During August 1917, when the battle of Passchendaele was raging, 127 mm of rain fell in Flanders which was double the normal average for that month. Combine this with the reality that Ypres, where Passchendaele was fought, was a region largely made up of flat, low ground that was kept dry only with the help of an intricate series of dikes and ditches which had been broken and shattered by the heavy shelling that Ypres had seen both with the onslaught preparing the Passchendaele assault and with the heavy shelling in the first two battles fought at Ypres. All of this meant that the terrain on which the soldiers fighting the battle of Passchendaele on was mud-hell. Some soldiers later wrote that it was like fighting on a bottomless bowl of porridge.
The mud was so gooey … so thick … so bad that many of the soldiers were drowning in mud. The trauma of this was doubled by the fact that this was a comparatively slow process. A soldier would get stuck and eventually three more soldiers would be on the scene trying to pull their comrade out of the porridge mud but with no success. It became so bad that eventually, stuck soldiers having heard of the mud drownings would beg, once a certain point was reached in their sinking, for their comrades to shoot them so that they would not suffocate beneath the mud. Many obliged their comrades. One Lieutenant became so maddened that he began hacking with his sword a soldier who was stuck up to his armpits in the goo. The Lieutenant was not being cruel, he had just flipped out at his inability to keep his men from dying in this way.
The water was pooled everywhere. However, that same water was fetid as the holes the water was filling when not filled with rotting corpses were being used as latrines. Also, the heavy poisonous gas that was part of the shelling would find the low spots as a natural residing place. The irony in all this is that the supply lines had not been able to provide fresh potable water to the front lines so that on one hand the soldiers were drenched with water while on the other hand many were languishing from dehydration.
The mud and water were so bad there was no way to advance. As such the military came up with the idea of laying down duckboards upon which the men could walk to advance. The problem with this military genius is that German machine guns didn’t bother with covering any of the ground except where the duckboards were laid down. Further, at night the German artillery would target the duckboards so that the duckboard laying had to start all over again the next day. So the rank and file soldier had to decide between taking his chances by dying in some muckhole that would swallow him whole or by dying by being a sitting duck for a German machine gunner while keeping to the duckboards.
You can look at old photos of horses and donkeys sunk up to their necks in mud and muck while still harnessed to the wagons they were seeking to pull.
There were 275,000 British casualties at Passchendaele while the Germans chimed in at 220,000 casualties.
From the time that warfare began to fascinate me (very young) till today I still cannot get my mind around whatever would move a young man to endure those kinds of conditions to fight for the wickedness of men in high places. At 12 I had already decided I was not going to Vietnam but was headed to Canada if they were still fighting that fool war when I hit 18.
Is there something wrong with me that I take all these deaths so personal of 20 something-year-olds that died 100 years ago?