CLOSE

WWI Centennial: Battle of Messines

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 278th installment in the series.

June 7-14, 1917: Battle of Messines

The abject failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 triggered mutinies throughout the French Army in May and June, threatening to paralyze the Allied war effort. Although the Germans never caught wind of them, the Allies were understandably worried they might try to exploit the disastrous French defeat and ensuing chaos with a sudden onslaught against the demoralized, disorganized French forces.

At the same time huge shipping losses inflicted by U-boats beginning in the spring of 1917 focused Allied attention on German submarine bases on the coast of Belgium, whose location allowed the U-boats to slip through the English Channel to prey upon the Atlantic sea lanes (as opposed to the much longer route through the North Sea and around Scotland, which burned up precious fuel, limiting their time in the hunting grounds). The Royal Navy made a number of attempts to destroy or disable these bases, including an attack by destroyers against Ostend on June 4-5, 1917, but these were ultimately unsuccessful, while other measures – including mine fields and submarine nets to block the Channel route – were still mostly ineffective at this stage of the war.

To relieve pressure on the French, deprive the Germans of their submarine bases, and maybe even achieve a strategic breakthrough, Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, planned to carry out two linked offensives in Belgium in the summer of 1917. The first attack yielded a British tactical victory at Messines; the second, the waking nightmare of Passchendaele.

Western Front June
Erik Sass

"THE NOISE WAS IMPOSSIBLE"

The first offensive concentrated on high ground south of Ypres (already the scene of two ferocious battles in 1914 and 1915) and especially the Messines Ridge near the village of the same name – strategic positions with a sweeping view of enemy lines, laying the groundwork for the second offensive east of Ypres. 

At Messines, twelve divisions of the British Second Army under Sir Herbert Plumer, numbering 216,000 men (including Canadian and ANZAC troops) would face five divisions of heavily entrenched defenders from the German Fourth Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, numbering 126,000 men – not a favorable balance of forces for the attackers, by the standards of the First World War.

However the British had a few key advantages, including the new tactic of the creeping barrage, which had proven effective at the recent Battle of Arras, and another weapon of truly demonic power – a chain of 26 massive mines, painstakingly excavated beneath the German lines on Messines Ridge over many months and then packed with over 450 tons of ammonal high explosive. The detonation of these mines would produce one of the largest manmade non-nuclear explosions in history (although four of the mines failed to explode; top, one of the craters).

The British offensive was preceded by ten days of extraordinarily intense artillery bombardment, as over 2,200 guns of varying sizes dumped approximately 3.5 million shells on the German lines. Finally, around 2:40 a.m. on June 7, 1917 the guns briefly fell silent, while the first wave of British soldiers quietly crept out of the trenches and lay flat on the earth in no-man’s-land, preparing to rush the German lines as soon as the mines exploded (below, British soldiers take communion during the battle).

The sudden pause in firing alerted the Germans that the British infantry attack was imminent, and the defenders streamed back to their frontline trenches in preparation for the assault – exactly as the British has hoped they would. At 3:10 a.m. the mines were fired and the bowels of the earth opened, while simultaneously the British guns resumed firing. Lieutenant A.G. May, a British machine gun officer, recalled the moment:

When I heard the first deep rumble I turned to the men and shouted, “Come on, let’s go.” A fraction of a second later a terrific roar and the whole earth seemed to rock and sway. The concussion was terrible, several of the men and myself being blown down violently. It seemed to be several minutes before the earth stood still again though it may not really have been more than a few seconds. Flames rose to a great height – silhouetted against the flame I saw huge blocks of earth that seemed to be as big as houses falling back to the ground. Small chunks and dirt fell all around. I saw a man flung out from behind a huge block of debris silhouetted against the sheet of flame… At the same time the mines went off the artillery let loose, the heaviest group artillery firing ever known. The noise was impossible and it is impossible for anyone who was not there to imagine what it was like.

