CHARLOTTE, NC: Today’s trivia story is more of a history lesson than a collection of fun, but frequently useless, information. This is the story of an important but little-known battle that occurred in 1917 during the “forgotten” war that is sometimes ironically referred to as “The Great War.” We know it more familiarly as World War I.
During that four-year confrontation resulting in massive casualties, it’s mind-boggling to think that there is so little general knowledge surrounding one of the greatest global conflicts in history.
Perhaps it’s because the Second World War was somehow more glamorous or more “romantic” than its earlier cousin.
Maybe it’s the accessibility of greater pop culture such as the growth of motion pictures and television increased the image of WWII over World War I. Possibly the futility and madness of war was more pronounced in the First World War than the Second which, in essence, established more colorful, provocative and memorable personalities than its predecessor.
It might even be that we are better able to personally reflect upon WWII because we are still able to talk with some of the veterans who actually lived it or personally participated in it.
Most likely it was some combination of all of those factors as well as other lesser-known influences that contribute to our overall awareness of the two largest wars of the 20th century.
Though we hear the phrase “this battle is being fought in the trenches” almost every weekend during football season, most of us don’t relate that expression to the true futility of trench warfare.
From October 1914 to October 1918, there were six major battles in or near Ypres, Belgium during the First World War. During that time something known as the Ypres Salient evolved as part of the strategic aspects of the war.
A “salient” is an outcropping of land from a battle line, similar to a peninsula, where enemy forces can block their foe on three sides.
Thanks in large part to the Western Front during WWI, “Trench Warfare” has become synonymous with stalemate, attrition, heavy casualties and sieges during battle.
In the four years of World War I, both sides constructed elaborate systems of trenches as a means of protection from assault. In between the trenches, which were sometimes very close, the area is known as “no man’s land.” Here troops are exposed to artillery, frequently resulting in heavy casualties.
July 31, 1917, marks the 102nd anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres which became controversial for its incredible number of deaths during a three-month confrontation that concluded without a convincing victory for either side.
The first two “Battles of Ypres” were German-led assaults against the Allied-controlled salient around Ypres. Strategically the salient was critical in blocking a German advance to the English Channel.
“Ypres Three” however, was the responsibility of Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief. Haig mistakenly had intelligence that the Germans were in a near state of collapse which could be hastened by a major victory by the Allies.
His meticulous plan was an aggressive assault to destroy German submarine bases along the northern coast of Belgium.
World War I is notoriously famous for the constant movement of troops back and forth without gaining significant territory. In the first two days of the Third Battle of Ypres, the Allied forces did manage to push the Germans back more than a mile despite taking on heavy casualties. In the process, they also captured over 5,000 prisoners.
By early September, Haig had become unhappy about his army’s progress, so he changed commanders and established some small gains which resulted in control of a strip of elevated land east of Ypres known as Passchendaele Ridge.
Encouraged by his gains, no matter how meager, Haig continued his assault which occurred approximately seven miles from Ypres.
As the showdown continued into its third month, the body count became increasingly higher as the conflict surged to its heaviest fighting.
By the end of October, following three final attacks on Passchendaele, Haig ended his offensive and claimed victory, though he had little to show for the effort.
Over the three month span of hostilities, the British suffered 310,000 casualties while the German death toll was 260,000. Nearly 600,000 lives wasted with no concrete results or change in momentum.
As a result, the Third Battle of Ypres is still one of the costliest, deadliest and most controversial military offensives of World War I. Furthermore, it served to highlight the wasteful futility of trench warfare as a military strategy.
In the end, it was the tug-o-war nature of the First World War, that forgotten war, that was truly the most “offensive.”‘
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor isfounder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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