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 against the German 4th Army. The French First Army had a big success on the northern flank and the main British gain of ground occurred near Langemark, adjacent to the French. The Allied attack succeeded from Langemarck to Drie Grachten (Three Canals) 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 and French, who occupied lower-lying areas and advanced onto ground which had been frequently and severely bombarded. The effect of the battle, the unseasonable August downpours and the successful but costly German defence of the Gheluvelt Plateau during the rest of August, which the British attacked several times, led the British to stop the offensive for three weeks. The ground dried in early September, as the British rebuilt roads and tracks for supply, transferred more artillery from the armies further south and revised further their tactics. The British shifted the main offensive effort southwards, which led to the three big British successes on the Gheluvelt Plateau on 20, 26 September and 4 October.
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Battle
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Notes
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Artillery preparation for the Second Battle of Verdun, in support of the Allied offensive in Flanders, which had been delayed from mid-July, began on an 11 mi (18 km) front on 20 August after an eight-day bombardment. Mort Homme and Hill 304 were recaptured and 10,000 prisoners taken. The German army was not able to counter-attack the French, because the Eingreif divisions had been sent 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 Lens on the British First Army front, was fought by the Canadian Corps. The attack was costly but inflicted great losses on five German divisions and pinned down troops reserved for reliefs of tired divisions on the Flanders front.
The British 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 could make local attacks at Verdun but still needed time to recuperate and were vulnerable to large German attacks. The British offensive at Ypres drew German divisions away from the French and Russian armies and forced the Germans into a costly defence of Flanders. In Belgium, the Fifth Army (General Hubert Gough) had managed to advance little further towards Passchendaele since 31 July, due to the tenacity of the German defence and the unusually wet weather. Gough wanted to avoid delay in resuming the offensive, to prevent the Germans from recovering and to create the conditions for Operation Hush on the coast, which needed the high tides due at the end of August.
In July 1917, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig had begun the Third Battle of Ypres, an attempt to inflict unsustainable losses on the German army and to advance out of the Ypres Salient to capture the Belgian coast and end the submarine threat from Belgian bases. 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 surface had been bombarded, fought over and 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 waterlogged shell-craters. Supply troops walked to the front on duck boards laid across the mud, often carrying loads of up to 99 lb (45 kg). It was possible for soldiers to slip off the path into the craters and drown. Trees were reduced to blasted trunks, the branches and leaves torn away. Bodies of men buried earlier were uncovered by the rain and shelling. The ground was powdery to a depth of 30 ft (9 m) and when wet, had the consistency of porridge. The ground dried quickly, except where water was held in shell-holes, after a few dry days became dusty.[a]
British offensive preparations
Brigadier-General J. H. Davidson, the Director of Operations at BEF HQ, intervened on 1 August, with a memorandum urging caution on Haig and Gough. Davidson recommended that the preliminary operation by II Corps not be hurried, a full artillery preparation and relief of the divisions already engaged, should 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 German maps revealed the positions 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 a reinforcement.
Few of the pillboxes captured on 31 July, had been damaged by artillery-fire and before the attack, the 109th Brigade commander Brigadier-General Ricardo, arranged three-minute bombardments on selected pillboxes and blockhouses by the XIX Corps heavy artillery, with pauses so that the artillery observers could make corrections to contradictory maps and photographs. It was discovered that on many of the targets, the shell dispersion covered hundreds of yards, as did wire-cutting bombardments. On 2 August, at the suggestion of Brigadier-General Hugh 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 en mass later on, although some were used in late August. The preliminary operation intended for 2 August, was delayed by rain until 10 August and the general offensive was postponed from 4–16 August.[b]
The 20th (Light) Division replaced the 38th (Welsh) 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 turned into the British reserve line and lost three men to shellfire while waiting for dark. On arrival at the support line 500 yd (460 m) forward and the front line another 500 yd (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 now 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 the German defenders, by providing enfilade fire and enveloping German positions, which were to be left and mopped-up by reserve platoons. Every known German position was allocated to a unit of the approximately 470 men left in the battalion, 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 yd (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 yd (270 m) beyond the Steenbeek, which had been lost to a German counter-attack on 31 July, failed. 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.
Unternehmen Sommernacht (Operation Summer Night) was a local German attack near Hollebeke, which began at 5:20 a.m. on 5 August. After a short bombardment, three companies of I Battalion, Infantry Regiment 62 captured a slight ridge 0.62 mi (1 km) north-east of Hollebeke, surprising the British who fell back 87 yd (80 m). The new German positions were on higher and drier ground and deprived the British of observation over the German rear, reducing casualties to British artillery-fire. Further to the south, Reserve Infantry regiments 209 and 213 of the 207th Division, attacked Hollebeke through thick fog and captured the village, despite many casualties and took at least 300 prisoners. Most of the British had occupied captured pillboxes and blockhouses, which had to be attacked one by one and at 5:45 a.m., three signal flares were fired to indicate success. The Germans later abandoned Hollebeke and reoccupied the old "A line", then the Germans withdrew to their start line because of the severity of British counter-attacks and artillery-fire. Sommernacht left the front-line ragged, with a gap between regiments 209 and 213, which the British tried to exploit before the bigger local attack of 10 August.
Capture of Westhoek
The Gheluvelt Plateau became a sea of mud, flooded shell craters, fallen trees and barbed wire. Troops were quickly tired by rain, mud, massed artillery bombardments and lack of food and water; rapid relief of units spread the exhaustion through all the infantry despite the lines being held by fresh divisions. British artillery fired a preparatory bombardment from Polygon Wood to Langemarck but the German guns concentrated on the Gheluvelt Plateau. The British artillery was hampered by low cloud and rain, which made air observation extremely difficult and shells were wasted on empty gun emplacements. The British 25th Division, 18th Division and the German 54th Division took over by 4 August but the German 52nd Reserve Division was not relieved; both sides was exhausted by 10 August. The 18th Division attacked on the right and some troops quickly reached their objectives but German artillery isolated the infantry around Inverness Copse and Glencorse Wood. German troops counter-attacked several times and by nightfall the Copse and all but the north-west corner of Glencorse Wood had been recaptured. The 25th Division on the left flank advanced quickly and reached its objectives by 5:30 a.m., rushing the Germans in Westhoek but snipers and attacks by German aircraft caused an increasing number of casualties. The Germans counter-attacked into the night as the British artillery bombarded German troops in their assembly positions. The appalling weather and costly defeats began a slump in British infantry morale; lack of replacements concerned the German commanders.
Plan of attack
The attack was planned as an advance in stages, to keep the infantry well under the protection of the field artillery. II Corps was to reach the green line of 31 July, an advance of about 1,480–1,640 yd (1,350–1,500 m) and form a defensive flank from Stirling Castle to Black Watch Corner. The deeper objective was compensated for by reducing battalion frontages from 383–246 yd (350–225 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 550 yd (500 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-west corner of Polygon Wood, to form a defensive flank to the south. Further north, the 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 eighteen-pounder guns for the creeping barrage moving at 110 yd (100 m) in five minutes, with seventy-two 4.5-inch howitzers and 36 eighteen-pounders 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-pounder batteries for the creeping barrage and twenty-four 4.5-inch howitzer batteries and forty machine-guns for standing barrages, along with the normal heavy artillery groups. Each division also had 108 eighteen-pounders and thirty-six 4.5-inch howitzers for bombardment and benefitted from supply routes which had been 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 each, was 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 77–148 yd (70–135 m) of room to assemble, crossing over on wooden bridges laid by the engineers the night before the attack.[c] The first objective (blue line), was set on a road running along the west side of Langemarck, the second objective (green line) was 500 yd (460 m) further on, at the east side of the village and the final objective (red line) was another 600 yd (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 to leapfrog 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 yd (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 Royal Engineer Field Company. 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 98 yd (90 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 330–1,640 yd (300–1,500 m) ahead of the foremost British troops, to stop German machine-gunners in retired positions from 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 their firepower. 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 4th 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 attackers 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. From mid-1917, the area east of Ypres was defended by six German defensive positions: the front line, Albrechtstellung (second line), Wilhelmstellung (third line), Flandern I Stellung (fourth line), Flandern II Stellung (fifth line) and Flandern III Stellung (under construction). In between the German defence positions lay the Belgian villages of Zonnebeke and Passchendaele. On 31 July, the German defence in depth had begun with a front system of three breastworks: Ia, Ib and Ic, each about 220 yd (200 m) apart, garrisoned by the four companies of each front battalion, with listening-posts in no-man's-land. About 2,200 yd (2,000 m) behind these works was the Albrechtstellung (artillery protective line), the rear boundary of the forward battle zone (Kampffeld). Companies of the support battalions, (25 percent Sicherheitsbesatzung to hold the strong-points and 75 percent Stosstruppen to counter-attack towards them), were placed at the back of the Kampffeld, half in the pill-boxes of the Albrecht Stellung, 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 Stützpunkt-Linie. Much of the Kampffeld north of the Ypres–Roulers railway, had fallen on 31 July.
The Albrechtstellung (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), which was about 2,500 yd (2,300 m) deep, behind which was the Wilhelmstellung (third line) and most of the field artillery of the front divisions. In pillboxes of the Wilhelmstellung were the 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.[d] Eingreif divisions were accommodated 9,800–12,000 yd (9,000–11,000 m) behind the front line and at the beginning of an attack, began their advance to assembly areas in the rückwärtige Kampffeld behind Flandern I Stellung, 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 Wilhelmstellung 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 having 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. Crown Prince Rupprecht expressed concern on 5 August, that the weather conditions were rapidly exhausting the German infantry. Casualties averaged 1,500–2,000 men 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 suffered 1,200 gas casualties.
At 4:45 a.m., a 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 pillboxes caused many 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 formed 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 the right around boggy ground, then entered Glencorse Wood. The German main line of resistance was in a sunken road inside the wood, where after a hard-fought and mutually costly engagement, the German defenders were overrun and the rest of the wood occupied. The leading waves then advanced to Polygon Wood.
The 167th Brigade also had a fast start but when it reached the north end of Nonne Bosschen, found mud 4 ft (1.2 m) deep, the brigade veering round it to the left but the gap which this caused between the 167th and 169th brigades was not closed. Another problem emerged, because the quick start had been partly due to 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 or German troops who had been overrun, who 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 the 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, advancing behind an "admirable" barrage and reached the Hanebeek, where hand bridges were used to cross 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 (Irish) 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. The check to the 16th Division left German machine-gunners north of the railway 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 strongpoints 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. The divisions were to advance 1 mi (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 relief during the unexpected delays caused by the rain, 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 have been destroyed by a series of special 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 yd (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 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 machine-gun fire from Pond Farm and Border House forced them to take cover. On the left troops got to Fortuin, about 400 yd (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 north-east bearing 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 the infantry consolidated along a line from Border House, to Jew Hill, the gun pits and St Julien. The troops were fired on from Maison du Hibou and Hillock Farm, which was captured soon after, then 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 yd (91 m) west of the Langemarck road and the right flank dug in facing east, against 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 flank, these battalions reached the 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 forward 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, which continued 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 yd (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 continued, 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 (Three Canals). The Germans had counter-flooded the area between Dixmude and Bixschoote and had built fortifications to stop an attacker crossing or circumventing the floods. 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 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 had been laid above and below the water in front of the post and blockhouse, astride the Noordschoote–Luyghem road. To the north was l'Eclusette Redoubt and another to the south, 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, 6.6 ft (2 m) above the inundations. Platforms gave machine-guns command of a wide arc of 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 38–55 yd (35–50 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 6.6 ft (2 m) broad and 4.9 ft (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 ft (6 m) broad and 13 ft (4 m) deep. During the night of the 15/16 and the morning of 16 August, French aircraft bombed the German defences, the bivouacs around Houthulst Forest and Lichtervelde railway station, 11 mi (18 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 with 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.
To the north and north-east of Bixschoote, the ground sloped towards the Steenbeek and was dotted with pillboxes. Just west of the junction of the Broombeek and Steenbeek, were the Les Lilas and Mondovi blockhouses, in the angle between the streams. The French artillery had bombarded the Drie Grachten bridgehead 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 area. 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. On the night of 16/17 August, French airmen set fire to the railway station at Kortemarck, 9.3 mi (15 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 also 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 northwards 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.[e] 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 strongpoints interfering with the infantry attack on the final objective. Two small formations of fighters were to fly low patrols, on the far side of the final objective of the Fifth Army, from 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 the Corps and Army wings were to attack all targets found west of Staden–Dadizeele, with the Ninth Wing taking over east of the line. German aerodromes were attacked periodically and special "ground patrols" were mounted below 3,000 ft (910 m) over the front line, to defend the Corps artillery-observation machines. Attempts to co-ordinate 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 4th Army
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 380 yd (350 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 1,100 yd (1,000 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.[f]
The British plan to overcome the German "deep battlefield", was based on a conventional attack in three stages but the artillery was able to arrange a fire plan which was far more sophisticated than in previous attacks. The creeping barrage preceded the infantry and in some places moved slowly enough for the infantry to keep up. New smoke shells were fired when the creeping barrage paused beyond each objective, which helped to obscure the British infantry from artillery observers and German machine-gunners far back in the German defensive zone who fired through the British artillery barrages. Around Langemarck, the British infantry formed up close the German positions, too near for the German artillery to fire on for fear of hitting their infantry, although British troops further back at the Steenbeek were severely bombarded. British platoons and sections were allotted objectives and engineers accompanied troops to bridge obstacles and attack strong points. In the 20th Division, each company was reduced to three platoons, two to advance using infiltration tactics and one to mop up areas where the forward platoons had by-passed resistance by attacking from the flanks and from behind.
In the II and XIX Corps areas, the foremost infantry had been isolated by German artillery and then driven back by counter-attacks. At a conference with the Fifth Army corps commanders on 17 August, Gough arranged for local attacks to gain jumping-off positions for a general attack on 25 August. Apart from small areas on the left of the 56th Division (Major-General F. A. Dudgeon), 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 many losses. Dudgeon reported that there had been 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; neither unit had sufficient time to make preparations for the attack. Dudgeon also reported that no tracks had been laid beyond Château Wood, 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.
Major-General Oliver Nugent, the commander of the 36th Division, had used information from captured German orders and noted that German artillery could not bombard advancing British troops since German positions were distributed in depth and the forward zone was easily penetrated. The advance of supporting troops was much easier to obstruct but it was more important to help the foremost infantry. If counter-battery fire was insufficient, the covering fire in front of the advance was more important and counter-battery groups should change target. Nugent recommended that fewer field guns be used for the creeping barrage and that surplus guns should be grouped to fire sweeping barrages (from side-to-side) and that Shrapnel shells should be fuzed to burst higher up, to hit the inside of shell holes. Creeping barrages should be slower with more frequent and longer pauses, during which the barrages from field artillery and 60-pounder guns should sweep and search (move side-to-side and back-and-forth). Nugent suggested that infantry formations should change from skirmish lines to mobile company columns on narrow fronts, equipped with a machine-gun and Stokes mortar and move within a zone, since lines broke up under machine-gun fire in crater-fields and became disorganised.[g]
Tanks to help capture pillboxes 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. Only one aircraft per corps was reserved for 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. 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 many casualties on the British troops holding the new line beyond Langemarck.[h]
The success of the German 4th Army in preventing the Fifth Army from advancing far along the Gheluvelt Plateau, led Haig to reinforce the offensive in the south-east, along the southern side of Passchendaele Ridge. Haig gave principal authority for the offensive to the Second Army (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. Plumer intended 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 both sides continued in September along the Second and Fifth army fronts, the boundary of which had been moved northwards, 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 Edmonds 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 missing, 2,100 prisoners and c. 30 guns. Rain, huge artillery bombardments and British air attacks, greatly strained the fighting power of the remaining German troops. In 1931, Gough wrote that 2,087 prisoners and eight guns had been captured.
Gough called a conference for 17 August and asked for proposals on what to do next from the corps commanders. Jacob (II Corps) wanted to attack the brown line and then the yellow line, Watts (XIX Corps) wanted to attack the purple line but Maxse (XVIII Corps) preferred to attack the dotted purple line, ready to attack the yellow line with XIX Corps. Gough decided to attack in different places at different times, risking defeat in detail and infantry tactics would be irrelevant if the artillery insufficiently suppressed the German defenders while the infantry struggled through mud and waterlogged shell-holes. 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 86th Brigade of the 29th Division pushed forward and established nine posts over the Broombeek.
Action of the Cockcroft
On 19 August, in the Action of the Cockcroft parties from the 48th (South Midland) Division and a composite company of the 1st Tank Brigade attacked up the St Julien–Poelcappelle road to capture fortified farms, blockhouses and pillboxes. The tanks were to attack Hillock Farm, Triangle Farm, Maison du Hibou, the Cockcroft, Winnipeg Cemetery, Springfield and Vancouver. The advance was covered by a smoke barrage and aircraft flying low to disguise the sound of the tanks. The infantry follow up when the tank crews signalled and occupied the strong points. Hillock Farm was captured at 6:00 a.m. and fifteen minutes later Maison du Hibou was captured. Triangle Farm was overrun soon afterwards, when tanks drove the garrisons under cover where they were unable to engage the infantry behind the tanks. A female tank ditched 50 yd (46 m) from the Cockcroft at 6:45 a.m. The tank crews had 14 casualties and the attacking infantry 15 men, instead of the expected 600–1,000 losses; about 100 German casualties and 30 taken prisoner. On 20 August a special gas and smoke bombardment took place on Jehu Trench, beyond Lower Star Post on the front of the 24th Division in the II Corps area. The 61st Division in the XIX Corps area took a German outpost near Somme Farm and on 21 August, the 38th Division (XIV Corps), pushed forward its left flank.
- A 1989 study of weather data recorded from 1867–1916 at Lille, 16 mi (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. The month was 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 44 mm and from 1–9 November there was another 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.
- 59.1 mm of rain fell from 1–10 August, including 8 mm 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, 6,000–7,700 yd (5,500–7,000 m) away. Non-walking wounded were to be carried by 200 men from the division reserved as stretcher-bearers, to Gallwitz Farm 3,000 yd (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, in which troops were organised as 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, 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.
- Cyril Falls, the 36th Division historian, wrote that on 20 September, the 9th Division attacked Frezenburg behind a slower barrage, halted on intermediate objectives for an hour and that each creeping barrage to successive objectives was slower than the one before. Lines of infantry sections at 20 yd (18 m) intervals leap-frogged, rather than advancing in front of mopping up parties and had "complete success".
- The German order of battle was the 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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