Following the notable success in the seizing of the Messines Ridge, an operation where Irish soldiers played a significant role, the British eyed up a grander offensive, that would morph into the Third Battle of Ypres, known better in some circles as the Battle of Passchendaele, a Belgian village that would constitute the eventual limit of British ambitions.
The campaign, from its planning, through its execution, to its final result, has been mired in controversy ever since. On the face of it, Third Ypres was the natural next step after Messines, with British commanders hoping to push on after a relative success earlier in the summer. But detail after detail has been the subject of major scrutiny: the decision to place Herbert Gough in command instead of Plumer, the latter’s meticulous planning replaced by a man seen as more straightforwardly pro-active; the decision to attack at all, in the wake of the Nivelle offensives and with American reinforcements on their way the next year; and the manner in which the attack was continued when things started to go wrong.
But such blinding hindsight was all in the future. The plan was to seize the last of the ridges east of Ypres, capture vital German railway centres, secure the Belgian coastline near the front (effecting German U-Boats, an ever more important consideration) and continue to wear out the enemy.
What the Allies didn’t count on was the weather. Starting from around mid-July and continuing on into August, the Ypres sector saw record amounts of unseasonable rain fall all over the battlefield. The earth, already with a high-water table, and churned repeatedly by shells, rapidly became a liquid mess of barely passable mud, and it is this that has become the defining aspect of Third Ypres, more so than other western front battlefield: a place where soldiers of both sides dealt with, slogged through, fought over and occasionally drowned in mud. The longer the fighting went on, the worse it got, limiting the manoeuvrability of troops, and the usefulness of artillery and armour.
Gough’s command, ordered by his good friend Haig, would prove one of the most controversial of the war. We have encountered Gough once before already, as he was a participant in the Curragh Mutiny before the war, though his career hadn’t been too negatively affected. A Waterford native, he had served with some note in the Boer War, and at the time of the Curragh incident he was serving as the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. The war afforded him the opportunity for massive advancement: in 1917, he was in command of the Fifth Army, now earmarked to head the offensive. Unfortunately for Gough, Haig and the soldiers about to undertake the offensive, the Fifth Army’s commander was hopelessly out of his depth.
On the opening day of the offensive, the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, after ten days of preceding bombardment, the 2nd Irish Guards were among the first Irish units into the fray with their larger division, sent against German positions near the Yser Canal. The first two lines of enemy trenches were taken without serious loss, and they captured their final objectives the next morning. British advances would soon become much more difficult. In the opening days of August the 1st Irish Rifles, engaged near the position of Westhoek, lost over 180 men attacking in mud-drenched conditions, while the 2nd Leinsters lost over 240. The 2nd Irish Rifles would soon be sent in also, losing 350 men in boggy terrain marked by concrete pillboxes the Germans had had years to build and maintain. Both regiments were part of a section of the advance where every scrap gained was the subject of serious counter-attack: by the 10th August, negligible gains and exhausted troops meant the advance there could no longer be contemplated. 31’000 casualties had been incurred.
Irish involvement in the early fighting would pivot around the terrible repulse at Langemarck on the 16th of August, when the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions would enter the fighting wholesale, having had a few blessed weeks of quiet away from the front lines following their heroics at Messines. Such was the need for men, that cavalry of the North and South Irish Horse were removed from their horses and turned into infantry to join the Irish divisions. With more troops needed for the Ypres campaign, and experienced soldiers in increasingly short supply, the two Irish divisions were transferred from the Plumer’s Second to the Fifth army to take part.
They were moved into reserve trenches on the 4th August, even while other units were trying to advance and dying. The Irish were earmarked for further offensive operations near the Belgian town of Langemarck, to attack the well-defended Frezenberg Ridge, but Gough erred in putting them into reserve lines nearly two weeks before they would be called upon to go forward: the subject of constant artillery fire, used to ferry wounded from the front to the rear, expending energy digging and maintaining trench lines and all under ceaseless rain, the fighting strength of the 16th and 36th, both in physical and mental terms, ebbed away before they ever got into combat proper. By the time they would go forward, in the early hours of the 16th August, after several days delay over the rain, a third of either Division was not capable of going over the top.
A full inch of rain fell on the battlefield in the two days before the attack. Generals of the 16th were aghast looking at the sea of mud their men were being asked to cross, but their objections were over-ruled by Gough, supported by Haig. British artillery failed to adequately account for the German pillboxes, and armour was unavailable.
When the Irish and the rest of the British troops, left their trenches on the day of the attack, they almost immediately came under heavy small arms and machine gun fire. Within less than a minute, most of the advanced companies were mown down. The men simply couldn’t move fast enough through the sticky mud, especially having spent the better part of two weeks dealing with limited sleep and the grim realities of trench warfare. Those that were able to cross further than a few meters found themselves funnelled through gaps in barbed wire, and were easy targets for German machine gunners.
Some parts of the advance made headway, but within a few hours, whatever ground had been won was lost, as German counter-attacks swept the exhausted British back to their starting lines. Some units, like the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, managed to gain the heights and hold for as long as they could, but were simply not strong enough. Others found themselves flanked and then cut off in the rear as “mopping up” was not accomplished, leading to more bloodshed during withdrawals. The Irish were only one part of the overall offensive, and their difficulties were repeated elsewhere.
Other units were called upon to maintain the offensive in the aftermath, but these would be far more piece-meal in scope. Gough, furious with the reversals, levelled an extraordinary insult at the 16th and 36th in communication with Haig, laying the failure at the fact that the units “are Irish and apparently did not like the enemy’s shelling”, a sentiment Haig did not share, criticising Gough for using the Divisions’ nationality as an excuse in itself, and noting their obvious exhaustion and lack of effective artillery support. Gough’s words, and the repulse, would sting both the 16th and the 36th going forward, and many of their commanders had lasting resentments over the attack.
In combination with their time in the reserve trenches, the 16th had sustained over 4’200 casualties, the 36th 3’600, an astonishing rate that was around 50%, with 1’200 killed on the the day of the advance alone. More than that perhaps, the morale, and even the reputation, of both Divisions had taken a substantial battering. They were one part of the 36’000 Allied casualties of Langemarck, a battle that largely fizzled out in the face of bloodshed, rain and lack of gains. In the aftermath, both Irish Divisions would need to merge battalions and take in more cavalrymen to maintain the facade of being battle-ready.
Gough’s once rising star began to plummet afterf Langemarck, though he would retain his command for the time being. Haig turned back to Plumer to lead future offensives in the area, with a badly-needed delay agreed in the face of the rain. But the Third Ypres campaign was not over, and when September came, the British Army, and its Irish units, would be going forward again.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.