Thursday, 4 October 2007


I've just heard a fascinating account by historian Glynn Harper about New Zealand efforts in the battle for Passchendaele Ridge in 1917, and I've seen several other accounts of the battle in recent days to commemorate ninety years since this First World War battle that saw 2,800 New Zealand soldiers listed as killed, wounded or missing.

A "heroic failure" was how Harper decribed it.

It seems to me with all these accounts, however, that there's a great deal of context left out, leaving listeners and readers struggling to see what British and Commonwealth forces were trying to achieve in what's known as The Third Battle of Ypres. "Since 1917 Passchendaele has been a byword for the horror of the First World War," says the NZ History Online site. So what was it all for.

Mud, blood and horror there certainly was -- there's nothing like war for horror -- but writing in Mud, Blood and Poppycock, Gordon Corrigan gives some of the necessary context to understand why the battle was fought, and he arguesit should be seen as a victory rather than a failure -- a victory that helped turn the war.

First of all, it's necessary to be reminded that the battle on the Western Front began in 1914 when the Central Powers invaded Belgium and France. German and Austrian troops were sitting on occupied terrritory, threatening European ports, and they needed to be thrown out, necessitating a series of summer offensives by Commonwealth forces to try and do so. New armaments, however, threw the advantage the way of the defender (the Germans) making mobile war almost impossible, requiring new tactics for a new more defensive military age.

The 1917 campaign had the advantage of having learned about this new kind of war over two previous summers, but faced the serious disadvantage of mutinies in the French army that left it almost ineffective as a serious fighting force, and an October with only seven days without rain.

After the New Zealand Division's capture of Messine and the Australian and British capture of Messines Ridge on 6 June, 1917, Commonwealth forces were forced to sit on their hands due to political interference, and concerns over the French mutinies. This allowed German forces to prepare themselves and their defences. Over the next five months, however, Commonwealth forces pushed back the German invaders to the Passchendaele ridge, giving them well-drained land overlooking the German lines, and taking the heat away from the fractured French forces. Corrigan sums up the conditions, and the result of the Thd Battle of Ypres as September arrived:
While the pressure on the Germans was kept up all along the line, no major attacks were launched for three weeks. As the weather improved, the ground began to dry out and the troops trained and rehearsed. On 20 September two Australian and four British divisions attacked either side of the Menin road, and once more the British tasted considerable success. Further advances culminated in the capture of Polygon Wood on 26 September.

The British were now consuming German divisions faster than they could be replaced…At the Battle of Broodsemde on 4 October the British advanced one and a half miles and captured Poelkapelle, Zonnebeke and Broodseinde. There followed a series of frenzied counter-attacks, all beaten off with heavy German losses, and then the British advanced again. Ludendorif described 4 October 1917 as ‘the black day of the German army’.”

The British were now poised to take Passchendaele, the last ridge before the plains and the last line of German defences around the salient. The chances of a breakthrough and breakout were now recognised as remote; but if the Passchendaele Ridge could be captured before winter set in, the Britich Expeditionary Force (BEF) would have good, well-drained land for their front lines and — for the first time in the Ypres salient — it would be they, and not the Germans, who would hold the commanding heights.

At this point, however, the weather broke again. In the entire month of October there were only seven days without rain, and they were overcast with no opportunity for the ground to dry. Rainfall for the month was only just over four inches, which may not seem much; but in a low-lying area where the drainage was bad and the water-table high at the best of times, and when the rain was continuous rather than delivered in short, sharp bursts, it had an increasingly adverse affect on operations.” While lurid tales of men drowning in mud are mostly fiction (although it did happen, and wounded men who fell into waterlogged shell holes had to be pulled out quickly), the degeneration of the ground slowed everything, from the delivery of rations to the moving-forward of guns, to the speed at which infantrymen could cover open ground.

