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))

16/8/1917 Third Ypres: more failed attacks

Despite the bad weather, the British are continuing with their offensive in Flanders. Canadian troops have been making diversionary attacks at Lens but today the main British attacks resume on the Gheluvelt Plateau north of Ypres (with secondary attacks elsewhere).

The British fare little better than when they attacked on the 10th. They manage to storm the village of Langemarck but are unable to make further progress. The mud and the German defences make Haig‘s dreams of a breakthrough impossible to realise.

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Crossing the Yser Canal (Radcliffe on Trent WW1: 3rd Battle of Ypres 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 Pétain‘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)

11/6/1917 Messines: the Germans retreat

South of Ypres, British and ANZAC forces have seized Messines Ridge, after first exploding mines under German positions. German counter-attacks have failed to recapture lost ground. Now the Germans begin to withdraw to prepared positions to the east, fearing that the British will launch
further attacks to exploit their success.

In fact the British do not have the men in place to push on from Messines. Haig sees this battle as merely a prelude to this summer’s big battle, an attempt to smash through the German lines at Ypres itself. So the fighting at Messines begins to wind down.

image source (Wikipedia)

7/6/1917 Assault on Messines Ridge

The disorder in the French army means that the British are having to take on a leading role on the Western Front. Allied commanders have agreed that the focus of action will be attritional, aiming to wear down the Germans by inflicting greater casualties on them than they can inflict on the Allies. But Haig continues to hope for a breakthrough battle, where his men will smash through the German lines and restore mobility to the war.

Haig’s plan is for a major offensive this summer in Flanders at Ypres. His ambitious plan is for a ground offensive to be followed by an amphibious assault on the Belgian coast that will clear the Germans from their naval bases there. Today though his men stage a more limited assault, one in keeping with the agreed objectives. They attack German positions on the Messines Ridge south of Ypres. Securing this high ground should make it harder for the Germans to disrupt Haig’s main offensive.
The ridge is strongly defended but the British have left nothing to chance. Mines have been dug under the German positions. Just before the infantry are about to attack the mines are detonated, with an explosive force that is apparently heard in south east England. Some 10,000 German troops are killed in the blast. The survivors are subjected to a devastating artillery bombardment.
The mines leave the Germans at the front stunned and unable to offer serious resistance. British and ANZAC troops overrun enemy positions, capturing some 7,500 prisoners, advancing beyond their target lines. The ridge is secured and the British dig in to repel any counterattacks.

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map (New Zealand History: 1917: Arras, Messines and Passchendaele)

German trench destroyed by the mines (Wikipedia)

German pillbox, blown upside down by the explosion (ANZAC: Messines Ridge)

Prisoners (ANZAC: Messines Ridge)

4/5/1917 Robertson and Pétain agree on attrition, Haig continues to dream of a breakthrough

Nivelle‘s Chemin des Dames offensive has failed. French efforts are still continuing there but his bold claims that the attacks would smash through the German lines and bring the war’s end into sight have been proved hollow. Unrest is beginning to spread through the French army, with many units proving reluctant to obey orders.

Allied military leaders meet today in Paris to consider how now to proceed. Robertson, the British army’s chief of staff, and Pétain agree that a breakthrough cannot be achieved this year. However, they estimate that their men’s efforts are inflicting considerable casualties on the Germans. They resolve now to avoid further attempts at breaking through the enemy lines and instead focus on inflicting attritional damage on the enemy. Smaller scale offensives backed up by artillery will wear away the Germans, inflicting more losses on them than the Allies will suffer. And because of the French army’s problems, most of these efforts will have to be made by the British.

The British are still attacking at Arras, though efforts there are starting to wind down. The next British attack planned is to take place at Ypres. And although Haig pretends to agree with Robertson and Pétain that this will be a battle of limited objectives, he still intends that this will in fact be a breakthrough battle. He hopes that his men will be able to clear the Germans from the Flanders coast and begin the liberation of Belgium.