WWI Centennial: Nightmare – Passchendaele

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 284th installment in the series.

July 31-August 2, 1917: Nightmare – Passchendaele

For all the terrors of the Western Front, exemplified by the First and Second Battles of Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Loos, the Somme, Arras, and Messines, many ordinary British soldiers seemed to agree that none compared to the florid horror of the Third Battle of Ypres, from July to November 1917 – now remembered for its final phase, the nightmare of Passchendaele (pronounced “passion-dale” or “passion-doll”).

Erik Sass

Named for the small Flemish village that became one of the main objectives of the battle, the Battle of Passchendaele was supposed to be the culmination of a larger campaign to clear the Germans from Flanders, depriving the German Imperial Navy of its U-boat bases on the Belgian coast – but things didn’t go quite as planned.

The preparations began well enough with a British tactical victory at Messines in June 1917, giving the attackers an advantageous spot south of Ypres for artillery observation during the battle. However British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig waited a month and a half before launching the main attack northeast of Ypres, giving the Germans plenty of time to reorganize their defenses.

Erik Sass

The British plan received another setback on July 10 with a “spoiling attack” by the German Marine Corps against the British XV Corps, consisting of the 1st and 32nd Divisions, at the mouth of the Yser River on the Belgian coast north of Nieuport, putting an end to “Operation Hush,” a planned amphibious landing on the coast behind German lines that was to have coincided with the later stages of the Ypres attack.

Nonetheless Haig was determined to proceed with the main attack at Ypres, in order to maintain pressure on the Germans while the French Army recovered from the mutinies of the spring and summer, and Russia was afflicted with chaos following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive. Haig and his advisors also knew they couldn’t expect the United States to make a major contribution anytime in 1917, despite some early signs of progress. Finally, still they held out hope for a major advance into Belgium (if not an outright breakthrough) through a series of rapid incremental gains, each reinforcing the others, known as the “bite and hold” strategy; on that note, they were also encouraged by the success of the “creeping barrage” technique, in which several waves of bombardment preceded the infantry across the battlefield, obliterating trenches and forcing defenders to take cover until the attackers were upon them.

“MONSTROUS AND OVERWHELMING TUMULT”

The British attack at Passchendaele was preceded by two weeks of the heaviest bombardment yet seen in the war, beginning on July 16 and continuing without a pause until the early morning hours of July 31, during which over 3,000 guns fired an incredible 4.5 million shells – or more than three shells per second for fifteen days (below, original footage of the battle):

The sound of the bombardment was audible many miles away, even across the English Channel, according to the British diarist Vera Brittain, who recalled hearing the guns in southern England while she was on leave between volunteer nursing stints:

At St. Monica’s, one July afternoon, I became aware of a periodic thumping, like a tremendous heart-beat, which made one parched corner of the games-field quiver; the sound might have been a reaping-machine two hundred yards away down the valley, but I knew it for the echo of the guns across the Channel, summoning me back to the War… There was no way of escaping that echo; I belonged to an accursed generation which had to listen and look whether it wanted to do so or not, and it was useless, at this late hour, to try to resist my fate.

The British bombardment included liberal use of poison gas, but as always this sword cut both ways, as the enemy replied in kind with their own counter-bombardment. In fact, during the summer of 1917 the Germans introduced a new chemical agent, mustard gas, actually an oil-based compound dispersed by shells in fine droplets which clung to clothing and skin for hours, making it even more long-lasting and dangerous. On July 25, 1917 Julia Stimson, a nurse with the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders, noted its effects in her diary:

We have been receiving patients that have been gassed, and burned in a most mysterious way. Their clothing is not burned at all, but they have bad burns on their bodies, on parts that are covered by clothing… The Germans have been using a kind of oil in bombs, the men say it is oil of mustard. These bombs explode and the men’s eyes, noses, and throats are so irritated they do not detect the poison gas fumes that come from the bombs that follow these oil ones, and so they either inhale it and die like flies, or have a delayed action and are affected by it terribly several hours later… We had a very bad case the other night who had not slept one hour for four nights or days, and whose coughing paroxysms came every minute and a half by the clock.

Meanwhile the relentless bombardment with high explosives had some unexpected effects – most notably the destruction of the ancient, fragile drainage systems painstakingly built by Flemish peasants over the centuries to make the low-lying, waterlogged soil of Flanders arable. This would prove disastrous when unusually strong rains hit the battlefield on the first day of the attack.

Of course the prolonged bombardment also removed any element of surprise, alerting the German Fourth Army under General Sixt von Arnim to expect a major attack on the Ypres front and allowing them to move up reinforcements before the British assault began. Gerhard Gürtler, a theology student from Breslau, described the advance to the front just before the British attack in a letter home:

We spent the whole of the 30th of July moving up to the wagon-lines, and that night, at 2:30 a.m., we went straight on to the gun-line – in pouring rain and under continuous shell-fire; along stony roads, over fallen trees, shell-holes, dead horses; through the heavy clay of the sodden fields, over torn-up hills; through valleys furrowed with trenches and craters. Sometimes it was as light as day, sometimes pitch-dark. Thus we arrived at the line.

Finally, in the early morning of July 31 the shelling reached an insane crescendo, as described by the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs, who also noted the industrial scale of the effort needed to keep the guns supplied with ammunition:

Our gun-fire had never stopped for weeks in its steady slogging hammering, but shortly after half-past three this ordinary noise of artillery quickened and intensified to a monstrous and overwhelming tumult. It was so loud that twelve miles behind the lines big houses moved and were shaken with a great trembling… The red flashes were from our forward batteries and heavy guns, and over all this battlefield, where hundreds of thousands of men were at death-grips, the heavy, smoke-laden vapours of battle and of morning fog swirled and writhed between clumps of trees and across the familiar places of death around Ypres, hiding everything and great masses of men. The drum-fire of the guns never slackened for hours. At nine o’clock in the morning it beat over the countryside with the same rafale of terror as it had started before four o’clock. Strangely above this hammering and thundering of two thousand guns or more of ours, answered by the enemy’s barrage, railway whistles screamed from trains taking up more shells, and always more shells, to the very edge of the fighting-lines, and in between the massed batteries, using them as hard as they could be unloaded.

According to another observer, the French translator Paul Maze, the bombardment was so intense it sent terrified rats fleeing from no-man’s-land into the trenches:

When the barrage finally opened, its violence was such that we looked at one another aghast. I climbed up the stairs into the night. The wind caused by the displacement of air was terrific – I might have been standing on the bridge of a ship during a typhoon and held on to the side of the trench like to a weather rail. Gun-flashes were holing the sky as though thousands of signal-lamp shutters were flashing messages… At every report I felt as though my scalp were being removed. An uninterrupted succession of shells of every calibre was whirling through the air. This bombardment exceeded anything I had ever witnessed before… Suddenly I imagined I was seeing things when the top of our parapet seemed to move. But it was only the terrified rats fleeing in an army of their own.

FIRST PHASE: PILCKEM

The first British attack aimed to recapture much of the ground northeast of Ypres taken by the Germans in the Second Battle of Ypres, with the main assault to be carried out by five divisions of the II Corps from General Herbert Gough’s Fifth Army, across the Gheluvelt Plateau in the direction of St. Julien. To the north the offensive would be supported by an attack by the French First Army, as well as attacks by the British 39th, 51st, 38th, and Guards Divisions in the direction of Langemarck, in order to pin down the defenders and prevent them from sending more reinforcements. Further south, the British Second Army including the ANZAC II Corps would attack German positions along the Lys River and around Warneton, where the Battle of Messines had previously concluded.

At 3:50 a.m. on July 31, as a heavy mist lay on the battlefield, the first wave of British infantry went over the top, soon followed by several more waves, all shrouded by the low-lying clouds. Thomas H. Floyd, a lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, recalled going over the top in one of the later waves at 8:30 a.m. on July 31, 1917:

Shells were bursting everywhere. It was useless to take any notice where they were falling, because they were falling all round; they could not be dodged; one had to take one’s chance: merely go forward and leave one’s fate to destiny. Thus we advanced, amidst shot and shell, over fields, trenches, wire, fortifications, roads, ditches and streams which were simply churned out of all recognition by shell-fire. The field was strewn with wreckage, with the mangled remains of men and horses lying all over in a most ghastly fashion… Many brave Scottish soldiers were to be seen dead in kneeling positions, killed just as they were firing on the enemy. Some German trenches were lined with German dead in that position. It was hell and slaughter.

