The mud and misery of the Passchendaele battlefield. Image from Library and Archives Canada
Now spelt Passendale, this small village five miles north-east of Ypres is the name by which the final stages of the Third Battle of Ypres is known. It is the name, along with the Somme, which has come to symbolise the Great War for many. The Third battle of Ypres was preceded by the attack on Messines ridge in June 1917. The main battle commenced on the 31st of July 1917, and stretched on until November the 10th, 1917.
The final phase, the advance on Passchendaele, took place in October and November, the aim being to take the strategically important high ground of the Passchendaele ridge. The first battle of Passchendaele, on the 12th October, failed to take the village, and the second battle of Passchendaele lasted from the 26th of October until the 10th of November. Below are a modern map of the sites described on this page, and a trench map of the area from 1917. Just south west of the village is the large cemetery and Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot; please visit the seperate page covering this.
Passchendaele locations map
Trench map from September 1917 showing Passchendaele. The church and Crest Farm can be seen.
For battlefield touring in the area ,the Holt's Guide to the Ypres Salient is the guidebook I would reccomend to visitors; it contains specific itineraries covering the relevant sites, and I still carry my copy on every visit I make to the battlefields. There is also now a pocket version available. For reviews on these and other guidebooks that may be of use, see the Reviews section.
Passchendaele church was totally destroyed by shellfire in 1917. However, it has since been reconstructed and now dominates the village square. Within the church are memorial windows in honour of the 66th Division. There are three windows. The left states "1914" at the bottom, with the names and shields of several northern towns above, including Bury, Accrington, Bolton, Blackburn and Wigan. The larger central window states "66th Division, British Expeditionary Force, In Memoriam" Above St George is pictured, and further up a shield with three lions representing the Duchy of Lancaster. The shields and names of Manchester and Salford are towards the top. The right window states "1918" and has more shields, of Padiham, Bacup, Todmorden and others.
Outside the church in the central village square is a bronze plaque. This was sculpted by Ross Bastiaan, and shows a relief map of the Ypres salient, along with some information on the battle of Passchendaele. There are also some statistics: the plaque states that 1,000,000 from the British Empire were killed, and 2,000,000 wounded on the Western Front during the Great War. It was unveiled by the Honourable Bill Hayden, Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia, on the 1st of September, 1993. There are similar bronze relief plaques at Messines and the Menin Gate in Ypres.
Just to the west of Passchendaele on the road to s-Graventafel is Passchendaele New British Cemetery. This was created by concentration of graves following the Armistice. The structure of the front of this cemetery is somewhat unusual, with almost a barred window appearance such as a prison might have (see picture below). Almost all the graves date from the autumn of 1917, and thus from Third Ypres.
Passchendaele New British Cemetery in the 1930s. Photo: NELS
There are 2101 burials here, 1600 of which (more than three-quarters) are unidentified. The cemetery is set on three tiers, with steps down to the lower tiers as you move away from the road. At the back right is a short row in Plot 16 set by itself, with three Canadian unknowns and Lieutenant Gordon Alan Cockburn (middle name spelt "Allan" on his attestation papers) of the Canadian Field Artillery, who was attached to the Royal Flying Corps. Right at the back are seven special memorials to men who are believed to be buried here. The very large proportion of unknown burials is obvious as you walk along the rows. On my last visit a series of children cycled past in groups on their way home from school, their cheerful voices lightening the atmosphere on a sunny evening in Flanders.
Just outside the Cemetery is the last of the Albertina markers to be erected by the Belgians in the 1980s to commemorate the death of King Albert I. This one states "Ein defensiv Passendale 28th September 1918", and marks the end of the last Passchendaele offensive towards the end of the War.
The site of Crest Farm lies just south of the village, on a street called Canadalaan. This fortified farm on the high ground was on the line of the final offensive to take the village. This is one of several official Canadian memorial sites, and marks the attack made from here by the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions on the 6th of November. The Australian 9th Brigade had previously taken Crest Farm on the 12th of October, but it had not been held. It was retaken by the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada on the 30th October. The layout and the commemorative stone is similar to that at Hill 62 (and other Canadian memorials on the Western Front), and below is a picture of the memorial, showing Passchendaele church in the centre of the village in the background. It was not a great distance, but the price in blood for those few yards was very high. The village and the ridge were finally taken on the 10th of November, 1917.
Ruins of Passchendaele village. The church stood on the mound in the background. Photo from the Michelin Guide to Ypres
Heading south from the village on the N303, just as the houses in the village end and before large new warehouses (with the name PASFROST), a grass track leads off to the left which is signposted to the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion Memorial. The 85th were part of the 4th Canadian Division. The memorial is a short distance along the path and the plaque records that it was erected by the battalion 'in memory of the gallant comrades who gave their lives in the operation before Passchendaele at Decline Copse and Vienna Cottage October 28th to 31st 1917'. There then follow the names of those who died, starting with 12 officers and then listing over 130 other ranks.
