The Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, was one of the bloodiest battles fought on the Western Front. Both sides suffered significant losses during an offensive which has helped shape popular memory of the conflict.

Background

Ypres was the heart of the Commonwealth presence in Belgium for most of the First World War. In October and November 1914, British and French forces stopped the German advance to the Channel on the high ground east of the city, creating a ‘salient’ where Allied lines projected into enemy-held territory so that those defending it were surrounded on three sides. Its defence against a German attack in the spring of 1915 became known as the Second Battle of Ypres. For the next two years, trench raids, sniping and artillery fire continued every day and thousands of Commonwealth servicemen were killed or wounded every month.

At the end of July 1917, the Allies launched an offensive which became known as the Third Battle of Ypres. Its objective was to take the high ground and break out towards the vital railhead at Roulers, five miles to the east, and German U-boat bases on the Belgian coast.

The Battle

Following two weeks of intense artillery bombardment, Allied forces launched their assault on 31 July. After capturing Pilckem Ridge and making significant progress, Allied troops soon slowed in the face of rain and fierce German resistance. In drier weather in September and October, British Empire forces achieved success with limited attacks intended to ‘bite and hold’ German lines. South African, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian forces would all play an important role.

German forces suffered heavy casualties during the battles of the Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. In October, heavy rain returned and turned the battlefields into a muddy morass during further fighting at Poelcappelle and Passchendaele. The offensive was finally halted after the capture of Passchendaele in November, and the village would lend its name to popular descriptions of the battle.

Aftermath

The British Official History recorded a total of 244,897 British Empire casualties killed, wounded and missing, during the offensive. Recent estimates suggest a higher total, thought to have been around 275,000. While the French Army suffered around 8,500 casualties, German losses remain controversial. Estimates range from 217,000 to around 260,000.

Photographs of the devastation, particularly the treacherous conditions of the battlefield, have helped to shape public memory of the Western Front.

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Ypres Menin Gate Memorial bears the names of some 54,400 servicemen of the British Empire who died in Belgium and have no known grave. More than 17,850 of those commemorated here died between July and November 1917. A second memorial, the Tyne Cot Memorial, had to be constructed to accommodate all the names of those who died during the Third Battle of Ypres.

Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest CWGC cemetery in the world. It contains the graves and memorials to more than 11,960 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom more than 8,370 remain unidentified. At the top of the cemetery stands the Tyne Cot Memorial which bears the names of nearly 34,950 servicemen of the British Empire who died in Belgium and have no known grave.

Passchendaele New British Cemetery stands on Passchendaele ridge and contains the graves and memorials of more than 2,100 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom some 1,600 remain unidentified.