By June 1917 the French Army had lost the will for offensive action after the Nivelle offensive in April and May , the Italians had failed to break the Austro-Hungarian line and Romania had suffered catastrophe in late 1916 with the occupation of it's capital. America had entered the war with a small army more suited for colonial campaigning or chasing Villistas across the Rio Grande. In Russia the economy could not supply a mass army and political will was crumbling. The allied initiative led with Britain and it's Empire. The Arras campaign in April had seized Vimy Ridge and taken some pressure off the French but Haig was now conserving his resources for an attack in Flanders.
- Andrew Rawson
The town of Ypres formed a salient into the German lines and for 3 years the Germans tried unsuccessfully to re-enter the town , bombardment , gas and frontal attack had all failed. Despite the Germans holding Messines Ridge and other dominant ground the allies held on to their Belgian enclave. The city was a wasteland dominated by the stumps of the Cloth Hall and Cathedral. The former giving a good aiming point for German artillery
Haig's plan was to seize the high ground dominating the town , then expand the attack and a final phase would see up to 2 divisions landed from the sea to advance around Ostend and Zeebrugge to deny the Belgian coast to the U boat force. The stakes were high but if successful it would dramatically reduce shipping losses and advance US supplies and reinforcements. A key objective on the high ground above Ypres was the hamlet of Passchendaele.
The low lying area below the ridge lines was boggy and had a complex drainage system akin to the Somerset levels.
The author has covered the period between the Messines attack in June and the third battle of Ypres ending in November 1917.The book is laid out in chronological order and a generous use of simple maps helps the reader to keep spatial awareness. The book concentrates on the infantry regiments and seems a bit light on other arms. From a gunner perspective the vexed question of barrages v bombardments crops up , there is also some confusion over graze fuses. These were intended to give instantaneous burst instead of the shell digging into the soil , not as a replacement for time fuses. The RE role is also underplayed with a quick look at mining operations , British chemical attacks were skimmed over and the role of Air was hardly mentioned.
The book is well illustrated with good quality relevant photographs and an index but no bibliography to enable further reading and research. Given the 100th anniversary this year the author might, perhaps, have chosen to comment on the ground and memorials/museums today to assist readers who might be thinking of taking the book on a Ypres visit.
Pen and Sword ,as ever, print to a high standard. The book runs to 226 pages and has a cover price of £25.00 , Kindle £18.00 with a few new copies from around £14.15p
British Expeditionary Force. The Passchendaele Campaign 1917 by Andrew Rawson
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