On the 17th and 18th of October 1917, men from the battalion viewed a relief map (made at 1:1000 scale in concrete at Ten Elms Camp near Poperinghe) of the area they were to attack. On the 17th Lieutenant Frank Hutchinson joined the battalion. He was one of those who would die in the attack less than two weeks later (like many of the others he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate).
The battalion spent the next few days practicing for their attack, and on the 27th Lieutenant Walter Martell led an advance party into the line, with the remainder of the battalion following the next day.
On the 28th of October the 85th Battalion moved to Potijze, where they had supper, and then moved up to the front line. A German counter-attack had driven the 44th Battalion (which they were relieving) back, and men of the 85th helped out. There were four officers killed here, even before the main attack (due on the 30th). Captain MacKenzie was shot in the abdomen by a machine gun, and survived a little while to direct operations, dying shortly afterwards. Lieutenants Martell and Anderson were killed, whilst Lieutenant Christie was wounded. He was taken back to the Regimental First-Aid post, but there he was killed by a shell, as was his batman who had come back with him. This Aid Post was located at 'Tyne Cottage' - Tyne Cot.
The preparations for attack were made after dusk on the 29th, and the next morning, the attack was scheduled to begin at 5.50 a.m. 'A', 'B' and 'C' Companies were to make the attack, on ground from where the railway used to run (to the south of where the monument stands), across to the road which is now the N303. 'D' Company was in reserve. There was a preliminary barrage, but it was felt to be light and of little use in this sector.
The attackers were met immediately with rifle and machine-gun fire from the Germans, with nine officers hit immediately, two Company Commanders (Captains Hensley and Clayton) being killed outright. The fire-fight continued, and progress could only be made by the men leaping from shell-hole to shell-hole. Anyone attempting to walk or stand upright was hit - such as Sergeant Rushton of 'A' Company, who stood up, shouted "Come on 'A' Company!" and was instantly killed. Listed as a Corporal on the CWGC website, Oscar Rushton has no known grave.
At this point, Major Anderson brought some of the reserves of 'D' Company forward. This gave the Canadians the impetus they needed and they pushed on, capturing machine gun posts and 'putting the crews out of action'. They took their objective (the Blue line) at 6.38 a.m., nearly an hour after they had started out. It was just after this that Lieutenant Hutchinson, in charge of the battalion Tump Liners (a group which carried supplies and equipment in containers partly supported by a band around the forehead) led them up carrying ammunition but was killed after being with the battalion less than two weeks. Major Anderson, Second in Command of the Battalion, was also killed about this time.
The 85th Battalion held their positions for the remainder of the day and the next, although Germans could be seen firing and trying to counter-attack from Passchendaele village and Hill 13. The 85th were relieved on the evening of the 31st of October. They had captured ten machine guns and a field gun, taken a large (but unknown) number of prisoners and expended around 50 rounds of ammunition per rifle. The cost to the 85th Battalion had been considerable. Of 33 officers involved in the attack (including those at Battalion Headquarters), twelve were killed (those listed on the memorial here), whilst another 11 were wounded. Of the 20 officers with 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D' companies, only one, Lieutenant W Bligh, came through unharmed.
Like most War Diaries of the Great War, this one does not give much information on other ranks, although the number of names recorded on the memorial shows that over 130 were killed, and Brigade records show over 320 recorded as 'wounded' or 'missing' in the attack - one small part of the Third Battle of Ypres.
Although it was erected just after the war, the memorial looks in pristine condition, so may have been restored at some point. It is set on a herringbone pattern brickwork base, and the stone of the monument looks completely unweathered. The memorial stands near the site of one of the 85th Battalion's objectives - a German strong-point marked as 'Vienna Cottage' on trench-maps, and mentioned on the memorial itself. This spot is worth visiting, not only to see the memorial but also because there are excellent views from here, back to the village and also in other directions.
Continuing south on the N303, the village of Broodseinde is located where the N332 crosses the N303. There is a roundabout where the roads meet, with a modern sculpture in the centre and just off the roundabout is a memorial to French soldiers.
The memorial is fairly recent, having been consturcted in 1977. It takes the form of a brick built central arch with tapering flanking walls. There is a small plaque on the left side, giving the date 6th of October 1978, a bell attached to the wall on the right side and three crosses similar to those found in French military cemeteries. The memorial is to commemorate the 16,000 French soldiers from the 9th Army Corps killed in 1914. There are also two flagpoles set off to the right.
A little further south along the N303 (in the direction of the A19 motorway), just outside the village stands a Memorial to the Seventh Division. Although telegraph poles now run alongside it, in other respects the memorial and the setting are very little changed from a view taken between the wars (see below).
The Seventh Division Memorial between the Wars. Photo: NELS
A plaque reads "To the memory of our comrades of the 7th Division who fell in the Great War 1914-1918". The front panel has a longer inscription: it is now very faded and difficult to read but it lists the units which made up the 7th Division in 1914-1915 (including the 20th, 21st and 22nd Infantry Brigades. A much less weathered inscription on the rear gives the make up of the Division in 1917, when the 21st Infantry Brigade had been replaced by the 91st. The Divisions battle honours are inscribed on the sides of the obelisk that surmounts the memorial. The battle honours include First Ypres, the battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, a number of battles on the Somme in 1916 and of course Broodseinde in 1917. For 1918, the battle honours reflect the Divisions move late in 1917 to Italy.
