It was the battle infamous not only for the number of dead, but also for the mud and futility. MARTIN WADE recalls the Battle of Passchendaele which began almost a hundred years ago.

WHEN the landscape of a Western Front battlefield is imagined, the shell-marked quagmire of Passchendaele fits that hellish picture.

The first attack, which opened what is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, took place on July 31 1917.

Ypres was the main town within a bulge, or salient, in the British lines and had been fought over twice before in the First Battle of Ypres (October-November 1914) and Second Battle of Ypres (April-May 1915) when hundreds of men of the Monmouthshire Regiment had been killed.

This latest battle was presaged by the capture of the Messines Ridge in June 1916. This rare piece of high ground among the flat Flanders countryside was strategically vital.

This emboldened allied plans to push the Germans from the Channel coast and among other aims to deny their submarines a base.

The ferocious shelling before the battle had churned the heavy clay soil. The drainage of the low-lying farmland was destroyed. The heaviest rain for 30 years had turned the soil into thick mud which fouled rifles and stopped tanks in their tracks. So deep was the quagmire that men and horses drowned in it.

But on that first day there was optimism. The Argus told how: 'At dawn, after artillery preparation extending over many days, the third battle of Ypres, and the fourth great struggle of the year was begun. The German lines were attacked on a wide front extending northwards from the Lys to the Yser [rivers].

Readers were told of the British Commander Sir Douglas Haig's initial message being very brief, but said that the first objectives had been captured.

Despite 'unfavourable weather' allied troops had enjoyed success in the neighbourhood of Ypres and had advanced on a front of over 15 miles from La Basse Ville on the River Lys to Steenstraate on the River Yser. Both of these villages were in the hands of the allies, readers were told.

It was added gravely: “We have to remember that the bulk of the enemy's reserves are concentrated in this area, and, knowing this, to keep our expectations within reasonable bounds."

There were successes for Welsh regiments on the first day of the battle. They had "the honour of practically annihilating the famous 3rd Battalion of the Guards Fusiliers, the 'Berlin Cockchafers' which the German Emperor had styled the crack battalion of his army. The Argus told how: "The Welshmen fell on them this morning, taking prisoners and killing every man who showed resistance."

This, the report added, was the first chance Welsh troops had had to show their mettle since 'the days of Mametz Wood a year and more ago'.

By early August, reports came through that the offensive was slowing. There was, we were told, "no appreciable movement on either side". There had been a great deal of shelling "rising to hurricane intensity at times".

“The more the enemy goes on launching his masses against our withering barrages the sooner the end must come” the Argus report warned, adding: “If the Berlin casualty lists are even approximately truthful, they must reveal an appalling slaughter”.

The situation along the whole front showed no tactical change. The weather remained "deplorable".

As the battle wore on, the pages of the Argus were scattered with the faces of those who had been killed or who had shown great bravery. Both applied to one Newport soldier serving with the Grenadier Guards.

William O'Brien joined the army in November 1915, carrying out his basic training at Caterham in Surrey. On completion of this he was stationed at Chelsea Barracks, until he was deployed to France in the summer of 1916.

Before joining the army, William was a police constable in Abersychan and Abergavenny.

On the day the battle began, William had been praised for the bravery he had shown on the battlefield. His commendation read: "Pte O'Brien, a stretcher-bearer, was with Sgt Bushe's party. Though carrying the same loads as other men, he repeatedly attended wounded men on the way, dressed their wounds, and left them in conspicuous positions [so they might be picked up]." All this he did through hellish bombardment without losing touch with his party.

However, only days later, Lt CW Carrington, an officer in his unit later had to write to Pte O’ Brien’s mother telling of his "great sympathy". He reassured her that William was killed "instantaneously" by a shell and "could not have suffered". The whole platoon joined him in offering "deepest sympathy" to his family.

He had been buried and his comrades were erecting a cross to mark his resting place. He was hoping to arrange for a priest to perform "due rites" at the grave side because this had not been possible when he was buried.

Men of the Monmouthshire Regiment were also involved in the fighting and many paid the ultimate price. Among them was Lieutenant Stuart Duncanson. An officer in 1st Battalion, he played for Newport first and third teams in rugby before the war. The former shipping clerk lived in Clyffard Crescent and joined up as a private before becoming an officer in October 1916. He is buried at Tyne Cot cemetery.

Gwent soldiers from many regiments met their end in this bloody battle.

A 2nd Lieutenant soldier with the Welsh Regiment, JP Avery, was killed, we learned "while most gallantly leading his platoon in the attack". He died in a hail of German machine gun fire while taking an enemy dugout. According to his commanding officer Lt Col SF Brooke, he had "inspired his men with his courage and example".

Private Albert Victor Howells of the 11th Battalion, South Wales Borderers died on the opening day of the battle, aged 21. He was the son of Joseph and Mary Howells, of 4, Victoria Road in Pontypool.

William Henry Price was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 42nd Company, Machine Gun Corps (Infantry). The Panteg man was killed later in the battle on August 23. He was the son of Charles and Elizabeth Price, of "Woodstock," 59, Blaendare Road in Pontypool.

They both are buried at Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres.

Corporal Sidney Mayo had been an apprentice typesetter at the South Wales Argus and a Welsh schoolboy international, the Argus told readers. He was killed just prior to the outbreak of the battle. The son of Henry Mayo of Preston Avenue, he had gone to work for the Sheffield Daily Telegraph. In Yorkshire he had joined the West Riding Engineers.

The open country and bombardment meant the Germans were well-prepared for the offensive. The bombardment lasted two weeks and saw 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns, but it failed to destroy the German's heavily fortified defences.

The remains of the village of Passchendaele was eventually captured in November when the offensive was called off. It sat just five miles from where the offensive had begun three months earlier. This was all that had resulted from 325,000 allied and 260,000 German casualties.