Two days of commemorations will mark the centenary of what may have been the worst battle that British soldiers ever endured. A ballot has been opened to help relatives honour those who fought – and died – at Passchendaele in 1917, including the men of the Royal Naval Division.
Men of the Royal Marines Artillery. Picture: IWM
To Britons, nothing better encapsulates the horrors and seeming futility of the 1914-18 conflict than the Third Battle of Ypres – better known as Passchendaele.
The attack was meant to sweep across Flanders and capture Bruges and Zeebrugge – capturing bases used by German submarines which in the spring and summer of 1917 threatened Britain’s sea lanes like never before.
Instead the attack bogged down in the Flanders mud, getting no further than the Belgian village which gave the battle its name.
That advance carried the Commonwealth armies forward just four miles – at a cost of 245,000 dead or wounded and 180,000 casualties on the German side.
Knocked-out British tank just down the road from the Royal Naval Division's front line at Passchendaele
Sailors account for at least 3,126 of those Allied casualties; in the final stages of the battle, the sailor-soldiers and Royal Marines of the 63rd Royal Naval Division were thrown into the line one and a half miles west of Passchendaele. Over five days, they battered their way forward around 1,000 yards – a little over half a mile.
A century on and the beginning of the battle forms one of the centrepieces of the UK’s Great War commemorations.
The two days of events open at 8 PM on July 30 at the Menin Gate, where the missing of the Ypres Salient are listed and where for 90 years the town’s fire brigade have sounded the Last Post in tribute to the Allied soldiers who fought to prevent the historic town from falling.
After the short ceremony, attention moves a few hundred yards to the market square and Ypres’ iconic Cloth Hall – razed by German shells during the war and subsequently rebuilt – where a series of live performances, with images and film projected on to the building, will tell the story of the battle.
Men of the Royal Marines Artillery pose in front of their howitzer on the Passchendaele front. Picture: IWM
On the next day, July 31, the focus shifts to Tyne Cot cemetery near Passchendaele where 47,000 Commonwealth dead are remembered – 12,000 in graves, 35,000 on a wall to the missing.
Although it’s the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission graveyard in the world, space at the service of thanksgiving will be limited to 4,000 people, with priority given to descendants of the men of 1917.
To that end, a ballot is being staged to allocate the 4,000 tickets, which will be issued in pairs. Relatives must apply online at www.passchendaele100.org before 24 February 2017.
This article appears courtesy of Royal Navy News and may be found in its original edition here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.