First Battle of Passchendaele

The First Battle of Passchendaele took place on 12 October 1917, in the Ypres Salient of the Western Front, west of Passchendaele village. The attack was part of the Third Battle of Ypres in the First World War. The British had planned to capture the ridges south and east of the city of Ypres as part of a strategy decided by the Allies at conferences in November 1916 and May 1917. Passchendaele lay on the last ridge east of Ypres, 5 mi (8.0 km) from a railway junction at Roulers, which was an important part of the German 4th Army supply system. After a dry spell in September, rains began on 3 October and by the Battle of Poelcappelle on 9 October much of the British field artillery opposite Passchendaele was out of action due to the effects of rain, mud and German artillery-fire. The remaining guns were either left in old positions and fired at the limit of their range or were operated from any flat ground near wooden roadways or from platforms, many of which were unstable, when it was found impossible to move them forward to new positions before the attack began.

During the battle, misleading information and delays in communication left Herbert Plumer and Field Marshal Douglas Haig under the impression that a substantial advance had taken place towards Passchendaele ridge. The attackers had managed to advance towards the village but most of the captured ground had been lost to German counter-attacks during the afternoon. The attacks by the Fifth Army further north from Poelcappelle to the French First Army boundary to close in on Houthoulst Forest succeeded but at the end of 9 October the front line near Passchendaele hardly changed. Instead of an advance of 1,500 yd (1,400 m) to complete the capture of Passchendaele, the British attack on 12 October began 2,000–2,500 yd (1,800–2,300 m) from the village. The real position of the front line was discovered by air reconnaissance but the information arrived too late to make more than minor changes to the plan.

The main attack on 12 October was conducted by the two Anzac corps in the Second Army against the 4th Army, with a supporting operation by the Fifth Army, between the northern boundary of the Second Army and the French First Army. The Germans retained control of the high ground on Passchendaele Ridge opposite the I and II Anzac corps, where the attack was repulsed or troops were forced by counter-attacks to retire from most captured ground, as had happened on 9 October. Attacks in the XVIII Corps sector from the right flank of the Fifth Army, north to Poelcappelle, were costly and gained little ground but the attack of XIV Corps from Poelcappelle to the French First Army boundary beyond the Ypres–Staden railway, reached the fringe of Houthoulst Forest. The British offensive was postponed until the weather improved and communications behind the front were restored. Two German divisions intended for Italy were diverted to Flanders, to replace "extraordinarily high" losses. The battle had been a German defensive success but was costly for both sides. [a]

Background

Tactical developments

Weather
10–12 October 1917 [4]
Date Rain
mm
°F
10 2.5 48 cloud
11 4.9 50 cloud
12 7.9 55 cloud

In July 1917, Field Marshal Douglas Haig began the Third Battle of Ypres campaign, in an attempt to break out of the Ypres Salient. At the Battle of Messines the far side of the Messines Ridge had been captured down to the Oosttaverne Line and a substantial success gained in the subsequent Battle of Pilckem Ridge. [5] At the Battle of Langemarck there was an advance of 1,500 yd (1,400 m) around Langemarck village by XIV Corps. In view of the failure of the British Fifth Army to advance on the Gheluvelt Plateau in August, Haig ordered that artillery reinforcements be added to the south-east along the higher ground of the Gheluvelt plateau, Broodseinde Ridge and the southern half of Passchendaele Ridge. [6] The main offensive was switched to the British Second Army under command of General Herbert Plumer, who continued the evolution of bite-and-hold tactics that had been used in July and August. [7]

The Second Army planned to attack with a succession of separate bodies of infantry, on narrower fronts, for about 800 yd (730 m) to the first objective, 500 yd (460 m) to the second objective and 300 yd (270 m) to the final objective. [7] Pauses on successive objective lines would become longer and attacks would be protected by a bigger, deeper multi-layered creeping barrage. Standing barrages beyond the objective lines were to be fired during pauses for consolidation, to obstruct German counter-attacks into the captured area, which would be confronted by a series of defensive areas based on the British objective lines. The British infantry would be in communication with its artillery and have much more local support from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). [8] Beyond the "creeper", four heavy artillery counter-battery double groups, with 222 guns and howitzers, covered a 7,000 yd (6,400 m) front, ready to engage German guns with gas and high-explosive shell. [9] Strictly limited advances using these methods, at the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge (20 September), Battle of Polygon Wood (26 September) and Battle of Broodseinde (4 October), had produced a 4,000 yd (3,700 m) advance in two weeks, inflicted many German casualties. The German high command had made several changes against the refined British attacking methods, all of which had failed. [10]

In the lower ground west of the Passchendaele Ridge, three months of constant shelling had blocked the watercourses that normally provided drainage. On the night of 4 October, it began to rain and continued intermittently for the next three days. Much of the battlefield again became a quagmire, making movement extremely difficult. [11] Had the German defence collapsed during the Battle of Poelcappelle on 9 October, the reserve brigades of II Anzac Corps were to have passed through later in the day, to continue the attack to the far side of Passchendaele village and the Goudberg spur to the north. [12] On 7 October, this afternoon attack had been cancelled by Haig, because of the rain and the final details of the plan for the renewed attack of 12 October, were decided on the evening of 9 October. [13] Plumer had received misleading information about the progress of the attack that day and believed that "a sufficiently good jumping-off line" had been achieved, passing the erroneous information back to Haig. [14] [b] The decision was made to continue the offensive, to gain more favourable winter positions on higher ground, to assist the French with their attack due on 23 October (the Battle of La Malmaison) and to hold German troops in Flanders during the preparations for the Battle of Cambrai. [11]