Tommy, p.8Richard Holmes
Although there were touches which showed that more time had been available at some places than at others; the will was nowhere lacking, but the vandals had been hurried in some villages, that was all. It was as if Satan had poured desolation out of a gigantic watering-can, carelessly spraying some parts of the land more than others … Everywhere in these ruined villages women’s clothing lay about, underwear so arranged as to convey an indecent suggestion, or fouled in the most revolting way.80
Spears’s French driver, distressed almost beyond speech, kept muttering: ‘The swine, the bloody swine.’ Spears saw French soldiers bruised not simply by the physical destruction but also by the inevitable consequence of a long, and not always brutal, occupation. Some men, away from home since August 1914, found anguished wives nursing a new baby or a flaxen-haired toddler. ‘Can you love me still, who have loved you always?’ they begged. ‘No physical suffering I saw or heard of during the war equalled or even approached that raw agony,’ wrote Spears.81 There is more to the Western Front than ground lost and gained and the evolution of tactics. Just as men changed the front, so it changed them, and both the German gas attack of April 1915 and the destruction levied during the retreat to the Hindenburg line helped set iron into the soul.
The German withdrawal left Nivelle wrong-footed, for part of his offensive, now as passionately oversold to politicians as it was to soldiers, had been aimed at some areas that had been evacuated. On 4 April the Germans captured a copy of the attack plan, and thoughtfully distributed details to their waiting batteries. When French infantry attacked on 16 April, into icy rain which turned to sleet, they were cut to ribbons. Spears saw wounded coming back in despair. ‘It’s all over,’ they told him. ‘We can’t do it. We shall never ever do it. C’est impossible.’82 When Nivelle called off the offensive on 9 May he had lost some 100,000 men. He did not simply lose the confidence of his government, which replaced him with the big, wintry-faced Philippe Pétain, who had held Verdun in the dark days of early 1916. He did something far worse: he had pushed his men beyond endurance. The army which had endured Verdun had been a matchless amalgam of
steel-skulled Bretons, calm and obstinate men from the Auvergne, clear-eyed men from the Vosges, Gascons talking like d’Artagnan, idle men from Provence who put their back into it at the right moment, wolf-hunting men from the Isère, cynical and dandified Parisians, people from the plain or the mountain, from the city or the hamlet.83
The Nivelle offensive snapped its frayed tendons, and it began to mutiny.
The British contribution to the offensive was an attack at Arras intended to fix the Germans in Artois and prevent them from turning to face Nivelle. On 9 April the Canadians, four fine divisions fighting side by side for the first time, took Vimy Ridge in one of the war’s slickest set-piece attacks. Further south, the remainder of Allenby’s 3rd Army sallied out across the landscape around Monchy-le-Preux, described by James II so long before.
The battle started well, not least because of steadily-improving artillery techniques, and Ludendorff ruefully admitted that British gains were ‘a bad beginning for the decisive struggle of the year’. But as the attackers passed their first objectives, beyond pre-planned artillery fire, they found themselves, as had so often been the case in the past, taking on intact defences without adequate support. Lance Corporal H. Foakes, a medical attendant with 13/Royal Fusiliers, saw the consequences of advancing into observed artillery fire.
Over a wide belt the high explosive and heavy shrapnel came continuously and without ceasing. Amid a terrific din of roars and explosions the high explosives pitched in the ground with a shaking thud, to explode a fraction of a second later with a roar (which I always likened to the slamming of a giant door) throwing up a huge column of earth and stones and blowing men to pieces. Continually, too, came the high explosive shrapnel. A big shell, known to the troops as a ‘Woolly Bear’, bursting with a fierce whipping ‘crack’ about one hundred or two hundred feet from the ground, they rained down red hot shrapnel and portions of burst shell case.84
A battle which had started with great promise was soon stuck fast, but Haig was compelled to continue it to deflect German pressure from the French. It is not a battle that features prominently in British folk memory, but it should. Its average daily loss rate, between 9 April and 17 May, of just over 4,000 men, was higher than that of the Somme.
Haig knew that the French army was in ‘a very bad state of discipline’, and the gossipy Lord Esher drove up from Paris to GHQ and told John Charteris that ‘the morale of the whole nation has been badly affected by the failure of their attack’. But the French, understandably, kept quiet about the full extent of the mutinies, and Pétain – ‘they only call me in catastrophes’ – vigorously wielded stick and offered carrot to restore his army to reliability.
We cannot prove that Haig embarked upon his forthcoming campaign in Flanders simply because the French had mutinied, tempting though it would be to believe it. It is, however, clear that that he had long been committed to attacking in Flanders when the opportunity offered. When the printed version of his dispatches omitted this firm declaration which had formed part of the original, he had it inserted as an addendum:
The project of an offensive operation in Flanders, to which I was informed His Majesty’s Government attached considerable importance, was one which I had held steadily in view since I had first been entrusted with the Chief Command of the British Armies in France, and even before that date.85
An Allied conference in May concluded that a major war-winning offensive would have to wait until the Americans, finally drawn into the war by Germany’s adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, were present in France in strength. There were many who presciently feared that the Germans, now increasingly able to concentrate on the Western Front, might win the war before this happened, and by remaining on the defensive the Allies would hand the initiative to the Germans.
