(The edited text of a paper given in France in November 1993. The original paper
was illustrated by contemporary slide photographs and maps; this text is best
read in conjunction with a map of the area.) by Geoffrey Miller
In 1915, at the second Battle of Ypres, the Germans used
chlorine gas for the first time in warfare and succeeded in driving the British
back to the town of Ypres. Here a bulge, or salient, was formed in their front
line which left the town exposed on three sides to shellfire. The town was
gradually destroyed, although of course it continued to be used as an important
military centre for the Allied lines and all troops left for the front line
through the Menin Gate.
In 1917, the area of Flanders to the east of Ypres had great
strategic importance because it was dominated by a German occupied ridge from
the East to the South of Ypres. This was the only high ground in a flat,
featureless plain and, if the British could only break out of the Ypres salient
and take it, they could turn North and drive the Germans from the Belgian coast
and capture the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge from the enemy. The German
position in Belgium would be outflanked and their industrial heartland in the
Ruhr would be under threat.
work shows a team of six horses, three mounted and three led, struggling
through thick mud pulling a heavy 18 pounder gun on the limber. Six other
soldiers on foot are helping to haul the gun, all moving away from the
viewer. Septimus Power has captured the dash, the urgency, the immediacy
of guns being moved to give fire support on the battlefield. You can
almost hear the sound of mud sucking on the hooves, the gasping of the
horses, the slap of leather, and creaking of axles, and the shouts of men.
And you can imagine the sounds of the great battle beyond and sense the
danger towards which the gun team is headed.
U-boats were operating out of Zeebrugge with great success and
the Admiralty was increasingly gloomy about what would happen in the English
Channel if the Belgium ports were not closed to the enemy. Pressure had
consequently been put on Field Marshal Haig to make an attack in Flanders.
Haig's plan was to strike out of Ypres to the North and East and, in conjunction
with a seaborne landing on the coast of Belgium at Nieuport, he would capture
the high ground at Passchendaele which was the key to the whole area. This would
allow the cavalry to be released in open country and sweep all before them to
Haig, who had been trained as a cavalryman firmly believed
that cavalry had a place in modern war; he was a very stubborn unimaginative man
who completely disregarded the effects of barbed wire, machine guns, shells and
fire from aircraft on the very vulnerable horses.
An attack in Flanders would also hold down the German reserves
and relieve the pressure on the French, who needed time to recover from the
bloody shambles of Verdun that had caused the French army to mutiny.
|H Septimus Power depicts a team of six
horses, a rider on one of each pair, struggling through the mud pulling
the gun carriage with an 18 pounder gun. Two soldiers on foot are also
pulling the heavy carriage. From the 1st Australian Imperial Force, 101st
Australian Battery, they are taking part in the Third Battle of Ypres in
Three main factors that should have been addressed prevented
Haig's plans from being successful: these were the battlefield itself, the
weather and the German defences.
1. The Battlefield
The Ypres salient occupied a low lying, gently undulating
pastureland, which had been reclaimed from marsh over the years by an elaborate
drainage system. The water table was near the surface, even at the height of
summer, and this reclaimed land was extremely vulnerable to shellfire that would
destroy the drainage system and allow the land to flood. There was no layer of
gravel and flooding would rapidly turn the whole battlefield into mud once the
The low ridge from Keppel to Passchendaele was shaped rather
like a sickle with the handle at Messines and the blade sweeping round Ypres
with Passchendaele at the tip and this ridge dominated the battle area.
The Steenbeeck was one of a number of insignificant little
streams that were to achieve great importance, after shelling and rain
transformed them into an insurmountable barrier across the axis of the attack,
because of the bog created by the shelling.
Although Haig had been warned about this, he hoped that the
breakthrough would be so swift that the land would not have time to bog. He
seemed to be an incurable optimist who was quite incapable of learning from his
recent experiences on the Somme!
- Bronze souvenir brooch of
the town of Ypres. The brooch comprises the Coats of Arms of Belgium and
France, separated by the British Royal Arms.
- A banner at the
bottom contains the word 'YPRES'. There is a pin clasp on the reverse.
