Of all the battles fought by British and Commonwealth forces on the Western Front, the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, is the one which most closely fits the popular perception of the First World War.
This views that war as a conflict where lines of infantry struggled across a desolate, shell-cratered landscape, through deep clinging mud, only to be mown down by machine gun fire.
Haig’s offensive in Flanders, which opened on 31 July 1917, was meant to smash the German army and break the trench deadlock. However, a side effect of the nine day preliminary artillery bombardment was the destruction of the local land drainage system.
This combined with very heavy rainfall throughout August to turn the ground into a quagmire. The resulting Flanders mud dramatically slowed the movement of infantry across the battlefield.
Bringing artillery forward to support attacks became increasingly problematic, and tanks were limited to the few remaining roads, otherwise they quickly became bogged down.
Poor weather and constant shelling during the offensive, which ran until 20 November 1917, ensured there was little time for the ground to dry out. Troops moving up to the front line did so along wooden duckboard tracks.
A section of these can be seen in the IWM London’s First World War Galleries. The duckboards were heavily shelled by the Germans, yet any movement off the trackways often meant death as men, horses and mules drowned in the deep mud.
Of the Third Battle of Ypres, it can be said that conditions on the battlefield, as much as the stoic German defence, ensured trench stalemate in Flanders.
To read more about the history of the battle, please click here