The Price of a Mile
The Battle of Passchendaele, officially known as the third Battle of Ypres, was one of World War I’s major campaigns on the western front. Raging from July 31 to November 10, 1917, the fights between the Allied forces and the Germans were plagued by terrible weather conditions. During this battle, the German’s used mustard gas, a chemical weapon, for the very first time against the Allies.
Accounting for over half a million casualties, The Battle of Passchendaele is regarded as a symbol of the true horror and foolishness of war.
The story of The Battle of Passchendaele
The Ypres Salient in Belgium was a dismal place in 1917. Since the first battle for the city in late 1914, the whole area had been caught in the stalemate of trench warfare. Whole local villages in no-man’s land simply ceased to exist. The Germans held the high ground in a half-circle around the British positions in front of Ypres, their artillery observers ever watchful.
Much of the plains in this region of Belgium – Flanders – was reclaimed bog and marsh land that usually lay below sea level and could only be cultivated with the help of a network of drainage ditches. After three years of war, though, that system was destroyed, and the whole area turned into a swamp once more when the Autumn rains began. In the gravelly soil, the Germans could not dig their typical deep trench systems, as the heavy clay would quickly become a quagmire when it rained. Instead, they dotted the landscape with strong points, reinforced pillboxes and ferro-cement bunkers, and just sat tight.
In general, the Allies were in serious peril in the summer of 1917. The French were wavering after mutiny and the Russians were hard pressed after a revolution and the danger of an impending one. It was up to British commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig to take the pressure off both. After a stunning victory at Messines Ridge on the right shoulder of Ypres, Haig had thought it possible to push the Germans off Passchendaele Ridge and get an excellent starting position for a decisive offensive.
British bombardment begins
On July 16, the British bombardment began. From more than 3,000 heavy guns, a hailstorm of fire rained down on the German lines all over the salient. The artillerymen systematically targeted every grid on their map, leaving only death and destruction in their wake. The German soldiers in the shallow forward trenches were obliterated, and only those lucky enough to take shelter in the bunkers escaped the shrapnel filled air. Whole woods around the salient were blasted down and only a moonscape of shell holes and tree stumps, reaching out of the ground like skeletal fingers, remained.
Then, after two weeks of bombardment, the advance began on July 31. But instead of a frenzied rush over the parapets, the attack slowed to a crawl. It was like trying to cross a freshly ploughed field. The soldiers’ boots got stuck in the dirt, as they slipped and stumbled through the bombed out ground. It was slow and exhausting, as they carried 80lb of equipment each, with things like entrenching tools, grenades and ammunition. Still, the first attack made rather promising headway towards Pilckem Ridge and Westhoek, capturing the first German lines. The men cleared the trenches and dugouts, while capturing many miserable and shell-shocked German soldiers.
British Command judged from the first reports that a breakthrough might be imminent and that the capture of Passchendaele Ridge itself was within arm’s reach. However, what they had conquered so far were really only a few forward positions and machine-gun outposts. The Germans had abandoned the traditional system of trench lines and instead focused on a convoluted defence – an in-depth system that went on for miles. So as the British soldiers ventured on, they suddenly found themselves under well directed fire from camouflaged strong points, hidden pillboxes and snipers. They had in fact just entered the kill zone. The first waves were mowed down or soon found themselves isolated from the rest of their units.
The weather turns
When the early days of August passed, the weather suddenly began to change. The sky darkened with clouds, and a thick mist descended over the area. It began to rain. Not just a little, but like a waterfall, and it did not stop for days. The steady downpour soaked the whole area. Every man and gun was soon drenched and the ground softened to an ugly quagmire of mud and clay. The swamp returned early this year.
On the battlefield, all sense of direction was immediately lost. The terrain had changed so much that old maps, and even the more recent ones, were useless. Between the skeletal woods and the gas-soaked shell holes, there was nothing that could be used to orientate.
“It was an extraordinary panorama, half frightening, half exciting. Everywhere, as far as you could see, there were spurts of earth from shells bursting and bursts of shrapnel and high explosives and men looking like ants in the distance. (…) You couldn’t speak, the gunfire was so terrific, but you don’t really hear the explosions individually – you just see them going off like geysers shooting up in the air. As far as you could see in front of you and to either side, there was nothing but mud, mud, mud for miles and just a few stumps of trees here and there, and all hell let loose all around you.” Corporal J. Pincombe, Queen’s Westminster Rifles. (MacDonald, Lyn: Passchendaele)
The stretcher-bearers had it especially hard. Down to their waist in morass and mud, each step was exhausting. It took four to six men to carry one stretcher and even small distances would take hours. At night, it was simply impossible to evacuate the wounded, from the danger of getting lost or stuck in the mud. Many wounded died, waiting for the morning to come. The Germans shared their misery and it is reported that there was an unspoken rule to not fire on the stretcher parties. Lying wounded in the swamp was a terrible fate.
