In order to get a sense of what it was like to experience those early days of Passchendaele, one has only to listen to the voices of those who were there. In looking at the accounts written by those who were involved with the battle, you can come to an understanding, not of dispassionate battlefield stratagems and tactical maneuvers, but what it was like to be there, to experience the noise, confusion, chaos and horror of the Third Battle of Ypres.
As with most WW1 battles, the battle of Passchendaele was preceded by an artillery assault of immense proportions. The British had an overwhelming number of guns, ten times per yard what they had had at the Somme the previous year. German soldier Ernst Junger describes what it was like being on the receiving end of such a massive artillery bombardment: “… the shelling commenced, washing over our little refuge like a typhoon. The forest of explosions gradually thickened into a solid whirling wall. We squatted together, every second expecting the annihilating hit that would blow us and our concrete blocks away …”[i]
At 3:50 a.m. on 31 July, 1917, the second and fifth armies of the British Expeditionary Force, supported by two French divisions on the northern end designed to protect the flank, advanced on the German lines. The British plan called for seventeen divisions to advance and seventeen to wait in the rear. Awaiting them on the other side were thousands of Germans, heavily entrenched and holding the high ground, fortified with bunkers and machine guns.
British writer Edmund Blunden recounts his experience of that initial assault. ” … the British guns spoke; a flooded Amazon of steel flowed roaring, immensely fast, over our heads, and the machine gun bullets made a pattern of sharper purpose and maniac language against that diluvian rush. Flaring lights, small ones, great ones, flew up and went spinning sideways in the cloud of night; one’s eyes seemed not quick enough;”[ii]
The weather had been overcast, and visibility was at a minimum. British journalist Philip Gibbs records what it was like watching the first waves early in the battle: “But now there was no light, but hundreds of sharp red flashes out of deep gulfs of black smoke and black mist. The red flashes were from our forward batteries and heavy guns, and over all this battlefield, where hundreds of thousands of men were at death-grips, the heavy, smoke-laden vapours of battle and of morning fog swirled and writhed between clumps of trees and across the familiar places of death round Ypres, hiding everything and great masses of men. “[iii]
It is no wonder then, that for men on the ground, frontal assaults such as the one that occurred at Passchendaele could be confusing, frightening, panic stricken moments of horror at which death was expected at any instant. Sergeant Major John Handley, whose regiment was facing the main Passchendaele-Gheluvelt Ridge, wrote of what it was like on that day:
“Following the white tape, I was horrified to find myself tangled up in our own wire. Knowing from experience that the enemy would rain a deluge of blasting shells on our front line within three minutes—at the most—I frantically tore myself through the obstructing wire, hurrying forward out of the most dangerous area. When I felt clear I looked about me, but in the darkness could see no one. There was no sign of those who should have been following me … As far as I could make out I was alone. But I went forward, till suddenly I fell, tripped up by the German wire. As I plunged into the mud several rifle shots flashed and cracked from the enemy trench just in front of me. The bullets whizzed past my head, and, incidentally, for weeks afterwards, I was partially deaf in the left ear. My rifle was useless, choked with mud. Pulling out a hand grenade, I released the lever and lobbed it as near as I could to the area from which the shots came. Bobbing up to see the explosion, I saw several heads silhouetted against the flash. I had aimed well. At that moment one of our Lewis gun teams came up and I led them into the German trench where, in the half light of dawn, we only found one badly wounded Hun.”[iv]
Haig’s plan was initially successful. The BEF was able to advance quickly and seized some of the German trenches. German Lieutenant Colonel Freiherr von Forstner wrote of being on the other side, in one of the Germans concrete pillboxes:
“At 6.00 am there was a gas alarm. I went outside and watched as a cloud of gas 10 metres thick drifted slowly by. The entire pillbox stank of it. I had every tiny gap wedged up with wet cloths. At 7.00 am the firing reached a peak of intensity. It was simply ghastly. The men in the outer room were wounded or died of gas poisoning. The small reserve of gas masks was exhausted because many men needed replacements for masks which had been shot through. The enemy followed up behind the gas cloud.”[v]
This initial success for the BEF, however, was soon followed by frustration and delays. The Germans behind the Gheluvelt Plateau area ripped apart the advancing British forces with machine gun fire. The Ypres Salient, always a place for high rainfall, had no drainage and was a mess from previous months of fighting, and the soggy ground bogged down tanks that were trying to cross it. By mid-afternoon, the British advance had slowed considerably, and the Germans were counter-attacking. The outlook, which had been promising that morning, was starting to change, both substantially and swiftly.
And then, it started to rain.
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[iv] Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.) pg. 355