31 jul - 1917

Battle of Passchendaele begins

Event-based song:The Price of a Mile
AlbumThe Art Of War

The Battle of Passchendaele, officially known as the third Battle of Ypres, was one of World War Ones major campaigns on the western front. Raging from 31st of July to 10th of November 1917, the fights between Allied forces and the Germans were marked by terrible weather conditions and the first usage of mustard gas in the history of warfare. Accounting for over half a million casualties, the battle is still regarded as a symbol for the true horror and foolishness of war and served SABATON as inspiration for the song „The Price Of A Mile“, from the 2008 album “The Art Of War”.

In July 1917 the Allied forces led by Sir Douglas Haig and the army of the German Reich under the command of Friedrich Sixt von Armin were trapped in a stalemate. By March the Germans had already shortened the front line by retreating to the so called Hindenburg line, a defensive position running from Arras to Laffaux. Built from 1916 to 1917 the well-structured and easily defensible line brought the Allied offensive to a halt. Several attempts to breach the German front line in April were rendered useless by the bad weather and even worse planning.

Meanwhile another battle raged on. Since February 1917 the Royal Navy had suffered heavy losses by German submarines which roamed freely at the British coast. Pressured by this on-going situation, Sir Douglas Haig was convinced to launch another attempt at breaking through the German lines. Believing that the German army was weakened and short of collapse, Haig aimed for a final push to breach the line and march on the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast.

Foreshadowed by a ten days long bombardment of the front line, the major offensive was started on early dawn of July 31st. On 03.50 AM the British infantry advanced on the foe – the Battle of Passchendaele had begun. However, Haig underestimated the state of the fourth German army, which met the attack with fierce resistance and was able to contain the British to small gains. The following days saw heavy fighting, when British advances were followed by German counterattacks. The losses were heavy on both sides as no inch of the battlefield was given away willingly.

Just a few hours after the launch of the offensive the battle was aggravated by the heaviest rains the Flanders had witnessed in thirty years. As the strong bombardment on the eve of the battle had destroyed the ancient drainage system that was used to keep the lush fields around Passchendaele from being flooded, the battlefield was soon turned into mud. Filling the trenches, the water threatened to drown soldiers in their sleep while tanks were rendered useless on the muddy terrain.

The village of Passchendaele: before (left) and after (right) the battle

After not being able to turn the tide under these circumstances, the offensive was brought to a halt at the end of August. Forced to admit that the strategy so far had produced no noteworthy territorial gains, commander Sir Douglas Haig replaced general Hubert Gough with Herbert Plumer. Plumer, who had already made a name of himself in the Battle of Messines prior that year, established a new set of tactics – „bite and hold“. His strategies consisted of well-planned offensives supported by heavy artillery fire to „bite out“ a piece of the German front line and hold it against the fierce counterattacks which followed inevitable.

The new tactics proved successful and the Allies were able to score small victories, namely the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge and the Battle of Polygon Wood. The Battle of Passchendaele finally came to an end on 6th of November with the British capture of the small village of Passchendaele itself. 300 000 allied soldiers have left their life on these Flandern fields, all for an overall territorial gain of five miles – “The Price Of A Mile“. The only consolation for the British Army was that the Germans suffered just as much casualties. The original goal (the destruction of the German submarine bases) was not accomplished. The gained territory was reconquered by the German army in the spring offensive 1918.