Sunday, 1 October 2017

Third Battle of Ypres - Part 2: August and September

A familiar image of the horrors of Passchendaele
The biblical rains of early August transformed an already churned and bleak landscape to a morass of glutinous mud. For men holding the front lines, existence was sheer misery - in many places with hundreds of corpses strewn about their immediate vicinity. For those charged with supplying and reinforcing the front line the prospect was just as unattractive. The German artillery still overlooked most positions including the main route from Ypres - the Menin Rd. The routes themselves were dangerously flooded. Duckboards picked out hazardous pathways for men, horses and equipment but heavy losses of all three groups occurred in the mud and howling rains.
Rawlinson's army had now taken up position, replacing the Belgian contingent at Nieuport on the coast. They were ready to join the planned amphibious assault on the U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge when the signal was given. However, they needed Haig's forces to make the breakthrough behind the German lines and beyond Passchendaele before they could do so. Despite the encouraging progress of 31st July this had from the start been unlikely and, in the presence of the current weather conditions, was rapidly becoming impossible.
With the enforced hiatus, the third battle of Ypres became, in fact, a series of smaller actions focusing on the succession of small ridges leading to the highest point of Passchendaele. Whole divisions were sacrificed through death, injury and exhaustion for the attainment of small tactical objectives. Byng's army at Loos in Northern France started a partially effective diversionary campaign to draw off German reserves, but both sides nevertheless suffered massive casualties over possession of the small, infamously named village of Passchendaele.

Other than consolidating, as best he could, the gains of 31st July, Gough could do little to meet his commander’s wishes for a breakthrough. He somehow managed to retake the village of St. Julien on 3rd August, and to improve the position across the Steenbeek stream/torrent in that area, but it was not until mid-August that a few days good weather dried out conditions sufficiently for them to have another serious crack against the line. Gough’s four army corps were pushed forward again on 15th August against the next tier of ridges en route to Passchendaele, from the Menin Road spur near Gheluvelt north to Langemarck.
Some success was achieved at the northern end, where advances to Langemarck and the hamlet of Wijfvegen were made. Between St. Julien and Frezenberg the German defence, heavily fortified with pillboxes, exacted very heavy casualties on the British attackers. At the southern end, by the Menin Rd, the winding ridges converged on the spur know as Hill 64, close to a hectic and battered crossroads known by the troops as Clapham Junction. Here, progress was difficult, through Inverness Copse and Glencourse Wood towards the large Polygon Wood (all of which were devoid of trees by this time). German defences were strong; heavy artillery overlooked the British communication lines, and losses were high. In the later part of the month heavy rains returned, and by the end of August Gough’s army was exhausted and dispirited, and not yet halfway towards its target.
Most tanks at Ypres 3 ended in a
watery grave
Tanks that had been sent to support the advance were completely inappropriate for the terrain or the conditions, and most were stuck in mud and out of action. Gough reported the difficulties and loss of morale to Haig. Rather than accept the futility of continuing, Haig turned to Plumer’s 2nd Army to take the heat off Gough’s men.
Plumer employed his customary thoroughness to the planning of what became known as the Battle of Menin Road. Resources, especially artillery, were  built up behind huge screens, and new tactics were developed to deal with the pillboxes problem behind German front lines. Plumer’s aim was to advance a further mile down the Menin Rd past Gheluvelt, to pressure the German positions around Zonnebeeke; and to support and relieve those pushing eastwards from St. Julien and Langemarck/Poelkapelle. September 19th was set as the day for the next effort, and at dawn the broader advance began. The addition of Plumer’s forces and organisation made a difference and by mid morning all first objectives had been achieved. The formidable Bremen redoubt had been taken, and the outskirts of the town of Zonnebeeke had been reached. Fierce attack and counter attack continued for a week before a new British surge was launched along the same 6 miles stretch. The rest of Zonnebeeke and Polygon Wood were taken – the latter by an Australian division under Plumer’s command. The weather held until early October, and the gains made were consolidated. Exhaustion and the desperate use of reserves were now affecting both sides, and by the time the next phase opened on 3rd October, so were the returns of gales and lashing rain.
The slow grind to Passchendaele
(Source: Major and Mrs Holt's Battle
Map Ypres Salient and Passchendaele)
The British were aiming for control of the ridge running north from Broodseinde to Graventafel (where Tyne Cot cemetery stands today). On their side, the Germans were aiming to counter attack towards Zonnebeeke.  They had just assembled three fresh divisions in the trenches to go over the top when the British artillery bombardment opened up, causing terrible destruction. They were in complete disarray as the British and ANZAC troops attacked. After another day of severe fighting the British held Poelkapelle; the New Zealanders were in Gravenstafel, and the Australians had taken Broodseinde. Passchendaele was finally in sight.

But the costs were ghastly, and the weather was worsening. On the morning of 7th October, after a night spent in deep discussion, General Gough and Plumer travelled to Haig’s headquarters and jointly requested that the campaign be halted.  Remarkably (or perhaps not so) Haig refused. He ordered that, in the light of the successes three days earlier, the campaign would continue. His only justification for continuing was tactical. He knew that the strategic breakthrough to the coast to join an amphibious operation against Ostende and Zeebrugge was now impossible. He knew also that Lloyd George had lost interest in the Flanders campaign and was ordering Rawlinson to move men and resources from Nieuport to Italy. Yet again, Haig trotted out that dreadful WW1 phrase “One more push”.

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