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100 Years On – Passchendaele

In August, 1917, the British 5th Army attacked German positions around Ypres in Belgium.  Initial British objectives were to take critical ground in Flanders to reach the Dutch border, followed up by amphibious assaults on the coast.  They also hoped to draw German units away from French lines further south, giving the French some breathing room after the failed Nivelle Offensive and the mutinies that occurred earlier that year.

Passchendaele was a follow-up to the Battle of Messines, in which multiple British mines, dug underneath higher German positions, were filled with explosives and detonated. This, along with extensive training on how to clear enemy lines while staying just behind a creeping barrage, allowed British and Commonwealth units to clear a salient in the German lines with relatively light casualties. (‘Relatively light’ being a rather flexible term.  Almost 25,000 soldiers were killed or wounded taking Messines Ridge)

British forces had early success at Passchendaele, especially where they employed “bite and hold” tactics, where local objectives were limited to what could be taken and then defended against German counterattacks.  In fact, at some points in the battle, the Germans did indeed consider a general withdrawal from Flanders.  However, unusually wet weather, along with the need to provide troops to help the Italians in the fall, turned the British advance into a slog through mud, gas, and barbed wire.

In the end, Canadian forces took Passchendaele in November, 1917, bringing the battle to a halt, although sporadic fighting continued for several weeks.  The British were able to push the Germans back through several layers of their defensive belt, but were unable to dislodge them from Flanders or reach the Dutch border.

As bad as the battle’s results seemed to the Allies, though, they were disastrous for the Germans.  They could not sustain the casualties the new Allied tactics inflicted upon them, losing between 200,000 and 400,000 dead and wounded, depending on who did the counting.  Estimates of British casualties were higher, but the British Empire had a larger base of manpower to draw from, while the Germans were being forced to supplement or replace Austrian strength more every day.

Passchendaele began a new act on the Western Front, in which the Allies continually attacked the German lines, giving German forces no time to rest between battles or to mass large numbers of troops to repel the Allies.  It also forced German leadership to reconsider their defensive strategy, beginning the road to the titanic battles of 1918.

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