Monday, 31 July 2017

Third Battle of Ypres - Part 1: 31st July 1917

The attack had to grind seven miles east-
wards from the salient to Passchendaele
The two most infamous British battles of WW1 were undoubtedly the Somme and the third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele. They were fought out one year apart. Both lasted from July until November; both are filled with harrowing memories and misery and are viewed as tragic attritional campaigns. In one respect they were completely different. The first day of the Somme was a disaster - the worst single day in the history of the British army. The first day of Ypres 3 was, by the standards of the Western Front, a tactical triumph.
From the high (literal and metaphorical) of the Messines assault in June (see Post 6/6/2017) seven long weeks were to pass before the launch of the next stage of Haig’s grand plan. Surely, with the disarray amongst the German command resulting from that cataclysm they would be vulnerable to a breakthrough on their positions to the north of the Menin Road before they had time to reorganise? In retrospect the delay seems unaccountable, and unforgiveable.
However there were three main reasons. Firstly, there was the logistical issue of providing sufficient supplies, men and reserves for another major campaign. One of Haig’s main justifications for his plan was the parlous state of the French army after Nivelle’s offensive. He had to negotiate with Petain for French occupation of the Arras area, in order to bring more of his own troops north from France. Along with the very practical issues of moving and supplying these troops in war torn country, the discussions with the French took time and they, ironically, did not want to be left out of the battle completely.   Secondly, the German defences were not in complete disarray – in fact they had long prepared the muddy terrain involved with redoubts and pill boxes, many of them hidden. Haig wanted some time for air reconnaissance and raids to inform his preparations. Thirdly, and most tellingly were the strategic and political aspects. Lloyd George and most of his government were highly sceptical of Haig’s proposals. They wanted to avoid another Somme; felt that even with the capture of Passchendaele Haig had little chance of moving beyond, through Klerken to the coast; and were getting advice that even the capture of Zeebrugge and Ostend would not necessarily blunt the effectiveness of Germany’s U-boat campaign (Haig’s other main argument). With the CIGS (Sir William Robertson) as his only strong ally in Government, Haig had to wait until mid July before gaining grudging permission to go ahead from Lloyd George, who was far more interested in a switch of emphasis to the Italian Front.
With the Germans re-doubling their defensive preparations – and adding new troops from the Russian front all the time - Ypres 3 became another race against time that was lost conclusively by the British.

The front for this battle was an 8 miles portion of the salient stretching from the northern limit of the Messines offensive near Bellewaerde. At it’s northern end was Boesinghe, and Anthoine’s French 1st Army would take up this flank. The land in between was a gradual climb of battle scarred earth, rising through a series of small ridges to the highest ridge of Passchendaele and its village, seven miles to the east. To make the best of summer conditions (sic) Haig needed to reach Passchendaele within two weeks, before moving onwards north east to the coast. Most of this ground was already a mass of mud, and so the Germans built their redoubts and pill boxes rather than attempt to entrench themselves. Their new flexible style of defence was to concede first lines early and then counter attack from these redoubts. Each pill box contained 20-40 men and bristled with machine guns. Buchan describes the defences as “highly elastic rather than the cast iron of the Siegfried line”.
Only the British 3rd Army remained in France (now under Byng, since Allenby had been sent to Cairo – see previous post). The redistribution of forces left Gough’s 5th Army with the main responsibility for the battle. With Anthoine on his left flank and elements on Plumer’s victorious 2nd army on his right. Rawlinson’s 4th Army wheeled round to the north of Anthoine, replacing the small Belgian army there, and planning for the breakthrough to the coast. Plumer’s orders were to push south eastwards towards Lille from Hollebeke to draw off German artillery from the main thrust.

Hubert de la Poer Gough.
Frustrated by commanding the reserve
at the Somme, he was centre stage this
Still fuming at the tardy support for his mission, Haig sent increasingly urgent orders to Gough in the second half of July to prepare for the launch. Continuous bombardments covered raiding parties and attempts at aerial surveillance, although the cloudy weather made the latter difficult. After more problems and delays, zero hour was settled as 3.50am on 31st July. Gough had four army corps at his disposal (see map) and his spearhead was expected to occupy Passchendaele within two weeks. Like the Somme the objectives were wildly optimistic, although the day one targets proved achievable. From the jump off at 3.50, all of the German first positions along the designated front were taken within a few hours. At the northern end, Anthoine’s troops advanced to take Steenstraat. Southwards: the shattered village of Pilkem (but more importantly Pilkem ridge); the village of St. Julien (epicentre of the 1915 poison gas battle); Verloerenhoek; and the village and ridge of Fresenburg were all conceded to the 5th Army vanguards. The formidable Pommern redoubt north of Frezenberg was taken by Lancashire Territorials, and by noon many of the units were beyond their day one objectives. Progress was most difficult at the southern end of Gough’s line. Sanctuary Wood (what remained of it) was taken, and after a bitter struggle so was the fortification known as Stirling Castle. But beyond that the German defence was very strong, and through the afternoon from here up to St. Julien they launched their planned counter-attacks. Some of the British gains had to be conceded but by nightfall they remained in good positions. From the Pilkem ridge round to Frezenberg (although just short of St. Julien at its centre) Gough’s divisions had reach the crest of the first ridgeline. To the north of St Julien, the troops had moved beyond Pilkem towards Langemarck, and on the right flank to the south, Plumer’s forces had taken Hollebeke with relative ease. In the course of the day over 6000 German prisoners had been taken, but in a taste of things to come, British casualties had been heavy, particularly from the afternoon counter-attacks that enfiladed fire on to newly taken positions. Where the British had had to pull back the ground was littered with corpses.

Most significantly the rain – the legendary rain of the third battle of Ypres – had started during the afternoon. A great low pressure system originating in the mid-Atlantic had swept up the Channel and arrived in Belgium, where it proceeded to dump its contents. In her superb book ‘They called it Passchendaele’, Lyn Macdonald gives this graphic description of the the rain that created a quagmire in which men, horses, supplies and ammunition sunk without trace; and that turned the tiny Sonnebeek stream (a first day objective) into an impassable torrent: “It went on raining as if some malevolent deity had opened a tap in the heavens. It rained in sheets, in torrents, in cataracts. It rained as no man since Noah had remembered it raining before. It rained without stopping for four days and four nights.” It would be a further two weeks before the 5th Army could resume its mission before Passchendaele. Whatever may be said about Haig, it cannot be said he was lucky with the weather.

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