31 JULY, 1917: The Crying Game

This is one of those moments when I find myself thinking along the same lines as the British heritage industry. The lines in question divided the northern sector of the Western Front, and the event that has us both interested was the opening of the British-led summer offensive in Flanders on 31 July 1917. Known officially as the Third Battle of Ypres, but better remembered in Britain by the name of its final objective, Passchendaele, it went on until November and was a God-awful mess.

It was by no means the first disastrous offensive failure on the Western Front, but it would prove to be the last attempt to end the campaign, and indeed the War, using ‘breakthrough’ tactics. Intended to smash a hole in the enemy line by massing vast forces for an attack on a narrow front, breakthrough tactics had been discredited many times during the previous two years, and their latest spectacular failure had taken place only three months earlier. Haig’s willingness to persist with the orthodoxy long after it had again proved redundant, along with the loss of an estimated 310,000 BEF casualties (as well some 260,000 German casualties) for what amounted to trivial territorial gains, helps explain why Passchendaele has become the great emblem of First World War futility and incompetence in the British public mind – as does the fact that this disaster was an entirely British creation that couldn’t be blamed on the French.

Deplored across a century of British heritage history, popular history and military history, the battle has provided generations of commentators with ammunition for outrage and for condemnation of those deemed responsible for the failure. That is changing. As must be blindingly obvious to anyone in the path of Britain’s Passchendaele centenary tsunami, the battle now provides a prime outlet for ‘human interest’ disguised as history or, to put it another way, emotion in place of analysis.

In the press, on the radio, on television, in Parliament and all over the Internet, the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Anglo-Belgian style, has been about the suffering and death of the soldiers involved. Fair enough, there was a lot of death and suffering, but if history is about illuminating to past to inform the present what kind of information is that giving us? War is bad, its horrors are horrible… and that’s about all.

We have heard this before. It’s the same message we were given a hundred years after the Somme Offensive of 1916, and (for those Anglophones paying careful attention) a century after all the other ghastly, failed French, German, British, Russian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman offensives that took place between the spring of 1915 and July 1917. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the message, but there is something wrong with ignoring any and all of Passchendaele’s other messages to the future. By way of putting all that emotionally draining mass slaughter into some sort of context, diluting our righteous indignation with a little understanding, and exploring those other messages, here’s a very basic rundown of the battle’s genesis and outcome.

The roots of the Third Battle of Ypres can be traced pretty clearly to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. Haig had been in his post since December 1915, but had been required to support the plans of French commanders until May 1917, when the collapse of the French Army as an attacking force finally passed responsibility for strategic initiative on the Western Front to the BEF (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front). Haig responded by planning yet another breakthrough offensive but shifting the focus of attacks north, to the British-run sector in Flanders. With hindsight this was without doubt a mistake, but at the time there was something to be said for Haig’s reasoning.

Like most Western Front commanders, Haig still believed that breakthrough tactics represented the best hope of a significant victory, a belief reinforced by the commonly held view that conscript mass armies with only basic training would subside into chaos if asked to do anything more sophisticated. He also subscribed to the widely held view that the German war effort was close to collapse, and that a demoralised German Army on the Western Front was ready to crumble. General Plumer’s victory at Messines in early June didn’t change Haig’s mind on either score (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn), but at that stage, with the usual costly, clumsy preparations for the main offensive already well underway, it would have taken a major leap of faith to prompt any significant alterations to the battle plan.

Once settled on another breakthrough attempt, Haig’s choice of Flanders as his main target couldn’t really be faulted. The region’s broad, flat plains seemed to offer the best chance for an attacking army to successfully exploit any breakthrough, and breakthrough tactics hadn’t been tried there before (although they had failed in wide open spaces on the Eastern Front). Any breakthrough in Flanders would also offer the BEF a chance to attack German U-boat pens on the Belgian coast, a prospect that appealed strongly to a British high command still very worried about the effects of submarine warfare.

So take away the hindsight, add in the perceived need to keep attacking in the west before Russia’s ongoing collapse freed German reinforcements from the east, and the offensive plan dismissed as futile and/or blinkered by the heritage industry (before it gave up on commentary altogether) makes a broadly acceptable kind of sense in the crazy context of 1917.

It only takes one big mistake to ruin a plan, and for all the talk of rain and mud during the battle that followed, the mistake that counted at Ypres in 1917 was the British command’s gross underestimation of the German Army’s power to resist. The weaknesses visible at Messines had been addressed, and the huge ten-day bombardment that preceded the attack on 31 July (3,000 guns firing a total of 4.25 million shells) found defenders in prepared, shellproof positions ready to meet advancing British and Empire forces. Led by General Gough’s Fifth Army, flanked by a corps of Plumer’s Second Army to its south and a corps of General Anthoine’s French first Army to its north, the attack was launched along an 18km front and made only insignificant, expensive gains before grinding to a halt. At this very early stage, Haig’s plan had failed.