According to later estimates around 10,000 German soldiers lost their lives in the space of a few moments when the mines exploded. Another British officer, E.N. Gladden, recorded similar impressions of the horrific event:

The ground began to rock and I felt my body carried up and down as by the waves of the sea. In front the earth opened and a large black mass was carried to the sky on pillars of fire, and there seemed to remain suspended for some seconds while the awful red glare lit up the surrounding desolation. No sound came. I had been expecting a noise from the mine so tremendous as to be unbearable. For a brief space all was silent, as though we had been too close to hear and the sound had leapt over us like some immense wave… And then there was a tremendous roar and a tearing across the skies above us, as the barrage commenced with unerring accuracy. It was as though a door had been suddenly flung open. The skies behind our lines were lit by the flashes of many thousand guns, and above the booming din of the artillery came the rasping rattle of the Vickers guns pouring a continuous stream of lead over into the enemy’s lines.

As so often, some observers noted that the horror and violence of the war were accompanied by surreal, spectacular beauty (above, the “Pool of Peace,” a pond formed in one of the craters). Jack Martin, a signaler in the Royal Engineers, wrote in his diary:

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember very vividly for the rest of my life – all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, left a description of strange high-altitude atmospheric effects later associated with the explosion of nuclear weapons:

‘Look!’ And there to the north on the crown of the great black dome we know is Messines Hill, we see a movement as of an enormous black tin hat slowly rising out of the hill. Suddenly the great rising mass is shattered into a black cloud of whirling dust as a huge rosette of flame bursts from it and great flames lick, dancing and flickering. High up in the sky above the explosion we see a bank of dark clouds turn red from the reflection of the terrible burst below.

With debris still raining down, and the creeping barrage forcing any remaining defenders to take cover, the attackers began to advance across no man’s land along a stretch of front ten miles long in the slowly rising dawn, supported by tanks and a large number of reserve troops waiting to exploit the breakthrough. Unsurprisingly, following the detonation of the mines in many places the advancing troops found that there was no resistance – and in fact no sign of defenders, trenches, or fortifications of any kind, aside from small scraps of barbed wire. In other places hundreds of German soldiers, still alive but traumatized by the explosions, surrendered en masse.

After around half an hour the attackers had captured their first objective and advanced halfway to the German second line. But plenty of German defenders remained alive, putting up a fierce fight from isolated strongpoints, while others withdrew to their rear trenches on the far slope of the ridge, where they worked feverishly to establish new defensive positions. Meanwhile German artillery, some of which managed to survive the mines and bombardment, plastered the attackers with shrapnel, high explosives, and poison gas. Lynch, the Australian private, described British artillery in action around 11 am, along with the German counter-barrage:

We watch the gunlayer on the nearest gun. He sits on his job laying his gun just as fast as the men can feed and fire it. His body jerks to the kicking recall. Blood is streaming from his nose and ears but he never lets up – bleeding from concussion. The great tanks move towards the big Messines Ridge. We move off to climb that great dusty, smoking hill… Suddenly the hillside above kicks up in fifty places as the Fritz barrage of screeching, roaring, bursting shells comes down and through which we must somehow walk… We see a section of men get a shell clean amongst them and get tossed like ninepins everywhere. One lone man rises and moves on where eight moved only a minute before.

The German guns also hit British rear areas in an attempt to disrupt British artillery and block the arrival of fresh troops. William Presser, a bombardier in the Royal Artillery, recalled being gassed at Messines while trying to sleep in a dugout later in the battle:

I was awakened by a terrific crash. The roof came down on my chest and legs and I couldn’t move anything but my head. I thought, “So this is it, then.” I found I could hardly breathe. Then I heard voices. Other fellows with gas helmets on, looking very frightening in the half-light, were lifting timber off me and one was forcing a gas helmet on me… The next thing I knew I was being carried on a stretcher past our officers and some distance from the guns… I supposed I resembled a kind of fish with my mouth open gasping for air. It seemed as if my lungs were gradually shutting up and my heart pounded away in my ears like the beat of a drum. On looking at the chap next to me I felt sick, for green stuff was oozing from the side of his mouth… I was always surprised when I found myself awake, for I felt sure that I would die in my sleep.

