Anybody who knows anything about Belgian history also knows that it is impossible to think about it without also thinking of the Great War. From 1914 until 1918, the little country of Belgium was almost completely occupied by German forces. Today, one hundred years later, there is a lot that still reminds us of the First World War here in Belgium. Join me as I travel to Passchendaele, a little village in West-Flanders, where exactly 100 years ago the third battle of Ypres – known as the Battle of Passchendaele – took place. In honour of this occasion, the town of Zonnebeke opened up its unique and well-preserved Church dugout.
The Battle of Passchendaele
On 31 July 1917, after extensive preparatory artillery bombardments and repeated postponement due to heavy rainfall, the Battle of Passchendaele was finally launched. The allied forces launched the offensive on the German empire to break through the Ypres Salient*. During the attack they suffered heavy rainfall and the landscape was transformed into a quagmire. Soon the offensive came to a standstill as both German and British troops were locked into the mud-drenched landscape. Tanks were stuck and the mud was so deep that both men and animals drowned. To get the offensive going again, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) were deployed and with their help three onslaughts were won, once again giving the British the upper hand. After a bit more than three months of periodical fighting, Canadian troops finally managed to recapture Passchendaele for the side of the allies on 10 November 1917.
Today, the Battle of Passchendaele is known as one of the most gruesome battles of the Great War. The losses were devastating on both sides, adding up to 250 000 Allied and 222 000 German casualties after 100 days of fighting – although these numbers may differ according to different sources. All this for a grand total of only eight kilometres of territory gained. Unfortunately it was all in vain, as not long after – in April 1918 – the Germans again managed to recaptured the territory.
The Church dugout
On the occasion of the 100-year remembrance of the battle, the town of Zonnebeke (of which Passchendaele forms part) decided to open a dugout to the public. Dugouts were used as areas of rest and protected soldiers from shelling. They can be built as deep as 10 metres into the ground and, depending on its size, granted protection to between 50 and 2000 men. Today, most dugouts are either filled with groundwater or have been covered. The dugout in Zonnebeke is unique, in that it was specially drained for the occasion to open for public visitation. Belgian archaeologists already discovered the dugout back in 1989, but it was not drained as the groundwater preserved the wooden structures on the inside. Lying under the foundations of the former church, it is one of the best-preserved dugouts in the region as its location protects it from the elements. A sprinkler system has been specially installed to maintain the moisture in the wooden structures for the period that it is open. On the 10th of November – the day that marks the end of the battle of Passchendaele – the dugout will, quite symbolically, be filled up with groundwater and covered again.
Visiting the dugout a hundred years later leaves a strong impression on the mind. Upon entering, the smell is the first thing that hits you and walking through it I could not help but feel goose bumps. The construction consists of a main gallery that is 29 metres long. The one side was entirely occupied by bunk beds, leaving little space for the soldiers to move around. There were also a few side galleries and five chambers. The inside of the dugout was almost permanently wet, and from there the soldiers could hear the almost constant shooting going on outside. Although being inside the dugout gives you an idea of what the conditions would have been like, I cannot even begin to imagine what the soldiers must have gone through. For those who can no longer visit the dugout, the following video and the photos give you an impression of what it looks like.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
Tyne Cot Cemetery is located not far from the dugout, also in Passchendaele. It’s the final resting place of almost 12 000 fallen soldiers, making it the largest cemetery for Commonwealth* forces in the world. More than 8000 of the soldiers buried here have never been identified. Among these are the graves of four German soldiers too, which is peculiar as allied and German cemeteries are normally separated in Belgium. The name ‘Tyne Cot’ comes from the Northumberland Fusiliers, who saw a resemblance between the German concrete “pillboxes” (concrete dug-in guard posts) and the Tyneside workers’ cottages. The pillboxes played an important role during the battle of Passchendaele, as they were part of the fortified position of the German line. Seeing all those graves, I was both shocked and moved at the same time. Much like being stuck in the mud, I could not help but to stand still for a moment, imagining the horrors that took place beneath my feet, and remembering the soldiers – who gave their lives for peace – still trapped there.
Salient: A salient is a military bulge that projects in enemy territory. During the First World War this was the case around Ypres, and the allied forces occupied the salient for most of the war.
Commonwealth: The Commonwealth of Nations is now a voluntary intergovernmental organisation of 52 member states mostly made up of former British Imperial territories. During the First World War, when the Empire was close to its peak, close to 80 countries fought for it in the war.
Source text and video:
Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 and historical guide of the dugout.
If you want more information about the Battle of Passchendaele, visit the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, where the permanent exhibition focusses on the Battle of Passchendaele.