They called it Passchendaele

Pass

One hundred years ago today, on 31st July 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres began. The battle, often called the Battle of Passchendaele, staggered on until November with hundreds of thousands of troops killed. The Allied assault on Ypres was ultimately intended to break through the German lines and capture submarine bases on the Belgian coast. That objective was not reached, and territorial gains were limited to just a few miles at terrible cost in suffering and death.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minster at the time, wrote in his memoirs:

Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …

Others have argued that the Battle of Passchendaele had the important strategic role of taking pressure of the French army further South, which was so close to breaking point that mutinies were breaking out. Although the casualties on both sides were unsustainable, the German High Command knew that American reinforcements would soon enter the fray, and that if they were to win the War it would have to be with a knockout blow the following year. The German offensive of 1918 made substantial inroads through the Allied lines, even threatening Paris, until it was eventually halted and turned into a full-scale retreat.

Whatever the military outcome of the Battle, there is no question about the scale of the suffering of the troops (many of whom, at this stage of the War, were conscripts). The area in which the action took place was mainly low-lying, with a water table just a couple of feet below the surface. The myriad of small streams ditches, and drainage channels that had been developed over centuries to turn it into farmland, were destroyed by heavy shelling so the soldiers had to contend with heavy mud, often strewn with body parts and deep enough to drown in, as described by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem Memorial Tablet:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?

Whenever I read about the terrible events of past wars, the important thing (to me) is not strategy or objectives but the suffering  that had to be endured by ordinary soldiers. It’s important to remember things like Passchendaele to remind ourselves how lucky we are to be living in a time of relative peace. The way the world is heading, however, I worry that may soon be coming to an end. Lest we forget? Far too many people have already forgotten.

P.S. Among those killed in action on the first day of Passchendaele was Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, whom I wrote about here.

P.P.S. The troops shown in the picture above are in fact Australian gunners: the picture was taken in October 1917.

 

 

Advertisements

3 Responses to “They called it Passchendaele”

  1. The BBC have a page up about Hedd Wyn as part of their Passchendaele coverage: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-40683382

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    I don’t quite see the relevance of the 1918 campaigning, although it deserves to be added on that subject that, although the Allies had the Americans coming in by then, the Germans were no longer fighting on the eastern front as Russia had accepted humiliating peace terms and was in the throes of revolution – so that Germany had many more troops available for the Western front.

    • telescoper Says:

      Fighting further defensive battles, especially in Flanders, would have pinned a vast amount of German resources and caused continuing unsustainable casualties. I believe that Passchendaele played a role in the decision to take the initiative early the following year, before it was too late.

      It was reinforcements from the Eastern front that stopped the Allied advance in 1917, but this battle prevented them being used to push elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: