PASSCHENDAELE: A NEW HISTORY

February 3, 2018

The Western Front in WW1 was almost wholly in France. It ran northwest from the Swiss border, through Lorraine and Champagne, passing 60 miles northeast of Paris. In Picardy it turned due north. Then, north of Lille, it crossed into the Flanders region of Belgium for its last 40 mile run to the North Sea. So a small chunk of Belgium remained in Allied hands – a symbol of defiance, and a buffer zone to protect the vital re-supply ports of Calais and Dunkerque. It was by far the most important section of the front for the Belgians of course, but also for the British, both to defend and from which to launch attacks.
At the heart of that defiance lay the town of Ypres (in Flemish pronounced Eeper, though most British soldiers called it Wipers). The Allies had stopped the Germans there in a chaotic fight in late 1914. They held on against a determined German attack in 1915. Two years later the British Commander-in-Chief, Haig, launched the Third Battle of Ypres on 31st July 1917. The aim was first to capture the low ridges to the east of the town, from which the Germans had kept up a relentless bombardment, reducing the town to ruin and killing hundreds every month; then to break through to the North Sea to recover the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge which the Germans were using as submarine depots from which to attack Allied shipping. This was a not unrealistic objective on the back of stunning Allied victories at Vimy Ridge and Messines in May and June.
The most optimistic planners believed that a break-through in Flanders against a supposedly demoralised German army might lead to a rolling up of the front line and an end to the war by Christmas 1917. The outcome as we all know was very, very different. The Germans’ morale held. They fought heroically. The rain in August and October was relentless, turning the battlefield into a sea of mud. By the time the battle petered out on November 10th at a village a mere five miles east of Ypres called Passchendaele, whose name became synonymous with the whole campaign, half a million Allied and German soldiers had been killed or wounded, or were missing.
Like Jutland, 3rd Ypres gave rise to extraordinary controversy and debate. Nick Lloyd of King’s College London and JSCSC Shrivenham sets out in this book to “retell the story of this infamous battle, considering it afresh with the accumulated knowledge of a century of scholarship.” He has studied the German side of the story, which gives the book a more rounded, authoritative feel. He points out that the Flanders plain has a thin layer of topsoil sitting over a 100 metre deep belt of clay which trapped the rain on the surface. The just-adequate system of creeks and drainage ditches was destroyed by the vast artillery barrages by both sides, so the water had nowhere to go. It sat in deep pools in the shell holes and created a huge morass of mud, across which troops had to fight and amongst which they had to live and die. This created the ghastly landscape which haunts us through photographs and paintings and which has come to epitomise the horror of war. By the time of the final assaults towards Passchendaele, conditions were indescribably unpleasant. The Royal Naval Division were present and fought bravely but unfortunately are not mentioned in the book. After all, they ‘only’ lost 3,000 men – a footnote amongst the total quarter of a million Allied casualties over the 14 weeks, though still enough to man 15 modern frigates.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial at Menin Gate records the names of 54,000 Allied soldiers whose bodies were never found in the Flanders mud. Another 36,000 are recorded at the Tyne Cot cemetery, along with 12,000 graves, two thirds of which are unidentified. The figures are testimony to the scale of the horror and are a sobering reminder of the human cost of war between nations.
Lloyd’s book covers the ground admirably and in an accessible, readable style. He challenges the perception of the battle as being totally futile and devoid of meaning or purpose. He argues that major success was within Britain’s grasp in the summer and autumn of 1917. The course of the war could have been transformed dramatically. But after the initial setbacks, perhaps Haig should have called it off. Prime Minister Lloyd George wanted this but never had the authority to force that decision on Haig.
Remarkably, the people of Flanders still feel a sense of gratitude to the British and Commonwealth nations for defending them, and for the sacrifices they made. The daily ritual of the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate is a symbol of that gratitude. Recently I met a man who had helped keep that poignant ceremony alive through the 1970s and 80s when the British had become rather ambivalent about WW1, embarrassed almost. I thanked him for what he had done. He nodded his appreciation, but then looked me in the eye and said: “But the debt is still ours to you”. If you are looking for one book to give you a balanced and authoritative overview of the fighting in 1917, this is the one. Highly recommended.

Sir Tim Laurence
Vice Admiral