After the success of the the battle of Messines Ridge in early June 1917, the greatest military success of the war to date, the Allied army instead of pushing forward on through Flanders to the Passchendaele ridge, remained static for seven weeks. The Commander in Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, believed that the German army was on the verge of collapse, and would be broken completely by a major Allied victory. He needed time to prepare a new strategy.
Haig presented a meticulously planned campaign for a new offensive, which would take the Passchendaele ridge from a new approach, that would clear the way for the Allies to destroy the German submarine bases located on the north coast of Belgium.
There was serious disagreement among the Allied command. Even the British prime minister David Lloyd George was opposed to the offensive, and was later highly critical of Haig’s tactics in his published memoirs. But in the absence of an credible alternative, and in the belief that a rapid follow-up to the Messines success was essential, he felt obliged to sanction Haig’s plans.
The Third Battle of Ypres, known simply as Passchendaele, began just before dawn July 30 1917, with a massive bombardment of the German lines, across an 18 kilometre front. For days three thousand guns fired four and a quarter million shells, before the whistles blew and officers led their men over the trenches.
The German Fourth army was dazed and shattered by the aggressive attack on the Messine Ridge, and suffered 25,000 casualties. But it was quick to recover. The bombardment was a clear indication that an offensive was to be expected imminently. The element of surprise was entirely absent. Once again, as in the Somme offensive one year before, the machine guns were ready.
‘Blown to bits’
On that fateful day, the poet, Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge, was in a party of men from the 1st battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers carrying out repairs to the Boesinghe-Pilken road at the Rose crossroads (carrefour de Rose ), behind Allied lines. This was an essential road for supplying the rear of the advancing fighting line. The ground was low-lying and liable to flood. The road was busy with soldiers moving eastwards, and horse-drawn wagons loaded with equipment and munitions. It had been damaged by enemy artillery shells firing on the attacking British force.
Suddenly, with only the briefest warning, a long range German artillery shell landed among the men. Chaplain Fr C. H. Devas SJ, who knew the Irish poet, was among the first to arrive at the scene. That night he wrote in his diary: ‘Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.’
Passchendaele was eventually called off in late November. The Allies made gains of about seven kilometres, but at an insane cost. Progress on both sides was severely hampered by heavy rains, the heaviest in 30 years, which churned the Flanders lowland soil into a thick muddy swamp. Ironically the intensive bombardment that opened the offensive only succeeded in creating an almost impossible cratered landscape. Tanks became immobile, stuck fast in mud and shell holes. The British, Canadians, New Zealanders, and other allies, suffered an obscene 310,000 causalities. The German losses were put at 260,000.
The battle marked a crisis in the conduct of the war. The previous spring, following the collapse of any worthwhile progress, and stinging criticism of French army high command, there were a series of widespread mutinies, with soldiers refusing to fight. It took considerable persuasion, extended periods of leave for exhausted men, punishment (though executions were rarely carried out ), and some relief from battle before order was restored.
In Russia, the revolution in St Petersburg had spread into the army, bringing its collapse, and disintergration on the Eastern front. Thousands of German reserves now poured into the western battlegrounds. Mustard gas was used to deadly effect. Men went mad from noise and fear.
British morale was also at breaking point. Submarine attacks were weakening resolve on the home front, while mounting criticism against Haig’s inflexible strategy, and his refusal to call off his murderous offensive before he did so, strained relationships among the Allied armies.
However, after three years of bloody stalemate along the Western front, the arrival of American well-supplied forces in June 1917 was the beginning of the turning point in favour of the Allies, leading to the rapid collapse of the German onslaught.
Next week: Francis Ledwidge:
‘He shall not hear the bittern cry’
NOTES: The quotes are taken from ‘A Little Book of Ledwidge, a selection of poems and letters’, compiled by John Quinn, published by Veritas, on sale €10.
Other information ‘Francis Ledwidge memorial’, and firstworldwar.com