By Michael LoCicero
Overlooked by most campaign histories of the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July-10 November 1917), the Night Operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917 remains a forgotten tailpiece to the controversial Anglo-French offensive. Based on an extensive array of British and German sources, many previously unpublished, and supported by numerous illustrations and maps, A Moonlight Massacre is the first full account of the tragic affair and an important re-interpretation of the discussion surrounding Third Ypres.
The operation having been ordered by British Second Army, its subordinate VIII Corps and II Corps were tasked with overseeing an attack north and north-west of Passchendaele village. The objective, a necessary preliminary to a proposed series of attacks astride Passchendaele Ridge during the winter of 1917-18, was to make a short advance from the dangerously exposed Passchendaele Salient on a 2,870-yard front. On the right, 8th Division (left formation of VIII Corps) would assault the formidable Venison Trench defences with a single infantry brigade; on the left, the neighbouring 32nd Division (right formation of II Corps), employing a reinforced infantry brigade, was to prolong the left flank by seizing Hill 52 and Vat Cottages Ridge. The short advance would, if successful, open out the west side of the salient whilst simultaneously carrying the British line “sufficiently far northward along the ridge to give us observation into the valleys running up to the Passchendaele plateau from the north and east.” Occupation of these vista sites would also prevent the enemy from massing troops along the ridgeline’s reverse slope thus reducing potential threats throughout the winter months.
Subsequently relegated to a local operation while the Battle of Cambrai raged to the south, the attackers would be operating under the aegis of a novel but ultimately flawed tactical plan that was the brainchild of an ambitious and ruthless divisional commander. Opposed by an expectant and alert enemy unwilling to concede what was deemed vital territory, the outcome would prove disastrous for the divisions involved.
Seven years have passed since first publication of A Moonlight Massacre. In order to ensure the second edition is as comprehensive as possible, new research material, including maps and images, has been added. The bibliography also contains some previously overlooked or unavailable at the time entries.
My post-publication desire to commemorate the Passchendaele night operation’s British participants of which 1,689 were killed or died of wounds, resulted in a modest, self-funded memorial being officially dedicated in the vicinity of the West Flanders battlefield site 100 years to the day on 2 December 2017. Since then, it has become a somewhat esoteric place of pilgrimage. Further to this, I’m currently researching an even more obscure coda to the failed nocturnal assault; a narrative of a large-scale raid on the southern fringe of Houthulst Forest in February 1918. Carried out by 32nd Division, hard tactical lessons learned during the 2 December 1917 debacle were effectively applied with fortuitous consequences.
You can now buy A Moonlight Massacre. The Night Operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917. The Forgotten Last Act of the Third Battle of Ypres, Second Edition here.