, but in truth it was the massed fire of the British field artillery, all still well within range, that provided the most formidable opponent in destroying the German counterattack divisions. Even so, the Germans knew what they were doing on a battlefield: they too could deploy massed artillery, and casualties were heavy on both sides.

Overall, Haig was delighted and looked forward to the incremental capture of the whole Passchendaele Ridge. He even began to consider a possible breakthrough to the Belgian coast and the Roulers railhead. This optimism has been viewed with a considerable degree of derision in retrospect, but it was certainly Haig’s responsibility to plan for any contingency including the possibility of amphibious combined landing operations or a cavalry exploitation. In truth, here was a case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. The point is, surely, that Haig did not know what was going to happen next, but he had the duty to prepare for any eventuality.

After the requisite six days the next step was the Battle of Polygon Wood. Although a spoiling attack by the Germans intended to disrupt preparations had some minor success, the British were still able to make an advance of some 1,000–1,250 yards on a front of 8,500 yards, although again the vicious fighting led to heavy casualties.

By this time the German High Command had worked out what Plumer was doing. But how would they respond to these gradualist tactics? All the Germans could do in the short term was to strengthen the front line zone with more troops and machine guns and to delay their counterattacks until they could organize them properly with the appropriate artillery support: ‘The depth of the penetration was limited so as to secure immunity from our counterattacks, and the latter were then broken up by the massed fire of artillery. After each attack I discussed the tactical experiences with General von Kuhl and Colonel von Loszberg, sometimes at the front, sometimes on the telephone. This time I again went to the front in order to talk over the same questions with officers who had taken part in the fighting. Our defensive tactics had to be developed further, somehow or other. We were all agreed on that. The only thing was, it was so infinitely difficult to hit on the right remedy.’ (General Erich Ludendorff, General Headquarters)

In the Salient, the Germans were now obliged to modify their elastic defence system and again hold forward positions in greater strength, thereby making themselves more vulnerable to Plumer's artillery.

Plumer, encouraged by Haig, ordered the next Second Army assault on the Broodseinde Ridge, Zonnebeke Spur and Gravenstafel Spur, while the Fifth Army moved on Poelcappelle. Again he was aiming for just 1,500 yards, but the artillery arrangements were juggled. The Battle of Broodseinde Ridge proved another British triumph, despite a further 20,600 casualties.

Plumer’s ‘bite and hold’ tactics had certainly achieved their aim of capturing the Gheluvelt Plateau; but the drawbacks of this attritional method of warfare were also becoming apparent. The limited scope of each advance meant that there was never a chance of overrunning and capturing significant numbers of German guns. Therefore the threat posed by the German artillery remained relatively constant – every battle needed the same tremendous attention to detail and thorough counter-battery bombardment.

Some sources maintain that Plumer and Gough advocated stopping the offensive at this point, though documentary evidence to support this claim is difficult to find. Haig certainly wanted to reach the Passchendaele Ridge to provide a firm line for the approaching winter and decided to continue operations for another month.

Time was running out for the BEF as they continued the offensive deep into October. Gradually the overall objectives shrivelled to reflect the changing situation. It was clear that Roulers and the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend were out of reach. The only option left was to wear down the Germans, thereby also deflecting attention from Britain’s faltering allies. As a localized tactical objective Haig resolved to complete the capture of the Passchendaele Ridge which would allow his troops to winter in a strong defensive position.

Ypres became a hell on earth for the men condemned to fight there, and that dreadful experience has come to symbolize the whole of the war. All around them were the mangled corpses of their erstwhile comrades. Lieutenant Richard Dixon was a forward observation officer. He was incredulous at the horrors that surrounded him: ‘All around us lay the dead, both friend and foe, half in, half out of the water-logged shell holes. Their hands and boots stuck out at us from the mud. Their rotting faces stared blindly at us from coverlets of mud; their decaying buttocks heaved themselves obscenely from the filth with which the shell bursts had smothered them. Skulls grinned at us; all around us stank unbelievably. These corpses were never buried, for it was impossible for us to retrieve them. They had lain, many of them, for weeks and months; they would lie and rot and disintegrate foully into the muck until they were an inescapable part of it to manure the harvests of a future peace-time Belgium. Horror was everywhere.’ The Germans too were suffering, but they still had the military resources and determination to cling on.

