On 4 October an attack on an eight-mile front by troops of eight divisions (four Anzac in the 2nd Army and four in the 5th Army) won control of much of the ridge including part of the Gheluvelt Plateau, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. However, the fine weather, which had prevailed for most of the previous month had broken on the night of 3 October and some rain had fallen. Some units had reported heavy casualties because worsening conditions underfoot had resulted in their falling too far behind the creeping artillery barrage that protected them. On the afternoon of 4 October a fine drizzle had settled in across the whole battlefield and the forecast was that rainfall would increase (i).
Was it worth continuing the battle for the remainder of the ridge?
According to Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds (author of the 'Official History') on the evening of 7 October General Plumer (2nd Army) and General Gough (5th Army) met Haig at GHQ and indicated to him that 'though willing to continue, they would welcome a closing down of the campaign' ('Military Operations in France and Belgium', Vol. 2, page 325). There is an ongoing debate about this meeting among historians because there is 'no real documentary evidence' (Simkins: Essay on Herbert Plumer in 'Haig's Generals') for it having taken place. There is no mention of it in Haig's diary entry for 7 October (ii) and Gough made no mention of the meeting in his memoirs in 1931. Plumer died in 1932 and left no memoirs or papers behind him. However, Gough was sent the draft of 'Military Operations in France and Belgium', Vol. 2 by Edmonds 'for providing explanations, filling gaps and generally furnishing corrections, additions and suggestions' (Preface: page xix) and it would appear that he did not choose to question Edmonds' account of the meeting on the evening of 7 October. (Indeed, at this stage, could it have been Gough who mentioned this meeting as one of the 'additions' that Edmonds appeared to have been welcoming?)
Despite the weather which had markedly worsened on 7 October with squalls of cold drenching rain and deteriorating ground conditions (both of which Haig was fully aware) the decision was made to attack Poelcappelle.
Edmonds wrote that 'this momentous decision' was explained by Haig's view that it was necessary in order to 'continue to divert German attention from the other Allied fronts'. In particular, Haig claimed to be concerned with what he perceived to be the slow recovery of the French Army after the mutinies earlier in the year. Because of the granting of extra leave in an attempt to address one of the grievances of the French soldiers the effective strength of the French Army had been reduced by 340,000 men and this meant that parts of the French front line appeared to be thinly held. In a statement made to Lloyd George, dated 8 October, Haig gave his opinion that, 'neither the French Government nor the military authorities will venture to call on their troops for any further great and sustained effort, at any rate before it becomes evident that the enemy's strength has been definitely and finally broken'. In fact, as the British continued to struggle in Flanders, on 23 October the French were to launch an attack in the Champagne area, advance over 6 km. in four days, and capture over 11,000 prisoners and 180 guns.
Gough and Plumer (and his Chief of Staff, Harington) remained optimistic in their encounters with war correspondents (but how could they be otherwise?) and years later Harington wrote that there had been no fundamental disagreement between Plumer and Haig over the conduct of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. A few hours before the attack on Poelcappelle, Harington announced to assembled war correspondents that a breakthrough was imminent. However, Bean, the official Australian historian, was present and recorded his fear that the attack was 'a great bloody experiment, a huge gamble and no more than that', and concluded that taking the rest of the ridge had now become an obsession with Haig.
After a brief lull on the evening of 7/8 October the rain came down again in torrents in the afternoon of 8 October and weather reports showed more stormy weather approaching and no improvement in sight.
Haig's diary records that Gough telephoned Kiggell (Haig's Chief of Staff) on 8 October 'as to postponement' of the battle. The entry does not state Gough's own view but that Gough reported General Maxse's (iii) wish that the battle should be postponed.
The battle for Poelcappelle, 9 October, was a shambles because of inadequate artillery, appalling weather, and breakdowns in communication. British casualties were very high and remained high for the rest of the month, the third worst month in terms of casualties throughout the war (exceeded only by July 1916 and April 1917). Official estimates put British casualties at 110,000 for October 1917 (figures received by the War Cabinet on 1 November).
However, there is some evidence (and some of it survives in Haig's diary) that suggests that, although Gough and Plumer continued to carry out Haig's orders after the disaster at Poelcappelle, they did so with more caution and less conviction than formerly.
