The 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele

06/01/2017 14:47  |  Military

The First World War Battle of Passchendaele, which is officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, took place between 31st July and 6th November 1917. The Allies’ objective was to capture this strategically placed town in Belgium and destroy the German submarine bases on the coast to stop the heavy shipping losses they had been sustaining.

Acting on the orders of General Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander in Chief in France, the Allies began heavy bombardment of the German trenches two weeks before the advance. However, just like the previous year’s devastating Battle of the Somme, the bombing, which saw 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns, alerted the Germans to the imminent attack, thus allowing them time to prepare.

The constant shelling had churned up the field’s soil and, most disastrously, damaged the drainage systems, so when the heaviest rainfall for 30 years began, the battlefield turned into a swamp. Not only did the mud make for truly appalling conditions, it virtually stopped progress, clogged guns, and became so deep in places that horses and men drowned in it. The poet Siegfried Sassoon captured the horror of the muddy fields in his poem ‘Memorial Tablet’, describing the battle as ‘hell’.

Despite it becoming obvious the offensive would not be a success, Haig refused to call it off. The loss of so many men with so little advancement threw into question Haig’s decision not to retreat. But he argued that the Germans could not afford the losses as much as the Allies could, given America’s entry into the war and the subsequent arrival of fresh troops. Eventually the weather improved and the British and Canadian forces made a number of successful small advances before eventually capturing what remained of Passchendaele village. This breakthrough allowed Haig to declare a victory and put a stop to the fighting. It had taken over three months and the death of over half a million soldiers.  

As this year marks the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, a Ceremony of Remembrance will be held on 31st July at the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium, and a traditional Last Post ceremony takes place at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres on 30th July. 

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