Battle of Langemarck (1917)
The Battle of Langemarck from 16–18 August 1917, was the second Allied general attack of the Third Battle of Ypres during the First World War. The battle took place near Ypres in Belgian Flanders on the Western Front. The Allied attack succeeded in the north, from Langemarck to Drie Grachten but early advances in the south on the Gheluvelt Plateau, were forced back by powerful German counter-attacks. Both sides were hampered by rain, which had a greater effect on the British who occupied lower-lying areas and advanced onto ground which had been frequently and severely bombarded. The effect of the battle, the August weather and the successful but costly German defence of the Gheluvelt plateau during the rest of August led the British further to revise their methods and main offensive effort, which led to the three big British successes of 20 and 26 September then 4 October.
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Battle
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Notes
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Artillery preparation for a French operation at Verdun, in support of the Allied offensive in Flanders, which had been delayed from mid-July began on 11 August. The German army was not able to counter-attack the French after the attack of 20 August, as the German Eingreif divisions had been diverted to Flanders. Fighting at Verdun continued into September, adding to the pressure on the German army. The Battle of Hill 70 15–25 August, on the outskirts of the city of Lens in the British First Army area, was fought by the Canadian Corps and inflicted great losses on five German divisions and pinned down troops destined for the Flanders front. Sir Douglas Haig's strategy of forcing the German army to defend the Ypres salient, to protect the Belgian coast and submarine bases at Bruges, had succeeded. The French and Russian armies needed time to recuperate and were vulnerable to German attacks but the British attacks at Ypres had drawn German divisions away from the French army and caused the Germans many casualties. The Fifth Army had managed to advance little further towards Passchendaele since 31 July. General Hubert Gough, commander of the Fifth Army wished for a minimum of delay in resuming the offensive, because of the effect that delay would have on Operation Hush, the coastal operation, which needed the high tides due at the end of August.
In July 1917, British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig began the Third Battle of Ypres campaign, in an attempt to inflict unsustainable losses on the German army and to advance out of the Ypres Salient to capture the Belgian coast. At the Battle of Messines Ridge, the ridge had been captured down to the Oosttaverne Line and a substantial success had been gained in the subsequent Battle of Pilckem Ridge from 31 July – 2 August. Ground conditions during the Battles of Ypres campaign were poor, as the ground had already been fought over and was partially flooded, at times severely so. Shelling had destroyed drainage canals in the area and unseasonable heavy rain in August turned some parts into morasses of mud and flooded shell-craters. Supply troops walked to the front on duck boards laid across the mud, often carrying up to 45 kilograms (99 lb) of equipment. It was possible for soldiers to slip off the path into the craters and drown. Trees were reduced to blunted trunks, the branches and leaves torn away. The bodies of men buried after previous actions, were often uncovered by the rain and shelling. The ground was powdery to a depth of 10 yards (9.1 m) and when wet had the consistency of "porridge". After rain the ground dried quickly, except where water was held in shell-holes and after a few dry days became dusty.[Note 1]
British offensive preparations
Brigadier-General Davidson intervened again on 1 August with a memorandum urging caution on Sir Douglas Haig and the Fifth Army commander General Hubert Gough. Davidson recommended that the preliminary operation by II Corps not be hurried and that a full artillery preparation and relief of the divisions already engaged, be completed before the operation, as tired and depleted units had often failed in attacks in the past. Two or three clear days were needed for accurate artillery fire, especially as captured ground on the Gheluvelt plateau gave better observation and captured German maps had revealed the position of German machine-gun emplacements, which being small and concealed would need precise shooting by the artillery to destroy. Capture of the black line from Inverness Copse north to Westhoek would be insufficient to cover an advance from the Steenbeek further north and large German counter-attacks could be expected on the plateau, given that its retention was fundamental to the German defensive scheme. Two more divisions were sent to II Corps as reinforcements. On 2 August, at the suggestion of Brigadier-General Elles, commander of the Tank Corps it was decided that the surviving tanks were to be held back due to the weather, to ensure that they could be used in mass later on, although some were used on 17 August. The preliminary operation intended for 2 August was delayed by rain until 10 August and the general offensive was postponed from 4 to 16 August.[Note 2]
II Corps attacked the black line (second objective) on 10 June and lost most of its gains to German counter-attacks that afternoon. Lieutenant-General Claud Jacob the II Corps commander argued for a delay in the general offensive to resolve the situation on the Gheluvelt plateau, particularly the achievement of superiority over the German artillery behind the plateau and the repair of the transport routes through the woods on the British side of the line, to allow the replenishment of supply dumps close to the front line. Gough was mindful of Operation Hush and only willing to agree a short delay. Gough postponed the offensive for a day, then for another 24 hours after a thunderstorm late on 14 August. The 8th Division commander, Major-General W. Heneker had written to Lieutenant-General Jacob on 12 August, urging that the 56th Division should have extra artillery support for its attack, which should precede that of the 8th Division. The ground in front of II Corps sloped from the Menin Road, northwards down to the Hanebeek valley. Failure in the 56th Division area on the right would expose troops further north to cross-fire from Inverness Copse and Glencorse Wood. This suggestion was not accepted but the 53rd Brigade from the 18th Division was attached to the 56th Division as a reinforcement the day before the attack.
The 20th Division had been in XIV Corps reserve for the opening attack on 31 July and replaced the 38th Division on 5 August. The 7th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry took over captured German trenches behind the front line on 5 August, which had been made the British reserve line and lost three men to shellfire while waiting for dark. On arrival at the support line 500 yards (460 m) forward and the front line another 500 yards (460 m) beyond, the battalion found that the front line was several shell hole posts with muddy bottoms, strung along the Steenbeek from the Langemarck road to the Ypres–Staden railway. British artillery was engaged in destructive bombardments of the German positions opposite and German artillery fire was aimed at the British infantry concentrating for the next attack. After heavy rain all night the battalion spent 6 August soaked through and had 20 casualties, two men being killed. On 7 August there were 35 casualties, twelve being killed before the battalion was relieved until 14 August. Training began for the next attack and planning began using trench maps and aerial photographs. Each company formed three platoons, two for the advance, with two rifle sections in the lead and the Lewis-gun sections behind and the third platoon to mop up.
