Third Ypres: A Decisive Victory?

Gervase Phillips
© 1998 Gervase Phillips

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Third Ypres: A Decisive Victory?

The Battle of Third Ypres had its origins in the critical juncture of events that occurred in early 1917;

1.) On 20th June Admiral Jellico had informed the war cabinet that the present level of shipping losses would prevent the British from continuing the war into 1918. He insisted that the Army direct its operations towards the clearing of the Belgian Coast.(1)

2.) The necessity of action in Flanders was reinforced by Major-General Trenchard, Commander of the RFC, who wished to end the attacks on British cities by German aircraft.(2)

3.) Britain had now to engage the main body of the German Army, to prevent it inflicting a crippling defeat on her allies. The Italians had been repulsed, bloodily, at the 10th Battle of the Isonzo and severely shaken by the Austrian counter-attack on the Trentino. The political situation in Russia remained unclear, but the vulnerability of Russian forces in the field was manifest. The French were reeling from the collapse of the Neville offensives and the series of subsequent mutinies that had paralysed her army. Haig's fears for French morale were, thus, "both genuine and reasonable." If the Germans were to gain the initiative at this critical moment they could well have won the decisive victory of the war.(3) It was, thus, imperative that they be engaged and worn-down in a sector where they had to fight. Protecting their entire position in Belgium, and with no Hindenburg line to retreat to, that sector was Flanders. German sources suggest that the German High Command was unwilling to abandon Flanders not only because a third of the U-Boat fleet was operating from Flemish ports but also because the annexation of Belgium was one of the most important of Germany's war aims and Flanders had thus an immense symbolic value.(4)

4.) Flanders, despite its low altitude, was the only realistic point on the Western Front for the British to launch an offensive. South of Arras, communications stretched across miles of barren and tortured ground abandoned by the Germans when they retreated to the Hindenburg line. An assault on the Hindenburg line itself would have required the laying of miles and miles of railway track across this devastated ground to supply the operation at a moment when time was of the essence. Furthermore large numbers of tanks would have been useful against the Hindenburg positions and these simply were not available in early 1917. Neither had artillery been as well registered as in Flanders, or mining operations commenced to such an extent. North of Arras the industrial and mining belt around Lens, northwards to the Lys, was so broken up by factories, pitheads and towns (now all heavily fortified), that any offensive action would have been severely hampered. Any advance from Ypres, on the other hand, would represent an improvement in the tactical situation, not only protecting the channel ports, but forcing the Germans from the high ground around the Salient. The proximity of the channel ports gave the British short lines of communication. The Germans, on the other hand, were in a constrained position, with lateral rail communications only ten miles behind the front. Once again, the conclusion is clear. Here the Germans would have to stand and fight or have their entire line in the West unhinged. Here was a battlefield on which the Germans could be worn-out and that task remained Haig's primary objective. (5)

5.) It was not at all apparent at the time that the weather would intercede in the battle with such doleful consequences. Fighting had occurred around Ypres well into the autumn of 1914 without serious disruption. The idea that heavy rainfall came "inevitably" and predictably to Flanders every July and August has been dismissed by Colonel Gold, the Commandant of the Meteorological Section R.E., as 'ridiculous' and it is indeed a meterological absurdity, although it one that is oft repeated by the less thoughtful of Haig's critics. In fact 1917 was exceptionally and unpredictably wet, with rainfall well above the norms for Flanders (6). That Flanders was the obvious choice for the site of a British offensive should be clear. The British War Cabinet was well informed of Haig's plans, and saw no reason to raise any objections. (7)

6.) The British had reason to be confident of success. Assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, the BEF had learned a great deal during its gruelling apprenticeship. As early as July 1916 a German Intelligence Report had commented "The English Infantry has learnt much since the autumn [Loos] offensive."(8) In early 1917 a combination of meticulous planning, thorough training and innovative tactics (for example the "leap-frogging" Divisions used during the first stages of the Arras offensive), gave the British a series of striking victories, most notably the storming of the Vimy and Messines Ridges. British artillery was particularly potent. The work of the sound rangers and flash spotters of the R.E. Survey Companies allowed for effective counter-battery work, vital to the success of offensive action. In June 1917 some German batteries in Flanders were forbidden to fire when the sector was too quiet "in consequence of the excellent Sound Ranging of the English"(9). The BEF was not just perfecting existing techniques but was innovating too. It is worthy of note that plans for the Ypres Offensive included consideration of the possibility of an amphibious assault on the coast of Belgium. Over twenty-five years before D-Day, the "unimaginative" Haig had been floating the idea of tank landing crafts. This was far from the only example of Haig's prescience. In 1915 Haig had met representatives of the Ministry of Munitions,requesting that they supply the BEF with "a lighter machine gun, with tripod and gun in one part...Mobility is most important." Indeed, legends to the contrary aside, Haig had been an advocate of the Machine Gun since his experience in the Sudan in 1898. (10)

There is no doubt that the early phases of the Third Ypres battle were a bitter disappointment to the Allies. The original attack, entrusted to the thrusting General Sir Hubert Gough, was fatally flawed by his decision not to attempt an initial assault on the whole of the Gheluvelt Plateau. Such a plan went against Haig's better judgement, but he failed to overrule Gough, preferring to leave the final decision to "the man on the spot." This error reminds one of Haig's failure to override Rawlinson's doomed tactical plan for 1st July 1916. It does however neatly dispose of the myth that Haig would not listen to the opinion of others.

Despite Gough's slow progress the Germans suffered heavily in the fighting. Ludendorff wrote;

"The costly August battles in Flanders...imposed a heavy strain on the Western troops. In spite of all the concrete protection they seemed more or less powerless under the enormous weight of the enemy's artillery. At some points they no longer displayed the firmness which I...had hoped for...The state of affairs in the West appeared to prevent the execution of our plans elsewhere. Our wastage...had exceeded all expectations." (11)
Worse was to come for the beleaguered German defenders. The conduct of the offensive was now placed in the capable hands of the methodical General Plumer. Haig insisted that the battle be fought his way, advocating the "principle of advancing step by step with limited objectives and overwhelming artillery power." (12)

Such an approach paid real dividends. Plumer took command on the 28th August 1917, and, under his direction, the Germans reeled under a succession of hammer blows. Both sides were caught in the miserable conditions and the fighting was unremitting and bloody. The Germans however were being forced to the conclusion that attack was now stronger than defence.(13) Ludendorff acknowledged this point after the British victory in the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge on September 20th. One consistent source of alarm for the Germans was the failure in their defensive tactics and the fate of the majority of their counter-attacks, destroyed by artillery fire before they had even had time to form up. On 20th September, in noticeably fine weather, the RFC, making extensive use of wireless communication, directed the guns onto bodies of troops preparing to counter attack. The possible directions of these attacks had been carefully plotted before the advance, which was now confined to shallow objectives seized by rapidly moving infantry. All these developments were indicative of the BEF's continuing commitment to innovation and evolution in offensive tactics (14). The number of German prisoners and guns captured by this style of assault declined, the number killed and wounded rose sharply. In the face of these success the Germans consistently altered their defensive tactics, but failed to contain the British advance. In early October they tried reinforcing their front line, and launching local counter attacks by supporting divisions located close to the firing line. On the 4th October this experiment met with disaster during the Battle of Broodseinde. As a result of the thickening of the front-line almost 5000 prisoners were taken. More appalling was the dreadful slaughter of the German Divisions massed near the front line, caught once again, by devastating artillery fire. Ludendorff admitted that he had no remedy for the British system of attack, and returned to his system of holding the front zone lightly. He had little confidence in this as a method of withstanding assault, he hoped only now to conserve his battered forces (15). The German Official History comments:

"The Army High Command came to the conclusion that their was no means by which the positions could be held against the overpowering enemy superiority in infantry or artillery. Loss of ground in these heavy enemy attacks was unavoidable."(16)
The British seemed poised on the edge of a great victory. The Australian Official Historian wrote;
"Let the student, looking at the prospect as it appeared at noon on 4th October, ask himself; 'in view of three step-by-step blows [20th, 26th Sept. & 4th October] all successful, what will be the result of three more in the next fortnight?"(17)
The Germans were asking themselves the same question. On the 11th October Crown Prince Rupprecht reported to the OHL:

"In order to save material and men, it may become necessary to withdraw the front so far from the enemy that he will be compelled to make a fresh deployment of his artillery." (18)

In other words, Haig had come far closer to achieving the territorial objectives of Third Ypres than his critics have been willing to admit. That the German Army had been "worn-down" by the experience is beyond dispute. German sources of the interwar years suggest that almost three-quarters of the entire German army had been drawn into the fighting against the "careful" and "effective" British offensive (19). The weather, "our greatest ally," as Rupprecht called it, was their saviour. The British could not deliver the knock out blow as the skies opened over the sullen swamp. On October 22nd the British attacked towards Poelcappelle and south of the Houthulst Forest, attacks designed to assist indirectly the French assaults at Malmaison (20). If the British were able to record only a disappointing advance they did at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the French were now back on their feet and fighting with their old vigour. Proof came with the magnificent captures of the Laffaux Salient and the Chemin-des-Dames a few days later. The positions reached by the British by the 12th October were not favourable. Low lying ground was still overlooked by German artillery observers on the drier high ground. It was to reach these positions that the final operations of Third Ypres were carried out, culminating in the capture of Passchendaele by the Canadians on 10th November.

