Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 290th installment in the series.
October 12-18, 1917: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic
The success of the “bite and hold” strategy employed by the British at the Third Battle of Ypres in September and early October 1917, which yielded incremental advances at the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde, fed hopes that a few more attacks would push the Germans off the Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres, threatening their railroad and communication network in Flanders and maybe even forcing them to withdraw from western Belgium altogether.
In reality the plan was already beginning to unravel at the battle of Poelcapelle on October 9, 1917, due mostly to the arrival of autumn rains that once again turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, making it almost impossible to move up artillery, fresh troops, ammunition, and supplies – the key to the “hold” part of the strategy, which called for attackers to immediately dig in in order to rebuff enemy counterattacks. The immobility of British artillery also meant that in many cases German barbed wire entanglements remained intact. Nonetheless British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig believed (against the advice of Second Army commander Herbert Plumer) that the main objective, the high ground around the village of Passchendaele, was still within reach.
The result was the nightmarish First Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917, which saw the I and II ANZAC corps of the British Second Army mount an increasingly desperate attempt to dislodge the German Fourth Army from its defensive positions around Passchendaele in order to seize Passchendaele Ridge, with supporting attacks by the British Fifth Army to the north – only to meet with almost total defeat.
“No One Could See Any Purpose In It”
The British employed the same tactics as in previous battles, especially the “creeping barrage,” in which field artillery created a moving wall of fire just in front of the advancing troops, forcing enemy troops to take cover until the attackers were upon them. Meanwhile pioneer units worked feverishly to build roads of duckboard planks across the muddiest areas behind the frontlines to facilitate movements of artillery and troops (below, troops carrying duckboards).
One British soldier, P. Hoole Jackson, described the lurid scenes as they marched to the front along roads constantly shelled by German artillery:
Up the other side of the road a slow procession of vehicles crawled, one behind the other: new guns going up to the positions, ammunition wagons full of shells, ambulances bound for the clearing stations, ration carts for the troops in line. Piccadilly could not have been more crowded, and over all these the German shells moaned and whined. Now and then a cart would have to pull round a heap of wreckage that had once been men, horses, and wagons. By the side of the road lay the stiffening carcases of horses and mules, and around, on every hand, the big guns crashed.
Conditions only worsened as they approached the frontlines:
On three sides was the arching Salient, marked out as though on a mighty map by the ring of flaming flashes from the German guns. A peninsula of death and terror. As we drew nearer to the Ridge, the howling in the sky grew more fierce. We had to pause while a shell dropped before us; rush on as one hurled down almost on top of us; dive for cover in the slimy ditch. All along the road were the skeletons of shattered trees… and over all was the livid light of the gun-flashes, which rose and fell like a fiery, ceaseless tide.
George F. Wear, an officer in the Royal Field Artillery, left a similar portrait of the battlefield around this time:
I doubt if anyone who has not experienced it can really have any idea of what the Salient was like during those “victories” of 1917. The bombardments of the Somme the year before were nothing to those around Ypres. Batteries jostled each other in the shell-marked waste of mud, barking and crashing night and day. There were no trees, no houses, no countryside, no shelter, no sun. Wet, grey skies hung over the blasted land, and in the mind a gloomy depression grew and spread. Trenches had disappeared. “Pill-boxes” and shell holes took their place. We never went up the line with a working party with any real expectation of returning, and there was no longer any sustaining feeling that all this slaughter was leading us to anything. No one could see any purpose in it.
The attack got off to a bad start with heavy rain on the night of October 11-12, followed by high winds in the pre-dawn hours; the Germans also unleashed a preemptive bombardment on the New Zealanders’ front line positions at 5 a.m., just before the planned time of the attack. At the same time the British preparatory bombardment and creeping barrage were rendered less effective by the deep mud, which muffled the impact of high explosive shells, again leaving German barbed wire intact in many places. Further German “counter-battery” fire exacted a heavy toll on British artillery, which was also vulnerable to mud and misfires. Jackson described the British field artillery in action, along with the horrible conditions:
The gunners were working stripped almost to the waist. The pound and crash of the noisy little guns was terrific, deafening. If a gun failed or was knocked out another was soon in its place. Mud and slime; a night in a shell hole that was little better than a hollow of ooze. There were no proper shell holes, no communication trenches. All around was the most desolate landscape of shell-harrowed land. Shell hole merged with shell hole; many were death traps in which the wounded slipped and died.
