AMONG the many hellish battles of The Great War in which Australian troops took part, few retain such a lingering sense of horror as Passchendaele. Indeed, the now-obsolete name of the Belgian village around which many thousands of lives were lost in the mud-soaked campaign in late 1917 evokes the same appalled feelings in England, New Zealand, Canada and Germany.
These days Belgians call the village Passendale.
The older name, “Passchendaele,” has practically become a word in its own right, standing for a legendary exercise in bloodthirsty futility on a scale that almost defies belief.
Passchendaele is a monument to everything that was wrong with British leadership on the Western Front at a time when the whole war had become one of attrition. Commander in Chief Douglas Haig didn’t go anywhere near the Flanders battlefields in late 1917, despite having personally hatched the idea for a major offensive in the area, and he criticised his troops for not being able to make and hold territorial gains.
“Newcastle’s Own” 35th Battalion went into the Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917, with 508 men, only 90 of whom remained unwounded by the battle’s end. The Australian War Memorial states that “Maitland’s Own” 34th Battalion suffered 50 per cent casualties.
The broader Flanders campaign occupied much of the second half of 1917, and was embarked upon by the British as a means of taking pressure from the French who, having lost about 4 million men in the war to that time, were at the point of actual mutiny and no longer able to be depended on, particularly in attack.
But the British timed things badly. The rains hit Flanders and turned the fields to mud. Onto these fields was poured the greatest barrage of artillery yet seen on Earth. The result was a horrendous bog, filled with all the terrible detritus of war. Countless men were sucked to their deaths by drowning and many more were blown apart as they struggled to obey orders to advance.
A series of bloody actions led to Passchendaele via Messines, the Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde Ridge. At each stage the Allies lost thousands dead and wounded.
By October 12, the opening day of the Battle of Passchendaele, the mud was so watery and deep it seemed inconceivable that the high command would order another advance.
Nelson Bay soldier Private Albert Diemar described the scene:
Well the battlefield in Flanders is something awful to look at. One mass of big shell holes, broken-in cement German pillboxes as we call them, also dugouts and all sorts of war material is lying everywhere on the field. Dead men, horses, mules etc everywhere and the smell is something awful bad. But we walk past the dead and take no notice of it at all. At places we may have to hold our nose for the smell is so strong. There are dead Germans in shell holes and the rain has half-filled the holes and they float about. Well this battlefield is miles in depth. Who knows what the ground around this battlefield will be good for after the war. Well, one doesn’t know as it is full of shell holes, barbed wire, pieces of shell casing and it is the most real battlefield I have saw since my service in France.
Slimy grey mud
Sapper Thomas Prince, of Tighes Hill, called Passchendaele “the nadir of frightfulness” and described part of the battlefield after fierce fighting for a German concrete pillbox:
Broken rifles, bayonets, stick bombs and machine guns; German shrapnel helmets, haversacks and other accoutrements; bodies with all their limbs, others without a head, a leg or an arm; lumps of indefinable shape with tattered shreds of cloth adhering; and all coated with slimy grey mud. Dead faces grinned horribly in derision at the sun peeping through a hole in the clouds on the sorry result of human folly.
Sergeant Thomas Dial, a coalminer from West Wallsend, was at Passchendaele with the 34th Battalion:
It rained all night, and we were up very early on the 11th of October which turned out to be a fine day. So we pitched our tents and dried our blankets, thinking that we would be camped there for a further few days. But we all had to fall in at 4.30pm with battle order and get our issue of bombs, sandbags, picks, shovels and our 24 hours ration.
Sgt Dial and his comrades made their way forward to the “assembly trench which in reality was large shell holes, and we had to stay there until about 5.30am on the morning of the 12th October when the barrage would open”.
So we all put our great coats on as it was commencing to rain heavily, and had a few winks of sleep . . . Eventually our artillery and machine guns opened up, and we all hopped out of the trenches. After we had gone about 100 yards we were all being bogged in mud and water as far up as the waist. Our rifles were only a hindrance, for when I had a chance to fire I found it was hardly possible to open my bolt to reload.