The battle of Broodseinde commenced on the 4th of October 1917, when the 7th Division units attacked at 6 a.m. Over five days they suffered over 2,500 casualties. The Division also fought here in 1914.
Passendale Memorial 1917 Museum
The N303 continues south, and in Zonnebeke, located about a mile away is the new Passendale Memorial 1917 Museum. The museum was previously known as the Streeksmuseum, and can be found on the N322 towards Ieper after you pass the church in Zonnebeke at the roundabout. The entrance to the museum is shown below, and in front of this on either side are the remains of pillboxes set symbolically.
The entrance leads into a park area. There is a fishing lake, a childrens play area and the local library. This is actually the grounds of the old chateau, previously owned by the Iweins family. In 1980, the estate was sold to the town, and it then became a park. The museum itself is actually in the old chateau. The original building was destroyed in the War, but the chateau was rebuilt in 1924. The museum opened in 2004, on Anzac Day.
It costs 5 Euros to enter the museum, and there are audio-visual presentations, giving the history of the Ypres salient, and of the Battle of Passchendaele. There are many exhibits of equipment, armaments and personal effects. There are a range of period publications including "Consolidation of trenches, localities and craters after assault and capture: with a note on rapid wiring" dated 1916 and stating on the cover "Not to be taken into front trenches", and a German trench map showing Hooge on the 7th of May 1917. One display shows a range of different types of gas-masks, going right through from the early "hood" type. There is also a flammenwerfer (or flame-thrower), as first used not far from here at Hooge.
Zonnebeke Chateau in the 1930s. Photo: A. J. Insall
Another display is of various types of body armour, including the steel plate that the Germans wore fitted over two bolts on either side of their helmets to protect them from bullets. There is a Maxim machine gun in fine condition, stamped "Berlin 1917", rolls of barbed wire, plus the corkscrew "silent pickets" that held it up. I have only described a small number of the items to be seen here.
The displays are arranged more or less chronologically covering the War, and one of the most moving items (which Charlotte Cardoen-Descamps at Varlet Farm told me to look out for) is an intact bottle of olives. They are now rather rotten, but this was intended to be someone's meal around 90 years ago. One wonders whether the owner survived to miss it, or not. For me, personal items like this can bring more meaning to what the Great War really meant.
There is a large modern aerial photograph of the Salient in one room, which is located horizontally in the centre of the room, and on this are marked many sites, such as cemeteries, memorials and bunkers. There is also a series of scale models of different bunkers from the salient, and information on their use in the Great War.
Trenches at Zonnebeke on the road to Ypres. Photo: NELS
The piece de resistance is a recreation of a substantial British dugout. This is entered down steep narrow steps, and once within the dug-out the ceilings are low and there are duckboards on the floor. The dugout is lit by dim, flickering electrical lights, and there are appropriate sound effects; always in the background the dull rumble of the guns. In one room is the sound of sawing; in another the monotonous thump of a pump, which would have been needed often in the salient to keep the dugout even reasonably dry.
Dead soldiers in trenches near Zonnebeke
Rooms lead off the main corridor, and include a bunkroom, an office and a dressing station complete with a gruesomely injured soldier, and a chaplain probably reading the last rites. The re-creation is very well done, and the day I visited was quiet; the effect was atmospheric and claustrophobic, almost uncomfortable after a while. Yet men lived in such conditions (and not as clean or safe as this one) and it became almost the norm.
Just beyond the bunker is a room with an interactive screen which is a map showing green dots marking the location of bunkers or dugouts in the salient. Fifteen are larger red dots, and if you touch these they show information on the excavation of these sites. The earliest one, Birr cross-roads in Zillebeke, was excavated in 1931, and there are photographs of the excavation. Later ones often have a number of short videos, as well as photos, plans and information on the bunker. One photograph of a bunkroom at the Beecham site near Passchendaele can be compared with the bunkroom in the museum recreation, and shows what an accurate job has been done here. The sites include the Yorkshire Trench and the Bremen Redoubt (note this site, which was at one point open for visitors, has been closed since 1998 for safety reasons). Around the room are displays of finds from some of these sites; duckboards, ladders, weapons, shovels, clothing and personal effects.
Well worth a visit, this new museum is an excellent addition to the other museums in the Salient. There is some information on the town website www.zonnebeke.be.
The destroyed landscape of the Passchendaele battlefield. Image: Library and Archives, Canada
Zonnebeke church is only a few minutes walk from the museum. On the outside is a plaque dedicated to the D21 Battery of Canadian Field Artillery, which was based in the ruins of the church during Third Ypres.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Library and Archives Canada
Great War Forum website
Lt.Col. Joseph Hayes: The Eighty-Fifth Canadian Infantry Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders in France and Flanders
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient
Chris McCarthy: Passchendaele - the Day-by-Day Account
Paul Reed: Walking the Salient