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The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres or simply Third Ypres, was one of the major battles of the 1914-18 Great War. The battle was fought for control of the village of Passendale near the Belgian town of Ieper in West Flanders by British, ANZAC, and Canadian soldiers against the German Imperial Army. Unlike the First and Second Ypres, this battle was instigated by the British and was Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig's intended 1917 breakthrough in Flanders. The plan was to drive a hole in the German lines and advance to the Belgian coast in order to capture the German submarine bases there. It was aimed at creating a decisive corridor in a crucial area of the front and also to take pressure off the French forces whose morale was extremely low after the disastrous Nivelle Offensive.
The land of the Ypres Salient over which the battle took place was mainly reclaimed marshland of the Yser flood plains that tended to be swampy even without rain. The extremely heavy preparatory bombardment by the British launched in preparation of the assault ripped up the surface and this combined with the heavy rain that fell from August 1917 onwards produced a terrain of impassable deep liquid mud. Unknown numbers of soldiers drowned in this glutinous mud soup and even the newly-developed tanks bogged down. The Germans had prepared their defences well since establishing their forward positions at the end of the Second Battle of Ypres. They were well entrenched, with mutually-supporting bunkers or "pillboxes" that withstood the initial bombardment and were not destroyed. The village of Passendale was finally taken by the Canadian forces, but the combined casualties of the British Commonwealth forces was almost a half a million men and the Germans lost almost half of that number.
Our In the footsteps tours of The Battle of Passchendaele have followed a number of different units and taken in a variety of locations, which have included: -
- Yorkshire Trench - Located close to the village of Boezinge, Yorkshire Trench was discovered when the foundations for the nearby factory were being dug. The remains of the trench were uncovered and a local group of amateur Belgian archaeologists, known as The Diggers, were called in to carry out the work. The excavations were filmed in part by BBC TV for the "Meet the Ancestors" and was first transmitted in March 2002 entitled "The Forgotten Battlefield". The position of the Yorkshire trench can be seen on British trench maps from September 1916, but the name "Yorkshire Trench" was not used until early the following year. A British dugout from 1917 was explored by the Diggers as early as 1992, but the majority of the work on the Yorkshire Trench site took place in the summer of 1998 and in April 2000. The reconstructed trench is a copy of that which was on this spot in 1917. It was from here that the 38th (Welsh) Division attacked on 31st July 1917 at the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres. They assaulted up the Pilckem Ridge towards Langemarck.
- Pilckem Ridge - It was along the Pilckem Ridge that the British assault of 31st July 1917 had the greatest success with the Guards Division advancing to the left of the railway line and the 38th (Welsh) Division to the right. These two Divisions managed to reach the River Steenbeek that lay in front of Langemarck.
During the action three Welshmen won the Victoria Cross, Sergeant Ivor Rees 11th South Wales Borderers, Corporal James Llewellyn Davies 13th Royal Welsh Fusiliers and Sergeant Robert Bye 1st Welsh Guards. The 38th (Welsh) Division sustained a total of 2,922 casualties during the actions of 31st July and 2nd August and this first general attack of the Third Battle of Ypres cost the British 27,001 against German losses of around 40,000. Amoung those to fall were two of the war poets: Private Ellis Humphrey Evan aka ‘Hedd Wyn’, 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers; and Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge, 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
- The River Steenbeek - This was the limit of the ground gained by the Guards and 38th (Welsh) Divisions on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres. It was from here that the attack to capture Langemarck would be launched 16 days later. One of those to attack was a young Lewis gunner named Harry Patch, who was to become the last surviving soldier known to have fought in the trenches of the First World War. Harry died on 25th July 2009 at the age of 111, but before doing so he revisited Pilckem Ridge and the River Steenbeek on 27th September 2008 and laid a personal memorial at the place where he crossed the river at the beginning of the assault dedicated to his comrades who fell in the battle.
- Langemarck - The 20th (Light) Division had been in XIV Corps reserve for the opening attack on 31st July and replaced the 38th (Welsh) Division in the line on 5th August. It was in the 7th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry that Harry Patch served. A memorial to the 20th (Light) Division stands along the main road heading east through Langemarck, just over the Steenbeek bridge, in remembrance that it was they who captured the ruins of the town from the Germans on 16th August 1917 at the beginning of the second general attack.
During the period of fighting at the Battle of Langemarck between 16th and 18th August 1917 the British sustained 36,190 casualties and the Germans lost around 30,000. On the far side of Langemarck to the north east of the town is the German Military Cemetery that contains the remains of nearly 25,000 German soldiers.
- The Menin Road - The Battle of the Menin Road was the third general attack and began on 20th September 1917 marking the start of the second phase of the battle. Following the less than satisfactory results achieved by General Gough's Fifth Army General Plumer's Second Army took over the offensive. General Plumer placed the ANZAC Corps in the frontline and using the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions attacked along the Gheluvelt Plateau. This assault got the stalled offensive moving again and marked the beginning of General Plumer's bite and hold tactics. The two Australian Divisions managed to push forward as far as the forward edge of Polygon Wood, which was to be the next attack.
Two Australian Victoria Crosses were won during the assault: Private Reginald Roy Innwood of the 10th Battalion; and Second Lieutenant Frederick Birks of the 6th Battalion. During this renewal of the assault between 20th and 25th September 1917 the 1st Australian Division sustained 2,754 casualties and the 2nd Australian Division 2,259 and overall the British lost around 20,000.
- Polygon Wood - The 4th and 5th Australian Divisions took over the line from the 1st and 2nd Australian Division to carry the British offensive forward. The 4th Australian Division assaulted on the left across the more open ground to the north of Polygon Wood, whilst the 5th Australian Division assaulted through the shattered remains of the wood itself.
As the 5th Australian Division advanced the 15th Australian Brigade began to bunch up on the right hand edge of the wood and this caused the assault to veer towards that edge. The assault, however, pushed forward against the strong German resistance and the fighting for control of the Pillboxes was fierce. Gradually these were overcome as their German defenders surrendered as each in turn was surrounded and the attacking Australians reached the Butte. This was rushed and found to be riddled with dugouts but two Battalions pushed onwards to reach the second objective.
The 4th Australian Division on the left advanced more rapidly across the more open ground and they too seized their objectives. A German counterattack was mounted, but this was seen off by defensive artillery fire brought down upon their own positions by Captain Albert Jacka, and by the end of the day the Australians were consolidating their gains.
During the fighting at Polygon Wood on 26th September 1917 the Australians won two Victoria Crosses: Private Patrick Joseph Bugden of the 31st Battalion and Sergeant John James Dwyer of the Machine Gun Corps. The 4th Australian Division sustained 1,715 casualties and the 5th Australian Division lost 3,722, whilst the German forces opposing them had around 2,100 casualties.
- The Broodseinde Ridge - On 4th October 1917 the next push forward took place, this time to drive the enemy off of the Broodseinde Ridge that stood between the British and the small town of Passchendaele. Again the main attacking troops were the ANZAC Corps and this time the New Zealand Division was introduced into the battle along with the 3rd Australian Division. They assaulted to the left of Zonnebeke with the 48th (South Midland) Division on their left. To their right were the 2nd and 1st Australian Divisions with the 7th Division to the right of them. The attack of 4th October was successful and the enemy were driven back. This was perhaps the most successful assault carried out by the ANZAC Forces during the 1914-18 Great War though it is a success that is over shadowed by the events that were to follow.
During the battle to capture the Broodseinde Ridge the 48th (South Midland) Division sustained 1,205 casualties, the New Zealand Division 1,643, the 3rd Australian Division 1,810, the 2nd Australian Division 2,174, the 1st Australian Division 2,448 and the 7th Division 2,123, whilst the German defenders lost around 20,000 including 5,000 taken prisoner.
Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded during the Battle of Broodseinde: Sergeant Major James Ockendon, 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 29th Division; Captain Clement Robertson, A Battalion, Tank Corps; Sergeant Charles Harry Coverdale, 11th Manchesters, 11th Division; Corporal Fred Greaves, 9th Sherwood Foresters, 11th Division; Private Arthur Hutt, 1/7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 48th Division; Sergeant Lewis McGee, 40th Battalion, 3rd Australian Division; Lance-Corporal Walter Peeler, 3rd Pioneer Battalion, 3rd Australian Division; Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Pugh Evans, 2nd Black Watch, 21st Division; and Private Thomas Henry Sage, 8th Somerset Light Infantry, 37th Division.
- Passendale - Passchendaele, bloody Passchendaele, a name that congers up the death and destruction and horrendous conditions in which the battles of the 1914-18 Great War was fought.
On 12th October 1917 the ANZAC Corps attempted to continue their advance eastwards and capture the small town of Passchendaele. The low lying ground below the Broodseinde Ridge and Passchendaele beyond had been shelled for three months. The drainage dykes that keep the land relatively dry had been destroyed and the unseasonal rains of 1917 had turned the ground into a sea of mud. It was into this that the ANZAC Corps advanced. The attack took ground in the north but early gains around Passchendaele were mostly lost to German counter-attacks. The battle was a German defensive success. For the ANZACs it was very costly and after close to a month at the forefront of the battle they finally ran out of steam. Passchendaele remained in German hands and the fresh troops of the Canadian Corps were brought forward to take over the assault.
During this first attempt to seize Passchendaele two Victoria Crosses were won: Private Albert Halton of the 1st King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) and Captain Clarence Smith Jeffries of the 34th Australian Battalion.
The British attacks against Passchendaele recommenced on 26th October 1917 when the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions began their attacks. It was not, however, to be an easy nut to crack and Passchendaele held out for 12-days finally falling to the Canadians on 6th November 1917. During that time the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions took over the advance and it was they who took the town. The Battle to secure the Passchendaele Ridge continued for another 4-days when the fighting finally died down bringing to an end the Third Battle of Ypres.
During the fighting to capture Passchendaele between 26th October and 10th November 1917 nine Canadian Victoria Crosses were won: Corporal Colin Fraser Barron 3rd (Toronto) Battalion; Private Thomas William Holmes 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles; Sergeant George Harry Mullin Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry; Major George Randolph Pearkes 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles; Private Cecil John Kinross 49th (Edmonton) Battalion; Captain Christopher Patrick John O'Kelly 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion; Private James Peter Robertson 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion; Lieutenant Robert Shankland 43rd (Cameron Highlanders of Canada) Battalion; and Lieutenant Hugh McKenzie 7th Canadian Machine Gun Company.
- Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial - Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing and the Cemetery form the largest CWGC cemetery in the world.
'Tyne Cot' or 'Tyne Cottage' was the name given by the Northumberland Fusiliers to a barn which stood near the level crossing on the Passchendaele-Broodseinde road. The barn, which had become the centre of five or six German blockhouses, or pill-boxes, was captured by the 3rd Australian Division on 4th October 1917, in the advance on Passchendaele.
The Memorial forms the north eastern boundary of the cemetery and it was designed by Sir Herbert Baker with sculpture by Joseph Armitage and F V Blundstone. It was unveiled by Sir Gilbert Dyett on 20th June 1927. The Memorial commemorates 34,952 soldiers from the United Kingdom who died in the Ypres Salient after 16th August 1917 and have no known grave. Those that died before 16th August 1917 are commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ieper.
Tyne Cot Cemetery contains the remains of 11,956 of whom 8,369 are unidentified and was designed by Sir Herbert Baker. At the suggestion of King George V, who visited the cemetery in 1922, the Cross of Sacrifice was placed on the original large pill-box. There are three other pill-boxes in the cemetery.
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