The word ‘Passchendaele’ has a special and sombre resonance in British history. Like the Somme, Passchendaele is a kind of shorthand for the epic suffering of the ‘Great War’, a term that instantly evokes a picture of terrible human cost and gross destruction for little physical gain. Mention Passchendaele, and grainy images stir in the collective memory – a hopeless, tree-stripped landscape; a bottomless mud, sucking men and even horses to their doom; the rattle of the Vickers and the Maxim; the pounding destruction of shellfire; corpses littered like leaves, and soggy graves waiting to receive them. The emotions are warranted. Passchendaele was indeed a battle of grievous suffering and questionable achievements.
Encouraged by the success of the attack on Messines Ridge in June 1917 General Sir Douglas Haig, who had long awaited a British offensive in Flanders, wanted to reach the Belgian coast to destroy German submarine bases there. Having initially considered a similar attack a year earlier in 1916, Haig’s attention was turned to the Battle of the Somme. However, just over a year later, Haig’s attempts to break through Flanders, chiefly through Ypres (the principal town within a salient in the British lines and the site of two previous battles: First Ypres, October - November 1914, and Second Ypres, April - May 1915) became a reality.
The infantry attack began on 31 July 1917 and, at first, brought encouraging gains. However, constant shelling had churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems on the reclaimed marshland. Shortly after this the heaviest rains in more than 30 years began to fall on Flanders, immobilising tanks, clogging up rifles and eventually becoming so deep that men and horses drowned.
Further action in October made little progress but on 6 November 1917, when British and Canadian forces took control of the small village of Passchendaele, Haig finally had an excuse to claim success and end the offensive. The Allies lost an estimated 275,000 casualties including 36,000 Australians, 3,500 New Zealanders and 16,000 Canadians; the Germans around 220,000. The fighting raged through some of the worst physical conditions of the entire First World War, across battlefields collapsing into endless mud and blood. Despite more than 500,000 casualties, the British and Commonwealth forces had pushed their front line a mere five miles. The Battle of Passchendaele is the story of one of the most pitiless and iconic battles of World War I.