The Battle of Passchendaele
Find out why this major World War I battle took place and how it led to two of New Zealand's greatest tragedies amid dreadful conditions.
A small Belgian village of major importance
From 31 July to 6 November 1917, British, ANZAC, Canadian and South African soldiers fought against the German Army for control of a small Belgian village called Passchendaele. It was one of the major battles of World War I and one of the most tragic. From July to November 1917, the total killed and wounded was reported to be 448,000 from British allied forces and 260,000 from German forces.
Opposing the German advance through Belgium and into France
Passchendaele, or Passendale as it is now written, is near the town of Ypres (officially named Ieper) in West Flanders, Belgium. That's why the Battle of Passchendaele is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or simply Third Ypres. The plan was to drive a hole in the German lines, advance to the Belgian coast and capture the German submarine bases there. This would also create a corridor in a crucial area of the German army's western front and take pressure off the French armed forces.
Two of New Zealand's greatest tragedies
On two days in October 1917, in the farmlands of Belgium, New Zealand suffered two of its greatest tragedies. On 4 October, 490 New Zealand servicemen were killed. Eight days later on 12 October there was an even greater loss. Of 3000 casualties on that day, more than 840 young New Zealanders lay dead or dying in the mud and uncut wire before the village of Passchendaele.
Fighting from trenches and losing tens of thousands of lives to gain only a few metres of ground, the soldiers had to contend with liquid mud deep enough to drown in, the noise of gunfire and artillery and the smell of rotting corpses in the trenches.
Siegfried Sassoon, an English poet and soldier decorated for bravery, summed it up in this verse from his sonnet 'Memorial Tablet (Great War)'.
Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell-
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.
Cite this article
The Battle of Passchendaele. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 4 June 2015. Updated: 6 October 2021.