The Battle of Passchendaele of 1917

The massacre in the mud!

The Battle of Passchendaele of 1917 was a massacre in the mud.

It dragged on for three and a half months in Belgium’s wettest summer in 30 years and included 38,000 Australian casualties from a total of 275,000 allied casualties and 200,000 German casualties.

This horrific casualty count was expended to gain a stretch of ground – five miles long – from the allied trenches to the village of Passenchendaele.

The battle was the initiative of General Douglas Haig, Commander In Chief of the allied armies on the Western Front.

General Haig was looking for a decisive breakthrough and it has been argued by historians that he also wanted to relieve some of the pressure of French forces in and around Verdun by diverting German troops.

He was confident that advances in allied artillery would wipe out the Germans and more than four and a quarter million shells were fired on the German trenches in 15 days.

To the shock of the allied high command, the massive artillery bombardment mostly served to destroy the drainage system in the Flanders lowlands and the first allied offensive stalled as heavy rains led to extensive flooding.

Capturing the strategic Passchendale Ridge and village proved to be beyond realistic expectations despite three major assaults.

Mud rendered most weapons useless, artillery and tanks became bogged down in it, high explosive shells were buried and smothered in it and guns sank into it when fired.

There are numerous reports of soldiers, neither wounded or pinned down by the enemy, drowning in deep, muddy shell holes.

Eye witnesses report the battlefield was reduced to an enormous quagmire and where barbed wire didn’t stop the allied advance, the mud did.

Charles Bean, the official Australian War Correspondent, noted in his journal

“The major Generals don’t realise how much and desperately hard it will be to fight down such opposition in the mud with rifles chocked, Lewis guns out of action, men tired and slow.

“I shall be very surprised if this fight succeeds.”

It didn’t.

Of the 12,000 Australians who died at Passchendaele more than 6,800 died in October, 1917.

The diary of Lieutenant G.M.Carson of the Australian’s 33rd Battalion records the misery of the massacre in the mud.

“We lost men like rotten sheep. I nearly got blown to pieces scores of times.

“We went through a sheet of iron all night and in the mornings it got worse.

“Lots were drowned in the mud and water.

“Eight days of absolute hell.”

Only a month earlier on September 20 the Australians launched an assault on the Menin Road – now regarded as one of the greatest of all Australian victories.

The attack was preceded by a five day artillery barrage and the 1st and 2nd Australian divisions broke though the German lines and all objectives were captured or destroyed.

The Germans counter attacked were crushed by artillery fire but the victory came at a cost of 21,000 allied casualties for a gain of six miles.

The Battle of Passchendaele was to be the Australians last major battle in the Great War and more casualties were counted in that battle than in any other year of The Great War.

Today the flat lowlands of Belgium farmlands still bare the scars of Passchendaele.

Shell craters and the remains of trenches are strewn across poppy covered fields and war cemeteries.

This dramatic photograph from The Great War shows the quagmire that was the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.


The Weekly Times tribute to Private Gibbs,
Polygon Wood uncle of
Editor John F Booth

 The uncle of The Weekly Times Managing Editor John F Booth AM was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, one hundred years ago this week.

Private William Taylor Gibbs was the brother in law of Mr Booth’s father – Arthur John Booth – and was killed in action on October 4, 1917 at Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, Belgium aged only 22.

The pyrrhic victory at Polygon Wood cost 15,000 allied losses, around a third of them Australian.

On of these men, Private Gibbs had enlisted a year before he died and had recently been married to Bertha May Gibbs from their hometown of Grenfell before he embarked from Sydney on the HMAT Euripides.

His war record reveals he arrived at the Western Front on December 8, 1916.

Details of his death with the Third Battalion, 20th Reinforcements of the Australian Infantry Force are unknown but he was due to be promoted to Lance Corporal

He is buried in Zonnebeke.

An eye witness account of the optimism that preceded the fighting at Polygon Wood has come down to us from Australian Major Consett Riddell of the 12th Field Company Engineers, who appears to have over estimated the impact of the allied artillery and fatally under estimated vast protective improvements in the German trenches.

“The recent fighting is entirely different to The Somme last year,” Riddell writes.

“There the Germans fought hand to hand and the assault was only the beginning of a swaying bayonet and bomb fight lasting with intervals of a couple of days.

“Now our artillery is so perfect and so tremendous that we can practically catch all the Germans who surrender at once or are too dead to do so.”

Mr Booth paid tribute to his uncle one of more than 5,000 Australian casualties who was killed on five mile front.

“He was only 22 years old and had only arrived on the Western Front a few months before his life was taken from us,” Mr Booth said.

“Bertha May lost a husband she had just married, my father lost a beloved brother in law and I lost an uncle I’d never grow up to know.

“We can never imagine the full horror of fighting in the mud and blood of The Western Front or the bonds of brotherhood between our Anzac troops, many of whom would have known that they or their fellow countrymen would not come back or would come back wounded and mentally scared for the rest of their lives.

“One hundred years later, I remember my uncle and the sacrifice he made in what he was told would be the war to end all wars.”

Private William Taylor Gibbs, the uncle of Managing Editor John F Booth AM, who was killed on The Western Front, one hundred years ago this week.

The famous son he never met

When Private William Taylor Gibbs embarked for the Western Front in 1916 he left behind a wife and a son he’d never met.

His wife Bertha May had given birth to baby Bill while his William was in camp with thousands of other Australian soldiers and while he may have had hopes for Bill’s future, he would never have guessed this little baby would go on to become one of the world’s great meteorologists.

Nor we he have imagined little Bill would serve in Port Moresby with the RAAF in World War Two where his knowledge on the weather proved critical in predicting enemy bomber attacks.

Reports of Bill’s childhood recall he grew up with a fascination about thunder and lightning, rainbows, frost and fog and he gruduated from Fort Street Boys High to Sydney University through a a bequest for the children of fallen soldiers.

Dr John Zillman said Dr Bill Gibbs greatest achievement was as a pioneer for the United Nations World Meteoroligical Organisation.

“Bill Gibbs towered over the field of international cooperation to the enormous benefit of Australia,” Dr Zillman said.

“More than any other, he shaped our Bureau of Meteorology and he will remain that one person whose vision, warmth, kindness and concern for others helped maintain the bureau as the very special family he was so proud of during his remarkable 39 year career.”

 A famous news photo of Dr Bill Gibbs on active service in Papua New Guinea during World War Two.