Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

It Couldn't Have Been More Badly Conceived: Passchendaele, 12 October 1917

Dealing with Casualties the Day After

In all the case studies of horrendous cock-ups by the generals of World War I, this is one of the worst. Interestingly, in official histories of the war, it is designated the First Battle of Passchendaele. Possibly this is how the entire Flanders offensive of 1917 has been labeled "Passchendaele".

In late August 1917 General Herbert Plumer was given command of an offensive to capture high ground east of the Belgian town of Ypres using his Second Army (positioned south of the red broken line on the map). Under the command of the Army’s II ANZAC Corps was the New Zealand Division.

The New Zealand Division took part in the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917, tasked with seizing the part of the Broodseinde Ridge called Gravenstafel Spur. On that day the New Zealand soldiers overwhelmed German forward positions, captured 1,100 prisoners and helped to extend the front line eastward, as indicated by the thick purple broken line. This was achieved at a cost of 1,700 casualties, including 350 deaths.

The British high command mistakenly concluded that the relative ease with which the Broodseinde Ridge had been won meant enemy resistance was faltering. It resolved to make a farther push for Passchendaele Ridge on 12 October.  The 3rd Australian Division was positioned to the right of the New Zealand Division on 10 October in anticipation of the attack.  However, by this time heavy rain had turned the terrain of Flanders into a muddy bog, rendering artillery support ineffective.

New Zealand soldiers advanced up the ridge only to find the enemy’s concrete pillboxes and lines of barbed wire still largely intact. Eight hundred forty three New Zealanders lost their lives in the Battle of Passchendaele, and another 2,700 were wounded. This futile attack was the New Zealand Division’s greatest disaster. The 3rd Australian Division suffered almost as badly, totaling 3,200 casualties.

Click on Map to Enlarge

The Purple Line Indicates the Jump-Off Point on 12 October 1917

Why did the operation turn into a nearly perfect cock-up? New Zealand historian of Massey University, provides a summary—

The warning signs were clear to anyone who cared to notice them. Convinced that the Germans were near breaking point, Haig ordered a new attack on 9 October, known as the Battle of Poelcapelle. Poorly planned, lacking adequate artillery support, and ignoring weather and terrain conditions, the attack was a disaster for the 11 divisions involved. In the Anzac sector two British divisions, the 49th and the 66th of II Anzac Corps and the 2nd Australian Division of I Anzac Corps took part. While their planned advance was a short one, between 600 and 900 yards, not a single objective was taken and the casualties were horrendous. The 49th Division alone suffered more than 2,500 casualties in this attack. Yet still Haig persisted in continuing the offensive, writing in his diary that the results of this attack "were very successful." Then he informed his headquarters:

I am of the opinion that the operations of the 49th and 66th Divisions, carried out today under great difficulties of assembly, will afford the II Anzac Corps a sufficiently good jumping off line for operations on October 12th, on which date I hope that the II Anzac Corps will capture Passchendaele. The New Zealand Division and the 3rd Australian Division were now condemned to make an attack that should never have gone ahead. Never in its history have New Zealand troops been ordered to carry out an attack in such unfavorable circumstances. Nothing at all was right for it. Here is a brief list:

• The terrain was like glutinous porridge and it was raining heavily. This made a mockery of any attempt at tactical finesse like fire and maneuver and outflanking
enemy strong points.

• The objectives were very deep, over 3,000 yards. It included those set for 9 October. 

• Only two days were allocated to plan and coordinate the attack.

• Artillery support was totally inadequate, as the CRA (Napier Johnston) informed General Russell before the attack commenced. Few guns had been moved forward; those that had been did not have stable gun platforms and were short of shells.

• The troops were exhausted just reaching the start line and their morale was low. This was especially so for the 3rd Rifle Brigade, which had just completed a month detached as laborers from the division, one of the disadvantages of maintaining a four-brigade division. Since 4 September, the 3rd Rifle Brigade had been in the Ypres salient burying telephone cables and constructing roads. This work had to be done at night, often while wearing gas masks. The brigade's history candidly admits that in October its soldiers "were almost worn out and [were] certainly unready for immediate combative action."

The Job of Stretcher Bearer in Flanders

• The New Zealand stretcher bearers started the attack exhausted too, having to clear the battlefield of over 200 wounded men left out since the debacle of 9 October.

• The German obstacles ahead of them were formidable. These included the many pillboxes and two belts of barbed wire each about 30 yards thick, all of which was clearly visible from the New Zealand start line. What was not observed, though, were the many hidden machine gun nests and sniper teams moved into position for this attack.

• The German defenders knew the attack was coming. Not only could they see the preparations being made, but a British deserter and three other soldiers captured in raids on the night of 11 October also informed their captors of the exact time of the attack.

Exhausted New Zealand Engineers After the Attack

The attack was doomed before it even started. This is not the hindsight of a historian, either. Those New Zealand soldiers in the line on the morning of 12 October knew that the task ahead of them was formidable and that their prospects of survival were slim.  Afterward, the men who were there and their nation would remember it as "New Zealand's Blackest Day."

Sources: New Zealand History; Over the Top Magazine, July 2017

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