Misery and mud – The Third battle of Ypres

Infantry of the 3rd Australian Division marching through Ypres on the way to the front line to take part in the great battle of 4 October 1917. The AIF suffered 38,000 casualties in the Ypres battles, which took place between July and October 1917.

The first contact with World War I for the people of Ypres was on 7 October, 1914 when thousands of German troops marched into their town. They entered from the south-east along the road from Menin through the Menin Gate. By 9pm the town, its streets and market square were packed full of soldiers, mounted horses, carts, carriages, cars, field kitchens and guns.

Soldiers were billeted for the night in schools, the Cloth Hall, and the army barracks. The waiting rooms at the railway station and local houses were filled with German troops. Records indicate that the number of troops exceeded 10,000.  The mayor, Mr Colaert, advised the people of Ypres to stay calm and remain in their homes.

The shops were full of German soldiers. The bakers were ordered to have 8,000 bread rolls baked and ready for 8.30am the next morning to distribute to the troops. Payment was made in the form of German coins, paper notes and coupons.

Ypres was a place of vicious fighting during the Western Front campaign, this fighting continued for years. In July 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres began.  However by this stage of the war Ypres was nothing more than a ruin of muddied shell holes.

The Third Battle of Ypres was the major offensive in Flanders in 1917. The British intention was to sweep through to the Belgian coast where the German submarine base was located. The battle was brutal. It involved a series of costly offensives undertaken in the most horrific water logged conditions. The rain, heavy and frequent, filled the low lying area that had little drainage due to the constant artillery bombardment.

As the opportunity for breakthrough diminished, British Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig continued to maintain the importance of an offensive. The hope being that a continued offensive strategy would further reduce the German manpower.

On 16 August 1917, at Langemarck, to the west of Passchendaele, four days of fierce and intense fighting resulted in a victory; however the gain was small for the high number of casualties incurred.

The costly offensive, ending in November with the capture of Passchendaele village, merely widened the Ypres salient by only a few kilometres.

During the Third Battle of Ypres, Australian Divisions participated in the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and the First Battle of Passchendaele. In eight weeks of fighting Australian forces incurred a staggering 38,000 casualties.



Caption: Ypres salient (Courtesy of www.greatwar.co.uk)