100 Years Ago This Month in World War I
By Leon Schmidt and Gary Blum
The ‘Victory’ of Passchendaele
in October of 1917, the ever optimistic commander of the British forces, General Haig, ordered General Plumer to continue the so far successful September drive to capture the Passchendaele Ridge. The battle of Passchendaele is also known as the ‘third battle of Ypres’, a Belgian town laying west of the Passchendaele Ridge. As part of the battle, a new British attack, called the Battle of Broodseinde, began on Oct. 4.
This attack lasted about four days and gained about 3/4 of a mile along the nine-mile front. It was considered to be one of the most successful allied victories of WWI. The attack began with a huge artillery barrage, which decimated the German forces. It convinced the German generals that their new defensive strategy was a failure. General Haig immediately decided to start a new series of attacks.
It is generally accepted that the British should have held up at Broodseinde for the winter, and waited for the Americans to arrive in the spring. There was nothing crucial about gaining another mile of land to Passchendaele, but politically, General Haig needed another victory to convince British Prime Minister Lloyd George to keep engaged in Northern France.
The next British attack began on Oct. 9. The weather was already cold and wet; and than it began to rain. The battlefield became like a moonscape of shell craters filled with water and mud. Artillery shells had to be carried forward by horse and mule. When the animals slid into the craters, they either drowned, or had to be shot becausr they couldn’t be pulled out. Soldiers who fell into the craters frequently disappeared and were drowned in the mud. Horses stuck up to their bellies in mud were grateful for the men standing by them until the men and animals were mowed down by machine gun fire or artillery shells.
The British couldn’t their artillery pieces into place through the mud. The German forces were now well dug behind 50-foot thickets of barbed wire. British soldiers said it rained steel, and the attack was a failure. The British suffered 5700 casualties that day and gained nothing. The German army considered this day the first victory it had since August.
Seventy-Two hours later, on Oct. 12, the British attacked again. it continued to rain and deluged the already soaked ground. The men were mowed down by machine gun fire. One soldier wrote home to his parents that 750 men of his unit went over the top, but less than 50 returned. The Germans fired 130,000 rounds of ammunition at thew British soldiers that day. This attack was also a failure.
Nonetheless, the British attacked again on Oct. 26, Oct. 30, and Nov. 10. These attacks were made by Canadian soldiers under the leadership of General Sir Arthur Currie. The Canadians did succeed in capturing Passchendaele Ridge due to the very capable leadership of General Currie and the almost unimaginable bravery of the Canadian soldiers. The conditions they faced were absolutely atrocious. They suffered over 16,000 casualties.
The area captured by the British in the three month long Battle of Passchendaele was only 4 1/2 miles long a nine-mile front. The entire front between the British/French and the German lines from Belgium to Switzerland was 1500 miles long. The British sustained 244,087 casualties from July 31 to Nov. 12 in the battle. The Germans sustained 236,241 casualties.
Four months later, when the Germans began their spring offensive march in 1918, the British withdrew from Passenschdaele Ridge because it had no significant military value.
“In Flanders the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row…” – Major John McCrae at the second Battle of Ypres (1915)
Submitted under the auspices of Post 9 of the American Legion of Wisconsin Rapids.