Why did the British fight the Third Battle of Ypres? MHM editor Neil Faulkner analyses the background to Haig’s offensive in Flanders in autumn 1917.
The controversy has lasted a century. It will probably never be resolved. The Third Battle of Ypres – or ‘Passchendaele’ as it is popularly known – was bitterly contested at the highest levels of the British state before, during, and after it was fought. It has been the subject of interminable debate ever since, among veterans, military historians, general historians, artists and writers, and the wider public.
Three sets of interlocking issues are in dispute. These boil down to an argument about the nature of the war; an argument about global grand strategy; and an argument about the strategy and tactics of this particular operation.
The former is an argument about the First World War between those who believe it had to be fought to resist German militarism and expansionism, and those who believe it was an imperialist war fought for territory and profit in the interests of the rich. This question had divided patriots and pacifists from the outset, but in early 1917 the issue exploded into life with the February revolution in Russia and the April-June army mutinies in France. And before the Passchendaele Offensive ended, the division between pro- and anti-war Europe had deepened, with the October revolution in Russia and the October-November military collapse on the Italian Front.
The Bolsheviks declared for immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, denounced the war as an imperialist slaughter, published all the secret treaties they could lay their hands on to prove the point, and called on soldiers everywhere – ‘workers and peasants in uniform’ – to stop fighting, fraternise with the enemy, and make revolution at home.
Losing the war?
Nor was this the sum of Entente woes in 1917. The previous year had seen meat-grinder offensives at Verdun and the Somme which, despite unprecedented casualties, had changed nothing. The apparent futility of it all had cast a pall of gloom over the peoples of the warring nations: ‘war weariness’ – as growing anti-war sentiment was euphemistically described in the newspapers – was an increasing preoccupation of the politicians (though less often of the generals).
Just as bad, Serbia having being overrun in late 1915, Romania had gone the same way at the end of 1916, knocking out the Entente’s two main allies in the Balkans. Even the Ottoman Empire had proved rather less ‘sick’ than anticipated, forcing an ignominious British surrender at Kut in Mesopotamia in April 1916, and standing strong at Gaza, the ‘Gateway to Palestine’, where it inflicted two signal defeats on clumsy British attacks in March and April 1917.
Furthermore, in what was potentially the most dangerous development of all, the British were losing the Battle of the Atlantic, with the tonnage sunk rising from 298,000 in January 1917 to 468,000 in February, 500,000 in March, and 849,000 in April. ‘During this month [April],’ recalled Churchill, ‘it was calculated that one in four merchant ships leaving the United Kingdom never returned.
The U-boat was rapidly undermining not only the life of the British islands, but the foundations of the Allies’ strength; and the danger of their collapse in 1918 began to loom black and imminent.’
The miserable catalogue of failure just kept growing. General Nivelle, the new French commander-in-chief in succession to Joffre, launched an offensive in Champagne on the Western Front in the spring proclaiming, ‘We have a formula… victory is certain.’
He did not, and the defeat was absolute. The French lost 120,000 men in five days. A month later, Nivelle was sacked. By then, his army was paralysed by a wave of mutinies: around 40,000 men were directly involved, 68 divisions were affected, and during one two-week period the front was virtually denuded of troops.
Seeking a victory
‘Give us a victory’ was the new British prime minister Lloyd George’s appeal to the military high command: a victory to ease the pressure on Britain’s allies; a victory to lift the mood of the nation; a victory to show that the war could yet be won.
Other British political and military leaders agreed. It was necessary to draw down German forces and ease the pressure on all three major allies – the French, the Russians, and the Italians.
But where? On this, there was no agreement. Instead, the simmering argument between ‘Westerners’ and ‘Easterners’ was reignited. It tended to pit imperial statesmen concerned with the Mediterranean, Suez, and the route to India – men who were also civilian politicians accountable to an electorate appalled by the astronomical casualty lists on the Western Front – against conventionally trained generals committed to the pseudo-Clausewitzian notion that the only correct way to fight a war was to go head-to-head with the enemy’s main forces.
Lloyd George sought an ‘Eastern’ fix. He wanted to find a way through the continent-spanning siegeworks around the territory of the Central Powers that did not involve another onslaught on the strongest part of the line: the Western Front – where the belt of defences was miles deep and tended to comprise three separate lines, each of three trenches, laced with wire, concrete bunkers, machine-gun nests, and massed artillery emplacements. Maybe Palestine? Maybe the Balkans? Maybe the Italian Front?
Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, would have none of it, and he generally enjoyed the wholehearted support of Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff back in London.
