Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Third Battle of Ypres Part 3: Passchendaele - the Pyrrhic victory

The liberated rubble of the church at
Passchendaele November 1917
Repeatedly in this blog I have been critical of British C-in-C Sir Douglas Haig or, at best, been unsympathetic to the enormous responsibility he held with little or no opportunity to pass the buck. But he had a hellish job that few people would have wanted to take on. As his senior Generals Plumer and Gough pleaded with him to stop, or at least suspend, the bloodbath in the Ypres mire, he must surely have thought it the path of least resistance. He knew his favoured strategic breakthrough to the Belgian coast was lost, but he had to weigh this against keeping the Germans as fully occupied in Flanders as possible, while Petain’s main French forces recovered in Artois for another sally on the Aisne heights; and his own 3rd Army, under Byng, prepared for a tank led breakthrough attempt at Cambrai. The scale of casualties in his forces to date had been worse than at the Somme, and the state and morale of Gough’s 5th army were both of serious concern. He knew men had been withdrawn from the Belgian coast in favour of Italy (by an unsupportive Prime Minister), and that further men would need to be moved from Flanders to support the Cambrai action. Somehow he had to persuade Gough and Plumer to convince their own men to continue towards what could now be no more than a tactical victory to control the heights of the Ypres salient. Seemingly, he did not waver.

Buchan describes the last stages of Ypres 3 as the “muddiest combats known in the history of war” – as if it hadn’t been bad enough already. Haig’s concession to the combined appeal of Gough, Plumer and all their senior officers was to order Currie’s Canadian Corps, further south, to come under Plumer’s command and become the spearhead for the ‘final push’ to Passchendaele. Their commander Lt. General Currie was a tough competitor – the Dominion of Canada’s first great military hero. His men were still relatively fresh, having recently captured Hill 70 near Lens as part of Byng’s diversionary action (see post 31/7/2017). Currie was not in a position to defy Haig’s order to move his men to Flanders, but he did refuse to let them loose on the morass of the Passchendaele ridge until his full preparations had been made – causing further unwanted delay for Haig.
Overall, in the final month of Ypres 3 the scale of fighting was much less than in the earlier phases. The main thrust to the village from the west would be entrusted to the Canadians. To the south the ANZACs (2nd Army) pushed on through Zonnebeeke to the vanished hamlet of Nieuwvemolen. To the north the British Guards, the Royal Naval Division (both 5th Army|) and the French 1st army progressed eastwards – the British taking Poelkapelle and beyond; and the French doing even better, penetrating the large Houthulst forest north east of Langemarck. These advances on the flanks were important in preventing artillery and enfilade attacks against the eventual Canadian advance.
Arthur Currie: a stalwart leader of his
countrymen at Ypres 2 and 3
Currie’s plan was that, if the weather was tolerable and every available man would support his preparations, he would be ready to move in late October. Plumer gave his backing to this, shielding Currie from Haig’s impatience. In the interim some futile attempts on the broader front were continued by Gough’s 5th army, from Polygon Wood to Langemarck. Incremental gains were made on October 8th and 9th, but further torrential rain on 11th precluded any further progress. Even a day or two with no rain made no difference in some flooded areas. One observer wrote “You might as well try to empty a bath by holding lighted matches over it”*.
On 25th October, helped slightly by a strong following wind that at least dried out the surface mud on the slopes, the Canadian infantry began to move up the line. Early on 26th they attacked toward the hillock south of Passchendaele, aided by the flanking activities described above. Their objective was carried by the early afternoon. On their right flank the British entered Gheluvelt for the first time since the initial battle for Ypres in late 1914. Further progress to Passchendaele was held up for two days in fierce fighting for a shattered piece of woodland, aptly named Decline Copse. The Canadians and Australians both ended up attacking this stronghold, and eventually took it, but with heavy casualties.
The final assault on Passchendaele itself began on 30th October. The Canadians took Crest Farm on the southern edge of the village (site of the memorial today), but the Naval Division on their left could not advance across the treacherous hinterland to join and strengthen them. Again, Currie insisted on a further pause for reinforcements for his men before the final 200metres advance to the centre of the village. This duly happened on 6th November, when the bolstered Canadian 1st and 2nd Divisions swept past the ruins of the church and beyond the village to the Goudberg spur. A final attack on 10th November secured this spur and marked the official end to the terrible Third Battle of Ypres.
Haig had reached his target, 99 days after the 31st July jump-off from his starting line 5miles to the west. It was five months since the drama at Messines Ridge, and more than half a million men from both sides had died, been injured or disappeared in the mud. Haig had his momentary tactical victory and another strategic failure.
Passchendaele Church, rebuilt on the rubble.
A moving tribute to events of 1917
By any standards – and Buchan does his best to offer a patriotic rose coloured hue to the outcomes – the capture of Passchendaele was a Pyrrhic victory, like the Somme. Accurate casualty figure are still elusive, 100 years on, but it seems likely they were in excess of 350,000 for both sides. Undoubtedly, the Germans suffered terribly (as they did eventually at the Somme), but Gough’s brave 5th Army was all but broken by the ghastly attritional mud-churn of the battle.

Before the end, whole divisions were being moved to France, for Cambrai, and to Italy to support the strategic opportunity there. At least (it might be said) the British now controlled all the high ground around the Ypres salient for the first time since 1914. But the final insanity of Ypres 3 came within a few months, as all the ground won in those five months of battles was ceded without contest in the great German Spring offensive of 1918. The Ypres salient would be reduced to the remains of the town and its outskirts. This was just the line proposed in 1915 by the unsung General Horace Smith-Dorrien after the gas attacks of Ypres 2.  HS-D was sacked for his temerity. Perhaps he should have been promoted over Haig?

* Buchan J. A History of the Great War Volume 3 p599

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