Tragically the British also suffered a number of casualties from “friendly fire,” due to confusion about the position of troops. James Rawlinson, a Canadian engineer, recalled surviving a German bombardment only to be hit by a British shell, permanently losing his sight to a sliver of shrapnel:

The enemy guns… opened up with a terrific fire, and the scenery round about was soon in a fine mess. Shells of varying calibre came thundering in our direction, throwing up, as they burst, miniature volcanoes and filling the air with dust and mud and smoke… We were congratulating ourselves that we were to pass through this ordeal uninjured, when suddenly a 5.9-inch shell fell short. It exploded almost in our midst, and I was unlucky enough to get in the way of one of the shrapnel bullets. I felt a slight sting in my right temple as though pricked by a red-hot needle--and then the world became black.

Meanwhile the attackers pressed on over Messines Ridge, with Lynch recalling:

Dust and smoke cover everything. We can barely see the sections on either hand yet somehow they still climb on and so do we. Eyes stinging from gas, dust and smoke, our dry throats burning from the biting fumes of the shells, coated with sweat and dirt, we climb through this terrible barrage, walking on the crumbling edge of a roaring, flashing volcano. Fifty times we’re up and down as shells nearly get us. Mad with thirst we move ever on. The leading two men of our little section go down hit. We step by them and climb on as orders are that no man is to fall out to attend the wounded.

German defenders captured during the attack could count themselves lucky, as according to Lynch, the attackers often weren’t in the mood to take prisoners alive:

‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ And a small bunch of Fritz rush out of the pillbox as we near it. ‘Kamerad this amongst yourselves!’ And Whang! one of our men has thrown a bomb at them. Terrified, they fly out of the trench. Crack! Crack! Crack! blaze our rifles and not an enemy is on his feet. They’ve gone the way most machine-gunners go who leave their surrender too late. War is war.

Despite sustaining heavy casualties in some places, by the afternoon of June 7 the attackers had captured their final objective, the German third defensive line behind Messines Ridge. However the battle continued to rage, as the British pushed forward and the Germans staged a fighting retreat, while Rupprecht rushed reinforcements up to stem the advance (below, a captured trench). During the following week the British made their biggest gains on the southern half of the battlefield, allowing them to consolidate control of the lower reaches of the Messines Ridge to the south, while forcing the Germans back towards the village of Warneton.

Of course these gains came at a heavy price, as the German defenders dug in and more reinforcements arrived. Lynch recalled his final memory of the battle after being wounded on June 10:

I must reach our trench. I begin to crawl up the side of the shell hole I’m in. The side of the hole keeps moving upwards. Struggle as I may I can’t get out, can’t climb that moving bank. I begin to slip back, back, back into the hole and the bottom has dropped out of it. I can’t climb, can’t cling to the moving sides of this bottomless hole, and begin to drop, drop, drop into swaying utter blackness.

By June 14 the attackers had advanced up to three kilometers in many places – a major victory in the context of trench warfare. But as so often during the war, victory was as ghastly as defeat, although soldiers found themselves increasingly inured to scenes of horror. Martin, the signaler in the Royal Engineers, described advancing over the captured ground in his diary on June 8, 1917:

We had seen numerous dead bodies in all the ghastly horrors and mutilations of violent death, men with half their heads blown off and their brains falling over their faces – some with their abdomens torn open and their entrails hanging out – others stretched out with livid faces and blood-stained mouths, and unblinking eyes staring straight to heaven. Oh wives and mothers and sweethearts, what will this victory mean to you? Yet nature very readily adapts itself to its environment and can look on all these horrors without a shudder. But I should feel sick and almost terrified if I saw a man break his leg in the streets of London.

Unfortunately, as in previous victories (like the Canadian advance on Vimy Ridge during the Second Battle of Arras) the generals weren’t prepared to exploit the gains won by the valor of ordinary fighting men. Indeed, the logistical difficulties involved in bringing up fresh troops and ammunition shouldn’t be underestimated. Martin’s account gives some idea of the frenetic activity required to sustain the initial advance, as he wrote on June 10:

The RE Field Companies are working hard on pit-prop roads and trench tramways. They have carried them as far as the old front line and are now working across no-man’s-land. Their hardest work is now commencing. It is an extraordinary scene of animation. Wagons and lorries full of materials are arriving in constant succession and hundreds of men are unloading and carrying and putting in place…

Although Plumer urged Haig to press their advantage by continuing the attack, the BEF commander insisted on waiting until late July, giving the Germans almost eight weeks to adjust and enhance their defensive positions on the Gheluvelt Plateau and high ground to the east of Ypres, including around Passchendaele – a small Flemish village fated to become synonymous with mindless slaughter.

See the previous installment or all entries.

arrow
war
WWI Centennial: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 290th installment in the series.

October 12-18, 1917: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic

The success of the “bite and hold” strategy employed by the British at the Third Battle of Ypres in September and early October 1917, which yielded incremental advances at the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde, fed hopes that a few more attacks would push the Germans off the Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres, threatening their railroad and communication network in Flanders and maybe even forcing them to withdraw from western Belgium altogether.

Western Front, October 12, 1917: First Battle of Passchendael
Erik Sass

In reality the plan was already beginning to unravel at the battle of Poelcapelle on October 9, 1917, due mostly to the arrival of autumn rains that once again turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, making it almost impossible to move up artillery, fresh troops, ammunition, and supplies – the key to the “hold” part of the strategy, which called for attackers to immediately dig in in order to rebuff enemy counterattacks. The immobility of British artillery also meant that in many cases German barbed wire entanglements remained intact. Nonetheless British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig believed (against the advice of Second Army commander Herbert Plumer) that the main objective, the high ground around the village of Passchendaele, was still within reach.

The result was the nightmarish First Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917, which saw the I and II ANZAC corps of the British Second Army mount an increasingly desperate attempt to dislodge the German Fourth Army from its defensive positions around Passchendaele in order to seize Passchendaele Ridge, with supporting attacks by the British Fifth Army to the north – only to meet with almost total defeat.

“No One Could See Any Purpose In It”

The British employed the same tactics as in previous battles, especially the “creeping barrage,” in which field artillery created a moving wall of fire just in front of the advancing troops, forcing enemy troops to take cover until the attackers were upon them. Meanwhile pioneer units worked feverishly to build roads of duckboard planks across the muddiest areas behind the frontlines to facilitate movements of artillery and troops (below, troops carrying duckboards).

One British soldier, P. Hoole Jackson, described the lurid scenes as they marched to the front along roads constantly shelled by German artillery:

Up the other side of the road a slow procession of vehicles crawled, one behind the other: new guns going up to the positions, ammunition wagons full of shells, ambulances bound for the clearing stations, ration carts for the troops in line. Piccadilly could not have been more crowded, and over all these the German shells moaned and whined. Now and then a cart would have to pull round a heap of wreckage that had once been men, horses, and wagons. By the side of the road lay the stiffening carcases of horses and mules, and around, on every hand, the big guns crashed.

Conditions only worsened as they approached the frontlines:

On three sides was the arching Salient, marked out as though on a mighty map by the ring of flaming flashes from the German guns. A peninsula of death and terror. As we drew nearer to the Ridge, the howling in the sky grew more fierce. We had to pause while a shell dropped before us; rush on as one hurled down almost on top of us; dive for cover in the slimy ditch. All along the road were the skeletons of shattered trees… and over all was the livid light of the gun-flashes, which rose and fell like a fiery, ceaseless tide.

