“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 duck-boards: so I fell
into the bottomless mud, and lost the light”.
From the Poem ‘Memorial Tablet’ by Siegfried Sassoon, British Army Officer and renowned Poet of the First World War – also known as ‘Mad Jack’ for his suicidal bravery that earnt him the Military Cross.
The Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele after the devastated village that was the final objective of the campaign, was a series of battles between July and November 1917. Passchendaele was the second largest battle fought by Allied forces during the war and involved Australian, Belgian, British, New Zealand, South African, Indian and Canadian troops.
The objective of the battle was to clear the Germans from the Belgian coast and force a German retreat from the northern areas of the Western Front. Australians featured in many of the Passchendaele offensive battles including, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde Ridge, Poelcappelle and others.
The commencement of the battle on 16 July involved the Allies trying to obliterate the German defences with explosives prior to the infantry assault. Over the course of fifteen days more than four million artillery shells fell on the Germans as well as a considerable volume from the French Sixth Army. The infantry attack included a creeping barrage and tanks and was successful in seizing a number of objectives at considerable cost with 27,000 casualties on the first day of the attack.
The timeless image of Passchendaele is of a stark, stripped battlefield pockmarked by artillery shells within a sea of mud. The human misery of those trying to fight and stay alive in the muddy quagmire has captured the collective imagination. Men and beasts drowned in mud that was at some points over one metre deep. The wet conditions offset the ability of the infantry to traverse the country and most significantly affected the accuracy and impact of the Allied artillery barrage.
The viscous mud could not provide a stable platform for the artillery pieces which was needed for the gunners to accurately range in their guns. The muddy conditions also affected the detonation of the artillery shells with many not detonating in the soft mud or the mud absorbing the explosive effect of the shells. Bombardier Bertram Stokes of the 3rd Brigade New Zealand Field Artillery fiercely conscious of how the infantry relied on Artillery support, expressed his anguish,
“The ammunition was dirty and had to be cleaned….we commenced firing and after every shot the gun dug into the mud… numbers of our boys who had been wounded were coming back…they all had the same story to tell, of trenches filled with water, of men bogged down in mud, of the wire not being cut because our full artillery fire was not available, and also of shells simply ploughing into the mud without exploding.”
Anytime the artillery could hit solid ground there were correspondingly better results. Lieutenant Cyril Lawrence of the Australian 1st Field Company Engineers observed one such occasion, “a man can be seen standing on a pillbox – a shell burst near and he flies fully twenty feet into the air and comes down like a stone”. In October the Allies were dealt a blow with the defeat and almost complete destruction of their Italian allies by the Austro-Hungarian and German forces at the Battle of Caporetto. The Italians lost 600,000 troops including 10 000 dead, 30,000 wounded, 280 000 captured and estimates of 350,000 desertions. The Italian loss forced the British and French to divert troops from the Western Front to shore up the Italian Army. Efforts that same month to dislodge the Germans at Passchendaele met with only limited success.
Finally on 6th of November the Canadian infantry entered Passchendaele village and ejected the Germans through a vicious close quarter battle with the Canadians taking many prisoners. British and Canadian troops attacked again on 10 November and successfully managed to consolidate their positions. Passchendaele cost the Allies 275,000 casualties with all their gains lost in the German offensive the following year.
Passchendaele built on the reputation the Anzacs had earned in the previous years of the war. The highest echelons of British Military and Political elite were distinctly aware of the prowess of the Anzacs. After the war, David Lloyd George the wartime British Prime Minister recorded his admiration for the Anzacs and other dominion troops.
“By the summer of 1916 they were in France, and in July they were fighting on the Somme. Thereafter, like the Canadians, they were marked out for the grim honour of heading assaults and plunging in wherever the fighting was fiercest. They smashed their way up the Messines Ridge in June, 1917, and in September they were flung into the mud of Passchendaele.”