July 31, 1917 – Third Battle of Ypres Begins During WWI

The Third Battle of Ypres in the Belgian province of Flanders, also known as Passchendaele after the village and the ridge surrounding it, was a controversial battle on the Western Front during World War I. It resulted in enormous casualties – some 310,000 for the Allies, and some 260,000 on the German side, ending in an Allied advance of only five miles.

Illustration by Meilan Solly for Smithsonian Magazine

The offensive was based on the desire of British commander Sir Douglas Haig to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian north-east coast. 

The UK National Army Museum reports that Ypres “was probably the most dangerous area for British soldiers on the whole Western Front. Surrounded by the Germans on three sides and overlooked by high ground, it was very vulnerable to German fire.”

But the most formidable problem came from the weather. On this date, it began to rain heavily, turning the ground into a muddy mess. As the UK Telegraph describes it:

Days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rain for 30 years. Tanks were immobilised, rifles were clogged up and the shelter usually created by shells turned to swamps. Many men, horses and pack mules drowned in the quagmire.”

(Although over 100 British tanks participated in the attack, the mud cancelled out any tactical advantage they might have conferred, as they “were not especially well-suited to operating in waist-high mud.”)

The UK Army Museum website contends that the weather affected the Allies more than the Germans, since they were on high ground and did not have to cross the contested territory below. They note: “In particular, the rain made supplying the guns, and moving them forward, virtually impossible.” 

Battleground at Passchendaele – credit Wikimedia Commons

After three months, one week and three days, the Allies finally recaptured the village of Passchendaele, leading Haig to call off the offensive and claim victory.

The German submarine bases on the coast had not been captured. In his Memoirs of 1938, Lloyd George wrote:

Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign ….”

Credit: UK Telegraph

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