PASSCHENDAELE – 13 July 2017
Dr Julian Lewis: There has been a remarkable series of speeches in this debate so far, not least the one we have just heard from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), and I will not usurp the role of the Minister in singling any of them out for special mention, other than to say in respect of the maiden speech we heard that the pride that the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) takes in his town will no doubt incentivise him to be sure that Bedford will be proud of him by the way he conducts himself in this place.
As other more knowledgeable speakers have already explained, a century after the appalling losses on the Western Front historians still debate whether any alternatives existed. Some blame political intrigue and poor generalship, others emphasise technology, with the battlefield dominated by interlocking fields of fire. This ensured that slowly advancing troops would be mown down by machine guns before making any worthwhile inroads into the enemy’s trenches. Minor advances, occasionally achieved, were usually reversed by counter-attacks or simply absorbed into a new, static confrontation a short distance from the original one.
A book called Forgotten Victory is a study of the Western Front battles that rightly draws attention to the 100 Days campaign in which the Allied coalition won a sequence of decisive victories between mid-July and early November 1918. Its author, Professor Gary Sheffield, regrets the extent to which the British success in those battles at the end of the First World War has been disregarded. For example, he says:
“The burden of fighting the German Army fell mainly to the French and Russians in the first two and a half years of the war, but in 1918 it was the turn of the BEF.”
That is, the British Expeditionary Force.
“Between them, the French, Americans and Belgians took 196,700 prisoners and 3,775 guns between 18 July and the end of the war. With a smaller army than the French, Haig’s forces captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns in the same period. This was, by far, the greatest military victory in British history.”
So it is absolutely right that, as well as commemorating all the disasters of World War One, one of which we are commemorating today, we will next year recognise the triumph of the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. Like others who have spoken in the debate, I pay the warmest tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Andrew Murrison) for all the great work he has done on this rolling series of commemorations of the events, failures and successes of the First World War.
Professor Sheffield, whom I mentioned a moment ago, takes his thesis a bit further than I feel able to go. He suggests that the catastrophic offensives prior to 1918 were in some way needed to enable the Allied generals to learn the lessons they eventually applied to the successful campaign at the end of the war. I feel, however, that one should not have to waste the lives of legions of soldiers in the relentless repetition of unsuccessful tactics. Time and again, those tactics failed to break the stalemate, or to be exploited when, occasionally, they managed to achieve surprise.
After the catastrophe on the Somme in 1916, there was really no reason to believe that a breakthrough could be made and exploited with the available technology of the day, yet this was attempted not once but twice in 1917. First came the Battle of Arras, which was the second of the three huge attritional offensives waged by the British Army in 1916-17. On the first day of the Arras attack – 9 April 1917 – the British Third Army took 5,600 prisoners, and the Canadians, who captured most of Vimy Ridge, took a further 3,400. This has been called the greatest success of the British Expeditionary Force since the beginning of trench warfare. However, the British advance soon ran out of steam as German reinforcements arrived, and the British Fifth Army had little to show for the heavy losses it sustained. Further major efforts on 23 April and 3 May 1917, partly intended to tie down forces that might otherwise be used against the French, simply added to the butchery on both sides.
In the spring of 1917, Russia was in revolution, albeit not yet a Bolshevik one, while unrestricted submarine warfare and the diplomatic disaster – from the German point of view – of the Zimmerman telegram had goaded the United States into entering the war on 6 April 1917. So did Britain and France really have to squander so many lives so fruitlessly after that date? Why risk the colossal price of failure when the balance of forces at the strategic level was shifting so dramatically? The German leadership fully understood the significance of American belligerency. They therefore gambled everything in the spring of 1918 to exploit the collapse of Russia before the United States could make a real difference. It was therefore folly for the British and French to wear themselves out in 1917 given that the balance of forces would change in their favour once the Americans arrived. Claiming that the Germans could stand the rate of attrition less than the British was no justification at the time, as we have heard already, and it is equally indefensible now.
After the Arras offensives of April and May came the unprecedented use of giant subterranean mines in a successful attempt to break the deadlock. Nineteen mines were exploded under Messines ridge on 7 June with a force that could be felt on the far side of the English Channel. Although surprise was achieved, strategic gain was once again lacking. Nevertheless, on the last day of July 1917, the crowning effort of the BEF was made. The Third Battle of Ypres would endure until 10 November and imprint itself on the British psyche to an extent matched only by the Somme disaster of the previous year. The focus was on the Passchendaele-Staden ridge, and the main thrust was delivered by General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army along a 7.5 mile front. The flanks were defended by the British Second Army on the right and the French First Army on the left.