The ferocious British bombardment and creeping barrage had done their work well, and German positions to the north were relatively lightly defended, allowing the attacking infantry to advance over a mile and a half, capturing the town of Boesinghe and the neighboring village of Pilckem, from which the first phase of Passchendaele took its name. In the center the attackers advanced over two miles in places, taking the town of St. Julien and advancing beyond the Steenbeck River – but the mist hid the advancing troops from their own artillery, making it much more difficult for the gunners to continue supporting the attack. Then in the afternoon the Germans counterattacked in strength, driving them back with heavy casualties equal to over half of the their total strength (below, British soldiers with wounded comrades). Then on the afternoon of July 31 nature made a surprise intervention.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"CONDITIONS ARE AS BAD AS I HAVE EVER KNOWN"

While Flanders is known for its bad weather, both sides were taken by surprise by torrential rains which coincided with the opening of Passchendaele, in the normally hot and relatively dry late summer, continuing for a week from July 31 to August 6. The unseasonable downpour turned the Flemish fields into a sea of mud, now without their delicate drainage systems, making it almost impossible to bring up rations and evacuate wounded, let along move heavy guns or ammunition (top, British stretcher bearers attempt to evacuate a wounded soldier). Many wounded soldiers drowned in flooded shell holes or due to exposure. Brigadier General Alexander Johnston wrote in his diary on August 1-2, 1917:

My poor fellows had an awful time, and many wounded sank in the mud and were drowned in it before assistance could reach them or before they were discovered – one officer who had practically sunk into the mud out of sight was found only half an hour after I had been speaking to him, such a good chap too. We had about 120 casualties in the day, and besides this there were men dropping from cold and exhaustion. The stretcher bearers could not compete with the number of casualties, and in any case it required about 6 men to carry a stretcher as each man sank into the mud at least up to his knees besides which most of the men were too done up to be able to carry the weight… the men had just to make the best of things and spent the night in mud often up to their waists… The rain still continues, and conditions are as bad as I have ever known.

Although it was cold comfort, the British could console themselves that the Germans had it just as bad. Gürtler, the theology student, described conditions at Ypres in early August:

The whole place is in the middle of arable fields reduced to a sea of mud, churned up to a depth of 15 feet or more by the daily barrage of the English 6- to 8- and 11-inch shells, one crater touching another. To this the never-ceasing rain adds a finishing touch! Nothing can be seen far and wide but water and mud… We can’t have a proper dug-out because the ground is so soft and wet, only a sort of rather superior wooden hut, covered with tarred felt, sand and leafy branches, so that when it rains, as it generally does, we simply have to lie in the water.

Gibbs, the war correspondent, spoke to German prisoners of war who had endured the British bombardment, infantry attacks, and then the rain and mud:

They had the look of men who have been through hell. They were drenched with rain, which poured down their big steel helmets. Their top-boots were full of water, which squelched out at every step, and their sunken eyes stared out of ash-grey faces with the look of sick and hunted animals. Many of them had cramp in the stomach through long exposure and hunger before being captures, and they groaned loudly and piteously. Many of them wept while being interrogated, protesting bitterly that they hated the war and wanted nothing but peace.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Among other effects, the mud helped cancel out any tactical advantage that might have been gained from the participation of over 100 British tanks in the attack. After contributing to the British advance around St. Julien and to the north, the tanks soon fell prey to the quagmire: although designed to cross trenches, deep ditches and other rough terrain, the tanks were not especially well-suited to operating in waist-high mud, and many of them became immobilized, as described by Gibbs (below, an abandoned tank):

… by that hour in the afternoon the rain had turned the ground to swamp, and the Tanks sank deep in it, with wet mud half-way up their flanks, and slipped and slithered back when they tried to struggle out. Many of the officers and crews had to get out of their steel forts, risking heavy shelling and machine-gun fire to dig out their way, and in the neighbourhood of St.-Julien they worked for two hours in the open to de-bog their Tank while German gunners tried to destroy them by direct hits.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By August 2, 1917 the rain forced Haig and Gough to temporarily put the rest of the offensive on hold, but with every intention of resuming the attack as soon as weather permitted. Meanwhile the pause in major infantry attacks didn’t mean that rank and file troops were left safe (if cold, wet, and miserable) in their hastily improvised trenches – far from it. Indeed both sides continued heavy shelling and gas attacks, according to Gürtler, who described the fighting at Ypres in his final letter home on August 10:

