The British High Command at Passchendaele I

On 12 October 1917 the following event took place about three miles from Passchendaele Ridge in Belgium: A soldier who had been slightly wounded in the fighting earlier that day left the line to find the nearest casualty clearing station. In the gloom, he deviated from the wooden duckboard path which snaked its way through the mire. Later he was discovered stuck fast in a shell hole. He was only a few yards from where he had started some hours before. Men were called up. Ropes and spades were brought forward. Repeated efforts were made to dig or pull him out. At one moment there were sixteen men working on this task. When his battalion was relieved the following night he was still stuck fast. His fate is unknown. But the probability that he drowned in the mud is very high.

What we will investigate is:

  1. why men were sent to fight in such conditions?
  2. did this have to be so?
  3. who was responsible for this state of affairs?

The Passchendaele campaign had been designed with the same aim as all the other allied offensives that had taken place since 1914, namely, to drive the German invaders from the soil of France and Belgium in a single operation. The French tried this twice and the British once in 1915. The British tried mightily in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. The French and British tried again in the spring of 1917. These offensives had one thing in common-they all failed and in some cases failed catastrophically.

Why did all these offensives come to nothing? Were all the generals who conducted them suffused with stupidity, or were there other factors? Stupidity was not absent. However, in this war another factor was crucial-there had been a remarkable shift between the power of defence versus the power of attack. It was now relatively easy to defend a piece of ground already won and very expensive to wrest it from those who defended it.

This needs further expansion. From the end of 1914 through 1915, 1916 and 1917, each side had dug a series of increasingly sophisticated trench systems that offered significant protection to the troops who sheltered there. Only a direct hit from a heavy artillery shell could cause death or injury. Moreover from 1915 both sides hit on the expedient of placing ever larger rolls of barbed wire in front of their trenches-formidable obstacles to any would be attacker.

What this meant for those soldiers who were making an attack was dire. They `went over the top’ leaving the safety of their trench for No Man’s Land armed only with a bolt action rifle-with bayonet attached-and, early in the war if they were unlucky, a primitive hand grenade.

In contrast the defenders would be concealed in their trench, behind their belts of barbed wire. At various intervals along their trench would be machine-guns which fired 600 rounds per minute and which were pre-aimed at gaps deliberately left in the wire. In addition-for some miles behind the front-masses of enemy artillery would have calibrated their guns on No Man’s Land-the very area that the hapless attackers were attempting to traverse. Thus was established what we can call the fire power imbalance. It was to plague attacking armies for most of the war. The attackers could not bring to bear on the defenders sufficient fire power-either to cave in their trenches-or to kill and incapacitate enough trench dwellers to allow an attack to progress.

The only possible way of redressing this fire power imbalance lay in the utilisation of huge amounts artillery by the attackers. And until 1917 there were a number of obstacles to doing this.

First, the artillery bombardment had to be huge to be effective. Yet in the first year of the war, no army-German, French or British-had sufficient guns to destroy trench systems. They were particularly lacking in the heavier calibres. (This had come about because all armies had expected to fight a war of movement on Napoleonic lines: none had foreseen the growth of defensive trenches.)

Second, there was the problem that on most occasions when the artillery fired at a target, they missed. There were a number of factors involved here. One was that that no gun could deliver all the shells it fired to exactly the same spot. Instead the shells fell in quite a large area-the so-called 100% zone of the gun. And the targets that the artillery would be trying to hit-in most cases trenches or guns-were very small. In the case of the hostile guns they were also out of direct sight of the attacking artillery. So the percentage of hits was very low-you might expect to hit a trench three or four times for every 100 shells fired under ideal conditions. The percentage of hits on distant guns would be even lower than that.

In an actual battle, of course, conditions-especially of weather-were often far from ideal and could change quite rapidly. And as the battle progressed, the gun barrels became increasingly worn and their accuracy lessened.

In 1915 and for most of 1916 these factors effecting artillery accuracy were only partially recognised. So a typical battle would commence with an enormous bombardment during which the artillery would aim to destroy all the enemy trenches and take out most of the hostile artillery. The soldiers would then `go over the top’ only to find that neither of these things had happened; that enemy machine-guns and shells were coming at them in such numbers as to stop any attack in its tracks. The most famous, or infamous example of this situation happened on the first day of the battle of the Somme. The enemy artillery and trenches were virtually untouched by the allied preliminary bombardment. As a result the attacking British suffered 20,000 dead and 37,000 wounded in one day. Many of these casualties actually occurred behind the British front line as the un-subdued hostile guns lobbed shells in the area they knew the attacking infantry must pass through to deploy for an attack.

Gradually, however, new artillery techniques were being developed and applied by the British. During 1916 it was discovered that if a curtain of light artillery shells was fired in front of the advancing infantry-and if that curtain was of sufficient depth to fall on the enemy front line as well-then the enemy trench dwellers would generally not risk manning their machine-guns during the barrage. The attacking soldiers advancing just behind the barrage could then jump the enemy in the trench. The curtain of shells was called a `creeping barrage’ and was the surest method of infantry protection discovered in the First World War.

At the same time another technique called sound-ranging was being developed to assist the artillery firing at distant enemy guns. It was found that when an enemy gun fired, microphones placed across the front could detect the noise and trace-with some accuracy-the source of the sound back to its origin.

The artillery regiments also improved their approaches to correcting the guns for different types of weather and varying amounts of wear. So that taken together, there was by 1917 a reasonable chance that their shells would find the target and sufficient enemy guns destroyed or neutralised to allow an attack to get forward.

There remained, however, conditions in which these techniques would not work.

