On July 31, 1917, the Allies launch a renewed assault on German lines in the Flanders region of Belgium, in the much-contested region near Ypres, during World War I. The attack begins more than three months of brutal fighting, known as the Third Battle of Ypres or the Battle of Passchendaele.
While the first and second battles at Ypres were attacks by the Germans against the Allied-controlled salient around Ypres–which crucially blocked any German advance to the English Channel–the third was spearheaded by the British commander in chief, Sir Douglas Haig. After the resounding failure of the Nivelle Offensive–named for its mastermind, the French commander Robert Nivelle–the previous May, followed by widespread mutinies within the French army, Haig insisted that the British should press ahead with another major offensive that summer. The aggressive and meticulously planned offensive, ostensibly aimed at destroying German submarine bases located on the north coast of Belgium, was in fact driven by Haig’s (mistaken) belief that the German army was on the verge of collapse, and would be broken completely by a major Allied victory.
After an opening barrage of some 3,000 guns, Haig ordered nine British divisions, led by Sir Hubert Gough’s 5th Army, to advance on the German lines near the Belgian village of Passchendaele on July 31; they were joined by six French divisions. In the first two days of the attacks, while suffering heavy casualties, the Allies made significant advances–in some sectors pushing the Germans back more than a mile and taking more than 5,000 German prisoners–if not as significant as Haig had envisioned. The offensive was renewed in mid-August, though heavy rains and thickening mud severely hampered the effectiveness of Allied infantry and artillery and prevented substantial gains over the majority of the summer and early fall.
Dissatisfied with his army’s gains by the end of August, Haig had replaced Gough with Herbert Plumer at the head of the attack; after several small gains in September, the British were able to establish control over the ridge of land east of Ypres. Encouraged, Haig pushed Plumer to continue the attacks towards the Passchendaele ridge, some 10 kilometers from Ypres.
Thus the Third Battle of Ypres–also known as Passchendaele, for the village, and the ridge surrounding it, that saw the heaviest fighting–continued into its third month, as the Allied attackers reached near-exhaustion, with few notable gains, and the Germans reinforced their positions in the region with reserve troops released from the Eastern Front, where Russia’s army was foundering amid internal turmoil. Unwilling to give up, Haig ordered a final three attacks on Passchendaele in late October. The eventual capture of the village, by Canadian and British troops, on November 6, 1917, allowed Haig to finally call off the offensive, claiming victory, despite some 310,000 British casualties, as opposed to 260,000 on the German side, and a failure to create any substantial breakthrough, or change of momentum, on the Western Front. Given its outcome, the Third Battle of Ypres remains one of the most costly and controversial offensives of World War I, representing–at least for the British–the epitome of the wasteful and futile nature of trench warfare.
July 31, 1917 : Third Battle of Ypres begins in Flanders
July 31, 1917 : Third Battle of Ypres begins in Flanders
In Flanders, Belgium, on July 30, 1915, the Germans put their new weapon, the flammenwerfer, or flamethrower, to devastating use against the Allies at the Battle of Hooge.
The Battle of Hooge represented one of the first major employments of the flamethrower, one of the most feared weapons introduced during World War I. Eleven days before the battle, British infantry had captured the German-occupied village of Hooge, located near Ypres in Belgium, by detonating a large mine. Using the flamethrowers to great effect, along with machine guns, trench mortars and hand grenades, the Germans reclaimed their positions on July 30, 1915, penetrating enemy front lines with ease and pushing the British forces back to their second trench. Though few men were lost to actual burns, a British officer reported later, the weapons had a great demoralizing effect, and when added to the assault of the other powerful weapons, they proved mercilessly efficient at Hooge.
German troops had started with stationary flamethrowers, which allowed them to take large gains of land at Verdun in February 1915. Through the efforts of Bernhard Reddemann, a reserve captain, and Richard Fiedler, a Berlin engineer, the Germans progressed to smaller, lighter models, including a portable version, carried like a backpack. The number of flamethrower attacks conducted by Reddeman’s men in the first half of 1916 was three times that of 1915.
One great puzzle that emerged from World War I was why Germany’s opponents never made equal use of this terrifying weapon. The British made three attempts with larger, more unwieldy prototypes: the smallest one was equal in size to the German Grof, which the enemy had almost abandoned by 1916. The French were more persistent, and by 1918 had at least seven companies trained in using flamethrowers; the use of the weapon never progressed to the same level as that in the German army, however.
The flamethrower was included, along with the submarine, the battleship, heavy artillery, the tank, poison gas and the zeppelin, on the list of weapons forbidden to German forces by the Treaty of Versailles. After Hitler came to power in 1933, though, and Germany began to rebuild its army, backpack flamethrowers were liberally supplied to the combat forces, and the formidable flammenwerfer would again play a deadly role in the clashes of World War II.