‘Just pure murder’ – Passchendaele 1917

31 July is the anniversary of the start of one of the bloodiest and muddiest battles of the First World War: Passchendaele.

What we now call the battle of Passchendaele (or Third Battle of Ypres) stretched from late July into December, all through one of the soggiest seasons the troops could remember.

Crucial days for the Australian and New Zealand troops occurred later,  in a series of assaults through deep mud against seemingly impregnable fortifications. They include names that you will often see on war memorials in small Australian and New Zealand towns: Polygon Wood,  Menin Road, Broodseinde, and Poelcappelle. But it was the name Passchendaele that became a by-word for slaughter. 

‘There was a flat muddy bog in front of our trenches and the ground sloped uphill to some pill boxes [German fortifications] which completely dominated the position; as our shell fire had not reached theses concrete shelters or the barbed wire entanglements, what chance had our infantry to get out of that mud and climb that bare hill against machine gun fire? It was just pure murder.’

Alfred Stratton, gunner

cited by Glyn Harper in Massacre at Passchendaele

Remains of tank stuck in mud and shell holes. (Source: Collections Canada)

On 12 October alone, there were 13,000 Allied casualties, including 2,735 New Zealanders. It is remembered as one of the worst days in New Zealand military history.



‘A tragedy without equal in New Zealand history’

Glyn Harper, Massacre at Passchendaele


If you’ve read 1917, you’ll know that my fictional characters are asked to fly low over the German lines to identify artillery that might fire upon the Anzac troops.

Here’s what Ace and Charlie would have seen: the poor little village of Passchendaele from the air, before and after the shelling.

Aerial view of trenches

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Each one of those hundreds of dots is a shell hole.

The shelling and the rain turned the entire battleground into a swamp  – worse than a swamp, because it was littered with bodies and barbed wire, destroyed equipment, and shrapnel. Some of the most famous photos of the war are from this time.

Frank Hurley’s iconic photo, Chateauwood (Source: Australian War Memorial)


‘Our feet were so swollen and painful that we had to cut our boots off, and not one of us could raise our voices above the merest whisper. Our uniform was concealed by a solid casing of mud to our armpits.Bloodshot eyes shone from haggard faces, so that we could hardly recognise ourselves.’

Stretcher bearer Linus TJ Ryan,

cited by Glyn Harper in Massacre at Passchendaele


Stretcher bearers in mud

Source: Imperial War Museum

‘It was mud, mud, everywhere: mud in the trenches, mud in front of the trenches, mud behind the trenches. Every shell-hole was a sea of filthy oozing mud.’

Bombadier JW Palmer,

Lost Voices of the First World War

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