Extraordinary hardships imposed by the conditions ...called for the exercise of courage, determination and endurance.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, December 1917
On 31 July 1917 Britain launched a major offensive around the Belgian town of Ypres.
Field Marshal Haig aimed to capture vital rail links and submarine bases. The first attacks were hampered by rain, turning the battlefield into liquid mud. Haig was forced to settle for wearing down the Germans. During a drier spell the Germans were forced back with terrible losses. Victory seemed possible.
But the rains returned. A halt was called after Canadian troops captured the village of Passchendaele.
Was it a success? British commanders believed they had pushed the enemy to breaking point. But many soldiers felt utterly demoralised. 275,000 British and Empire soldiers were killed. Confidence in Haig had never been so low.
The large photographs show scenes during the Third Battle of Ypres. They were taken by, from left to right, the Australian official war photographer Frank Hurley, the Canadian William Rider-Rider and Briton John Warwick Brooke. They were among photographs shown in exhibitions around Britain and its empire. The failure at Ypres, fought in appalling conditions, shook the spirit of soldiers and people in a way that the Somme never had.
This viewer shows more photographs taken by British and Empire official war photographers on the Western Front. There were only 16 permanent photographers on all fighting fronts. They produced 40,000 images for publication and display at home. At first they experienced hostility from the Army, but over time their importance in showing the public the sacrifices made by the soldiers was recognised.
Map and memo
General Headquarters kept this relief map of the Ypres area for planning operations. British generals disagreed on how to achieve Haig’s ambitions to capture a rail junction and drive the U-boats from Zeebrugge.
In a memorandum, Major General Sir John Davidson urged that the 1917 offensive focus on capturing successive, limited objectives. Lieutenant General Ivor Maxse favoured all-out attack and wrote the critical margin comments.
This secret document was sent to an infantry battalion to confirm the date and time for the all-out assault that launched the 1917 summer offensive. From September, faced with ferocious German resistance, the British Army had to turn to ‘bite and hold’. This meant setting more limited goals and only capturing what could then be defended.
These tactics killed thousands of Germans but were never likely to achieve Haig’s bold aims.
Menin Gate sign
The Menin Gate was an Ypres landmark. Marching down the Menin Road to the Front, hundreds of thousands of British and Empire soldiers passed this sign. In the trenches around Ypres they came under constant fire from German guns on ridges around the town. One of Haig’s aims in 1917 was to seize this high ground and force the Germans back. In November, after the capture of Passchendaele Ridge, he called a halt.
Field Marshal Haig sent this report to the War Cabinet on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres. Like Haig, soldiers and civilians across Britain and the Empire believed that one final effort might bring victory. Prime Minister David Lloyd George had major concerns about suffering more casualties for little gain, but did not stop the offensive. By November Haig’s strategic ambitions had drowned in a sea of mud.
This duckboard was used close to Passchendaele village, near Ypres. The Ypres battlefield was turned into a swamp by prolonged rains and the obliteration of the local drainage system by shellfire. Duckboards were often the only way for soldiers to cross. Tripping or slipping could mean death by drowning. The dreadful weather also meant that guns and shells could not be transported, while low cloud grounded reconnaissance planes.
The most frightful nightmare
I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country...unspeakable, utterly indescribable.
Paul Nash, War artist, November 1917
The machines of war created a new and unrecognisable world of devastated landscapes. The British government’s war art scheme began to employ men who were both soldiers and artists. They painted the shattered world they saw around them in strikingly new ways.
What impact did the art have? War art was hugely popular. The images appeared in exhibitions, in magazines and on postcards. Large crowds were drawn to displays of official war photographs and paintings. British people wanted visual impressions of what their loved ones were going through.
After a Push painting
CRW Nevinson’s uncompromisingly bleak landscape After a Push, 1917, shows flooded shell holes after the Ypres offensive. 'The further forward one goes,’ he wrote, 'the nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men ... the more it becomes an empty landscape.’
The handwritten letters are from CRW Nevinson to Charles Masterman, head of the government war art scheme at the Department of Information, later re-titled the Ministry of Information. Using the support of his famous journalist father, Nevinson lobbies to be made an official war artist. He then reports on a successful trip to France following his appointment in July 1917. The typescript document, initialled by Masterman, confirms Nevinson’s war artist status.
The paintbox and brushes shown here were used by John Nash. An infantry officer, he became an official war artist in January 1918 following a determined campaign for his appointment by elder brother Paul. Unlike many artists, John Nash had no formal artistic training and preferred to paint from memory.
Art exhibition print and postcard?
The art exhibition, print and postcard were recognised as essential ways of recording the war’s significance for future generations. In 1917, a year of setbacks, they were part of a sustained propaganda effort at home. The Imperial War Museum, formed that same year, would commission its own works of art. By 1918 the emphasis of official art had changed from propaganda to commemoration.
Menin Road painting
Official war artist Paul Nash completed The Menin Road in 1919 as part of a planned Hall of Remembrance project, celebrating national ideals of heroism and sacrifice. Nash, a former infantry officer, saw himself as ‘a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting’. The shell-pocked road itself barely survives amid the devastated, flooded landscape. Dwarfed by the chaotic setting, two soldiers doggedly follow the roadway.