11 October 2017

7 facts about the First Battle of Passchendaele

Thursday 12 October marks 100 years since the First Battle of Passchendaele began in 1917. Here are 7 facts about the battle.


Assault on Passchendaele 12 October - 6 November: A line of infantry marching along a muddy corduroy track strewn with debris at Westhoek. © IWM (E(AUS) 1222)

  • The First Battle of Passchendaele was the penultimate phase of the Third Battle of Ypres – a major Allied offensive which later became known simply as Passchendaele.
  • After an attempted advance on 9 October had failed, British Empire forces launched a new attack three days later in appalling weather. British, Australian and New Zealand troops were tasked with the capture of the Passchendaele Ridge from the Germans.
  • As they formed up in position to attack on the night of 11/12 October, the troops had to contend with thick mud, at times up to their ankles or knees. Those that slipped into the numerous shell holes risked drowning. In the early hours it began to drizzle, adding to the discomfort of those waiting to attack. To assist the passage of the New Zealanders, five makeshift crossings made of coconut matting were laid over the Ravebeek stream by the New Zealand Engineers.
  • Zero hour was fixed for 5.25am. A supporting artillery bombardment began, but it was light and patchy. Guns couldn’t be moved forward across the muddy battlefield, and the few that were in position sunk into the mud with each shot. Many shells that did land on German positions fell deep into the mud before exploding, diminishing their effect or neutralising them altogether.
  • The first push towards the village of Passchendaele saw minor advances. Some ground was gained and pillboxes captured, but German counter-attacks soon pushed most Allied troops back. Machine guns sited in concrete pillboxes caused significant casualties, and uncut barbed wire halted many attacking troops. Movement through the quagmire was almost impossible at times. The attack was called off the following day, in the hope that the weather would improve. It would not be until 26 October that the second effort to capture Passchendaele would begin.
  • British Empire casualties numbered some 13,000 killed and wounded. Estimates for German casualties vary, but were roughly 12,000 from 11-21 October.
  • The New Zealand Division suffered 2,700 casualties in a disastrous attack at Bellevue Spur. More than 840 were killed. In terms of lives lost in a single day, 12 October 1917 remains the greatest disaster in New Zealand’s military history.