Battle not without purpose

Passchendaele mud. A stretcher-party bringing in wounded near Boesinghe, August 1917.
Passchendaele mud. A stretcher-party bringing in wounded near Boesinghe, August 1917.

Recently the country watched the commemorations of what for many would appear to have been an insane venture.

However, we do well to remember the reasons for the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendael. A name it acquired after the actions in November 1917, when an insignificant village on the high ground to the north east of the city of Ypres fell to the Canadians. Ironically, that benighted community was, in fact, an objective for the attack on the first day but has come to symbolise the collective suffering of hundreds of thousands on both sides across a much wider area of fighting.

The army had no illusions about the cost of assaulting a well-entrenched enemy, holding positions with commanding views of the ground over which the Allies would be advancing. So why did Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, press on in the face of the conditions which developed on the field of battle – due the vagaries of the weather, which produced the worst rainfall in years?

In January 1917, it had become clear that attritional warfare was costly but no other course of action but frontal assault appeared to offer any hope of a breakthrough on the Western Front.

The battle on the Somme had taught many lessons and had also cost the enemy dearly. Now, as the allies prepared for another summer campaign the situation in the Atlantic sea lanes that supplied Britain would become critical.

The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would cause losses of shipping on a scale which threatened our very continuation of the war. Faced with starvation, the country had to act. The solution seemed to be removal of the U-boat bases in Belgium.

Despite the misgivings of Premier David Lloyd George, in the face of assertions by Sir John Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, that something had to be done about the submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend, it was agreed the summer campaign by Britain in the north would be an attempt to take the high ground in front of Ypres. If the Gheluvelt plateau could be seized and our forces swing left towards the coast, a strategic victory of immense proportions lay before us. The first part of the plan – the seizing of the Messines Ridge (June 7, 1917) was a resounding success.

Sadly, the weather would combine with an implacable and stubborn enemy to make the campaign nothing but a repeat of earlier attempts to break through virtually impenetrable forests of wire on land reduced to a quagmire where as many would drown as were killed by shellfire or bullet.

By the end of the battle the convoy system had been introduced at sea to protect shipping but the submarine bases would be still intact. They would not fall to the allies before the final phase of the war in autumn 1918.

The project workroom (Room B9) at Linskill Community Centre, North Shields is open from 10am to 4pm weekdays for enquiries and for anyone to bring information about relatives lost in the war. The Memorial Garden is open from 8am to 5pm daily.