Finally, as we have seen, Haig was under pressure to get German submarines off the Flanders coast. In May he showed Pétain a sketch-map which showed a phased advance from Ypres to Passchendaele, and then out to Roulers and Thorout. As the second phase of the land advance began, there would be an amphibious hook along the coast, with a landing near Ostend. ‘Success seems reasonably possible,’ he told the War Cabinet that month.
It will give valuable results on land and sea. If full measure of success is not gained, we shall be attacking the enemy on a front where he cannot refuse to fight, and our purpose of wearing him down will be given effect to. We shall be directly covering our own most important communications, and even a partial success will considerably improve our defensive positions in the Ypres salient.86
The third battle of Ypres was thus the child of mixed strategic parentage, as soldiers’ bitter descriptions of it so accurately recognised.
As a curtain-raiser to the main battle, entrusted to Sir Hubert Gough’s 5th Army, Sir Herbert Plumer’s 2nd Army was to take Messines Ridge, south of Ypres. Plumer was ‘Plum’ to his contemporaries, ‘Drip’, because of a long-term sinus problem, to irreverent subalterns, but ‘Daddy’ to his men. His hallmark was meticulous planning and careful briefing: it is no accident that the future Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was serving as a staff officer in one of his corps, saw the Plumer method first hand, and learnt much.
On 7 June nineteen mines (nearly a million pounds of high explosive) exploded beneath Messines Ridge. A German observer tells how:
Nineteen gigantic roses with carmine-red leaves, or enormous mushrooms, were seen to rise up slowly and majestically out of the ground, and then split into pieces with an almighty roar, sending up many-coloured columns of flame and smoke mixed with a mass of earth and splinters, high into the sky.87
Plumer’s chief of staff, Sir Charles ‘Tim’ Harington, recalled that the next morning he found four dead German officers in a dugout without a mark on them: they had been killed by the shock. Plumer’s infantry advanced to secure almo
The local German army group commander, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, thought that the capture of Messines Ridge presaged an immediate attack on his vital ground, the Gheluvelt Plateau, crossed by the Menin Road due east of Ypres. But Haig was unable to follow his right hook with a straight left. It took time to swing resources up to 5th Army, further north, the French requested more time to prepare their 1st Army, which was to attack on the British left, and in any event Lloyd George, who had serious doubts about the coming battle, was reluctant to allow it to proceed. Formal permission arrived only six days before the attack began. The delay between the capture of Messines Ridge and the opening of the main battle was ultimately fatal, primarily because the weather broke just as Gough’s men went forward.
Third Ypres, like the Somme, was marked by tensions between GHQ and army headquarters. Gough, selected because he was the youngest and most dashing of the army commanders, did not know the salient well, and later agreed that it had been a mistake to send him to ‘a bit of ground with which I had practically no acquaintance’. However, he hoped ‘to advance as rapidly as possible on Roulers’, and then push on to Ostend: he always believed that this was Haig’s intention too. However, Haig agreed with their opponent that the Gheluvelt Plateau was indeed crucial, and wrote: ‘I impressed on Gough the vital importance of the ridge, and that our advance north should be limited until our right flank has been secured on the ridge.’88 The French 1st Army would attack on Gough’s left, and Plumer’s 2nd Army would mount smaller diversionary attacks on his right. When the moment was right, Rawlinson, his 4th Army headquarters commanding a much smaller force than it had the previous summer, would launch the amphibious assault.
The bombardment began on 16 July, and in its course the British fired 4,500,000 shells into the carefully-layered German defences opposite Ypres. It began the process which was to reduce the area to an abomination of desolation, doing serious damage to German positions but in the process destroying the land drainage system. The Tank Corps maintained a ‘swamp map’ to show those areas which were impassable to tanks, and whose extent was soon expanding alarmingly. Haig is sometimes accused of wanton disregard for weather conditions in Flanders, but it is clear from John Hussey’s painstaking work that the British were to be extraordinarily unlucky with the weather: both August and October were abnormally wet.89 Nor is it true that commanders were unaware of the conditions at the front. The story of a senior officer (generally identified as Kiggell, Haig’s chief of staff) asking: ‘Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?’ and then breaking down in tears has been comprehensively debunked, but still retains wide currency.90
On 1 August Haig noted in his diary ‘a terrible day of rain. The ground is like a bog.’ And in October John Charteris, well forward to watch an attack, acknowledged: ‘the saddest day of the year. It was not the enemy but the mud that prevented us from doing better … Yesterday afternoon was utterly damnable. I got back very late and could not work, could not rest.’91 Finally, this chilling description comes not from one of Haig’s critics, but from his own despatches.
