The Battle of Mud – Passchendaele
Friday 8 September, 2017
Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917. The leading soldier is Gunner James Fulton and the second soldier is Lieutenant Anthony Devine. The men belong to a battery of the 10th Field Artillery Brigade. (Australian War Memorial E01220).
As the Third Battle of Ypres on the Western Front continued, Australian, New Zealand and British troops were involved in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the Passchendaele Ridge from the Germans on 12 October 1917. The vicious fighting took place in the most appalling conditions. The 3rd Australian Division’s struggled forward, in an attempt to meet their objective with little artillery support, and represented the last major Australian participation in the Third Battle of Ypres.
The Battle of Passchendaele encapsulates World War One and the campaign as a whole. It is remembered for the extremely muddy conditions in which it was fought – swampland in areas. For the soldiers who fought at Passchendaele, it was known as the ‘Battle of Mud’. Tanks got stuck, fields became impassable and movement for soldiers was difficult — adding to the problems was the lack of drainage as many of the systems were destroyed by the artillery bombardment.
The British plan was to capture the ridges south and east of the city of Ypres. Passchendaele lay on the last ridge east of Ypres, 8.0 km from a railway junction at Roulers, which was an important piece of infrastructure of the German 4th Army resupply. After a dry spell in September, rain began to fall on 3 October. By the Battle of Poelcappelle on 9 October much of the British field artillery opposite Passchendaele was inoperable due to the effects of rain, mud and German artillery-fire.
The guns that remained were either left in old positions and fired at the limit of their range, or were operated from any flat ground near wooden roadways or from platforms, many of which were unstable. Moving the guns forward to new positions before the attack was impossible.
During the battle, delays in communication and misleading information left Herbert Plumer and Field Marshal Douglas Haig under the impression that a substantial advance had taken place towards Passchendaele Ridge. The Allies had managed to advance towards the village but most of the captured ground had been lost to German counter-attacks during the afternoon.
The attacks by the Fifth Army further north from Poelcappelle to the French First Army boundary, to close in on Houthoulst Forest, succeeded. However at the end of 9 October the front line near Passchendaele hardly changed. Instead of an advance of 1,400 metres to complete the capture of Passchendaele, the British attack on 12 October began from almost 2.5 kilometres from the village. The actual position of the front line was discovered by air reconnaissance, but by the time the information was reported back, it was too late.
The main assault on 12 October was a total failure. The Germans caused confusion before the attack even began by opening fire on a part of the 3rd Australian Division. Forward patrols that had succeeded in reaching Passchendaele village were not strong enough to hold the position and were forced to withdraw to their starting point. Machine gun fire from its flank stopped the 10th Australian Brigade from advancing. By days end, all of the attacking units had been forced to withdraw back to almost where they began.
The British offensive was postponed until the weather improved and communications behind the front were restored. Two German divisions intended for Italy were diverted to Flanders to replace “extraordinarily high” losses.
The battle had been a German defensive success, however the casualties sustained by both sides were costly.