Passchendaele – 100 Years Ago

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Along with the Somme and Gallipoli few names conjure up the full horrors of the First World War more than Passchendaele. Large scale battles to the south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in western Flanders, 100 years ago this year.

The railway junction at Roulers was vital for the supply of the German 4th Army and lay five miles from Passchendaele which is on the last ridge east of Ypres, seizing it was the first objective and the second stage of the Allied plan was to close the German-controlled railway between Roulers and Thourout. More ambitious measures such as a British advance along the coast from Nieuport along with an amphibious landing, codenamed Operation Hush, were to have seized Bruges and the Belgian coast up to the Dutch border but these never materialised.

Not a single battle but a series of engagements which started on 31st July 1917 with an assault across the Ghelveult Plateau in what is known as the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. An initial advance of up to 4,000 yards could not be held against a German counter-attack which was in turn halted by a combination of mud, artillery and machine gun fire. Periodic attacks and counter attacks continued with little overall change until finally in November the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions captured the village and the remaining high ground to the north.

In his memoirs, David Lloyd-George who had been Prime Minister at the time, described it as a ‘senseless campaign’ and ‘one of the greatest disasters of the war.’ The German General Staff took a similar view. Casualties were high on both sides and, although the various figures even in official accounts are disputed by historians, each side lost in the region of 300,000 killed with an unknown number wounded. Of the British and Commonwealth soldiers who perished there 90,000 have no known grave and are commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial built on what was previously called the Menenpoort through which many passed on their way to the front. Amongst those whose names appear are no fewer than eight British and Canadian recipients of the Victoria Cross. Every evening at 8:00pm buglers from the local fire brigade still play the Last Post beneath the Gate in a ceremony first performed in 1928. There were fourteen men from the Penistone area killed at Passchendaele including five old boys of Penistone Grammar School whose names are inscribed on the School’s memorial plaque. The 100th anniversary of the battles is surely a fitting occasion on which to commemorate their sacrifice.

First published in the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living May 2017