November 6 This Day During World War l

November 6, 1917 – The Battle of Passchendaele was a campaign of the First World War, fought by the British and their allies against the German Empire. The battle took place on the Western Front, between June and November 1917, for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders, as part of a strategy decided by the Allies at conferences in November 1916 and May 1917. Passchendaele lay on the last ridge east of Ypres, five miles from a railway junction at Roeselare, which was a vital part of the supply system of the German Fourth Army. The next stage of the Allied strategy was an advance to Torhout – Couckelaere, to close the German-controlled railway running through Roeselare and Torhout, which did not take place until 1918. Further operations and a British supporting attack along the Belgian coast from Nieuwpoort, combined with an amphibious landing, were to have reached Bruges and then the Dutch frontier. The resistance of the German Fourth Army, unusually wet weather, the onset of winter and the diversion of British and French resources to Italy, following the Austro-German victory at the Battle of Caporetto (24 October – 19 November) allowed the Germans to avoid a general withdrawal, which had seemed inevitable to them in October. The campaign ended in November when the Canadian Corps captured Passchendaele. In 1918 the Battle of the Lys and the Fifth Battle of Ypres, were fought before the Allies occupied the Belgian coast and reached the Dutch frontier. A campaign in Flanders was controversial in 1917 and has remained so. British Prime Minister Lloyd George opposed the offensive as did General Foch the French Chief of the General Staff. The British commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig did not receive approval for the Flanders operation from the War Cabinet until 25 July. Matters of dispute by the participants and writers and historians since the war have included: the wisdom of pursuing an offensive strategy in the wake of the failed Nivelle Offensive, rather than waiting for the arrival of the American armies in France; the choice of Flanders over areas further south or the Italian front; the climate and weather in Flanders; Haig’s selection of General Hubert Gough and the Fifth Army to conduct the offensive; debates over the nature of the opening attack between advocates of shallow and deeper objectives; the passage of time between the Battle of Messines and the opening attack of the Battles of Ypres; the extent to which the internal troubles of the French armies motivated British persistence in the offensive; the effect of mud on operations; the decision to continue the offensive in October once the weather had broken and the human cost of the campaign on the soldiers of the German and British armies. Haig selected Gough to command the offensive on 30 April and on 10 June Gough took over the Ypres salient north of Messines Ridge. Gough planned an offensive based on the GHQ 1917 plan and the instructions he had received from Sir Douglas Haig. On the understanding that Haig wanted a more ambitious version, Gough held meetings with his Corps commanders on 6 and 16 June where the third objective, which included the German Wilhelm (third) line, was added to the first and second objectives due to be taken on the first day. A fourth objective was also given for the first day but was only to be attempted opportunistically, in places where the German defence had collapsed. An attack of this nature was not a breakthrough operation; the German defensive position Flandern I lay 10,000–12,000 yards (9,100–11,000 m) behind the front line and would not be attacked on the first day, nonetheless it was more ambitious than Plumer’s earlier plan, which had involved an advance of 1,000–1,750 yards (910–1,600 m). Major-General J. Davidson, Director of Operations at GHQ wrote in a memorandum that there was “ambiguity as to what was meant by a step-by-step attack with limited objectives” and suggested reverting to a 1,750 yards (1,600 m) advance to increase the concentration of British artillery. Gough’s reply stressed the need to plan for opportunities to take ground left temporarily undefended and that this was more likely in the first attack which would have the benefit of long preparation. After discussions at the end of June, Haig endorsed Gough’s plan, as did Plumer the Second Army commander. The British attack began at 3.50 am on 31 July. The attack was meant to commence at dawn but low cloud meant that it was still dark. The main attack of the offensive by II Corps across the Ghelveult Plateau to the south, confronted the principal German defensive concentration of artillery, ground-holding and Eingreif divisions. The attack had most success on the left (north), in front of XIV Corps and the French First Army. In this section of the front, the Entente forces advanced 2,500–3,000 yards (2,300–2,700 m), up to the line of the Steenbeek river. In the centre of the British attack, XVIII Corps and XIX Corps pushed forward to the line of the Steenbeek to consolidate and sent reserve troops towards the Green and Red lines, (on XIX Corps’s front) an advance of some 4,000 yards (3,700 m). Group Ypres counter-attacked the flanks of the British break-in, supported by all available artillery and aircraft at about midday. The German counter-attack was able to drive the British back to the ‘black line’ with 70% losses, then the German counter-attack was stopped by mud, artillery and machine-gun fire. II Corps attacked on the 10th to capture the rest of the black line on the Gheluvelt plateau not held on 31 July. The advance succeeded but German