For every major combatant in the Great War by the mid-summer of 1917, the strategy seemed obvious – wait.
The Germans had reached such a conclusion months earlier, retreating behind the Hindenberg Line while waiting for their unrestricted submarine warfare and Russian collapse to change the dynamics of the conflict. The French had just recently embraced a similar change – as the mutiny of their armies following the Nivelle Offensive brought Paris to the brink of defeat. Even Russia, now reeling from their own failed Kerensky Offensive saw the relative wisdom of simply trying to hold on and wait for the American armies in France to save the war.
In London, the strategy of patience appeared to be favored as well. The War Cabinet and David Lloyd George were ready to wait until enough tanks could be produced – and enough American “doughboys” had arrived – to restart serious offensive actions on the Western Front. But the view was far from unanimous. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) continued to believe in the increasingly discredited belief that the German army was on the verge of collapse. Another offensive, Haig believed, and the Germans could potentially surrender miles of territory as they had earlier in the year. A well-timed strike in Flanders, Haig theorized, would also captured German naval bases on the Belgian coast, ending the damage Berlin’s U-boat campaign had done to British shipping.
Seemingly no one supported the concept. Flanders was notorious for fall flooding, which would be occurring within weeks of the proposed campaign. French soldiers were unreliable allies and the terrain was far from suitable for the tanks the British were willing to commit. Yet seemingly no one was willing to say no to Haig.
On July 31st, 1917, one of the grisliest campaigns of the First World War would begin in Flanders. David Lloyd George would later say that what would be known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele, was a “senseless campaign” and “one of the greatest disasters of the war.”
Quagmire – Passchendaele would be defined by the endless mud
It was somewhat fitting that the Ypres would ultimately represent a turning point for the British strategy in France, for it had represented the beginnings of the static, trench warfare that defined the Great War.
The First Battle of Ypres in Flanders in October of 1914 had marked the end of the warfare of maneuvers, as both the Entente and Germany found themselves locked into battles of attrition – each side charging the other’s trench in desperate bids to break the newfound deadlock. For the cost of over 100,000 men, the combatants discovered that the hope of a war colluded by Christmas was a fantasy. Continue reading