Today – 31 July – marks one hundred years since the start of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres, 31 July-10 November 1917), Britain’s major offensive against German forces in the Flanders region of Belgium.
The ultimate aim was to liberate the occupied Channel ports to the north of Ypres, neutralising the U-boat threat to North Sea shipping and take the pressure of its hard-pressed French allies. We are commemorating the centenary by newly listing and upgrading 13 memorials, most with strong regimental connections to the battle.
Passchendaele has come to symbolise the horror of the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of Allied and German soldiers – under heavy machine gun and artillery fire; the Allies supported by tanks – attacked and counter-attacked in an apocalyptic landscape devoid of buildings, trees or vegetation.
The explosion of over one million shells, accompanied by torrential rain, turned the battlefield into a quagmire of craters and oozing mud, deep enough to swallow up men and horses. After three months of fighting, Britain and her Allies advanced just 8km. The terrible price, according to Army estimates, was 300,000 dead, injured or missing, with Germany sustaining 260,000 casualties.
By spring 1917, the only area of Belgium remaining in Allied hands was a bulge of land round Ypres known as the Ypres Salient. The commander of the British army, General Sir Douglas Haig, wanted to break through the German lines there and launch an assault from the high ground to liberate the occupied ports on the Channel coast that served as U-boat bases.
Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 and the resulting loss of unarmed merchant ships carrying food, coal and other essential supplies was bringing Britain to its knees.
Despite the misgivings of the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, Haig (wrongly) believed the German army was close to collapse and the assault went ahead. By early September, after huge losses, Haig was put under political pressure to halt the offensive. He refused. Australia, New Zealand and Canadian forces joined the battle. A final assault on 6 November secured the high ground above Ypres allowing Haig to call off the offensive and claim success. But in 1918 the territory gained there was lost, recaptured in a German offensive.
Haig was later severely criticised for continuing the assault for so little apparent strategic value. His actions, resulting in such a toll of human life on both sides, have remained a subject of controversy to this day. But the battle did contribute to an ultimate Allied victory and represents one of the key engagements of the First World War.