Training emphasised the need for units not held up by German resistance to "hug" the creeping barrage and form offensive flanks to assist troops who had been halted by German resistance, by providing enfilade fire and enveloping German positions which had not been captured, which were to be left to reserve platoons. Every known German position was allocated to a unit of the approximately 470 men left in the battalion expected to take part, to reduce the risk of German positions going unnoticed and firing at the leading troops from behind. While the Somersets were out of the line, the 10th and 11th Battalions of the Rifle Brigade edged forward about 100 yards (91 m) beyond the Steenbeek, which cost the 10th Battalion 215 casualties. An attempt on 15 August to re-capture the Au Bon Gite blockhouse, 300 yards (270 m) beyond the Steenbeek, which had been lost to a German counter-attack on 31 July failed but it was decided that the infantry for the general attack due on 16 August, would have to squeeze into the ground beyond the river in front of the blockhouse, for the attack on Langemarck.
Plan of attack
The attack was planned as an advance in stages, to keep the infantry well under the protection of their field artillery. II Corps was to reach the green line of 31 July, an advance of about 1,500–1,700 yards (1,400–1,600 m) and form a defensive flank from Stirling Castle to Black Watch Corner. The deeper objective was compensated for by reducing battalion frontages from 400 yards (370 m) to 250 yards (230 m) and leap-frogging supporting battalions through an intermediate line, to take the final objective.
On the 56th Division front the final objective was about 500 yards (460 m) into Polygon Wood. On the right, the 53rd brigade was to advance from Stirling Castle, through Inverness Copse to Black Watch Corner, at the south western corner of Polygon Wood, to form a defensive flank to the south. Further north 169th Brigade was to advance to Polygon Wood through Glencorse Wood and 167th Brigade was to reach the north-western part of Polygon Wood through Nonne Bosschen. The 8th Division was to attack with two brigades, between Westhoek and the Ypres–Roulers railway, to the green line on the rise east of the Hanebeek stream. Eight tanks were allotted to II Corps to assist the infantry. The artillery support for the attack was the same as that for 10 August, 180 x 18-pdr guns for the creeping barrage moving at 100 yards (91 m) in five minutes, with 72 x 4.5-inch howitzers and 36 x 18-pdrs placing standing barrages beyond the final objective. Eight machine-gun companies were to fire barrages on the area from the north-east of Polygon Wood to west of Zonnebeke.
XIX and XVIII corps further north were also to capture the green line, slightly beyond the German Wilhelm (third) line. Each XIX Corps division had fourteen 18-pdr batteries for the creeping barrage and 24 x 4.5-inch howitzer batteries and forty machine-guns for standing barrages, along with  the normal heavy artillery groups. Each division also had 108 x 18-pdr and 36 x 4.5-inch howitzers for bombardment and supply routes far less heavily shelled than those further south. In the XVIII Corps area a brigade each from the 48th and 11th Divisions, with eight tanks were to attack from the north end of St. Julien to the White House east of Langemarck.
The 20th Division planned to capture Langemarck with the 60th and 61st brigades. The 59th Brigade was to go into reserve after holding the line before the attack, less the two battalions in the front line, which were to screen the assembly of the attacking brigades. The attack was to begin on the east bank of the Steenbeek where the troops had 80–150 yards (73–137 m) of room to assemble, crossing over on wooden bridges laid by the Engineers the night before the attack.[Note 3] The first objective (blue line) was set on a road running along the west side of Langemarck, the second objective (green line) was 500 yards (460 m) further on, at the east side of the village and the final objective (red line) was another 600 yards (550 m) ahead, in the German defences beyond Schreiboom. On the right the 60th Brigade was to attack on a one-battalion front with two battalions leap-frogging through the leading battalion, to reach the second and final objectives. The attack was to move north-east behind Langemarck, to confront an expected German counter-attack up the road from Poelcappelle 2,000 yards (1,800 m) away, while the 61st Brigade, attacking on a two-brigade front took the village while shielded by the 60th Brigade. The manoeuvre of the 60th Brigade would also threaten the Germans in Langemarck with encirclement.
Au Bon Gite, the German blockhouse which had resisted earlier attacks, was to be dealt with separately by infantry from one of the covering battalions and a Field Company Royal Engineers. Artillery for the attack came from the 20th and 38th divisional artilleries and the heavy guns of XIV Corps. A creeping barrage was to move at 100 yards (91 m) in four minutes and a standing barrage was to fall on the objective lines in succession, as the infantry advanced. The first objective was to be bombarded for twenty minutes as the creeping barrage moved towards it, then the second objective was to be shelled for an hour to catch retreating German soldiers, destroy defences and force any remaining Germans under cover. A third barrage was to come from the XIV Corps heavy artillery, sweeping back and forth with high explosive, from 300–1,500 yards (270–1,370 m) ahead of the foremost British troops, to stop German machine-guns firing through the British barrage. Smoke shell was to be fired to hide the attacking troops as they re-organised at each objective. A machine-gun barrage from 48 guns was arranged, with half of the guns moving forward with the infantry to add to the infantry's fire-power against German counter-attacks. German troops were also to be strafed by British aircraft from low altitude. The French First Army was to extend the attack north from the Kortebeek to Drie Grachten aiming to reach the St. Jansbeck.