Here, in the inner recesses of Haig’s psyche, conventional military thinking fused with concern to defend his own pre-eminence among British commanders – which meant prioritising the Western Front – and perhaps with a stubbornness that bordered on the pathological, since it seemed to increase in the face of contrary evidence and mounting opposition.
This is too controversial a claim to be left unsubstantiated. Events at the end of the battle strongly imply that Haig was unhinged. When he summoned the Canadian Division, an elite formation, to storm the Passchendaele Ridge in the closing weeks of the offensive, the Canadian commander, Sir Arthur Currie, asked again and again why Haig felt the ridge had to be taken. He got the same answer every time: some day he could tell him, but not now.
This was bizarre behaviour. There was, of course, no good reason why the senior officer being asked to carry out the mission should not have been told its purpose. The problem was that no rational military purpose was served: indeed, the effect of the capture of the Passchendaele Ridge – at enormous cost – was to place the forward-most British forces at the tip of a salient exposed to enemy fire from three directions.
The issue was political and personal. Haig had fought Third Ypres in the teeth of criticism and opposition, especially from civilian politicians, but increasingly from military men as well. He had promised a great breakthrough and the capture of the Channel Ports. He had consumed a quarter of a million men. He had to be able to claim some sort of ‘victory’. The now non-existent village of Passchendaele – reduced to a few acres of slime and rubble – was to be the token of an equally non-existent victory.
Why was he not stopped? If not at the outset, then once the offensive had bogged down for the first time, in August, or certainly once it had bogged down for the second time, in October, with winter fast approaching and any lingering hope of a breakthrough long gone?
Lloyd George later reproached himself for his failure to do so. At the time, a whole set of factors operated to hamstring the civilian leadership. The government itself was not united in its opposition to the Flanders offensive, or at least not united in taking on the military high command, and Lloyd George’s political position, as the leader of a parliamentary coalition, was relatively weak.
His ability to influence essentially military decisions – even grand strategic decisions about whether to pursue a major offensive – was hampered by the simple fact that the generals controlled the information on which decisions had to be based. Only limited information, often much delayed, often ‘spun’ by the ever-optimistic Haig, reached Whitehall.
And the military, of course, tended to close ranks against the politicians: whatever reservations some of his generals may have had, Haig could depend on the fact that few brass-hats would bleat to the frock-coats. No strong anti-Haig/anti-Westerner military faction emerged.
The prime minister, anyway, was distracted by other responsibilities, and even when Passchendaele occupied his attention, he sometimes seems to have been ground down by the wall of opposition he encountered.
In the end, events played out because none of the doubters had the clarity, energy, and determination necessary to intervene decisively and close the offensive down.
And much effort would have been required, for great offensives were long in the planning and preparation, and the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of men, the stockpiling of millions of shells, the building of roads and trenches and depots, the billeting and training of divisions, the massing and emplacement of guns, the whole complex logistics of modern industrialised warfare, all this created a momentum towards action.
When all is said and done, the battle happened because Sir Douglas Haig wished it, because he controlled the necessary resources, and because no one else was in a position to halt the juggernaut he set in motion.
The Ypres Salient was vital strategic ground for both sides. Any German breakthrough in Flanders would have immediately imperilled the BEF’s supply-line, which ran through the French ports on the Channel coast to England; Haig’s army would have had very little room to retreat or manoeuvre if driven back beyond Ypres.
Any British breakthrough, on the other hand, would have had serious consequences for the Germans, who would risk losing their U-boat bases on the Belgian coast and perhaps having their grip on Belgium as a whole – an industrial asset and a bargaining chip – broken.
It was for this reason that the armies had been locked in an embrace of death around the Salient since November-December 1914 – despite the fact that the ground was an unforgiving wetland that rain and shelling could turn into a quagmire of saturated mud in a matter of days.
But it was much worse for the British. Their enemies were ensconced on what passed for ‘hills’ in the Salient – modest slopes rising perhaps 50 metres above sea level – and these formed a rough semi-circle around the southern and eastern edges.
Here it was usually possible to dig deep trenches and dugouts, and from here the Germans enjoyed wide views over the British lines and rear areas. The German guns were registered on every road and junction, every trench and emplacement, restricting virtually all movement to night-time.
The vital ground was the Gheluvelt Plateau, the south-west to north-east ridge – or, rather, series of ridges, for it undulated, creating a succession of distinct defensive positions – that commanded the whole of the plain to the north. To get forwards, the British had to take the Gheluvelt Plateau.
This is an extract from the 15-page special feature on Passchendaele, which appeared in issue 83 of Military History Monthly. Click here to subscribe to the magazine, and have it sent straight to your door every month.