Military History Battle of Passchaendale
by
Robin Prior
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0161

Introduction

The Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, took place between 31 July and 10 November 1917. Haig’s idea was to sweep out of the Ypres Salient to the Belgian Coast, thus outflanking the entire German-held Western Front in the north. As it happened, when the battle concluded the British army had secured the merest toehold on part of the Passchendaele Ridge, just ten miles from its starting line. The battle is remembered as a continuous slog in the mud, but it was more complex than this. It falls into four phases. The first, the capture of the Messines Ridge on 7 June, was quite successful. Sappers had been tunneling under this and had placed an enormous amount of high explosive under it. It was essential to capture this high ground before the main attack was launched. The explosion blew off the top off the ridge, allowing its capture. The second phase controversially did not commence for another seven weeks. Its aim was to capture Pilckem Ridge on the left of the front and the Gheluvelt Plateau on the right. The first objective was achieved but not the second, which allowed the Germans to observe every movement by the British on the remainder of the battlefield. Rain started to fall on 1 August and turned the low-lying battlefield into a quagmire. Progress was impossible but that did not prevent the High Command from ordering successive attacks. These all failed. In September the third phase began. A new commander, General Plumer, was introduced to conduct the main battle while General Gough who had conducted affairs until then was sidelined. Plumer asked for time to prepare his battles, and Haig agreed. Plumer’s three battles, which enabled the Gheluvelt Plateau to be captured, commenced on 20 September and concluded on 4 October. They were masterpieces of the limited objective battle, accompanied by enormous concentrations of artillery and conducted in dry weather. The fourth phase began after 4 October. Rain started to fall and the British were advancing into low-lying country. It seemed essential that the battle be halted but neither Haig nor Plumer agreed. The period from 9 October to 10 November saw conditions deteriorate as the British slogged on toward Passchendaele Ridge, by this time had lost all meaning as an objective. In the end men were drowning in the mud, and it is this phase that has branded the battle as an episode of futility. The so-called capture of the ridge (it was never completely in British hands) was hailed as a victory but in three days in 1918 the German offensives retook the ground that had taken three and a half months to capture.

General Overviews

There are many more books that cover the Battles of Passchendaele in their entirety than are listed here. The selection that follows attempts to strike a balance between tactical and strategic studies and those that see the battle through the eyes of individual soldiers. For serious readers and researchers, Edmonds 1948 is the place to start. For other accounts of the strategy of the battle, consult Prior and Wilson 2002 and Wolff 1958. For tactics, see Cecil and Liddle 1996, Liddle 1997, and Terraine 1977. For the soldier’s battle, see Macdonald 1978 and Steel and Hart 2000.

  • Cecil, H., and P. Liddle. Facing Armageddon. London: Leo Cooper, 1996.

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    A collection of essays on the Great War that contains a considerable number on aspects of the Passchendaele campaign.

  • Edmonds, Sir James. Military Operations: France and Belgium 1917. Vol. 2. London: HMSO, 1948.

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    The British Official History. This volume was originally written by G. C. Wynne, but his efforts were deemed too critical of the High Command so it was rewritten by Edmonds, hence the late publication date. Not surprisingly, the volume is one of the least useful of the series.

  • Liddle, Peter, ed. Passchendaele in Perspective: The Third Battle of Ypres. London: Leo Cooper, 1997.

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    An excellent collection of essays on all aspects of the battle including some valuable accounts of the Germans at Passchendaele.

  • Macdonald, Lyn. They Called It Passchendaele. London: Michael Joseph, 1978.

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    A superb reconstruction of the battle told through the eyes of the participants; a model of its kind.

  • Prior, Robin, and Trevor Wilson. Passchendaele: The Untold Story. London: Yale University Press, 2002.

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    A detailed account of the planning and execution of the British army’s Passchendaele campaign from which the High Command does not emerge well. Emphasizes the political control (or lack of it) of the battle.

  • Steel, Nigel, and Peter Hart. Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground. London: Cassell, 2000.

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    A first-rate account of the battle told through the eyes of the soldiers. Draws extensively on the superb collection of letters and diaries in the Imperial War Museum.

  • Terraine, John. The Road to Passchendaele: The Flanders Offensive of 1917: A Study in Inevitability. London: Leo Cooper, 1977.

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    A valuable collection of documents, diary extracts, and letters that tends to show that the offensive was well-thought out and only criticized by ignorant politicians. The subtitle is odd because the book contains no study—or even mention—of inevitability. There is a tendentious note on casualty statistics at the end of the book.

  • Wolff, Leon. In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign. London: Longmans, 1958.

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    This is the classic account of the campaign that should be consulted by all who are interested in this topic. It should be noted, however, that the book was written before the release of official documents.

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