Book Review – The German Army at Passchendaele

Jack Sheldon, The German Army at Passchendaele. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2007. 336 pp.

On 16 August 1917 three brigades of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) where tasked as part of II Corps’ continuing attempt to force its way up onto the Geluveld Plateau on either side the Menin Road as a part of Gough’s Fifth Army’s offensive in Flanders. This had been II Corps’ objective on 31 July at the opening at the Battles at Ypres, 1917, sometimes simply called ‘Third Ypres’ but most often referred to by the popular name Passchendaele, which properly only belongs to the final two stages of the fighting in October and November 1917 when the village and ridge of Passchendaele were finally secured.

Brigadier-General G.H.B. Freeth, commanding 167 Infantry Brigade, one of the three brigades that took part in II Corps’ operation on 16 August recorded:

orders were received and issued so hurriedly that it was impossible for brigadier and battalion staff to keep pace with them. There was no time for the scheme of operations to be thoroughly explained to regimental officers, much less to the men. (56th Division History, p. 155)

Freeth’s Brigade, together with 169 Brigade and 53 Brigade, attached from 18th Division, were part of the 56th (London) Division, consisting largely of first line territorial battalions from the City and County of London. The barrage opened at 04.45 and, for the first time the 56th (London) Division, veterans of the previous summer’s fighting on the Somme, encounter German defence-in-depth and semi-permanent fortifications – ‘pill boxes’ to the soldiers. Keeping up with the barrage was steady at first and Glencorse Wood was eventually cleared, but on the edge of Polygon Wood, the attackers were brought to a halt and massive German counter attacks later drove the survivors to their start line. One Company actually made it to a position north of Polygon Wood, as was evidenced by the written message sent back by runner, but neither the Company Commanding Officer nor his men were heard from again.

Between 13 and 17 August, 56th (London) Division reported losses of 111 Officers and 2,794 other ranks. Jack Sheldon’s excellent book allows us to understand what happened to those men and, joining his equally important volume on the German army on the Somme, enriches the English language historiography of the First World War by presenting both sides of the coin. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, in overall command of German defences in Flanders and the North of France, states in his diary the day before the notorious Battle of Langemark in mid-August that his Army Group had suffered total losses of 2,020 Officers and 8,5508 other ranks between 1 June and 10 August, the period since the BEF had taken the offensive in Flanders. It is in it the area of morale that differences between the contending armies in Flanders are best measured and notwithstanding the grinding out of ground gained, German sources for 16 August record:

British prisoners are saying – and this has never been heard before – that they wished that had shot their own officers who were leading them into the slaughterhouse. They have had enough of this butchery.’(p. 137)

Most prisoners’ reports are unreliable but these accounts clearly demonstrate a fundamental loss of morale in Fifth Army during August 1917. The German defence, though perhaps just as costly, was courageous, as the words of Leutnant C. Beuck, commanding Fifth Company Infantry Regiment 84 Von Manstein (Scheleisg) record:

a feeling of pride swelled in my breast; pride in my dear brave Fifth Company. Everyman knew it was going to be a hard day, but each was filled with an iron determination to do his duty. The old ‘mansteiner’ spirit was alive and well. (p. 126)

The key to German confidence lay with the eingrief or counterattack units and as the chief of the German General Staff had noted on 9 October 1917:

the art of command comprises sparring deployment of the eingrief division and the maintenance of their fighting strength (p. 227)

It was these formations that had exacted such a terrible price for the three brigades that attacked Polygon Wood on 16 August 1917.

By the end of the fighting in early December 1917 Crown Prince Rupprecht, in a Special Order of the Day, congratulated his Army Group and summed up British achievements:

despite the deployment of immense quantities of men and materials the enemy achieved absolutely nothing. (p. 312)

Well not exactly. What the BEF had achieved in Flanders was the experience necessary to develop new tactical and operational offensive methods, which would perfected in 1918 and would lead, ultimately, to the defeat of the Imperial German Army on the Western Front.

Despite the attempt to misrepresent German losses in the fighting (and Sheldon exposes the complicity of the Official British Historian [p. 314]), the BEF had demonstrated a growing confidence in its artillery and its ability given sufficient concentration to defeat the tactics of defence-in-depth. After the war, General Herman Von Kuhl, as quoted by Sheldon, acknowledge this fact when he wrote:

…through its tenacity, the British Army bridged the crisis in France [in1917]…’ (pp. 315-16)

Sheldon concludes that ‘bent and battered and by no means broken, the German army had once more been equal to defensive challenges’ (p. 316) Reserve Hauptmann Chapeaurouge, from the First Battalion Reserve Infantry Regiment 94th, and whose surname might indicated one of the paradoxes of the war, summed up the experiences:

there was no daredevil, ‘up and at them’ spirit in Flanders and smiling success where not be expected either. Warfare in Flanders was conducted in a tense and serious atmosphere…. It tells of faith in comradeship-in-arms through danger and unto death (p. 316)

Sheldon has once again left us in high debt for providing a systematic and rich archive of German eyewitness accounts so that we can fully appreciate what life was like on the either side of the hill.

By Dr Bob Bushaway, Honorary Research Fellow in War Studies, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

Printable version can be downloaded here.

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