The low-lying, clayey soil, torn by shells and sodden with rain, turned to a succession of vast muddy pools. The valleys of the choked and overflowing streams were speedily transformed into long stretches of bog, impassable except by a few well-defined tracks … To leave these tracks was to risk death by drowning, and in the course of the subsequent fighting on several occasions both men and pack animals were lost in this way …92
Gough’s infantry went forward early on the morning of 31 July. By the day’s end they had advanced an average of 3,000 yards at a cost of 30,000 casualties. With an ugly foretaste of what was to come, the weather was appalling, and by nightfall a gunner officer reported that some of the infantry were up to their waists in water. There were successive attacks through July and on into August, characterised by determined German resistance and the growing dominance of British artillery. A snapshot from a single action, officially part of the Battle of Langemarck, though we may doubt if this would have been clear to the men who fought in it, describes what the fighting was like for one particular unit, 12/King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a New Army battalion of 20th (Light) Division.
Aug 15th 12 noon – 8.00 pm
Battalion paraded in full Battle order, and marched independently to the assembly place, A/Capt A.D. Thornton-Smith DSO, had marked out with tape the alignment for each platoon and no difficulty was experienced in forming up. Battalion HQ were established in a small house 400 yards short of the STEENBEEK. The enemy was shelling fairly hard and B Coy sustained casualties at this point.
Aug 16th 4.45 am
ZERO HOUR – The barrage which was terrific at this moment, lifted at Zero – 5 and the Oxfords were busy mopping up AU BON GITE, with the 6th KSLI on our Right and the 12th King’s Liverpools on our Left we advanced to the BLUE LINE, about 3/400 yards short of LANGEMARCK. During this advance and a 20 minute halt in the BLUE LINE, we were subject to very heavy Machine gun fire and suffered many casualties to both Officers and men, including the CO Lt Col R. U. H. Prioleau MC (Wounded). Capt T. Lycett, our Adjutant, was then in command, and noticing a Concrete Blockhouse on our left which was holding up the advance of the 61st Brigade, and was also causing heavy casualties with MG fire to our own men, he ordered Sergt Cooper, who was in command of a platoon of A Coy (Lieut E. D. Brown having been killed) to go for it. Sergt Cooper with four men, got to within 100 yards of the Blockhouse, through a perfect hail of bullets and tried to silence the guns with Rifle fire. Finding this of no avail, he dashed at the Blockhouse, and captured it with 45 prisoners and seven machine guns, a most gallant deed for which he has been recommended for the VC …
The barrage ‘started to creep forward’ once more at 5.45, and the battalion advanced in ‘artillery formation’ company by company, with men well spaced, to the Green Line just east of Langemarck. There it shook out into line and assaulted the Red Line, and took its final objective at 7.50. Just after midday a counterattack rolled in.
Fire was brought to bear on them with good effect and the Brigade were informed of the situation. Orders were issued that our positions were to be kept at all costs … the SOS was sent at 4.15 pm Our guns responded immediately but the enemy were in very superior numbers. The weight of the counterattack seemed to be directed against the 12th King’s Liverpools on our left and, after a gallant fight, they were forced to give ground. This let the enemy in on our left and our advanced posts had been driven in. The enemy bombed up our trench and our left Company B was practically wiped out – Capt T. Dove MC was killed, 2/Lt W. F. Munsey severely wounded and a few men were taken prisoners. A defensive flank was thrown back and touch again established with 12th King’s Liverpools … Consolidation was continued during the night …
The battalion was relieved by 10/Welsh on the morning of 19 August, and returned to Malakoff Farm whence it had departed on the 15th. ‘Very tired but cheery,’ reported its diarist, ‘and after a good meal everyone turned in for a good sleep.’ It had lost five officers killed, one died of wounds, two wounded and missing and three wounded. Forty soldiers were killed and another seventeen died of wounds: forty-seven were missing, and 134 wounded. Sergeant Cooper duly received his Victoria Cross and died in his bed as a retired major. Arthur Thornton-Smith did not live to see his acting captaincy confirmed, but was killed in the first advance. He has no known grave, but is commemorated, with so many of his regiment’s dead, on the Tyne Cot memorial.93
The weather continued to be filthy. On 27 August Corporal Robert Chambers of the Bedfordshire Regiment wrote in his diary: ‘Raining like fury. Everywhere a quagmire. Fa
The next phase of the battle began well. The weather improved, and 2nd Army’s careful preparation helped the first attack, launched on 20 September, to take most of its objectives and break up German counterattacks with artillery fire. On 26 September the Australians took Polygon Wood, squarely in the middle of the battlefield, and on 4 October Plumer’s men pressed even deeper, with 5th Army keeping pace on their left. By now both the army commanders felt that the weather made any continuation of the advance impossible, and told Haig so. Haig disagreed again. This decision is even more controversial than that of mid-August. Although the balance of historical opinion is now set against Haig on the issue, the Australian Official History suggests. ‘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 all successful, what will be the result of three more in the next fortnight?”’95
The last phase of the fighting, formally christened the battles of Poelcappelle and Passchendaele, eventually took the British onto Passchendaele Ridge: the village was taken by the Canadians on 6 November. By now it was clear that no further advance could be expected. The project for the amphibious landing, already badly disrupted by German artillery attack on British positions at Nieuport, was shelved in October when Haig realised that its essential precondition, British capture of Roulers, would not now take place. By the end of the battle both sides had lost around 275,000 casualties, although there is the customary dispute over precise figures.
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