At 5:25 a.m. the ANZAC troops started going over the top, but German machine gunners protected by concrete fortifications, or pillboxes, exacted a heavy toll on the advancing troops (above, evacuating a wounded soldier). Although the attackers reached the first objective in many places, many were forced to retire by heavy German fire; this in turn left gaps in the British frontline, leaving the flanks of neighboring units exposed to German counterattacks and forcing them to withdraw as well. By the afternoon of October 12 it was clear that the attack had failed.
Once again the attackers paid a heavy price in blood for negligible gains, in conditions that many participants described as the worst they had seen in the war so far. In one day the Second Battle of Passchendaele resulted in around 4,200 Australian casualties, 2,800 casualties in the New Zealand Division, and 10,000 casualties in the British Fifth Army. The British could take some comfort in the fact that the Germans also suffered steep losses. However German chief strategist General Erich Ludendorff, encouraged by the defensive victory and anticipating more inclement weather, ordered the Fourth Army to dig in and hold the Passchendaele Ridge, setting the stage for the Second Battle of Passchendaele – the final phase of the Third Battle of Ypres.
As elsewhere in the First World War, the unending bloodshed and climate of constant danger combined to produce a pronounced fatalistic attitude among troops on both sides of no-man’s-land. Wear, the British artillery officer, remembered:
I had all sorts of escapes; in fact they were so frequent that I got into a strange frame of mind, and became careless. It seemed as if I couldn’t bother to try and avoid unnecessary danger. The only matters of importance were whether they rations would come up promptly and if the bottle of whisky I had ordered would be there. It was for me the worst part of the War. Even now it looms like a gigantic nightmare in the back of my mind.
Meanwhile the total destruction of the Flanders landscape proceeded apace. Charles Biddle, an American pilot with the volunteer Escadrille Lafayette, noted in his diary on October 16, 1917 (below, an aerial view of the village of Passchendaele before and after the battle):
You can trace the advance by the slow changing of green fields and woods into a blasted wilderness which shows a mud brown color from the air. Fields become a mass of shell holes filled with water and a wood turns from an expanse of green foliage into a few shattered and leafless trunks… It is the same way with the little Belgian towns. By degrees they are obliterated until their sites are only distinguishable by a smudge a trifle darker in color than the brown of the torn fields which once surrounded them.
The Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic Ocean
After declaring war in April 1917 and implementing the draft in June, the U.S. government was eager to show the Allies that its contribution to the war effort would be more than financial support or a mere symbolic demonstration. The arrival in France of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, accompanied by around 100 officers and enlisted men, in June 1917, marked the beginning of the buildup – at first gradual, then increasingly rapid – of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, which would number around two million by the end of the war and play a decisive role in defeating Germany.
One of the first big American units to arrive in Europe was the 42nd Division, better known as the Rainbow Division because it included men from 26 states and the District of Columbia. Created at the suggestion of Major Douglas MacArthur, who was soon promoted to colonel, the division was 28,000 strong with its full complement (American divisions were around twice the strength of European divisions), all drawn from state militias. After being activated in August 1917, the Rainbow Division troops received crash course training to form it into a cohesive unit, then was immediately dispatched to France, where it received additional training in trench warfare before joining Allied troops in the frontline.
Elmer Sherwood, a soldier in the Rainbow Division, described troops traveling from their camp in Long Island to board the ships for France – including the President Lincoln and President Grant – in New York City in his diary on October 18, 1917:
We arose at three o’clock this morning and in two hours were marching with full pack and rifle to the station where we entrained for the river docks where ferry boats carried us up the river, to the piers, where the big ocean liners flying the U.S. flag were waiting to carry us to foreign soil. All day long thousands of Sammies [soldiers] who were to make the voyage were arriving and going up the gangplank in single file. Each of us was given a slip of paper on which was printed the deck compartment and bunk each was to occupy and where to eat and wash.
