The Canadian and Belgian royal families, Germany’s foreign minister and descendants of some of those who died in one of the First World War’s bloodiest battles gathered Monday in western Belgium to mark the centenary of the assault known as Passchendaele.

More than half a million Allied and German troops were killed or wounded in the Third Battle of Ypres, which has come to be synonymous with the futility of war. The Allied campaign, fought by British, Canadian and other Commonwealth forces from July to November 1917 in the mud-slicked battlefields of Flanders, barely moved the front line against the Germans.


A soldier looks on at the memorial of poppies at the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium. During the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, an estimated 245,000 Allied and 215,000 German troops (dead, wounded or missing) fell after about 100 days of heavy fighting. (Stephanie Lecocq/EPA)

Gathered at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, where almost 12,000 soldiers are buried, representatives from nations whose soldiers fought, and members of their families, paid homage to those who died.

Britain’s Prince Charles said the gathering was to honour their sacrifice and “to promise that we will never forget.”

Deadly battle

When the battle started on July 31, 1917, the First World War was entering its fourth year. Both sides were desperate for a breakthrough after suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties the year before at Verdun and the Somme in northern France, two other battles that vie with Passchendaele as the most costly of the war.


Prince Charles, right, and Belgium’s King Philippe attended the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele, where Canadian soldiers were sent shortly after its successful campaign at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Britain’s Sir Douglas Haig was convinced he could force a breakthrough at Ypres, even though two earlier battles there had failed. The goal was to shut down German submarine operations on the Belgian coast. Haig’s plan to take the village of Passchendaele in a few days and move on to the coast turned out to be wildly ambitious.

With rain turning the swampy terrain to mud and the Germans armed with mustard gas, it would take until November for the Allies to capture the village. They never got close to the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend.

‘Senseless horror’

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said “the battle of Flanders stands like Verdun for the senseless horror of war.”

“Diplomacy must never again fail as it did in 1914, there must never again be war in the middle of Europe, and never again must the youth of our continent be slaughtered,” Gabriel said in a statement.

He recalled there has never before been a period in Europe of more than 70 years without war and destruction.

“Today it is more true than ever in a world full of crises and conflicts that Europe is far more than a single market,” Gabriel said. “Europe is a project of peace. Europe is our future. Only united can we succeed in protecting our interests and defending our values.”


Gravestones of Canadian and British soldiers are seen at the Tyne Cot cemetery ahead of a commemoration to mark the centenary of Passchendaele in Zonnebeke, Belgium. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Sunrise ceremony

Earlier, at dawn, around 100 people gathered at the Welsh memorial in Langemark, near where the battle began, as a cannon salute marked the start of commemorations.

Welshman Peter Carter-Jones said the ceremony, and other commemorations held over the weekend, were “very moving.”

He said “all this has been done for those thousands of young men who died here so we can live in freedom. That is what it is about. It is for them, not for us.”