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The Rock-itt : December 2011
The Battle of Passchendaele 1917 or the Battle of the Mud All that was left of a wood in the Ypres Salient in autumn 1917. Note the slightly sloping ground to the right of the picture and the “ladder” attached to a tree for Observation of the German trench lines The Third Battle of Ypres took place between July and November 1917. It became known as The Battle of Passchendaele because it culminated in an attack on the small Belgian village of Passchendaele which was situated at a small ridge that looked south west towards the Flem ish town of Ypres. There had been a “salient” around Ypres since the start of the trench deadlock in late 1914. This battle was arguably the most horrific of the First W orld War for the Allies although the French would argue that Verdun was more so. Throughout July, Allied forces bombarded German positions with masses of artillery with the result that the zone beyond the British and Australian positions became full of massive craters. On the day of the offensive, heavy summer rains filled the shell holes with water and the whole area became a massive quagmire of sticky mud. On top of this the situation was exacerbated by the damage done to centuries old drainage systems that had effectively enabled Flemish farmers to work the former marshes into ploughed fields; very quickly the entire battlefield returned to its swampy nature. The Allied attack literally “bogged” down. Visitors to this region today would not believe the photographs of that time. It was clear at the time to those in the front lines, that because of the constant rain that fell in August, that any chance of a breakthrough had slipped away. For the Australians who had seen the mud that had accompanied the final weeks of the Somme campaign 12 months earlier, this mud was far, far worse. Roads became obliterated by the shelling, and the Allies had to quickly repair these in order to get supplies up to the front lines. These repaired roads became known as “corduroy roads” as large planks of wood were joined together by chains across the former roads. As vehicles had priority, soldiers, wagons and horses risked being dragged down into a quicksand of oozing slime as they made way for the constant traffic of supply going to and from the battlefield. As men moved forward carrying their weapons, supplies and their greatcoats, they risked death if they slipped into the mud or one of the craters. Wooden Duckboard paths were made so that movement was possible but often when taking shelter from German artillery, soldiers would slip into a shell hole and literally drown in the m ud and ooze. The British Commander in Chief, General Douglas Haig, claimed that the aim of the campaign was to ease pressure on the French, who had been desperate to quell various mutinies along their front and to further wear down the German Army in a war of attrition. W inston Churchill, now Minister of Munitions, suggested that Haig’s real motive was to achieve victory before the American forces arrived. Haig’s desire for glory and his total ignorance of the conditions at Passchendaele – Haig never went near the actual battle front; few Generals did – resulted in a pointless battle in dreadful conditions which had no impact on the long-term outcome of the war. At best, the Allies gained a few kilometres of useless muddy land. Historians find it difficult to agree on casualty figures because so many were lost in the carnage and the mud. British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, claimed Allied casualties reached almost 400 000. Australian infantry divisions fought in the battle of the Menin Road on 20 September1917. The 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions m oved up to Polygon Wood, close to Zonnebeke. The 4th and 5th Divisions took over and attacked Germ an positions on 26 September. Despite heavy German resistance, the Australians were able to move forward a few kilometres but Australian casualties alone in just By Simon Lyon