While weather and its effects on both battlefields and trenches was a recurring theme during World War I, in no battle was this problem more pronounced than what occurred during the battle of Passchendaele in the late summer and early fall of 1917. Rain and mud were the defining features of this battle, and it affected everything, including the outcome. Early gains were made during the initial push by the British Expeditionary Force on July 31, but the battle soon ground to a halt as by early afternoon, the rain had begun to fall on the Ypres Salient. It would rain steadily for all but three days of August.
The rain, falling on a field decimated by months of previous warfare that had cleared both vegetation and drainage from the region, slowed the British advance to a crawl. “Rain was falling in torrents when Haig resumed his attack on August 2. With the Flanders drainage system in ruins, every hole filled with water and the ground became a soupy morass to a depth that no man’s foot could reach.” i
German soldier Ernst Junger, in his memoir Storm of Steel, writes of awakening after that first day of battle: “Towards dawn, I woke up shivering, and discovered my situation was sorry indeed. It was bucketing down, and the little rivulets on the road were all emptying themselves into my foxhole …. Once again, I learned that no artillery bombardment is as capable of breaking resistance in the same measure as the elemental forces of wet and cold.” ii
Hubert Gough, the British commander charged with leading the attack, called a halt until August 4th so that the British position could be consolidated and hopefully the rain would cease. This cancellation allowed the Germans to shore up their defenses along the Gheluvelt Plateau, which they now realized was the British’s prime target, so that when the British re-engaged, the Germans were more than prepared to turn them back. Additional attacks on August 10th, August 16th, and August 22nd were no more successful. Junger credited the weather, writing that “”In the wider scheme of the battle, however, that downpour was a real godsend for us, because it doomed the English push to bog down in its first, crucial days.” iii
The mud continued to create an insurmountable obstacle for the British. One British battery commander wrote that it was “simply awful, worse I think than winter. The ground is churned up to a depth of ten feet and is the consistency of porridge … the middle of the shell craters are so soft that one might sink out of sight … there must be hundreds of German dead buried here and now their own shells are re-ploughing the area and turning them up.” iv Gough himself saw that the dreadful conditions were severely impeding the British, and recommended to Haig that the entire offensive be called off.
“The state of the ground was by this time frightful. The labour of bringing up supplies and ammunition, of moving or firing the guns, which often sank up to their axles, was a fearful strain on the officers and men, even during the daily task of maintaining the battle front. When it came to the advance of infantry for attack, across the water-logged shell holes, movement was so slow and so fatiguing that only the shortest advances could be contemplated.” v
After working so hard to convince Lloyd George and the other British leaders of the necessity of the attack, however, Haig was fully committed and refused to call it off. Instead, he opted for a change in leadership, turning the attack over to Herbert Plumer, commander of the BEF’s Second Army. Whereas Gough had been a proponent of large thrust attacks, Plumer believed in an approach called “bite and hold” in which the BEF would only advance about 1500 yards or so, then fortify themselves before advancing again a few days later. Plumer’s tactics were initially successful in that they allowed the British to take the Gheluvelt Plateau, but as a long term strategy it was unable to cope with the pounding the BEF received from the German artillery.
This inability to make long term gains or meet the strategic goals of the offensive was compounded by the continued horror of the conditions at Passchendaele. Lieutenant Richard Dixon spoke of the mess the battle of Passchendaele became:
“All around us lay the dead, both friend and foe, half in, half out of the water logged shell holes. Their hands and boots stuck out at us from the mud. Their rotting faces stared blindly at us from coverlets of mud; their decaying buttocks heaved themselves obscenely from the filth with which the shell bursts had smothered them. Skulls grinned at us; all around us stank unbelievably. These corpses were never buried, for it was impossible for us to retrieve them. They had lain, many of them, for weeks and months; they would lie and rot and disintegrate foully into the muck until they were an inescapable part of it to manure the harvests of a future peace-time Belgium. Horror was everywhere.”vi
Another soldier, private Norman Cliff, wrote, “This was as near to Hell as I ever want to be.” vii
With winter approaching and most of their objectives unmet, Haig determined that at the least, they would need to take Passchendaele Ridge so that his troops could winter in a better defensive position. However, this proved easier said than done, as the BEF sent wave after wave of attacks which all failed. When the British regiments were completely exhausted, Haig brought in ANZAC and Canadian troops, who suffered the same high casualties as their British counterparts.
Finally, on November 10, Passchendaele Ridge was captured. Almost all of the other objectives set out by the BEF prior to the battle had not been met. The railhead at Roulers remained under German control, and they still controlled the channel ports. Despite Haig’s previous convictions, the Germans had not been near the breaking point, and Passchendaele accomplished very little at an enormous cost to the British. The main achievement is that it had taken German pressure off their French allies at a critical time, for France’s armies had been on the verge of collapse. Passchendaele allowed them time to recoup.
Whether this was, in the end, worth it is a matter of debate. Historian John Keegan said of Haig’s failed offensive: “What is unarguable is that nearly 70,000 of his soldiers had been killed in the muddy wastes of the Ypres battlefield and over 170,000 wounded. The Germans may have suffered worse—statistical disputes make the argument profitless—but, while the British had given of their all, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had another army in Russia with which to begin the war in the west all over again. Britain had no other army.” viii As 1917 came to a close, Passchendaele was just another in a long line of stalemates, in which little was accomplished but much was paid.
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i Meyer, G.J. A World Undone. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006). Pg. 576
ii Junger, Ernst. Storm of Steel. Tr. Michael Hoffman. (New York: Penguin Books, 2003). Pg. 172
iii Junger, pg. 172
iv Keegan, John. The First World War. (New York: Vintage Books, 1998). Pg. 361
v Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
vi Ibid, pg. 364
vii Ibid, Pg. 366
viii Keegan, pg. 368