What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle…
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells…
This paraphrasing of the opening stanza of Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen sums up the tragedy that was the battle of Passchendaele.
Fought in Belgium, the goal of the campaign was to gain control of the ridges south and east of the city of Ypres, putting the Allies within striking distance of the vital rail junction at Roulers.
Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the campaign began on the 31st July, 1917, making Monday this week its centenary. The battle saw approximately fifty Divisions from Britain and her Empire, support by a further six French Divisions engage more than eighty German Divisions and lasted until mid-November 1917 with the capture of the village of Passchendaele before being called off, having failed to produce the breakthrough desired.
Both sides suffered huge casualties for very little gain. Though there are conflicting reports on the final casualty figures, the minimum figure given is in excess of half a million with the higher estimates approaching 900 000 killed and wounded for an advance of less than 10km.
Along with the Somme and Verdun, Passchendaele has become synonymous with the ‘blood and mud’ misery of the First World War.
Want to know more? Check out the books on the Passchendaele Campaign or other accounts of the First World War.