The Third Battle of Ypres, which has become known in popular parlance as Passchendaele, was one of the most miserable offensives of the war on the Western Front. Starting in July, with an attack on Messines, and finishing in November with the taking of the ridge just beyond Passchendaele. Having spent months fighting the terrain and the weather as well as the enemy, the offensive did not achieve its objectives. The offensive was supposed to take the ground North West of Ypres in three stages, called Flandern I Stellung, Flandern II Stellung and Flandern III Stellung. Allied forces had eventually reached Passchendaele Ridge and captured Flandern I Stellung by November but the other two stages were impossible to reach.
In truth the offensive yielded only minor tactical and strategic advantages to the Allies and, coupled with the fact that the German Spring Offensive of 1918 reclaimed all the ground that had been so arduously won in 1917, it is unsurprising that this is also one of the most contentious of the battles as well. David Lloyd George, who was Prime Minister at the time wrote in his memoirs:
“Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …”
It is the conditions that the men fought in as they tried to take Passchendaele that have become synonymous with WWI. As Brigadier-General John Charteris, the BEF Chief of Intelligence from 1915 to 1918, wrote:
Careful investigation of records of more than eighty years showed that in Flanders the weather broke early each August with the regularity of the Indian monsoon: once the Autumn rains set in difficulties would be greatly enhanced….Unfortunately, there now set in the wettest August for thirty years.
The men were attacking up hill, across farm land whose irrigation ditches had been blown to smithereens by shelling months before. By the time that the First Battle of Passchendaele started on 12 October 1917 the ground was a quagmire of mud and shell holes filled with fetid water and bodies.
Padre S Hinchliffe, 26thBtn, Northumberland Fusiliers described the conditions he encountered as he filed up a duckboard track towards the front with his men:
It was one vast plain, interspersed by a network of small lakes and holes full of mud. Here and there, stuck amid the mud, gunners were firing on open sites. Four men had made a gallant attempt to bring up rations. All four lay dead one with his head blown off. Legs and arms jutted out from shell-holes. There were some terrible sights and many delays.
Private A T Shaw from 4thBtn East Lancashire Regiment recalled one attempted attack:
Word was passed down from the front saying, ‘Every man get hold of the bayonet scabbard of the man in front. We cannot wait for any man who falls in.’ This of course referred to the shell-craters brimming with stinking water on either side of the duckboards. We knew this order was not meant to be carried out, but it made you realise what could have happened if you were alone on these duckboards and staggered off. It was still training but we were past caring.
Sergeant T Berry DCM 1stBtn The Rifle Brigade tells us what happened if you did fall off:
We heard screaming coming from another crater a bit away. I went over to investigate with a couple of the lads. It was a big hole and there was a fellow of the 8thSuffolks in it up to his shoulders. So I said, ‘Get your rifles, one man in the middle to stretch them out, make a chain and let him get hold of it.’ But it was no use. It was too far to stretch, we couldn’t get any force on it, and the more we pulled and the more he struggled the further he seemed to go down. He went down gradually. He kept begging us to shoot him. But we couldn’t shoot him. Who could shoot him? We stayed with him, watching him go down in the mud. And he died. He wasn’t the only one. There must have been thousands up there who died in the mud.
The First Battle was stopped on 13 October, almost as soon as it had started, with Field Marshal Haig agreeing with his commanders to halt action until the weather improved and roads could be enhanced. The Second Battle for Passchendaele began on 20 October 1917, Passchendaele itself was taken on 6 November and the battle ended on 10 November, with the Canadian Corps taking control of the remaining high ground just to the north of the village.
As Lyn Macdonald observes on page 238 of her excellent book “They Called it Passchendaele” (from which the quotes of Padre Hinchliffe, Private Shaw and Sergeant Berry were taken – pages 205, 204 and 206-7 respectively):
156 days after the curtain-raiser of Messines, the survivors of the men who had fought their way up the salient were able to turn their backs from the terrible slough of the battlefield and look out across open land to the green fields of Belgium.
I highly recommend getting a copy of “The Called it Passchendaele” if you would like an in-depth analysis of the Third Battle of Ypres filled with details directly from those who experienced it. It was first published in 1978 but that does not matter because, as Lyn says in her foreword:
It is all true, or rather it is compiled from more than 600 true stories and eyewitness accounts of men and women who were there in the blood-bath of Ypres. Some of their experiences are reprodueced in their own words as they were recorded. Many more are incorporated in the text, and the tiniest details have contributed to building up a picture of life as it was for the Tommies and Anzacs and Canucks who were at Ypres un that terrible summer and autumn of 1917.
It is harrowing to read, as the quotes from the men I’ve included show, but it must have been 100 times more harrowing to live through.