Held at the AWM
2. The weather
Flanders was notorious for wet weather that usually started in
the late autumn and the plan was for the attack to start in July, after the
successful but limited Battle of Messines in June. It was known that July and
August were the most unpredictable months of the year and heavy thunderstorms
were possible at any time. September was the best month as it was dry for one
out of four years (1917 was one of those years!) October was usually the wettest
month of the year and usually marked the beginning of winter.
The weather forecast before the battle opened on July 31st.
was that "the weather is likely to improve generally but slowly" but
although the average rainfall for the beginning of August was only 8mm. of rain,
in fact 76mm. fell over the next 4 days! Whatever else he was, Haig was not a
3. The German defences
The Germans were well aware of the strategic importance of
Flanders and that is why this was the most heavily fortified part of their line.
British security was very poor and the Germans knew all about the forthcoming
battle and had taken their countermeasures well in advance.
It was no coincidence that they four days before the battle
was due to begin they had carried out a tactical retreat from their front line
back to the Passchendaele ridge. This left a zone of real and potential
marshland in the low-lying land between their new front line and the British.
Their new positions, the Hindenburg line, were a defence in
depth of three lines, the third being beyond the range of the British guns.
Between these lines was barbed wire, scattered concrete pillboxes and machine
gun nests. The barbed wire funnelled the attackers into killing zones swept by
machine guns and carefully registered by the artillery so that the attackers
could be annihilated by a crippling concentration of shells.
(You can see German Pillboxes at Tyne Cot cemetery even now,
the great cross is built over one and the pillbox to the left of the entrance
and central pathway was used by stretcher-bearers as their HQ during the assault
on Passchendaele Ridge; the one on the right was used as an RAP by the Medical
officers. The stretcher bearers had an appalling job in the mud, one stretcher
required a minimum of eight bearers because of the terrain and the heavy weight
of the wounded man with water and mud soaked clothing and blanket which had to
be carried at least a mile in freezing conditions in the rain. The
stretcher-bearers suffered a dreadful mortality from shellfire.)
(Tyne Cot was so called because British soldiers from the Tyne
thought that a barn west of the Broodseinde-Passchendaele Road, looked like a
local cottage, or cot.)
The Germans had developed a very effective technique of
counterattacking as soon as they were driven out of their positions. They held
fresh troops in reserve, specifically for the purpose of counterattacking, and
these would be able to assault their exhausted enemy who would then be occupying
the completely unfamiliar German trenches.
German artillery was also better than the British, it had a
longer range and was more accurate and with better shells that were more likely
They also had the secret weapon of mustard gas delivered by
shellfire. This was a liquid that caused blistering of the skin if touched or if
the unfortunate soldier even walked through the zone of evaporation and the
effect on the eyes was disastrous. If inhaled, it could cause pulmonary oedema.
No antidote was to be found and after its first use in a barrage on July 26th.
one man in six out of the 5th. Army who were assembling for the assault became a
casualty! The assembling troops and artillery were under direct vision from the
high ground of the Ridge and the German shellfire was used with great effect to
disrupt Haig's preparations for battle; the effects of high explosive and gas
bombardment forced Haig to make two delays from the original start date of the
19th. of July.
These effects of the geography and the weather were made many
times worse by Haig's insistence on a preliminary bombardment of the German
lines, even though he had been warned about this. Many shells fell short and the
result was to turn a very difficult battleground into an absolutely impossible
one because it created a quagmire of quicksand-like proportions! Nevertheless
this preliminary 2 weeks bombardment was so severe that one German division
actually deserted its front. Unfortunately the German counter-battery fire was
not affected and the Australian artillery suffered greatly as it had to be
exposed on the open flats.
the battle of Passchendaele (3rd Ypres - 17.7.1917 - 30.7.1917) 4,283,550 artillery
shells were fired by the British at a cost of £22,211,389.00
The Germans used a mixture of shells; high explosive, mustard
gas and "sneezing gas". This latter was to make the gunners sneeze and
lacrimate so much that they could not wear their gas masks and they then
succumbed to the mustard gas.