The German experiment of strengthening the front zone had proved a disaster. Ludendorff ordered yet another rejig of defensive tactics to counter the massed British guns. This time they would simply expand the forward defensive zone, with the most advanced area only lightly held and relying on barbed wire and the artillery to prevent the attacking British infantry from getting through. There is no doubt that the British sacrifice was to some extent effective: ‘The wastage in the big actions of the Fourth Battle of Flanders was extraordinarily high. In the West we began to be short of troops. The two divisions that had been held in readiness in the East, and were already on the way to Italy, were diverted to Flanders.’ (General Erich Ludendorff, General Headquarters)

Even as the Germans reorganized their defences, it once again began to rain over Flanders – although there could be no real surprise at rain in October. But the effects, once again, were catastrophic: as the shallow valleys flooded, the morass spread inexorably via the linked shell holes that covered almost the entire battlefield. The Royal Artillery once again found themselves crippled: they couldn’t get their guns and ammunition forward, the gun platforms were unsteady, ruining accuracy, and the work of the RFC was stymied as the aircraft either could not get aloft or the visibility was so poor that they could not do their job. In contrast, the massed guns of the Germans were sited on higher, drier ground that had not been regularly furrowed by shells.

The next attack, the Battle of Poelcapelle, was actually brought forward a day even as the rain teemed down. But the German Army proved to be nowhere near accepting defeat: fresh divisions had moved forward, and the artillery batteries had been replenished. The result was a terrible slaughter. Some meager advances were made toward the German fastness at Houthulst Forest, but overall the Battle of Poelcapelle was an utter failure.

‘The approach to the ridge was a desolate swamp, over which brooded an evil menacing atmosphere that seemed to defy encroachment. Far more treacherous than the visible surface defences with which we were familiar, such as barbed wire; deep devouring mud spread deadly traps in all directions. We splashed and slithered, and dragged our feet from the pull of an invisible enemy determined to suck us into its depths. Every few steps someone would slide and stumble and, weighed down by rifle and equipment, rapidly sink into the squelching mess. Those nearest grabbed his arms, struggled against being themselves engulfed and, if humanly possible, dragged him out. When helpers floundered in as well and doubled the task, it became hopeless. All the straining efforts failed and the swamp swallowed its screaming victims, and we had to be ordered to plod on dejectedly and fight this relentless enemy as stubbornly as we did those we could see. It happened that one of those leading us was Lieutenant Chamberlain, and so distraught did he become at the spectacle of men drowning in mud, and the desperate attempts to rescue them that suddenly he began hysterically belabouring the shoulders of a sinking man with his swagger stick. We were horror-struck to see this most compassionate officer so unstrung as to resort to brutality, and our loud protests forced him to desist. The man was rescued, but some could not be and they sank shrieking with fear and agony. To be ordered to go ahead and leave a comrade to such a fate was the hardest experience one could be asked to endure, but the objective had to be reached, as we plunged on, bitter anger against the evil forces prevailing piled on to our exasperation. This was as near to Hell as I ever want to be.’ (Private Norman Cliff, 1st Grenadier Guards)

The offensive ground on, but increasing desperation led Plumer, under pressure from Haig, to abandon many of the principles that had previously brought him success. With the weather outlook still grim, the British were running out of time if they were to secure the Passchendaele Ridge before winter arrived. Without the proper ‘bite and hold’ methodology, this was a recipe for disaster, which was accordingly delivered at the First Battle of Passchendaele – at a cost of another 13,000 casualties. It was decided to postpone further attacks until the weather had ameliorated sufficiently to allow proper artillery preparations.

When Lieutenant Walde Fisher of the AIF moved back into the front line the next day he was greeted by a dreadful situation: ‘Our units sank to the lowest pitch of which I have ever been cognisant. It looked hopeless – the men were so utterly done. However, the attempt had to be made, and accordingly we moved up that night – a battalion ninety strong. I had ‘A’ Company with twenty-three men. We got up to our positions somehow or other – and the fellows were dropping out unconscious along the road – they have guts, my word! That’s the way to express it. We found the line instead of being advanced, some 30 yards behind where we had left it – and the shell stricken and trodden ground thick with dead and wounded – some of the Manchesters were there yet, seven days wounded and not looked to. But men walked over them – no heed was paid to anything but the job. Our men gave all their food and water away, but that was all they could do. That night my two runners were killed as they sat beside me, and casualties were numerous again. He blew me out of my shell hole twice, so I shifted to an abandoned pillbox. There were twenty-four wounded men inside, two dead Huns on the floor and six outside, in various stages of decompositions. The stench was dreadful.’

