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].