The First Battle of Passchendaele. A case of mandatory suicide?
There can be no denying it. The battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde were successful. The German army were taking a hammering, were demoralised and there was even talk of tactical withdrawal. Haig sensed the panic in the German ranks and urged Plumer to renew the offensive, he was convinced the Passchendaele Ridge was there for the taking, and capturing that piece of land would enable his army to push then enemy out of Belgium once and for all.
Plumer set about planning for yet another advance, duly scheduled for the 9th October. As he did so the rain returned to Flanders with a vengeance. With it’s complicated drainage system completely smashed to bits, it didn’t take long for the entire landscape to be transformed into a sea of endless oozing mud.
As well as reducing life in the front line trenches to abject misery for the infantry on both sides, the rain completely messed up Plumer’s organisational plans for the new offensive. The rains meant it was almost impossible to re-arrange the artillery and get them in the correct positions to enable the proper support for the infantry. As a result much of the infantry were stuck in their original positions, which meant they were having to fire at their extreme range just to hit the German front line positions. German artillery batteries were out of range, as were their machine guns. Not good.
The same issues of movement affected the attacking infantry. Movement was painful as the troops had to inch forward towards the front line over narrow duckboard paths. Every time a shell landed anywhere near these advancing troops the explosion would knock many of them off the duckboards and into the morass of mud, often sinking up to the waste and needing to be pulled out. It was a nightmare.
While the British and Allied forces struggled to prepare for their next advance, the German army were busy reinforcing their defensive lines. They had rushed reserves from the south to bolster the Flanders front. They may have been broken but with fresh men reinforcing the line, they were far from beaten. The rain continued to pour. Some senior British officers were in favour of cancelling the offensive. But Haig was desperate to seize the moment, and ordered that his forces would attack regardless of the weather.
His forces duly attacked at dawn on the 9th October. The accompanying creeping barrage was woefully inadequate, and for the first time since August, failed to establish any kind of dominance over the battlefield. Ironically, as the advance began the weather cleared. The rain stopped an d in perfect visibility the German machine-gunners cut the advancing infantry to pieces. With little or no artillery support the Allied advance didn’t stand a chance. Anyone who somehow avoided being blown to bits by artillery or cut to ribbons by machine gun fire found that the defensive belts of barbed wire placed in front of the German trenches were largely untouched. As a result, the offensive was an unmitigated disaster. Only in the very north of the line did the British and French enjoy slight success, but it was hardly significant.
However, not deterred by the artillery disaster, the continuing rain, the formidable defensive fortifications of the enemy, the thousands of wounded still laying out in No Man’s Land, the atrocious conditions and the slaughter, Haig and Plumer decided to have another go at the Ridge in three days time. Yet again preparations were practically impossible. Senior Artillery officers approached GHQ and admitted they couldn’t guarantee any artillery cover for the planned assault due to the extreme range and the instability of the ground making firing the guns practically impossible. Yet again the assault troops had a torrid time getting to their forward positions. Yet again Haig was asked to re-assess the planned offensive. Yet again he refused to waver. The attack would commence as planned.
As zero hour approached the rain fell again. Along a six mile front the assaulting troops advanced in a sea of mud. Once again there was little or no artillery support. For the assaulting troops struggling across No Man’s Land in direct view of the enemy, having no artillery support was suicide. They were attacking elevated defensive positions riddled with pill boxes and other fortifications, they had no cover, they had no place to hide, they were sitting ducks. The result was inevitable; they lost 13,000 casualties in just a few hours.
And so ended the First Battle of Passchendaele. A distinct case of mandatory suicide.