Allied forces suffered over 300,000 casualties in the Third Battle of Ypres, and the utterly ruined medieval village of Passchendaele overlooking this ridge and Ypres salient was acquired. However, was it really the start of the “big push” Haig was looking for or was it, in the words of General Currie, “not worth a drop of blood”?
General Douglas Haig of the British Expeditionary Force strongly believed that forcing troops through the bulge in the Ypres salient was the way Britain and France would push into Belgium and Germany and eventually win the war. The plan was to send soldiers to conquer the Passchendaele ridge and head northwards through Belgium to the coast, where German U-Boat ports could be taken out. This attack was to counter a threatening blockade that Haig expected the German forces to build up in that area.
Furthermore, it was stated that the offensive would relieve some of the pressure that was being placed on the exhausted and depleted French army, although at the conclusion of the campaign, the majority of commanders and soldiers were disappointed, protesting that it was a pointless loss of manpower. High numbers of casualties and death were aided by the migration of German troops from the East to the West upon Russia’s surrender and exit from the war.
Fortunately, the 19 mines detonated underneath German defensive positions in the Battle of Messines had wrecked enemy moral and provided a better opportunity for a new, fresh advance. Maybe the outcome of the secret operation would have aided this better if five of the originally planned 24 mines hadn’t been discovered and deliberately flooded. However, the successful explosions had provided a powerful thrust for the offensive, and the shock could be felt in London.
“Gentlemen, I don’t know whether we are going to make history tomorrow, but at any rate we shall change geography”
On the other hand, the delay between the Messines attack and the Ypres advance had offered crucial time for the Germans to reorganise their forces and construct new concrete bunkers and machine gun points along their positions.
3,000 Allied heavy infantry guns launched over five million shells into the Passchendaele ridge, creating massive craters and blasting hundreds of tons of earth into the air. The previously effective drainage and irrigation systems that linked together across the fields of Flanders were mostly destroyed, and when the summer floods set in, shell holes filled up with water and plains flooded with thick, slushy mud. Duckboards were placed along the marshy surfaces. If any man became lost or fell in, they’d be abandoned. There was too high a risk of being ambushed by German defensive forces if they lingered for longer than normal periods of time in the same location.
Gun barrels filled with dirt and canons were either broken, put out of action or simply sunk into the mud and became permanently lost. Some men found themselves waist high in water, pulling equipment and carts that had been set fast in relentless torrents of diluted soil.
On the 31st of July 1917, the infantry attack commenced with nine British and six French divisions leaving their trenches and charging across the plains towards German occupied territory. In fact, they found themselves making good progress and discovered that their artillery bombardment had destroyed enemy defensive posts. The French 1st army and British 2nd army achieved great distance on the first day.
Despite this, 23,000 British men had been injured or killed on the first day of the battle. Tanks offered little cover, as out of the fifty-two that had been provided for the operation, forty-one were discontinued in action. Although most had broken down, the remaining ran over, crushed or shot existing gunner and sniper points.
And then the rain set in, forcing them to dig down and pause the battle for a while. The fifth army had actually gained decent territory without many losses, but not everything was going according to plan. General Hubert Gough had expected the Allied forces to push further through the heavily layered and protected German front.
Attacks resumed on the 16th of August, but hardly anything was gained. Stalemate had really set in. Up until the 20th of September, not much happened, mainly due to constant counter attacks and awful conditions. Three battles including the Menin Road Bridge finally gained the British the east side of the Ypres ridge. As October rolled around, Canadians forces appeared in the area and joined the offensive, however not without reluctance. General Currie argued with Haig, making sure he knew that taking over Passchendaele would cost him at least 16,000 precious lives that in his opinion could be better used. Eventually, Currie was convinced that the medieval village was important to the “push” and the two agreed that the reason for this importance would be stated after the operation was successful.
Currie led 100,000 men of the Canadian army to the city of Lens, to try and divert German forces away from the Ypres, Belgium. By doing this, their resources would be drawn away from the central advance point. Troops in nearly every area were encountered by fierce machine gun retaliation, and cavalry units drowned in the watery abyss in their feeble attempts to cover more ground.
It was only on the 6th of November that Passchendaele was assaulted for the final time, and was captured at last. In the next four days until the 10th, the area would be secured against German backlash, although there really wasn’t anywhere to hide. Only roads and some trees remained after the bombing.
The Canadians showed absolutely no sign of cheer or happiness for the long-awaited achievement, only utter despair for their comrades that had fallen trying to gain it for them. Horrified by their generals’ willingness to send them into such dangerous territory left them in a state of disgust – not least because their new land was practically worthless in their minds. They were but dreary outlines of the men that they had once been.