From July to November 1917 the British began to fight for control of the ridges South and East of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders. Passchendaele, as it was referred to, was the last ridge East of Ypres, five miles from a railway junction at Roulers which was vital to the supply system of the German 4th Army. The offensive was controversial at the time as no full approval was given by the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who opposed the attack, as did General Ferdinand Foch, the French Chief of the General Staff. However, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the British and Commonwealth Forces went ahead with the plans, disregarding the cost of men, supplies and weather.
The battle began with number of actions taking place which included:
• The Battle of Pilkem (Known as Pilckem Ridge), 31 July – 2 August 1917
• The Battle of Langemarck, 16 – 18 August 1917
• The Battle of the Menin Road, 20 – 25 September 1917
• The Battle of Polygon Wood, 26 September – 3 October 1917
• The Battle of Broodseinde, 4 October 1917
• The Battle of Poelcapelle, 9 October 1917
These battles, though costly, made encouraging gains, but bad weather soon bogged the Army down and the offensive was clearly failing in its objectives, descending into a battle of attrition with an enormous cost in casualties to both sides. Bad weather in October led to the battlefield becoming an impossible quagmire and left Passchendaele still not taken.
The first battle to take the Passchendaele ridge began on 12 October, although heavy rain and mud again made movement difficult and little artillery could be brought closer to the Front. Allied troops were exhausted and morale had fallen. After a modest British advance, German counter-attacks were able to recover most of the ground lost opposite Passchendaele, and by now some 13,000 Allied casualties, mainly of the 2nd ANZAC Corps, lay wounded and stranded in the mud of No-Man’s-Land. At a conference on 13 October, Haig and the Army Commanders agreed that the attacks would stop until the weather improved and the roads could be extended to carry more artillery and ammunition forward for better fire support.
This led to the final phase and the second battle. The Canadian Corps relieved the exhausted Anzacs, continuing the advance. Lessons learnt from the previous attempt led to a seven day pause in the battle to improve the logistical movement of artillery and supplies, and start an extensive programme of road building. Ten RE Field Companies plus seven Tunnelling Companies, as well as Army Troop Companies and nine Battalions were put to work repairing or extending existing plank roads. From the middle of October until the end of the offensive in November, a total of two miles of double plank road and more than 4,000 yards of heavy tram line were constructed in the Canadian Corps’ area to aid in logistics. Canadian Brigadier General Edward Morrison, commanding the artillery for the Canadian Corps, was able to use the repaired roads to the rear for withdrawing disabled guns for repair and bring up fresh artillery closer to support the front line troops. On 26 October the battle restarted, and was successful in taking its objectives, albeit at a cost to the Canadians and supporting British diversionary actions. Passchendaele Ridge was taken by 10 November.
No further attempt was made to build on the momentum of the attack to push further with the campaign being forced to end just short of Westrozebeke just beyond Passchendaele.
Photograph shows Ypres on 26 June 1917.
By P Cosgrove.