"I confess I stick to it more because I see nothing better, and because my instinct prompts me to stickto it, than to any convincing arguments by which I can support it."
(From a letter of Sir William Robertson - Chief of the Imperial General Staff - to Douglas Haig)
At 3:50 am on the morning of 31 July 1917, nine British divisions leapt out of the trenches and ran up the slopes of Pilckem Ridge: the Battle of Passchendaele had begun. The clash - more than a real battle - can be considered a military campaign that broke down into a series of seemingly independent operations. Although the battle bears the name of the village of Passchendaele, it occupied only a ridge to the east of Ypres. The ultimate goal of the operation was to control the ridges east and south of Ypres, which the British plans assumed would lead to the conquest of Flanders.
From the outset of Passchendaele there were a series of political, social and military variables that would go on to affect the final outcome of the battle. The first of these variables can be found in the tactical-strategic vision of Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces. He, on the one hand, was persuaded that the clash that would decide the fate of the Great War would take place on the Western Front - in Flanders - on the other hand, he felt that this would only be achieved through the use of new innovative means and strategies, maintaining great pressure on the enemy and in close collaboration with the French forces.
The success of Haig's strategic plans was undermined from the outset by the profound crisis that swept through the French army after Nivelle's bloody and failed offensive. On 27 May 1917, what had begun as a wave of desertions turned into an actual general mutiny. The French authorities intervened by pouring in loyal troops and stymieing the revolt at its inception. General Petain was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, working to locate and punish the culprits among the mutineers while promising and implementing improvements in the quality of life of the soldiers. Petain was also aware of how the mutinies had affected 43% of the 113 infantry divisions of the French Army. The fact that the morale crisis had mainly affected the infantry (the most sacrificed branch of service that had suffered enormous losses since the beginning of the war) and that the soldiers refused to return to attack, though they would defend the trenches and French soil, convinced Petain to no longer employ French units in large operations for a medium-to-long period, and rather to keep on the defensive. The task of wearing down the Germans on the battlefield was thus passed on to the British, a task that Haig was determined to take on even to extreme consequences.
Despite the lack of French support, Haig, in collaboration with Reginald Bacon, Admiral of the Royal Navy, developed a plan for the landing at Ostend of 9,000 Royal Marines - supported by three infantry divisions - that would then destroy the German right flank in Flanders. The occupation of Flanders, in addition to being considered the springboard for the breakthrough of the German lines, was of vital importance for the control of the Belgian ports from which (according to the English) the German U-Boots departed for their deadly raids against Allied merchant shipping.
Following the involvement of Colonel Aymler Hunter-Weston - a veteran of Gallipoli - the landing plans became more ambitious, and huge floating pontoons were constructed to carrying three divisions, tanks and artillery. Landing zone: Middelkerke, near Niuwpoort. However, to ensure the success of operations, it was necessary to occupy the ridges south and east of Ypres and the German-controlled rail lines.
The first of these preparatory operations was the Battle of Messines, whose ridge was considered vital for linking the Middelkerke landing zones with the main thrust of the Ypres attack. Command of the operations was entrusted to General Erbert Plumer. Extremely popular and a rigorous planner, Plumer was an officer anxious to save the lives of his men, preferring a more cautious approach to weaken the opponent by encirclement and placing him under a sort of siege. The Battle of Messines took place in June 1917, but its planning had begun in 1916, with the arrival of Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies, which dug a dense network of tunnels and chambers under the ridge of Messines, depositing 500 tons of Ammonal - a highly explosive material - divided into 24 charges. The explosions took place at 3:10 am on the morning of 7 June, after a two-week bombardment by British artillery, creating 19 huge craters. The Spanbroekmolen mine, loaded with over 41 tons of explosives, created a crater 120 metres in diameter. The explosion was heard in the suburbs of London.
About 10,000 Germans died at Messines, along with a further 15,000 wounded, missing and prisoners. There was also considerable booty of weapons and materials including 65 guns, 94 trench mortars, and about 300 machine-guns. To create an even more devastating effect, a barrage from more than 2,000 English guns further devastated German positions. By 10 June, the Germans retreated from their now indefensible positions, and pulled back 4 kilometres to the east. Messines may be considered as the most successful British Army action on the Western Front. Carefully planned and executed with care, the operation was celebrated as an overwhelming British victory, convincing many senior officers of the possibility of achieving further large-scale success against German forces, forgetting, however, that the Battle of Messines involved limited tactical objectives and was not aimed at the strategic breakthrough of the front. This optimism proved to be fatal two months later in the wider and more ambitious Battle of Passchendaele.
Following the victorious fighting at Messines, Douglas Haig appointed as 5th Army commander (which was to bear the burden of the imminent offensive) General Hubert Gough, replacing Plumer, who had acquitted himself so well in handling the clash. Thus began the second preparatory phase, which would later create the muddy hell that characterized the Battle of Passchendaele. On 22 July, 2,300 medium and large calibre guns began a barrage of the German positions that would last until 31 July. However, this massive bombardment did nothing but upset the ground, destroying the ancient water drainage system that had reinforced the fields in this part of Flanders for centuries and prevented them from turning into marshland. This, coupled with heavy rains, quickly transformed the battlefield into a huge, miry swamp, slowing down the progress of the troops. Immediately after the bombing ended, at 3:50 am, the British infantry leapt out of the trenches and began to advance along a 25-kilometre front, achieving some initial success and reaching the Steenbeck River line. Nevertheless, all the attacks on the Menin road, the main objective of the battle, were repulsed by the Germans who inflicted severe losses on the British.
