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.
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.
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.