Having overrun some of the outer German defences on the first day, the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, then discovered that the weather was an even more formidable opponent than the enemy. The Official History of the air war quotes Haig’s despatch as follows:
“The low-lying, clayey soil, torn by shells and sodden with rain, turned to a succession of vast muddy pools. The valleys of the choked and overflowing streams were speedily transformed into long stretches of bog, impassable except by a few well-defined tracks, which became marks for the enemy’s artillery. To leave these tracks was to risk death by drowning … In these conditions operations of any magnitude became impossible, and the resumption of our offensive was necessarily postponed until a period of fine weather should allow the ground to recover.”
Thus it was that the second phase of the attack, known as the Battle of Langemarck and lasting from 16 to 18 August, lacked any element of surprise. The Germans showed no sign of giving way. Next came the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, beginning on 20 September and lasting for five days. Its aim was to capture objectives at a distance of between 1,000 yards and one mile, and that was largely achieved. The pattern was then the same in the fourth phase, known as the Battle of Polygon Wood, which took place from 26 September to 3 October 1917, with the objective of securing a jumping-off place from which to attack the main Passchendaele ridge.
Andrew Percy: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way; I had hoped to speak in this debate, but unfortunately I have been off site. He mentioned the Battle of Polygon Wood, and I was going to mention that my great-grandfather, who had been in France since August 1914, was wounded there on 30 September and won the Military Medal. I wanted to mention that not only because I am very proud, but because it demonstrates how the war was fought by ordinary folk from normal backgrounds, who then went back to their ordinary lives – my great-grandfather was a postman in East Yorkshire. That is what was going on behind much of the conflict.
Dr Lewis: I am delighted that my mentioning of that phase of this terrible series of battles gave my hon. Friend the opportunity to pay that well-deserved tribute to his brave ancestor.
Andrew Percy: Whose name I wanted to get into Hansard but completely forgot to mention – John William Feasey.
Dr Lewis: The award of the Military Medal to John William Feasey is now well and truly, and most justifiably, recorded.
The next assault was planned for 4 October, and was persevered with despite a great deterioration in the weather. It was originally hoped that success at Ypres would drive the Germans away from the Channel ports, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, and an amphibious force to help achieve that had already been assembled. The reality, in the words of the Official History, was very different.
Alec Shelbrooke: My right hon. Friend is rightly describing the sea battle and what was happening at sea, which brought the Americans into the war. Does he agree that, when people ask whether we had to go into the war, the reality is that we could well have been starved out if we had not taken those actions?
Dr Lewis: Yes and no. We certainly had to resist German aggression, but that does not mean there was any justification, when faced with a stalemate, to keep repeating tactics and strategies that were wholly unsuccessful and counterproductive. The concept of the “Big Push” might have had something to recommend it, despite the obvious imbalance between the technology of the machine gun, on the one hand, and the lack of armoured vehicles to override it, on the other, in the earlier phases of the war. That might have justified a big push on the Somme in 1916, but it did not justify repeating the same lethal strategic nonsense a year later.
This is what the Official History has to say about what happened after the outbreak of terrible weather:
“The British line had now been advanced along the main ridge for 9,000 yards … The year was already far spent and the prospect of driving the enemy from the Belgian coast had long since disappeared. The continuous delays in the advance as a result of the weather and its effect on the state of the ground, had given the enemy time, after each attack, to bring up reinforcements and to reorganise his defences. Although General Headquarters now recognised that the major objectives of the Flanders operations were impossible of attainment, they were still anxious to continue the operations with a view to the capture of the remainder of the Passchendaele Ridge before winter set in. The weather was entirely unfavourable but there were hopes that it would improve, hopes based on the somewhat slender foundation that the abnormal rainfall of the summer presaged a normal, perhaps even a dry, autumn.”
Instead of remaining a means to an end, the offensive had become an end in itself. At 5.20 am on 9 October, after two days of continuous heavy rain, the attack was renewed on a six-mile front. Sir Douglas Haig had decided that Passchendaele must be captured, so captured it would be. The cycle was repeated on 12 October in the hope of helping to prevent German forces from being switched to meet the impending French offensive on the River Aisne. Some ground was gained east of Poelcappelle and on the southern edge of Houthulst Forest on 22 October, with fighter pilots doing everything they could to attack German infantry in trenches and shell holes, on the roads and in villages.
