On July 31, 1917, the British Expeditionary Force launched the initial assault that would be the Third Battle of Ypres, although it is better known to us as Passchendaele. Passchendaele was yet another in a long line of failed offensives on both sides, and for a war that in its third year had seen many such futile attempts, it became 1917’s example of the unwillingness and inability of many in leadership to learn from previous mistakes.
The origins of Passchendaele themselves were not without controversy. The year 1917 had seen significant changes to the world landscape; the Russian tsar, Nicholas II, had abdicated in March, and the Eastern Front was all but lost, especially following a failed offensive known as the Kerensky Offensive earlier in July, in which the Russian lines were broken. The Americans had also joined the Allied war effort, but the American Expeditionary Force had not yet been mobilized. And the French’s own failed attempt at an offensive earlier in the year had led to the dismissal of their commander-in-chief, Robert Nivelle.
All of these changes made the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, question the wisdom of another major offensive by the BEF, particularly when the Americans would soon be reinforcing the Western Front with fresh troops of their own. He was not confident of the outcome, and argued that it was “imperative that before we embark upon a gigantic attack which must necessarily entail the loss of scores of thousands of valuable lives … that we should feel a fair confidence that such an attack has a reasonable chance of succeeding.”[i] There could be no guarantee of this sort, however, but the British commander-in-chief, Douglas Haig, convinced the British to validate his plan anyway.
Haig had previously launched an assault on Messines Ridge, shelling it for four days and then collapsing some of the German trenches by placing mines underneath them. This occurred in early to mid-June, however, and the assault on the whole Ypres Salient was neither ready nor approved by the time the battle at Messines Ridge was finished. There was also disagreement over how best to proceed; General Herbert Plumer, commander of the BEF’s 2nd Army, who had led the assault at Messines Ridge, preferred a ‘bite-and-hold’ approach, measuring victory by small gains made rather than a big push. Other generals, including Hubert Gough, who would eventually lead the British assault at Passchendaele, preferred to take advantage of any perceived German weakness to make huge advances into German occupied territory.
There were some clearly defined objectives at the Third Battle of Ypres. Of particular importance was the capture of the Gheluvelt plateau, an area that would be crucial to a further British advance to the north. Haig also wanted to take Passchendaele ridge, clear German threats to the Channel port, and secure the entire Ypres Salient, which had been a constant thorn in the side of the British. There were several obstacles, however. A major one was the state of the battlefield itself. John Keegan notes that “the enemy front line looked down on an almost level plain from which three years of constant shelling had removed every trace of vegetation; it had also destroyed the field drainage system … so that the onset of rain, frequent in that coastal region, rapidly flooded the battlefield’s surface and soon returned it to a swamp.”[ii]
The topography of the region was not the only issue the BEF would face. The Germans had reinforced their hold in the area, with a front line that ran along a range known as Pilckem ridge, supported by other lines and fortifications that ran all the way back to the Passchendaele ridge. They had also built concrete pillboxes and fortified many of the farmhouses. On the whole, the Germans were dug in very heavily, and overcoming those obstacles would be no small feat.
It is easy, in hindsight, to judge Haig harshly for his inability to view all these obstacles as a major impediment to any planned offensive. It is also true that after three years of stalemate, we can sympathize with his desire to put an end to the war. However, it is unfortunate that David Lloyd George was unable to sway the military commanders from their course of action, for had the British known what was coming on the eve of battle, at the end of July 1917, they almost certainly would have called the whole thing off.