Had things on the Western Front been normal — whatever that may be in a war — Haig might well have decided in early October that his men had done enough, and closed the offensive down. His main task, however, was to keep the Germans away from the French, and Pétain still needed time before the French army could be fully operational again. Between 4 and 12 October Tyne Cot was captured across a sea of mud, but it was another three weeks before Passchendaele was taken by the Canadians on 7 November; three weeks of fighting in appalling conditions with tem peratures rarely above fifty degrees Fahrenheit (but, contrary to received opinion, never below freezing).’

With the taking of the Passchendaele Ridge the Third Battle of Ypres ended. Now the French mutinies had stopped, courts martial of the ringleaders were in full flow, conditions had been improved, and the French army was once more ready to play its part in the war, although morale remained brittle until the end.

Third Ypres cost the BEF a quarter of a million casualties, of whom around 53,000 were kified, and gave rise to the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world, with 12,000 graves. That more was not accomplished on the ground was due to political dithering, delay after Messines Ridge, and the weather, but there was genuine achievement.
Considerable ground was gained, and the British were in a far better position after the battle than they had been before it. The Germans saw it as an unmitigated disaster for their army. Third Ypres pulled in eighty-eight German divisions, over half the total on the Western Front, and all … were severely mauled. They could not move any divisions eastwards to face the Kerensky offensive, Russia’s last attempt to fight in this war. Their butcher’s bill was enormous, far higher than that of the British, and it was this savaging, coupled with the knowledge that the American army was coming on stream, that persuaded Ludendorif to chance all on the ‘Kaiser’s offensive’ of 1918 — a decision that cost Germany the war.

But more important than anything else, by launching the Third Battle of Ypres, and by continuing it in the face of political opposition, mounting casualties and appalling conditions, Haig and the BEF kept the Germans away from the French. The French front was untroubled through out the British offensive, and this gave the French generals the time they needed to reconstitute their army. For this reason, if for no other, Third Ypres had to be fought and had to be persisted with, whatever the cost to the British [and their allies].


  1. Appalling in its nature, the battle did achieve things. But one who was there, one Bernard Cyril Freyberg, strove at all costs to ever repeating the performance anywhere else.

    The real tribute to the NZEF was that so soon after its protracted mauling at Passhendaele it was thrown into the gap during the Kaiser and Michael offensives. By train truck and forced marches across France, they reached the gap on the Somme NE of Amiens that the whole German offensive was pouring through, headed for Paris. The British army had been routed and there was no continuance of the line. The Kiwis took the initiative, imposed their will on the situation and took decisive action to secure dominant features though they had only had thin tenuous links to the allies on their flanks. The German army could not ignore them or bypass them and rooting them out was the only option. One of the few times in the war where the Hun tried his hand at attacking positions defended in depth against a very experienced and hard group of soldiers. They failed and were slaughtered over the weeks they tried. The back of the offensive was broken by kiwis at La Sygny Farm. It is no exageration to say it was the turning point of the war.

  2. A horrible war that. An example of what total war was going to be like. Nothing was won for freedom. Instead civilisation was set back for the rest of the century. This first big war led direct to the next one.

    Pointless loss of life. A waste.


  3. Robert Winefield5 Oct 2007, 04:15:00

    A pointless waste of life instigated by the Kaiser when he attacked France, Belgium, and Luxembourg without provokation.

    Ask the Belgian people who suffered under the German yoke whether it was pointless. The f**king Germans took it out on the civilian population when the Belgian army resisted. They held Liege for a week and screwed up the German time table for invading France.

    And for that mass hostages and executions were carried out. All because the Belgian's decided to defend their homes and their national borders and refused to become a province of the Kaiser's German empire.

    And the same applies to those areas of France and Luxembourg that were also occupied.

    The same applies to Serbia -- attacked by the Astro-Hungarian Empire in revenge for the execution of a single member of the Royal family by a pair of individuals.

    Yes. The Allies should have finished off Germany in 1919. But they'd had enough of the bloodshed. Had the Weimar Republic survived the Great Depression, Hitler would never have gained power.