artillery fire and infantry counter-attacks isolated the British infantry of 18th Division, which had captured Glencorse Wood and at about 7:00 p.m. German infantry attacked behind a smokescreen and recaptured all but the north-west corner of the wood, only 25th Division’s gains on Westhoek Ridge being held. Albrecht von Thaer, Staff Officer at Group Wytshchate noted that casualties after 14 days in the line averaged 1,500–2,000 men compared to the Somme 1916 average of 4,000 men and that German troop morale was higher than in 1916. The Battle of Hill 70 was a subsidiary operation between the Canadian Corps and five divisions of the German Sixth Army. The battle took place on the outskirts of Lens in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, 15–25 August. General Von Kuhl wrote later that it was a costly defeat and “wrecked” the plan for relieving divisions which had been “fought-out” in Flanders. Fifth Army headquarters was influenced by the effect that delay would have on the coastal operation, which needed the high tides at the end of August or it would have to be postponed for a month. Gough intended the rest of the green line (just beyond the German Wilhelm (third) line from Polygon Wood to Langemarck) to be taken and the Steenbeek crossed further north. In the II Corps area the disappointment of 10 August was repeated, with the infantry managing to advance, being isolated by German artillery and then (except in the 25th Division area near Westhoek) forced back to their start line by German infantry counter-attacks. Attempts by the German infantry to advance further were stopped by British artillery fire with heavy losses. The advance further north in the XVIII Corps area retook and held the north end of St Julien and the area south-east of Langemarck, while XIV Corps captured Langemarck and the Wilhelm (third) line north of the Ypres–Staden railway near the Kortebeek. The French First Army conformed, pushing up to the Kortebeek and St Jansbeck stream west of the northern stretch of the Wilhelm (third) line, where it crossed to the east side of the Kortebeek. Most of the smaller attacks failed to hold ground, although a XVIII Corps attack on 19 August succeeded. Exploiting observation from higher ground to the east, the Germans were able to inflict heavy losses on the British divisions holding the new line beyond Langemarck. After two fine dry days 17–18 August, XIX and XVIII Corps began pushing closer to the Wilhelm (third) line. On 20 August an operation by British tanks, artillery and infantry captured strongpoints along the St Julien – Poelkappelle road and two days later more ground was gained by XVIII and XIX Corps, which left them still overlooked by the Germans in the uncaptured part of the Wilhelm (third) line. II Corps resumed operations to capture Nonne Bosschen, Glencorse Wood and Inverness Copse around the Menin Road on 22–24 August, an operation which failed with heavy losses on both sides. Gough laid down a new infantry formation of skirmish lines followed by “worms” on 24 August. Cavan noted that pill-box defences required broad front attacks so as to engage them simultaneously. The British general offensive intended for 25 August was delayed because of the failure of previous attacks to hold ground, following the Battle of Langemarck and then postponed due to more bad weather. Attacks on 27 August were minor operations which were costly and inconclusive. Haig called a halt to these operations amidst tempestuous weather. Petain had committed the French Second Army to an attack at Verdun in mid-July in support of the operations in Flanders. The Second Offensive Battle of Verdun was delayed, partly due to the mutinies which had affected the French army after the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and also because a German attack at Verdun 28–29 June, captured part of the ground intended as a jumping-off point for the French attack. A French counter-attack on 17 July captured the ground, then the Germans regained it on 1 August, then took ground on the east bank on 16 August. The Second Offensive Battle of Verdun finally began on 20 August and by 9 September had taken 10,000 prisoners. Fighting continued sporadically into October, adding to the German army’s difficulties on the Western Front and elsewhere. Ludendorff wrote, “On the left bank, close to the Meuse, one division had failed … and yet both here and in Flanders everything possible had been done to avoid failure … The French army was once more capable of the offensive. It had quickly overcome its depression.” (Ludendorff, memoirs). There was no counter-stroke or counter-offensive as the local Eingreif divisions were in Flanders. The German Fourth Army had defeated the British advance to all of the objectives of 31 July during August but the high casualties and sickness caused by the ground conditions, endless bombardments and air attacks intensified the manpower shortage, that the German defensive strategy for 1917 was intended to alleviate. Haig transferred authority for the offensive to General Plumer, the Second Army commander on 25 August and moved the northern boundary of the Second Army closer to the Ypres–Roulers railway. More heavy artillery was sent to Flanders from the armies further south and placed opposite the Gheluvelt plateau. Plumer’s plans continued the development of British attacking methods, which had also taken place in the Fifth Army, during the slow progress in August against the German defence-in-depth and the unusually wet weather. After a pause of about three weeks, Plumer intended to capture Gheluvelt plateau in four steps, with six days between each step to allow time