The British High Command at Passchendaele II

So, however reluctantly, Lloyd George acquiesced in the Flanders campaign. But he insisted that only Haig’s first step be approved; any subsequent operations must be referred back to the War Cabinet in London.

The Third Battle of Ypres commenced on 31 July 1917. It immediately became clear that yet another attempt to overwhelm an entire German defensive system had failed. In attempting to go so far in the first instance Haig and his Army Commander Gough had overreached themselves. The artillery resources, although unprecedented, had proved inadequate. Most of the defences on the right-on the crucial high ground of the Gheluvelt Plateau-which gave the defenders such excellent views of the battlefield, were missed or inadequately bombarded. On the left some British assault divisions did capture some ground-the advance reached as far as 3000 yards into the German defences. But this advance hardly amounted to a breakthrough of the German defensive zone. And the whole effort cost them 27,000 casualties, about 25% of the force that attacked.

And the first day of the campaign was relatively benign in view of what followed in August. On the night of 31 July light rain began to fall. By the next day it had become a deluge. During August there were 15 days out of the 31 when it rained-a total of 123 mm for the month. The battlefield became a swamp. And the British had actually aided and abetted the forces of nature. If their enormous bombardment of 4.3 million shells had not destroyed the German army, it had certainly destroyed the drainage system in this low-lying area of Flanders. Now the rain had nowhere to go, so the entire battlefield became a huge inland sea.

What this meant for the soldiers is described by Sergeant McKay, a member of a field ambulance:

Bringing down the wounded from the front line today. Conditions terrible. The ground between the [rear] and where the infantry are is simply a quagmire, and shell holes filled with water. Every place is in full view of the enemy who are on the ridge. There is neither the appearance of a road or a path and it requires six men to every stretcher, two of those being constantly employed helping the others out of the holes; the mud in some cases is up to our waists. A couple of journeys . and the strongest men are ready to collapse.

Everything that Haig should have learned since taking over command of the British army in December 1915 should have revealed to him that military operations in these conditions were impossible. The artillery was blinded. The men could not follow the `creeping barrage’. Airplanes could not fly (or see anything when they did). Logic and experience cried out to halt the battle.

The battle was not halted. Haig, as ever, saw German morale on the brink of collapse. Of the morale of his own troops, wading through the mire, he was silent. They would cope. Indeed they did. But in the whole of August they gained just 1200 yards on the left of their front where it did not matter and none whatsoever on the right where it did. The cost: 50,000 casualties.

What of Lloyd George and his promise (or threat) to review the operation after the first step? Nothing came of it. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff (Robertson) tried on many occasions to draw the attention of the war Cabinet to the meagre progress made by Haig. The civilians would not attend. Only the prospect of operations in far-flung theatres-Italy or Palestine-excited them. Haig’s operations would continue without civilian scrutiny, or as it appeared, even interest.

Eventually it was Haig who called a halt. Indeed, he had to act or he would have had no army with which to conduct operations. He sidelined General Gough who had presided over the August debacle. General Plumer was brought in to see if he could gain any ground across the high ground of the Gheluvelt Plateau. Plumer thought he could but demanded three weeks to prepare his attack.

Plumer also insisted on fresh troops to replace the shattered British divisions. He got them in the shape of two new corps-the 5th British Corps and I Anzac Corps. Australian (and later New Zealand) troops had entered the 3rd Ypres campaign. We now arrive at the successful phase of the campaign, the moment when method was brought to bear on the planning process. This phase lasted from 20 September to 4 October. In three battles, Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, Plumer captured the high ground that had defied the efforts of the troops in the August bog. A number of factors contributed to his success:

  1. Weather conditions were good. The artillery could therefore be used to maximum advantage. Air spotters could now signal back the accuracy of fire. The dry weather also meant that the sound detecting microphones could be used.
  2. Plumer ensured that the ferocity of the artillery barrage would be maximised by:

         (a) reducing the front over which he attacked. So while on the first day of battle that front was 13,000     yards, Plumer did not attack over more than 5000 yards. Thus the concentration of his artillery fire was more than doubled.

        (b) Plumer also refused to advance a greater distance than his guns could support. His three steps across the Plateau were each not much more than 1500 yards in depth. This factor quadrupled the artillery concentration, so in combination with point (a) Plumer threw eight-fold the amount of shells into the area he was attacking than had been done on the first day.

  1. Plumer ensured that the gains he made would be protected by placing a standing barrage-often to a depth of 3000 yards-in front of the position reached by his forward troops. Any reserve divisions that the Germans had held back would have to pass through this wall of fire before they reached the new British positions. Enemy formations which attempted this feat found that their units were shattered by the barrage of shells before they came within hailing distance of the new line. On the other side the British, Australian and New Zealand troops, were on many occasions not even aware that a counter-attack was being mounted because no Germans got close enough to fire on them.

But as Broodseinde drew to a close so did the unprecedented spell of dry weather. On 4 October, rain started to fall. It did not cease in the days that followed. This turned the devastated, drainage-deprived battlefield into a lake. An observer commented:

Seldom has the supply of ammunition, food and water to guns in action presented greater difficulties. The journey by pack animals, the only possible form of transport, from the wagon lines to the guns, instead of taking the normal hour, might require anything from six to sixteen hours. If animals slipped off the planks into the quagmires alongside, they often sank out of sight. On arrival shells had to be cleaned of the slime coating before they could be used.

Under these conditions artillery accuracy-or even bringing forward an adequate supply of shells-was out of the question. Without sufficient shells an appropriate creeping barrage was impossible, even supposing the troops could have kept pace with it as they waded through the morass. After three successes this was surely the time for Haig and Plumer to call off the battle.

