Third Ypres: Mud, Blood, But Not All Bad
Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres. The press are giving it a lot of air-time today, which is always good but the general mood of the commentary has been somewhat negative – concentrating on the losses, the mud and the overall futility of the battle. While these are all valid points – and there is no getting away from the fact that the rain did have a grave affect on an offensive that did see hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides – it isn’t the complete story. In fact, the early stages of the battle were actually positive for the Allies…
At 3.50am on July 31st nine British Divisions (around 162,000 men) and six French Divisions (around 105,000 men) advanced towards the enemy lines along an eleven mile front. Their ultimate objective was the village of Passchendaele, some four and a half miles away. The main British advance centred around the Menin Road with their initial target being the ridge that dominated the flat plans to the east of Ypres. In the beginning, it seemed that the artillery barrage had done the trick, the troops advancing towards the ridge met with little resistance and quickly gained their initial objectives along the top of the ridge, and carried on towards St Julien in the north and Hooge towards the south. They met little resistance until heavy rain fell in the early afternoon – curtailing any further advance.
When compared to the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the first day of Third Ypres, known as the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, was a definite success. Although the village of Passchendaele was not threatened, the British and French armies did succeed in gaining significant ground, and captured a strategic observation point in the Pilckem Ridge.
It was not a cheap day though – Over 30,000 casualties for an advance of just a mile or two.
Due to the weather any further advance was put off until mid August but this delay gave General Plumer to put into practice a new offensive plan: Bite and Hold.
With the ‘Bite and Hold’ advance, there would be the obligatory monumental artillery bombardment, followed by the infantry advancing on foot, not in long lines as in previous attacks, but in small pockets of fighting groups, including specialist teams of bombers and rifle grenadiers that would take care of any German strongpoints. Another difference would be the limited scope of the advance. Troops would be ordered to advance 1,500 yards only, then to dig in. As a result, when the enemy launched their counterattack, instead of finding exhausted and disorganised remnants of the attacking force, they would instead run straight into a tight defensive unit. On 20th September this new way of attacking was put into practice against the Gheluvelt Plateau, an important area of high ground that had already been twice captured and lost over recent weeks.
The result? The plateau was taken relatively quickly and despite five days of German counter-attacks the Allies kept hold of the high ground . Bite and Hold actually worked!
The ‘Bite and Hold’ formula was repeated on 26th September – this time the target was heavily fortified Polygon Wood.
Attacking over a shortened front line, which allowed for an even higher concentration of artillery fire, the attacking troops once again advanced relatively quickly towards their objectives. Each pill box had to be taken out individually, but the speed of advancement meant that often German troops were easily surrounded and surrendered without much of a fight. By mid-morning almost all the objectives had been taken and German counter-attacks were held off. It was another victory for General Plumer and his ‘Bite and Hold’ strategy.
Plumer planned phase three on 4th October – a bit earlier than he would of liked, but the weather was closing in again. This attack aimed to complete the capture of the Gheluvelt Plateau via the occupation of Broodseinde Ridge and Gravenstafel Spur and would be spearheaded by two Corps of ANZACS. Yet again the offensive was a resounding success, making it three quick wins on the spin.
The capture of the ridges was a great success, Plumer called the attack “… the greatest victory since the Marne” and the German Official History referred to “… the black day of October 4.”
The German Army were taking a hammering and Haig was convinced that Passchendaele Ridge was there for the taking. He urged Plumer to prepare and launch Act Four as quickly as possible and push the German army out of Belgium once and for all. On 9th October another offensive was launched. But persistent heavy rain had turned the battlefield to liquid mud…