Column: 100 Years Ago This Month in World War I
By Gary Blum and Leon Schmidt
For the City Times
At the end of 1914, the Germany army was separated from the French and British armies by a line of trenches which, at the north end, went around the Belgium town of Ypres, just to its’ east, and on the English Channel. The German army was east of town and the English and French armies were on the west in the area known as Flanders.
Three years later, oi July of 1917, he armies were still in the same position.
Flanders is very low and flat. From the east side of Ypres, where the Germans were, to the east side of town, the landscape slopes gently down about 150 feet or so. But that still allowed the Germans to be on higher ground, looking down on the allied armies.
The French had become demoralized by their enormous death roll n the fighting of 1916 and their unsuccessful attack on the Germans in the Nivelle Offensive in May; so it was up to the British to arrange an attacj on the Germans in July of 1917. The British wanted to capture the German railroads and submarine bases east of Ypres.
The soil of Flanders consists of a few yards of dirt on top of a layer of clay which is impervious to water. The soil was generally not deep enough to dig trenches, so the soldiers had to pile up dirt about five feet tall, called breast works, to protect themselves. When it rained, the water would stand in puddles of mud in low spots and on the surface. Attacking through mud is difficult for the advancing army, but helpful for a defending army.
There was a series of ridges on the German side of Ypres, which the British planned to attack. The third and final ridge ran by the town of Passchendaele. After several days, the British scheduled their attack on July 31, 1917.
The Germans had several lines of defense behind one another, arranged like a checkerboard, so one area could protect the neighboring area. The British were led by Generals Haig and Gough, both of whom were more optimistic about an attack than the situation warranted. General Gough planned on using tanks extensively. However, WWI tanks only went 4 mph, and less than 1 mph in mud. There were about 600,000 British soldiers facing 800,000 German soldiers. The British had about 3,000 artillery guns to the Germans’ 1,000. The British were supplied with 4.2 million shells, but the Germans were well dug in.
In the days before the attack, the two armies fired hundreds of thousands of artillery shells at each other. The ground was pounded into loose dirt. No barbed wire was left, no telephone wire, no communication trenches for messengers. Messengers often became casualties of the “iron rain”. On July 28, the German army fired off the contents of 19 ammunition trains. The delicate drainage system of Flanders began to be destroyed.
Then, on July 29, it began to rain — and it rained, and rained. it didn’t stop until August 6. Everything turned to mud. Artillery craters filled with water. On July 31, the British attacked and the Battle of Passchendaele began. Because of the mud, the British lost half of their fleet of tanks that day. The battle would not end until November.