Solider on a stretcher during the Third Battle of Ypres
Lieutenant Browne sat in his Mark IV tank at Forward Cottage and passed around the whisky. The throbbing of the tank’s engine shut out all noise.
There was only the dull, black Flanders night. Then, at 0350 precisely, recalled Browne, “two or three thousand shells of every calibre burst virtually together in great semi circles on or over the enemy’s front and second lines… the very earth seemed to erupt”.
The early morning of July 31, 1917. What official records would call the Third Battle of Ypres had begun. To the men who fought it, and to posterity, the British “Big Push” of 1917 on the Western Front would simply be Passchendaele, after the pathetic hamlet on the pathetic ridge that marked the climax of the British Expeditionary Force’s advance.
A century on, Passchendaele is a black-edged byword for futility. At least the Somme has the bright nobility of brave sacrifice.
You just did your job, and with any luck you came back
Passchendaele has mud and the intransigent incomprehension of remote “chateau generals”. When Sir Launcelot Kiggell, a staff officer at British GHQ, visited the Passchendaele battlefield he is reported as weeping, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
By the time the British Commanderin-Chief, Douglas Haig, finally called off the Passchendaele offensive on November 10, 1917, upwards of 500,000 men had been killed or wounded, 244,897 of them British and Imperial troops.
As a visit to the Menin Gate Memorial To The Missing in Ypres makes heartbreakingly plain, thousands upon thousands of the dead simply disappeared for ever into the thick brown Flanders mud.
British soldiers in a destroyed trench during the Battle of Passchendaele
At Passchendaele the British fought the Germans and they fought the mud. Two hours after Lieutenant Browne’s tank went into action it crawled into a shell hole and the ingress of rain drowned the engine. This was Day One.
On August 5, 0.73in of rain fell, equivalent to three quarters of the monthly average for the area.
There was a depressing pattern at Passchendaele; almost every major British action was rained on.
Motorised transport became bogged down. Troops relied on mules; three quarters of the ammo came up on the back of braying, four-legged beasts.
Illness was rampant….