The battle of Passchendaele

'Passchendaele’ was not only an episode in the history of the First World War it became a concept, an international symbol of the great futility of the violence of war in its most horrific form.  It was at this location where in 1917 more than 400,000 soldiers perished for a territorial gain of only a few kilometres. Passchendaele is also a symbol for many nations, who made their mark here and wanted to establish themselves as a nation after the war.

In the summer of 1917, the British were determined to force a break through at the front in Flanders. In order to break through the Ypres Salient, they had to take the 'Wijtschateboog' or Messines Ridge to the south of Ypres. Since 1916, the British had been working on a large-scale plan to undermine the entire Salient with powerful deep mines. The Germans found out and tried to counter the Allies with counter mines. A bizarre cat and mouse game of mines and counter mines developed between the  Tunnellersand Minors, in a veritable private war under the Salient. Finally, in the early morning of 7 June 1917, nineteen deep mines were simultaneously exploded. It was the largest man-made explosion thus far, which had the effect of a powerful earthquake. The Germans were left devastated. The New Zealanders and Irish made great territorial gains. The final objective to take the front was a success. Haig, who was appointed as commander in chief, could now fully concentrate on his ‘Flanders Offensive’, with the objective of capturing the German submarine harbours at Ostend and Zeebrugge. 

Haig believed in a large offensive on a wide front. The Germans had however, expected a large-scale attack and were well prepared. The Germans had been constructing a defensive network underground since 1916. The attack-oriented thinking had been replaced by consolidating the acquired territory. Special ‘Pioniere’ or pioneer troops were deployed to construct successive lines of defence. The lines were built over the entire length of the front, but because the German army commanders were expecting an attack here they priortised the area around Zonnebeke. Numerous rows of barbed wire, machine gun nests and bunkers followed the line of the topography and connected the most strategic elements in the landscape. There were four active positions between the front and Passchendaele. The Albrehct and Wilhelm positions were fully constructed as a network of trenches and hideouts, the two Flanders positions were more like lines of bunkers. Misleading the enemy played an important role, including through using false trenches, and the Allied air reconnaissance was led up the garden path.  Above ground, 'Riegels' or small connected positions formed reinforced bridges between the actual positions above. This concept of elastic defence ensured that, with an allied attack, the Germans could join a new defensive line and from there organise a counter attack. Moreover, the Germans had the advantage of occupying the hilly landscape of the ridge to the east of Ypres. The natural defence of the dense green landscape was strategically important. The Germans had a particularly good view over the rolling hills from Passchendaele Ridge. The forest, hedges and farms that were still intact in 1917 provided good hiding places and were essential for the defence. Checking these elements was a decisive factor in the position of the front. 

During the preparatory artillery bombardments for the Third Battle of Ypres, the British fired more than 4,200,000 missiles at the German positions, which was two-and-a-half times more than the previous year at the Somme. After repeated postponement, the British finally attacked in the pouring rain on 31 July 1917. The heavy bombardments and the rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire and the tanks became stuck in the mud. The 'Battle of Pilkem' provided a territorial gain of three kilometres, but the attack halted at the Wilhelm Position.
On 10 August, the British launched a major but failed attack against the upper area around Gleuveld, in that position the Germans could fire on their entire right flank. The main gains came by the Langemark in mid-August. A dry crust developed on the mud after a few warm days so that the tanks could be deployed again.  These however, became stranded again whereby the planned break through at the front seemed even further away.

Haig realised that the offensive had stalled and replaced General Gough with Plumer, who applied successful  ‘step-by-step’ tactics which aimed to achieve limited objectives.  New troops were deployed to get the offensive going again: the ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ (ANZAC). The new troops and their modified tactics hit their targets.  On 20 September there was a successful battle around the Meenseweg, on 26 September by Polygon Wood and on 4 October at Broodseinde, during which the Germans suffered heavy loses.