German defensive preparations
The German Fourth Army operation order for the defensive battle had been issued on 27 June. German infantry units had been reorganised on similar lines to the British, with a rifle section, assault troop section, a grenade-launcher section and a light machine-gun section. Field artillery in the Eingreif divisions had been organised into artillery assault groups, which followed the infantry, to engage the enemy attack with observed or direct fire. Each infantry regiment of the 183rd Division based around Westroosebeke behind the northern flank of Group Ypres, had a battalion of the divisional field artillery regiment attached. On 31 July the defence in depth had begun with a front system of three breastworks: Ia, Ib and Ic each about 200 yards (180 m) apart, garrisoned by the four companies of each front battalion, with listening-posts in no-man's-land. About 2,000 yards (1,800 m) behind these works was the Albrecht (second or artillery protective) line, the rear boundary of the forward battle zone (Kampffeld). Companies of the support battalions, (25% Sicherheitsbesatzung to hold the strong-points and 75% Stosstruppen to counter-attack towards them) were placed at the back of the Kampffeld, half in the pill-boxes of the Albrecht (second) line, to provide a framework for the re-establishment of defence-in-depth, once the enemy attack had been repulsed. Dispersed in front of the line were divisional Sharpshooter (Scharfschützen) machine-gun nests called the Stutzpunkt-Linie. Much of the Kampffeld behind the front system, north of the Ypres–Roulers railway had fallen on 31 July.
The Albrecht (second) Line roughly corresponded to the British black line (second objective) of 31 July, much of which had been captured, except on the Gheluvelt plateau. The line marked the front of the main battle zone (Grosskampffeld) about 2,500 yards (2,300 m) deep, behind which was the Wilhelm (third) line. This zone contained most of the field artillery of the front divisions. In pillboxes of the Wilhelm line were reserve battalions of the front-line regiments. The leading regiment of an Eingreif division was to advance into the zone of the front division, with its other two regiments moving forward in close support, from support and reserve assembly areas, further back in the Flandern Stellung.[Note 4] Eingreif divisions were accommodated 10,000–12,000 yards (9,100–11,000 m) behind the front line and at the beginning of an attack, began their advance to their assembly areas in the rückwärtige Kampffeld behind Flandern I, ready to intervene in the Grosskampffeld, for den sofortigen Gegenstoss (the instant-immediate counter-thrust).
In an appreciation of 2 August, Group Ypres correctly identified the Wilhelm (second) line as the British objective on 31 July and predicted more attacks on the Gheluvelt plateau and further north towards Langemarck. In the Group Ypres area only the 3rd and 79th Reserve divisions remained battle worthy, the other four had suffered c. 10,000 casualties. On 4 August a Group Wijtschate assessment concluded that the British attack needed to make progress by forcing back the 52nd Division on the Gheluvelt plateau, where the defensive scheme had the front regiment of each division backed by the other two regiments in support and in reserve behind the front line. A number of counter-strokes had been mounted around Hollebeke with limited success. Operation Sommernacht on 5 August managed to push British troops back from a ridge near Hollebeke and capture the village, which was later abandoned in the face of British counter-attacks and heavy artillery fire. Skirmishing continued until the bigger British operation on 10 August. Crown Prince Rupprecht expressed concern on 5 August that the weather conditions were rapidly exhausting the German infantry. Casualties averaged 1,500–2,000 per division, which was lower than the 4,000 average on the Somme in 1916 but only because divisions were being relieved more frequently. Supplying troops in the front line was extremely difficult because the British were using more gas, which caught carrying parties by surprise; the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division had 1,200 gas casualties.
|13 August||0.0||67||75% cloud|
|20 August||0.0||71||50% cloud|
|22 August||0.0||78||50% cloud|
|23 August||1.4||74||50% cloud|
|24 August||0.1||68||50% cloud|
|25 August||0.0||67||50% cloud|
|27 August||15.3||57||50% cloud|
|28 August||0.9||62||50% cloud|
|29 August||2.6||61||50% cloud|
|30 August||0.7||63||50% cloud|
|31 August||0.7||64||50% cloud|
|Weather data from
McCarthy, C. Passchendaele:
The day-by-day Account (1995)
At 4:45 a.m. the creeping barrage began and the British troops advanced. German flares were seen rising but the German artillery response was slow and missed the attackers. In the 18th Division area, German machine-gun fire from pill-boxes caused heavy losses to the 53rd Brigade, which was stopped in front of the north-west corner of Inverness Copse. Part of the brigade managed to work forward further north and form a defensive flank along the southern edge of Glencorse Wood. To the north, the 169th Brigade of the 56th Division advanced quickly at the start but veered to their right to avoid boggy ground and then entered Glencorse Wood. The German main line of resistance was in a sunken road in the wood, where after a hard-fought engagement with high losses to both sides, the German defenders were overcome and the rest of the wood occupied. The leading waves then advanced to Polygon Wood. 167th Brigade had a fast start but when it reached the north end of Nonne Bosschen found mud 4 feet (1.2 m) deep, the brigade veering round it to the left. The gap which had formed between the 167th and 169th Brigades was not closed. Another problem emerged, because the quick start had been partly caused by the rear waves pushing up, to avoid German shelling on the left of the brigade. The follow-up infantry mingled with the foremost troops and failed to mop up the captured ground, German troops who had been overrun began sniping from behind at both brigades. Part of a company reached the area north of Polygon Wood at about the same time as small numbers of troops from 8th division. The ground conditions in the 56th Division area were so bad that none of the tanks in support got into action.
On the 8th Division front, the two attacking brigades started well, behind an "admirable" barrage and reached the Hanebeek, where hand bridges were used to cross it and continue the advance up Anzac Spur, to the green line objectives on the ridge beyond. Difficulties began on the left flank, where troops from 16th Division had not kept up with the 8th Division. After reaching the vicinity of Potsdam Redoubt a little later, the 16th Division was held up for the rest of the day. German machine-gunners north of the railway were free to enfilade the area of 8th Division to the south. On the right flank the same thing happened to the 56th Division, which was stopped by fire from German strong-points and pillboxes in their area and from German artillery concentrated to the south-east. After a long fight, the 8th Division captured Iron Cross, Anzac and Zonnebeke redoubts on the rise beyond the Hanebeek, then sent parties over the ridge.
XIX Corps had the same difficulties as II Corps in preparing its attack by the 16th and 36th divisions, from north of the Ypres–Roulers railway to just south of St. Julien, which were to advance 1-mile (1.6 km) up Anzac and Zonnebeke spurs, near the Wilhelm (third) line. Providing carrying parties since the last week in July and holding ground from 4 August in the Hanebeek and Steenbeek valleys, which were overlooked by the Germans had exhausted many men. From 1–15 August the divisions had lost about a third of their front-line strength in casualties. Frequent reliefs during the unexpected delays caused by the rain, had spread the casualties to all of the battalions in both divisions. The advance began on time and after a few hundred yards encountered German strong points, which were found not to been destroyed by a series of heavy artillery bombardments fired before the attack.
The 16th Division had many casualties from the Germans in Potsdam, Vampire and Borry farms, which had not been properly mopped up because the infantry shortage was so serious. The garrisons were able to shoot at the advancing British troops of the 48th Brigade from behind and only isolated parties of British troops managed to reach their objectives. The 49th Brigade on the left was also held up by Borry Farm, which defeated several costly attacks but the left of the brigade got within 400 yards (370 m) of the top of Hill 37.  The 36th Division also struggled to advance, Gallipoli and Somme farms were behind a new wire entanglement, with German machine-guns trained on the gaps made by the British bombardment, fire from which stopped the advance of the 108th Brigade. To the north, the 109th Brigade had to get across the swamp astride the Steenbeek. The infantry lost the barrage and were stopped by fire from Pond farm and Border House. On the left troops got to Fortuin, about 400 yards (370 m) from the start line.
The attack further north was much more successful. In XVIII Corps the 48th Division attacked at 4:45 a.m. with one brigade, capturing Border House and gun pits either side of the St. Julien–Winnipeg road, where they were held up by machine-gun fire and a small counter-attack. The capture of St. Julien was completed and consolidated along a line from Border House, to Jew Hill, the gun pits and St. Julien. Troops consolidating were fired on from Maison du Hibou and Hillock Farm, which was captured soon after; British troops seen advancing on Springfield Farm disappeared. At 9:00 a.m. German troops gathered around Triangle Farm and at 10:00 a.m. made a counter-attack which was repulsed. Another German attack after dark was defeated at the gun pits and at 9:30 p.m., another German counter-attack from Triangle Farm was repulsed.
The 11th division attacked with one brigade at 4:45 a.m. The right flank was delayed by machine-gun fire from the 48th Division area and by pillboxes to their front, where the infantry lost the barrage. On the left the brigade dug in 100 yards (91 m) west of Langemarck Road and the right flank dug in facing east, in the face of fire from Maison du Hibou and the Triangle. Supporting troops from the 33rd Brigade were caught by fire from the German pillboxes but reached the Cockcroft, passed beyond and dug in despite fire from Bulow Farm. On the left these battalions reached Langemarck Road, passed Rat House and Pheasant Trench and ended their advance just short of the White House, joining with the right side of the brigade on the Lekkerboterbeek.
In the XIV Corps area, the 20th Division attacked with two brigades at 4:45 a.m. The battalions of the right brigade leap-frogged on a one-battalion front, crossed the Steenbeek and then advancing in single file, worming round shell craters full of water and mud. Alouette Farm, Langemarck and the first two objective lines were reached easily. At 7:20 a.m. the advance to the final objective began and immediately encountered machine-gun fire from the Rat House and White House until they were captured, the final objective being taken at 7:45 a.m., as German troops withdrew to a small wood behind White House. The left brigade advanced on a two-battalion front and encountered machine-gun fire from Au Bon Gite before it was captured and was then fired on from German blockhouses in front of Langemarck and from the railway station. Once these had been captured the advance resumed at 7:20 a.m., despite fire from hidden parties of defenders and reached the final objective at 7:47 a.m., under fire from the Rat House. German counter-attacks began around 4:00 p.m. and advanced 200 yards (180 m) around Schreiboom, being driven back some distance later on.
The 29th Division to the north attacked at the same time with two brigades. On the right the first objective was reached quickly and assistance given to the 20th Division further south. The Newfoundland Regiment passed through, being held up slightly by marshy conditions and fire from Cannes Farm. The Newfoundlanders pressed on, reached the third objective and then took Japan House beyond. The left brigade took the first objective easily then met machine-gun fire from Champeaubert Farm in the French First Army sector and from Montmirail Farm. The advance continued to the final objective, which was reached and consolidated by 10:00 a.m. Patrols moved forward towards the Broombeek and a German counter-attack at 4:00 p.m. was stopped by artillery and small-arms fire. Langemarck and the Wilhelm (third) line, north of the Ypres–Staden railway and west of the Kortebeek had been captured.
The French on the northern flank operated from south of the hamlet of St. Janshoek on the east of the Steenbeek, north of Bixschoote and the edge of the floods to the Noordschoote–Luyghem road, which crossed the Yperlee at Drie Grachten. The Germans had counter-flooded the area between Dixmude and Bixschoote and had built fortifications to stop an attacker crossing or circumventing the flooded area. The bridgehead of Drie Grachten was the main German defensive fortification in the area, which blocked the Noordschoote–Luyghem road where it crossed the Yperlee Canal, north of the Steenbeek, beyond the confluence with the Kortebeek, where the combined rivers became the St. Jansbeek. From Luyghem a road ran south-east to Verbrandemis and the road from Zudyschoote and Lizenie crossed the Yperlee at Steenstraat and ran on to Dixmude. The capture of Luyghem, Merckem and the road was necessary for the French to threaten Houthoulst Forest, to the south of Dixmude and north of Langemarck. The bridgehead at Drie Grachten also gave the Germans a jumping-off point over the canal for a counter-attack across it. By 15 August the French had closed up to the bridgehead from Bixschoote to the south-east and Noordschoote to the south-west.
West of the Yperlee Canal the bridgehead consisted of a semi-circular work, which was built above ground due to the waterlogged nature of the soil. Reinforced concrete shelters had been built and connected by a raised trench of concrete, earth and fascines, with a communication trench leading back to a command post. Several hundred yards forward on the causeway was a small blockhouse, joined to the work by a communication trench on the north side of the road. Barbed wire entanglements standing above the water and below the surface, extended in front of the post and blockhouse, astride the Noordschoote–Luyghem road. To the north was l'Eclusette Redoubt and another to the south, the west of the Yperlee. The redoubts corresponded with the ends of the defences on the eastern bank of the canal and enclosed the flanks of the position, 7 feet (2.1 m) above the inundations. Platforms gave machine-guns command of a wide arc over the ground in front. Across the Yperlee on the east bank, was a rampart of reinforced concrete, behind and parallel with the canal from opposite l'Eclusette to the southern redoubt. Communications between the concrete rampart and the defences of the Luyghem peninsula, were via the raised road from Drie Grachten to Luyghem and two footbridges through the floods, one north and one south of the road. Every 35–50 yards (32–46 m) traverses with reinforced concrete shelters had been built.
The German redoubts in the area were much better defined targets than those across the Ypres–Staden and Ypres–Roulers railways and were more easily destroyed, as they were almost entirely above ground. The German floods inhibited attack but also made it difficult to move reserves to threatened points and the open country made it easier for French aircraft to observe the position. The First Army objectives were the Drie Grachten bridgehead and the triangular spit of land between the Lower Steenbeek and the Yperlee Canal. The right flank was to cross the Steenbeek and assist the British XIV Corps to take the positions north-west of Langemarck and south of the Broombeek stream, which joined the Steenbeek just south of St. Janshoek. The Steenbeek was 7 feet (2.1 m) broad and 5 feet (1.5 m) deep at this point and widened between St. Janshoek and the Steenstraat–Dixmude road; from the Martjewaart reach to the Yperlee Canal it was 20 feet (6.1 m) broad and 13 feet (4.0 m) deep. During the night of the 15/16 and the morning of the 16 August, French aircraft bombed the German defences, the bivouacs around Houthulst Forest and Lichtervelde railway station, 12 miles (19 km) east of Dixmude. French and Belgian air crews flew at a very low altitude to bomb and machine-gun German troops, trains and aerodromes and shot down three German aircraft.
The attacking divisions of the French I Corps, crossed the Yperlee from the north-west of Bixschoote to north of the Drie Grachten bridge-head and drove the Germans out of part of the swampy Poelsele peninsula but numerous pillboxes built in the ruins of farmhouses further back were not captured. The French crossed the upper Steenbeek from west of Wydendreft to a bend in the stream south-west of St. Janshoek. Keeping pace wth the British, they advanced to the south bank of the Broombeek. Mondovi blockhouse held out all day and pivoting on it, the Germans counter-attacked during the night of 16/17 August, to penetrate between the French and British. The attack failed and the next morning the French and British troops on the army boundary, had observation across the narrow Broombeek valley. Apart from resistance at Les Lilas and Mondovi blockhouses, the French had achieved their objectives of 16 August relatively easily. The German garrisons at Champaubert Farm and Brienne House held out until French artillery deluged them with shells, which brought the German defenders to surrender after thirty minutes. The French took more than 300 prisoners, numerous guns, trench mortars and machine-guns.
North and north-east of Bixschoote, the ground sloped to the Steenbeek and was dotted with pillboxes. Just west of the junction of the Broombeek and Steenbeek was Les Lilas blockhouse and the Mondovi blockhouse in the angle between the streams. The French artillery had bombarded the Drie Grachten bridge-head for several days and reduced it to ruins, the concrete works being easily hit by heavy artillery and on 16 August the French infantry waded through the floods and occupied the ruins. On the Poelsele peninsula the German defenders resisted until nightfall before being driven back, as the French closed up to the west bank of the Martjewaart reach of the Steenbeek. North and north-east of Bixschoote, the French reached the west bank of the St. Janshoek reach and surrounded Les Lilas which held out. On the night of 16/17 August French airmen set fire to the railway station at Kortemarck, 10 miles (16 km) east of Dixmude.
On 17 August French heavy howitzers battered Les Lilas and Mondovi blockhouses all day and by nightfall both strong points had been breached and the garrisons taken prisoner. The total of prisoners taken since 16 August exceeded 400 and fifteen guns had been captured. From the southern edge of the inundations and swamps between Dixmude and Drie Grachten, the French line had been pushed forward to the west bank of the Steenbeek as far as the south end of St. Janshoek. South of Mondovi blockhouse, the Steenbeek had been crossed and on the extreme right the First Army had swung north to the south bank of the Broombeek, which eliminated the possibility of the British Fifth Army being outflanked from the north. French engineers had worked in swamps and morasses to repair roads, bridge streams and build wire entanglements despite constant German artillery fire. The advance was made west of the northern stretch of the Wilhelm (third) Line.
Mist and cloud made air observation difficult on the morning of 16 August, until a wind began later in the day, although this blew the smoke of battle over the German lines, obscuring German troop movements. Corps squadrons were expected to provide artillery co-operation, contact and counter-attack patrols but low cloud, mist and smoke that morning resulted in most German counter-attack formations moving unnoticed.[Note 5] Flash-spotting of German artillery was much more successful and many more flares were lit by the infantry, when called for by the crews of contact aeroplanes. Army squadrons, Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and French aircraft flew over the lines and attacked German aerodromes, troops and transport as far as the weather allowed. V Brigade tried to co-ordinate air operations over the battlefield with the infantry attack. Two De Havilland D.H.5 aircraft per division were provided, to engage any German strong-points interfering with the infantry attack on the final objective. Two small formations of fighters, were to patrol low on the far side of the final objective of the Fifth Army at the beginning of the attack for six hours, to break up German attempts to counter-attack and to stop equivalent German contact-patrols.
After six hours the aircraft were to range further east to attack troop concentrations. Aircraft from Corps and Army wings were to attack all targets found west of Staden–Dadizeele, with the Ninth Wing taking over to the east of that line. German aerodromes were attacked periodically and special "ground patrols" were mounted below 3,000 feet (910 m) over the front line, to defend the Corps artillery-observation machines. Attempts to coordinate air and ground attacks had mixed results; on the II Corps front, few air attacks were co-ordinated with the infantry and only a vague report was received from an aircraft about a German counter-attack, which was further obscured by a smoke-screen. On the XIX Corps front, despite "ideal" visibility no warning by aircraft was given, of a German counter-attack over the Zonnebeke–St. Julien spur at 9:00 a.m., which was also screened by smoke shell. To the north on the XVIII and XIV Corps fronts the air effort had more effect, with German strong-points and infantry being attacked on and behind the front. Air operations continued during the night, with more attacks on German airfields and rail junctions.
German Fourth Army counter–attacks
The troops of 169th Brigade of the 56th Division, which tried to follow the leading waves from Glencorse Wood, were stopped at the edge of Polygon Wood and then pushed back by a counter-attack by the German 34th Division around 7:00 a.m., the troops ahead of them being overwhelmed. The brigade was driven back later in the afternoon to its start line, by German attacks from the south and east by troops from a regiment of the 54th Division sent back into the line. The 167th Brigade pulled back its right flank as the 169th Brigade was seen withdrawing through Glencorse Wood and at 3:00 p.m. the Germans attacked the front of 167th Brigade and the 25th Brigade of the 8th Division to the north. The area was under British artillery observation and the German attack was stopped by massed artillery fire. At 5.00 p.m. the brigade withdrew, to a better position 400 yards (370 m) in front of its start line, to gain touch with 25th Brigade. German artillery fired continuously on a line from Stirling Castle to Westhoek and increased the rate of bombardment from noon, which isolated the attacking British battalions from reinforcements and supplies and prepared the counter-attack made in the afternoon.
As the German counter-attacks by the 34th Division on the 56th Division gained ground, the 8th Division to the north, about 1,000 yards (910 m) ahead of the divisions on the flanks found itself enfiladed, as predicted by Heneker before the offensive. At about 9:30 a.m. reinforcements for Reserve Infantry Regiment 27 of the 54th Division, from the local Eingreif division, Infantry Regiment 34 of the 3rd Reserve Division, attacked over Anzac Farm Spur. SOS calls from the British infantry were not seen by their artillery observers, due to low cloud and smoke shell being fired by the Germans into their creeping barrage. An observation report from one British aircraft, failed to give enough information to help the artillery, which did not fire until too late at 10:15 a.m. The German counter-attack pressed the right flank of the 25th Brigade, which was being fired on from recaptured positions in Nonne Bosschen and forced it back, exposing the right of the 23rd Brigade to the north, which was already under pressure on its left flank and which fell back slowly to the Hanebeek stream. Another German attack at 3:45 a.m. was also not engaged by the British artillery, when mist and rain obscured the SOS signal from the infantry. The Germans "dribbled" forward and gradually pressed the British infantry back to the foot of Westhoek Ridge. That evening both brigades of the 8th Division withdrew from German enfilade fire coming from the 56th Division area, to ground just forward of their start line.
At around 9:00 a.m. the 16th and 36th Divisions were counter-attacked by the reserve regiment of the 5th Bavarian Division, supported by part of the 12th Reserve (Eingreif) Division behind a huge barrage, including smoke shell to mask the attack from British artillery observers. Despite "ideal" weather, air observation failed as it did on the II Corps front. The forward elements of both divisions were overrun and killed or captured. By 10:15 a.m. the Corps commander, Lieutenant-General H. Watts, had brought the barrage back to the start-line, regardless of survivors holding out beyond it. At 2:08 p.m. Gough ordered that a line from Borry Farm to Hill 35 and Hindu Cottage be taken to link with XVIII Corps. After consulting the divisional commanders, Watts reported that a renewed attack was impossible, since the reserve brigades were already holding the start line.
There were few German counter-attacks on the front of XVIII and XIV Corps, which had also not been subjected to much artillery fire before the attack, as the Germans had concentrated on the corps further south. Despite the "worst going" in the salient, the 48th Division got forward on its left, against fire from the area not occupied by 36th Division on its right; 11th Division advanced beyond Langemarck. The 20th and 29th Divisions of XIV Corps and the French further north, reached most of their objectives without serious counter-attack but the Germans subjected the new positions to intense artillery fire, inflicting heavy losses for several days, especially on the 20th Division. The German army group commander, Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote that the German defence continued to be based on holding the Gheluvelt Plateau and Houthoulst Forest as bastions, British advances in between were not serious threats. Ludendorff's verdict was less sanguine, writing that 10 August was a German success but that the British attack on the 16 August was another great blow. Poelcappelle had been reached and despite a great effort, the British could only be pushed back a short distance.[Note 6]
In the II and XIX Corps areas, the foremost infantry had been isolated by German artillery and then driven back by counter-attacks. On 17 August Gough ordered that the capture of the remainder of their objectives of 16 August would be completed on 25 August. Apart from small areas on the left of the 56th division, the flanks of the 8th Division and right of the 16th Division, the British had been forced back to their start line, by German machine-gun fire from the flanks and infantry counter-attacks supported by plentiful artillery. Attempts by the German infantry to advance further were stopped by British artillery fire, which inflicted heavy losses. Major-General F. A. Dudgeon, commander of the 56th Division, later reported that there was a lack of time to prepare the attack and study the ground, since the 167th Brigade had relieved part of the 25th Division, after it had only been in the line for 24 hours and neither unit had had sufficient time to make preparations for the attack. Dudgeon also reported that no tracks had been laid beyond Château Wood and that the wet ground had slowed the delivery of supplies to the front line and obstructed the advance beyond it. Pillboxes had caused more delays and subjected the attacking troops to frequent enfilade fire.
Tanks intended to help capture pill-boxes, had bogged down behind the British front-line and air support had been restricted by the weather, particularly by low cloud early on and by sending too few aircraft over the battlefield to fulfil all their tasks. Only one aircraft per Corps was on counter-attack patrol, with two aircraft per division for ground attack. Only eight aircraft covered the army front, to engage German infantry as they counter-attacked. Signalling had failed at vital moments and deprived the infantry of artillery support, which had made the German counter-attacks much more effective, in areas where the Germans had artillery observation. The 56th Division report recommended that advances be shortened, to give more time for consolidation and to minimise the organisational and communication difficulties, caused by the muddy ground and wet weather. After the battle, divisional artillery commanders asked for two aircraft per division, exclusively to conduct counter-attack patrols. With observation from higher ground to the east, German artillery fire inflicted heavy losses on the British troops holding the new line beyond Langemarck.[Note 7]
The success of the German Fourth Army in preventing the British Fifth Army from advancing far along the Gheluvelt Plateau, led Haig to reinforce the offensive in the south-east, along the southern half of Passchendaele Ridge. Haig gave principal authority for the offensive to the Second Army under command of General Herbert Plumer on 25 August. Like Gough after 31 July, Plumer planned to launch a series of attacks with even more limited geographical objectives, using the extra heavy artillery brought in from the armies further south, to deepen and increase the weight of the creeping barrage, to ensure that the infantry were organised on tactically advantageous ground and in contact with their artillery, when they received German counter-attacks. Minor operations by the British and German armies, continued in September along the Second and Fifth Army fronts, the boundary of which had been moved north, close to the Ypres–Roulers railway at the end of August.
The Official Historian J. E. Edmonds recorded British casualties for 31 July – 28 August as 68,010, of whom 10,266 had been killed, with a claim that 37 German divisions had been exhausted and withdrawn. Calculations of German losses by the Official Historian have been severely criticised ever since. By mid-August the German army had mixed views on the course of events. The defensive successes were a source of satisfaction but the cost in casualties was unsustainable. The German Official History recorded the loss of 24,000 casualties from 11–21 August, including 5,000 mssing, 2,100 prisoners and c. 30 guns. Rain, huge artillery bombardments and British air attacks also greatly strained the fighting power of the remaining German troops.
On 17 August a 48th Division (XVIII Corps) attack on Maison du Hibou failed; next day the 14th Division (II Corps) attacked with a brigade through Inverness Copse, although held up further north by fire from Fitzclarence and L-shaped farms. A German counter-attack forced the British half-way back through the copse but with support from two tanks on the Menin Road, the British held on despite three more German attacks. In the XIV Corps area, the 29th Division pushed posts over the Broombeek and on 19 August the 48th Division and seven tanks of I Tank Brigade, attacked up the St. Julien–Poelcappelle road and captured Hillock Farm, Maison du Hibou, Triangle Farm and the Cockcroft, losing no tanks. Next day a special gas and smoke bombardment took place on Jehu Trench, beyond Lower Star Post from the 24th Division (II Corps). The 61st Division (XIX Corps) took a German outpost near Somme Farm. On 21 August the 38th Division (XIV Corps) pushed forward its left flank.
On 22 August the 24th Division captured a strong point near Bodmin Copse and the II Corps resumed operations to capture Nonne Bosschen, Glencorse Wood and Inverness Copse astride the Menin Road, the copse and Herenthage Park being the first objective. The German outpost line was back on the western edge of the copse, about 600 yards (550 m) west of the Albrecht (second) line. The 14th (Light) Division with some tanks, forced the German defenders back to the Albrecht line, with heavy losses to both sides. The dry lake beds due west of Herenthage Château and the Château were captured with 50 prisoners; north of the Menin road the attack occupied Inverness Copse but failed to reach Jap Trench, after the left battalion was held up at the first objective. The rest of the brigade withdrew to the middle of the copse and called for reinforcements. North of the Ypres–Roulers railway, two brigades of the 15th Division and patrols from the 47th Division attacked at 4.45 a.m. The right brigade reached Potsdam, Vampire and Borry farms, where machine-gun fire forced them back to the railway dump and the road to Beck House. The left brigade was also stopped by machine-gun fire but gained a little ground at Hill 35. The 47th Division established posts on the Hanebeek and two German counter-attacks against the 15th Division in the afternoon were driven off. A brigade of the 61st Division attacked further north and quickly reached a line 150 yards (140 m) west of the Winnipeg–Kansas Farm crossroads. The right was held up at Pond Farm and Hindu Cottage, which fell later after a long struggle.
In the XVIII Corps area, a brigade of the 48th Division attacked towards Springfield and Winnipeg farms and captured the gun pits nearby, which were lost to a counter-attack and then retaken later in the day. The left brigade got close to Springfield Road with tank support but lost Vancouver to a counter-attack, posts being pushed up to the road after dark. A brigade of the 11th Division and two tanks attacked, although the tanks were blocked at the St. Julien–Langemarck crossroads by fallen trees. Bulow Farm was taken on the right and on the left the objective was taken easily. The advances by XIX and XVIII Corps, left them still overlooked by the German defenders of the uncaptured part of the Wilhelm (third) line, from east of Langemarck south to the Ypres–Zonnebeke road.
On 23 August at 4:30 a.m. British tanks arrived at Inverness Copse and were at once engaged by German artillery; one tank attacked a British post, before being knocked out by German shellfire. Next day a German attack was conducted by the 34th Division, against the 14th Division (II corps) area, from Inverness Copse to Glencorse Wood, with bombers, light machine-guns and flame-thrower units, pushed the British back to the line of 22 August, between Inverness Copse and Glencorse Wood, despite a German hurricane bombardment falling short on German troops in Inverness Copse. The German infantry advanced, reached the western edge, then fell back still under fire from German artillery. Another attempt in the afternoon, under a hail of fire from both artilleries, pushed the British out of the copse to the western fringe, from the Menin road to the junction of Jargon Drive and a sunken road. The British at the dry lakes, due west of Herenthage Château repulsed a German attack.
A British counter-attack at Inverness Copse intended for 24 August was cancelled, due to uncertainty about the position of the front line. A German bombing attack had been made on the right flank in the morning and after dark the British withdrew to Jasper Avenue and Jasper Lane, only retaining the north-west corner of the copse. An attack by the 61st Division (XIX Corps) on Aisne Farm failed and a German counter-attack with a flame-thrower unit, on the gun pits captured by the 48th Division the day before also failed. On 25 August in the XIX Corps area, the 15th Division attacked Gallipoli and Iberian farms again, only managing to advance the line for 170 yards (160 m). The 61st Division failed again at Aisne Farm and the 48th Division (XVIII Corps) captured more gun pits. The British general offensive intended for 25 August was postponed because of these failures, then cancelled due to more bad weather. Next day in the Second Army area, the 23rd Division was attacked by a German flame-thrower unit which captured a post. In the Fifth Army area the 24th Division (II Corps) lost an outpost then recaptured it. An attack by the 61st Division on Schuler Galleries failed. Minor operations took place further south, in the British Third Army area from 9–26 August, in which co-ordination of air and ground forces showed further improvement.
On 27 August an attack by a brigade of the 23rd Division with two tanks, on a trench from the Menin Road for 600 yards (550 m) through the western edge of Inverness Copse failed. Further north an attack by the 61st Division (XIX Corps) on a line from Schuler Farm to Gallipoli Farm failed and a 15th Division attack by a brigade on Gallipoli Farm also failed. In the XVIII Corps area the 48th Division attacked with two brigades before dawn, towards Springfield and Vancouver Farms. The right brigade reached and took Springfield after dark, while the left brigade floundered in the mud and made little headway. The 11th Division attacked towards Pheasant Trench (part of the Wilhelm line) with a brigade, took a pillbox near Vieille Maisons on the right and reached Pheasant Trench on the left. The 38th Division (XIV Corps) attacked Pheasant Trench at the same time, lost the barrage and finished back at the start line. Next day a local truce allowed casualties to be recovered by both sides. On 30 August the 38th Division took the White House.
- A 1989 study of weather data recorded from 1867 – 1916 at Lille, 16 miles (26 km) from Ypres, showed that August was more often dry than wet, that there was a trend towards dry autumns (September – November) and that average rainfall in October had decreased over the previous 50 years. Rainfall in August 1917 was 127 mm, of which 84 mm fell on 1, 8, 14, 26 and 27 August; a month so dull and windless that water on the ground dried slowly. September had 40 mm of rain and was much sunnier so the ground dried quickly, becoming hard enough in places for shells to ricochet and for dust to blow in the breeze. In October 107 mm of rain fell, compared to the 1914–1916 average of 44mm and from 1–9 November there was 7.5 mm of rain but only nine hours of sunshine so little of the water dried; 13.4 mm of rain fell on 10 November.
- 25 mm of rain fell from 1–4 August and 8 mm fell in a thunderstorm on 8 August.
- Aid posts on the east bank were to be arranged once the advance began, so seriously wounded men would have to wait and walking wounded recross the stream to reach Advanced Dressing Stations at Elverdinghe and Cheapside, 6,000–8,000 yards (5,500–7,300 m) away. Non-walking wounded were to be carried by 200 men from the division reserved as stretcher-bearers, to Gallwitz Farm 3,000 yards (2,700 m) back, then evacuated by light railway. 
- The assembly areas were termed Fredericus Rex Raum and Triarier Raum, an analogy with the formation of a Roman legion (hastati, principes and triarii).
- From 30 January 1916, each British army had a Royal Flying Corps brigade attached, which was divided into wings, the "corps wing" with squadrons responsible for close reconnaissance, photography and artillery observation on the front of each army corps and an "army wing" which by 1917 conducted long-range reconnaissance and bombing, using the aircraft types with the highest performance.
- In 2011 G. Sheffield wrote that Ludendorff was correct to describe the battle as "another great blow". Sheffield called the battle a sobering reminder that military operations can only be judged by considering their effect on both sides.
- The German order of battle was: 5th Bavarian (Eingreif), 34th, 214th, 3rd Reserve, 119th, 183rd, 32nd, 9th Bavarian Reserve, 204th, 54th, 12th Reserve (Eingreif), 26th Reserve, 79th Reserve (Eingreif), 26th and 26th Reserve divisions.
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