The Ypres Salient - CWGC

The preliminary bombardment which began on 16 July (before formal political permission for the start of the offensive had been granted by the British War Cabinet) was an immense enterprise - far greater than that which accompanied the opening of the Somme offensive in the summer of 1916. For an entire battle frontage of fifteen miles Fifth and Second Armies had between them: 281 heavy guns; 718 medium guns and 2,092 field guns. The 55th Australian Siege Battery in action with a 9.2 inch howitzer near VoormezeeleAmmunition expended between 15 July and 2 August 1917 totalled 4,283,500 shells. ('Military Operations: France and Flanders, 1917' (Volume II), Brigadier-General Sir James E Edmonds, London, HMSO, 1948, footnote 2, p.138).

Despite its record breaking scale the bombardment was less effective than that for Messines; various factors accounted for this. Before 'Third Ypres' shells were scattered over a much wider and deeper target area; aerial spotting duties by the Royal Flying Corps were repeatedly disrupted by cloudy weather conditions and the vigorous attentions of aggressive enemy fighters. British counter-battery work (aimed at the destruction or disabling of enemy battery positions) was made difficult by the German practice of frequently moving their own battery positions and by superior German observation of British lines which resulted in much destruction of British gun positions. Nevertheless the British bombardment succeeded in destroying the outpost German defence lines and causing many casualties; but it was not as effective as was claimed by senior artillery officers of Fifth Army and large numbers of enemy machine gun posts, and reinforced concrete strongpoints and 'pillboxes' survived intact (this was particularly the case on II Corps front facing the wooded slopes of the Gheluvelt Plateau).

An unforeseen adverse consequence of the huge British barrages was the devastation of the ground of the battlefield itself, as the long-established and complex drainage system of this area of Flanders was destroyed by the deluge of high explosive. As the British Official History admitted: '...it must never be forgotten that the British army in this battle, by its bombardments and barrages, created in front of itself its own obstacle - shell craters and mud, and the Ypres mud was of the consistency of cream cheese. One sank in it.' ('Military Operations: France and Flanders, 1917' (Volume II), Brigadier-General Sir James E Edmonds, London, HMSO, 1948, p.126).

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