Individual World War 1 battles have all come to represent one facet or another of everything that is wrong with the war. The Somme, in 1916 for example was a wastage of lives on both sides that rocked the high commands on both sides. Gallipoli was about strategic mistakes in a foreign land that was little understood. The Nivelle Offensive taught the French that if one didn’t look after their soldiers, mutiny was a certainty.
Passchendaele came about as part of a plan to take German submarine bases on the Belgian coast and avoid a French withdrawal whilst they recovered from the Nivelle Offensive. It followed the spectacularly bloody year of 1916 where battles at Verdun and the Somme had taken over 2 million Allied and German casualties between them including 1.5 million deaths. The Germans had adopted the strategy of bleeding the French to death, whilst the Allies – the British in particular wanted to push Germany back through a series of attacks that would force a German withdrawal in one spot and then resume in another spot.
But Passchendaele became remembered as much for the muddy quagmire that was the ground in a salient around the town of Ypres as it was for the men who lost their lives there. In fact it was said that if the Germans and the Allies were in agreement about anything to do with Passchendaele, it was how much they detested the conditions in which they would have to fight.
No sooner had the artillery stopped churning the fields up, the heavens opened. Rain – days and days of it – poured down on soldiers in trenches, in dugouts, in shell holes and bunkers. Cold and wet, with an unrelenting enemy only a few hundred totally inhospitable metres away, was there a more abjectly miserable battle in World War 1? Around and in the town of Passchendaele – which was completely destroyed – 16 weeks of fighting saw the Allies nearly break the German front but at dreadful cost – in a single day on 12 October 1917, 900 New Zealanders were killed which remains our bloodiest ever day in the field of military operations. 240,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, 8,000 French and around 260,000 Germans lost their lives across the four months of the battle.