Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library


Robin Prior
Trevor Wilson
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    No conflict of the Great War excites stronger emotions than the war in Flanders in the autumn of 1917, and no name better encapsulates the horror and apparent futility of the Western Front than Passchendaele. By its end there had been 275,000 Allied and 200,000 German casualties. Yet the territorial gains made by the Allies in four desperate months were won back by Germany in only three days the following March. The devastation at Passchendaele, the authors argue, was neither inevitable nor inescapable; perhaps it was not necessary at all. Using a substantial archive of official and private records, much of which has never been previously consulted, Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior provide the fullest account of the campaign ever published.The book examines the political dimension at a level which has hitherto been absent from accounts of "Third Ypres." It establishes what did occur, the options for alternative action, and the fundamental responsibility for the carnage. Prior and Wilson consider the shifting ambitions and stratagems of the high command, examine the logistics of war, and assess what the available manpower, weaponry, technology, and intelligence could realistically have hoped to achieve. And, most powerfully of all, they explore the experience of the soldiers in the light-whether they knew it or not-of what would never be accomplished.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18483-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Maps
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Introduction to the Second Edition
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson

    It is five years since this book was first published. At that point we sought to bring to the attention of readers a number of issues which we considered important for the understanding both of the campaign of 1917 and the essential military characteristics of the entire war.

    The first thing we wished to do was to tell, by using material that we considered under-utilized, as complete a story of the military and political aspects of the battle as possible.

    Second, we wanted to demonstrate two things. One was that by 1917 the British army had sufficient materiel and expertise...

  7. Introduction
    (pp. xix-xxii)

    There is a dearth of comprehensive accounts of the British army’s struggle in Flanders in the second half of 1917. This seems strange. No Great War campaign excites stronger emotions. And no word better encapsulates the horror and apparent futility of Western Front combat than ‘Passchendaele’. Yet the literature on this episode is astonishingly thin.

    If we ignore some recent pot-boilers on Passchendaele (like the work which referred, early on, to Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian military master, as ‘Schlieffen’s predecessors… Helmuth and Moltke’, and from there went steadily downhill), we must go back to 1958 for an effective account...

  8. I Setting the Scene

    • 1 The Conundrum
      (pp. 3-14)

      By the time the Flanders campaign opened on 31 July 1917, battle had been raging in France and Belgium for all of three years. During that time, painful truths had emerged. They concerned the difficulties confronting any attempts to launch a successful offensive - difficulties springing from the particular conjunction of weaponry which dominated the battlefield. Some of these truths Sir Douglas Haig, Britain’s commander-in-chief on the Western Front, took trouble to notice. Others he studiously ignored.

      The manner of delivering a land offensive had changed markedly since the early weeks of the war. The German invasion of Belgium and...

    • 2 The Search for a Solution, 1915–1916
      (pp. 15-24)

      Twice during 1915 and 1916, attempts were made to resolve the conundrum of the Western Front by the introduction of entirely new weapons of offence. One weapon was poison gas. The other was the armoured fighting vehicle, or tank. These would in due course prove useful supplements to existing weaponry. They would not supply the key that unlocked the door of stalemate.

      Poison gas was first employed, at least in a manner that attracted notice, by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Their reward - at the cost of much opprobrium - was a local...

    • 3 Stratagems: January–May 1917
      (pp. 25-30)

      As far as the Western Allies were concerned, decision-making at the start of 1917 would rest on the interaction of four groups: the political leaders and the military leaders of Britain and France. Ultimately, the civilian chiefs would decide, as was their constitutional responsibility. But they would receive advice, and experience pressure, from the heads of the military.

      In the closing stages of the Somme campaign, the then military chiefs of France and Britain, Joffre and Haig, had agreed on strategy for the coming year. ‘Alternative’ strategies, directed not at Germany but at one of its allies, or at some...

    • 4 Decisions: May–July 1917
      (pp. 31-42)

      Clearly, the calamity of the Nivelle offensive had played into Haig’s hands. French offensive strategy was discredited, Lloyd George stood humiliated, and Haig was securely restored to command of his own army. As Lloyd George’s private secretary noted in her diary on 12 May: ‘In the meantime, Nivelle has fallen into disgrace, and let [Lloyd George] down badly … Sir Douglas Haig has come out on top in this fight between the two Chiefs, and I fear [Lloyd George] will have to be very careful in future as to his backings of the French against the English.’¹ That seemed to...