Darkness alternates with light as bright as day. The earth trembles and shakes like a jelly. Flares illumine the darkness with their white, yellow, green and red lights and cause the tall stumps of the poplars to throw weird shadows. And we crouch between the mountains of ammunition (some of us up to our knees in water) and fire and fire, while all around us shells upon shells plunge into the mire, shatter our emplacement, root up trees, flatten the house behind us to the level of the ground, and scatter wet dirt all over so we look as if we had come out of a mud-bath. We sweat like stokers on a ship; the barrel is red-hot; the cases are still burning hot when we take them out of the breech; and still the one and only order is, ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ – until one is quite dazed.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Facts About the End of World War II

American servicemen and women in Paris celebrate on V-J Day, marking the end of World War II.
American servicemen and women in Paris celebrate on V-J Day, marking the end of World War II.
Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On August 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced the Japanese government had surrendered, a decision that would bring World War II to a close. Emperor Hirohito of Japan informed his own citizens on August 15, yet there was still work to be done. The written agreement that formalized the surrender wasn’t signed until September 2 of that year at a gathering aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Communities around the globe have celebrated August 14, August 15, or September 2 as Victory Over Japan Day, or V-J Day for short. Here are a dozen facts about the surrender 75 years ago this summer and the events that led up to it.

1. The Battle of Okinawa marked the last major battle in World War II.

Over 60,000 American soldiers and marines arrived at the shores of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. The island south of Kyushu formed a logical gateway for an invasion of Japan, and U.S. troops were prepared for a fight. Eighty-one days of incredibly savage combat by air, sea, and land followed, hampered by dense forest and volcanic crags. The Allies emerged victorious, but 12,000 Americans were killed in the effort. Japan’s forces lost around 90,000 troops, and 100,000 civilians also died in the battle.

2. Before V-J Day, V-E Day—Victory in Europe Day—fell on Truman’s 61st birthday.

Sworn into office on April 12, 1945, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman got to share an exciting piece of news early in his term. The Allies formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8—President Truman’s birthday. “Our victory is but half won,” Truman said. Though the violence in Europe had ended, things were coming to a head in the Pacific theatre.

3. To end World War II, the U.S. made a strategic decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of other Japanese cities.

An atomic bomb had been successfully tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. By deploying nuclear weapons against Japan, Truman and his advisors hoped to force an unconditional surrender—and avoid the need for a full-scale U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland.

For maximum impact, it was decided the ideal targets would be cities that had suffered little damage from earlier bombings. Because of its cultural significance as Japan’s former capital, Kyoto was taken off the list. The target committee opted to focus on other cities with significant military headquarters and industrial centers. Hiroshima stood as a major base of operations in the Japanese defense effort. Nagasaki was one of the country’s key seaports. Both places were wartime manufacturing hubs.

4. The USS Indianapolis's secret mission ended in the worst naval disaster of World War II.

Components of the 9700-pound nuclear fission bomb nicknamed Little Boy, destined to be dropped over Hiroshima, were delivered in secret to an American air base in the Northern Mariana Islands by the USS Indianapolis. After dropping off the materials, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by Japanese submarine and quickly sunk just after midnight on July 30, 1945.

Around 300 crew members immediately went down with the ship. The remaining 900 men floated at the surface, awaiting rescue. They endured dehydration and hunger, hallucinations, salt poisoning, and frequent, vicious shark attacks. By the time rescue came on August 2, there were only 317 survivors.

On August 19, 2017, a research team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen located the wreckage of the Indianapolis on the bottom of the Philippine Sea, 3.4 miles below the surface.

5. The number of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still unknown.

At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, Little Boy exploded over Hiroshima. The blast's yield was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. “What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black, and brown … but nothing else,” recalled Akiko Takakura, an eyewitness who was then 20 years old. In minutes, dark smoke climbed nearly 4000 feet into the air. More than 90 percent of the city’s structures were damaged or destroyed.

Nagasaki was hit with an implosion-type plutonium bomb (called Fat Man) three days later. The blast’s effects—equaling 21,000 tons of TNT—were felt over an area of 43 square miles.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “No one will ever know for certain how many died as a result of the attack on Hiroshima.” The same goes for Nagasaki. Patchy census records, the obliteration of government buildings, and other factors make it impossible to get at exact figures. The initial blasts are estimated to have killed 70,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki, not including those who later died of radiation poisoning or other injuries.

6. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan less than a month before World War II ended.

At the Allies' Tehran Conference in November 1943, the Soviet Union had agreed to declare war on Japan three months after Germany's surrender to force an end to World War II while retaking occupied territory from Japan. That day came on August 8, 1945. About 1.6 million Soviet troops were swiftly dispatched to Japanese-occupied Manchuria (modern-day northeastern China). The USSR inflicted heavy losses during their engagements with Japanese forces in China, Korea, and the Kuril Islands.

7. Japan formally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, ending World War II.

A crowd celebrates V-J Day and the end of World War II in Times Square.Dick DeMarsico, World-Telegram, Library of Congress // No Known Copyright Restriction

On August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies. The news rocketed around the world, launching joyous celebrations, parades, and patriotic displays to mark V-J Day. On September 2, aboard the USS Missouri, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the official Instrument of Surrender document crafted by the U.S. War Department. Also present was General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied powers.

“It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past,” MacArthur told the gathered crowd. The USS Missouri would go on to participate in both the Korean and Persian Gulf Wars before it was decommissioned for the last time on March 31, 1992.

8. The pair in the iconic Times Square kiss photo, taken on V-J-Day, didn’t know each other.

Titled “V-J Day in Times Square,” the picture was snapped by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine. Since Eisenstaedt didn’t write down the couple's names, their identities were a mystery for decades. Then Lawrence Verria’s 2012 book The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II seemed to put the matter to rest: It pegged George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the couple.

Except they weren’t a couple at all. Mendonsa was a sailor on a date with his future wife at the time. Upon hearing the news of Japan’s surrender, he excitedly grabbed Friedman—a dentist’s assistant he didn’t know—and planted a kiss on her lips. Unfortunately, Friedman wasn't into it. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” she later said. “The guy just came over and grabbed!”

9. Frustrated soldiers in the Pacific theatre waited months to return home.

The United States couldn’t immediately bring all of its soldiers home once the Axis Powers surrendered. And that created plenty of tension overseas. Rep. Clare Boothe Luce, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut, said on September 17, 1945 that every congressperson was “under constant and terrific pressure from the servicemen and their families” who wanted swift discharges.

Servicemembers stationed in Japan and the Far East began stamping the phrase “No Boats, No Votes” onto their homebound letters—indicating that if they didn't get picked up soon, leaders would hear about it in the following year’s congressional elections. Four thousand homesick troops held a mass protest in Manila on Christmas Day. Similar demonstrations took place in London, Paris, and Frankfurt.

10. The last World War II Japanese internment camp in the United States closed in 1946.

Around 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned in internment camps across seven U.S. states beginning in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the detention of Japanese-Americans regardless of citizenship status or loyalty to ensure "every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage" following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The last of these camps, located in northern California, stayed open until March 20, 1946.

11. Some Japanese soldiers kept fighting long after the end of World War II.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was 23 years old when he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines on December 26, 1944. He and three enlisted men would remain there years after the war ended. Disbelieving reports of Japan’s defeat, the soldiers regularly fought with islanders they mistook for enemy combatants. One of Onoda’s comrades surrendered in 1950 and by 1972, police officers had shot the other two.

Lieutenant Onoda didn’t give up until after he was rediscovered by a Japanese traveler in 1974. A delegation including one of Onoda’s former commanding officers came to Lubang later that year to accept his surrender.

Two additional holdouts, Shoichi Yokoi and Teruo Nakamura, remained hidden elsewhere in the former Pacific theatre until 1972 and 1974, respectively.

12. Only one state officially celebrates the end of World War II.

Rhode Island is the only state in the union that celebrates the end of World War II as an annual legal holiday. Victory Day falls on the second Monday of August.