Ireland’s Wars: Taking Passchendaele

In the aftermath of the disastrous lack of success at Langemarck, Haig side-lined the unfortunate Gough, and gave Plumer and his Second Army the initiative for the remainder of the Third Ypres offensive, that would now pivot to aim at the Belgian village of Passchendaele. The British, despite the terrible losses, were not giving up on the offensive just yet, still wanting to claim the ridges east of Ypres, still wanting to disrupt the German railway lines, still wanting to secure the Belgian coast and still wanting to wear down the Germany Army bit of painful bit. But some sense of reason now asserted itself, as major offensive moves were called off for a few weeks in the latter half of August, to give the rain a chance to stop, and for the ground the infantry had to advance over the chance to solidify, even slightly.

Bu the time September came, Plumer, operating much more conservatively and carefully than the gung-ho Gough, was ready to try things again. The remainder of the campaign would be more in line with Plumer’s preferred “bite and hold” tactics, with smaller-scale attacks designed to seize advantageous ground, hold it against counter-attack, and use it as a set-up for further attacks, all under the cover of creeping barrages and with tank support if available. The trade-off was, of course, that the chance for a large-scale spectacular success was almost nil, but it could be argued this was the standard state of affairs on the western front anyway.

The British started to make some headway with these more limited assaults, starting with the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge in late September, and on to October with attacks at Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. The Allies gained ground in all instances, and repelled counter-attacks, but Plumer refused to be pushed into expanding his aims, constantly (and rightly) concerned that German defence in depth would make such efforts bloody and futile.

All the while, Irish units were engaged, though the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) had been withdrawn. Between the 12th and 16th September, an advanced post of the 2nd Irish Guards, near Ney Copse, was cut-off and surrounded following a German counter-attack, with the men in the pocket forced to defend their position for four days without food, water, sleep or supplies; on the fifth day Lance Sergeant John Moyney of Roscrea won a VC for leading an attack, later covering his men’s withdrawal with a Lewis gun.

A little less than a month later, the Guards were again in serious action, designated as part of the second wave of an attack across the Broembeek River as part of the Battle of Poelcappelle. By then the rains had re-started, once again turning the field of battle into a treacherous bog of mud, but by now the British were at least doing their best to adapt, with attacking units going forward with pre-built bridges and mats to make the ground as passable as possible.

The Guards crossed the River without serious incident, supported by a creeping barrage and with little resistance. They were tasked with taking the final objective of the push, the remains of the Houthoulst Forest (just stumps at this point), and were able to do so, though holding the position became a deadly game of avoiding sniper fire and attempting to improve trenches that were easily destroyed by the persistent rainfall. 228 of them were made casualties, including every company CO, but the Guards held.

The 1st Dublin Fusiliers, of the 29th Division, were part of the Broodseinde action in mid-October, where the division was tasked with seizing heights near a vital railway line and providing cover near the Broembeek. They did this, and even pushed on and captured a few key German positions. When the neighbouring 4th Division was sent scurrying back in the face of a German counter-attack, the 29th, and their Dublins, provided supressing machine-gun fire, that allowed the 4th to slow their retreat, and eventually turn and successfully counter-attack themselves.

By then, even with Plumer’s moderate successes and the advances, the campaign was starting to peter out. The attack was becoming increasingly unpopular among British politicians, who questioned its worth (and would do so for decades) and set-backs for the Italians against the Austrians produced fears that they may soon pull-out of the fighting, leading to a re-organisation of forces so British and French units could be sent to assist. The situation in Russia, where the collapse of the Tsarist government and the success of the communist revolutions would soon lead to an armistice with the Central Powers and the release of German units on that front, was also playing on minds.

The Belgian village of Passchendaele became the finale target of significance, its buildings and environs annihilated in a serious of attacks and artillery bombardments that continued on into November. This section of the fighting is popularly remembered as one dominated by Canadian units, who had the final task of capturing Passchendaele – or what was left of it – on the 6th November. Irish units among the various divisions were not majorly involved in these closing stages, but they played their part, securing trench lines, launching raids to keep the enemy on their toes and undergoing the necessary amalgamations that occurred as a natural by-product of the losses suffered.

But the Irish were intimately involved, with great loss, in the final moments of the campaign, an attack on the 10th November designed to secure Passchendaele by capturing high ground to the east of the village. Three divisions – the 1st, the 1st Canadian and the 3rd Canadian – attacked the heights, with the 1st on the left of the attack. This division contained the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, one of the most battle-experienced battalions the British had, back in serious combat for the first time since the Somme campaign. Unfortunately for them, while the attack generally went well, they were undone when the neighbouring South Wales Borderers veered off their intended course, leaving a gap in the line of advance that the Germans gladly poured through, cutting off most of the Munsters, who had otherwise advanced to their designated points of attack, or beyond. 413 of them would be casualties by the end of the day, while it was left to the Canadians to rescue the situation and secure the overall objective. For the 2nd Munsters, the winter of 1917/18 was yet another where their unit was forced to reorganise and reform, owing to the casualties that had left them with less than 250 soldiers capable of action.

Third Ypres remains one of the most controversial episodes of the First World War. David Lloyd George, by then Prime Minister, dubbed it a “senseless campaign” that was undefendable (yet, as PM, he had authorised the attacks to continue all the way to November). While casualty figures have proven a topic for academic debate, it is likely that at least 250’000 men on each side were killed. At the furthest points of penetration, the Allies had gained around five miles. The Belgian coast was not secured, and German defences further east remained intact.

However, it is undeniable that the Germans suffered more from Third Ypres, as the casualties they sustained there were far more damaging than those suffered by the Allies. The coming release of German units from the eastern front would be a boon, but with American soldiers due to arrive in 1918, German commanders, by now essentially running the country as a military dictatorship, realised that their only chance of success was a return to the doctrine of decisive battle, since a war of attrition was one they could not win. 1918 would see the end-result of this strategic pivot, and the resulting Allied victory has led some to question whether campaigns like Third Ypres were as pointless as they are easily portrayed to be.

But regardless, it was a dismal affair for Irish soldiery, with both the 16th and the 36th left crushed, and other units, like the 2nd Munsters, so badly damaged that they would struggle to be in a fit state to re-enter the lines properly the following year. British commanders were turning more and more against the Irish as reliable units, as trouble continued to flare at home. Such (groundless) suspicion would prove a detriment to the fortunes of Irish units going forward.

But there was still fighting to take place on the western front in 1917. Nearly 80 kms south of the Ypres sector, the Allies were preparing to launch one of the most audacious attacks of the war, intending to fully utilise their advantage in new forms of mechanised warfare. But old-fashioned infantry would be attacking too, and the Irish would be among them.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Taking Passchendaele

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Cambrai | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Awaiting Kaiserschlacht | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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