The Outcome.
With the perception one would expect of an experienced soldier, the American Lieutenant-General Hunter Liggett commented on Passchendaele:

"[The British] paid more for it than they could afford, more than it was worth, but they had no choice. They had to ding-dong away, for Italy was all but out of the fighting and the French were just returning to it...The failure of Nivelle's offensive left the British to bear the brunt of the war in the West for most of the year. They battled through Flanders all the summer to such effect that the Germans were unable to exploit the near debacle of the French" (21)
These sentiments are echoed in the German Official Monograph on the battle, "Flandern,":

"There can be no doubt today ...that in point of fact English stubboness bridged over the crisis in France...The help which England brought to the cause of the Entente was justified by the result."(22)

That the Third Battle of Ypres had played a crucial role in preventing a German offensive, an offensive that may well have won the war, is confirmed by the German Official History;

"The [British] offensive had protected the French against fresh German attacks, and thereby procured them time to re-consolidate their badly shattered troops. It compelled OHL to exercise the strongest control over and limit the engagement of forces in other theatres of war; two divisions on their way from the East to Italy [Caporetto] had to be diverted from Italy to Flanders. But above all the battle had led to an excessive expenditure of German forces. The casualties were so great that they could no longer be covered, and the already reduced battle strength of battalions sank significantly lower."(23) After Third Ypres the nominal strength of German Battalions was reduced from 750 to 700.(24)
The whole issue of casualties remains a deeply contentious one.

The death toll at Third Ypres was considerably less than that of the Somme. All casualty figures remain speculative, but German losses in the 1916 battle are generally estimated at between 500,000 and 660,000. Allied (French and British) losses in the same battle are placed in the region of 630,000.(25)

Third Ypres cost the British between 244,000 and 324,000, depending on whose figures you believe. German casualties are equally contentious. the lowest estimates are around 200,000, the highest twice that.(26)

The debates about who suffered the most casualties are insoluble, but this does not preclude one from concluding the Third Ypres struck a blow to the German Army from which it could not recover. The reality is that Germany, having already suffered horrendous casualties on the Somme, at Verdun and during the Brusilov offensive, could not afford these losses . Even if the lowest estimates for German casualties are taken, the major German authorities agree that the losses of Flanders were irreplaceable.

Von Kuhl, Rupprecht's Chief of Staff, noted;

"The supply of reinforcements was bound to become more difficult in the ensuing years, so that in the end the conduct of the War was definitely influenced by it." (27)

The loss was not just man power but morale. On October 11th 1917, Rupprecht of Bavaria recorded this in his diary;

"Accounts from the rank and file tell a dismal early as July marauding and thieving were rife, and if the field gendarmerie interfered the soldiers made short business of the gendarmes."(28)

Low morale was evident on the battlefield too. "...It has to be admitted that certain units no longer triumphed over the demoralizing effect of the defensive battle as they had done formerly," wrote Ludendorff in October, 1917 (29). Haig has been much criticised for persisting in his belief that the German army was close to cracking during the final stages of 3rd Ypres, yet the evidence for a looming crisis in German morale is striking. Von Kuhl felt that certain divisions could no longer be trusted to undertake counter-attacks, whilst many of the German fortifications had been surrendered to opposing troops with little or no fight. Problems were compounded by the ill-discipline of troops arriving from Russia and delays in relieving exhausted front line Divisions (30). From August onwards the German army was plagued by widespread desertion and 1917 saw a string of mutinies, primarily in Saxon and Wurttemberg units, but also in regiments of Hessians, Silesians and Prussians (31). As Cyril Falls (who fought at Passchendaele) noted "most of the hostile judgements [on the continuation of 3rd Ypres] come from those ignorant of the atmosphere on the German side."(32) To some degree it was the state of the German army at the end of this defensive battle that convinced Ludendorff that he himself had to take the offensive the following year. In that sense, the experience of Passchendaele can be seen as the trigger for the ultimately disastrous German Spring Offensive of 1918.(33)

