Eight things you may not know about the Battle of Passchendaele
2017 will see the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele with events taking place in Belgium in July. The battle which was also known as The Third Battle of Ypres was one of the major engagements of the First World War and one of the largest battles Britain’s Armed Forces have ever fought.
Here’s eight facts on what First World War soldiers used to call the Battle of Mud:
1.The battle took place on the Western Front, from July to November 1917, for control of land south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders. It lasted just over 3 months, marginally less than the Battle of the Somme. The loss of life was considerable and the offensive achieved mixed results.
2. Within a few days of the battle the heaviest rain for 30 years had turned the soil into a quagmire, producing thick mud that often immobilised tanks. When the Tank Corps was formed it had no distinctive colours but in 1917 — just before the Battle of Cambrai — it adopted its Brown, Red and Green colours which are still used by the Royal Tank Regiment today. The colours represented the struggle of the Corps — ‘From mud, through blood to the green fields beyond’.
3. The standard British army rifle in 1917 was the iconic Short Magazine Lee- Enfield (aka the SMLE), a marksman could fire 15 aimed shots a minutes and earned an extra six pence a day — almost doubling his pay back then! It weighed around four kilograms, a similar amount to the SA80 individual weapon carried by troops today; however the SA80 fires a potential 610–775 rpm.
4. The battle saw an estimated 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties. By 1917 armies had tried to modernise to reduce the casualty rate. At Passchendaele soldiers of all sides wore protective headgear. The weight of the British Mark I helmet was about 2 pounds, made out of manganese steel alloy, it was light, robust, simple to make and had the best ballistic performance of any WW1 helmet. The Mk 7 helmet used by troops today weighs 2.2 pounds and can stop fragments travelling at over 650 metres per second.
5. Some estimates claim 90,000 British and Commonwealth bodies were never identified and 42,000 never recovered from the battle. However bodies from the First World War are still being found and identified 100 years later. The remains of two British soldiers were found recently and given a ceremonial burial with full military honours on 19 October 2016. The Ministry of Defence’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre will deal with fallen soldiers in the same way whether they’re casualties of the First World War or recent conflicts like Afghanistan.
6. As with the battle of the Somme in 1916, Passchendaele saw British forces fight closely alongside its Commonwealth allies of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa. This would be repeated many times in the next 100 years, including the Second World War, the Korean War, in Afghanistan and currently in the fight against Daesh.
7. Blood banks and transfusions were developed during the First World War and by 1917 the Royal Medical Corps (RAMC) established the first blood bank on the Western Front in preparation for Passchendaele. The RAMC expanded rapidly during the First World War; on mobilization the Corps consisted of approximately 9,000 ‘other ranks’, by 1918 there were 13,000 RAMC Officers and 154,000 ‘other ranks’. Wherever there is conflict featuring British Armed Forces the RAMC is always there. Since the Victoria Cross was introduced in 1856 there have been 29 Victoria Crosses awarded to members of the RAMC.
8. The last British surviving combat soldier of the First World War was 111 year old Harry Patch who died in 2009. Harry, who fought as a Lewis [machine] gunner at Passchendaele where he was wounded and evacuated never spoke about the war until he turned 100 years old. A service for Harry was held at Wells Cathedral, his body was carried by members of his old unit The Rifles and walking behind his coffin in solidarity were military representatives of France, Belgium and Germany.