It was one of the bloodiest, most arduous, and most pointless battles of the First World War. By the time it ended, in November 1917, well over half a million casualties had been suffered by both sides. Over 42,000 of the dead have no known grave, their bodies never having been recovered. To this day, farmers in the area routinely uncover human remains, weapons and explosive devices left over from the battle.
The Telegraph summarizes the battle thus.
What took place was officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, but history recalls the horror in one word: Passchendaele. The name, along with the Somme, has come to symbolise the Great War for many.
The Allied assault was launched in the early hours of 31 July 1917. Because of the torrential rain, the British and Canadian troops found themselves fighting not only the Germans but a quagmire of stinking mud that swallowed up men, horses and tanks.
After three months, one week and three days of brutal trench warfare, the Allies finally recaptured the village of Passchendaele – but by then around a third of a million British and Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded in some of the most horrific trench warfare of the conflict.
. . .
The offensive took place in low-lying land which was home to thick clay soil and, after constant shelling during the war, smashed drainage systems.
Days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rain for 30 years. Tanks were immoblised, rifles were clogged up and the shelter usually created by shells turned to swamps. Many men, horses and pack mules drowned in the quagmire.
. . .
On 6 November the British and Canadian forces finally captured what remained of Passchendaele, leading Haig to call off the offensive and claim victory.
There's more at the link.
The conditions on the battlefield were indescribably awful. This video gives some idea of what the soldiers on both sides had to endure. Sir Launcelot Kiggell, a staff officer at British Army headquarters, was reported to have visited the Passchendaele battlefield after most of the fighting was over, and burst into tears as he said, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” (The story may be apocryphal, but it deserves to be true.)
One of my grandfathers fought at Passchendaele. My parents told me later that he would never speak of his experiences there. I think I understand.
The battle inspired a classic heavy metal song by Iron Maiden, titled simply 'Paschendale', released on their album 'Dance of Death' in 2003. I think it encapsulates the experience of the Battle of Passchendaele for those who were there, even though it's sung by men of a much younger generation. Perhaps, in its own way, it's a fitting memorial for those who died there. I've chosen a video that incorporates the lyrics, which are sometimes hard to understand.
May the souls of all those who fought at Passchendaele rest in peace, and may their sins be forgiven them. None of them are alive today, so let's remember them with compassion.