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100 years since Passchendaele

Australian soldiers crossing a duckboard, surrounded by water and a shelled landcscape
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Posted on November 1 2017

October 2017 marked the centenary of the battles of Poelcappelle and Passchendaele when Allied soldiers continued their third offensive to secure the contested ground of Ypres.

They also encountered a new enemy: mud. Tanks, guns and soldiers drowned in a Belgian battlefield that had the consistency of porridge.

Duckboards were laid to help troops advance, but heavy hobnail boots meant soldiers often slipped into the swamp.

British commanders later acknowledged that mud was a major cause of casualties, while the Germans were grateful for ‘a most effective ally’.

From July 1917, the Allies had experienced encouraging gains but, on the afternoon of 4 October 1917, rain began to fall and then worsened with squalls and torrents. It became the heaviest rainfall in the area for 30 years.

Yet British authorities persisted with their plan to divert German attention from other Allied fronts to Poelcappelle, 8km north of Ypres.

Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig was concerned that parts of the Allied frontline were too thinly held due to mutinies in the French Army earlier that year.

On 9 October 1917, the Allies sought to secure a series of objectives, including German fortified farms and concrete redoubts, while protected by heavy artillery fire.

Rain, however, flooded the poorly-drained landscape and prevented guns from being brought into range. This left the infantry advance to flounder in the mud.

One correspondent reported in The Cairns Post: ‘(T)he country, already battered into shapelessness, was slimy with … blue sticky clay. Men fell into shell-holes and were pulled out by their friends. They stumbled and caught their feet in the infinite tangles of… sinister country.’

Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?
Chief of General Staff, Sir Launcelot Kiggell

Stretcher-bearers carrying the wounded crawled on all fours: ‘Every man was as caked with mud from head to heels as completely as if you had taken a plaster cast of him.’

The Allies deployed 12 tanks but all were lost, with four hit and eight bogged.

Author Robert Johns described the area as ‘a tank graveyard’, with British tunnelers called in to dismantle and clear the wrecks.

Australia’s Official War Correspondent Charles Bean recalled Poelcappelle as ‘a great bloody experiment, a huge gamble and no more than that’.

Three days later the Allied soldiers reached the village of Passchendaele, the apex of their advance in 1917.

Glutinous mud continued to plague operations but, with Canadian artillery support, they were able to secure the ridge by 9 November.

Victory in what was officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July-10 November 1917) came at a staggering cost. In the Australians’ eight weeks of fighting (from 20 September), 38,000 Australian soldiers were killed.

Along with the horrendous conditions, the enduring theme of this battle was its costly intensity. More than 50 British and Commonwealth infantry divisions (and at least 100 German divisions) were committed over a 16-kilometre frontage.

Military historian Nick Lloyd found that new political and military leadership in Britain was trying to salvage a war effort that was ‘drifting along dangerous lines’.

In Passchendaele: A New History, he wrote: ‘If the Somme of 1916… has become a metaphor for a kind of innocence lost… then Third Ypres is a… descent into the perils of Dante’s Inferno…’

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