At 3.50am on 31 July 1917, two thousand Allied guns opened up on German lines, and fourteen British and two French divisions attacked along 15 miles of the front. Rather than the dawn assault originally envisaged, low cloud meant that soldiers emerged from their forward positions in gloom. The most significant success was achieved in the north, particularly across Pilkem Ridge. Here, Welsh and Irish troops played an important role. To the left of Fifth Army, French troops regained Bixschoote, while St Julien and Frezenberg were captured, as were Bellewaarde Ridge, Hooge, Sanctuary Wood and part of Shrewsbury Forest.
By late afternoon, however, fierce German counter-attacks had regained much ground, and wet weather had set in. The Allied attacks on the Gheluvelt Plateau, an important stepping stone to Passchendaele, were confronted with a persistent German defence. Ceaseless unseasonal rain over the following days turned the shell-damaged ground into a quagmire, severely hampering the movement of advancing men. This made bringing up the artillery a herculean task, and hampered the transportation of casualties backwards and supplies forward. Gruelling for the infantry, movement through the swamp-like conditions was equally arduous for horses, mules and tanks.
After three days, the Allied advance was half of what had been planned.
Capture of Westhoek
10 August 1917
Battle of Langemarck
16-18 August 1917
On 16 August an attack towards Langemarck was launched, with limited success. The attacks in the north were the most successful but on the Gheluvelt Plateau the Allied were faced again with strong German counter-attacks. By mid-August, the initial momentum had faltered in the already-infamous mud. After disappointing progress, Douglas Haig replaced General Gough with General Plumer. On 28 August, he ordered that attacks should cease until Plumer’s Second Army was ready to take over.
Battle of Menin Road Ridge
20-25 September 1917
On 20 September, Allied forces attacked on a front of around 8 miles, towards what the British called the Menin Road Ridge. Among them was the 9th (Scottish) Division, including the South African Brigade. By mid-morning, they had captured most of their objectives. German counter-attacks began in the afternoon, but after several hours had failed to gain back much ground. The combination of revised tactics and new troops made a difference. With better ground conditions and weather, the Commonwealth forces inflicted a series of blows to the Germans as their strongpoints were fought one by one.
Battle of Polygon Wood
26 September - 3 October 1917
Polygon Wood had been in German hands since the Second Battle of Ypres and it had been transformed into a notable stronghold with different defensive elements. The Allied assault began in hot, dry conditions on 26 September, when British Empire forces – including many Australian units – attacked around Polygon Wood. The policy of aiming for limited objectives continued: British attacks were led by lines of skirmishers, followed by small infantry columns and vastly increased artillery support, providing a ‘creeping’ barrage to protect the attackers. Along with the much-improved weather, these tactics led to significant success and inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, who were forced to reassess their defensive arrangements. A series of desperate German counter-attacks over the following days failed in the face of British artillery and machine-gun fire.
Battle of Broodseinde
4 October 1917
To complete the capture of the Gheluvelt Plateau and occupy Broodseinde Ridge, another major attack was launched on 4 October. The British ‘hurricane’ bombardment began without warning, achieving complete surprise and catching German forces in the open as they prepared another counter-attack near Zonnebeke.
British Empire forces advanced to the German “Flandern I” line despite heavy resistance from pillboxes (bunkers) and other defensive constructions. The village of Broodseinde was captured, and the 3rd Australian Division (Tasmanian 40th Battalion) took the German pillboxes near what is today the main entrance of Tyne Cot Cemetery, while the New Zealand Division captured the Gravenstafel Spur.
After three successful set-piece attacks, British commanders were optimistic, particularly as a result of intelligence reports which highlighted the strain German forces were under. After Broodseinde the weather turned against the Allied - rain and mud made it very difficult to advance and impossible to use the artillery to the full. Both sides had lost many men. Generals Plumer and Gough suggested to stop the offensive on 7 October but Haig wanted to consolidate the road to Passchendaele and the campaign went on.
Battle of Poelcapelle
9 October 1917
In October, the heavy rain returned, soaking the ground and diminishing the effectiveness of the British artillery. The British were under the impression that the German defence was fading after Broodseinde and launched an attack on 9 October towards Poelcappelle in heavy rain. The bad weather and even worse terrain, combined with the German counter-attacks, made it very difficult to advance. Some minor objectives were secured but due to the lack of artillery support, troops had to withdraw. The Battle of Poelcappelle was a German defensive success, partly due to the worsening weather that played in their favour. German commander Crown Prince Rupprecht called the weather ‘our most effective ally’.
First Battle of Passchendaele
12 October 1917
After failing to meet the objectives on 9 October, the Allied launched a new attack three days later on 12 October in appalling weather. The British, Australian and New Zealand troops were tasked to capture the Passchendaele Ridge from the Germans.
The first push towards the village of Passchendaele saw minor advances, but German counter-attacks soon recaptured lost ground. The quagmire helped to neutralize the artillery and now made movement almost impossible at times. Such experiences left Allied forces exhausted and demoralised.
Among the 13,000 casualties were many Anzacs, including some 2,735 New Zealanders. In a disastrous attack at Bellevue Spur, more than 840 had been killed. In terms of lives lost in a single day, 12 October 1917 remains the greatest disaster in New Zealand’s history. On 13 October, Haig gave the order to stop the attack, to wait for better weather and the arrival of the Canadians who relieved the ANZAC troops during the night of 17-18 October.
Second Battle of Passchendaele
26 October - 10 November 1917
In October the four Canadian divisions were transferred to Flanders to relieve the ANZACs. Tasked with capturing Passchendaele, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, in command of the Canadian Corps, planned a three-stage attack with limited targets.
On 26 October, the Canadians began their first attack in heavy rain, aiming to secure better positions for another attack. This started on 30 October, when the 3rd Canadian Division reached Goudberg, and the 4th Canadian Division reached Crest Farm.
On 6 November, a third Canadian attack took place. The 1st Canadian Division reached Mosselmarkt in Passchendaele and the 2nd Canadian Division reached the ruins of the village church. In the coming days the British advanced another half a kilometre but on 10 November the offensive was brought to an end.
These final actions were fought in indescribable conditions on a near impassable battlefield. It took three major efforts until Canadian forces, supported by other units of the British Army including the 63rd (Royal Naval Division), reached the highest points of the ridge. There were further actions later in November, but the Third Battle of Ypres was over.