The Third Battle of Ypres, an overview, 31 July - 10 November 1917
'Third Ypres' represented the major British offensive on the Western Front in 1917. Two ambitious goals lay behind the enterprise: the capture of Roulers, a vital railway centre, key to German dispositions in Flanders, and the clearance of the Belgian coast. These objectives first necessitated the occupation of the enclosing German-held ridges which dominated Ypres.
The success at Messines Ridge in June marked the opening of the campaign but a near seven week delay ensued before Gough's Fifth Army was ready for the main attack. On 31 July, after a fortnight's intense bombardment of German positions, nine British Divisions assaulted the northern and eastern ridges on a 13,700 yard front; good progress was made (especially across Pilckem Ridge) but by late afternoon rain set in and German counter-attacks regained much ground. Ceaseless rain in the following days turned the shell-cratered ground into a quagmire, severely impeding subsequent British attacks; by the end of August, despite heavy casualties, little progress had been made.
Control of operations passed to Plumer and a pause in fighting (coinciding with better weather) was sanctioned to allow preparations to secure the Gheluvelt Plateau: three successful set-piece battles of late September and early October raised hopes of breakthrough but the return of torrential early autumn rains greatly hindered further efforts. Ordered to continue, the final actions were fought in indescribable conditions on a near impassable battlefield. Canadian infantry struggled through to occupy Passchendaele on 6 November and offensive operations were called off four days later. In over 100 days of fighting no strategic breakthrough was achieved; a five miles advance left the British in occupation of an enlarged and highly vulnerable salient, at a cost of an estimated 250,000 casualties. The history of the campaign remains steeped in controversy.
Campaign map Army structure Terminology