The bloody Battle of Passchendaele is shrouded in shame for the British
Review: Nick Lloyd’s Passchendaele: A New History
Stretcher-bearers carry a wounded soldier through the mud near Boesinghe during the battle of Passchendaele in Flanders. Photograph: John Warwick Brooke/Getty Images
Passchendaele - A New History
The Battle of Passchendaele proved to be so contentious that no official history of it was written until after the second World War. Even historians could not agree on the proper title. Many preferred the more factually correct and less emotionally charged Third Battle of Ypres. Others felt, and still feel, that only the name Passchendaele with its echoes of Christ’s passion and death suffice to explain this catastrophe.
This battle, which lasted from July 31st to November 10th, 1917, cost the British and the Germans 500,000 casualties for the gain of five old imperial miles (eight kilometres).
It is a battle shrouded in shame and guilt for the British and one that often defies rational analysis. It is hard to be rational about a battle in which thousands of men drowned in shell holes or were machine gunned where they stood knee-deep in the mire and the detritus of the dead.
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Those images of men and beast floundering in a never-ending sea of mud would define the first World War in the public imagination.
Lightness of touch
Nick Lloyd’s Passchendaele – A New History is written with a lightness of touch which defies the complexity of this battle. The temptation in any book of this kind is to allow the facts to overwhelm the narrative with multiple formations of men moving hither and thither across vast battlefields. Many first World War books are unreadable as a result. Lloyd’s is eminently readable.
There were in effect five battles. The first, the Battle of Pilkem Ridge, was a partial success which was called off because of the bad weather. The second, the Battle of Langemarck between August 16th and 18th, 1917, was an absolute bloody disaster in which the two Irish divisions, the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division, were slaughtered.
The blame for this debacle rests with the commander of the Fifth Army, Gen Sir Hubert Gough, an Eton-educated Anglo-Irish toff. His callous disregard for the fate of his men and his sloppy preparation would have tragic consequences for those under his command including the 1,200 men from the Irish divisions killed on August 16th, 1917.
The third phase, known as the Battle of Menin Road, in September and October 1917 was the closest the British came to a breakthrough, but the weather intervened.
Having exhausted the spirit and manpower of the British army, the British commander-in-chief Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig pitched the colonial troops of Australia, New Zealand and Canada into phases four and five of the battle. The battle ended on November 10th with the capture of the village of Passchendaele by the Canadians.
The Canadian commander Arthur Currie took one look at the ground before the attack and concluded it was not worth one drop of blood. With wearying accuracy, he predicted this shelled abyss would cost his men 16,000 casualties.
Passchendaele was a military disaster, but Lloyd contends it was almost a success. He describes it as a “lost victory” on the basis that the middle phase of the battle, conducted by the Second Army’s redoubtable general Sir Herbert “Daddy” Plumer, could have achieved the breakthrough Haig so desperately wanted, but for the weather and the lateness in the year.
In an otherwise meticulously researched and well-argued book, Lloyd makes an unconvincing case for Passchendaele being a “lost victory”. The Germans were left reeling in late September and early October by a series of massive onslaughts, but neither their line nor their spirits were broken. It would take the combined might of the British, French and millions of fresh American soldiers to finally break the Germans a year later.
The author himself appears to contradict himself by stating that the battle was a failure judging by its original objectives. Haig had conceived of the Flanders campaign as leading to a decisive breakthrough.
By breaking out of the Ypres salient, the British would then capture the vital railway junction of Roulers before pushing on to clear the Belgian coast of German submarine bases. Haig maintained his offensive could win the war for Britain in 1917 or in early 1918.
By any objective measure, he came nowhere near achieving of any of these goals.
The novelty of the book, hence the word new, is that the author devotes much of his book to the German account of the battle whereas previous accounts only dealt with it from a British point of view.
He gives due regard to the resourcefulness and courage of the German defenders of the Ypres salient. As one German officer memorably wrote: “You do not know what Flanders means. Flanders means endless endurance. Flanders means blood and scraps of human bodies. Flanders means heroic courage and faithfulness even unto death.”
Lloyd apportions blame for the failure of the Flanders offensive widely. He begins with the British prime minister David Lloyd George. He and Haig loathed each other. Lloyd George never had any faith in Haig’s plans, but suffered a rare failure of nerve. He felt unqualified as a civilian to call the whole thing off and unable, as a result of the coalition government he headed, to sack Haig who had many friends in high places.
The author believes Lloyd George had opportunities to end the battle, but he is broadly sympathetic to his dilemma. He is not sympathetic to Haig, the architect of the Flanders disaster.
In recent years there has been a concerted attempt to rehabilitate Haig’s reputation. Haig made serious mistakes, but learned from them and the culmination of that learning was the 100-day offensive which defeated the Germans in the autumn of 1918, or so the argument goes.
Lloyd rightly eschews such an approach. He judges Haig on his conduct of this battle and finds him wanting. He excoriates Haig for the reckless manner in which he pursued the battle in such appalling conditions, for his over-optimism about the weakness of the German defences and his general disregard for the welfare of his men.
These are familiar failings which were also apparent at the Somme. Far from being a cautious commander, Haig was, as Lloyd points out, a “compulsive gambler with the compulsive gambler’s habit of throwing good money after bad”. In this case the chips were not money but thousands of men’s lives.
Haig had choices. He could have done what the French commander-in-chief Marshal Philippe Pétain did after the disastrous Nivelle offensive of May 1917. Pétain chose to remain on the defensive, husbanding his forces until the expected arrival en masse of the Americans in 1918.
The book ends with an anecdote featuring Tim Harington, the chief of staff of the Second Army and Plumer’s deputy.
Looking around the row after row of crosses in Tyne Cot Cemetery after the war, Harington was seized with a sense of guilt. “I have prayed in that cemetery oppressed with fear lest even one of those gallant comrades should have lost their life owing to any fault of neglect on that part of myself and the Second Army staff.”
No such guilt or remorse assailed Haig’s conscience. He died in 1928 and was given a State funeral. He should have been buried at sea.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist and the author of Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front published by the History Press. The Irish Times’ documentary United Ireland: how nationalists and unionists fought together in Flanders will be screened as part of the Dublin Festival of History on October 12th at 6pm in The Irish Times AV room, Tara Street. The trailer can be viewed here