to bring forward artillery and supplies. Each attack was to have limited geographical objectives like the attacks in August, with infantry brigades re-organised to attack the first objective with one battalion each and the final one with two battalions. Plumer arranged for much more medium and heavy artillery to be added to the creeping bombardment, which had been impossible with the amount of artillery available to Gough. The revised attack organisation was intended to have more infantry attacking on narrower fronts, to a shallower depth than the attackof 31 July. The quicker and shorter advances were intended to be consolidated on tactically advantageous ground (particularly on reverse slopes) with the infantry in contact with their artillery and air support, before they received counter-attacks. The tempo of these operations was intended to add to German difficulties, in replacing tired divisions through the transport bottlenecks behind the German front. The pause in British operations while Plumer moved even more artillery into the area of the Gheluvelt plateau helped to mislead the Germans. Albrecht von Thaer, Staff Officer at Group Wijtschate wrote that it was “almost boring”. At first General von Kuhl (Chief of Staff, Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht) doubted that the offensive had ended but by 13 September had changed his mind. Despite Von Kuhl’s caution, two divisions, thirteen heavy batteries and twelve field batteries of artillery, three fighter squadrons and four other air force units were transferred from the Fourt. Instead of being one to two miles distant, as on 31 July, on 20 September the British objectives were approximately 1,500 yards (1,400 m) away, without the disadvantage of rain soaked ground and poor visibility encountered in August. The advances were much quicker and the final objective was reached a few hours after dawn, which confounded the German counter-attack divisions. Having crossed two miles of mud, the Eingreif divisions found the British already established along a new defence line, with the forward battlezone and its weak garrison gone beyond recapture. After the Battle of Menin Road the German defensive system was changed, beginning a search for expedients, which lasted for the rest of the battle. In August German front-line divisions had two regiments of three battalions deployed forward, with the third regiment in reserve. The front battalions had needed to be relieved much more frequently than expected, due to the power of British attacks, constant artillery fire and the weather, which caused units to become mixed up. The reserve regiments had not been able to intervene early enough, leaving the front battalions unsupported, until the Eingreif divisions arrived, some hours after the commencement of the attack. After another severe defeat on 26 September, the German commanders made more changes to the defensive deployment of their troops and altered their counter-attack tactics, which had been negated by Plumer’s more conservative form of limited attacks. In July and August, German counter-attack (Eingreif) divisions had engaged in a manner analogous to an advance to contact during mobile operations[ which had given the Germans several costly defensive successes. The counter-attacks in September had been assaults on reinforced field positions, due to the restrained nature of British infantry advances. The fine weather in early September had greatly eased British supply difficulties, especially in the delivery of huge amounts of artillery ammunition. Immediately after their attacks, the British had made time to establish a defence in depth, behind standing barrages, in dry clear weather, with increased air support over the battlefield for counter-attack reconnaissance, contact patrols and ground-attack operations. Systematic defensive artillery support was forfeited by the Germans, due to uncertainty over the position of their infantry, just when the British infantry benefitted from the opposite. German counter-attacks were defeated with heavy casualties and on 28 September Albrecht von Thaer, Staff Officer at Group Wytschaete wrote that the experience was “awful” and that he did not know what to do. Ludendorff ordered a strengthening of forward garrisons by the ground-holding divisions. All available machine-guns, including those of the support and reserve battalions of the front line regiments, were sent into the forward zone to form a cordon of four to eight guns every 250 yards (230 m). The ground holding divisions were reinforced by the Stoss regiment of the Eingreif division being moved up behind each front division, into the artillery protective line behind the forward battle zone, to launch earlier counter-attacks while the British were consolidating. The bulk of the Eingreif divisions were to be held back and used for a methodical counter-stroke on the next day or the one after and for counter-attacks and spoiling attacks between British offensives. Further changes of the Fourth Army’s defensive methods were ordered on 30 September. Operations to increase British infantry losses in line with the instructions of 22 September were to continue. Gas bombardment of forward British infantry positions and artillery emplacements, was to be increased whenever the winds allowed. Every effort was to be made to induce the British to reinforce their forward positions, where the German artillery could engage them. Between 26 September and 3 October the Germans attacked at least 24 times. Operation Hohensturm, a bigger German methodical counter-attack, intended to recapture the area around Zonnebeke was planned for 4 October. The plan included