- Ariel photos of Passchendaele before
and after the battle
The official name of the battle is 3rd Ypres, but it is
universally known as the Battle of Passchendaele because it was really a series
of engagements with the one objective of taking Passchendaele Village and its
It commenced on the 31st of July with an attack on the
Northern Flats at Pilcken to the left and the Gheluvelt Ridge to the right. The
troops at Pilcken were to be supported by massed tanks and this attack was
initially successful but, unfortunately, the right flank was held up and failed
to reach its objective of the Gheluvelt Ridge.
Then at 4.00 PM the rain started. It lasted for days and of
course the flooding made it impossible for the tanks to operate!
Although Haig had originally only proposed a short battle to
break through the German Lines and this was now patently impossible, he still
insisted on continuing the battle at Langemarck to the North. General Gough,
whom Haig had chosen because he was the most aggressive of his Generals,
actually advised Haig to cease the battle but Haig, inflexible as ever,
continued the battle despite horrific losses for another three weeks until
August 26th, before he closed it down.
He then decided to change the axis of attack from the North to
the East and, when finer weather came, to order the assault on the ridge itself.
He also changed Generals and General Plumer was put in charge of the next
assault. Plumer, one of the most astute of the Generals, was an advocate of a
small-scale limited advance under cover of a creeping barrage which would also
prevent the German counterattacks. This would lead to a concentration of force
on a narrow front, it would be easier to relieve the tired men and food and
ammunition could readily be brought up to them. The men were to advance behind
the shelter of the exploding shells and be hidden from the enemy by the smoke
and dust of the barrage, however this would, of course, be impossible if it
rained and the ground turned into liquid mud.
The Battle of Menin Road on September 20th was the first of
three famous victories using the new tactics. At dawn on that day, after a 5 day
bombardment, the Anzacs made a successful attack with two Australian Divisions
side by side and supported by a Scottish Division on their left.
It was here that 2nd Lt Fred Birks won his posthumous V. C.;
he rushed a machine gun post in a pillbox which was holding up the Battalion,
killed the enemy and captured the gun, then organised a party to take another
strongpoint and captured an officer and 15 men. A shell burst buried several of
his men and Birks was attempting to dig them out when he was killed by another
- He is buried in Perth Cemetery at Zillebeke (Grave I.G.45).
The Australians reached the lower part of Polygon Wood and
Black Watch corner, this cost them 5000 casualties. They were then relieved, the
captured ground was consolidated and a supporting Railway line and plank roads
were quickly laid down so that supplies could reach the new front line.
On September 26th the weather was still fine and the ground
had dried out; on that day Plumer's rolling barrage worked well and the Anzacs
were able to advance concealed by a barrage "like a Gippsland
Bushfire" as Bean put it. The 4th. Australian Division then took the rest
of Polygon Wood, or what was left of it, and the Butte (which was the local
Rifle club's Rifle range; on top of the Butte is now the A.I.F. 5th Division
memorial). They had thus reached a position where they could strike at the main
The Battle of Broodseinde took place at dawn on October 3rd.
The waiting Australian troops were mortared in their trenches by the enemy and
as they went over the top they were surprised to see German troops advancing
under cover of the mortar bombardment; by chance the opposing troops had each
launched an assault on each other at the same time! The Germans were eventually
driven back by the Australian bayonet charge, however a German machine gun was
causing casualties and holding up part of the attack. Sergeant Lewis McGee,
armed only with a revolver, ran 50 yards across bullet swept ground, shot some
of the crew and captured the gun. He reorganised the advance and was awarded the
V. C. for his outstanding leadership during the week's fighting; unfortunately he
was killed on 12th October without knowing of his award. He is buried in Tyne
Cot Cemetery Grave No. XX.D.1.
After the bayonet charge, the Germans retreated to their
trenches where they, and their reserves, were caught by the British creeping
barrage that caused them many casualties. The barrage wandered deep into the
German lines and then came back for the Australians who followed and eventually
captured the Ridge on October the 4th.
When the Australians reached the Ridge, they were able at long
last to see the German rear lines stretching before them, the only obstacle to
their success was the German occupied Village of Passchendaele to their north.