    WWI contibuted to WWII. But it wasn't the sole cause. There were things that could have been done in the intervening years to prevent both Hitler's rise to power and his march to War.

    Britain and France not appeasing the bastard in 1938 etc. would have been a start.

  4. Robert

    And the Huns ate babies and raped nuns as well!

    Sorry to be blunt about it but that's simplistic bullshit what you have presented there. You should know better. best do some research or if you get the chance go over to Europe, live there for a few years and find out what actually did occur.

    The trouble with the goodies versus baddies fairy-tale version of history taught throughout the British Empire and the US is that important information of great significance is ignored, glossed over or lied about. Then the resulting myths get polished to the point of incorporating more fiction then reality. Mostly this stuff becomes nationalistic wash to lionise govt military adventures (like how "we" fought for the right values, or how naughty the other side was, or how silly govts were then and how "we" won't do it again 'cause we have better govts now etc etc etc etc).

    The causes of WW1 run back over decades prior to the actual outbreak of armed hostilities. It wasn't merely the result of a single assassination (although state-sanctioned, the assasination of Franz-Joseph was the final event in a series, not an isolated occurance and it still required other interventions and failures of the conventional diplomatic system prior to the war getting started in ernest). None of the governments understood the nature of warfare was going to be very different this time around. The old European models of slow set battles accompanied by intricate diplomacy was swept away by changes in technology and most significantly, big changes in society. Had the likely results of these been appreciated would the leaders have allowed the war to progress? Likely not. But the trouble was that once they were in they were stuck. Each attempt to gain a quick victory (a solution) led to escalation which in turn led to another escalation and soon enough the establishment of total war. Civilians became fair game. Nationalism was the justification (and before rabbiting on about how bad the Germans were- and they were bad- you might like to consider what was going on with what the Russians were doing to German civilians on the Eastern front; this sort of behaviour was to be a feature of total war, it is one of the defining attributes of it, not a characteristic of one ethnic group- Huns indeed).

    What was gained from this first great war? Half-time. Enough time for another generation to reach adulthood so they could get back in there and do it again.

    What lessons were learned? The lessons of total warfare. Nationalise industry and set it to work building machines for war. Rely on the mighty technologies that could be harnessed from productive industry. Change tactics and strategies to be better than the half-blind idiocies that everyone stumbled and bumbled along with the first time around. Most important, it was discovered that it was posible to teach a new religion to people. They would accept the religion of state and government. People could be trained to see warfare as a pugilistic match between countries (in which the individual is of little import- only the countries count). They could be trained to identify with "our side." It's exactly what you have done actually...

    The hostilities were indeed a pointless waste of life as they did it again. Freedom was not enhanced. It was lost. Once the authoritarians experienced the power of an industrialised, socialised state would they have had it any other way? Unlikely.

    Any way you cut it, the war confirmed the direction for the rest of the century. Civilisation was greatly hindered.

    And, blame who you will, it was a pointless waste of life.


    BTW even in the absence of a Hitler, there would inevitably have been a resumption of hostilities. Too much unfinished business. Too much state.

  5. I thought referring to the Germans as "Huns" was a little anachronistic too although I wonder if pet names are acceptable if one is still hostile toward a certain country or group of people. NORKs comes to mind for North Koreans and I noticed LGM that you used the term "ragheads" in this thread. Was that a slip up or is that ok?

  6. Angloamerican

    Go ahead. Call 'em whatever you like!

    Re the term "Huns"

    I was usinging the term in regards to a particular behaviour (as in comitting barbarities).

    Strictly speaking the Germans are not descended from the Huns. The Huns did in fact come from the East and I was referring to the Eastern Front. Apt, but perhaps a little obscure. I'll be careful to make my context more clear next time.

    Re NORK

    I didn't know that one. That's new to me. Let's try it out.

    Kim Il Sung was a NORK. Kim Jung Il is a NORK.

    Yup. That works.

    re Ragheads

    No. Not a slip up. Intentional.

