YPRES 1917, 31 July to 10 November

The Third Battle of Ypres was a Campaign that began on 31 July 1917 and continued until 10 November 1917. It is frequently referred to as the Battle of Passchendaele, the name of the village and the ridge where the campaign ended. The campaign intended to capture the Belgian coast from German control but ended up being a series of attacks that slowly chipped away at the German positions and wore down their forces.

Following the French Army’s failed offensive along the Aisne River in the spring of 1917, French and British commanders realized that a major breakthrough would not be possible in 1917 and would probably have to wait until 1918. Due to the depleted state of the French Army, General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, understood that the forces under his command would need to maintain pressure on the German Army to further wear down their strength. General Haig had long planned a campaign in the Ypres area to secure the Belgian coast. Due to flooding of the ground near the coast, the attack would need to start north-eastward from the Ypres area. The first step was capturing a series of ridges that ran from Staden in the north, through Passchendaele and then to Gheluvelt in the south along the Ypres to Menin Road.

The offensive was delayed on several occasions as the War Cabinet in London hesitated to give its full support fearing General Haig’s plans were overly ambitious and likely to be costly in terms of the casualties suffered. The enormous preparations required for operations of this magnitude also caused several postponements but all was in place for the attack to begin on 31 July. After initial success, with British formations overrunning the German forward defences, German counter-attacks eliminated British gains in some areas. By 2 August, when the offensive stopped, the first attack, called the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, had gained only half the ground General Haig had anticipated.

Making matters worse, the combination of heavy rains and low-lying ground rendered both living and fighting conditions difficult for the attackers. Among other things, the heavy shelling, by both sides, destroyed many of the ditches and canals that normally drained the low-lying areas, which in turn caused water to accumulate in trenches and shell holes.

The British planned to resume the offensive in mid-August with fresh divisions. Originally scheduled for the 13th of August, heavy rain caused the offensive to be delayed until the 16th. This second phase achieved very little except on the extreme left flank, where the British 29th Division successfully captured all of its objectives near the village of Langemark.

The offensive in this area would be renewed over the weeks and months that followed. Fresh corps and divisions from across the British Army and the Dominions of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were brought in to renew the effort to break through the heavily defended German lines. The hoped-for breakthrough never materialized, but the repeated attacks were maintained in order to keep pressure on the German forces in part to ease pressure on the French.

The final offensive operations in the campaign were undertaken by the Canadian Corps at the end of October and the beginning of November. These resulted in the successful capture of the village of Passchendaele and the ridge on which the village was located, and brought an end to the 1917 battle for Ypres.

The attempted breakthrough to seize the Belgian ports never materialized and this battle of attrition cost enormous casualties on both sides. Over 2,400 soldiers of the Canadian Corps and Newfoundland Regiment killed in action between 31 July and 15 November 1917 have no known grave. Using a combination of historical research, forensic anthropological analysis, and DNA analysis, the Directorate of History and Heritage of the Department of National Defence has identified the following soldiers whose remains were recovered due to modern human activity.

  • Lambert, John, The Newfoundland Regiment

    Recommended Readings:

    Nicholson, G.W.L, Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, Ottawa. 1962.

    Nicholson G.W.L, The fighting Newfoundlander: a history of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Government of Newfoundland, St. John's, 1964.

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