If the ground was boggy it was soon discovered that the troops could not keep up with the creeping barrage. For maximum protection of the infantry this had to be fired at a pre-determined rate-it would advance say at two or three minutes per 100 yards. But in a bog the men would `lose’ the barrage and become vulnerable to machine-gun and rifle fire from the enemy front line.

Weather also interfered with the reliability of the sound detecting microphones. Worse, it meant that aircraft could not check on the accuracy of the firing, either by taking photographs or reporting back to the guns by radio. So in bad weather the artillery’s `eye in the sky’ would be blinded.

There was another limitation. The guns could only fire so far. If the advance attempted was much beyond 3000 yards men would lose the protection of the creeping barrage. And at about the same time they would arrive within the range of enemy artillery and reserve divisions which were usually kept well back. The result in this case could well be a slaughter of Somme proportions.

Yet another limitation was imposed by the enemy. In an endeavour to counter the new tactics, the Germans had begun in 1916 and early 1917, to construct defences of much greater complexity. The British would now be confronted, not by one or two defensive lines, but by entire defensive zones, consisting not just of trench lines but containing concreted machine-gun posts and pillboxes. The latter kept a garrison of about 40 men safe from the light shells of the creeping barrage. At Third Ypres there were hundreds of them. The limitations meant two things:

  1. that attacks should not be mounted in bad weather; and
  2. that attacks should have limited objectives.

There were, however, some disturbing signs that General Headquarters were not taking these limitations seriously. At the Somme in October, after the general implementation of the creeping barrage, Haig attempted to drive his troops forward in such foul weather conditions that men could not keep pace with the barrage. Nor in conditions of low cloud and rain, could the new counter-battery techniques be applied.

Moreover, on the Somme in 1916 and Arras in 1917, Haig consistently set distant objectives for his troops. As a consequence there were many occasions-1 July only being the most notorious-where his artillery was spread too thinly and often failed to destroy even the front line enemy defences. The inevitable result was heavy casualties for little gain.

There were exceptions to these disasters. On the Somme on 14 April and 25 September and at Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917, modest gains were made at modest cost. The reason for these successes was plain. On each occasion the weather was good and an enormous amount of artillery shells had fallen on a limited expanse of enemy defences. Had the High Command cast a critical eye over these successes they might have identified the limited `bite-and-hold’ offensive as the one tactical method offering success.

Admittedly, this was a very cautious way of making war. But it was practical, and in mid-1917 there were factors that warranted extreme caution in the handling of the British Army.

The main factor was the state of Britain’s allies. From January 1917, Russia had rapidly descended into revolution. The final straw was the Kerensky offensive conducted by the Provisional Government following the fall of the Czar. It started on 18 June and ended on 1 July, during which time the Russian forces suffered 400,000 casualties. This gave a great boost to the Bolsheviks. It was only a matter of time before Russia left the war.

With the French the situation was hardly of this order but there was cause for great concern. The Nivelle offensive in April, which the commander had promised would deliver a great victory, resulted in mutiny. French divisions would hold the line and participate in limited offensives but nothing more. The days when the French Army could be regarded as a strike force were over.

What of the other Allies? The Italians had been shattered by the Austro-Hungarians in May in 1916 on the Trentino. Italian losses amounted to 400,000 men, an alarming number of whom were prisoners. Nothing more could be expected from that quarter. What of the Great Democracy which had finally been provoked into the war in 1917? Pershing had landed in France but no great American army accompanied him and none could be expected until the spring of 1918.

What all this meant was that the BEF in 1917 was the last allied army standing. There was every reason to treat it with extreme care. Its demise might mean the demise of the allied cause before American intervention amounted to much. In short, there was every reason to avoid the blood-letting of 1916 and early 1917; every reason to avoid the all-out offensive.

None of this deterred Haig from bringing forth a scheme for the 1917 campaign with similar cosmic ambitions to his earlier efforts. This time he would attack out of the salient around the ruined city of Ypres, advance 50 or so miles to the Belgian coast, cut the German railway system, and again, if the Germans did not immediately surrender, he would have at least forced a major retreat on them and loosened their hold on much of Belgium.

Such a plan was fraught with danger for his troops. For if Haig was to obtain the spectacular results forecast, his advance would need to be swift-or the Germans would bring up reinforcements to block it. And to obtain a swift advance he needed in a series of rapid blows to overcome the entire German defensive zone in front of Ypres. This zone was 10,000 yards deep and to overcome it speedily Haig had to spread the fire of his guns across as much of it as possible. It is true that Haig had at his disposal guns in unprecedented numbers-1400 field and 750 heavy guns. But he was attempting an unprecedented task-the capture a defensive zone 10,000 yards in depth on a front of attack of 13,000 yards. The great danger was that in attempting to destroy all the German defences in this area he had to spread his artillery so thin that he risked destroying none.

Yet the decision to put this plan into operation was not Haig’s to make. Britain was a liberal democracy. Ultimate power lay with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. And David Lloyd George had been fulminating against the ambitious and futile offensives conducted on the Western Front for some time. Indeed regarding Haig’s 1917 plan he commented to the Cabinet Secretary:

The extent of the advance required in order to secure tangible results (Ostend and Zeebrugge) was too great in his opinion to justify the great losses which must be involved, losses which he thinks will jeopardise our chance next year & cause great depression.

What then was Lloyd George proposing as an alternative? As it happened he did not favour the limited offensive. Indeed he would speak with much derisin about Plumer’s `successes’ later in the year. He had become prime minister on the promise of the `knock out blow’ against Germany. He was in that sense at one with Haig. It was just that he wanted that blow delivered away from the Western Front by an army that was not British. Incredibly, in the light of recent events, he elected the Italian Army to deliver it. This was pure fantasy. The Italian command had neither the will nor the means of assuming the main burden of the war.

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