Slaughter and Stalemate in 1917: British Offensives from Messines Ridge to Cambrai

Alan Warren. Slaughter and Stalemate in 1917: British Offensives from Messines Ridge to Cambrai. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021. Hardcover. Illustrated. 253 pages.

Review by Peter L. Belmonte

Publisher’s summary: This book offers a fresh, critical history of the 1917 campaign in Flanders. Alan Warren traces the three major battles fought by the British Expeditionary Force in the final months of 1917, from the mines of Messines to the mud of Passchendaele and the tanks at Cambrai. All readers interested in World War I and the tragic mistakes that led, in the words of Winston Churchill, to “a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility” will find this an invaluable military history.

It’s generally conceded among historians that the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) attacks in the last half of 1917 were costly and of questionable value. In particular, the Battle of Passchendaele, or Third Ypres, was a ghastly, muddy, bloody affair that saw men, animals, and equipment swallowed up in the mire. Author Alan Warren looks at the British battles of 1917, including Passchendaele, in this new book. In the process, he identifies problems that somewhere along the line should have led the British to halt or alter their plans.

Warren’s chief argument is that the costly 1917 battles were largely the result of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander in chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s lack of ability. According to Warren, “[b]y background Haig was essentially an administer-politician; he was out of his depth when faced with the military problems of the western front” (p. 210). Haig’s performance has been closely analyzed, and historians have differed in their views over time.

In the first chapter, Warren sets the stage by providing an overview of the operations on the Western Front from 1914 to 1916. The following chapters cover the assault at Messines, the fighting around Ypres and Passchendaele, and the attack at Cambrai in chronological order. Warren does so in an engaging manner while providing plenty of quotes from participants, from general officer to private.

Warren feels a sense of over-optimism pervaded British General Headquarters in the summer of 1917, calling the atmosphere there “bright and breezy” (p. 48). This is probably a reflection of his opinion of Brigadier General John Charteris, BEF chief of intelligence. Warren’s assessment of the capabilities of Charteris as an intelligence officer is revealed by this statement: “Charteris’s estimates of German casualties were arrived at by speculative methods that are as lost to translation as the hieroglyphics of a vanished civilization” (p. 69). Yet Warren himself, a few pages earlier, gives estimates of German losses that are roughly in accord with those of Charteris. The author is correct to cite intelligence shortcomings and to claim British GHQ was out of touch with the actual conditions on the ground.

Warren does not shy away from problems among the rank and file. He discusses many of the morale and discipline problems, including refusals to advance, stemming from a hearty distrust of officers, particularly staff officers, among the enlisted men. In many cases this distrust was well founded; many commanders at division level and above had no clear conception of the dreadful conditions on the front line. Although most historians have rightly cast serious doubt on the “lions led by donkeys” view of the BEF, if that view ever held any weight it was probably at Passchendaele. Obstinacy, misinformation, and over optimism at BEF GHQ served to cloud judgment and to prolong a campaign that should have been terminated in August or September. In like manner, a potential breakthrough or success at Cambrai in November foundered upon senior officer misjudgments regarding cavalry, tanks, and the use of reserves. Warren’s concluding chapter shows how British losses in the last half of 1917 affected their dire manpower position in the spring of 1918.

The strongest feature of this book is displayed in Warren’s ability to capture the essence of complex battles in a concise, readable manner. Likewise, his coverage of “auxiliary arms” such as airplanes, tanks, cavalry, and chemical weapons, makes this a well-rounded study. His use of accounts by varied participants, both British and German, from high-ranking officers to private soldiers, helps make this readable and interesting. The inclusion of the German perspective is helpful in understanding the battles as they played out. The varied topics covered by Warren makes this an informative book sure to be of interest to students of World War I combat. For example, his discussion of tank-infantry assault formations and tactics as well as his description and analysis of the use of cavalry at Cambrai are particularly insightful.

A weakness of this book is Warren’s seemingly light emphasis on Haig’s need to fight a coalition war. He considers, but does not seem to agree with, the strategic importance of seizing the Belgian coast and the need to take pressure off the French forces, both of which were factors Haig had to consider. Readers should be aware that other historians have been more sympathetic toward Haig and more critical of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George during the Passchendaele offensive.

The author includes many photographs to enhance the text. The nine maps are not extraordinarily detailed, but they are adequate to follow the battles. Thorough endnotes and a helpful bibliography round out the supporting material. This book is a useful overview of the strategic situation and Britain’s efforts in 1917. As such, it will appeal to those who want a one-volume survey with that focus. Those who wish to read engaging accounts of the 1917 campaigns without getting bogged down in minutiae will certainly appreciate this book.

Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, author, and historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he holds a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus. He has published articles, book chapters, reviews, and papers about immigration and military history. Pete’s books include: Italian Americans in World War II (Arcadia, 2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918 (Schiffer, 2015), Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys (with Alexander F. Barnes, Schiffer, 2018), Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War (with co-authors Alexander F. Barnes and Samuel O. Barnes, Schiffer Books, 2019), and Chicago-Area Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media/Arcadia Publishing, 2019). He is also working on a multi-volume history of Italian Americans in World War I. You may see his books at his webpage: https://www.amazon.com/author/peter.belmonte.

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