Was World War I
an avoidable debacle ?
July 31 – November 6, 1917
Passchendaele, Belgium – Western Front
Allies – France
Allies – British Empire
Central Powers – German Empire
The Battle of Passchendaele, also referred to as the Third Battle of Ypres, was a major offensive carried out by the Allied troops in West Flanders between July and November 1917. The Allied morale was boosted by the victory at Messines and Sir Douglas Haig decided to take advantage of the German weaknesses by launching another offensive in Ypres.
The Battle of Passchendaele was preceded by over a week of shelling and gunfire on the front. The attack was launched on July 31, 1917, with the British Fifth Army, led by General Hubert Gough, and the British Second Army, led by General Herbert Plumer, attacking the German lines from the right. Their attack was supported by the French First Army, led by General Francois Anthoine who engaged the Germans to the left.
The bombardment preceding the attack put the Germans on their guard and the German Fourth and Fifth Armies halted the attacks to the right and left, with the Allies having made insignificant gains in territory.
Heavy rains rendered the tanks immobile in the swampy terrain. The heavy bombardment had destroyed the drainage system and caused more trouble for the infantry. The Battle of Langemarck also availed little gains. The battle was a costly one, and both sides incurred heavy casualties. General Herbert Plumer took over from Sir Hubert Gough and planned a series of ambushes leading to small victories. On September 20, 1917, the attacks were renewed at Menin Road Bridge, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde. General Haig then proceeded to attack Passchendaele on October 12. Passchendaele fell to the Allied forces on November 6 and the attacks were called off.
The use of mustard gas in the Battle of Passchendaele caused the Allied soldiers severe burns. The BEF lost 310,000 soldiers and General Haig was severely criticized for his persistence despite the exhaustion and fatigue of his troops. The inflexibility of Haig’s plans has been questioned by historians. The Germans lost 260,000 soldiers. The use of tanks caused further skepticism with regard to their efficacy.