  9. II Initiation

    • 5 Making Plans
      (pp. 45-53)

      In order to understand what Sir Douglas Haig set out to do, some recapitulation is necessary. The First and Second Battles of Ypres had left the British holding a fragment of Belgium which, on account of its symbolic importance, it was difficult to relinquish, but which placed them in a position of great tactical inferiority. From the Pilckem and Passchendaele Ridges to the north-east of Ypres, through the Gheluvelt Plateau to its east, and down to the Messines Ridge to its south, the Germans held the high ground. They could observe most movements of British troops and guns within the...

    • 6 False Dawn: Messines
      (pp. 55-66)

      Haig, it will be recalled, had decided on 7 May to split his northern offensive into two distinct attacks, separated by seven weeks. The first of these was to be conducted by Plumer’s Second Army. Its objective was the capture of the Messines Ridge from which ‘the Germans could watch every detail of any preparations the British might make for an offensive eastwards between Ypres and the Belgian coast’.¹

      Although the Messines Ridge was a position of considerable strength, earlier battles in 1917 had seen some hopeful developments for limited offensives against objectives of this type. In particular these developments...

  10. III Gough

    • 7 The New Commander
      (pp. 69-77)

      Even before Haig had settled on Gough as commander of the main attack at Ypres, he had chosen Sir Henry Rawlinson to conduct the coastal aspect of the plan. We last encountered Sir Henry back in February as a commentator on the plans of General Plumer. Those comments did not win the approval of the commander-in-chief and Rawlinson had been sidelined. Now, in early April, Rawlinson was informed that after all he would play a role in the campaign - not as the instigator of the main attack but as the commander of the coastal operation that would be launched...

    • 8 31 July: The Implements
      (pp. 79-85)

      To achieve his purpose Gough had at hand three implements: the cavalry, the infantry along with their supporting weapons, and the artillery. We shall look at them in ascending order of importance.

      One thing, in particular, demonstrates that 31 July was not envisaged as an attempt at a breakthrough, but as the first in a series of set-piece attacks. This was the minor role assigned to the cavalry.

      Gough may have been an ex-cavalryman, yet for the first day he required little of his mounted soldiers. After the infantry had reached their final objectives, a brigade of cavalry was to...

    • 9 First Strike
      (pp. 86-96)

      The preliminary bombardment opened on 16 July. Originally it had been intended to last for nine days, the attack going in on the 25th. In the event two factors postponed the battle until the 31st. First, some of Gough’s heavy artillery had been delayed and he requested three extra days in which to complete his bombardment.¹ Secondly, General Anthoine, commander of the French First Army on Gough’s northern flank, asked for a further extension because bad weather was hampering his counter-battery programme.² Both extensions were granted by Haig.

      Anthoine’s request has given rise to two allegations: that the French were...

    • 10 Rain
      (pp. 97-110)

      As the 17/King’s Liverpool Battalion struggled through Shrewsbury Forest on the opening day of the battle, its commander noted at noon precisely, ‘Rain Starts’.¹ It was not to stop for seven days.² In fact, during the month of August there were only three days (7, 19, 22) when no rain at all was recorded. The total rainfall for the month was 127 millimetres, almost double the August average of 70 millimetres. Most of the rain fell in four periods:

      Even the intervals between the downpours were by no means fine. Between 16 and 25 August, although only 2-3 millimetres of...

  11. IV Plumer

    • 11 Menin Road
      (pp. 113-123)

      Plumer’s scheme for future operations was submitted to the commander-in-chief on 29 August 1917. It called for a series of steps with a strictly limited objective. Each step was designed to advance the Second Army about 1,500 yards, until the Gheluvelt Plateau was in British hands.¹ It seems safe to speculate that this scheme owed much to Plumer’s experience at Messines. At that battle, it will be recalled, Plumer had originally intended to advance just 1,500 yards. Then Haig had extended the objectives to 3,000-4,000 yards. During the course of the battle Plumer’s original objective had been taken with relative...

    • 12 Polygon Wood
      (pp. 125-131)

      At advanced GHQ Haig took the success of the Menin Road battle as a portent of great things. He immediately issued instructions for the second stage of the plan to commence on the 26th, adding (with a certain circularity):

      the attack is to be carried out on as wide a front as possible… in order to obtain the tactical advantages of attacking on a wide front.¹

      While his army commanders were doing their best to digest this wisdom, Haig delivered to them a map on which he sketched out the projected stages of the campaign. On the 26th Polygon Wood...