A German Corps commander lamented the breaking of German morale:

"In millions of letters from the Western Front from April to November came the ever-rising bitter complaints of the almost unbearable hardships and bloody losses in the scarcely interrupted chain of battles: Arras, Aisne-Champagne, Flanders and the Chermin-des-Dames. A hundred thousand leave men told the Home Front by word of mouth the details of the ever growing superiority of the enemy, particularly in weapons of destruction."(34)
This is a theme to which recent historians of the battle have now returned, suggesting that it was the demands of the 1917 Flanders campaign that ultimately triggered Germany's collapse.(35) The desperation felt by the troops was now felt in Germany itself, and the remaining months of the war would be marked by material deprivation, and by political and social unrest.(36) Thus were the seeds of ultimate victory sown in that sullen Flanders swamp.


(1) James Marshall-Cornwall, Haig as Military Commander, (London, 1973), pp 234-235

(2) John Terraine, "Passchendaele", in Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association, 37, Spring 1993, pp 8-9

(3) Robert Blake, The Private Papers of Douglas Haig, (London, 1952), p.56. John Charteris, At G.H.Q., (London, 1931) pp 231-235

(4) See Heinz Hagenenlucke, "The German High Command," in Peter H.Liddle (ed), Passchendaele in Perspective, (London, 1997), p.54

(5) G.A.B Dewar & J.Boraston, Sir Douglas Haig's Command, Vol.1, (London, 1922), pp 339-341

(6) See John Hussey, "The Flanders Battleground and the Weather in 1917," In P.H.Liddle (ed), Passchendaele in Perspective, pp.140-158.

(7) John Bourne, Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918, (London, 1988), p 76; Dewar and Boraston, Vol.1, p 324

(8) "Experiences of the IV German Corps in the Battle of the Somme during July 1916", (IWM reprint of 1916 Document)

(9) Quoted in John R.Innes (ed), Flash Spotters and Sound Rangers; How They Lived, Worked and Fought in the Great War, (London, 1935) p.137

(10) John Terraine, The Smoke and The Fire, (London, 1992) pp 139-140

(11) Quoted in John Terraine, The Educated Soldier, (London, 1990) p 355

(12) John Davidson, Haig: Master of The Field, (London, 1953) p 40

(13) John Keegan, "Passchendaele, The Second Phase", Purnell's History of the First World War, Vol.6, p 2331

(14) For an overview of the BEF's wartime evolution see Paddy Griffith (ed), British Fighting Methods in the Great War, (Portland, OR 1996)

(15) Dewar and Boraston, Vol.I, op. cit. pp 375-7

(16) Terraine, "Passchendaele", op. cit., p 10

(17) Quoted in Davidson, op. cit., p154

(18) Davidson, op.cit., p155

(19) "Landkrieg" in the Handbuch der neuzeitlichen Wehrwissenschafte, Berlin, 1936, Vol. I, pp 436-7

(20) Sir William Robertson, Soldiers and Statesmen, 1914-1918, Vol.2, (London, 1926), p 256

(21) Davidson, op.cit., p158

(22) Davidson, op.cit., p158

(23) Davidson, op.cit., p158

(24) Holger Hewig, The First World War Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918, (London, 1997), p 332

(25) J.Baynes, "The Somme; The Last Phase", Purnell's History of the First World War, 4, pp1685-1695; T.Wilson and R.Prior, "Summing Up The Somme", History Today, November 1991, pp 37-43.

(26) E.K.G.Sixsmith, Douglas Haig, (London, 1976), p.116; Rod Paschall, The Defeat of Imperial Germany 1917-1918, (New York, 1994), p 79

(27) Quoted in Davidson, op.cit., p156

(28) Quoted in Davidson, op.cit., p156

(29) Quoted in Terraine, The Educated Soldier, p 373

(30) Duff Cooper, Haig, Vol.II, (London, 1936), p 169.

(31) Hew Strachan, "The Morale of the German Army," in Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddle (eds), Facing Armageddon, (London, 1996), p 387.

(32) Cyril Falls, The First World War, (London, 1960), p 286

(33) Hagenlucke, op.cit., p 55

(34) Davidson, op.cit., p 156

(35) Frank Vandiver, "Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and Passchendaele," in P.H.Liddle (ed), Passchendale in Perspective, p 40

(36) Herwig, The First World War pp 373-387

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