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Passchendaele

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(Redirected from Battle of Passchendaele)
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Passchendaele village, before and after the Battle of Passchendaele

The Battle of Passchendaele, otherwise known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was one of the major battles of World War I, fought by British, ANZAC, and Canadian soldiers against the German army near Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) in West Flanders, northwestern Belgium over the control of the village of Passchendaele.

As the village is now known as Passendale, the term Passchendaele alone is now used to refer to this battle. The label "Passchendaele" should properly apply only to the battle's later actions in October–November 1917, but has come to be applied also to the entire campaign from July 31. After three months of fierce fighting, the Canadian Corps took Passchendaele on November 6 1917, ending the battle. In the history of World War I, the term 'Passchendaele' has become a symbol and come to signify 'war in its most brutal and senseless form'.

Passendale today forms part of the community of Zonnebeke, Belgium.

Contents

Messines Ridge

The Messines ridge, just south of Ypres had been lost to the Germans in the first battle of Ypres, leaving Ypres as a salient, sticking out into the German position and overlooked by higher ground on the German side. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the allied commander, decided to use the salient as a launch point for an offensive into Flanders, designed to break through the front and capture the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. A successful action would not only put the submarines out of action, but shorten the allied lines and potentially trap a number of German troops behind the new lines.

Engineers from both sides had been tunnelling under the Messines ridge since 1915, until, by the spring of 1917, 21 huge mines had been laid under it totalling 450 tonnes of the high explosive Ammonal. At zero hour at 03:10 on 7 June 1917, after 4 days of artillery bombardment, the most intense bombardment of the entire war, 19 of the allied mines were detonated killing 10,000 German troops in half a minute. Of the two remaining caches, one exploded during a thunderstorm on 17 July 1955, fortunately only killing one cow; the location of the 21st cache is believed to have been found in recent years, but no attempt has been made to remove it. The detonation of the mines was the loudest man-made noise ever made to that date, audible as far away as Dublin. Nine allied infantry divisions attacked and were supported by 72 Mark IV tanks. They managed to achieve the initial objectives due to the huge mines and the fact that the German reserves were too far back to intervene.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, ordered General Herbert Plumer, the allied commander, to continue the battle immediately, but was persuaded to delay further attacks until preparations could be made.

Gunner James Fulton, Lt Anthony Devine and other soldiers (names unknown) from the , on a  track through the devastated Chateau Wood, near , in the Ypres , on October 29, 1917. (Photograph by James Francis Hurley.)
Enlarge
Gunner James Fulton, Lt Anthony Devine and other soldiers (names unknown) from the Australian 4th Division, on a duckboard track through the devastated Chateau Wood, near Hooge, in the Ypres salient, on October 29, 1917. (Photograph by James Francis Hurley.)

July 1917

As a second stage of the action, General Sir Hubert Gough was put in charge of the attacks to secure the Gheluvelt Plateau which overlooked Ypres. Huge numbers of guns were moved into the area and started a four-day bombardment, but as always, this simply served to warn the Germans of a coming offensive, allowing them to move in more troops.

In July the Germans used mustard gas for the first time. It attacked sensitive parts of the body, caused sneezing, followed by eyelids swelling, then inflammation of the eyes, blindness for about 10 days and great pain.

One problem in carrying the offensive forward was the Yser canal, but this was taken on July 27 when the Allies found the German trenches empty. (Front lines were often vacated at night to reduce the casualties caused by nighttime shelling.)

On July 31 Haig's offensive opened with a major action at Pilkem ridge, with allied gains of up to 2000 yards (1.8 km). The Allies suffered about 32,000 casualties, killed, wounded or missing in this one action.

Ground conditions during the whole Ypres-Passchendaele action were atrocious. Continuous shelling destroyed drainage canals in the area, and unseasonable heavy rain turned the whole area into a sea of mud and filled crater holes. In order to walk up to the front, duckboards were laid across the crater holes. Troops walking up to the front often carried up to 100 pounds (45 kg) of equipment: if they slipped off the path they could slide into a crater and drown before they could be rescued. Bodies buried after previous actions were often uncovered by the rain or later shelling.

September 1917

During September and October, after awful weather in August and many failures in attack due to poor planning and preparation, a policy of "bite and hold" was adopted by the allies, intending to make small gains which could be held against counterattack. Sir Herbert Plumer had now replaced Gough in command of the offensive.

1,295 guns were concentrated in the area of the attack, approximately 1 gun per 5 yards (5 m) of attack front. On September 20 at the battle of Menin Road, after a massive bombardment, the Allies attacked and managed to hold their objective of about 1,500 yards (1,400 m) gained, despite heavy counter attacks, suffering 21,000 casualties. The Germans by this time had a semi-permanent front line, with very deep dugouts and concrete pillboxes, supported by artillery that could be accurately pointed at the attacking troops.

Further advances at Polygon Wood and Broodseinde on the south-western end of the salient accounted for another 2,000 yards (1,800 m) and 30,000 casualties. The British line was now overlooked by the Passchendaele ridge and it became an important objective. An advance on October 9 at Poelcapelle was a dismal failure for the Allies, with minor advances by exhausted troops forced back by counter attacks.

First Battle of Passchendaele

The First Battle of Passchendaele, on October 12 1917 focused on a further attempt to gain ground around Poelcapelle. Again, the weather was awful, artillery could not be brought closer to the front due to the mud, the Germans were well-prepared and the Allied troops were tired and morale was suffering. The result was 13,000 casualties with minimal gain.

By this point 100,000 men had been lost, for limited gains and no strategic advances.

Second Battle of Passchendaele

At this point two divisions of the Canadian Corps were moved into the line to replace the now-decimated ANZAC forces. After their successes at Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Hill 70, the Canadians were considered to be the allies' elite force and were often sent into the most horrific conditions.

Upon his arrival, the CiC General Currie stated he believed the objective could be taken, but only at the cost of 16,000 casualties. Haig, by this time inured to such high numbers after years of allied losses in the hundreds of thousands, ordered the offensive to continue; the Canadians moved into the line during mid-October.

On October 26 1917, the Second Battle of Passchendaele began with 20,000 men of the 3rd and 4th Canadian divisions advancing up the hills of the salient. A further 12,000 allied casualties occurred during the day for a gain of a few hundred yards (metres).

Reinforced with the addition of two British divisions, a second offensive on October 30 resulted in the capture of the town in blinding rain. For the next five days the force held the town in the face of repeated German shelling and counterattacks, and by the time a second group of reinforcements arrived on November 6, 4/5ths of two Canadian divisions had been lost - casualties Currie had predicted, almost to the man.

Their replacements were the Canadian 1st and 2nd divisions. German troops still ringed the area, so a limited attack on the 6th by the remaining troops of the 3rd division on a machine gun post allowed the 1st division to make major advances and gain strong points throughout the area. A follow-up by the 2nd division on November 10 completed the battle, by pushing the Germans off the slopes to the east of the town. The high ground was now firmly in allied control.

Aftermath

Haig, remembering the failure to follow through at previous battles, determined to continue the attack, believing that the Germans were ready to break. The attacks achieved at least part of their aims of mutual attrition, reducing the German strength and morale in preparation for attacks elsewhere.

In August and September, 140,000 allies had been killed or wounded, with a further 110,000 in October. Total allied casualties on the Western Front in this period were 600,000; the Germans in this period suffered 280,000 casualties in Flandres alone.

Haig's view was too optimistic though, and the Germans counter-attacked in a major offensive aimed at Paris on March 21 1918. A subsequent German offensive in the north on April 9April 29 (the Battle of the Lys, or the Fourth Battle of Ypres) regained almost all of the ground, an advance of up to six miles (10 km) taken by the allies in the Third Battle of Ypres/Passchendaele.

These battles, and those British and Commonwealth soldiers who gave their lives, are commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, and at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world with nearly 12,000 graves.

Passchendaele is frequently mentioned as an example of the horrific number of soldiers killed, maimed or lost in action that occurred in numerous battles of World War I, and the name itself has come to be used as a synonym for pointless slaughter. The Germans lost approximately 250,000 men, while the British Empire forces lost about 300,000, including 36,500 Australians; 90,000 British and Australian bodies were never identified, and 42,000 were never recovered. An aerial photograph of Passchendaele taken after the battle showed over half a million shell holes in one half square mile (1.3 km²) area.

Quotations

"...I died in Hell
(they called it Passchendaele) my wound was slight
and I was hobbling back; and then a shell
burst slick upon the duckboards; so I fell
into the bottomless mud, and lost the light"
-- Siegfried Sassoon

Music

Edward Elgar's Cello concerto was written in 1919 at his home in Sussex from where he had earlier heard the artillery of the war in Flanders, possibly from the Battle of Passchendaele.

Heavy metal band Iron Maiden wrote the song Paschendale for their 2003 album Dance of Death. The song vividly describes a soldier's vision of the battle.

British rock-pop band The Men They Couldn't Hang included "The Crest" on its album Waiting for Bonaparte. The lyrics (http://www.ilyric.net/Lyrics/m/Men-They-Couldn't-Hang/The-Crest.html) describe a military family in which the grandfather survived Passchendaele but went insane, and ends with advice by the father to the son to discard the old medals, "sacrifice tradition and save your family."

British singer Chris de Burgh wrote the song "This Song for You", which describes a British soldier in Passchendaele who writes a letter to his 'darling' the night before the attack. It appears on the album "Spanish Train and Other Stories".

See also

External links

de:Flandernschlacht (1917)

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