The terms ghosts and haunting are often used to describe battlefields from World War I, though not in a supernatural way. They are used to describe the battlefields and memories of the horrific loss of life suffered on both sides of the conflict. However, it has been suggested that the village of Passchendaele is haunted by the sounds of battle, with disembodied screams, the slamming of doors and distant machine gun fire can be heard. I cannot confirm the validity of these claims, but if there is a link between haunting type phenomena and the loss of life, Passchendaele in Belgium, as one of the bloodiest battles of World War I would be a likely candidate.
“Passchendaele was just a terrible, terrible place. We used to walk along these wooden duckboards – something like ladders laid on the ground. The Germans would concentrate on these things. If a man was hit and wounded and fell off he could easily drown in the mud and never be seen again. You just did not want to go off the duckboards.” Pte Richard Mercer
Third Battle of Ypres, The Battle of Passchendaele or as the Germans call it Dritte Flandernschlacht (The Third Battle of Flanders) began in July 1917 and was to last five long months. It began with an artillery bombardment lasting ten days, in which the Germans were hit by three thousand guns and over four million shells. It is said one aerial photographs show 1,000,000 shell holes within just one square mile. The initial attacking force consisted of the British 5th Army under General H Gough, General H Plumer’s 2nd British Army and the French 1st Army of General Francois Anthoine. Soldiers from Canada, South Africa and the ANZACs of New Zealand and Australia played major roles in the offensive which would see the allied forces taking half a million casualties (140,000 dead) and the costing the Imperial German Army a quarter million dead and wounded.
Heavy rain had turned the battlefield (an area of reclaimed marshland) into a swamp of thick liquid mud and with most of the drainage systems having been destroyed by the artillery bombardment it made matters worse. The muddy terrain not only had an effect on the moral of the troops but made the fighting extremely difficult for infantry and nearly impossible for tanks.
“At dawn on the morning of the attack, the battalion assembled in the mud outside the huts. I lined up my platoon and went through the necessary inspection. Some of the men looked terribly ill: grey, worn faces in the dawn, unshaved and dirty because there was no clean water. I saw the characteristic shrugging of their shoulders that I knew so well. They hadn’t had their clothes off for weeks, and their shirts were full of lice.” 31st July 1917, Robert Sherriff, East Surrey Regiment, preparing to attack the German lines.
“Floods of rain and a blanket of mist have doused and cloaked the whole of the Flanders plain. The newest shell-holes, already half-filled with soakage, are now flooded to the brim. The rain has so fouled this low, stoneless ground, spoiled of all natural drainage by shell-fire, that we experienced the double value of the early work, for today moving heavy material was extremely difficult and the men could scarcely walk in full equipment, much less dig. Every man was soaked through and was standing or sleeping in a marsh. It was a work of energy to keep a rifle in a state fit to use.” – 2nd August 1917, William B Thomas, Daily Mail
“I fell in a trench. There was a fella there. He must have been about our age. He was ripped shoulder to waist with shrapnel. I held his hand for the last 60 seconds of his life. He only said one word: ‘Mother’. I didn’t see her, but she was there. No doubt about it. He passed from this life into the next, and it felt as if I was in God’s presence. I’ve never got over it. You never forget it. Never.” Harry Patch (the last survivor of Passchendaele)
12th October 1917 five British Divisions, the New Zealand Division and the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions pushed toward the German lines. Hampered by mud and the inability to bring the artillery into a better position for maximum effect, the Germans fought them off. They suffered 13,000 casualties, 2,700 of which were New Zealanders. This remains the greatest number of casualties for a single day’s action in New Zealand’s military history.
On 6 November 1917 Passchendaele was taken by General Sir Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps. This final push to take roughly 5km, took them sixteen days to complete and cost them 15 654 casualties, 4000 of whom died. The Canadians won 9 of the 11 Victoria Crosses awarded at Passchendaele. Four months later the allies abandoned all the territory they had gained and the Germans reoccupied it.
90,000 British and allied forces bodies were never identified and 42,000 never recovered. I won’t pretend to understand the horrors faced by soldiers in WWI or try to relate to their experiences and the bravery they must have found and displayed.