George F. Wear, an officer in the Royal Field Artillery, left a similar portrait of the battlefield around this time:

I doubt if anyone who has not experienced it can really have any idea of what the Salient was like during those “victories” of 1917. The bombardments of the Somme the year before were nothing to those around Ypres. Batteries jostled each other in the shell-marked waste of mud, barking and crashing night and day. There were no trees, no houses, no countryside, no shelter, no sun. Wet, grey skies hung over the blasted land, and in the mind a gloomy depression grew and spread. Trenches had disappeared. “Pill-boxes” and shell holes took their place. We never went up the line with a working party with any real expectation of returning, and there was no longer any sustaining feeling that all this slaughter was leading us to anything. No one could see any purpose in it.

The attack got off to a bad start with heavy rain on the night of October 11-12, followed by high winds in the pre-dawn hours; the Germans also unleashed a preemptive bombardment on the New Zealanders’ front line positions at 5 a.m., just before the planned time of the attack. At the same time the British preparatory bombardment and creeping barrage were rendered less effective by the deep mud, which muffled the impact of high explosive shells, again leaving German barbed wire intact in many places. Further German “counter-battery” fire exacted a heavy toll on British artillery, which was also vulnerable to mud and misfires. Jackson described the British field artillery in action, along with the horrible conditions:

The gunners were working stripped almost to the waist. The pound and crash of the noisy little guns was terrific, deafening. If a gun failed or was knocked out another was soon in its place. Mud and slime; a night in a shell hole that was little better than a hollow of ooze. There were no proper shell holes, no communication trenches. All around was the most desolate landscape of shell-harrowed land. Shell hole merged with shell hole; many were death traps in which the wounded slipped and died.

At 5:25 a.m. the ANZAC troops started going over the top, but German machine gunners protected by concrete fortifications, or pillboxes, exacted a heavy toll on the advancing troops (above, evacuating a wounded soldier). Although the attackers reached the first objective in many places, many were forced to retire by heavy German fire; this in turn left gaps in the British frontline, leaving the flanks of neighboring units exposed to German counterattacks and forcing them to withdraw as well. By the afternoon of October 12 it was clear that the attack had failed.

Once again the attackers paid a heavy price in blood for negligible gains, in conditions that many participants described as the worst they had seen in the war so far. In one day the Second Battle of Passchendaele resulted in around 4,200 Australian casualties, 2,800 casualties in the New Zealand Division, and 10,000 casualties in the British Fifth Army. The British could take some comfort in the fact that the Germans also suffered steep losses. However German chief strategist General Erich Ludendorff, encouraged by the defensive victory and anticipating more inclement weather, ordered the Fourth Army to dig in and hold the Passchendaele Ridge, setting the stage for the Second Battle of Passchendaele – the final phase of the Third Battle of Ypres.

As elsewhere in the First World War, the unending bloodshed and climate of constant danger combined to produce a pronounced fatalistic attitude among troops on both sides of no-man’s-land. Wear, the British artillery officer, remembered:

I had all sorts of escapes; in fact they were so frequent that I got into a strange frame of mind, and became careless. It seemed as if I couldn’t bother to try and avoid unnecessary danger. The only matters of importance were whether they rations would come up promptly and if the bottle of whisky I had ordered would be there. It was for me the worst part of the War. Even now it looms like a gigantic nightmare in the back of my mind.

Meanwhile the total destruction of the Flanders landscape proceeded apace. Charles Biddle, an American pilot with the volunteer Escadrille Lafayette, noted in his diary on October 16, 1917 (below, an aerial view of the village of Passchendaele before and after the battle):

You can trace the advance by the slow changing of green fields and woods into a blasted wilderness which shows a mud brown color from the air. Fields become a mass of shell holes filled with water and a wood turns from an expanse of green foliage into a few shattered and leafless trunks… It is the same way with the little Belgian towns. By degrees they are obliterated until their sites are only distinguishable by a smudge a trifle darker in color than the brown of the torn fields which once surrounded them.

The Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic Ocean

After declaring war in April 1917 and implementing the draft in June, the U.S. government was eager to show the Allies that its contribution to the war effort would be more than financial support or a mere symbolic demonstration. The arrival in France of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, accompanied by around 100 officers and enlisted men, in June 1917, marked the beginning of the buildup – at first gradual, then increasingly rapid – of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, which would number around two million by the end of the war and play a decisive role in defeating Germany.

One of the first big American units to arrive in Europe was the 42nd Division, better known as the Rainbow Division because it included men from 26 states and the District of Columbia. Created at the suggestion of Major Douglas MacArthur, who was soon promoted to colonel, the division was 28,000 strong with its full complement (American divisions were around twice the strength of European divisions), all drawn from state militias. After being activated in August 1917, the Rainbow Division troops received crash course training to form it into a cohesive unit, then was immediately dispatched to France, where it received additional training in trench warfare before joining Allied troops in the frontline.

Elmer Sherwood, a soldier in the Rainbow Division, described troops traveling from their camp in Long Island to board the ships for France – including the President Lincoln and President Grant – in New York City in his diary on October 18, 1917:

We arose at three o’clock this morning and in two hours were marching with full pack and rifle to the station where we entrained for the river docks where ferry boats carried us up the river, to the piers, where the big ocean liners flying the U.S. flag were waiting to carry us to foreign soil. All day long thousands of Sammies [soldiers] who were to make the voyage were arriving and going up the gangplank in single file. Each of us was given a slip of paper on which was printed the deck compartment and bunk each was to occupy and where to eat and wash.

Like the millions of American troops who would follow them, for most of the militiamen and volunteers of the Rainbow Division the voyage to France was their first journey outside the United States. On that note many viewed the war as an exciting adventure, but unsurprisingly they also suffered from homesickness and anxiety. Another soldier in the Division, Vernon Kniptash, described his feelings on leaving New York Harbor – and America – in his diary entry on October 18, 1917:

It’s night now and I can see the New York skyline from the upper deck. Every window ablaze and a million windows, the most wonderful sight I’ve seen since I left home. The boat is slipping away and the Statue of Liberty is getting fainter and fainter. It sure makes a fellow feel funny under these conditions. How many of us will get to see that statue when this war ends? The boys were unusually silent, and all were thinking of the same thought, I guess. All is blackness now and the states are “somewhere out there.” I’ve been blue at times, but never as blue as I am right now.

Once at sea, however, their moods seemed to improve. On October 22, 1917, as the Lincoln was carried along by the tropical Gulf Stream, Kniptash wrote:

The weather is so warm that it’s almost unbearable. I was on guard tonight and I enjoyed every minute of it. On land during my second shift I usually have to pinch myself to keep awake, but tonight I was wide awake and enjoyed salty breezes and [the] big moon to the limit. Early in the evening four old sailors formed a quartette and sang silhouetted against that big yellow moon. It was just like a stage setting. I’m seeing the things I used to read about in books and it’s all like a dream to me. I’m always afraid someone will come along and wake me.

Sherwood also found the voyage across the Atlantic exhilarating, at least at first, writing in his diary on October 19, 1917:

I had planned all my life to make a voyage across the sea, but I little thought it would be under the conditions existing now… Here on the top of the ship I lie between my blankets in silence. All have gone to their bunks except some like myself who prefer to lie on deck. What an opportunity for one to think. He cannot help it. The great waves dash against the sides of the ship but one does not notice them for their monotony. I can realize now why so many boys leave their homes to seek adventure on the high seas…

Of course the sense of adventure was tempered by the ever-present threat of U-boat attacks, which increased as the convoy approached Europe (although no ships were sunk on this journey). On October 27, 1917, Kniptash wrote:

The Captain gave us orders to sleep in our clothes tonight. That means everything but blouse and gun. All these articles want to be where a fellow can reach them and put them on without the loss of a second. The Capt. said to expect a call at any time now. It means we are right in the center of the war zone and all the chance in the world of taking a nice cold bath before morning.