In the Australian Country exhibition at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 there are three memorial medals, which form a sad symbol of the loss of Australian families who would never see their sons again. The three medals bear the name 'Seabrook'. Three Australian brothers, George Ross, William Keith and Theo Leslie Seabrook decided to join the Australian army in August 1916. They joined the 17the battalion Australian Infantry after their training. On 20 September 1917, their unit took part in the “Battle of the Menin Road”. The troops moved laboriously to their starting positions, when just after midnight a phosphorus grenade blew up in the colony located near Hellfire Corner, along the Meenseweg. William Keith Seabrook, who was serving as 2nd Lieutenant, walked in front of the colony and was seriously injured together with eight other soldiers. One witness, who tended to this wounds, later said that the injuries were of such a nature they were best left undescribed. William Keith was taken to the 10th Canadian Clearing Station, where he died from his injuries a day later. He carried a photo of his mother, Fanny Isabel Ross, on him and it was penetrated by the deadly shell fragment. He now lies buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Poperinge. In the meantime, his brothers, George Ross and Theo Leslie had arrived at their starting positons. They had undoubtedly heard the news that their brother had been mortally wounded. Their attack began at 5.40 am. Theo and George were both hit by a grenade and were never found again. It was their first day at the front.... It took a long time before their mother, Fanny Isabel Ross, was told what had happened to her three sons. Due to various contradictory messages and rumours, until her death in 1929 she continued to believe that one of them was still alive but had lost his memory and hadn't found his way home.  She carried that tragedy with her throughout her life. The brothers' father, William George Seabrook, also suffered greatly from the loss. In Fanny Seabrook’s own words “The blow of losing three sons in one battle is terrible and we are heartbroken”.

Meanwhile, the objective of the first phase of the offensive had now become the final objective of the entire campaign:   the take of the ruins of Passchendaele. The combination of autumn rain, saturated soil and the destroyed drainage system in the region reshaped the landscape into an immense sea of mud in which men, animals and machines drowned. For the battle of 9 October on Poelkapelle, the offensive needed eleven hours to get to their starting positions from Ypres over small gangplanks. It was also difficult for the artillery support, on the first shot the cannons sunk in the mud. The allied attack on Passchendaele on 12 October had a bloody end, mainly for the New Zealand troops. On 12 October 1917, the New Zealand division advanced to attack to take the Bellevue offshoot. The result was devastating: 2,700 loses, of which 845 fell in less than four hours' time. That day is thus eternally recorded as the most tragic day in the history of New Zealand.

One of the best known New Zealand victims was undoubtedly the rugby captain David Gallaher. David Gallaher was born in October 1873. From 1890, he played rugby in the Auckland Rugby team and gained fame as a sportsman. He took part in the Boer War in 1901 at the age of 27. Gallaher gained global fame as the captain of New Zealand's national team, “The All Blacks”. He married in 1906 and his daughter, Nora, was born in 1908. His younger brother died in France in June 1916. This convinced David to return to the army. He was appointed as sergeant of the 2nd Auckland Regiment. He was hit on the face on 4 October 1917 during the Battle of Broodseinde.  He was then taken to the first aid post at Abraham Heights (close to Graventafel, a location between Zonnebeke and Passchendaele) and then later transported to a hospital in Poperinge, where he died the same day. He now lies buried in Nine Elms Cemetary. To this day, each year a delegation of “The All Blacks” visits Gallaher's grave to pay their respects.

After the bloody battle on 12 October 1917, Haig gave the order to halt the attack and he replaced the ANZAC's with fresh Canadian troops. In April 1917, they carried out their first joint offensive near Vimy (France) under Canadian command. For many Canadians, this was the true birth of Canada as an independent nation. The Canadian army, that fought together as a nation, was known for its strong and tough army, that could provide a turning point in hopeless situations. This is what Haig was relying on when he sent the Canadians into battle.  On 26 and 30 October they trudged along their ‘Road to Passchendaele’. On 6 November, the Canadians finally managed to take the village of Passchendaele, which had since taken on mythical proportions: Passion-dale or the dale of suffering. They did not advance further and the offensive came to a standstill at the top of the ridge on 10 November. They had achieved the impossible, but at what price: 16,000 Canadians were dead, wounded or missing. 

