Third Battle of Ypres

A British success or failure?


Battle of the Menin road bridge, British troops of the 13th battalion before their victory

The Third Battle of Ypres or the Battle of Passchendaele was a campaign launched by the British against German occupied Belgium. The plan was created by Sir Douglas Haig and took place between 31st July- 10th November 1917. The battle resulted in gains by the British army, but similarly to the Battle of the Somme, the Allies suffered heavy casualties.

Why was it launched?

Firstly, Sir Douglas Haig believed the German morale has gone increasingly low, thus the Allied would have been able to easily break through the enemy lines.

Secondly, German submarine bases in the Belgian coast were able to easily cause a blockade in British shipping, therefore British Admiral Jellicoe warned that if this continues, then Britain won't be able to sustain their war effort into 1918.

Lastly, there is a great possibility Russia would withdraw from the war; allowing Eastern German forces to fight in the western front, ultimately increasing its strength.

What was the plan for the Battle?

With the success of an attack at Messines Ridge (a region outside Ypres) destroyed German defensive positions; Haig, believing it won't be difficult, wanted an attack in this area to breakthrough enemy lines. Once they accomplish this, the Allied forces would attack and hopefully capture the Northern Belgian lowlands.

What happened during the Battle?

On the 18th of July, a series of artillery bombardments was launched before infantry soldiers started advancing on the 31st of July. The bombardments weren't able to break enemy trenches but it caused great impacts on No man's land, as a consequence, soldiers had to attack cautiously. Moreover, the area experienced heavy rain, the heaviest in 30 years.

The Third Battle of Ypres was opened by Gough's Fifth Army on its right and a corps of the French First Amy to its left. The Fourth army was able to gain little while the French army was completely halted.

Several more attacks were made but none were as effective until the 16th of August when the fierce Battle of Langemarck resulted in small gains but heavy losses. The next major attacks began again in September with the Battle of the Menin Road Bridge, Battle of Polygon Wood and the Battle of Broodseinde, they brought great victories for the British compared to the previous few weeks.

Haig then ordered for a push into Passchendaele village almost certain that they could break through German lines. After their capture of the village through a sequence of small successes, Haig to call off the attack and finally claim victory on November 10th.

Why was the battle a disaster?

Although the battle allowed the British to gain important land in Belgium, it resulted with heavy casualties as well. Why was it such a failure for the British even if it was a success?

-First of all, with the heavy bombardment before the battle, the Germans sensed a full scale Allied attack, the element of surprise was not possible.

-The battlefield suffered heavy rain, never experienced by the soldiers. It was so intense that it turned the soil into mud; men and horses simply drowned in the mud.

-Bombardment shells created giant craters on No man's land, making it harder for the British to travel.

-Similar tactics were used in this battle and the Battle of the Somme in 1916, by simply running towards the enemy trenches; In addition with heavy rain, lumpy ground and prepared Germans.

-Sir Douglas Haig ignored any additional suggestions made by fellow officers. He refused to change his battle plans and unwilling to concede the failure of his strategy.

Was Douglas Haig to blame for the disaster?

I believe Douglas Haig was to mostly blame for the failure of the battle because of his poor judgement and his decision to disregard any consequences in his plans. Sir Douglas Haig was appointed due to his background, not ability, even so he would not have made an excellent general because he was trained to be a cavalry officer. Haig also refused to change anything he made in his plans even though many officers stated out obvious problems to it.

Although there were other causes to the failure of the British, such as the unexpected heavy rain; but if these factors never existed or never caused great impacts, the battle would most likely turn out to be another Battle of the Somme.

Haig did not learn from his mistakes in the Somme, giving the Germans a better understanding of how they should defend themselves. Despite the fact that the British won the battle, they didn't have to suffer as many casualties if Haig called off the battle earlier than November, or made some alterations in favor of other more experienced generals.

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