What happened at the Battle of Passchendaele?

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One hundred years ago, between July and November 1917, the fields of Flanders witnessed one of the bloodiest episodes of the First World War. From why the attack was launched to how the weather led to its infamy, here is all you need to know on the controversial offensive.

What happened at Passchendaele?

What took place was officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, but history recalls the horror in one word: Passchendaele. The name, along with the Somme, has come to symbolise the Great War for many. 

Battle of Passchendaele

Soldiers pictured during the First World War’s battle of Passchendaele.

Credit:
PA

The Allied assault was launched in the early hours of 31 July 1917. Because of the torrential rain, the British and Canadian troops found themselves fighting not only the Germans but a quagmire of stinking mud that swallowed up men, horses and tanks.

After three months, one week and three days  of brutal trench warfare, the Allies finally recaptured the village of Passchendaele – but by then around a third of a million British and Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded in some of the most horrific trench warfare of the conflict.

Why was the offensive planned?

The British commander Sir Douglas Haig was eager to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian north-east coast. 

Encouraged by the Allies’ capture of the Messine Ridge on 7 June, where the British exploded 19 underground mines before successfully storming the ridge, Haig decided to launch the offensive from the British-held Ypres salient.

Soldiers during the First World War's battle of Passchendaele.

Soldiers during the First World War’s battle of Passchendaele.

Credit:
PA

Why did the battle take so long?

The offensive took place in low-lying land which was home to thick clay soil and, after constant shelling during the war,  smashed drainage systems.

Days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rain for 30 years. Tanks were immoblised, rifles were clogged up and the shelter usually created by shells turned to swamps. Many men, horses and pack mules drowned in the quagmire.

Battle of Passchendaele

Battle of Passchendaele

Credit:
 World History Archive / Alamy

German and British forces became locked in a mud-drenched stalemate for a month and a half, with Australian and New Zealand divisions joining the British in September.

However, three battles in early autumn eventually gave the British the upper hand: the Battle of Menin Road Ridge (which began on 20 September) the Battle of Polygon Wood (on 26 September) and the Battle of Broodseinde (on 4 October) , which established Allied possession of the ridge east of Ypres.

Little progress was made in October, leading Haig to call on the Canadian Forces for help. On 6 November the British and Canadian forces finally captured what remained of Passchendaele, leading Haig to call off the offensive and claim victory.


Passchendaele in 360 - Over The Top


Passchendaele in 360 – Over The Top


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Why is the battle controversial?

Many historians have questioned why Haig allowed his soldiers to continue the offensive; throughout the attack the commander was under constant pressure to halt the attack. Plus, the British and Empire forces advanced only five miles yet suffered at least a quarter of a million casualties.

The Prime Minister David Lloyd George disapproved of the plan, only allowing it to happen as there were no other credible ideas at the time. In his War Memoirs, published in 1938, he wrote: “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign”.

Soldiers during the First World War's battle of Passchendaele.

Soldiers during the First World War’s battle of Passchendaele.

Credit:
PA

Sassoon’s take on the attack

Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry famously depicted the horrors of trench warfare, mentioned the battle in his poem Memorial Tablet. Penned a month before the war’s end in October 1918 and first published in his 1919 collection Picture-Show, the poem is narrated by a dead soldier. 

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell –
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’…that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?

Siegfried Sassoon in 1920

Siegfried Sassoon in 1920

How is the centenary being commemorated?

This year, the centenary of the battle is being marked with a programme of special events and exhibitions in Flanders, northern Belgium from June to  December.

Prime Minister Theresa May will join thousands of descendants of soldiers who fought at Passchendaele to commemorate the centenary on July 31.

Mrs May will break off from her three-week summer holiday to join the Prince of Wales and Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in paying their respects to those who fell in the Third Battle of Ypres.

The Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium

The Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium

The commemorations will be preceded on the night before by the traditional Last Post ceremony, which has taken place every evening at the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres since 1928. As part of the ceremony, representatives of combatant nations will lay wreaths under the Gate.

Plus, the Royal British Legion have created memorial pins made the from the mud where the battle was fought. Cast from the brass of artillery shells recovered from former battlefields across West Flanders, 60,083 enamel poppy pins have been made, one for each of the British soldiers who died.