Martin Marix Evans explores the muddy terrain of the Third Battle of Ypres, the effects it had on the action, and what can be found there today.

This article was featured in the February 2011 issue of the magazine. A 15-page special feature on Passchendaele will appear in issue 83 of Military History Monthly, on sale 13 July 2017. 

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Tyne Cot Cemetery, on the approaches to Passchendaele Ridge, contains the graves of 11,908 fallen Commonwealth soldiers, while the names of 34,984 missing are recorded on the curved wall.

 

In October 1914, the tiny British Expeditionary Force, with Belgian and French allies, clashed with the advancing German armies and only just held them in the First Battle of Ypres. This left the Germans in occupation of the Mesen (Messines in French) Ridge, south of Ieper (Ypres) and Hill 60, where the question mark-shaped ridge begins its curve through Hill 62 to Passendale (Passchendaele), also in German hands. The ridge overlooks the fertile, carefully-drained valleys under which are found impervious clay sub-soils. The ruin of the drainage system by shellfire was to create the most terrible fighting conditions encountered on the Western Front. Hill 60 was lost in December and was mined and counter-mined in a fearful subterranean battle until the end of the war; as the tortured terrain still bears the scars.

The Second Battle of Ypres began on 22 April 1915 and saw a makeshift Allied force pushed back to a line much closer to the town, running north from Hill 60, yielding Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood, where the trenches survive even today. This was the starting point for the five-month fight in 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres, that culminated in the assault on Passchendaele. It was planned in two phases; first, the taking of the Messines Ridge and, second, a swift break-out over the Passchendaele Ridge having secured the Gheluvelt Ridge which linked them.

Map showing troop movements around Passchendaele, 1917.

The Second Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Plumer, had dug 21 mines as deep as 40m and as long as 2km to place explosives under the German defences. On 26 May 1917, British artillery bombarded those lines, and, on 7 June at 3.10am, the mines were blown up. The Germans were shattered. Australian and New Zealand troops rolled forward. The reality of the ridge as a lookout and obstacle can be appreciated from the New Zealand memorial in Mesen. Although the Germans recovered, the front line ran due south from Hill 60 by 14 June. Phase one had been a success.

The stolid, methodical Plumer was succeeded, in the north, by the dashing General Sir Hubert Gough, commanding Fifth Army. Over the next six weeks, in lovely weather, the supplies were gathered and the men assembled – and the Germans beavered about reinforcing their lines. On 31 July, after a massive barrage, the attack began. Pilkem Ridge, the first of a succession of low watersheds to be overcome, was soon in British hands, and General Erich Ludendorff noted, ‘…besides a loss of 2km to 4km of ground along the whole front, it caused us [Germany] very considerable losses in prisoners and stores …’ But that day it rained solidly, more than 21mm in all – 84% of July 1916’s total rainfall. Rain continued to fall, shell-holes multiplied and filled with water, and the streams draining from the crucial ridge were destroyed. The new German defensive system, a lightly held but deep front line with counterattack units in strength to the rear, was taking its toll.

Wijtschate church spire rises above the Messines Ridge beyond Spanbroekmolen CWGC cemetery.

Wijtschate church spire rises above the Messines Ridge beyond Spanbroekmolen CWGC cemetery.

 

Gough’s efforts were stalling, and while Sanctuary Wood had been regained on the first day, progress along the Gheluvelt Ridge, towards Polygon Wood, demanded increased action in the south. His II Corps was transferred to Plumer, who asked for three weeks to prepare for a fresh attack. The rain ceased, only to begin again on 19 September. The next day, battle resumed with the Australians, I ANZAC Corps, entering the Battle of the Menin Road which, at great cost, pushed the east along the ridge. The Battle of Polygon Wood followed on 26 September. The advent of October was celebrated with heavy rainfall and the Battle of Broodseinde, on the ridge south of Passchendaele. The Australians moved at such a pace that they nearly overtook their own shellfire, and only the northern end of the accursed ridge remained to the enemy. It was the morass the battlefield had become that halted the ANZACS in the First Battle of Passchendale on 12 October, and the Canadian Corps took their place in the line. The Second Battle of Passchendaele gave a first hold on the firmer ground of the ridge above Tyne Cot on 26 and 27 October. On 10 November the high ground was finally gained.

Some of the most moving sites, such as Rifle House Cemetery and Ploegsteert Wood, are among the least visited, but should not be missed.

Some of the most moving sites, such as Rifle House Cemetery and Ploegsteert Wood, are among the least visited, but should not be missed.

Visiting the battlefields  

The superb museum, In Flanders Fields, housed in the great Cloth Hall in central Ieper, is the best place to begin a visit both for an overall understanding and to obtain, in the museum shop, specialist tour maps and guides to the numerous sites and museums in the area. The region is the scene of four First World War battles, of which the third is the best known – so beware of confusing them. If the visitor starts at Mesen and travels along the ridge (Hill 60, Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood, Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, Tyne Cot, and Passendale) and returns to Ieper across the ridges and valleys now restored to agriculture by way of Poelkapelle and Langemark, a good appreciation of the scenes of battle will be possible.

This article was featured in the February 2011 issue of the magazine. A 15-page special feature on Passchendaele will appear in issue 83 of Military History Monthly, on sale 13 July 2017. 

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