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ARCHIVED - Oral Histories of the First World War:
Veterans 1914-1918

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Graphical element: Rendering first aid to a wounded Canadian soldier

The Battle of Passchendaele (The Third Battle of Ypres)

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Images of The Battle of Passchendaele (The Third Battle of Ypres)


Essay on The Battle of Passchendaele (The Third Battle of Ypres)

Although the capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 had been a great success, the French offensive that it had been designed to support had been a failure. The horrendous losses to the French had led to widespread mutinies during the summer. As a result, the burden of continuing the attack on the Germans in the fall of 1917 fell to the British forces.

Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, chose the Ypres salient as the site for his new offensive. He believed this area offered the greatest scope for a breakthrough, and the Royal Navy supported him, hoping that the army could capture the ports on the Belgian coast that the Germans were using as bases for their submarine offensive against Britain's seaborne trade.

The offensive began on July 31, 1917, but made disappointingly small gains. The British artillery bombardment, which was needed to shatter the enemy's defensive trench system, also wrecked the low-lying region's drainage system, and unusually rainy weather turned the ground into a wasteland of mud and water-filled craters. For three months, British troops suffered heavy casualties for limited gains.

In October, the Canadian Corps, now commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, took its place in the front lines. On October 26, the 3rd and 4th Divisions launched the first Canadian assault, in rain that made the mud worse than ever. Three days of fighting resulted in over 2,500 casualties, for a gain of only a thousand or so yards (1 km). A second attack went in on October 30. In a single day, there were another 2,300 casualties -- and only another thousand yards (1 km) gained. On November 6, the 1st and 2nd Divisions launched a third attack that captured the village of Passchendaele, despite some troops having to advance through waist-deep water. A final assault on November 10 secured the rest of the high ground overlooking Ypres, and held it despite heavy German shelling. This marked the end of the Passchendaele offensive.

Passchendaele was one of the war's most futile battles. The unspeakable conditions led to terrible losses -- nearly 260,000 British casualties, including over 15,000 Canadians killed and wounded. This suffering had produced no significant gains (though it did help wear down the German army). Passchendaele has come, perhaps more than any other battle, to symbolize the horrors of the First World War.