The battle was not called off. Haig declared that his aim was now not the capture of the Belgian coast but merely the reduced one of capturing the Passchendaele Ridge. But that was still four miles away. In the prevailing conditions an announcement to capture the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon would have been just as sensible.

And what action was taken by Britain’s civilian `high command’ while the third disastrous phase of the campaign was being played out? As it happened, no action at all. In early October Lloyd George actually warned his Cabinet colleagues that the impending operations would fail and that in three weeks’ time he would remind them of that prophecy. In one sense this statement amounted to the most decisive of actions, for it sanctioned the continuation of the battle. This, it must be emphasised, need not have been the case. Haig might have had many faults but he was a good constitutionalist. One word from the politicians to stop the campaign and it would have ceased. The fact that no such instruction eventuated, despite the Cabinet’s view that operations would fail, represents perhaps the ultimate madness of the Flanders campaign.

So, with no civilian restraint and no military logic, the battle resumed on 9 October. The soldiers attempted to struggle forward in the mire in what became known as the Battle of Poelcappelle. They gained not an inch of mud.

Undeterred, Haig determined to try again on the 12th. The II Anzac Corps were gathered for the new attempt.

Back in London the chief of Military Intelligence at the War Office, General McDonagh, tried to advise Haig that his efforts would be futile. Their information was that German morale was holding up. Haig dismissed this assessment. He claimed that the chief of War Office Intelligence was a Roman Catholic. His sources concerning the Germans therefore reached him from `tainted’ (i. e. Catholic) sources. Self-deception could go no further. Neither could the troops but Haig -despite the best efforts of the Vatican disinformation Service to warn him-insisted the attack stood a good chance. So on 12 October 1917 the action known to history as the First Battle of Passchendaele would go ahead.

The battle was doomed from the start. Few guns could be brought forward through the swamp to support the troops. Those guns that could fire sank into the slime after every shot they fired. They would then have to be dug out before they could fire again. When zero hour arrived so feeble was the creeping barrage that the troops could not even detect it. In some cases they mistook enemy artillery fire for their own. The Germans were now also using a new and deadly form of gas-mustard-with which many of the troops were deluged before they went over the top. A feeble barrage was actually fired. But its rate of advance of 100 yards in eight minutes was much too fast.

So without effective artillery protection the troops set off for the Passchendaele Ridge. They did not get far. Massed machine-guns cut them down in swathes. Some of the 9 Division literally became stuck in the mud and became sitting, or rather standing, ducks for the enemy machine-gunners. As for the New Zealanders, they could see the barbed wire-completely missed by the creeping barrage-glistening on the spur in front of them as they left their trenches. Those few troops who had not succumbed to machine-gun fire were forced back by this uncut wire. The Australians got a little further but then were also hit by concentrated machine-gun fire. At the level of the divisional command no one knew that these catastrophes were enveloping their troops. As one observer noted:

Communications [with the front] were worse than I have ever known them; [telephone wires were out and visual [signaling] was difficult. Pigeons could not fly against the wind, and the men with the [messenger] dogs became casualties. The dogs themselves got loose and started a battle of their own.

The sorry fiasco of this battle was surely one of the low points of the Third Ypres campaign. Thirteen thousand casualties (the equivalent of an entire division of infantry) had been suffered for no gains worth the mention.

But this was not the end of the story. The Canadian Corps replaced the Anzacs and struggled towards the Passchendaele Ridge for the next six weeks. Eventually they gained a toe-hold in the village but by that time (17 November) they too had suffered 13,000 casualties and were exhausted. In this phase men literally could not stand as they went into battle. We therefore have the awful spectacle of troops crawling into battle across No Man’s Land so that their weight would be more evenly distributed to prevent them sinking into the mud.

Let one final witness sum up the scene:

The conditions are awful beyond description, nothing we’ve had yet has come up to it, the whole trouble is the weather. Figure to yourself a desolate wilderness of water-filled shell craters, crater after crater, whose lips form narrow peninsulas along which one can at best pick but a slow and precarious way. Here a shattered tree trunk, there a `wrecked’ pill box sole remaining evidence that this was once a human and inhabited land. Dante would never have condemned lost souls to wander so terrible a purgatory. Here a shattered wagon, there a gun mired to the muzzle in mud which grips like glue, even the birds and rats have forsaken so unnatural spot. Mile after mile of the same unending dreariness, landmarks are gone, of whole villages barely a pile of bricks amongst the mud marks the site. You see it best under a leaden sky with a chill drizzle falling, each hour an eternity, each dragging step a nightmare. How weirdly it recalls some half-formed horror of childish nightmare.

In conclusion, what are we to make of the Third battle of Ypres? Let us concede immediately that the middle phase, under Plumer, represented an advance on any British tactics so far employed. The artillery tactics in particular reached new levels of sophistication that would be used to good effect in 1918. However, these methods could have been implemented at the very beginning of the campaign and broken off when conditions made them inappropriate. By acting as they did Haig and Gough (and inexplicably in the last phase, Plumer), risked the last army capable of sustained offensive action. And the conditions under which most of the battle was fought were so ghastly that the commanders had no right to expect that the British Army would emerge intact from it. Had the British Army mutinied in October 1917 it would have been no cause for wonder. That it did not do so owed nothing to its commanders. As it was, by conducting the campaign in the manner in which he did Haig ran the greatest of risks. When the Germans attacked in March 1918, the twelve or so divisions that might have stopped them in the Fifth Army area were not present. They had been consumed in a battle that cost 50,000 men for every mile gained. In the end the British, with help from the French, hung on. But this crisis was eminently preventable. And the men who could have prevented it were the men of the chimerical knock-out blow-Sir Douglas Haig and David Lloyd George.