Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele became infamous not only for the scale of casualties, but also for the mud. Its battlefields are still visited today by UK Servicemen and women who follow in the footsteps of their forbearers to gain a better of understanding of their unit’s history and the history of modern warfare.
Passchendaele had its roots in December 1916, at a Christmas Conference between the Allies, it was there that it was decided that 1917 would be the year of joint offensives to finally break the German Army. In the spring, this kicked off with the British and its Commonwealth allies attacking at Arras and Vimy respectively, and the French further south on what was known as The Nivelle Offensive. These were not hugely successful, with the French in particular suffering large casualties.
The French Army was left vulnerable to a major German assault and in May 1917, Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig — commander of the British Forces — realised this, and planned to ease pressure on the French with a large attack around Ypres where there was a large salient (bulge) in the German line. Ypres had already been the site of two previous battles: First Ypres (October-November 1914) and Second Ypres (April-May 1915).
Although the Battles of Arras and Vimy had petered out with little gain the British and its Commonwealth Allies had shown they had learned some lessons of the Somme. The British were further encouraged by the success of the attack on Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917. Nineteen huge mines were exploded simultaneously after they had been placed at the end of long tunnels under the German front lines. The capture of the ridge encouraged Haig and preparations for the Battle of Passchendaele began. Unfortunately the flatness of the plain made stealth impossible as was the case with the Somme. The Germans knew an attack was imminent and the initial bombardment served as a final warning. It lasted two weeks, with 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns.
The infantry attack finally started on 31 July, the bombardment which while successful in cutting the German wire, also smashed the field drainage systems. This was compounded by the heaviest rains in 30 years, and the battlefield turned into a terrible quagmire; tanks, guns and any other vehicle were soon bogged in. The mud became so deep in places that men and horses drowned in it. Many soldiers quickly labelled the offensive, the ‘Battle of Mud’.
Due to the conditions soldiers failed to cover ground at speed and the effectiveness of the German counter-attacks wore down the British offensive throughout August. After these failures to breakthrough, Haig transferred command of the offensive to General Herbert Plumer. The British re-attacked on 20 September and were successful with the ‘bite and hold’ approach, which was a tactic where you seize a small bit of territory (bite) and then ‘hold’ onto it. You then use this bit of territory to reach out and ‘bite’ another. But as the weather deteriorated further attacks in October failed to make much progress. Passchendaele itself stubbornly held out until captured by the Canadians and British in mid-November.
Passchendaele village lay barely five miles beyond the starting point of his offensive; it had taken over three months at a terrible number of casualties. The mud of Passchendaele has long been a byword for the horrors of the First World War.