1st Passchendaele - 12 October 1917
The name Passchendaele is synonomous with the Third Battle of Ypres and it has tended to subsume the fact that until late October 1917, Third Ypres had been a reasonably successful series of battles.
Passchendaele was the culminating point of the campaign, as the village had occupied the highest ground to the east of Ypres, until it was obliterated by shellfire. The fact that it was so costly and conducted in appalling conditions tended to characterise the campaign. It entailed two separate battles.
Australian, New Zealand and British troops were involved in the first and unsuccessful attempt to seize the Passchendaele Ridge from the defending Germans, on 12 October 1917.
It had begun raining on the 3rd of October and conditions deteriorated rapidly.
The area behind II Anzac Corps, near the Steenbeek and its tributaries, was called "a porridge of mud". Duck-board tracks were extended to 1.6km short of the front line, beyond which was a taped row of stakes illuminated at night. However these were gradually lost to passing traffic.
Attempts to extend the 'corduroy roads' behind the two Anzac Corps, proved impossible after the rain began on 3 October. The road subsided into the mud or was simply washed away. The field guns of II Anzac Corps was not able to be moved forward as planned. Platforms were improvised to keep them out of the mud but the failure to move left them 6,000 m (about the range of an 18 pounder) from the morning objective, and out of range of the German field artillery beyond Passchendaele.
The 3rd Australian Division's attempts to struggle forward to their objective, with little artillery protection because the guns were not able to be brought forward effectively, through the waterlogged ground, represented the last major Australian infantry participation in the Third Battle of Ypres.
The fighting for Passchendaele continued into late October when a second phase began. Three rainless days from 3–5 November eased preparation for the second stage which began on the morning of 6 November, with the 1st Canadian Division and the 2nd Canadian Division. In fewer than three hours, many units reached their final objectives and Passchendaele was captured. The Canadian Corps launched a final action on 10 November, to gain control of the remaining high ground north of the village near Hill 52. However they suffered horrendous casulties in so doing.
As bad as Passchendaele was for the Allies, the Germans suffered heavily too. There has been protracted debate about casualties ever since. Respected historians Prior and Wilson, in 1997, gave British losses of 275,000 and German casualties at just under 200,000. In 1997, Heinz Hagenlücke suggested c. 217,000 German casualties.
The German losses forced a rethink of their strategy as they could not sustain further losses at these rates supporting a Defensive strategy. The British tactics of limited objective "Bite and Hold" attacks pioneered by General Plumer, had worked until the rain had set in. The Germans had not developed an effective counter, apart from limited counter attacks that enjoyed only intermittent success.
As the front bogged down in snow and ice of the winter of 1917/18, these circumstances, and the withdrawal of Russia from the war, gave birth to the development of German plans for the Spring Offensive of 1918 in a desperate hope to finish the war on their terms before the arrival of US forces in strength.