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The centenary of Passchendaele

A sombre departure from our usual blog posts...

Today marks 100 years since the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, recalled through a single word: "Passchendaele". The battle lasted 3 months, 1 week and 1 day, and those 101 days were some of the bloodiest and muddiest in World War One. During the offensive,  275,000 men under British command and 220,000 German men were killed, 90,000 bodies were never identified and 42,000 were never recovered. In the 10 days leading up to the attack, 3,000 guns bombarded the German lines and it is estimated that over 4.25 million shells were fired.

These statistics are truly horrifying and it is crucial that we remember that these are not just statistics. Every one of those men - whichever side they were fighting on - was someone's son, father, husband, brother, friend.

The offensive took so long due to taking place in low-lying land, which was home to thick clay soil and, after constant shelling during the war, smashed drainage systems. Just days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rain for 30 years. Tanks were immobilised, rifles were clogged up and shelter usually created by shells turned to swamps. Many men, horses and pack mules drowned in the quagmire.

The German and British forces were locked in a mud enforced stalemate for 6 weeks, with Australian and New Zealand divisions joining the British in September. Three battles in early autumn eventually gave the British the upper hand, which established Allied possession of the ridge east of Ypres. Little progress was made in October, leading Haig to call on the Canadian Forces for help. Finally, on the 6th November the British and Canadian forces finally captured what remained of Passchendaele, leading Haig to call off the offensive and claim victory.

During the attack, British and Empire forces advanced only five miles. There were at least a quarter of a million casualties.

Many historians have questioned why Haig allowed his soldiers to continue this offensive when there was constant pressure to halt the attack. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George disproved of the plan, only allowing it to happen as there were no other credible ideas at the time. In his War Memoirs, published in 1938, he wrote: "Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war... No solider of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign".

So, today, let us remember all of those brave men who fought and died during this horrific offensive, with so little gained after such a loss of life.

For a full account of the offensive, please click here to visit the World War One Battlefields website.