Passchendaele was one of the greatest disasters of the First World War and only the Somme was bloodier and more terrible. Hundreds of thousands of young men lost their lives in what was officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres – or ‘Wipers’ as many of the British and Empire troops called it.
Those allied against the Germans and fighting in Northern France during the Ypres campaigns were not only British, French and Belgians but included soldiers from countries far away and from all corners of the British Empire- Indians, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians – all died on the fields of Flanders.
By 1917, the Germans had captured the high ground above the area known as the ‘Ypres Salient’. This represented the last part of Belgium that was still being fought over and could not be abandoned as it was of symbolic value as well as tactical value to those allied against the Germans. From the city of Ypres, it was a short distance to the coast and the possibility of landing troops and establishing better lines of supply.
On 31 July 1917, the attack on German forces began. At first it seemed that ground was being gained without the terrible losses of the Somme, and allied forces made good progress. Then the heavens opened and the heaviest rainfall in years poured down upon the battlefield. But the Germans held the high ground, which remained relatively firm, whilst rain drained onto the surrounding lower land. This made it easier for them to bring in reinforcements, whilst their guns created carnage on the battlefield below.
The battle was effectively suspended for most of August but there was no possibility of falling back as losses would have been for nothing.
Low cloud prevented British planes from spotting German targets, tanks were bogged down in mud and men drowned in deep shell-holes filled with water, slipping down into them from the quagmire of the battlefield.
When the rain ceased for a little while, British and Empire soldiers made small advances and desperately tried to claim the high ground before the onset of winter.
Finally the village of Passchendaele was taken by Canadian troops – an objective that was a mere 10 kilometres from the initial advance, but which had taken four months to achieve and the loss of half a million men from the two opposing sides.
It was later abandoned in the Spring of 1980 when the Germans mounted an assault of their own.
The BBC is broadcasting a series of programmes, some of them live, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.
On World War One Remembered: Passchendaele For The Fallen (Sunday 30 July, BBC Two 7pm) there is live coverage beginning with the traditional Menin Gate ceremony. Every evening, the last post is played at the Menin Gate and the echoing of the bugle call is a daily remembrance of the men who died during that horrific campaign. This will be followed by a special live event in Ypres Market Square including include a tri-service orchestra, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, Dame Helen Mirren, Ian Hislop and the cast of The Wipers Times, and an extract from War Horse narrated by Michael Morpurgo.
At 11 a.m. on Monday 31 July, on BBC1, there will be a live broadcast from The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Tyne Cot Cemetery, to mark the centenary of the first day of the battle. The military ceremony will include music performance, readings and veteran testimony.
The BBC archive includes interviews with veterans of the Great War including one with Norman Macmillan who experienced the battle first as an infantryman and then as a fighter pilot.
The BBC World Services’ Witness programme has recordings of those who were at Passchendaele