The Battle of Passchendaele - World War I

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The Battle of Passchendaele was fought July 31 to November 6, 1917, during World War I (1914-1918). Meeting at Chantilly, France, in November 1916, Allied leaders discussed plans for the upcoming year. Having fought bloody battles earlier that year at Verdun and the Somme, they decided to attack on multiple fronts in 1917 with the goal of overwhelming the Central Powers. Though British Prime Minister David Lloyd George advocated for shifting the main effort to the Italian Front, he was overruled as the French commander-in-chief, General Robert Nivelle, desired to launch an offensive in Aisne.

Amid the discussions, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, pushed for an attack in Flanders. Talks continued into the winter and it was ultimately decided that the main Allied thrust would come in Aisne with the British conducting a supporting operation at Arras. Still eager to attack in Flanders, Haig secured Nivelle's agreement that, should Aisne Offensive fail, he would be permitted to move forward in Belgium. Beginning in mid-April, Nivelle's offensive proved a costly failure and was abandoned in early May.

Allied Commanders

  • Field Marshal Douglas Haig
  • General Hubert Gough
  • General Sir Herbert Plumer

German Commander

  • General Friedrich Bertram Sixt von Armin

Haig's Plan

With the French defeat and subsequent mutiny of their army, the onus for carrying the fight to the Germans in 1917 passed to the British. Moving forward with planning an offensive in Flanders, Haig sought to wear down the German army, which he believed was reaching a breaking point, and retake the Belgian ports that were supporting Germany's campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. Planning to launch the offensive from the Ypres Salient, which had seen heavy fighting in 1914 and 1915, Haig intended to push across the Gheluvelt Plateau, take the village of Passchendaele, and then break through to open country.

To pave the way for the Flanders offensive, Haig ordered General Herbert Plumer to capture Messines Ridge. Attacking on June 7, Plumer's men won a stunning victory and carried the heights and some of the territory beyond. Seeking to capitalize on this success, Plumer advocated for immediately launching the main offensive, but Haig refused and delayed until July 31. On July 18, British artillery began a massive preliminary bombardment. Expending over 4.25 million shells, the bombardment alerted the German Fourth Army's commander, General Friedrich Bertram Sixt von Armin, that an attack was imminent.

The British Attack

At 3:50 AM on July 31, Allied forces began advancing behind a creeping barrage. The focus of the offensive was General Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth Army, which was supported to the south by Plumer's Second Army and to the north by General Francois Anthoine's French First Army. Attacking on an eleven-mile front, Allied forces had the most success in the north where the French and Gough's XIV Corps moved forward around 2,500-3,000 yards. To the south, attempts to drive east on the Menin Road were met with heavy resistance and gains were limited.

A Grinding Battle

Though Haig's men were penetrating the German defenses, they were quickly hampered by heavy rains which descended on the region. Turning the scarred landscape to mud, the situation was worsened as the preliminary bombardment had destroyed much of the area's drainage systems. As a result, the British were unable to press forward in force until August 16. Opening the Battle of Langemarck, British forces captured the village and surrounding area, but additional gains were small and casualties were high. To the south, II Corps continued to push on the Menin Road with minor success.

Unhappy with Gough's progress, Haig switched the focus of the offensive south to Plumer's Second Army and the southern part of Passchendaele Ridge. Opening the Battle of Menin Road on September 20, Plumer employed a series of limited attacks with the intention making small advances, consolidating, and then pushing forward again. In this grinding fashion, Plumer's men were able to take the southern part of the ridge after the Battles of Polygon Wood (September 26) and Broodseinde (October 4). In the latter engagement, British forces captured 5,000 Germans, which led Haig to conclude that enemy resistance was faltering.

Shifting the emphasis north, Haig directed Gough to strike at Poelcappelle on October 9. Attacking, Allied troops gained little ground, but suffered badly. Despite this, Haig ordered an assault on Passchendaele three days later. Slowed by mud and rain, the advance was turned back. Moving the Canadian Corps to the front, Haig began new attacks on Passchendaele on October 26. Conducting three operations, the Canadians finally secured the village on November 6 and cleared the high ground to the north four days later.

Aftermath of the Battle

Having taken Passchendaele, Haig elected to halt the offensive. Any further thoughts of pushing on were eliminated by the need to shift troops to Italy to aid in stemming the Austrian advance after their victory at the Battle of Caporetto. Having gained key ground around Ypres, Haig was able to claim success. Casualty numbers for the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as Third Ypres) are disputed. In the fighting British casualties may have ranged from 200,000 to 448,614, while Germany losses are computed at 260,400 to 400,000.

A controversial topic, the Battle of Passchendaele has come to represent the bloody, attrition warfare that developed on the Western Front. In the years after the war, Haig was severely criticized by David Lloyd George and others for the small territorial gains that were made in exchange for massive troop losses. Conversely, the offensive relieved pressure on the French, whose army was being struck by mutinies, and inflicted large, irreplaceable losses on the German Army. Though Allied casualties were high, new American troops were beginning to arrive which would augment British and French forces. Though resources were limited due to the crisis in Italy, the British renewed operations on November 20 when they opened the Battle of Cambrai.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "The Battle of Passchendaele - World War I." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). The Battle of Passchendaele - World War I. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "The Battle of Passchendaele - World War I." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).