more emphasis on the use of heavy and medium artillery to destroy German concrete pill-boxes and machine gun nests which were more numerous in the battle zones being attacked and to engage in more counter-battery fire. 575 heavy and medium and 720 field guns and howitzers, more than doubled the proportion available at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Aircraft were to be used for systematic air observation of German troop movements to and on the battlefield, to avoid the failures of previous battles where too few aircraft had been burdened with too many duties in bad weather. On 20 September the Allies attacked on a 14,500 yards (13,300 m) front and captured most their objectives to a depth of about 1,500 yards (1,400 m) by mid-morning. The Germans made many counter-attacks, beginning around 3.00 p.m. until early evening, all of which failed to gain ground or made only a temporary penetration of the new British positions on the Second Army front. The attack was a great success and showed that the German defences could no longer stop well-prepared attacks made in good weather. Minor attacks took place after 20 September as both sides jockeyed for position and reorganised their defences. A larger attack by the Germans on 25 September recaptured pillboxes at the south western end of Polygon Wood at the cost of heavy casualties. Not long after, the German positions near Polygon Wood were swept away by Plumer’s attack of 26 September (the Battle of Polygon Wood). The Second Army altered its Corps frontages soon after the attack of 20 September, so that each attacking division could be concentrated on a 1,000 yards (910 m) front. Roads and light railways were extended to the new front line to allow artillery and ammunition to be moved forward. Artillery from VIII and IX Corps in the south acted to threaten attacks on Zandvoorde and Warneton. At 5.50 a.m. on 26 September the five layers of barrage fired by the British artillery and machine-guns began. Dust and smoke added to the morning mist so the infantry advanced using compass bearings. Each of the three German ground-holding divisions attacked on 26 September had an Eingreif division in support, twice the ratio of 20 September. No ground captured by the British was lost and German counter-attacks managed only to reach ground to which survivors of the front-line divisions had retired. The Battle of Broodseinde was the last assault launched by Plumer in good weather. The operation aimed to complete the capture of the Gheluvelt Plateau and occupy Broodseinde Ridge. The Germans sought to recapture their defences around Zonnebeke with a methodical counter-attack also on 4 October. On 4 October the British attacked along a 14,000 yards (13,000 m) front. By coincidence, Australian troops from I Anzac Corps met attacking troops from the German 45th Reserve Division in no man’s land when Operation Hohensturm commenced simultaneously. The Germans had reinforced their front line to delay the British capture of their forward positions until the Eingreif divisions could intervene, which brought more German troops into the area most vulnerable to the British artillery. The success of the British advance varied but the losses inflicted on the Germans were devastating. On 7 October the German Fourth Army again dispersed its troops in the front defence zone. Reserve battalions moved back behind the artillery protective line and the Eingreif divisions were organised to intervene as swiftly as possible once an attack commenced, despite the risk of being devastated by the British artillery. Counter-battery fire to reduce British artillery fire were to be increased to protect the Eingreif divisions as they advanced. All of the German divisions holding front zones were relieved and an extra division brought forward as the British advances had lengthened the front line. Without the forces necessary for a counter-offensive south of the Gheluvelt plateau towards Kemmel Hill, Rupprecht began to plan for a slow withdrawal from the Ypres salient, even at the risk of uncovering German positions further north and the Belgian coast. The French First Army and British 2nd and 5th Armies attacked on 9 October on a 13,500 yards (12,300 m) front, from south of Broodseinde to St Jansbeek, to advance half of the distance from Broodseinde ridge to Passchendaele on the main front, led to heavy casualties on both sides, with advances in the north of the attack being retained by British and French troops and most of the ground taken in front of Passchendaele and on the Becelaere and Gheluvelt spurs being lost to German counter-attacks. Birdwood later wrote that the return of heavy rain and mud sloughs was the main cause of the failure to hold captured ground. General von Kuhl concluded that the fighting strained German fighting power to the limit but that the German forces prevented a breakthrough although it was becoming much harder to replace losses. The First Battle of Passchendaele, on 12 October was another Allied attempt to gain ground around Passchendaele. The heavy rain and mud again made movement difficult and little artillery could be brought closer to the front. Allied troops were exhausted and morale had fallen. After a modest British advance, German counter-attacks recovered most of the ground lost opposite Passchendaele. There were 13,000 Allied casualties, including 2,735 New Zealanders, 845 of whom were either dead or wounded and stranded in the mud of no-man’s-land. In lives lost in a day, this is the blackest day in New Zealand history. At a conference on 13 October, Haig and the army commanders agreed that attacks would stop until the weather improved and roads would be extended, to carry more artillery and ammunition forward for better fire support. After numerous requests from Haig, Petain launched the Battle of La Malmaison, a long-delayed French attack on the Chemin des Dames, by Maistre’s Sixth Army. The artillery preparation started on 17 October, four months late. The Germans were swiftly defeated, losing 11,157 prisoners and 180 guns as the French advanced up to 3.7 miles (6.0 km), capturing the town of La Malmaison and gaining control of the Chemin des Dames ridge. The Germans had to withdraw to the north of the Ailette Valley. Haig was pleased with the French success but regretted the delays which had lessened its effect on the Flanders operations. The British Fifth Army undertook minor operations 20–22 October to maintain pressure on the Germans while the Canadian Corps prepared for their assault, as well as supporting the French attack at Malmaison. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps had been transferred to the Ypres Salient to capture Passchendaele and the ridge. The Canadian Corps relieved II Anzac Corps on 18 October from their positions along the valley between Gravenstafel Ridge and the heights at Passchendaele. The front line was mostly the same as the one occupied by the 1st Canadian Division in April 1915. The Canadian Corps operation was to be executed in a series of three attacks each with limited objectives, delivered at intervals of three or more days. The dates of the phases were tentatively given as 26 October, 30 October and 6 November. The first stage began on the morning of 26 October The 3rd Canadian Division captured Wolf Copse and secured its objective line and then swung back its northern flank to link up with the adjacent division of the British Fifth Army. The 4th Canadian Division captured its objectives but gradually retreated from Decline Copse due to German counter-attacks and communication failures between the Canadian and Australian units to the south. The second stage began on 30 October and was intended to complete the previous stage and gain a base for the final assault on Passchendaele. The southern flank quickly captured Crest Farm and sent patrols beyond its objective line and into Passchendaele. The northern flank again met with exceptional German resistance. The 3rd Canadian Division captured Vapour Farm on the Corps boundary, Furst Farm to the west of Meetcheele and the crossroads at Meetcheele but remained short of its objective. During a seven-day pause, the British Second Army took over a section of the British Fifth Army front adjoining the Canadian Corps. Three rainless days from 3–5 November eased preparation for the next stage, which began on the morning of 6 November with the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions. In fewer than three hours, many units had reached their final objectives and the village of Passchendaele had been captured. The Canadian Corps launched a final action on 10 November to gain control of the remaining high ground north of the village, in the vicinity of Hill 52. The attack on 10 November brought an end to the campaign. A German General Staff publication claimed “Germany had been brought near to certain destruction (sicheren Untergang) by the Flanders battle of 1917”. In his memoirs (1938) Lloyd George wrote, “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …”. G. C. Wynne wrote that the British had eventually reached Passchendaele Ridge and captured Flandern I; beyond them was Flandern II and also Flandern III which was nearly complete. The German submarine bases on the coast remained but the objective of diverting the Germans from the French further south, while they recovered from the failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April had succeeded. Paddy Griffith wrote that the bite and hold system kept moving until November; the BEF had developed a workable system of offensive tactics against which the Germans ultimately had no answer. In 2007 Jack Sheldon concluded that relative casualty figures were irrelevant, because the German army could not afford heavy losses or lose the initiative, by being compelled to fight another defensive battle on ground of the Allies’ choosing. The Third Battle of Ypres pinned the German army to Flanders and cost unsustainable casualties. At an army commanders’ conference on 13 October a scheme of Byng’s British Third Army for mid-November was discussed. Byng wanted the operations at Ypres to continue so as to hold German troops in Flanders. The Battle of Cambrai began on 20 November when the British breached the first two parts of the Hindenburg Line in the first successful mass use of tanks in a combined arms operation. The experience of the failure to contain the British attacks at Ypres and the drastic reduction in areas of the western front which could be considered “quiet”, after the tank and artillery surprise at Cambrai, left the German Oberste Heeresleitung with little choice but to return to a strategy of decisive victory in 1918. On 24 October, The Austro-German 14th Army, under General der Infanterie Otto von Below, attacked the Italian Second Army on the Isonzo at the Battle of Caporetto; in 18 days Italy lost 650,000 men and 3,000 guns. In fear that Italy might be put out of the war, the French and British Governments offered reinforcements. British and French troops were swiftly moved between 10 November and 12 December. The diversion of resources from the British Expeditionary Force forced Haig to conclude the 3rd Battle of Ypres short of Westrozebeke, the last substantial attack being made on 10 November.


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