31st July 1917
The word Passchendaele has become synonymous with the horror and futility of modern industrial warfare. It conjures up images of exhausted and demoralised soldiers trudging across flooded mudlands and denuded forests. It does not truly depict the cacophony of explosions and the constant stench of death. That has been left to the written testimonies of those who managed to survive. As English war poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote ‘I died in hell. (They called it Passchendaele.)’
This was the major British offensive of 1917. The low-lying Belgian countryside had been carefully managed by generations of farmers to become extremely productive, growing hops, cereals and fruit and providing grazing for sheep and cattle. Each shell that fell disrupted the drainage system and turned this idyllic rural landscape into a mudbath. The shells cut up the barbed wire that lay in the path of the British offensive, but at the same time the land became more and more difficult to cross, and the front-line troops more difficult to supply. It was a recipe for disaster, and indeed it was a disaster.
One of the aims was to straighten out the front line. The town of Ypres had been surrounded by German forces on three sides for much of the war. The German troops were situated on the low hills which overlooked the town. The offensive was also designed to relieve the pressure on the French, who had been experiencing the effects of mutinies within their ranks. Furthermore the idea was to wheel round to the north at some point and be able to shell the channel ports of Oostende and Zeebrugge where parts of the German U-boat fleet were based.
That appealed to Field Marshall Douglas Haig – the big breakthrough and a disorganised and dispirited enemy forced to surrender.
Of course the big breakthrough did not happen. It had started to rain. Even on that very first day it rained heavily. And the rain continued. That August would be the wettest in living memory. The British Meteorological Office simply described the weather as ‘Excessively Wet’. The rains always seemed to come when an attack was planned. The great plans and ambitions soon degenerated into a war of attrition. If the British soldiers were suffering, then the Germans must be suffering the same, if not worse.
It was on this, the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele that 36 German officers and men were captured who would eventually end up as prisoners of war in Skipton.
Private Max Sellner had received severe gunshot wounds to his abdomen. He was sent to hospital in Manchester and entered Skipton Camp in September 1918. He was 29 years old. He was captured near the village of Langemarck.
2nd Lieutenant Martin Most was captured at Warneton in the very south of the battlefield. He arrived in Skipton in February 1918. A year later he was taken to Keighley War Hospital for treatment as the influenza epidemic raged throughout the camp. In May 1919 he was one of the last prisoners to return to Skipton.
On the British side Private Ellis Evans was killed in the Battle of Pilkem Ridge, an area of higher ground to the north of the battlefield. Private Evans was just one name among the hundreds of thousands of young men from across the world who died in and about a small town in Belgium during the Great War.
Officially the battle was known as the 3rd Battle of Ypres, but it is the name Passchendaele which is etched into the nation’s collective psyche.