“The appalling casualties, the mud and the overall futility of the offensive have made Passchendaele an emblem of the mind-boggling waste of the First World War.”
By Darrell Duthie
“I DIED IN HELL,” wrote famed English soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon. “They called it Passchendaele.”
One of the bloodiest and most controversial battles in World War One, the Passchendaele Offensive, came to an end on Nov. 10, 1917. It had been a clash of titans, a wearying three-and-a-half-month ordeal in the mud during which more than a half-million men on both sides were killed or wounded.
The British plan of attack was a daring one. Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig hoped to break through a semi-circle of German trenches on the high ground overlooking the Belgian city of Ypres (known today as Ieper). Once through the enemy cordon, Haig’s armies would make for the U-Boat bases on the Belgian coast. The push would also draw German attention away from the beleaguered French army, struggling in the wake of the failed assault on Nivelles.
After a spectacular success at Messines Ridge in June 1917, the British offensive would begin in earnest on the last day of July. But heavy rain and massive artillery bombardments soon turned the ground at Passchendaele into a desolate and soupy bog. It was across this soggy wasteland that Haig’s armies were to battle throughout the fall. Finally, on Nov. 6, the ruins of the village of Passchendaele were liberated. Days later the German trenches fell to the attackers. In all, the Allies had advanced a mere 8 km before finally calling off the offensive.
Four months later, as the German’s unleashed their 1918 spring offensive, all the ground taken during the battle was evacuated without a fight.
Today, the appalling casualties, the mud and the overall futility of the offensive have made Passchendaele an emblem of the mind-boggling waste of the First World War. Here are some facts about this tragic battle and the men who fought and died in it.
It began with a bang
The Passchendaele campaign was preceded by what was then the largest planned explosion in history. For months, British, Canadian and Australian tunnellers had burrowed underneath the German defences on Messines Ridge in the Ypres Salient, where they planted 21 massive explosive mines. At 3 a.m. on June 7, 1917, 19 of them were detonated in rapid succession. The resulting blasts knocked waiting British troops off their feet; the rumble could be heard as far away as London. An estimated 10,000 German soldiers perished and the cratered landscape was soon in Allied hands. Amazingly, two of the mines failed to explode. One was detonated by lightning in 1955, killing a cow. The other, its location since discovered, lies underneath a Belgian farm. Authorities have declared it too difficult and dangerous to dismantle even 100 years later.
It was not one battle, but several
The battle we’ve come to think of as Passchendaele has also been called the Third Battle of Ypres. The First and Second Ypres having been fought in 1914 and 1915 respectively. The 1917 offensive was in fact comprised of eight distinct battles.
After the stunning victory at Messines in early June, the politicians and generals dawdled and failed to press the attack. Surprisingly, it wouldn’t be until July 31 that the offensive kicked off in earnest. It began with a successful British attack at Pilckem Ridge. This was followed only two weeks later by the Battle of Langemark. By this time however, late summer rains had transformed the frontlines into a swampy morass. As the fighting literally bogged down, casualties began to mount. Britain’s crack divisions bore the brunt of the misery.
The skies finally cleared in September, bringing a welcome respite from the unprecedented downpours. Yet it took until late in the month for the Allies to resume the offensive.
The Germans used the respite to fortify their defences. The Kaiser’s Fourth Army had strewn the shell-pocked landscape with wire and transformed it into a chessboard of hundreds of reinforced concrete bunkers. The Battles of Menin Road and Polygon Wood further depleted the British the ranks, which had to be refreshed with Australians and New Zealanders.
Haig’s forces would grind out modest gains in a costly two-step of attack, defend, attack. The slaughter continued.
With October came a glimmer of hope. In the wake of a successful push at Broodseinde on Oct. 4, the rains resumed, once again drenching the Ypres Salient. The sixth attack, this one at Poelcappelle in the approaches to the Passchendaele Ridge, dissolved in the mud at the hands of merciless machine gun fire. By then it was Oct. 9. It would take another month and two more blood-drenched battles before Passchendaele would finally fall.
