Battle of Passchendaele

Battle of Passchendaele

The Battle of Passchendaele also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was a campaign of the First World War, fought by the Allies against the German Empire. The battle took place on the Western Front, from July to November 1917, for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders, as part of a strategy decided by the Allies at conferences in November 1916 and May 1917. Passchendaele lay on the last ridge east of Ypres, 5 mi (8.0 km) from a railway junction at Roulers, which was vital to the supply system of the German 4th Army. The next stage of the Allied plan was an advance to Thourout–Couckelaere, to close the German-controlled railway running through Roulers and Thourout.

Further operations and a British supporting attack along the Belgian coast from Nieuwpoort, combined with Operation Hush (an amphibious landing), were to have reached Bruges and then the Dutch frontier. The resistance of the 4th Army, unusually wet weather, the onset of winter and the diversion of British and French resources to Italy, following the Austro-German victory at the Battle of Caporetto (24 October – 19 November), enabled the Germans to avoid a general withdrawal, which had seemed inevitable in early October. The campaign ended in November, when the Canadian Corps captured Passchendaele, apart from local attacks in December and in early 1918. The Battle of the Lys and the Fifth Battle of Ypres were fought before the Allies occupied the Belgian coast and reached the Dutch frontier.

A campaign in Flanders was controversial in 1917 and has remained so. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, opposed the offensive, as did General Ferdinand Foch, the French Chief of the General Staff. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), did not receive approval for the Flanders operation from the War Cabinet until 25 July. Matters of dispute by the participants, writers and historians since the war, have included the wisdom of pursuing an offensive strategy in the wake of the Nivelle Offensive, rather than waiting for the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France.

The choice of Flanders over areas further south or the Italian front, the climate of Flanders, the choice of General Hubert Gough and the Fifth Army to conduct the offensive, debates over the nature of the opening attack and between advocates of shallow and deeper objectives, remain controversial. The passage of time between the Battle of Messines (7–14 June) and the Battle of Pilckem Ridge (31 July), the first Allied attack of the Third Battle of Ypres, the extent to which the internal troubles of the French armies motivated British persistence with the offensive, the effect of the exceptional weather, the decision to continue the offensive in October and the human cost of the campaign for the soldiers of the German and British armies, have also been argued over.

 

Flanders

1914

Belgium had been recognised in the Treaty of London (1839) as a sovereign and neutral state after the secession of the southern provinces of the Netherlands in 1830. The German invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914, in violation of Article VII of the treaty, was the British casus belli against Germany. British military operations in Belgium began with the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons on 22 August. Operations in Flanders began during the Race to the Sea, reciprocal attempts by the French and German armies to turn their opponents’ northern flank, through Picardy, Artois and Flanders. On 10 October, Lieutenant-General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of Staff of the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, supreme army command), ordered an attack towards Dunkirk and Calais, followed by a turn south behind the Allied armies, to gain a decisive victory. On 16 October, the Belgians and some French reinforcements began the defence of western Belgium and the French Channel ports, at the Battle of the Yser. When the German offensive failed, Falkenhayn ordered the capture of Ypres to gain a local advantage. By 18 November, the First Battle of Ypres had also ended in failure, at a cost of 160,000 Germancasualties. In December 1914, the British Admiralty began discussions with the War Office, for a combined operation to re-occupy the Belgian coast but were obliged to conform to French strategy and participate in offensives further south.

1915

Large British offensive operations in Flanders were not possible in 1915, due to a lack of resources. The Germans conducted their own Flanders offensive at the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April – 15 May 1915), making the Ypres salient more costly to defend. Sir Douglas Haig succeeded Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF on 19 December 1915. A week after his appointment, Haig met Vice-Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, who emphasised the importance of obtaining control of the Belgian coast, to end the threat posed by German U-boats. Haig was sceptical of a coastal operation, believing that a landing from the sea would be far more difficult than anticipated and that an advance along the coast would require so much preparation, that the Germans would have ample warning. Haig preferred an advance from Ypres, to bypass the flooded area around the Yser and the coast, before attempting a coastal attack to clear the coast to the Dutch border.

1916

Minor operations took place in the Ypres salient in 1916, some being German initiatives to distract the Allies from the preparations for the offensive at Verdun and later attempts to divert Allied resources from the Battle of the Somme. Other operations were begun by the British to regain territory or to evict the Germans from ground overlooking their positions. Engagements took place on 12 February at Boesinghe and on 14 February at Hooge and Sanctuary Wood. There were actions from 14–15 February and 1–4 March at The Bluff, 27 March – 16 April at the St Eloi Craters and the Battle of Mont Sorrel from 2–13 June. In January 1917, the Second Army (General Herbert Plumer) with the II Anzac, IX, X and VIII corps, held the Western Front in Flanders from Laventie to Boesinghe, with eleven divisions and up to two in reserve. There was much trench mortaring, mining and raiding by both sides and from January to May, the Second Army had 20,000 casualties. In May, reinforcements began arriving to Flanders from the south; the II Corps headquarters and 17 divisions had arrived by the end of the month.

In January 1916, Plumer began to plan offensives against Messines Ridge, Lille and Houthulst Forest. General Henry Rawlinson was also ordered to plan an attack from the Ypres Salient on 4 February; planning continued but the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme took up the rest of the year. In November 1916, Haig, the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre and the other Allies met at Chantilly. The commanders agreed on a strategy of simultaneous attacks, to overwhelm the Central Powers on the Western, Eastern and Italian fronts, by the first fortnight of February 1917. A meeting in London of the Admiralty and the General Staff urged that the Flanders operation be undertaken in 1917 and Joffre replied on 8 December, agreeing to a Flanders campaign after the spring offensive. The plan for a year of attrition offensives on the Western Front, with the main effort to be made in the summer by the BEF, was scrapped by the new French Commander-in-Chief Robert Nivelle in favour of a return to a strategy of decisive battle.

Allied strategy

Nivelle planned an operation in three parts, with preliminary offensives to pin German reserves by the British at Arras and the French between the Somme and the Oie, then a French breakthrough offensive on the Aisne, followed by pursuit and exploitation. The plan was welcomed by Haig but with some reservations, which he addressed on 6 January. Nivelle agreed to a proviso that if the first two parts of the operation failed to lead to a breakthrough, the operations would be stopped so that the British could move their forces north for the Flanders offensive, which Haig stressed was of great importance to the British government. On 23 January, Haig wrote that it would take six weeks to move British troops and equipment from the Arras front to Flanders and on 14 March, he noted that the attack on Messines Ridge could be made in May. On 21 March, he wrote to Nivelle that it would take two months to prepare the attacks from Messines to Steenstraat but that the Messines attack could be ready in 5–6 weeks. The Nivelle Offensive took place from 9 April to 9 May and failed to achieve a breakthrough. On 16 May, Haig wrote that he had divided the Flanders operation into two phases, one to take Messines Ridge and the main attack several weeks later. British determination to clear the Belgian coast took on more urgency, after the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917. On 1 May 1917, Haig wrote that the Nivelle Offensive had weakened the German army but that an attempt at a decisive blow would be premature. An offensive at Ypres would continue the wearing-out process, on a front where the Germans could not refuse to fight. Even a partial success would improve the tactical situation in the Ypres salient, reducing wastage, which was exceptional, even in quiet periods. In early May, Haig set the timetable for the Flanders offensive, with the preliminary attack on Messines Ridge to begin on 7 June.

 

Leave a Reply