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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.