Haig’s last ‘big push’ floundered in the muddy fields of Belgium

The First World War gave recognition to many terms or place names that would become synonymous with the futility of men’s attempts to defy nature.

Perhaps the greatest of these is the name of the previously insignificant community of Pasendael (Passchendaele), to the north east of the town of Ieper (Ypres) in Belgium.

Over four months from July to October 1917 it would become the final objective of a failed ‘grand plan’ to break through the German frontlines and secure the trade routes through the Channel by seizing the Belgian seaports.

From these ports the enemy’s submarines threatened the continuance of the war, according to a gloomy appraisal of the security of the shipping lanes presented by Admiral Jellicoe in the spring of 1917.

The reluctant decision to sanction Field Marshal Haig’s plan for a summer offensive followed a long and drawn out struggle across the tables of Whitehall as prime minister Lloyd George and his colleagues were wary of a repeat of the blood-letting of the previous year on the Somme.

Lloyd George wanted to transfer military assets and men to prop up Italy and was sceptical of Haig’s confidence that the British forces could carry through the latest scheme to break-out of the deadlock on the Western Front.

France was seriously weakened following another failed offensive which had provoked substantial mutiny in its armies; and appeared content to sit out the next 12 months and await the arrival of significant American forces in 1918, following the US entry into the war in April.

The arrival of substantial German troops released from fighting on the Russian fronts only served to increase the improbability of success for the proposed campaign, that would become known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

For reasons of public morale, Lloyd George was unable to remove Haig and reluctantly the government agreed to the planned offensive.

What no one could defeat was the weather. Despite knowledge of the poor conditions, attacks were pressed forward into a sea of mud as the rain poured down.

More than 50 men of the borough of Tynemouth were sacrificed in a campaign which slithered to a halt in mid-October as the tiny gains of shell cratered and gas saturated swamp were measured against the losses of hundreds of thousands of killed and wounded, for an advance to the village which would give its name to this futile tragedy.

Anyone with information on anyone killed or died as a result of the war is asked to contact the project.

The project workroom at Room B9 Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more or how to get involved.

The public meeting to gauge support for the formation of a group to begin the task of assembling the record of service and casualties of Wallsend, Howdon and Willington Quay districts in the First World War will be held at 7pm on Tuesday, October 29, inthe Memorial Hall, Frank Street, Wallsend.

Anyone interested in helping in the work of the proposed project – no previous experience in research is necessary as training will be provided – should go to the meeting to find out how a properly constituted body will be formed and how to assist.

A number of opportunities will be available for people with special skills to volunteer and it is hoped that the project will get under way early in the 2014 when funding and workspace have been secured.