by ehistoryadmin on August 3, 2017

From Messines to Passchendaele 1917: Kildare men at war

Part 3

James Durney

By mid-August the British offensive at Passchendaele was clearly failing in its objectives and had descended into attrition fighting. New techniques by both sides led to agonisingly slow forward movement for the British, at enormous cost in casualties to both sides. As early as 8 August Prime Minister Lloyd George pointed out that the go-ahead for the Passchendaele offensive had been given on the clear understanding that it would lead to swift results and that it was to be abandoned if its aims were seen to be unattainable.

As the fighting continued General Haig could not bring himself to dismiss General Hubert Gough, who was now vastly unpopular with the British forces. Instead he decided overall command at Ypres would go to General Herbert Plumer, who had won the victory at Messines. Plumer won further victories at the battle of the Menin Road Ridge and the battle of Polygon Wood in September and the battle of Broodseinde in October advancing another 5,000 yards in the process. The phased advances were working, though the cost was starting to mount, as the German defenders were exacting an increasingly heavy toll from the British and Dominion troops – 70,000 men killed and wounded in the last three battles. If these attacks were to continue, further heavy losses could be anticipated.

Nevertheless, Haig was confident. But, so too, was Field Marshall Rupprecht, the German commander. He was waiting for help from his ’most effective ally’ – the rain. A thin rain fell during 4 October, the day of the Broodseinde attack, but that night it began to rain harder and by dawn on the 5th it was coming down in torrents. From then on it barely ceased. The bad weather in October led to the battlefield becoming an impossible quagmire, where shell holes became deep pools and the rain-soaked ground a form of quicksand, affording no support to man, beast or machine. Anyone who strayed from or fell off the network of duckboards that covered the battlefield could be trapped, sucked down and drowned. Men, horses, guns, tanks, transports, all suffered this fate and it rapidly became clear that in the existing conditions the attack should be halted. The decision to continue the offensive in October and the human cost of the campaign on the soldiers of the British Army have been argued over ever since.

Passchendaele was remembered for, among other things, terrain so wet the entire world seemed to consist of nothing but mud and shell holes filled with vile water. In no land battle in history did so many men die by drowning. The remains of Second-Lieutenant W. H. Clements was found at the bottom of a shell crater with the bodies of some of those whom he was leading. Clements, a bank clerk in Naas, who had served in Gallipoli and Serbia and was awarded the D.S.M. and gained a commission in the Inniskilling Fusiliers, was wounded leading an attack and sank to the bottom of a water-filled shell hole.

In the month of September nine Kildaremen died in the battles; in October seven more died and in November a further five died. The last Kildareman killed at Passchendaele was Private Thomas Judge, D Company, 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers. He was killed in action on 10 November 1917, the last day of the offensive. Born at Nurney, Co. Kildare, on 23 March 1895, he was the son of Patrick Judge and Mary Corcoran, of Newtown, Kildare. Thomas Judge has no known grave but he is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial, with some of the 42,000 men whose bodies were never recovered.

The horrific battlefield conditions of Passchendaele gave rise to the story of Haig’s chief of staff, Lt. General Launcelot Kiggell, being driven to the front and, as he viewed the muddy wasteland, breaking into tears and saying, ‘Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?’

‘It gets worse,’ his driver said, ‘farther on up.’

The choice of Flanders over areas further south, the climate and weather in low-lying Flanders, the choice of General Gough and the  Fifth Army to conduct the offensive, debates over the nature of the opening attack and between advocates of shallow and deeper objectives, have ever since been controversial. The passage of time between the Battle of Messines (7–14 June) and the Battle of Pilckem Ridge (31 July, the opening move of the Third Battle of Ypres), the extent to which the internal troubles of the French armies motivated British persistence with the offensive, the effect of the weather, all have led to huge debate. The architect of Passchendaele, Douglas Haig, has also continued to incur disdain.

In his Memoirs, Lloyd George wrote, ‘Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …’ In Winston Churchill’s devastating judgment, Haig ‘wore down alike the manhood and the guns of the British army almost to destruction’. The renowned military historian John Keegan is also merciless: ‘On the Somme, [Haig] had sent the flower of British youth to death or muti­lation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors in the slough of despond.’ If Haig was not mad, runs the argument, then he was wholly indifferent to the sufferings of his men.

The village of Passchendaele was finally taken on 10 November 1917. The total Allied casualties for the battle were 301,000, one third of which were fatal. German casualties were approximately 270,000.

Perhaps the battle’s enduring epitaph is the phrase from one of Siegfried Sasson’s poems: ‘I died in hell – they called it Passchendaele.’

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