The Third Battle of Ypres (more commonly known as The battle of Passchendaele or just 'Passchendaele') ended after the Canadian Corps captured the Passchendaele ridge in November 1917 (the culmination of a battle which caused 240,000 casualties including 70,000 killed). However, two major and relatively forgotten battles were fought in the Ypres Salient subsequently, in 1918.
After Third Ypres, the manpower reductions imposed by the British government on Haig's BEF included ten of the sixty divisions on the Western Front being sent to Italy in order to prop up the Italian Army's offensive against the Austrians and the Germans. This led to a serious and sustained drop in morale in the remaining troops at Ypres. Brigades were instructed to improve their defensive response instead of developing offensive moves. By January 1918, the BEF was severely depleted in numbers. A longer line of defences to maintain and fewer men in the line (as more were held back in the UK) did not help.
On 21 March 1918, Ludendorff launched the first of the German Offensives (‘Michael') on the BEF, with the attacks on the Third and Fifth Armies in the Somme area. These caused the BEF to withdraw until reinforcements could be fed into the line. General Foch was appointed generalissimo for all land forces on the Western Front. Men held back in the UK were released.
Before the Michael offensive against the Third and Fifth Armies had run its course, Ludendorff launched Georgette (the second offensive) against the BEF in the Lys area on 9 April.
The vital Hazebrouck railhead had to be held as its loss would have divided the BEF in this area and Haig would not have been able to move his men by rail on a north-south axis, or to the channel ports. (Hazebrouck in the Ypres sector was as important as Abancourt in the Somme sector in this respect). On 11 April, Haig issued his famous ‘backs to the wall' order of the day. Over two days (12-14 April) the furthest outposts of the Ypres salient was evacuated as Second Army withdrew to shorten its line. By 13 April fighting had reached Hazebrouck and Bailleul but no further. As Plumer's Second Army withdrew, important battle field strongpoints from 1917 were given up: Mount Kemmel (lost by the French), and Messines and Wytschaete on 25 April. On the southern flank of this attack, between 9 and 13 April, Major-General Jeudwine's 55th Division led a spirited defence at Givenchy (just south of the Portuguese divisions which did withdraw) . The Germans could advance to the north of Givenchy but could not fan out to the south. The final battle was for Scherpenberg on 29 April before Georgette was closed down on 30 April, with the German Fourth and Sixth Armies exhausted.
Losses were 82,000 casualties of which 40,000 were killed. Four divisions (25, 34, 40 & 49) were withdrawn from the line in order to be rebuilt.
Later in the year, the BEF turned the tide by a series of well organised attacks on the Germans from 4 July (Le Hamel), culminating with the Battle of Amiens in August. They were 'all arms' battles with limited objectives.
On 26 August, the Germans withdrew from the Lys area. On 31 August, Mount Kemmel changed hands again. In September, Haig instructed Plumer to retake the Passchendaele ridge and the Gheluvelt plateau. The commanders for this Battle of Flanders were King Albert of Belgium (supreme commander), General Degoutte (French army, King Albert's chief of staff) and Plumer who would lead the Second Army. This battle opened on 27 September on a front just north of Lille (south of Lille, General Horne's First Army was attacking the Canal du Nord). The preparation for this battle was very special, first and most important of all was the secrecy: all work was done at night, all movement of men was camouflaged, areas were restricted to normal traffic and there was no preliminary artillery fire.
When the artillery did start, it was counter battery fire so the German defences were severely weakened. The RAF led raids on key logistic points and the infantry advanced in 4,000 yard bites according to their creeping barrage.
The Belgium Army put seven divisions into the battle, holding two in reserve. Plumer's Second Army put four corps into the field: II, X, XV with XIX in reserve. After the first day the old battlefields of 1914-15 were taken and the fighting reached open country. During the first half of October the battles extended into Courtrai, Ooteghem and then Tieghem. In total the Belgium army suffered 4,500 casualties and the BEF 4,695.
The last 'Battle of Ypres' was between the victors and the inhabitants of Ypres over how the city was to be rebuilt. Some of the suggestions made by the great and the good seem to us now to be so outlandish (Ypres to become a memorial and cemetery with no inhabitants!). Luckily, common sense prevailed and Ypres, as we now know it, was slowly rebuilt in its old image.
This article is based on a talk given by Chris Baker to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.
Contributed by Peter J Palmer.
Colour maps courtesy of Wikimedia.
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