Thursday 12 October marks 100 years since the First Battle of Passchendaele began in 1917. Here are 7 Battle of Passchendaele Facts.
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)
First Battle of Passchendaele 1917 - facts
- 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 who 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 5.25 am. 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.
What was the reason for the Battle of Passchendaele?
The Allies had multiple reasons for a renewed offensive in Flanders.
Attacks elsewhere on the Western Front, by the French at Aisne and Commonwealth forces at Arras had achieved some success, but were unable to force a breakthrough. Following heavy losses at Aisne and with morale at an all-time low, some French forces began to mutiny. An attack at the Ypres Salient would occupy the German defenders and prevent a counterattack, relieving some of the pressure on the front lines in France.
The British commanders were also keen to threaten the German Navy’s submarine bases on the Belgian coast. Germany’s U-Boats were threatening the British Royal Navy, supply lines between Britain and France, and the vital trade routes between Britain, the rest of her Empire, and America.
What happened in the first Battle of Passchendaele?
The First Battle of Passchendaele was one of a series of battles during the First World War in Belgium that constitutes the Third Battle of Ypres.
Following Allied successes in the region, including the capture of Messines Ridge and Pilckem Ridge, another offensive was planned to force back the German defences and capture the high ground around the village of Passchendaele.
Under the command of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, a combined force of British, Australian and New Zealand troops began their advance on the morning of 12 October 1917.
That morning was the latest in a period of horrendous weather, with torrential rain turning the battlefield into a swamp of sticking mud and flooded shell holes. The conditions slowed the advance to a crawl, making the soldiers easy targets for German artillery and machine gun fire.
The attack was called off, but not before huge numbers of casualties were lost by both sides, and further attacks postponed until the weather improved.
How long did the Passchendaele Battle last?
The Third Battle of Ypres began at the end of July 1917, and lasted until the capture of Passchendaele on 6 November 1917.
The First Battle of Passchendaele lasted only a day, 12 October 1917.
The Second Battle of Passchendaele, which eventually led to the capture of the village and its ridge, began on 26 October, ending on 6 November 1917.
Battle of Passchendaele timeline
The two Battles of Passchendaele were part of the larger Third Battle of Ypres, which began in July 1917.
- 31 July 1917: The British launched an offensive between the Ypres Salient and Lille, aiming to capture important areas of high ground. Known as the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, the Allies made strong advances and sustained lower than expected casualties.
- 16 August 1917: The Allies attacked at the Battle of Langemarck, but heavy rains began to fall, turning the battlefield into a quagmire of mud and deep shell holes. These conditions slowed down the British advance and made it difficult to bring up supplies and artillery. Further advances were postponed until the weather improved.
- 22 August 1917: German forces launched a counter-attack, pushing back the British troops and recapturing some of the lost ground.
- 20 September 1917: A period of drier weather gave the Allies another opportunity to advance. The Battle of Menin Road was a strong victory, with the new bite and hold tactics proving successful.
- 25 September 1917: A strong German counterattack near Polygon Wood proved successful, with German forces taking back areas lost in the previous engagement.
- 26 September 1917: The Battle of Polygon Wood was a hard fought victory for the Allies, especially for the Australian divisions who took heavy casualties while taking the woods. Across the next few days, the Germans responded with heavy counter attacks that were ultimately repulsed.
- 4 October 1917: The British captured the village of Broodseinde, a key objective in the battle. This was one of the most effective advances for the Allies during this period of the war, but heavy rain blunted the attack before a decisive blow could be struck.
- 9 October 1917: The Battle of Poelcapelle was a costly attack by the Allied forces. Hindered by the severe weather and treacherous terrain, little progress was made.
- 12 October 1917: The First Battle of Passchendaele was a costly defeat for the Allies. The attackers were forced to wade through deep mud, slowing the advance and rendering artillery ineffective, giving the defenders a strong advantage. Further attacks were postponed until the weather improved.
- 26 October 1917: Second Battle of Passchendaele begins, spearheaded by the Canadian corps.
- 6 November 1917: Canadian troops capture the village of Passchendaele but the village had been reduced to ruins by the artillery and the fighting
- 10 November 1917: The Battle of Passchendaele ends, with the capture of Passchendaele Ridge by the Canadians. The battle had cost both sides hundreds of thousands of casualties and had achieved little strategic gain for either side.
Tactics used in the Battle of Passchendaele
By 1917, both sides were well used to the rigours of trench warfare, with both sides trying to innovate new ways to land a decisive blow.
One of the notable changes to military doctrine was the use of a ‘bite and hold’ strategy - a change credited to General Herbert Plumer - where the British Army would attack on a narrower front than usual, punching a hole a short distance into German territory, before digging in. This newly taken ground would then form the launchpad for reinforcements from behind the lines to launch the next attack.
The success of this tactic largely depended on the weather, as the ground became firmer in the dryer weather, the attacks were easier to coordinate and carry out. It also prevented the attacking force from overextending themselves, ensuring they could be supplied, supported by artillery, and were able to form an adequate defensive line in the face of German counterattack.
Who won the first Battle of Passchendaele?
As with many World War One battles, it is hard to argue that there was a conclusive victor at Passchendaele, although the argument sways towards the British and Commonwealth forces.
The Allies did manage to advance a short distance, but at huge cost in man power for both sides.
Was Passchendaele a success or failure?
The Allies achieved some of their objectives, including capturing Passchendaele ridge and the remains of the village. The battle also expended much of the German’s resources and manpower, helping to relieve the pressure on the exhausted French armies elsewhere on the Western Front.
The advance, however, was limited and failed to initiate a proper breakthrough. The submarine bases on the Flanders coast also remained in German hands, allowing the German Imperial Navy to continue to harrass shipping in the channel.
How many died in the First Battle of Passchendaele?
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.
On the day of the First Battle of Passchendaele, Allied casualties are believed to have reached 13,000. German losses were calculated at 12,000 for the period of the battle, although includes casualties taken in the days following the battle.
Across the Third Battle of Ypres, The British Official History recorded a total of 244,897 Commonwealth and British soldiers 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.
How is the Battle of Passchendaele remembered?
The casualties of the Battle of Passchendaele are buried among their comrades at CWGC Cemeteries across Belgium.
Close to 12,000 British Empire casualties are buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery, making it the largest CWGC cemetery in the world. Many of the burials here are unidentified having been brought to the site from battlefield burials across the region.
Passchendaele New British Cemetery sits on the outskirts of the village (now known as Passendale). It contains more than 2,100 casualties of the First World War, the majority of whom died during the autumn of 1917 during the eventual capture of the village. More than 1,600 of these casualties remain unidentified.
Due to the nature of trench warfare, and the sheer number of casualties on the Western Front, many commonwealth casualties could not be found or identified. These casualties are commemorated in perpetuity on the CWGC’s memorials to the missing in Belgium.
The Ypres Menin Gate Memorial is one of the most well known of all our sites. More than 54,000 Commonwealth casualties are commemorated on its walls, all of whom died on the Ypres salient before 16 August 1917 and who have no known grave.
The casualties who died in the second half of 1917 through to the end of the war, and who have no known grave, are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial. Close to 35,000 casualties are commemorated here, many of whom died during the battle of Passchendaele.
Visit the CWGC in Ieper to learn more
If you’ve been inspired to visit some of the battlefields of the battle of Passchendaele, and want to visit some of our Ieper war memorials and cemeteries, a visit to our CWGC Information Centre is a must.