Passchendaele Campaign

Tue, 07/31/1917 - Sat, 11/10/1917

The battle for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders was part of a strategy agreed by the Allies at conferences in November 1916 and May 1917. General Sir Douglas Haig believed that a campaign against the enemy in the Ypres sector of Flanders, where the Germans were entrenched along the 8-mile ridge extending from Passchendaele to Messines, would create a breakthrough that would afford 'opportunities for the employment of cavalry in masses' to sweep to the Belgian coast where the German Navy U-Boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge would be captured. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Jellicoe, supported the plan. The village of Passchendaele was located on the final ridge east of Ypres and some 5 miles (8 km) from the railway junction at Roulers, vital to the German Fourth Army's logistical supply system. The Allied plan was to then advance to Thourout–Couckelaere and deny the Germans control of the rail system through Roulers and Thourout.

In June 1917, General Sir Herbert Plumer's Second Army had tunnelled under and blown up the Germans on the Messines Ridge. Haig then brought up General Gough's Fifth Army to continue the assault on the left, moving Plumer's second Army to the right. But Gough's staff, unlike Plumer's, were not familiar with the terrain and his supplies too often arrived either too late or directed into the wrong dump areas. Opposite Gough, the Germans were applying their new concept of 'elastic defence', allowing the British to advance - but at enormous cost- as they substantially abandoned their conventional trench system in favour of a series of reinforced concrete pillboxes often flooded, where possible, on the front and flank approaches. Forward German positions were lightly manned with these depth positions more ruggedly defended. The Germans would also fire a new weapon that would increase their rage of chemical attack - artillery shells loaded with mustard gas.

Below, a knocked out British tank half submerged in mud and water, 12 October 1917.© IWM (Q 6327).

IWM Q 6327The intensive British artillery bombardment began on 22 July and on 30 July the autumn rains began to fall. The land reclaimed over centuries from the ancient swamps around Ypres had recently been fought over and bombarded to the extent that the artificial drainage system was totally obliterated. Soon, the Flemish battlefield was again a vast swamp of sludge, stinking with the corpses of men and horses, that would mire down 29 of the 48 tanks committed to the attack and make any movement on foot, let alone an advance, a ghastly nightmare. On 31 July 1917, the first day of the campaign, British casualties numbered some 32,000. The fighting would continue until November before the campaign, which captured the village of Passchendaele on 10 November, was discontinued. The casualty figures have been disputed by a succession of British and German historians since first accounts were written, but a figure of some 260,000 for each seems to have emerged from the arguments.