18/8/1917 Third Ypres: mud

British and French forces are attacking to the north of Ypres. Despite the recent unrest in their army, the French have made the best progress but neither of the Allies are doing very well. Unseasonal rain has turned the ground into a quagmire, making it difficult for the troops to move forward.

Because of the waterlogged nature of the ground, the Germans have built pillboxes for themselves rather than relying solely on trenches. The British had hoped to attack these with tanks, but the mud has made it impossible for them to get beyond their own lines.

The Allies make some gains, though they lose some of these to German counter-attacks. In view of the terrible weather conditions they now call a temporary halt to the offensive, hoping that a break in the rain will allow the ground to dry out somewhat, at which point the attacks can resume.

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Mud (WW1 World War One Ieper 1917)

Escorting German prisoners (Wikipedia: Battle of Langemarck (1917))

10/8/1917 Third Ypres: mud and the Germans block British progress #1917Live

Bad weather has forced a halt to the British offensive in Flanders. Now conditions are deemed to have improved sufficiently for the attacks at Ypres to resume. The British are now attempting to clear the Germans off the Gheluvelt Plateau. However the going is hard. Shellfire since the start of the battle has disrupted the drainage system of the battlefield while heavy rainfall has turned the ground into a quagmire. The mud makes it difficult for the soldiers to move forward but it also makes it harder to use artillery: the muddy ground yields to the guns’ recoil, meaning that they have to be retargeted after each shot. The gunners also must waste time cleaning their shells, which inevitably arrive from the depots covered in slime. Misty weather prevents aerial observation of the German positions and mud reduces the explosive power of the shells.

The British make some progress but German resistance is dogged. Their artillery is situated on a reverse slope, making it difficult for the British to target without effective aerial observation. They use it to isolate British troops as they move forward, with counter-attacks by infantry then recovering much of the lost ground.

This battle is meant to be one in which the Germans will be worn down, an attritional struggle where the aim is to inflict more casualties on the enemy than he can inflict back. But the British are suffering high casualties in the battle, while on the German side a staff officer notes that his men appear to be suffering less than they did at the Somme.

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British soldiers (The A-to-Z of Yeovil’s History: Sidney George Hawker)

31/7/1917 Third Ypres begins with British successes #1917Live

The failure of Nivelle‘s offensive on the Chemin des Dames and the following disorders in the French army have meant that Britain has had to take the leading role on the Western Front. Now Haig‘s long-planned offensive in Flanders begins, the Third Battle of Ypres. Officially this is meant to be a battle of limited objectives, designed to seize a modest amount of ground and inflict heavy casualties on the Germans. But Haig is ambitious and remains committed to the idea of a decisive battle. He hopes that his men will be able to achieve a breakthrough, leading to the recapture of the Belgian coast and ultimately the liberation of occupied Belgium.

The attacks today are relatively successful. British troops manage to storm German positions along much of the offensive’s front. French troops, playing a supporting role, also enjoy considerable success, suggesting that P├ętain‘s efforts to overcome the mutinies are bearing fruit. A large number of German prisoners are taken and many casualties inflicted on the enemy, though Allied casualties are also high.

However the attack is not as successful as Haig had hoped. No breakthrough has been achieved as of yet. Tanks sent forward to bludgeon through the German lines have found the muddy and cratered ground difficult to traverse. Indeed, the waterlogged soil of Flanders is proving difficult for the infantry as well. Nevertheless, Haig determines that the attacks will continue, hoping that the today’s successes will be a prelude to a great victory.

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German prisoners and British wounded cross the Yser Canal (Wikipedia)

Stretcher bearers (Wikipedia)