With the failure of General Nivelle’s Spring Offensive at the Chemin des Dames and the subsequent French Army mutinies, Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s long favoured Ypres campaign had now in the second half of 1917 become the main focus for the Allied armies on the Western Front. The historic city of Ypres (photograph below of Australian troops marching past the Cloth Hall) was pivotal, not just for the defence of the Allied held channel ports, but it was also the gateway to attack and force the German Navy out of the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge that were the base for a flotilla of small submarines that operated within the German remit of ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare and were a constant menace to the Allied cross-channel shipping. For Haig this would continue the wearing down process on the German Army at a place that they could ill afford not to fight, while waiting for the arrival of the Americans in sufficient numbers and the Allied Spring and Summer offensives of 1918.
The ground to the east and south of Ypres is characterised by a series of ridges running crescent shaped from south to north and it was the systematic step-by-step taking of these areas of high ground with limited but well defined objectives that formed Haig’s strategy (map below courtesy of Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918). The final objective was the town of Passchendaele on a ridge some 12 kms to the north-east of Ypres, hence the alternative name often given to the Third Battle of Ypres. The great bombardment at Ypres began on 15th July 1917, and with 3,091 British 2nd & 5th Army guns (one to every six yards of front) this was more than at Arras earlier in the year and almost twice as many that the 4th Army had on the Somme the previous year. The Third Battle of Ypres began at 3.50am on the 31st July 1917 with the attack by the British infantry at Pilckem Ridge supported by the artillery of the AIF 1st, 2nd & 5th Divisions and a feint by General Godley’s II Anzac Corps in front of the Warneton Line. By nightfall of a ‘most satisfactory’ day Haig’s British and French troops had taken and held the third objective. Following the Battle of Langemarck in mid-August, General Birdwood’s I Anzac Corps saw its first major action in the 3rd Ypres campaign with the successful attack on the 20th September 1917 by the AIF 1st & 2nd Divisions at the Menin Road. Relieving the two Australian divisions, the AIF 4th & 5th Divisions attacked at Polygon Wood six days later and despite stiff opposition and heavy losses the objectives were taken. The AIF 1st & 2nd Divisions returned to the front in exuberant mood following their earlier success and again, with the AIF 3rd Division on their left, delivered what would be the third successful blow within fifteen days at Broodseinde. General Plummer indeed called this ‘the greatest victory since the Marne’, and at this point the British faced the possibility of achieving a decisive breakthrough. 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 of the 4th October 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. Over the next day hundreds were evacuated with exhaustion, and many with trench feet. Torrential rain fell and the meteorological experts forecasted no improvement in the weather. Haig, to the surprise of many, decided to push on with the offensive first at Poelcapelle and then to the main objective, Passchendaele which was eventually taken by the Canadians on the 10th November 1917. Thus 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. Two of the Australian Divisions have their divisional monuments located in the area to commemorate their participation and sacrifice during the Third Battle of Ypres. The AIF 5th Division Memorial (photograph left) is located on the Butte in Polygon Wood, whereas the AIF 3rd Division Memorial is situated over a German blockhouse in the centre of the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the site of the attack on 4th October 1917.
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