Passchendaele

Assault on Passchendaele. IWM (E(AUS) 1233

The Battle of Passchendaele is the informal name for the Third Battle of Ypres, which was fought between the 31st of July and the 10th of November in 1917. It has never enjoyed the historical fame of the Somme or the German Offensive. It was one of the most costly and futile battles of the war. Many of our most infamous ideas of the war, of mud and thousands dying for a few miles of ground, were the bitter realities of Passchendaele.

At the start of 1917 the front line had been bent forward around the city of Ypres, and the Germans had prepared for the inevitable fighting by retreating 20 miles to straighten up their line. The German front lines settled on the high ridges which they defended with concrete bunkers and machine guns. Before they withdrew the Germans destroyed all possible cover, laid mines and filled shell holes with barbed wire. This left a vast open, flat area that the allies would advance into under heavy fire. In a 2 week bombardment, before the men advanced to the Battle of Pilckem Ridge on the 31st of July, the allies fired 4.5 million shells from 3,000 guns to little effect on the fortified Germans.

That August it only stopped raining for 3 days, and over 2 foot of water had seeped into the ground before winter even started to approach.

The rain continued through much of the campaign. The land around Ypres was mostly below sea level and the water table was high, meaning trenches couldn’t be dug beyond a few feet. Men advanced from shell hole to shell hole or relied on sandbags for cover. The weather briefly improved on the 20th of September, allowing for further assaults. The Daily Mirror called Flanders ‘One Vast Quagmire’. Poet Siegfried Sassoon put it more plainly when writing a comrade’s memorial: ‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’. The mud clogged up rifles and clung to uniforms, it trapped tanks and even mines were rendered unreliable by the damp. Men and horses were known to be swallowed and drowned in the mud.

The interior of an Australian advanced dressing station on the Menin Road, 20 September 1917. IWM E(AUS) 715

Passchendale was fought far to the north of the Somme, away from the middle of the front line. The offensive was intended to capture the German controlled ridges south and east of Ypres, so as to relieve the French. It also sought to defend the ports of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne where supplies and troops arrived from England. Field Marshal Douglas Haig wanted to push the attack as far forward as the Belgian Coast and strike at German submarine bases, but this proved far too optimistic. Haig had been encouraged to attack by the successful capture of Messines Ridge on the 7th of June. The decision to go on the offensive was unpopular with many officials including Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

While the town of Passchendaele was near a railway junction important to supplying the German 4th Army, it had never been the initial objective of the attack. By October 20th the goalposts had already been adjusted so that the capture of Passchendaele was the new aim. On the 6th of November 1917, British forces with the help of the recently arrived, 100,000 strong, Canadian Corps finally took full possession of Passchandaele. 4 days later Haig declared the campaign a success and called off further attacks, the victory was widely praised in the papers. The line had advanced by 5 miles and over half a million men were dead. The allies had suffered heavier losses, numbering at least 325,000 to the German’s 260,000. Although the Russian revolts in October had threatened to make this a loss in the war of attrition, the promise of US reinforcements meant that the German’s felt their losses more heavily.