1916-1917: an infantry revolution
1916 was a year of great offensives – at Verdun and on the Somme – offensives made possible by the creation of ‘total war’ economies able to sustain unprecedented levels of manpower mobilisation and munitions production. But still the decisive victory proved elusive – whether by breakthrough (as the British planned on the Somme), or by attrition (as the Germans hoped at Verdun).
The experience of both battles led to major changes in military organisation and battlefield tactics. The winter of 1916/17 was a turning-point, the moment when the linear tactics of the 19th century finally gave way completely to the fire-and-movement tactics of the 20th. It was nothing short of an infantry revolution.
Passchendaele was a very different battle from the Somme, not just in the conditions – the mud and rain of the Flanders plain in autumn 1917 as opposed to the chalk downs of the Somme in summer 1916. The German defences tended to be a lacework of emplacements and bunkers ranged in depth, with reserves held well back, to be used only when the main force of the attack had spent itself and the enemy had been degraded and disorganised.
Amid the chaos and carnage, despite the ultimate futility of the battle, a new approach to ground combat, both attack and defence, was being worked out. The following year, it would produce the great breakthrough battles of 1918.
The Battle of Passchendaele consisted of three main phases:
- July-August 1917: Gough’s general assault
- September-October 1917: Plumer’s bite-and-hold attacks
- October-November 1917: Haig’s final push
The map above depicts the Passchendaele offensive, 31 July-10 November 1917, showing the main phases of British operations.
- British front-line, 7 June
- British front-line after Messines, 14 June
- British front-line after Gough’s general assault, 16 August
- British front-line after Plumer’s bite-and-hold attacks, 13 October
- British front-line at end of the offensive, 7 November
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