Prelude to the Crisis: Battle of Broodseinde
On 4 October 1917, the New Zealanders were involved in the Battle of Broodseinde. Despite a high casualty rate, the attack was a success and spurred on the generals to continue in the push for Passchendaele.
Find out more about Broodseinde at NZ History here.
The mud and conditions made it difficult to bring enough guns and ammunition forward to the front line. Commander Royal Artillery (CRA), Brigadier General N Johnston, informed General Russell before the attack commenced that few guns had been moved forward; those that had been did not have stable gun platforms and were short of shells.
Lack of Artillery
A conference was held on 7 October where British Generals led by General Haig discussed the planned attack of 12 October. Despite horrendously bad weather conditions, Haig argued “that there should be no postponement unless absolutely necessary.” Haig said the following on 9 October, after the Battle of Poelcapelle (a complete disaster),
"I am of the opinion that the operations of the 49th and 66th Divisions, carried out today under great difficulties of assembly, will afford the II Anzac Corps a sufficiently good jumping off line for operations on October 12th, on which date I hope that the II Anzac Corps will capture Passchendaele."
Throughout 1917, the weather on the Western Front had been abysmal and the conditions from July onwards were the wettest in 75 years. The effect of millions of artillery shells on the landscape meant most of the drainage (canals and small creeks) ceased to exist and the rain turned Flanders into a swamp of thick, treacherous mud. Seargent Dick Travis wrote on 11 October,
No-man’s-land is in very bad order - one mass of huge shell holes three parts full of water, a large amount of old wire entanglements scattered about makes it very awkward for patrolling…. It is very hard to keep your feet it is so slippery… The enemy position below sky line commands a great field of Machine Gun fire and the observation is excellent.
The Battle of Poelcapelle had failed miserably with the New Zealanders unable to take any new positions against a well-prepared German Army. Godley was embarrassed at this setback and was worried he would lose the trust and esteem of General Haig. He believed that if a successful attack could be pulled off on 12 October, he would get back in Haig's good books.
In other words, a victory at Passchendaele would benefit Godley personally and add to his image and reputation as a general.
The allies had had three rapid victories in under two weeks, and Haig believed that they could capitalise on these and fight on.
In the days and months leading up to Passchendaele there had been issues surrounding the planning and organisation of attack. The New Zealanders had been given only two days to work out how to take the ridge. This meant that details like artillery placement were rushed and soldiers were not properly rested and prepared for the attack.
Not enough Time
Yr 9 - 10 Activity
Using the information above, split your class in half and have a debate. Debate the motion: This House believes that the Battle of Passchendaele was justified. Why don't you ask your teacher to adjudicate too.
What would you do ?
Imagine you were in General Godley's place and consider the following pieces of evidence.
Napier Johnston came to see me after lunch. The guns are all forward but he evidently feels uneasy about the attack - says preparation inadequate.
We all hope for the best tomorrow, but I do not feel as confident as usual. Things are being rushed too much. The weather is rotten, the roads are very bad, and the objectives have not been properly bombarded. However, we will hope for the best.
What did the men think?
Not everybody was so sure the attack would be a success...Read the following to find out why.
An ordinary infantryman at Passchendaele was a pretty dumb beast. That’s how he’s treated, you see. He was only gun fodder and when all is said, and that’s what I feel. We were pretty dumb beasts you see, or we wouldn’t have been slapped, thrown into that sort of warfare, because it was hopeless before you started. We all knew that.
General Sir Andrew Russell - 11 October 1917
Bert Stokes, gunner in New Zealand Field Artillery
Casualties: An army’s losses due to death, wounds, illness, desertion, or capture.
Gun fodder: term for soldiers forced to deliberately fight against hopeless odds (when they know there will be high casualties). Fodder is food for livestock animals, so metaphorically soldiers are food for the canons.
Rationale: (N) Reasons justifying an action.
Bert Stokes remembers Passchendaele https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/sound/bert-stokes-remembers-passchendaele
Info on Weather at Passchendaele 1917
Creeping Barrage Answer:
The attack would begin with artillery firing at the enemy's trenches and gun emplacements, while soldiers on foot slowly made their way forward. Gradually the artillery would be fired further back into the enemy's lines .
WW1 was famous for its use of 'bite and hold' tactics. This involved seizing small pieces of territory and holding on to them, then using the gained land to advance further.
On 12 October 1917, Godley wanted to take a big 'bite' and capture a large area of land. A creeping barrage was the strategy proposed to do this.
Yr 9–10 Activity
A. Read the following questions:
What did a creeping barrage involve?
Do you think this would have worked at Passchendaele? Why or why not?
B. Now watch the short video to check your answers.
The Key Players
General Alexander Godley
General Douglas Haig
General Andrew Russell
There were many military figures involved in the planning of the Battle of Passchendaele. Here are the three most important players on the Allies' side.
Yr 7 - 8 Activity
1. Find out three key facts about each of these military men and the impact they had on the war.
Yr 9 - 10 Activity
2. In groups, plan and film an interview with your chosen general. Imagine you are John Campbell and you are interrogating the generals' rationale for their chosen course of action.
3. Dramatise and film discussions between generals in the meeting leading up to the battle on October 12, 1917.
Where can I go?
It can be difficult knowing where to start when researching, so here are some links to help you out: