Friday, April 15, 2011

Passchendaele and the Ypres Salient

EDIT: Joski has some great pictures of trench warfare in Belgium on his blog. Click here to read the post.

Ieper (French: Ypres) is a West Flemish town 12 km from the border to France. Its name has become synonymous with the terrors on the West Front of the First World War (1914-1918). Thousands of war graves and memorials bear witness to the five major battles that took place near Ieper.

Ieper is located in the Westhoek (Dutch for "west corner",
the westernmost region of Belgium.

By September 1914, the German Empire had taken most of Belgium and were marching towards France, their true goal. However, two major defeats (at the Marne and Aisne rivers) forced them to change their plan. In a final attempt to outflank the Allies in the north, the German army attacked Ieper. If they could take the city, they would likely be able to drive the British back across the channel and out of the war.

The Battles of Ypres

The First Battle of Ypres was fought between 19 October and 22 November 1914. The Germans lost not only the battle but also their last chance of a quick victory in the war. What followed was four years of gruelling trench warfare, only interrupted by (mostly) pointless offensives.

This battle saw the establishment of the Ypres Salient. This was a piece of Allied territory arround Ieper, roughly 10x10 km in size and surrounded by German trenches in the north, east, and south. The fields of the Ypres Salient were to be burned and bombed for four years while the ground soaked up the blood of the killed and wounded.

The Ypres Salient, January 1915. (Source:

On the last day of the First Battle of Ypres, the Cloth Hall in Ieper was devastated in a fire caused by German artillery shells. The Cloth Hall, built in 1304, was the largest non-ecclesiastical Gothic building in Europe.

The Cloth Hall in Ieper burning on 22 November 1914.

The Second Battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May 1915) was born from two German motives. Firstly, they wanted to divert attention away from their offensives on the Eastern Front. Secondly, they wanted to test a new weapon: poison gas.

In each of the four major engagements of the battle the Germans released clouds of chlorine gas against the Allied positions. This was done by hauling the gas canisters to the front lines and opening them when the winds were favourable.

Chlorine gas, unlike the more popular mustard gas used later in the war, does not merely incapacitate or blind its victims. Approximately 6,000 Allied troops died within ten minutes of the gas canisters being opened.

Despite the horrible new weapon, the Germans failed to take Ieper. However, the Ypres Salient had become significantly smaller. This made it easier for the Germans to shell the city, which soon turned into a pile of rubble.

The British were outraged at the Germans' cowardly use of chemical weapons, and so immediately got to work on improving their own gas warfare capability.

Poison gas would eventually cause an estimated 1.3 million casualties in the First World War, 88,000 of which were fatal.

John Singer Sargent: Gassed (1919).
Victims of a mustard gas attack normally survived, but were
often afflicted with large blisters and temporary blindness.

The Third Battle of Ypres (31 July - 6 November 1917) is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. It was an Allied attempt to break through the German front and force them to give up the Channel Ports. This objective was not reached, but at least the village of Passendale (AKA Passchendaele) to the north-east of Ieper was liberated. The photo below shows Passendale before and after the battle.

A few months after the Battle of Passchendaele the Germans began to prepare for the Spring Offensive of 1918. The Allies decided to make a tactical withdrawal, effectively giving up without a fight the land they had lost 400,000 men taking only months before.

I died in hell - they called it Passchendaele.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) - Memorial Tablet

Australian Infantry wounded near Passendale, 12 October 1917.
Photo: Frank Hurley.

The Battle of the Lys, also known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres, was part of the German Spring Offensive of 1918, yet another plan to drive the British forces back across the Channel. The offensive began on 7 April 1918 and was called off three weeks later, after some 120,000 had fallen on both sides.

Soldiers of the British 55th Division blinded by tear gas
during the Battle of the Lys, 10 April 1918.

The Fifth Battle of Ypres (28 September - 2 October 1918), and also the last one, was part of the Hundred Days Offensive, a series of Allied offensives which led to the final defeat of the German Empire. King Albert I of Belgium was given command of the Army Group Flanders, which was a combined force of Belgian, British and French troops. After four years of German occupation, Belgium was liberated. The king re-entered Brussels to a hero's welcome.

King Albert I of Belgium (1875-1934).

Memorials and museums

How many people lost their lives at Ieper? It's hard to calculate and painful to imagine. Possibly a million, more than the combined number of American and British soldiers killed in all theatres of World War II. Now, nearly a hundred years since the beginning of the conflict, museums and memorials must speak where the voices of men are silenced forever.

The biggest war memorial in the city of Ieper is the Menin Gate, which is dedicated to the fallen British and Commonwealth soldiers whose graves are unknown. 54,896 names are inscribed in the Hall of Memory. The gate is located half a kilometre from Ieper's main square.

The Menin Gate in Ieper.

A remembrance poppy on a little wooden cross guards the memory of the fallen.

A tradition that dates back to the opening of the Menin Gate in 1927 is the Last Post, played by buglers from the local fire brigade at 8 P.M. every evening.

Near Passendale lies Tyne Cot, the world's largest Commonwealth war cemetery. It was first used when Australian forces used the site as an advanced dressing station during the war. There are 11,954 graves, 8,367 of which are unnamed.

Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing.

"Their name liveth for evermore"

Only the lucky among the fallen could be identified
by name, age, regiment, or even nationality.
This was not one of them.

On completion of the Menin Gate in Ieper, it was discovered to be too small to contain all the names of the Commonwealth soldiers who died without graves. A memorial wall was erected at Tyne Cot to accommodate the remaining names.

In total, the Menin Gate and the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing bear the names of 89,855 soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth who died in the Ypres Salient and whose bodies were never found. For comparison, the Memorial Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. has 58,267 names, the total number of American servicemen killed or missing in action in the Vietnam War.

The Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.

Letter on display at the visitors' centre at Tyne Cot cemetery.

On the second floor of the fully rebuilt Cloth Hall In Ieper you will find the In Flanders Fields Museum. Through use of multimedia, models, and authentic WWI antiques, it displays the horror and futility of war. One special feature is a card with a bar code that you receive upon entrance, which allows you to unlock a short digital biography of a participant in the Ypres campaign as you proceed through the museum.

The museum is named after the poem "In Flanders Fields", written in 1915 by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a physician serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Together with the poppies mentioned in the text, the poem is one of the most well-known symbols of remembrance.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields. 
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In Passendale you can find the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917. The most unusual feature is an underground reconstruction of a dug-out from the war, complete with beds, storage rooms, communication room and field hospital.

Gas masks from the war on display at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele.

At Diksmuide, 20 kilometres north of Ieper, you will find the Dodengang ("trench of death"). This is a 400-meter-long portion of the original trenches along the Ijzer (French: Yser) river, preserved as they were during the war by the Belgian Ministry of Defense. The Dodengang was so named because the opposing armies, entrenched on either side of the Ijzer, were literally only a grenade's throw away from each other.

The Dodengang at Diksmuide.

A photograph from the war shows soldiers posing
in the very same spot where the picture is now on display.

Looking over the top of the sandbags and across the river, I tried to imagine what it would be like to know that on the other side, only a stone's throw away, are hundreds of armed men intent on shooting you dead or, if necessary, sticking a bayonet through you. The only way to understand that is to give up all your faith in humanity.

Wikipedia sources:


  1. Very dark and impressive post. Again, you taught me some new things that were never really explained to me. You're the best <3

  2. Only glad to be of service :)
    I could say the same about your blog ;) <3

  3. A comprehensive and emotion provoking post
    conveying 'the waste' of 'The War To End All Wars'

    Increased my knowledge and perception, whilst carrying out family research


  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    1. Thank you! I'm still hoping to visit Ieper again in the future.