Battles - General Sir John Davison on the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917

British stretcher bearers on Pilckem Ridge, August 1917 The Third Battle of Ypres - commonly referred to simply as a 'Passchendaele' - is commonly cited today as an example (along with the July 1916 Battle of the Somme) of British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig's enormously costly attritional war strategy.

In heavy rain and glutinous mud predominantly British troops eventually succeeded in capturing the small village of Passchendaele in the autumn of 1917, often regarded as a minor gain albeit achieved at heavy cost in casualties.

It is interesting to note that this view of the battle was widely expressed by Haig's contemporaries and is not in fact a modern perspective.  Reproduced below is a defence of Haig's tactics during Third Ypres by a British general, Sir John Davidson, published in Source Records of the Great War (Volume V), ed. Charles F. Horne, 1923.

Note that Davidson could by no means claim a disinterested viewpoint; during the battle he served as Haig's head of operations staff at GHQ.

Click here to read Erich Ludendorff's account of German losses at Third Ypres.  Click here to read Canadian General Sir David Watson's assessment of the battle.

The word "Passchendaele" was and has been used as a reproach to British generalship, and as a symbol of waste and useless suffering.

To the men who actually fought, such an attitude might be intelligible, for their horizon was limited by the expanse of mud and waste on every hand, by the incessant fire to which they were subjected, by the comparatively insignificant gains of ground at great sacrifice, and by the abnormal fatigue and hardship.

Similarly to the wounded and to those who had lost their husbands, sons and brothers it appeared that heavy suffering had been inflicted and limbs and lives lost with little or no result so far as winning the war was concerned.

To the gunner during the latter period of the offensive, day in and day out handling his mud-spattered ammunition with unspeakable fatigue, constantly endeavouring to save his guns from disappearing into the morass, serving his pieces clustered round the only solid means of approach, the duckboard pathway, under a concentrated and almost continuous hail of enemy projectiles; to the infantryman heavily equipped staggering through an interminable sea of mud towards what appeared to him as certain death, the physical and mental strain was well-nigh unbearable.  A blank wall on every side and no apparent end to the misery.

Ludendorff states in reference to the last phase of the operations, "What the German soldier experienced, achieved and suffered in the Flanders battle will be his everlasting monument of bronze erected by himself in the enemy's land."

What the British soldier achieved was something far greater.  This was the bitterest campaign of the whole war, the one in which the British single-handed shouldered the whole burden, and of which the British nation may most justly feel proud; the one in which the British held the German Army in its grip, closed with it, and fixed it to its ground, thus preventing the enemy from taking the initiative in such a manner as to gain the decision elsewhere.

Let us examine the facts.

The objects before the British in delivering the offensive in Flanders were briefly, from a strategical point of view, to pin the German Army to the British front in the North and draw in their Reserves; and from a tactical point of view:

(a) To free Ypres by gaining the Passchendaele ridge which lies in a semi-circle round the eastern side and dominates the town and surrounding country.

(b) To gain the Passchendaele ridge, thereby commanding with long-range gunfire the enemy's communications through Roulers and his submarine bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge.

(c) To exploit to the full any tactical success gained (for this special preparations were made).

In order to gain strength for offensive purposes and to increase the number of our available reserves we had entered into negotiations with the French to take over part of our defensive front.  This, however, they were unwilling to do, but requested to be allowed to take a small part in the Flanders offensive.

It was considered advisable to acquiesce in their demands, but this was done with great reluctance and disappointment, for the mixture of French, Belgian and British troops in a confined area was not conducive to success, and their infantry, guns and ammunition arrived late, thereby delaying the commencement of operations until the 31st of July and involving the loss of many days of valuable summer weather which would have been of incalculable advantage in view of the exceptionally bad weather experienced in August.

It is difficult to see how in the circumstances described any other course could justifiably be advocated, though the air was full of the cries of "No more Somme battles," "We must wait for the Americans," and so on.

Had the British Commander accepted this advice, presented from influential quarters, and had he not forced on a British battle on the British front, it is more than likely we should have been involved before many weeks had elapsed in a defensive battle of German making, at a point chosen by the enemy, where it would be most difficult for the British forces to operate in parrying the blow.

It will be convenient to divide the operations into five periods as has been done roughly in the official despatch and by Ludendorff in his War Memories:

First period: July 31st to August 16th.  Second period: August 17th to September 19th.  Third period: September 20th to October 4th.  Fourth period: October 5 to October 24th.  Fifth period: October 25th to November 10th.

As ill-luck would have it, after we had waited patiently for many days to open the attack for reasons given above, the weather broke on the afternoon of the 31st of July and rain continued incessantly for four days.  However, very considerable results were achieved on the opening day and the enemy continued to counter-attack violently for some days with great loss.

The British delivered their second attack, also successfully, on the 16th of August, but thereafter the abnormally wet weather necessitated a cessation of the operations for a whole month; this constitutes the first two periods.  Fortunately the weather improved in September and the 10th ushered in the third period with a British attack on a wide front.

The culmination of our efforts came in the fourth period, between the 22nd and 25th of October.  Then the capture of Passchendaele was the final stroke.

In reference to these periods some extracts from Ludendorff's Memories are instructive.  Ludendorff and his subordinate commanders were greatly puzzled at our tactics, and the deliberate manner in which the German counterattacks were repeatedly smashed with heavy loss, and were constantly discussing and altering the tactics of the defence so as to minimize the loss.

Not only does he admit this in his memoirs, but documents captured at the time showed that the German High Command recognized the failure of their methods.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Photograph courtesy of Photos of the Great War website

'Strafing' is attacking ground troops by machine guns fired from low-flying aircraft.

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