    BTW what I wrote about was rag-head 'lamo-fascists. In other words complete vermin.

    Anyway, forget 'em and have a good weekend instead.



  7. Robert Winefield6 Oct 2007, 10:06:00


    Maybe you should read the Pulitzer Prize winning 'Guns of August.'

    The German army did carry out reprisals as documented in letters home from German soldiers.

    Was it organised? No. Was it overblown in the newspapers of the time? Yes. Does this expunge the crimes that were committed? No.

    The fact of the matter is that Germany gauranteed Belgium's neutrality right up until the time they marched their armies across the border.

    They started the war. They had no urgent need to attack France - the whole Schifflen plan was executed without reference to reality. The reality that France didn't have the strength to breach the German Western defences. Assuming of course that France would honor it's treaty with Russia and that the Russians would honor their treaty with the Serbs.

    The Germans opened fire without checking whether their target first. And in so doing they attacked 2 other sovereign countries and then they added injury to insult and carried out atrocities on captive civilians.

    The only thing more disgusting then that is the sanctimonious crap you are shoveling in your attempt to defend the indefensible.

    There was a reason the Entente Powers entered the war. And it was a good one: To prevent themselves from being subjugated by a foreign tyrant: Liberty in other words. The right to choose their own government rather than have one forced upon them.

    Pointless? No. Poorly executed. Yes.

  8. Robert Winefield6 Oct 2007, 10:48:00

    And let me add a few more points.

    Yes nationalism and bombastic ethusiasm for the war was rife in all the countries involved.

    But none of this invalidates the basic right to be free from oppression. I don't give a crap whether the Kaiser's Empire was a kinder gentler Germany as compared to the same country under Hitler.

    They had no fucking business being in Belgium, France and Luxembourg.

    'Tis true that Britain wasn't as angelic as we'd all have liked her to be. In defending Belgium and France from German invasion, the British were on the correct side of the moral fence for once (in that era at least).

    Again, in the murky moral swamp of turn of the century Europe you can't just ignore abhorrent behavior "just because everybody else was doing it."

    Indeed they may have done. But if anything is to be learned by studying History at all, you have to make a moral judgement in the end.

    Germany was wrong to invade. There was a good reason to go to war.

    The nationalism and bombast blinding military and political commanders and the civilian populations to the reality of their task and thus contributed to the butchers bill - as did the unfamiliarity with the technology being employed.

  9. Robert,

    Try reading what I wrote, not what you wish I'd written.

    1/. I did not write that certain members of the German Army (or government) were justified in committing atrocities. No. Those actions were evil- no question about it. I made my position about that clear enough.

    Now, your low comments that I was defending the indefensible are dishonest. You have lied and you owe an apology. Shame on you.

    What I did explain to you was that those terrible actions were a feature of total war. I gave you the example of similar behaviour ocurring on the Eastern Front (certain Russian soldiers committing atrocities against civilians) to illustrate this behaviour was not exclusively attributable to a particular race or nationality.

    Now calm down, think carefully and TRY very hard to understand that point.

    2/. You should stop considering the war as a pugilistic contest between nations. The simplistic goodies versus baddies, them versus us, they started it/they did it approach is invalid. It has blinded you to the significance of what was actually going on and where it has led.

    Cease looking at history from the viewpoint of a collectivist. It misleads you.

    The significance of the 1st w/war was it demonstrated that it was indeed possible to organise the entire industrialised economy and direct it to suit the ends of a central authority. It demonstrated that, among other things, nationalism could be harnessed to create governments of a power and scale previously unimagined. The organisation of every facet of a modern economy for the purposes of central authority was realisable. Governments could consume people as a resource and on a vast scale.

    That has led to problems that are still in exisitance presently. It has been a significant hindrance to the advancement of civilisation.


    Before your start frothing, how about you clean your glasses and reread what was actually presented. It is doubtful there is anything there you could seriously disagree with.



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