The Battle of Passchendaele has become synonymous with the horrors of World War One and human sacrifice.

The incessant bombardment and heavy rain turned the Belgian battlefield into a quagmire. Tanks became immobilised, while soldiers and horses drowned in the mud.

The British Red Cross supported the naval and military medical services throughout the war by providing volunteers, known as voluntary aid detachments (VADs), who were trained in first aid and nursing.

Among their number was Olive Mudie-Cooke, who went to France as a 26-year-old ambulance driver in 1916, initially with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, and then with the Red Cross.

Mudie-Cooke, who was based at Ypres for part of her service, became known for her poignant artworks that captured the horrors and more intimate moments of war.

Among the images she produced were three surrounding the Battle of Passchendaele.

German bunkers at Passchendaele after the Allied shelling

German bunkers at Passchendaele after the Allied shelling

Cloth Hall and Cathedral, Ypres, after bomb damage

Cloth Hall and Cathedral, Ypres, after bomb damage


Mudie-Cooke was later commissioned by the Red Cross to record its post-war activities.

Evacuating the wounded

Red Cross treatment centres, ambulance convoys and hospitals in northern France operated throughout the campaign, which is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

British Red Cross heritage manager, Dr Alasdair Brooks, explains the significance of the Red Cross’ role during the battle.

Official Red Cross WWI reports give an insight into the type of work undertaken by VADs.

Capt. L.E. Dolman, of the No. 4 Motor Ambulance Convoy, wrote: “The third battle of Ypres  began on July 31, 1917, and for the first 72 hours the cars were running continuously… about a hundred yards from the German lines to the Asylum, Ypres, and from there to the College at Poperinghe.

“On the night of the 20th, thirty cars were taken up to Sanctuary Wood to evacuate over 1,000 cases lying in the wood which could only be reached in the hours of darkness.

“The Germans started to advance up the slope on each side of the wood, and it became necessary for the cars to be hurriedly withdrawn.

“On starting up, the fifth car in the column had a Sankey wheel destroyed by a shell, and so as not to hold up the cars, the driver skilfully moved his car on the brake drum to the Menin Road, where he fitted the spare wheel and carried on his duty.”

The Battle of Passchendaele came to an end on 10 November, 1917. In three months, more than 400,000 lives were lost on both sides.

  • Modern warfare has changed dramatically since World War One. The rules of war, or international humanitarian law, set out what can and cannot be done during an armed conflict. Find out more.
  • Did one of your relatives volunteer for the Red Cross during World War One? Search our VAD database.