Despite heavy losses, the systematic step-by-step strategy adopted by Field Marshall Haig for the Third Ypres Campaign was having success, particularly following the three recent victories involving the AIF at the Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde during the two weeks up to the 4th October 1917. However while Haig was having good fortune on the battlefield he was now losing the one thing he could not control, the weather. Rain commenced during the Broodseinde attack and within a very short period of time the logistics of getting materials (artillery, ammunition, equipment) to the front, and wounded to the rear began to break down. Recently captured pillboxes were now crammed with wounded men trying to shelter from the elements and enemy shells. Mules and pack-horses endlessly ploughing their way along the limited tracks quickly rendered them almost impassable. Having only just come out of battle, the tired and wet men of the 6th Brigade spent hour’s cable laying in atrocious conditions. Having no coats they carried their waterproof sheets as capes and returned to their shell holes to find them drenched. Over the next day hundreds were evacuated with exhaustion, and many with trench feet. By the time of the next attack the 6th Brigade would be down to just 600 available men, and the 7th Brigade down to 800. Torrential rain fell in the late afternoon, and the meteorological experts forecasted no improvement in the weather. Haig, to the surprise of many, decided to push on with the offensive. General Birdwood, who knew that his troops were almost exhausted, hoped for postponement, but as his Corps had but a slight task on the flank of the next attack he did not protest.
The French First Army and British Second and Fifth armies attacked in the Battle of Poelcappelle on 9th October 1917, on a 13,500 yards front, from the Broodseinde ridge towards Passchendaele (map courtesy of Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918). The AIF 2nd Division would provide the 5th & 6th Brigades for the right flank of the attack. The 5th Brigade made its second objective, but with the failure of the untried British 66th Division within General Godley’s II Anzac Corps on their left, were alone and with numbers too small to eject the Germans who remained between the posts, they themselves were beaten back to the first objective suffering heavy losses. On the right the 6th Brigade attacked with all four battalions – 23rd, 21st, 24th and 22nd Battalions from north to south – on a frontage of 1,200 yards but with an average strength of just 7 officers and 150 other ranks, and at least half of the men fresh from the nucleus at Caestre. So thin was the barrage that from the start the German machine guns were able to cause havoc for the advancing parties. During the attack the AIF 2nd Division suffered 1,253 casualties. General Birdwood later wrote that the return of heavy rain and mud sloughs was the main cause of the failure to hold captured ground. German General Kuhl concluded that the fighting strained German fighting power to the limit but that the German forces managed to prevent a breakthrough, although it was becoming much harder for them to replace losses.
Haig next issued the order for the attack on Passchendaele with II Anzac Corps leading in the centre and with the AIF 4th & 5th Divisions of I Anzac Corps replacing the worn out 1st & 2nd on the right flank. Aversed to attacking in the wet General Gough had concerns regarding the coming attack, particularly when informed that II Anzac Corps would be attacking from much further back than planned, and that the preparatory time for bombardment had been reduced from eight to just three days .The weather and hence ground conditions was still providing serious issues for the movement of artillery forward for the attack. Ammunition became coated with mud and unusable until cleaned, and the experienced personnel, living in sodden shell-holes quickly dwindled through exhaustion and sickness.
The First Passchendaele attack of 12th October 1917 started at 5.25am and the attacking battalions made their way forward in the rain as the Germans fired gas shells into the approaches. An hour before zero hour the rain ceased but as before when the barrage came it was thin and provided only light protection. Also any chance of the attacking battalions catching up with the advancing barrage disappeared in the mud. The attacking battalions of the 9th Brigade pushed on at 8.25am to the second objective and three posts were established. With the position now becoming hopeless and the prospect of annihilation the decision was made by the forward commanders to withdraw. The failure of the 12th October mirrored that of the 66th Division just days before, with the dead and wounded of both attacks lying together in the mud. The following day stretcher-bearing parties struggled in the bog searching for the wounded, and even some unwounded stuck fast in the mud. There were 13,000 Allied casualties, including 2,735 New Zealanders, 845 of whom had been killed or lay wounded and stranded in the mud of no-man’s-land. In lives lost in a day, this was the worst day in New Zealand history. During the failed attack the AIF 3rd Division suffered some 3,200 casualties, and the 12thBrigade 1,000. The British Fifth Army gained little ground, and while the attacking troops had been exhausted and depressed, the Germans in spite of the severity of the casualties on their side, had been encouraged and reinvigorated. On the 22nd October the AIF 3rd Division in the II Anzac Corps Line was relieved by the Canadian 4th Division, with the Canadian 3rd Division relieving the New Zealand Division the following day. During a night gas attack on the 28th October the 5th & 6th Batteries on Anzac Ridge were put out of action. Between mid–October and mid-November there were over 1,300 gas casualties in the artillery alone, and although only a small number (twenty) were quickly fatal, the effects lasted for years to come for many of the men.
The Second Passchendaele attack began on 30th October 1917, to complete the previous stage and gain a base for the final assault on Passchendaele. The attackers on the southern flank quickly captured Crest Farm and sent patrols beyond the final objective into Passchendaele. The attack on the northern flank again met with exceptional German resistance. During a seven-day pause, the British Second Army took over another section of the Fifth Army front adjoining the Canadian Corps. Three rainless days from 3rd-5th November helped the preparation for the next stage, which began on the morning of 6th November with the Canadians taking the village. The Canadian 1st and 2nd Divisions mounted their final and successful attack to take the remaining high ground north of the village of Passchendaele on the 10th November 1917. The final attack was carried out in a rainstorm. The weather, combined with a reinforcing response to the joint Austrian-German attack in Italy at Caporetto that necessitated the sending of six British divisions to bolster the Italians, resulted in the end for the 3rd Ypres offensive.
The 3rd Ypres campaign, controversial in 1917 and remaining so ever since, will forever be remembered as a campaign of ‘wretchedness in the Flanders mud’. The cautious step-by-step approach by Haig did result in territorial gains but came at a high cost of some 450,000 British and Dominion casualties, comparable to the Somme 1916 offensive, but was nowhere near achieving the initially held objective of driving the German Army from the channel coast. However the offensive did have a significant impact on the eventual outcome of the war. Through this offensive Haig was able to buy time by putting the German Army under great strain thus preventing it from taking advantage of the French failure at the Aisne and their subsequent mutinies, enabling Petain time to rebuild in preparation for the arrival of the Americans. For the AIF the Third Battle of Ypres was in the main a successful offensive and in which the Australians played a prominent part, but losses were again heavy at an average of 7,300 for each Australian Division, again comparable to the Somme of the previous year. The reputation of the Australians, as well as the New Zealanders and Canadians, increased further during the campaign and acknowledged by friend and foe alike.
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