And so it went on and on – a little progress here, a forced withdrawal there, and the final taking of Passchendaele village on 6 November by the Canadians who, with British assistance, extended their gains on the main ridge four days later. According to the Official Air Historian, Passchendaele was
“the most sombre and bloodiest of all the battlefields of the war”.
One of the pilots who lived through it, and later reached the highest rank in the RAF, was Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, who, as Sholto Douglas, commanded 84 Squadron’s SE5 fighters when he returned to the Western Front in September 1917. He, too, regarded Third Ypres as
“the most terrible of all the battles of the Great War”.
He wrote the following:
“The Somme of the year before had been bad enough, and after that it was felt that the lesson of the futility of mass attacks must surely have been learnt. But it was not learnt, and less than a year later our Army was called upon to embark on an offensive that in so many ways was even more terrible than the Somme”.
He continued by saying that Passchendaele
“was the beginning of what was to become for those on the ground a long and indescribable misery …all the drainage systems were smashed in the opening bombardment, and eventually the whole area became clogged with mud. Over this devastated area, which had been reduced to the state of a quagmire, attack after attack was launched ... For communication there were only the rough tracks which wound their way almost aimlessly across the mire, and wandering off them led to drowning. The Germans welcomed the rain as ‘our strongest ally’.”
Many of the pilots in the Third Battle of Ypres were tasked to carry out low-level attacks against enemy concentrations on the ground. As Sholto Douglas later recalled:
“In this job there was very little fighting in the air, and since we were flying at heights of only two or three hundred feet we were supposed to be able to see plenty of what was going on below us. What I saw was nothing short of horrifying. The ground over which our infantry and light artillery were fighting was one vast sea of churned-up muck and mud, and everywhere, lip to lip, there were shell holes full of water. These low-flying attacks that we had to make, for which most of my young pilots were quite untrained, were a wretched and dangerous business, and also pretty useless. It was very difficult for us to pick out our targets in the morass because everything on the ground, including the troops, was the same colour as that dreadful mud ... it was quite obvious to anyone viewing from the air this dreadful battleground ... that any chance of a major advance or a break-through was quite out of the question.”
We can see from Douglas’s memoirs that it was not just fashionable post-war opinion which came to damn the strategy of attritional offensives. The ordering of more and more attacks in such an appalling “morass” was seen at the time, by him and his comrades, as “the grossest of blunders”. They recognised the need to relieve pressure on the French by keeping the Germans fully stretched, but he said that
“as I watched from the air what was happening on the ground there were presented to me some terrible questions. Why did we have to press on so blindly day after day and week after week in this one desolate area and under such dreadful conditions? Why was there not some variety in our strategy and tactics? The questions that I asked then are the questions that have continued to be asked ever since; and the answers to them have never ceased to be most painful ones.”
As I said at the outset, I remain completely unconvinced by the argument, which some people deploy even to this day, that it was necessary to undergo the catastrophic failures of the Somme and Passchendaele offensives in order to learn the lessons necessary for victory in 1918. There is testimony enough from senior military figures in the Second World War, writing of their experiences as junior officers in the First, spelling out the futility of relentlessly sacrificing huge numbers of British troops in fighting unwinnable battles. One does not have to explore every military cul-de-sac over and over again, in order to stumble across a strategy that might actually succeed.
Let us not forget that each one of these tragedies involved an individual personality, and I close with a quote from a young Welshman, Second Lieutenant Glyn Morgan, who wrote this to his father at the start of the Passchendaele offensive:
“You, I know, my dear Dad, will bear the shock as bravely as you have always borne the strain of my being out here; yet I should like, if possible, to help you to carry on” –
this was a letter that would be sent only in the event of his death –
“with as stout a heart as I hope to ‘jump the bags’ ... My one regret is that the opportunity has been denied me to repay you to the best of my ability for the lavish kindness and devotedness which you have always shown me ... however, it may be that I have done so in the struggle between Life and Death, between England and Germany, Liberty and Slavery. In any case, I shall have done my duty in my little way ...
Your affectionate son and brother, Glyn”.
Glyn Morgan, who joined the Army straight from school, was killed on 1 August 1917. He was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross, and he was just 21 when he died.