Liddell Hart ('The First World War') noted that, after further bad weather, Gough telephoned Plumer on 11 October suggesting a postponement of the attack planned for the following day (the so-called 'First' Battle for Passchendaele) and Plumer consulted Lieut. General Godley of 2Anzac Corps, mainly responsible for the attack. Godley, whose grasp of the situation was later shown to have been faulty, wanted to press on. Plumer agreed. Yet Haig's diary records that on 12 October Plumer halted the advance of 2nd Army towards Passchendaele because of the quagmire of the battlefield. A later entry records that on 26 October (the start of the 'Second' Battle for Passchendaele) Gough contacted Kiggell and recommended 'delaying further operations until frost set in'.
Haig insisted on maintaining the assaults on Passchendaele and eventually it was captured by the Canadian Army Corps on 6 November. Four days later, after another Canadian attack had captured a further 100 - 200 metres of the ridge, the campaign was wound up. 12,000 Canadians had been killed and wounded since 26 October.
The debate over the casualties incurred in the 3rd Battle of Ypres has been bitterly contested ever since the battle was concluded. Haig is supposed to have been informed after Passchendaele had been captured that half a million men had been lost. Jan Smuts (iv), a member of the War Cabinet mentioned a figure of half a million British casualties (in which he included the casualties for the Battle of Messines) at a meeting in June 1918. The 'Official History' put British casualties at 238,000. However, its author, Edmonds, gave a confidential estimate of 332,432 to the Australian official historian, Bean, during the 1920s. The handy 'quarter of a million' often quoted in texts is probably too low although a recently republished work on 3rd Ypres ('Passchendaele: the Untold Story', Prior and Wilson) suggests the same figure. (Prior and Wilson actually state a figure of 275,000, but that includes casualties from the Battle of Messines that amounted to about 25,000). A figure nearer 300,000 for Messines and 3rd Ypres would not be unrealistic. We will never know.
And the Germans? Prior and Wilson give a figure of 200,000 for their casualties in 3rd Ypres. Attrition, it seems, was working the wrong way, even if the lowest (ie the official) figure for British casualties is accepted.
i The average rainfall for October in Flanders was 75mm. By the time of the Battle of Poelcapelle 30mm had fallen. (GHQ Rainfall statistics, GHQ War Diary Oct.1917, quoted by Prior and Wilson.)
ii However, there is a strong suspicion that Haig edited his diaries after the war ('Haig's Command', Denis Winter, pages 233-8 and 311-14). Was the meeting with Gough and Plumer on 7 July a detail he chose to omit from the edited version?
iii Lieutenant General Ivor Maxse was indisputably one of the most able British Generals of the First World War and was to assume overall responsibility for the training of the British Army (as Inspector General of Training) in 1918.
iv Jan Smuts had fought against the British in the Boer War (1899-1902) and became defence minister in the Union of South Africa in 1914. He was promoted Lieutenant General in the British Army to lead the campaign in German East Africa. He was appointed to the British War Cabinet in March 1917. He was a supporter of Haig.
v This figure was for the period 31 July - 10 November 'as rendered week by week at the time' ('Official History', Page 360). On 25 February 1918 a figure of 244,897 was submitted to the Supreme War Council for the period 31 July - 12 November. The 'Official History' states: 'The clerk-power to investigate the exact losses was not available.' (Footnote 1, Page 361)
Article contributed by Peter Crook.
Beckett & Corvi (Editors), 'Haig's Generals' (Chapter Seven: Peter Simkins, 'Herbert Plumer') (Pen & Sword Military, 2006)
Edmonds, 'Military Operations: France and Belgium 1917' Vol. 2 (British Crown Copyright 1948. Reprinted by permission of HMSO, published jointly by The Imperial War Museum, London, and The Battery Press, Nashville, Tennessee. ) - the 'Official History'.
Liddell Hart, 'History of the First World War' (Papermac, 1992)
Prior & Wilson, 'Passchendaele: The Untold Story' (Yale University Press, Second Edition, 2002) Contains some very useful maps on the progress of the battle.
Sheffield & Bourne (Editors), 'Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914 - 1918' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005)
Steel & Hart, 'Passchendaele' (Cassell Military Paperbacks, 2002)
Winter, 'Haig's Command' (Penguin, 1992)