Richard Verhaeghe, was one of the Canadian casualties, but was Belgian by birth. He was born in Zerkegem, Jabbeke on 25 April 1878. Between 1898 and 1913, he emigrated with his wife and daughter to Saskatoon, a small town in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.  He signed up to the Canadian army in August 1915, where he followed training to become a soldier. At the end of Jnauary 1916, he left for the front with the 5th Batallion. On 30 October 1917, the 5th Batallion attacked at Bellevue-Spur. Due to the poor condition of the land, the various companies lost sight of each other and the Germans were able to fire on the Canadians from the hill. One of the many casualties was Lance Corporal Richard Verhaeghe. His body was found in early March 1920 in the western corner of the Woodlands and his physical remains were transferred to Tyne Cot Cemetery, where he now has his final resting place.

The Battle of Passchendaele was a true massacre and demanded the tremendous courage of countless soldiers. There were bloody battles for every ridge, for every bunker. Capturing the bunkers and machine guns nests often took supreme acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. Various Victoria Crosses and other high distinctions were awarded for these acts, many posthumously. One of the courageous soldiers, who did survive the war, was John James Dwyer from Australia. On 26 September 1917, during the Battle of Polygon Wood, Dwyer succeeded in single-handedly overpowering a German machine gun nest at Molenaarelsthoek and he took the captured machine gun back to his line, to then use it against the advancing Germans. Dwyer survived the attack and later became Deputy Premier of Tasmania. His original Victoria Cross is in the possession of the Australian War Memorial, however, in 2013 his grandson donated the replica and several photos to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917.

The result of the Battle of Passchendaele was devastating. After 100 days there was a territorial gain of merely eight kilometres. The cost was enormous: almost 250,000 Allied casualties.  The military cemeteries grew substantially. Tyne Cot Cemetery, which was originally an advanced nursing station, grew further in size after the Third Battle of Ypres. After the war, the cemetery was extended with the isolated graves from the battlefields around Langemark and Passchendaele and through the exhumation and transfer of the the smaller cemeteries to that location. It is now the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world. Approximately 12,000 of the dead were buried there, which includes many different nationalities. Over 8,300 bodies have never been identified. At the rear of the cemetery, a 152 metre long wall encloses the cemetery. This wall contains the names of the almost 35,000 soldiers from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died on the Ypres Salient after 16 August 1917 and who have no known grave.

The Battle of Passchendaele still has a significant symbolic value today and in some respects was decisive in the outcome of the First World War. The German defence had appeared solid, but the extreme losses of men and materials were disastrous for the Germans. For the Germans, the Flanders battle was in reality a ‘Material battle’ and deprived them of the reserves to advance against the, then defenseless, French. Passchendaele also provided new insights and tactics for waging war. The old idea to attack on a wide front appeared to be less successful.  Haig never reached Zeebrugge, but the attrition provided a new understanding of war tactics. 

The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 keeps alive the memory of the Battle of Passchendaele, whereby in 1917 half a million casualties fell in one hundred days for only eight kilometres of territory. The museum is housed in the historical chateau grounds of Zonnebeke and focuses on the material aspects of World War One. Attnetion is given to the uniforms, battlefield archaeology and artillery The renewed museum has five sections. On the first floor, you are given an overview of the First World War in the region through a unique collection of historical objects, life-like dioramas, photo and film material. You then see how the British went to live underground in 1917, as there was nothing left above ground. In this unique Dugout Experience you discover the communication and dressing stations, head quarters and sleeping arrangements. The third section consists of a completely new underground building about the Battle of Passchendaele. Here, we take time for the international dimension of this war by focusing on the contribution of the various nations during this battle. A scale-model also provides the link to the battle landscape. Beside the Dugout Experience, visitors can also visit the new Trench Experience, a network of reconstructed German and British trenches along which original hideouts have been replicated. An exceptional experience of how life in the trenches evolved during the years of war. The fifth section, the Remembrance Gallery, is about the commemoration and remembrance of the many hundreds of thousands of casualties who battled and mainly fell here. Finally, there is the famous work of art by the New Zealand artist Helen Pollock, “Falls the Shadow”, baked with clay from Passchendaele and Koromandel in New Zealand.

Steven Vandenbussche
Conservator Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
The personal stories included in this text are from the research project “The Passchendaele Archives”. With this project, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 wants to give a face and story to the names listed on the gravestones and memorials. There are presently over 4,000 files for reference in the Passchendaele Research Centre in the former vicarage of Zonnebeke, just beside the church.