In the two months since the attack at Messines, the Germans had had time to strengthen their defences in view of the likely offensive. These defences did not consist of linear trenches, but rather isolated bunkers and pillboxes, built of reinforced concrete and equipped with machine guns. Against that system - which was well suited to the marshy ground and allowed the Germans to defend large portions of land with relatively few men - the British troops were bled dry. From the English side, the massive use of artillery and tanks turned out to be useless: the tanks sank in the mud while the effect of the shells was lessened and muffled by the mud. In any event, it was the obstinate German resistance that checked the British advances: in the Battle of Hill 70 alone - undertaken to liberate Lens - Canadian troops lost nearly 10,000 men dead, wounded, and missing. In the Battle of Langemarck, from 16-18 August, the 8 British divisions employed exceeded 36,000 losses. Both battles failed to achieve their goals. The British troops achieved victory in the Battle of Pilckem, though at a cost of nearly 32,000 dead and injured.
In spite of deploying massive amounts of resources and consuming a great quantity of ammunition, for more than a month Gough's sector attacks along a very large front had resulted in failure, achieving only limited successes at the cost of enormous losses. The horrible weather conditions, impractical terrain, and exhaustion of the soldiers drove Haig to change his strategy: on 20 September, the task of conquering the important Menin road was entrusted to Plumer, the victor of Messines, who indeed took over command of operations.
The burden of the offensive was transferred from Gough's beleaguered 5th Army to Plumer's 2nd Army. The tactics utilized, however, were different: smaller attacks were made against well-defined objectives - defined as "bite and hold" - always staying within the range of British artillery. This use of artillery - called a "Creeping Barrage" - consisted of advancing the infantry under the cover of artillery fire. Upon achieving their objective, the troops waited for the artillery to move forward to support further advances and cut off the deadly German counterattacks. With the aid of an intense bombardment on 26 September, British and Australian troops finally managed to take the Menin road with relatively light losses. On 3 October, they also occupied the Polygon Wood, against which many earlier attacks had failed.
In general, these little "bites" created by Plumer made considerable advances and some 10,000 prisoners were taken. German reports recorded episodes of psychological collapse in many of their units due to the intensity of fighting and heavy losses. Ludendorff feared the collapse of the front in Flanders. In those days he wrote: "Day of fierce fighting in which everything seemed to conspire against us. Perhaps we will be able to make up for the loss of ground, but our ability to fight has suffered another hard blow."
In any event, not even a brilliant general like Plumer could change an already compromised situation. The British Supreme Command, still convinced that it could make the landings and emboldened by the successes achieved in the second phase, decided to continue the offensive. On 28 September, Haig wrote in his diary: "The enemy vacillates". From 9-26 October, three waves of British attacks were launched that went on to fail. The front fell back into stalemate. The Germans, though suffering an enormous amount of losses - for the first time greater than those of the British - abandoned their rigid defence strategy and returned to a more elastic one. Mustard gas was again used to repulse the stubborn attacks of the British troops.
The conclusion of the battle began against a bombed-out moonscape. The impassable ground - upon which death came not only from weapons but also from the muddy craters which literally sucked soldiers into them - and the progressive depletion of the troops, brought an end to the battle. The horror of the situation was expressed by an anonymous British headquarters official visiting the infernal scene of the battlefield at Passchendaele: "Good God, did we really send men to fight here?" This utterance reflects not only the psychological but also the physical distance between high-ranking officers - proponents of the offensive - and their subordinates.
On 4 November, Canadian infantry units finally took Passchendaele, ending the battle. During the last five days of fighting the British lost 130 officers, and more than 2,000 soldiers, while the injured numbered 8,000. German losses were even greater. To date, numerical estimates regarding the "human cost" of Passchendaele are debated. The most reasonable estimates put the numbers of dead, wounded, missing, and captured at 260,000 on each side, for a total of between 500,000 and 600,000 total losses. However, higher estimates that take into account the constant rotation of units at the front, hospital deaths and mild injuries, bring the numbers to more than 400,000 losses per side.
In the end, there was a rather rare instance, in which both sides on the field immediately considered Passchendaele as a failure and a black page in their respective military histories. The battle was undeniably a tactical English success, however, strategically, it was nothing short of a debacle, especially given the great hopes of the British placed on the offensive. In fact, these were only partially satisfied and were not followed by any great breakthroughs, and resulted in a return to the war of attrition that so characterized the Western Front. Even the secondary intent of siphoning off German reserves to give the French breathing space turned out to be just as much of a failed attempt because, in the final tally Passchendaele ended up wearing out and killing off the British troops along a section of the front that the German command did not even consider important. Finally, the British did not grasp the enormous losses and the extent to which the Kaiser's army fell into disarray after the battle. The German High Command - despite the fact that its troops had stemmed the attack - stated that "Germany was close to utter destruction after the battle in Flanders in 1917" and was no longer capable of bearing up against an assault of that size in the West. In any case, the inactivity of the French troops, the route of the Italians at Caporetto, and the collapse of the Russian army would give the Germans the opportunity to reorganize and prepare the Kaiserschlacht for the spring of 1918, which according to the plans would lead the German army to victory before the arrival of American troops.