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 You are in: Special Report: 1998: 10/98: World War I  
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World War I Tuesday, 3 November, 1998, 11:20 GMT
Passchendaele: Drowning in mud
Map of Battle of Passchendaele
Passchendaele (officially the third battle of Ypres) is outstanding among the battles of World War I not only for its cost, but also for the conditions in which those casualties were incurred.

The British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, had decided to launch his forces from the Ypres salient -- the loop in the front line around the city which they had been holding since October 1914. Their aim was the German-occupied ports on the Belgian coast to the north-east.

Men carrying stretcher through mud
Men and horses drowned in the mud
The overture, on 7 June 1917 was the battle of Messines. It was a success, albeit at a cost of 24,000 casualties. The British exploded 19 huge underground mines, and then stormed the ridge overlooking Ypres from the south. But what followed was to be far more difficult.

The main attack went in over low-lying land veined by water courses. Constant shelling had churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems. The heavy rains which coincided with the opening assault, on 31 July, produced thick, clinging mud, which caked uniforms and clogged rifles.

It eventually became so deep that, in many places, men, horses and pack mules drowned in it. The shell holes filled with water. With each new phase of the offensive, fresh rain fell to add to the misery.

The only solid objects in the desolation seemed to be the concrete German strong-points, built to give their occupants inter-locking fields of machine gun fire which scythed down many attackers.

Despite this, the offensive continued, in fits and starts, throughout the summer and into autumn. It petered out in November, when the Canadians reached the site of the village which gave the battle its name. Hardly a trace of it remained.

What was supposed to be a thrusting breakthrough became a battle of attrition. The British and Empire forces advanced just five miles, at a cost of at least a quarter of a million casualties. Their one consolation was that the Germans had also suffered grievously.

To this day, historians question why Haig continued to push his army deeper into what many have called the Slough of Despond. But perhaps the battle's enduring epitaph is the phrase from one of Siegfried Sassoon's poems:

''I died in hell - They called it Passchendaele''

Links to more World War I stories are at the foot of the page.


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