As they approached France the troops, almost all young men in their late teens and early 20s, received a stern warning from their commanding officer, as described by Kniptash on October 30, 1917:

The Captain assembled the battery and gave the boys a heart-to-heart talk. He said that all indications seemed to be that we reach port tomorrow. He talked about the women in this town [St. Nazaire] and the chances the men were taking in case they had sexual intercourse. He said that the women that hung around the camps were all diseased and that the soldiers in case they should contract the disease could not receive the proper medical attention and stood a good chance of ruining their lives…. I promised myself that I’d return to the States in just the good condition I left them… I think the training Mumsey gave me will make me walk the straight and narrow over here.

Plenty of troops in the Rainbow Division disregarded this advice, as reflected in high rates of sexually transmitted disease, but many men were simply happy to have a few moments of female companionship – especially if the women in question happened to be Americans too. Marjorie Crocker, an American volunteering as a Red Cross nurse, described meeting American soldiers, all volunteers from the New York Telephone company and Western Union, laying telephone wires for General Pershing’s new headquarters, in provincial France:

… we heard English-speaking voices calling us, and on turning saw several American soldiers. We waved vigorously and went on, but were stopped by two of them running up and taking off their hats, offering their hands, and saying, “Do you folks speak English?” On our replying that we did, they let a yell, and calling their pals announced that they had “caught ‘em, and you bet they can talk the lingo!”… They were nice men, and they were so pitifully glad to hear some English!

See the previous installment or all entries.

arrow
war
WWI Centennial: Broodseinde and Poelcapelle

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 289th installment in the series.

October 4-9, 1917: Broodseinde and Poelcapelle

Following successful “bite and hold” attacks at the back-to-back Battles of Menin Road and Polygon Wood from September 20-October 3, 1917, the nightmarish Third Battle of Ypres (better known as Passchendaele) continued with British assaults at Broodseinde on October 4 and Poelcapelle on October 9, which continued British Second Army commander Herbert Plumer’s strategy of limited incremental gains.

Like the previous battles, the British assaults at Broodseinde and Poelcapelle were supported by huge bombardments and counter-battery artillery fire, while advancing infantry were preceded by the “creeping barrage,” a protective wall of artillery fire that forced enemy troops to take cover until the attackers were already upon them. After reaching certain pre-determined objectives, the British infantry would immediately dig in to fend off German counterattacks to recapture lost trenches.

The incremental strategy yielded another victory at Broodseinde, raising the possibility of a forced German withdrawal from western Belgium, giving up the U-boat bases on the Belgian coast – but with the change of seasons, the clock was quickly running down for further offensive operations by either side. Crucially the British had enjoyed relatively dry weather during most of this, sparing both sides immersion in a sea of mud (as in the opening phase of Third Ypres) allowing fresh troops, guns and ammunition to reach the front. But on October 2 the rains returned, plunging both sides into the cold, muddy hell of Flanders in fall.

Broodseinde

Despite the bad weather, at Broodseinde the British were initially favored by a bit of luck – or rather good intelligence work – as the attackers happened to catch the Germans unawares while preparing an attack of their own around Zonnebeke. As a result the British artillery inflicted considerable casualties among German assault troops concentrated in frontline trenches (although the Germans returned the compliment with their own preemptive bombardment of the I ANZAC Corps).

As British artillery rained destruction on German frontline and support trenches, at 6 a.m. on October 4, 1917 twelve British and ANZAC divisions went over the top and advanced in good order against enemy positions along a 14,000-yard-long stretch of front. By the late afternoon of that day the attackers had advanced around 1,000 yards and held the conquered battlefield against multiple German counterattacks, marking a decisive tactical victory by the standards of the First World War. However Plumer remained reluctant to exploit the victory by attempting a decisive breakthrough, citing over a dozen additional enemy divisions guarding rear areas.

