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Posted on Jul 12, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Passchendaele at Ninety

By Ronan Thomas

Ypres (Ieper), Belgium- – On 12 July 2007 European monarchs, political and religious leaders and 180,000 visitors will gather in Western Flanders to commemorate one of the most terrible battles of the twentieth century. HM Queen Elizabeth II will open a new visitor centre at Tyne Cot war cemetery to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, July-November 1917. Also known as the 3rd Battle of Ypres, it was one of the worst of 1914-18. Passchendaele has huge resonances in military history. It epitomises the optimistic offensive turned attritional slog. Ninety years on, the battle haunts international military and literary memory. The very name ‘Passchendaele’ is today a metaphor for blood, mud and sacrifice, for the opposing British, Commonwealth and German nations.

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A tank Stuck in the mud at the Battle of Passchendaele

At Tyne Cot, where shell-damaged German pillboxes interrupt the neat lines of white Portland Stone headstones, the assembled dignitaries will consider a sobering reality. As they look down from Passchendaele Ridge the statistics will hit home. During 1914-18 an estimated one million soldiers died in the Ypres Salient, a bulge roughly 20km square east and south of the medieval Flanders city of Ypres. In three and a half months alone during 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele killed or wounded 275,000 British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand soldiers. A similar number of Germans were killed or wounded.

The facts of 3rd Ypres are uncompromising. The Ypres Salient had already witnessed two major battles in 1914 and 1915. In 1917 British Army Commander-in-Chief General Sir Douglas Haig prepared a third offensive from the Salient – the largest British attack since the Battle of the Somme of July 1916. The aim: to jab northwards to take Ostend and the strategically important German U-Boat bases at Zeebrugge. After a successful attack at Messines on 7 June by General Herbert Plumer’s 2nd Army, a new ‘big push’ was launched by General Sir Hubert Gough’s 5th Army. Gough went for the formidable German defensive positions along the ridges at Passchendaele, Pilckem, Langemarck and on the Gheluvelt Plateau. Support was provided to the north by a corps of the French First Army led by General Anthoine. On 31st July, after a barrage of an incredible 4 ½ million shells, fired from 3,000 guns, the British advance began. Surrounding woods and villages were obliterated for miles around. But the shellfire turned the upward slopes into a nightmare of shell holes, splintered trees, barbed wire and smashed field drainage systems. Then came the worst rains for thirty years, just as the British infantry attacked. The ground became a sea of mud and corpses. Soldiers floundered in the flooded morass. British tanks bogged down and became useless. Swept by German machine gun fire, gas shells and artillery, Passchendaele entered the lexicon of military horrors. Royal Welch Fusilier officer and war poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote: ‘I died in Hell (they called it Passchendaele)’. Writers Ellis Evans, David Jones and poet Edmund Blunden also participated in the battle. Evans (Hedd Wynn) did not survive it, killed in the assault on Pilckem. On the opposing side, writer Ernst Junger, Germany’s most decorated infantry officer, recalled his experiences in his memoir ‘Storm of Steel’. Erich Maria Remarque, author of the classic novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was quartered in a lonely observation post on the Passchendaele ridge when the maelstrom came. Wheeling overhead, the Red Baron, Manfred Von Richthofen, shot down several British planes during the battle. Both armies were stretched to the limits of endurance. Scenes of horror were embedded in both sides’ memory: Menin Road , Hellfire Corner, Polygon Wood, Hooge and Sanctuary Wood. British Generals Gough and Plumer ordered repeated costly infantry attacks into this cauldron until the German defences were finally taken by Canadian forces on 10 November 1917.

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View from Passchendaele Ridge itself. Germans defended from exactly this point. This ridge fell on 4 October 1917, Passchendaele village beyond a month later.

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