July 31, 1917 - Third Battle of Ypres Begins

Pictured - British stretcher-bearers struggle to bring in a wounded man on July 31, 1917. The first phase of the Third Battle of Ypres, or the Passchendaele offensive, is called the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. It lasted from July 31 to August 22. A massive downpour of rain turned the battlefield into a quagmire and made advancing very difficult for the attacking British and French troops.

At 3:50 AM on July 31, 1917, Allied troops at Ypres went over the top, beginning the Passchendaele offensive. Their objectives were set 6,000 yards from the start line. From there their commander, Sir Douglas Haig, planned to slowly force back the Germans and clear the North Sea coast all the way to Zeebruge. Haig was confident he could win, Prime Minister David Lloyd George was not. But with the Russians in turmoil and France on the backfoot, Britain had to fight.

A final 3,000 gun barrage pounded the German front line, then lifted and moved off to rearward targets. Fifteen Allied divisions, nine British and six French, crept out of their trenches and attacked along a fifteen-mile front from the town of Bixchoote in the north to Messines ridge in the south. 

The attackers had mixed success. They advanced further that day than any previous single one in the Ypres salient. Yet the Germans’ thick defensive lines stemmed the assault. The terrain was also difficult. Flanders has a high water table, and three years of artillery fire had made No-Man’s Land a churned up patch of mud. The Allies 136 tanks did well on July 31: only two bogged down. But over the next month constant rain would force many of them to be ditched.

Yet on July 31 the Allies made decent progress, especially on the left, where the veteran French First army showed great skill at offensive tactics. The first-day objectives of Pilckem, Bixschoote, and St Julien ridge were all reached. Yet on the right flank of the battle things bogged down, and by mid-morning the usual problems of communication were starting to show. Telephone cables laid across No Man’s Land were cut, the infantry could not coordinate with the artillery or the tanks, and at two the Germans counter-attacked. A massive artillery bombardment fell on the British XVIII and XIX Corps at Gheluvelt that caused many to break and run.

Both Haig and his German opponent, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, reported success on July 31. At the Somme a year earlier 20,000 men had died on the first day; today Allied casualties, both British and French, numbered 35,000 killed, wounded, or missing. The Germans had lost the same. But Rupprecht had not committed any of his reserves, and most of his deep defenses had not yet come into play, so he had the better claim when he recorded in his diary that night that he was “very satisfied with the results.”