The fighting in Flanders remained a horrible ordeal for ordinary soldiers on both sides of the conflict (above, an Australian ambulance in action at Broodseinde). Edward Lynch, an Australian private, described the aftermath of an attack in early October:

The first batches of the wounded are coming back. Walking, staggering, lurching, limping back. Men carrying smashed arms, others painfully limping on shattered legs. Laughing men and shivering men. Men walking back as if there’s nothing left to harm them and others who flinch and jump and throw themselves in shell holes at every shell burst and at each whistle of a passing bullet.

A soldier wounded in the same attack told Lynch an even more horrifying story:

‘Saw a terrible thing up there. A few of us rushed a Fritz post, but as we were right on top of it, a Fritz fired a flare gun at us and the flare went right into a man’s stomach. He was running round and round trying to tear the burning flare out of his inside and all the time we could smell his flesh burning, just like grilled meat. He gave an awful scream and fell dead, but that horrible smell of burning flesh kept on. I can smell it still.’ And he shudders and shakes at the memory of it all. ‘Did you get the Fritz?’ ‘Too true we got him. Seven or eight bayonets got him, the flamin’ mongrel!’ And the man gets up and goes away, vomiting.

Lynch himself received a “Blighty” – a wound severe enough to require treatment at a hospital in Britain – while attempting to carry a message under artillery fire. He described his near miss with an enemy artillery shell (above, Australian troops carry a wounded German):

The ground under my feet is heaving upwards. I’m surrounded by a shower of mud and blue, vicious flame. My feet are rising, rising, my head is going down, down, I’m falling, falling, through a solid cloud of roaring round… Gnawing pain shoots through me. My hip, my knee, my leg, my foot… I realise that a shell has burst under me and tossed me into the trench. I know my leg is smashed… I can feel my boot is full of blood.

Poelcapelle

Encouraged by the victory at Broodseinde, Plumer and British Expeditionary Force commander General Douglas Haig became more ambitious, planning deeper advances with an eye to a breakthrough – just as nature was turning decisively against them, with endless rain turning the heavily shelled fields into a quagmire. The rain forced the British to once again accept limited goals, but they were still determined to keep up the pressure on the Germans.

The result was a draw at the Battle of Poelcapelle on October 9, where some attacking units managed to advance but were generally forced to withdraw by German counterattacks. One British tank commander, William Watson, described the initial advance at dawn on October 9:

We went outside and stood in the rain, looking towards the line. It was still very dark, but, though the moon had left us in horror, there was a promise of dawn in the air. The bombardment died down a little, as if the guns were taking breath, though far away to the right a barrage was throbbing… Then suddenly on every side of us and above us a tremendous uproar arose; the ground shook beneath us; for a moment we felt battered and dizzy; the horizon was lit up with a sheet of flashes; gold and red rockets raced madly into the sky, and in the curious light of the distant bursting shells the run in front of us appeared and disappeared with a touch of melodrama…

By the end of the day only the Guards Division, attacking near the village which gave the battle its name, made a significant advance. All across the battlefield, the British and ANZAC attackers found it impossible to bring up artillery, ammunition, and fresh troops due to the mud, which also canceled out much of the advantage conferred by the new British weapon, the tank. Watson remembered one ill-fated sally by a tank unit, quickly swamped by mud:

It was a massacre. The tanks could not turn, even if they had wished. There was nothing for it but to go on and attempt to pass in a rain of shells the tanks which could not move, but each tank in turn slipped off into the mud. Their crews, braving the shells attached the unditching beams – fumbling in the dark with slippery spanners, while red-hot bits flew past, and they were deafened by the crashes – but nothing could be done. The officers withdrew their men from the fatal road and took cover in shell holes. It was a stormy cheerless dawn.

See the previous installment or all entries.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios