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Passchendaele: A Century after the Horror

The period July to November this year marks the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. In a war already overflowing with misery, Passchendaele remains a byword for unspeakable suffering; it was one of the most appalling campaigns of the First World War, claiming almost half a million casualties and inflicting lifelong physical and psychological damage on the survivors. It’s also a gruesome example of the human costs of war and the evils of war-making.

War-Making as Politics

Carl Von Clausewitz famously claimed that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and in a sense this was true at Passchendaele, where political ambitions and expediency and military delusions trumped even the most basic, humane common sense, and where personal disputes between politicians and military commanders lead to carnage on an almost incomprehensible scale.

The historical context of the battle is discussed in detail in Paul Ham’s recent book Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth. (The subtitle is a reference to Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.”) On the Allied side, Passchendaele, also known as Third Ypres, remains most significant for the British, who both devised the offensive—against the advice of their allies—and mainly used British and “Dominion” forces to fight it.

Britain had initially been drawn into the war by its treaties with the Entente powers—publicly, to defend Belgian neutrality—but by 1917, this justification was wearing thin. The tremendous loss of life on the Somme and at Verdun in 1916 threatened to undermine support for the war effort, so politicians and journalists were obliged to change tactics to keep up enlistments and war production. Instead of fighting to help political allies, the war’s public purpose became simply to exact revenge on the Germans—the only way to redeem the sacrifice of a generation of young men was to inflict violence and loss on the enemy on an even greater scale. A major breakthrough on the Western Front was therefore required to show the public that victory was possible without a negotiated peace. Without total war and total victory, tens of thousands of lives would have been lost in vain (pp. 48-49). The sunk costs alluded to in this logic were to become tragically literal in the fields of Flanders.

Many factors influenced the development and execution of the offensive, but personal battles were often at the root of larger strategic decisions. Paul Ham frames the saga in just these terms, as the result of an intense hatred between Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshall Douglas Haig (pp. 45-46; 424-427). Lloyd George was an arch manipulator who wanted to be immortalized as The Man Who Won the War (pp. 29-32), while Haig was a Victorian-era professional soldier who believed with Calvinist certainty that he was a divine instrument destined to bring victory over Germany (pp. 44-45, 426-427). The two men were united in their desire for victory, but clashed over the question of how it was to be achieved. Lloyd George wanted a knock-out blow to end the war quickly, while Haig favored a ‘wearing-down’ war designed to deplete German manpower, even if at tremendous cost to his own men.

The offensive Haig and his staff planned for Flanders in 1917 offered a nominal political goal, but rapidly devolved into a version of Haig’s original plan for a battle of attrition. The official goal was to clear the Belgian coastline, destroy the U-boat bases at Ostende and Zeebrugge, and possibly drive the Germans out of Belgium entirely. Doing this required a breaking through the heavily fortified German lines and capturing a series of ridges that the Germans were using to control the Ypres salient. Passchendaele Ridge, north-east of the city of Ypres, was to be a focal point of the attack.

However, by mid-1917, when the campaign began in earnest, the Germans were already losing the U-boat war, and their bases on the Belgian coast had lost most of their political value. Yet the offensive went forward anyway. Things on the ground were just as confusing, and Haig’s subordinates were often unsure about the tactics they were expected to employ and the practical objectives of each stage of the fighting.

Despite the disappearance of its original justification, however, Lloyd George agreed to let the battle go forward on the condition that it would be stopped if it failed to make progress. Once it started, however, there is no evidence that he did anything to stop it. Control over the fates of the British and Dominion forces remained with Haig throughout.

Driven by religious conviction, Haig tended to be irrationally optimistic about the prospects for victory. He interpreted incoming news in the most positive light, which often resulted in severe distortions of the truth, and even viewing failure on the ground as modest victory. Haig also let his prejudices interfere with his judgment. His diary, for example, records his reaction to a (reliable) report he’d received from the Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office, a report that undermined Haig’s claim that the German army was broken and on the verge of collapse:

I can’t think why the War Office Intelligence Dept. gives such a wrong picture of the situation except that General Macdonogh (DMI) is a Roman Catholic and is (perhaps unconsciously) influenced by information which doubtless reaches him from tainted (i.e. catholic) sources. (p. 317)

Irrational exuberance also lead Haig to overlook what would prove to be his worst enemy in the campaign: the weather. Only dry weather would allow the infantry and, especially, its artillery support to advance quickly in the initial stages of the battle, and to consolidate any gains made by the attack. Disastrously, Nature did not accommodate Haig’s plans, and throughout the Autumn, normally rainy Flanders experienced a deluge of Biblical proportions.

“I died in hell (They called it Passchendaele)”

It might seem that military mistakes and political hubris were roughly the same in this as in any other war, and in a sense they were. The lesson of Passchendaele, however, lies in understanding the staggering human cost of these errors and the sheer amount of suffering they inflicted.

First-hand accounts are unanimous on one point: it is impossible to convey the reality of the battle to people who weren’t there. Nevertheless, numerous survivors have tried, and their words and stories give us a glimpse of the horrors they and so many others experienced.

The weather added the uniquely ghastly dimension to the battle. The fields across which the British and Dominion forces attacked were shelled for days and sometimes weeks before the soldiers advanced, so as to break the German defensive lines before the real attack even started. But the shelling also destroyed the centuries-old drainage systems that prevented the region from flooding. The result was that the area around Passchendaele turned into a swamp of mud and putrid water that concealed countless shell holes, barbed wire entanglements, and other obstacles beneath its surface. In the aftermath, one soldier described it:

“I won’t forget my experience today if I live for a thousand years… I have never seen such destruction… as I saw it today, it’s simply an awful nightmare, a hideous reeking swamp seething with living (and dead) beings. A place that stamps itself on one’s mind and memory like a red hot iron.” (p. 329)

Fighting in these conditions was almost impossible. The British and Dominion troops repeatedly advanced through the quagmire, sometimes wading knee-deep in the muck, often while under heavy shellfire. Floundering in the mud made them easy targets for German machine gunners and artillery, and their heavy equipment meant that even a slight stumble off a safe path through the swamp meant death by drowning. There was little the soldiers could do to assist each other. Sergeant Berry of The Rifle Brigade recalled watching helplessly while a comrade drowned:

“He went down gradually. He kept begging us to shoot him. But we couldn’t shoot him. Who could shoot him? We stayed with him, watching him go down in the mud. And he died. He wasn’t the only one. There must have been thousands.” (p. 314)

Another British soldier sunk first to his knees, then his waist, as his fellows’ efforts to help him failed:

“There were no footholds from which to dig or haul him out. Duty compelled the men to move up the line [so they left him]; two days later, they returned along the same route and found ‘the wretched fellow… still there but only his head was now visible and he was raving mad.’” (p. 341)

Evacuating the wounded took hours, often days, and was as perilous as actually attacking. On their return trips to aid stations in the rear, “Bursting shells blew horse-drawn ambulance waggons off the track, hurling their damaged human cargo into the mire” (p. 311). In another case,

“Some 500 New Zealand stretcher cases lay at a casualty clearing station… Exposed to hail and driving rain, they began sinking into the mud, ‘just dying there where they’d been dumped off’… most of them drowned or succumbed to gas gangrene.” (p. 325)

Soldiers could be forced to stay in the field for days, shivering in water-logged shell holes or in the ruins of local towns waiting to be relieved. The battlefield at night conjured up “something like the medieval idea of hell; pitch dark, except in the evil flashed of bursting shells; screams, groans and sobs; men writhing in the mud, men trying to walk and falling down again” (p. 326).

At one point, because the mud prevented the artillery from moving up in time, the Australians and New Zealanders were sent into battle without support, and were ordered to simply assault the waiting and intact German defenses. Several New Zealand units suffered casualty rates of 85 percent (pp. 316-324). Their commander, Sir Andrew Russell, put it bluntly: “you cannot fight machine guns plus wire, with human bodies” (p. 323). Yet such were the tactics of British commanders. One captured Australian soldier told his interrogator that the Germans could not possibly win this fight, because, “’the cannon fodder of the entire world is at our disposal’” (p. 338).

After months of relentless attacks in these unimaginable conditions, the British and Dominion forces finally captured the village of Passchendaele (which was only one of their original objectives; the overall campaign was a failure). In a final trick of cruelty, however, the town no longer possessed any military or political value. It was also impossible to defend, and so was abandoned a few weeks later.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

The lesson of Passchendaele is the same as for the entire First World War, and for war in general: the slaughter was pointless and avoidable. It was the product of decisions made without reference to morality or humanity, and that considered only the political and military interests of states.

Yet comprehending the human costs of the war is a necessary step in fighting the arguments of revisionist historians who argue that, although tragic, the conflict was necessary and ultimately worth the price. Paul Ham captures perfectly the poverty of such arguments:

[A]t what point would the catastrophe not have been worth it? How many millions would have had to die, how many nations destroyed, how many fascist and communist seedlings sown, how many families struck down with grief, before politicians, the press and military revisionists would concede that the First World War was not worth it? (p. 422; emphasis in original)

The last word should be had someone who saw the tragedy of Passchendaele for himself. The following is a poem titled “War,” by Ellis Humphrey Evans. Evans died in Flanders on July 17th, 1917.

Bitter to live in times like these. 

While God declines beyond the seas; 

Instead, man, king or peasantry, 

Raises his gross authority. 

When he thinks God has gone away; 

Man takes up his sword to slay 

His brother; we can hear death’s roar.  

It shadows the hovels of the poor.  

Like the old songs they left behind,  

We hung our harps in the willows again.  

Ballads of boys blow on the wind,  

Their blood is mingled with the rain.


Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
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