Third Ypres - 30 July - 5 November 1917
The Third Battle of Ypres was an Allied offensive mounted to the south and west of the Belgian medieval walled town of Ypres (pronounced 'eeper' or "Wipers" as it was colloquially known to the men of the AIF. These days the town name of Ieper reflects the Flemish rather than French spelling) following initial success at Messines (Mesen) in June 1917. Third Ypres took place from the end of July 1917 to mid November 1917. The city was destroyed in the process thanks to relentless German shelling. It was rebuilt after the war to the original plans, with the spectacular Cloth Hall as its centrepiece.
The major operations of the British ‘Flanders Offensive’ began on 31 July 1917 when British forces, with two French divisions, attacked the German defences along a 16-mile front east of Ypres. For fifteen days before that the British artillery, which included Australian batteries, fired more than four million shells from 3,000 guns.
The German defence of the area stretched all the way back to the long sickle-shaped ridge between three and ten kilometres from the town. It was a defence in depth; the front was lightly held and beyond it were arrays of deep concrete shelters or ‘pillboxes’ in which soldiers could shelter from bombardment and emerge to mount machine guns to fire at advancing infantry. Barbed wire was carefully positioned to funnel the advancing men into the fields of fire of the machine guns. Well back, out of sight beyond the ridge, were the German artillery and infantry reserves ready to mount counter-attacks.
The British plan was to batter down this formidable defensive position using mainly so-called ‘bite and hold’ tactics. After an opening bombardment the infantry would advance for a prescribed distance behind a ‘creeping’ barrage of shells. This barrage would keep the Germans in their ‘pillboxes’ until British soldiers were almost upon them. The enemy positions would then be captured, consolidated and protected from counter-attack by artillery. Guns would be brought forward and the next ‘bite’ attempted. In this way the British aimed to work their way from their start lines near Ypres to the heights of the ridge ten kilometres away at Passchendaele village. It was thought that by the time Passchendaele would be reached, the German reserves would be used up.
A breakthrough could then be made into the enemy’s rear and towards the Belgian coast to the north. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, viewed the ‘Flanders Offensive’ as his war-winning stroke of 1917.
The offensive had opened on 31 July with the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, delivered on a broad frontage by General Gough’s 5th Army. In the north it captured the Pilckem Ridge, however in the south it did not in take its objectives on the Gheluvelt Plateau.
5th Army delivered further attacks in the Capture of Westhoek on 10 August, the Battle of Langemarck on 16 August, and local operations around St Julian later in August. These attacks achieved limited success with high casualties in conditions made very difficult by heavy rain. This made the ground extremely boggy, and rendered movement very difficult and exhausting.
In subsequent fine weather and following thorough preparation, General Plumer’s 2nd Army delivered successful ‘step by step’ ‘bite and hold’ attacks on narrower frontages in the Battle of Menin Road on 20 September, the Battle of Polygon Wood on 26 September and the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October. I Anzac Corps (1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Australian Divisions) and II Anzac Corps (3rd Australian Division and NZ Division) performed key roles in these successes.
On 9 October, 49th and 66th British Divisions of Lieutenant General Godley’s II Anzac Corps, supported on the right by 2nd Australian Division of Lieutenant General Birdwood’s I Anzac Corps, attacked Passchendaele in what became known as the Battle of Poelcappelle. It was not palatable to the British to call it the Battle of Passchendaele, due to the complete failure of the attack on Passchendaele itself; the main objective. Due to the greater success of 5th Army’s flanking attack at Poelcappelle, the battle was named after this supporting effort.
The cost in casualties of 3rd Ypres is not known definitively. However, estimates of at least 240,000 British and 200,000 German casualties have been made.
In their six attacks at 3rd Ypres, the Australians suffered 38,093 casualties in eight weeks. In their four attacks at Passchendaele, the Canadians suffered 12,400 casualties in two weeks.
Appalling though the casualty figures were, it was the dreadful conditions of rain, mud, exhaustion and misery that evoke the quintessential horror of Passchendaele, which gave its dark name to the whole 3rd Ypres offensive.
Nigel Steel and Peter Hart wrote: “Rain they had suffered before ... This time not only did it pour down, it was also desperately, miserably cold. … As the British and Imperial troops slogged up the Passchendaele Ridge, the science of war had indeed been reduced to a contest of brute strength.” General Ludendorff, the German Chief of Staff, said that Passchendaele was worse than Verdun: “It was no longer life at all. It was mere unspeakable suffering”. A British artillery officer wrote: “Dante would never have condemned lost souls to wander in so terrible a purgatory … one would cry aloud but there comes no blessed awakening”. When Lieutenant General Kiggell, Haig’s Chief of Staff, finally visited the front after the battle, he reputedly wept: “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
Was it worth it? In terms of ground gained, the capture of the ridges overlooking Ypres relieved the salient of direct German pressure. It did however create a deeper, narrower and more vulnerable salient. Haig considered that Passchendaele was untenable, as 5th Army’s objective of Westroosebeke (3.5 km north of Passchendaele) had not been taken. Indeed the Germans still clung to the northern tip of Passchendaele Ridge, and the British were swept off the captured ground in just a few days in the German offensive of April 1918.
The manoeuvrist objective of 3rd Ypres, to breach the German line then exploit to the coast, was not achieved. In attritionist terms, the British had suffered more casualties than the Germans, so was anything gained at all?
The attack had gained hardly any ground, and had cost the three assaulting divisions nearly 7,000 casualties, including 1,253 in 2nd Australian Division.
From an Australian perspective, the AIF was committed to a string of battles and they are each dealt with separately on this site;
Menin Road (/explore/campaigns/26)
Polygon Wood (/explore/campaigns/19)
Broodseinde Ridge (/explore/campaigns/18)
1st (/explore/campaigns/28) and 2nd Passchendaele (/explore/campaigns/29)
Ieper is the site of the famed Menin Gate Memorial (/explore/memorials/1789) and the Last Post ceremony conducted every evening at 6pm. The original Menin Gate was flanked by two stone lions, which after the war, were presented by the City Fathers to the Australian Government in recognition of Australian sacrifice in defence of the town. They are displayed at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
See the AWM link for more detail and specific pages in this site for the battles listed above.
Dedicated to and based on original work by my esteemed colleague and friend the late Lieutenant Colonel Peter Morrissey who crossed his Line of Departure Thursday 3rd July 2014. He has written some great material which will feature elsewhere on this site. With permission
Steve Larkins September 2014