The exhausted Australian troops were withdrawn and the newly arrived Canadian Corps, under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, was given responsibility for one last attempt on Passchendaele. Currie took his time, planning staged attacks and reverting entirely to the methods of ‘bite and hold’. The Second Battle of Passchendaele began with a successful advance of just some 500 yards along the ridge. But elsewhere the attack by the Fifth Army on Houthulst Forest achieved nothing.

The situation at this time was complicated by the collapse of the Italian Army in the face of the Caporetto Offensive launched by the Austrian Army. Indeed, Haig was forced to send two of his divisions to help the Italians. Haig was also beginning to turn his mind to the planned raid using tanks at the Battle of Cambrai in November.

The whole exercise was repeated after more careful preparations, with similar results: a small but controlled advance by the Canadians after vicious fighting. By the beginning of November the great Third Ypres Offensive had shrunk down to the narrow frontage of the Canadian Corps’ attempts to gain Passchendaele village on the tortured summit of that benighted ridge. The Canadian Corps resumed battle with the successful seizure of Passchendaele village. After one last attack carried out in order to secure the position, the long agony was finally over.

The British had achieved their minimal tactical objective, but had been denied any of their wider aims. Both sides knew that they had been in a tough fight: ‘On 26 and 30 October and 6 and 10 November the fighting was again of the severest description. The enemy charged like a wild bull against the iron wall which kept him from our submarine bases. He threw his weight against Houthulst Forest, Poelcapelle, Passchendaele, Becelaere, Gheluvelt and Zandvoorde. He dented it in many places, and it seemed as if he must knock it down, but it held, although a faint tremor ran through its foundations. The impressions I continuously received were very terrible. In a tactical sense, everything possible had been done. The advanced zone was good. The effectiveness of our artillery had considerably improved. Behind almost every division in the front line there was another in support; and we still had reserves in the third line. We knew that the enemy suffered heavily. But we also knew he was amazingly strong and, what was equally important, had an extraordinarily stubborn will.’ (General Erich Ludendorff, General Headquarters)

When the Flanders offensive finally ended, both sides had suffered heavy losses. Despite an advance of some five miles and Plumer's impressive September operations, none of Haig's distant objectives had been attained and even the northernmost tip of Passchendaele Ridge remained in German hands.

The cost to the British was atrocious, with some 275,000 casualties, while the German losses numbered something like 200,000. But that was the price of alliance warfare. To abandon your allies was to lose everything. The risk can be illustrated by the collapse of Russia in November 1917 that allowed the Germans to concentrate their forces on the Western Front in 1918.

At the end of 1917 the British army and the British people were desperately tired. An end-of-year report based on 17,000 letters concluded that morale was sound. The traditional paternalism of a long service army – rest and recreation, food and drink, good officer-men relations – acted as an effective disciplinary tool even for conscripts. The British army did not mutiny – at least, not on a scale which bears comparison with the French.

The grouses the censors picked up were not those of professional servicemen but the anxieties of citizen soldiers: war-weariness, talk of peace, a desire for leave. More aspects united those at the front and at home, than the issues which divided them.

In the end Haig was wrong. The Germans did not collapse in the late autumn of 1917. But at the same time this was just one of the whole spectrum of possibilities that Haig had envisaged from the Flanders campaign. Haig’s more ambitious strategic aims – to overrun the Roulers rail junction or liberate the Belgian ports of Antwerp and Ostend – were surely always near-impossible scenarios without the collapse of the German Army. But the BEF had certainly succeeded in attracting German resources that might otherwise have been expended to more deadly effect on Britain’s tottering allies.

The Germans were suffering from the prolonged attritional warfare on the Western Front and the people at home were undoubtedly war-weary. But, as a nation, the Germans were not yet down and out.

The Third Battle of Ypres had seen the BEF develop a murderously efficient method of making small-scale gains, based on the raw power of the guns and subverting, at least in part, the German defence in depth. It was a method of fighting based on restricting all ambition to the achievement of small advances of less than a mile. Yet the war would not be won in this way: ‘bite and hold’ promised only a never-ending torment. A better way would have to be found.