These three smashing victories vindicated General Plumer's step by step
technique and were possible only because the weather had been dry enough to
allow the quagmire to drain away, but it started to rain again on the 5th., the
It was not a shower but a steady soaking downpour. Haig
however, encouraged by the three successes, ignored the rain and decided to make
a further attempt to break the Germans on the Ridge, even alerting the cavalry
to be ready to follow up! He ordered the Anzacs to take Passchendaele on October
the 9th even though the wind and rain had now developed into a gale force
storm. He appeared to be quite unaware of the appalling conditions on the front
or that the wire had not been cut and the Germans had replaced their soldiers
with fresh support troops in their relatively dry pillboxes. His reason for
persisting was to allow his troops to winter on the ridge, without the Germans
overlooking them, and with drier conditions once the front line was out of the
Artillery moving up to the battle of 3rd Ypres
The Australians attacked and at Augustus Wood, near the Tyne
Cot, Captain Clarence Jeffries organised a party and attacked a pillbox,
capturing 4 machine guns and 35 prisoners. He led another charge on the next
blockhouse when he was killed by machinegun fire. He was awarded the posthumous V. C. and was buried at Tyne Cot, not far from Sergeant McGee (his grave is No.
XL.E.1). According to John Laffin, every officer of his Battalion was killed or
wounded that day.
Incredibly, and mainly because of the valour of Captain
Jeffries, 20 men actually reached the rubble that used to be Passchendaele
church. Unfortunately the British troops on their right were unable to support
them and the Australians were forced to retreat all the way back to the mud holes
that had been their front line. By now, their artillery was running out of
ammunition and their shells were burying themselves in the liquid mud and
expending themselves relatively harmlessly in a cloud of steam and a fountain of
Yet even now Haig went on with the
battle, even though the rain and bitter cold had set in and on October the 12th.
this lunatic ordered another attack, which was fated to fail miserably, with men
struggling up to their knees and waists in the dreadful stinking mud and with
their rifles and machine guns clogged with it.
This was when Sgt. McGee
was killed. The only solid objects in this endless waste of cratered mud were
the German concrete pillboxes with their machine guns which were protected from
the mud and which operated only too well.
This attack cost 7000 casualties, The Australian
lost 3199 lives in the 24 hours of this attack. The exhausted Australians were
at last withdrawn but Haig was still pathologically obsessed with capturing
Passchendaele Village and ordered the Canadians to take over the battle. However
their General Currie, who was one of Haig's Generals who retained his common
sense, refused to move until the weather had eased and adequate supplies were
Eventually, on November the 12th the Canadians took
Passchendaele, or what was left of it, and the battle was finally over. Air
photographs of Passchendaele were taken after the battle; it is estimated that
half a million shell holes could be seen in the half square mile of the
picture!. This, presumably, was where Haig expected his troops to winter. And so
the British gained their objective, although it was quite useless to them in
terms of the original plan; the attack from the sea at Nieuport had been
abandoned, and there was no hope of breaking through to the German occupied
Channel ports, which were eventually blockaded by hulks sunk at Zeebrugge.
Passchendaele cost over half a million lives over its 3
months. The Germans lost about 250,000 lives and the British 300,000 of whom
36,500 were Australian. 90,000 British or Australian bodies were never
identified, 42,000 were never recovered; these had been blown to bits or had
drowned in the dreadful morass. Many of the drowned were exhausted or wounded
men who had slipped or fallen off the duckboards and were unable to escape the
filthy, foul-smelling glutinous mud, sinking deeper to their deaths as they
For 76 years, the name of Passchendaele has been synonymous
with all that is loathsome in war, it certainly represents the futility and
stupidity of warfare.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote:
"...I died in Hell
(they called it Passchendaele) my wound was slight
and I was hobbling back; and then a shell
burst slick upon the duckboards; so I fell
into the bottomless mud, and lost the light"
but surely Passchendaele must also epitomize the extraordinary
bravery of the fighting soldiers who attempted what was quite obviously
impossible but by superhuman efforts of will actually achieved success. That
their efforts were squandered by their High Command can in no way minimise their