Passchendaele marks centenary of muddy, bloody First World War battle


One hundred years have passed since the Battle of Passchendaele was fought in the mud of Flanders, but the story has never been forgotten

A season in hell

On the first Monday of every month, more than 100 locals gather in the Sportsman bar just off the busy main road from Ypres to Langemark, West Flanders. They pile into this simple cafe to hold a ceremony in honour of Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who died in fields across the road on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the most monstrous campaigns of the First World War.

The event is organised by the cafe’s owner, Marc Decaestecker, who has created a little shrine in a corner of the bar in memory of the poet. “It appears that Hedd Wyn has become a link between the Flemish and the Welsh,” a Welsh tourist noted recently in a local paper. “Two small nations who wish to preserve their culture in a united Europe moving towards peace.” 

The Battle of Passchendaele began at 3.50 on the morning of 31 July 1917, when the British army launched an attack across the gentle agricultural slopes below the village of Passchendaele. Despite some initial successes, the campaign soon became bogged down in thick mud caused by torrential summer rain.

Six weeks later and 650 kilometres away, at the National Eisteddfod literature festival in Birkenhead near Liverpool, judges announced the winner of its poetry competition. But no one stepped forward to claim credit for “The Hero”, submitted anonymously according to tradition. The author was Hedd Wyn, who had fallen in battle in Flanders just a few weeks before. Once his identity was known, the ceremonial bard’s chair was solemnly draped in black cloth.

In another section of the 24km front, a popular English rugby player called Edgar Mobbs died in a muddy shell hole after being shot in the neck. At the end of this month his relatives will travel to the spot where he fell, in a wood known as Shrewsbury Forest, to unveil a memorial exactly 100 years on from his death. 

Heavy rains

The Welsh poet from Gwynedd and the rugby player from Northampton were among the first casualties in a campaign that would go on to cost more than half a million lives.

Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the fighting coincided with the wettest summer in Belgium for 30 years. Within a few days, the rain had turned the rich Flemish soil into a sea of mud that clogged rifles and prevented tanks from moving. The mud eventually became so deep that men and horses drowned in it.

I died in Hell. They called it Passchendaele

- Poet Siegfried Sassoon

To make matters worse, the German army had constructed a solid line of concrete bunkers filled with machine guns.

The unimaginable battle dragged on for three months but achieved limited success, until finally, British and Canadian troops captured the remains of Passchendaele village on 6 November. One million shells had landed on the village during the 100-day battle, and virtually nothing remained except for a pile of pulverised brick and shattered wood. 

Hopeless struggle

Hundreds of thousands had died to capture what was little more than a heap of rubble. “My impression was that we had won the ridge, but lost the battalion,” one Canadian soldier said shortly after the capture.

The attack should have continued until the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge were captured, but the military command decided to call off the offensive in the village of Passchendaele and claim it as a victory.

But the name Passchendaele, hard as it was to pronounce, has become an enduring symbol of hopeless struggle and reckless leadership. It is remembered in letters and diaries, and in the works of writers and poets who lived through the dreadful battle.

“It was murder not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes,” wrote the poet Edmund Blunden. Another war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, put it more simply: “I died in Hell. They called it Passchendaele.”  

Fading traces

The advance from Ypres to Passchendaele, which you can drive in 10 minutes, took more than three months and claimed an estimated 35 Allied lives for every metre of ground gained.

The sheer scale of the slaughter meant it was impossible to recover many of the bodies. Most were simply left to sink in the mud. Thousands of artillery shells were also abandoned, slowly sinking into the deep ground. One hundred years on, local farmers ploughing their fields still uncover rusting shells and sometimes even human remains.

It was murder not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes

- Edmund Blunden

You can drive along the N303, following the ridge that cost so many lives to capture. The road passes through modest farming villages, where the red-brick houses have been rebuilt and the churches carefully restored, leaving hardly any trace of the war.

“If the Belgians had their way, it would look as if there had never been a war there,” wrote Piet Chielens, director of the In Flanders Fields Museum, in an article on the landscape of war published by cultural institution Ons Erfdeel.

Tales of war

But there are museums where you can learn about the story. The In Flanders Fields Museum is the best known and most visited. The Passchendaele Memorial Museum focuses on just one battle.

Opened in 2013, it occupies a reconstructed manor house in the village of Zonnebeke, a few kilometres from Passendale (the modern spelling). It tells the story of the war in a series of dark rooms filled with uniforms, old diaries and photographs.

The most impressive section of the museum lies deep underground, where you can wander through a vast reconstructed dugout while shells seem to be exploding right above your head.

A narrow country road leads from Zonnebeke to Tyne Cot Cemetery out in the fields east of Ypres. The largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world, it contains 12,000 graves standing in long rows, many of them with no names. But the white stone graves are far outnumbered by the 35,000 names carved on the back wall of the cemetery, recording soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. 

The other side

In 2006, the Flemish government built a striking new visitor pavilion outside the cemetery. Designed by the Bruges architects Govaert & Vanhoutte, it’s a simple low pavilion with a glass wall that looks out across the battlefield. The most haunting feature is a woman’s voice reading out the roll call of the dead as you approach the cemetery.

The German soldiers who died in the Battle of Passchendaele are not often given much thought, but at least as many died on the other side of the barbed wire. The evidence is just more hidden, and you have to make an effort to find the cemeteries. The most impressive lies hidden in trees near Menen. It is a vast, sombre place.

And it’s much larger in terms of numbers. More than 48,000 soldiers are buried here, many of them brought from the battlefield to the hospitals near the little town of Menen. 

This is Germany’s Tyne Cot, but there are no ceremonies planned here. The German commemorations are much less visible, though equally poignant. On the website of the German war graves commission, you can read a roll call of soldiers who died on that particular day, 100 years ago.

The list is accompanied by a simple message: Darum Europa! – That’s why we have Europe.  

A weekend of tributes

War horse

A new exclusive short story by British writer Michael Morpurgo will be performed in Ypres to mark the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Morpurgo’s live reading of From Farm Horse to War Horse, written for the anniversary, will be accompanied by the horse puppet Joey from the National Theatre’s production of war play, War Horse. 30 July, Ypres

The Wipers Times

Extracts from The Wipers Times, a play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, will be performed in Ypres, based on the satirical trench newspaper published by British soldiers fighting around the Flemish town. “The Wipers Times captured the defiant black humour of the British Forces in the face of overwhelming adversity,” said Hislop, whose grandfather fought at Passchendaele. 30 July, Ypres

War images

Images from the war will be projected on to the reconstructed Cloth Hall on the main square in Ypres. At the same time, interviews with war veterans, diary entries and letters will be read out and projected on to the walls of the building. 29-30 July 21.40, Grote Markt, Ypres

Tyne Cot ceremony

A ticket-only ceremony at Tyne Cot Cemetery brings together thousands of people descended from soldiers who fought in the Battle of Passchendaele. Relatives and serving soldiers will read out letters and diaries from 1917 during the service of remembrance. 31 July 13.00, Tyne Cot Cemetery, Tynecotstraat 22, Zonnebeke