Some men gained ground, but their position was impossible and they were ordered to retreat.
At this moment all the men started to move back, but as it was a very bad way to go back we got the men to move back in small parties so that they would not be a very large target for the enemy artillery fire. When they had reached the original front line we again dug in. I may as well state that it was raining all the time.
A few days later I opened a paper and saw a very large heading of the Australians’ latest gains at Passchendaele, but all we gained was a big casualty list, for in my Company 18 came out of 118 that had been in it.
Hunter VC winner Joe Maxwell described fighting near Ypres on October 13in his book, Hell’s Bells and Mademoiselles:
Over Westhoek ridge, down the gully beyond and on to the ridge overlooking Passchendaele we shuffled through the . . . blasted region peopled by the dead.
A multitude of thunders mingled in one paralysing roar, belting on the ear and brain like relentless hammers . . . Wet, heavy clods of earth flew in the air, slapped one in the face, filling the eyes with mud, and thudded heavily against bodies. Fragments of shell whirled past with a vicious whistle. Panting moans rose to the right and left as those shell fragments bit into human bodies.
It seemed an eternity before we reached the front line, and when we reached it, it was some minutes before we knew it . . . Living men and battered bodies were engulfed together in the waves of earth and mud flung up by this terrific fire. Blackened and blood-stained men crawled out of the chaos of mud and filth with the dead rolling into the cavities from which they emerged. It was a valley of agony.
Private Diemar was among the wounded, and he described his experience in a letter to his family:
I was wounded by a sniper in the left leg, about four inches above the knee. It broke the bone, so down I went useless; later I was pulled into a shell hole. A chap put a dressing on it. A few hours later the stretcher bearers came; they put a rifle on my leg for a splint, one of the bearers was slightly wounded. So then they could not carry me out so they put me in a deeper shell hole and left me. I was there all night on my own. Next morning the Huns were carrying their wounded from all around me. They saw me but went to their men. So I thought I had better get, so I put all the bags I could around my leg to keep the mud out of the wound. Then when I got a chance I made a bold splash for our own lines. I had to crawl on my back. Well I crawled half a day when I met a chap wounded in the hip. So he said he would come along with me. We set off, me crawling on my back and he on his side. We looked bright birds scratching along. Well we crawled till dark then we stopped in a trench that night. Next morning we set off again. By this time we could see our chaps digging a trench. At last we got close enough to make them hear us calling for stretcher bearers so a few of them came out and got us into our own lines.
Knorrit Flat digger Bob Gibson recorded his opinion that:
If getting killed by the thousands is glorious, it was glorious in the Ypres battle. My battalion came out 200 strong out of a thousand. It breaks my heart when I think of it.
British losses in the push on Passchendaele were 13,000, 4200 of them Australian and 3000 New Zealanders. Wounded and dying from both sides lay on the muddy ground for days. Many died from exposure since there weren’t enough medics or stretcher bearers left alive to help them.
Canadian troops took over the push for the unimportant village and won it eventually on November 10, at the cost of another 12,400 casualties.
No wonder this area is 100 years later home to the biggest British Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. Tyne Cot cemetery holds 12,000 graves and most of them have no names. On the Menin Gate memorial are the names of 54,000 men who melted into the mud, never to have their remains identified.
The excerpts above are taken from the book The Hunter Region in The Great War, by Greg and Sylvia Ray. The book is available from the offices of Fairfax newspapers in the Hunter, and also from participating newsagents and booksellers.
Newcastle Christ Church Cathedral will hold a service to dedicate a plaque to the 35th Battalion on the day of the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, Thursday October 12, at 12:30. A requiem for Hunter Victoria Cross winner, Clarence Jeffries, who was killed at Passchendaele, will be held at 5pm.
Maitland Region Art Gallery will hold an exhibition on the Battle of Passchendaele from October 14 to January 28, 2018. The exhibition will feature photographs, film and other material relating to the battle.