The “blackest day” for New Zealand
Passchendaele looms large in the minds of New Zealanders. On Oct. 12, 1917 soldiers from the small Commonwealth nation, along with Australian troops from the II Anzac Corps, were ordered across No Man’s Land and straight into a torrent of German machine gun fire. By day’s end, the attack was dead in its tracks and the ridge was still firmly in enemy hands. The Australian 3rd Division was shattered, but New Zealand, which had a population of just one million, suffered an unthinkable 2,700 casualties, of whom 845 lay dead. It was to be the single bloodiest day in the country’s history, eclipsing even the worst moments of the infamous Gallipoli campaign. The slaughter of Oct. 12 is still commemorated in New Zealand.
Canada’s costly victory
“Passchendaele! Let the Germans have it—keep it—rot in it!” So raged Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie when he learned his men were to be the next thrown into the quagmire. Capturing the German ridge, he predicted, would cost 16,000 men. But Currie’s protest fell on deaf ears. Haig was unwavering; the offensive would continue. On Oct. 26, Canada’s four divisions in France went over the top, marking what would be remembered as the Second Battle of Passchendaele. Three attacks and two weeks of bitter fighting followed, but the tiny Flemish village and its commanding ridge finally fell. The Canadians had turned the entire bloody mess into a victory of sorts and, in so doing, probably saved Haig’s job. But as the congratulatory telegrams poured in, the counting of casualties began. Currie’s prediction of 16,000 dead and wounded was eerily prophetic: The final tally was 15,654.
The butcher’s bill
Casualties from the entire Passchendaele Offensive totalled a staggering 320,000 men for the Allies alone. Set against the 8 km (5 miles) of ground taken, this meant that one man was killed or wounded for every 2.5 centimeters of ground gained (that’s a little more than the width of a thumb). German losses are estimated to have been around 260,000.
Less than two kilometres from Passchendaele, on sloping ground, and built around the remains of German pill-boxes, can be found Tyne Cot. It’s the world’s largest cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers. As many as 12,000 lie buried there. Within a 10-kilometre (16 mile) radius of Ypres, there are more than a hundred smaller but similar cemeteries. Almost all are filled with the dead from Passchendaele.
Still picking up the pieces
A hundred years after the battle, the Belgian countryside still regularly delivers up dangerous reminders of what history wrought. An entire unit of the Belgian military is tasked with disposing of this ‘iron harvest’ — unexploded shells from another century.
As the guns thundered in the battle’s initial bombardment, Allied artillerymen raked the sodden Ypres Salient with 4.25 million artillery shells. Millions more would follow in the months to come. Untold millions came from German batteries as well ranged behind the occupied heights. Inevitably there were duds, many which slammed into the mud and simply vanished. The earth has been pushing these relics to the surface for a century. In fact, more than 100 tons of unexploded ordinance is still discovered each year.
A more gruesome legacy can be found in the remains of unknown soldiers still buried in Flanders Fields. The bodies of 42,000 from the battle were never found, lost in the muddy wasteland. Their names are commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
Upon seeing the battlefield for the first time, Field-Marshal Haig’s chief of staff Sir Launcelot Kiggell is reported to have burst into tears. “Good God,” he cried. “Did we send men to fight in that?” History’s judgement has been no kinder. “No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign,” wrote British Prime Minister David Lloyd George about the battle in his memoirs. Modern day historians naturally try to find meaning. Many echo the field-marshal’s own post-war despatches, which self-servingly argue that the “great indecisive battles” of 1916 and 1917 (Passchendaele no doubt foremost in his mind), successfully wore down the enemy. Yet, it is hard to disagree with Winston Churchill. He was to write of the Battle of Passchendaele: It was “a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility.”
Darrell Duthie is the author of Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War, a historical novel about the Battle of Passchendaele. He lives with his family in the Netherlands, not far from the battlefields of the First World War. Visit his website: www.darrellduthie.com.