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The Third Battle of Ypres

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Introduction

In 1915, at the second Battle of Ypres, the Germans used chlorine gas for the first time in warfare and succeeded in driving the British back to the town of Ypres. Here a bulge, or salient, was formed in their front line which left the town exposed on three sides to shellfire. The town was gradually destroyed, although of course it continued to be used as an important military centre for the Allied lines and all troops left for the front line through the Menin Gate. In 1917, the area of Flanders to the east of Ypres had great strategic importance because it was dominated by a German occupied ridge from the East to the South of Ypres. This was the only high ground in a flat, featureless plain and, if the British could only break out of the Ypres salient and take it, they could turn North and drive the Germans from the Belgian coast and capture the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge from the enemy. The German position in Belgium would be outflanked and their industrial heartland in the Ruhr would be under threat. U-boats were operating out of Zeebrugge with great success and the Admiralty was increasingly gloomy about what would happen in the English Channel if the Belgium ports were not closed to the enemy. Pressure had consequently been put on Field Marshal Haig to make an attack in Flanders. Haig's plan was to strike out of Ypres to the North and East and, in conjunction with a seaborne landing on the coast of Belgium at Nieuport, he would capture the high ground at Passchendaele which was the key to the whole area. ...read more.

Middle

The Germans used a mixture of shells; high explosive, mustard gas and "sneezing gas". This latter was to make the gunners sneeze and lacrimate so much that they could not wear their gas masks and they then succumbed to the mustard gas. The Battle The official name of the battle is 3rd Ypres, but it is universally known as the Battle of Passchendaele because it was really a series of engagements with the one objective of taking Passchendaele Village and its Ridge. It commenced on the 31st July with an attack on the Northern Flats at Pilcken to the left and the Gheluvelt Ridge to the right. The troops at Pilcken were to be supported by massed tanks and this attack was initially successful but, unfortunately, the right flank was held up and failed to reach its objective of the Gheluvelt Ridge. Then at 4.00 PM the rain started. It lasted for days and of course the flooding made it impossible for the tanks to operate! Although Haig had originally only proposed a short battle to break through the German Lines and this was now patently impossible, he still insisted on continuing the battle at Langemarck to the North. General Gough, whom Haig had chosen because he was the most aggressive of his Generals, actually advised Haig to cease the battle but Haig, inflexible as ever, continued the battle despite horrific losses for another three weeks until August 26th, before he closed it down. He then decided to change the axis of attack from the North to the East and, when finer weather came, to order the assault on the ridge itself. ...read more.

Conclusion

the Canadians took Passchendaele, or what was left of it, and the battle was finally over. Air photographs of Passchendaele were taken after the battle; it is estimated that half a million shell holes could be seen in the half square mile of the picture!. This, presumably, was where Haig expected his troops to stay. And so the British gained their objective, although it was quite useless to them in terms of the original plan; the attack from the sea at Nieuport had been abandoned, and there was no hope of breaking through to the German occupied Channel ports, which were eventually blockaded by hulks sunk at Zeebrugge. Passchendaele cost over half a million lives over its 3 months. The Germans lost about 250,000 lives and the British 300,000 of whom 36,500 were Australian. 90,000 British or Australian bodies were never identified, 42,000 were never recovered; these had been blown to bits or had drowned in the dreadful morass. Many of the drowned were exhausted or wounded men who had slipped or fallen off the duckboards and were unable to escape the filthy, foul-smelling glutinous mud, sinking deeper to their deaths as they struggled. For 76 years, the name of Passchendaele has been synonymous with all that is loathsome in war, it certainly represents the futility and stupidity of warfare. Siegfried Sassoon wrote: "...I died in Hell (they called it Passchendaele) my wound was slight and I was hobbling back; and then a shell burst slick upon the duckboards; so I fell into the bottomless mud, and lost the light" but surely Passchendaele must also recognise the extraordinary bravery of the fighting soldiers who attempted what was quite obviously impossible but by superhuman efforts of will actually achieved success. That their efforts were squandered by their High Command can in no way minimise their incredible accomplishments. ...read more.

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