One hundred years ago this weekend, one of the most costly and bloody offensives of the First World War took place: the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
Meticulously planned, it was intended to be Sir Douglas Haig’s breakthrough battle. Allied forces were to sweep through the strongly fortified German defences enclosing the Ypres Salient, and then push on to the German submarine bases on the Flemish coast.
Third Ypres was launched on 31st July 1917. Over the following months, battles broke out in places that have now become infamous: Pilckem, Langemarck, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and Poelcapelle.
It was a nightmare mission. Torrential rain turned the ground into a quagmire. The thick, stinking mud swallowed man and machine. Wave after wave of Allied forces were mowed down. Troops were called in from Australia and New Zealand only to perish within days. Passchendaele became known as ‘Passion-dale’ – the valley of suffering.
Eventually on 6th November, fresh Canadian troops succeeded in seizing the tiny village of Passchendaele – or what was left of it – mercifully bringing an end to the Third Battle of Ypres. The Allied forces ended up no nearer the Flemish coast than when they had started. They gained merely eight kilometres of ground.
In doing so, they incurred 310,000 casualties, while German casualties numbered 260,000. Yes, that’s right: over half a million!
Tomorrow evening (Sunday 30th July), the Prince of Wales, accompanied by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, the King and Queen of Belgium, and dignitaries from all the combatant nations, are to attend a special ceremony in the presence of relatives of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the blood and mud of Passchendaele.
It could well be the biggest and last major commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele.
Four opportunities to remember
- The BBC is broadcasting a special live programme from the Passchendaele centenary commemorations in Belgium on Sunday July 30, 19:00 to 22:00
- Walking Where Many Had Fallen: Two walks in the countryside where the Battle of Passchendaele took place, taking in some of the most poignant World War One cemeteries.
- Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917: A museum dedicated to the battle, with numerous artefacts, a Dugout Experience that takes you underground into a mock-up of the British Army’s quarters, and reconstructions of trenches.
- Cycle through Flanders Fields: An overview of cycle routes on RouteYou that start from or pass through the Passchendaele battlefield.