“Then there was a lull in the shelling, and through the machine-gun slit on the back wall of the pillbox we heard this terrible kind of gurgling noise. It was the wounded, lying there sinking, and this liquid mud burying them alive, running over their faces into their mouth and nose. We had to keep heaving the duckboards up and trying to put some other stuff underneath, just so that the fellows wouldn’t sink so much. We couldn’t understand why, in the name of God, anyone had ordered an attack like that over terrain like that. It was impossible.” Lieutenant J. Annan, Royal Scots. (MacDonald, Lyn: Passchendaele)
The heavier guns sank deeper into the ground each time they fired, and the men had to abandon the safety of their trenches, as they filled up to their armpits with water. Engineers tried to bridge the flooded shell-holes with pontoons and wooden walkways, however, those duckboards soon became a haunting image of the Passchendaele campaign. There was this constant fear of falling off and drowning in the morass, which was the fate of any soldier carrying his load who did so. The dead often simply disappeared in the mud, never to be seen again – 42,000 such bodies were never recovered at all.
“In a way it was worse when the mud didn’t sick you down; when it yielded under your feet you knew that it was a body you were treading on. It was terrifying. You’d tread on the stomach, perhaps, and it would grunt all the air out of its body. It made your hair stand on end. The smell could make you vomit. And you could always tell whether it was a dead Jerry or a dead Tommy. The Germans smelt different in death.” Private C. Miles. Royal Fusiliers. (MacDonald, Lyn: Passchendaele)
It rained nearly the whole of August. It was one of the wettest months in local history. Without the ability to bring the heavy guns forward, the battles usually came down to small-group actions. British battle groups and German counter attacks clashed with light machine-guns and hand-grenades in chaotic and confusing skirmishes, without much cohesion or tactical finesse.
As August came to a close, tens of thousands of men had already lost their lives. Some places had changed hands a dozen times, and whole map points were eradicated. The British forces were exhausted, and it passed to the Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders to slowly grind away at the German defences, which were in turn manned by exhausted, tired and dirty men for weeks on end. Everybody was miserable and filled with frustration. When elite units from the ANZAC met with the Prussian Guards, there were no prisoners taken.
100,000 Allied casualties
So far, more than 100,000 Allied casualties had paid for the advance of three and a half miles, but they could not remain in the swamp. By winter they had to push the Germans off the main ridge or pull back to their starting positions. This could only be achieved by throwing more lives against the German defences.
The fighting for Zonnebeke and the Menin Road had eventually turned the salient around, and by the end of September, it was the Germans who were being surrounded. The new tactic by General Herbert Plumer, to “bite” into the German defences and “hold” limited objectives proved successful against German counter-attacks. And now, with the weather clearing up, the heavy artillery could finally be brought up in support. But the German centre was still strongly held. The British had no choice but to prepare for the final push, no matter the cost.
By mid-October and tens of thousands of casualties later, there was only a small way to go to Passchendaele itself. Haig intended to bring in the Canadian and French forces for the final push, but the commanding Canadian General, Arthur Currie, took one hard look at the battlefield and said that his men would not attack until everything was prepared as favourably as possible. Haig had little choice but to agree, and they began preparing the battlefield and stocking up on artillery shells.
What followed was another month of murderous bombardment and fierce fighting in a nightmarish environment. It was a long hard slog up Passchendaele Ridge, and the casualties were enormous. Still, with the Canadians at the fore, the Allies gradually pushed onwards, duking it out against the stubborn German defenders, both sides trading lives for ground. In the end, the Germans had no working answer to the British “bite and hold” tactics and were gradually pushed off their defences. The village of Passchendaele itself was unrecognisable. It was simply bombed out of existence.
The cost? 80,000 men per mile
The battle officially ended on November 10, as the final important high ground was captured, although smaller-scale fighting would still go on for the rest of the year. The ultimate number of casualties that had vanished in the mud during the battle for Passchendaele Ridge is still unknown. It is realistic to say that at least half a million men from both sides had paid for the ground of six miles, so the price of each mile is over 80,000 men’s lives.
If you prefer a visual representation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode The Price of a Mile – The Battle of Passchendaele.