It was the same old story, so why not end it there? For plenty of reasons, none of which satisfied generations of post-War critics but all of which had something going for them from a contemporary command viewpoint.

First, giving up on a big plan after one false start was inconceivable to everyone involved, including the civilian public, so of course there had to be a second try. Secondly, Haig and many other observers were victims of what you might call the ‘one-last-push’ illusion, unable to let go of the (essentially sensible) idea that nations couldn’t sustain this type of warfare for long, and that the other side was one firm push away from collapse. This had been at the heart of Allied thinking on the Western Front since the start of 1915, and the longer reality outstripped socio-economic logic to keep the enemy in the fight, the more certain it seemed that the next push would do the trick. Thirdly, and perhaps more culpably, Haig’s refusal to recognise failure smacked of political desperation. These were uncertain times for Europe’s ruling elites, and British leaders were in no hurry to present a war-weary population (civilian and military) with yet another disappointment at a moment when the very fabric of conventional society was being tested by fallout from the revolution in Russia.

You couldn’t go telling ordinary people the appalling truth…

So failure was postponed and the attack resumed, but only after a fortnight’s delay for unseasonal, torrential rain, which combined with bomb craters and further bombardments to produce the almost impassable morass of mud that has since become synonymous with the battle. Under those conditions, the launch of a second attack on 16 August was an exercise in extreme optimism, and the four days of heavy fighting known as the Battle of Langemarck produced miniscule Allied gains in return for heavy casualties.

Still in no position to declare a failure, Haig at last gave up on breakthrough. He switched the focus of his next wave of operations to the north, put Plumer in effective field command and pursued the policy of limited offensive operations foreshadowed at Messines. Plumer launched three tightly focused attacks around the Menin Road at the centre of the front between 20 September and 4 October, each of which succeeded in its very limited objectives but paid a high price in casualties. With the rain still teeming down and conditions for attackers worsening all the time, Haig was at last in a position to call a halt and claim a victory – but Plumer’s efforts had revived the ‘one-more-push’ orthodoxy. Once more convinced that the German Army was all but spent, and grasping one last time at the mirage of sweeping victory, Haig decided to continue the offensive with attacks towards Passchendaele Ridge, some 10km east of Ypres.

This is where the horrors of war so carefully reported by modern heritage commentators get tangled up with the command failures so noisily deplored by their predecessors. The mud was worse than ever while the German Army, far from exhausted, was being rapidly replenished by reinforcements from the east. It had also been supplied with copious amounts of mustard gas, and this took a terrible toll on the first two attacks towards Passchendaele on 9 and 12 October. Both were grotesque failures, gaining tiny amounts of ground at enormous cost, and dispelled any lingering idea that the enemy was crumbling. Haig nevertheless decided to hurl exhausted troops into three more attacks in late October, and to continue the offensive until British and Canadian troops finally took the village of Passchendaele on 6 November.

What Haig did.  Not much really.

This last phase of the battle has been regarded ever since as an unforgivable waste of lives, and the sentiment still occasionally gets an airing amid today’s mawkish memorabilia. Much as I prefer understanding to outrage, it is hard to disagree. Any strategic point to the offensive had vanished well before mid-October, and the only substantial excuse for carrying on regardless seems to have been maintenance of national prestige, not to mention that of the BEF and its commanders.

In the short term, strictly from a British high command perspective, Haig’s prolongation of the agony kind of worked. The British Army didn’t mutiny or collapse, and the British people didn’t give up on the war effort or fall to revolution. Despite lot of criticism from press and politicians – not least from Prime Minister Lloyd George, an ‘Easterner’ who had long been at odds with the Western Front command and had opposed the battle plan from the start – Haig kept his job and went on to plan a few more shots at glory.  In the longer term, Passchendaele has always been the definitive blot on Haig’s reputation and, along with the opening phase of the Somme Offensive in 1916, the principal piece of evidence that British Empire troops on the Western Front were lions led by donkeys.

A hundred years on, controversy around Haig seems to be all but ignored in the popular media, and not because the basic lessons to be learned from his darkest hour have ceased to be relevant. Modern British society may have grown out of treating ordinary soldiers as cannon fodder, but we still need reminding about the dangers of fatally underestimating a foe, and we definitely need to remember that when orthodox methods repeatedly fail to win a battle (against guerilla fighters, terrorists, drug addiction, you name it), it’s time to question the orthodoxy.  Then again, why bother with what actually happened around Ypres in 1917 when you can fill so much consumer space with easy exploitation of humanitarian outrage?

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