    • 13 Broodseinde
      (pp. 133-140)

      Polygon Wood merely confirmed for Haig the optimism engendered by Menin Road. ‘Decisive results’, he recorded in his diary, were now possible.¹ The commander-in-chief immediately called a conference at Second Army Headquarters. The Germans clearly had no answer to the tactics being employed against them. The third stage of Plumer’s campaign would be brought forward from 6 October to the 4th to take advantage of the fine weather and the state of the enemy.²

      Haig’s thoughts were running beyond immediate events. He saw the Germans as being in an advanced state of demoralization. The moment was approaching when operations of...

  12. V Political Interlude (i)

    • 14 Deciding and Not Deciding: The War Cabinet and the War Policy Committee, August–November 1917
      (pp. 143-156)

      Ever since the termination of the Third Ypres campaign, historians and biographers and memoir-writers and journalists have asked the same questions. How did the political leaders of Britain come to authorize it? Why did they agree to unleash a campaign which, for trivial gains, would go on week after week at terrible cost?

      In an important respect, these questions are simply wrong-headed. They are seeking to explain why, late in July, the War Policy Committee endorsed a campaign which would continue until mid-November. As we have seen, the Prime Minister and his colleagues never gave such authorization. On the contrary,...

  13. VI The Lower Depths

    • 15 Poelcappelle
      (pp. 159-164)

      In the aftermath of Broodseinde, optimism among the British command reached new heights. None of the shortcomings evident in that operation was identified. All agreed that the assault scheduled for the 10th should be brought forward one day so as to exploit the fact that the enemy ‘has been very seriously demoralized by our attack’.¹

      The command was determined to make the most of the expected victory. The cavalry were brought up behind the Yser Canal; the reserve brigades of infantry with their mobile batteries and tanks were put into position.² Haig had laid down wide-ranging objectives for these units....

    • 16 Neverending Story
      (pp. 165-169)

      The Battle of Poelcappelle had not advanced the British line a yard towards Passchendaele Ridge. At the end of the day the troops of I Anzac and II Anzac and XVIII Corps were, with trivial exceptions, occupying their original front line.

      This, however, was not the view held by the high command. Perhaps grasping at the fleeting appearance of small groups from 66 and 2 Australian Divisions at their final objectives, Plumer expressed himself satisfied with the day’s result. He told Haig that a good line had been seized from which to capture Passchendaele village and that operations should continue...

    • 17 Final Folly
      (pp. 171-182)

      The failure before Passchendaele on 12 October, unlike that on the 9th, was immediately evident to the command. Haig noted that, prior to the next operation, communications would have to be improved so as to bring up the guns, and that a long bombardment must be fired in order to reduce the German defences and subdue their artillery. These two factors would mean a delay of about ten days.¹

      This was a welcome breath of realism. But Haig had little option. The Second Army divisions confronting the Passchendaele Ridge were worn out. Birdwood announced that the Australians could do no...

  14. VII Political Interlude (ii)

    • 18 The Last Inaction: The War Cabinet, October–November 1917
      (pp. 185-193)

      In those desperate last weeks of the Third Ypres operation, the British government had both cause and opportunity to halt the campaign. It gave clear indications of disbelief in its efficacy. It did nothing to stop it.

      Various grounds for calling off the campaign presented themselves. Throughout October and November, the French authorities were demanding that the BEF take over from them more of the Western Front. In justification, they put forward their own projected operations in Syria, and their need to employ French combat forces to bring in the harvest. Members of Lloyd George’s cabinet suspected that a desire...

    • 19 Conclusion
      (pp. 194-200)

      The termination of the Third Ypres campaign constituted no sort of a climax. The undertaking did not cease because it had reached some meaningful culmination. It simply came to a halt.

      This raised an obvious question. What was going to happen next? Haig’s view was straightforward. Although concerned about the appearance of reinforcements on the German side of the front, he took the view that the British offensive in Flanders should be resumed as soon as the campaigning season returned. At a meeting with Robertson on 10 November, during which the CIGS stressed the government’s concern regarding the precarious situation...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 201-217)
  16. Note on Sources
    (pp. 218-219)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 220-228)
  18. Index
    (pp. 229-240)