The year 1917

When you think of the Ieper Salient, it is difficult to avoid the year 1917. The events of that terrible year are engraved in our collective memory. A series of explosions created a huge man-made earthquake and soldiers fought not only against the enemy but also against the mud. The Third Battle of Ypres, often known as the Battle of Passchendaele, destroyed the landscape and cost countless human lives.

The Battle of Messines: from explosions to craters

View of Wytschaete by NLS is licensed under CC BY 4.0The Mine Battle - known as the Battle of Messines (Ridge) by the British and ‘der Schlacht am Wytschaete Bogen’ by the Germans - was fought as a prelude to the Third Battle of Ypres. The battle began on 7 June and ended on 14 June 1917. The British wanted to break through the front with a major offensive. Their final objective was the capture of the ports at Ostend and Zeebrugge. The German submarines operating from these ports were a thorn in the side of the Allied supply lines. The British hoped to take the German positions at Messines by surprise, using specially created tunnelling companies. The idea was to approach the German trenches unseen through a series of underground tunnels, which would then be filled with high explosive. In the early morning of 7 June 1917, at 4.10 local time (Zero Hour), 19 of the 24 mines planted by the British exploded almost simultaneously between Hill 60 and Ploegsteert. The surprise, the impact and the chaos amongst the Germans were complete. It was the most important British military victory of the war up to that point. The Messines-Wijtschate salient was eliminated. In addition to British troops, units from Ireland (Heuvelland), New Zealand (Mesen) and Australia (Ploegsteert) also took part in the battle.

On 12 July 1917, the Germans used a new gas against the British for the first time: mustard gas, also known as yperiet. This was a bad start for the Allied bombardment that commenced four days later in preparation for a new offensive around Ieper. The Battle of Messines had been a success, but the delay before launching this follow-up offensive was too long. The Third Battle of Ypres only began on 31 July 1917. 

The Third Battle of Ypres: from battlefield to sea of mud

Picture by F. Hurley - source: AWM (E01220). Five Australians, members of a field artillery brigade, passing along a duckboard track over mud and water among gaunt bare tree trunks in the Ypres Salient.During the Third Battle of Ypres, the name 'Passendale' assumed mythical proportions. The battle took place from 31 July to 10 November 1917. Passendale was for the British what Verdun was for the French and they soon began referring to the village as 'Passion-dale': the valley of suffering. The British plan was to capture the ports of Ostend and, above all, Zeebrugge. It was from here that German submarines sailed to attack the British supply lines. But at the end of July it began to rain heavily and the shell-torn ground soon turned into a quagmire. When the offensive was launched on 31 July, the attacking troops could hardly drag themselves and their equipment forward through the thick mud. A series of major and minor attacks, often with brief intervals in between, followed in quick succession. Sometimes the Allies achieved local successes, but the campaign as a whole did not go according to plan. The German defences remained largely intact. The continuous rain and the never-ending bombardments turned the landscape into a sea of mud. The village of Passendale itself - which should have fallen in August - was finally captured by the Canadians on 6 November.

After 100 days, the British had advanced just 8 kilometres, but huge numbers of Commonwealth soldiers has been killed, wounded or were missing. The Germans also suffered heavy losses in men and material, losses that they were unable to replace. This ‘Materialschlacht’ was one of the reasons why the German Spring Offensive in 1918 finally ran out of steam. But before it did so, it recaptured the 8 kilometres of lost ground in a single day.

Timeline of the battles

Tyne Cot Cemetery - ZonnebekeThe timeline makes clear that many nationalities were involved in the battles of 1917.

  • Battle of Messines (7 June-30 July 1917): British, Irish, New Zealanders and Australians
    • Battle of the Messines-Wijtschate Ridge (7-14 June)
    • North of Ieper (from 12/13 July)
  • Third Battle of Ypres (31 July-10 November 1917)
    French troops also fought in this battle.
    • First phase (31 July-28 August): British
      • Battle of Pilkem (31 July-2 August)
      • Battle of Langemark (16-18 August)
    • Second phase (20 September-12 October): ANZACS
      • Battle of the Menin Road (20-25 September)
      • Battle of Polygon Wood (26 September-3 October)
      • Battle of Broodseinde (4 October)
      • Battle of Poelkapelle (9 October)
      • First Battle of Passendale (12 October)
    • Third phase (26 October-10 November)
      • Second Battle of Passendale (26 October-10 November): Canadians


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