‘Passchendaele’ was not only an episode in the history of the First World War it became a concept, an international symbol of the great futility of the violence of war in its most horrific form. It was at this location where in 1917 almost 600,000 soldiers perished for a movement of the frontline of only a few kilometres. Passchendaele is also a symbol for many nations, who made their mark here and wanted to establish themselves as a nation after the war.
In the summer of 1917, the British were determined to force a break through at the front in Flanders, with the objective of capturing the German submarine harbours at Ostend and Zeebrugge.
Haig believed in a large offensive on a wide front. The Germans had however, expected a large-scale attack and were well prepared. During the preparatory artillery bombardments for the Third Battle of Ypres, the British fired more than 4,200,000 missiles at the German positions, which was two-and-a-half times more than the previous year at the Somme.
After repeated postponement, the British finally attacked in the pouring rain on 31 July 1917. The heavy bombardments and the rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire and the tanks became stuck in the mud. The ‘Battle of Pilkem’ provided a territorial gain of three kilometres, but the attack halted at the Wilhelm Position.
On 10 August, the British launched a major but failed attack against the upper area around Gleuveld, in that position the Germans could fire on their entire right flank. The main gains came by the Langemark in mid-August. A dry crust developed on the mud after a few warm days so that the tanks could be deployed again. These however, became stranded again whereby the planned break through at the front seemed even further away.
New troops were deployed to get the offensive going again: the ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ (ANZAC). The new troops and their modified tactics hit their targets. On 20 September there was a successful battle around the Meenseweg, on 26 September by Polygon Wood and on 4 October at Broodseinde, during which the Germans suffered heavy losses.
Meanwhile, the objective of the first phase of the offensive had now become the final objective of the entire campaign: the take of the ruins of Passchendaele. The combination of autumn rain, saturated soil and the destroyed drainage system in the region reshaped the landscape into an immense sea of mud in which men, animals and machines drowned. On 12 October 1917, the New Zealand division advanced to attack to take the Bellevue offshoot. The result was devastating: 2,700 loses, of which 845 fell in less than four hours’ time. That day is thus eternally recorded as the most tragic day in the history of New Zealand.
After the bloody battle on 12 October 1917, Haig gave the order to halt the attack and he replaced the ANZAC’s with fresh Canadian troops. On 26 and 30 October they trudged along their ‘Road to Passchendaele’. On 6 November, the Canadians finally managed to take the village of Passchendaele, which had since taken on mythical proportions: Passion-dale or the dale of suffering. They did not advance further and the offensive came to a standstill at the top of the ridge on 10 November. They had achieved the impossible, but at what price: 16,000 Canadians were dead, wounded or missing.
The result of the Battle of Passchendaele was devastating. After 100 days there was a movement of the frontline of merely eight kilometres. The cost was enormous: more than 600.000casualties. The military cemeteries grew substantially. Tyne Cot Cemetery, which was originally an advanced nursing station, grew further in size after the Third Battle of Ypres. It is now the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world. The Battle of Passchendaele still has a significant symbolic value today and in some respects was decisive in the outcome of the First World War.
Director a.i. Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917