Passchendaele 1917 - a Soldier's View

Thomas Ient had this to say about the devastation that war brings – it is factual and guarded but compelling, leaving us to read between the lines:

An Impression Of Passchendaele

I suppose most people looking back on their past life recall certain episodes which stand out and are unforgettable experiences which are never forgotten – this applies whether one is young or old. In my case, this applies in the case of the battle of Passchendaele which was a grim incident in the First World War.

As far as I remember, we arrived on the Yser Canal somewhere about the middle of October 1917, in anything but suitable weather for static or moving warfare. In fact, during the few weeks we were there it never seemed to cease raining.

The scene was bleak, grim and forbidding as one surveyed the landscape in all directions under the leaden skies, where any form of habitation seemed to have disappeared under the continuous shelling over the past years.

It was difficult to say where some of the villages had been and in fact the devastation appeared to be complete, leaving only the tree trunks standing and, in the distance, a few buildings at Ypres. Places like Langhernarck, St Julien and Pilkern were nothing more than a heap of rubble in a sea of water and mud, made increasingly worse by the continuous shelling which went on day and night.

The way to the front line was by the way of duckboard tracks and very much different to other parts of the Western Front where trenches were one continuous line. Everyone struggled to keep to the duckboard track, otherwise one found oneself up to the waist in mud and water, and, to make matters worse, the journey had to be made at night.

The surrounding country in its natural state was covered by small streams or beeks (becks in English) and, due to the constant shelling, the banks had been broken down so that one ran into another and formed one great lake.

It is small wonder then that progress had been slow towards Passchendaele while the cost in lives and wounded ran into thousands as the enemy always had the advantage. This part of the front was studded with concrete pill boxes which afforded the Germans complete cover and means to repel every attack we made.

I do not know how many of the PORs* were lost in this attack, but I did hear that only 100 came back out of 600, but whether these figures are authentic I cannot say for certain. I am sure most of us would say that our greatest enemy in those October days was not the Germans but the atrocious weather, with the incessant rain which made progress impossible and life unbearable.

The trenches we lived in during the previous months of summer were infinitely better than this misery of shell holes complete with water, mud, etc., and little or no cover from the enemy machine guns.

Naturally, much has been written about Passchendaele and whether it was all necessary – after all, we did lose thousands of men killed, wounded, and missing – and I think the Generals must take some of the blame for throwing away so many in impossible conditions. Afterwards, many I spoke to thought it would have been far better to wait for the 1918 spring when the ground would have been drier and progress much quicker.

The thousands lost would have proved beneficial to meet the German onslaught of March 1919, where we lost 70,000-80,000 prisoners simply because we did not have the numbers to meet the attack. For instance, the PORs held a front in March 1918 of some five miles with about 500 or 600 men – how could we hold the enemy?

But, in a final word about Passchendaele, I think many thousands were thrown away before the Canadians captured Passchendaele on November 7, and it is questionable whether it was worth it.

* Post Office Rifles Regiment


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