The Battle of Passchendaele

19 October 2017

History | War and Conflict

“I died in hell – they called it Passchendaele” – A century on, Passchendaele is commemorated through the words of poet Siegfried Sassoon. But it can also be remembered through the memoirs and diaries of the men who experienced the events. Perhaps the First World War battle that is today most present in the collective British consciousness is the Somme, but at the time this battle was synonymous with the hopelessness and horror of what was playing out on foreign fields.

When considering The Third Battle of Ypres, or Battle of Passchendaele as it is more commonly known, what immediately springs to mind is a barren landscape of mud. During the early days of the attack Ypres experienced heavy rainfall, drenching the soldiers and fields over which the battle was taking place. The rain drenched ground quickly turned into a thick swamp. This clinging mud caked the soldier’s uniform’s and clogged their rifles. In places the mud had become so deep that both men and horses drowned, lost forever in the stinking muck.

Canadian Official Album, 1917, © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Canadian Official Album, 1917, © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

It is difficult to comprehend the conditions and horrors these men went through. However, using the diaries, letters and memoirs in our resource, The First World War: Personal Experiences, we can begin to understand their experiences and empathise with the soldiers who fought at Passchendaele. As I was exploring these collections of fascinating sources, I was particularly moved by a passage from Captain H. Raymond Smith written in his book A Soldier’s Diary. He describes the experience of advancing during the battle. 

I got the order to advance. What followed will for ever be imprinted on my mind as the most vivid recollection of all my experiences in the great war.”

No sooner did we emerge from our trench than all hell breaks over us! The bursting shrapnel crashes above our heads, and great shells plough up the ground all round, sending up huge fountains of earth and flames. The ear-splitting scream is continuous.”

Bang! Something like a blow from a hammer strikes my steel helmet, and I double forward all the faster…with the bullets whistling all round, my heart pounding, and expecting every moment to be my last.”

The men of A company leap from a shallow trench, but they do not get far. In a moment they are falling – being doubled up like shot rabbits, before a deadly hail of machine gun bullets.” 

The comparison of his men to ‘shot rabbits’ is particularly harrowing. The dehumanising image reveals the hopelessness they experienced, fleeing for cover before the inevitable machine gun fire. Their bodies being ‘doubled up’ representing the futility of their actions.

Captain Smith’s experiences demonstrate the true human cost of Passchendaele. Attacks continued sporadically, against the advice of those on the ground and often in atrocious weather. Men were repeatedly ordered towards objectives against overwhelming odds. What was supposed to be a thrusting breakthrough became a battle of attrition. The British and Empire forces advanced just five miles, at a cost of at least a quarter of a million casualties.  

The campaign finally ended on the 10th of November 1917. Although some of its stages had met with success, the offensive is now seen as having been an overall strategic failure. Passchendaele is synonymous with the worst battlefield conditions on the western front – a reminder of the horrors and great human costs associated with the major battles of the First World War. 

Our collection, The First World War: Personal Experiences, is available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Matt Braisher

Matt Braisher

Since joining the Editorial Development team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of new products. My background is in history and my main academic interests are in the Holocaust and Jewish studies.