Like the millions of American troops who would follow them, for most of the militiamen and volunteers of the Rainbow Division the voyage to France was their first journey outside the United States. On that note many viewed the war as an exciting adventure, but unsurprisingly they also suffered from homesickness and anxiety. Another soldier in the Division, Vernon Kniptash, described his feelings on leaving New York Harbor – and America – in his diary entry on October 18, 1917:
It’s night now and I can see the New York skyline from the upper deck. Every window ablaze and a million windows, the most wonderful sight I’ve seen since I left home. The boat is slipping away and the Statue of Liberty is getting fainter and fainter. It sure makes a fellow feel funny under these conditions. How many of us will get to see that statue when this war ends? The boys were unusually silent, and all were thinking of the same thought, I guess. All is blackness now and the states are “somewhere out there.” I’ve been blue at times, but never as blue as I am right now.
Once at sea, however, their moods seemed to improve. On October 22, 1917, as the Lincoln was carried along by the tropical Gulf Stream, Kniptash wrote:
The weather is so warm that it’s almost unbearable. I was on guard tonight and I enjoyed every minute of it. On land during my second shift I usually have to pinch myself to keep awake, but tonight I was wide awake and enjoyed salty breezes and [the] big moon to the limit. Early in the evening four old sailors formed a quartette and sang silhouetted against that big yellow moon. It was just like a stage setting. I’m seeing the things I used to read about in books and it’s all like a dream to me. I’m always afraid someone will come along and wake me.
Sherwood also found the voyage across the Atlantic exhilarating, at least at first, writing in his diary on October 19, 1917:
I had planned all my life to make a voyage across the sea, but I little thought it would be under the conditions existing now… Here on the top of the ship I lie between my blankets in silence. All have gone to their bunks except some like myself who prefer to lie on deck. What an opportunity for one to think. He cannot help it. The great waves dash against the sides of the ship but one does not notice them for their monotony. I can realize now why so many boys leave their homes to seek adventure on the high seas…
Of course the sense of adventure was tempered by the ever-present threat of U-boat attacks, which increased as the convoy approached Europe (although no ships were sunk on this journey). On October 27, 1917, Kniptash wrote:
The Captain gave us orders to sleep in our clothes tonight. That means everything but blouse and gun. All these articles want to be where a fellow can reach them and put them on without the loss of a second. The Capt. said to expect a call at any time now. It means we are right in the center of the war zone and all the chance in the world of taking a nice cold bath before morning.
As they approached France the troops, almost all young men in their late teens and early 20s, received a stern warning from their commanding officer, as described by Kniptash on October 30, 1917:
The Captain assembled the battery and gave the boys a heart-to-heart talk. He said that all indications seemed to be that we reach port tomorrow. He talked about the women in this town [St. Nazaire] and the chances the men were taking in case they had sexual intercourse. He said that the women that hung around the camps were all diseased and that the soldiers in case they should contract the disease could not receive the proper medical attention and stood a good chance of ruining their lives…. I promised myself that I’d return to the States in just the good condition I left them… I think the training Mumsey gave me will make me walk the straight and narrow over here.
Plenty of troops in the Rainbow Division disregarded this advice, as reflected in high rates of sexually transmitted disease, but many men were simply happy to have a few moments of female companionship – especially if the women in question happened to be Americans too. Marjorie Crocker, an American volunteering as a Red Cross nurse, described meeting American soldiers, all volunteers from the New York Telephone company and Western Union, laying telephone wires for General Pershing’s new headquarters, in provincial France:
… we heard English-speaking voices calling us, and on turning saw several American soldiers. We waved vigorously and went on, but were stopped by two of them running up and taking off their hats, offering their hands, and saying, “Do you folks speak English?” On our replying that we did, they let a yell, and calling their pals announced that they had “caught ‘em, and you bet they can talk the lingo!”… They were nice men, and they were so pitifully glad to hear some English!