This summer marks the centenary of Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest and most pointless of all the battles in the First World War. Even sixty years later, when They Called It Passchendaele was written, the aftermath of the fighting was still keenly felt:
Of the million men who had been killed in the Great War, a quarter of a million lay in the few square miles around Ypres. Their graves marked the perimeter of the dreaded salient which at all costs, and for no reason that in hindsight seems to be good enough, had to be held … Under its farms and woods and villages lie the unrecovered bodies of more than 40,000 soldiers who died or drowned, wounded in the mud. In spring and autumn, their bodies are still turned up by ploughs and ditching machines.
What had once been the village of Ypres in Belgium had become the front line of the war in the west. The land was reclaimed marsh and after the constant shelling, it turned into a quagmire where unlucky soldiers simply slipped away and disappeared.
The British troops had the worst of it in the summer of 1917. Their commander in chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig sent wave after wave of men over the trenches to take fortified positions. It was far worse than in any film of the period. Once over the top of their trenches, the Tommies were sitting targets. Many carried pickaxes and shovels on their backs which meant they could not duck down to dodge any fire. They were simply mown down by enemy machine guns.
Meanwhile, the field marshal signed countless death warrants for troops who lost their nerve, sentences which were read out each morning to the weary men to terrorise them into obedience.
Haig is clearly a war criminal, yet statues to him remain in public places throughout Britain. As historians we mustn’t judge people by the standards of our time, but even during the conflict, his generals begged him to call off the constant and futile assault.
Indeed, the battle was only ended by the smart action of the Canadian General Arthur Currie, who not being completely under Haig’s sway, refused to advance on his objective until adequate supply lines, artillery cover and troops were in place.
Just one person using organisation rather than brute force ended months of slaughter. It is telling that the German troops almost never moved from their defences. Only the allies were prepared to stomach a massacre of their own men.
They Called It Passchendaele is not, however, a battlefield manual or a glorification of war. In the 1970s and 1980s, historian Lyn Macdonald tracked down veterans of the First World War and recorded their memories of this dreadful time. She then compiled their stories in a series of books, telling the war from the point of view of the average infantrymen.
One of them is my great-grandfather, who is mentioned at the back of this book. Having survived this nightmare, he lived into his nineties and in fact, I met him some twenty years ago.
Macdonald’s book is a sympathetic look at the plight of men like him. She allows them to recount the events of the past in their own words. Thankfully, she has time for some lighter moments along the way:
The colonel was a kind-hearted man of an age to have sons not much younger than Jimmy. ‘I’ll tell you what my lad, there’s a thing here called a medical comforts chest, and a colonel is allowed to open this chest and give a chap anything that he asks for, so what would you like?’
‘Anything, old chap!’
‘I’d love a bottle of Guinness, sir.’
‘Then you shall have it.’
But most of all, she recalls the horror (WARNING: the next paragraph is really grim):
They were dragging along another boy, a young lad, only about eighteen. He’d been hit by an explosive bullet that passed straight through his right cheek and blew away the whole of the left cheek. It was a terrible sight. His tongue was sticking out through this great hole in his face. He kept calling for water. It ran out through the hole in his face as fast as we gave it to him.
They’re all dead now, both those killed in their teens and the survivors who lived on. We owe Lyn Macdonald a huge vote of thanks for capturing their memories before they were lost. It’s hard reading but nothing as traumatic as the real experiences that these teenage soldiers went through one hundred years ago this summer.
They called it Passchendaele. We called it hell.