60. The frontlines in 1923: the Western Front -3-
The constant fighting had cost a high toll to the Allies. In the Brisith 1st Army, which had suffered 32,700 casualties since the beginning of the counteroffensive, some units like the Guards Division and the 43rd "Wessex" were in sorely need of a rest. The remaining of the BEF were in no better shape, as the two other armies reported a total loss of 60,900 men in those days. Even if the German losses were even worse (143,403 casualties), Lord Hugh Cecil, the British Prime Minister, was very worried by the British losses, that he termed as "the Butcher's bill".
Meanwhile, in France, Petain broke the German lines in the Third Battle of Champagne (May 2-10, 1923), which finally left open the way to Rheims. Foch considered that the German were to crack under the Allied pressure and urged Plummer and Wood to launch an offensive in Flanders. Plummer agreed: the BEF was to attack in a two-pronged offensive, aimed against Messines Ridge, which would provide flank security to a general advance towards the next objective: Passchendaele. Thus started the Third Battle of Ypres, on May 14. Plummer envisaged a breakthrough that would lead to the capture of Roulers that was to be followed by an advance to the north along the Belgian coast, capturing Ostend and Zeebrugge and forcing the Germans to withdraw. By that time, there had been a reorganization of the British Forces. Army Group Flanders consisted of the First (General Horne), the Second (General Maxse) and the Fourth (General Rawlinson) Armies. This formation, commanded by General Sir Charles Kavanagh, was responsible for the front line in Belgium and Artois. Army Group Picardy consisted of the Third (General Lomax), the Fifth (General Birdwood) and the Sixth (General Sir Julian Byng) Armies. This formation undertook responsibility of the line southwards to the River Aisne, and was commanded by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.
As King Albert’s Belgian Army attacked at the Yser Canal, the First Army was to provide support by attacking Messines Ridge. After taking the the Wytschaete-Passchendaele Ridge, they would capture Passchendaele. Seeking to minimise casualties, they chose not to push their infantry too far beyond the range of artillery fire and specified to their artillery commander that the guns’ chief task was the support of infantry rather than the devastation of enemy ground. However, there was a problem with the plan. The short bombardment (six hours) surprised the German defenders, who had been greatly reduced, as most of his forces were sent south to help in the "Dash to the Channel". Supported by a creeping barrage, the Third Army pressed towards Passchendaele and the Second Army towards Messines and Wytschaete. The German line succumbed within 12 hours. The ANZACs, now commanded by an Australian, General John Monash, easily moved along the Ypres-Messines road by the end of the day while the First Army captured Messines Ridge. After the initial attack, German resistance strengthened enormously, and the British were unable to capture Wytschaete that day as planned. Nevertheless, the British had achieved great success. For the cost of just 22,000 casualties, they had advanced everywhere along the ridge and eased the pressure on Ypres.
While this was taking place, the OHL was berating Generalfeldmarschall Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria and commander of the Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Rupprecht for his excessive rashness that had created a dangerous salient that was vulnerable to be cut from the German main force. Of course, both Rupprecht blamed the OHL for not listening to their petitions of reinforcements. Then, on June 3, after taking Lille, General Horne releashed his forces against Valenciennes, supported by French armies secondary attacks in the left flank of the belagered German troops. It took just four days to the Allied forces to reach the city and this forced the Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Rupprecht to withdraw in a hurry to avoid being surrounded. As most of Horner's divisions were exhausted, Rupprecht took the chance to take as many of his soldiers out of the closing trap. Then, Plummer made a mistake. Thinking that Horner and Petain were ready to finish the Amiens-Compienge Pocket, or ordered a general advance towards Belgium to destroy the enemy Uboat bases.
What came after were the simultaneous Second Battle of Flanders and the Fourth Battle of Amiens, as Horner moved along the Belgian coast with ease and Rawlinson and Smith-Dorrien smashed the German pocket as Rupprecht fought his way out if it: the attack began on June 15, 1923. Three weeks later, sixteen German divisions were crushed and the exhausted Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Rupprecht was hardly capable of fighting. annhilated. as only five divisions were still able to man the trenches as the rest of units had suffered huge losses.