THIRD YPRES (PASSCHENDAELE) 100 YEARS ON

 

I have been watching the American film maker Ric Burns' new documentary series on Vietnam, on BBC4. The very word Vietnam brings shudders to middle aged Americans. The nation experienced and still experiences such pain from that dreadful conflict, which in retrospect seems so futile.

 

The word ‘Passchendaele’ brought shudders to former generations over here. And it is a byword and wonder to ours. How could this ghastly armageddon have been allowed to happen?

 

The battle was fought on the flat marshy land east of Ypres in Belgium. ‘On a bright day, the battlefield holds no menace, with complacent cows amongst the lush grass and the A19 scything along past Black Watch Corner and the blink and you’ve missed in Frenzenberg Ridge….. In cold or wet weather the trenches behind the (little) museum, shallow and slope-sided with age, begin to touch the emotions. Strip the trees away and think of living there, amidst the stink of high explosive, decomposing corpses and chloride of lime. It is a small wonder that thousands died in the (Ypres) salient, not from shell splinters or rifle bullets, but from utter exhaustion, in bone chilled despair amongst the shattered timber and yawning shell holes.’

 

General Sir Douglas Haig and his staff aimed to push the British and Commonwealth army towards Bruges and Dutch frontier. They hoped to take the pressure off the tottering French, their armies were in mutiny. They also hoped to take the U-boat base at Zeebrugge. Submarines were bringing Great Britain to the point of starvation.

 

The Official History of the Great War says, ‘No special difficulties were expected as regards the ground.’ But the land drainage system, based on the network of little beeks, was fragile. The British shells blew them to bits and flooded the already marshy ground. As the battle went on, the British created their own obstacle in front of them: an officer wrote of the scene, ‘shell craters and mud, and the Ypres mud was the consistency of cream cheese. One sank in it.’

 

Haig believed he could afford to engage the Germans in a wearing down battle, and that any one of his blows might result in a sudden enemy collapse. But the Germans responded by strengthening their deep defensive fabric, 3 strong fortified lines of defense. Strong points (pillboxes) were built at speed to soak up the momentum of the attack, and providing counter attack divisions to deal with the overextended attacker.

 

On 31July the British attacked and made good progress. Then the rain started in the evening. It rained for 3 days solidly. The combination of the downpour and the 4.5 million shells fired by the British turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and tanks were of little use thereafter.

 

It was a military slogging match all of August. Men marched up to the front line such as it was in atrocious weather and spent ten hours in mud and water up to their knees waiting for the assault. It was too wet to light smoke candles (for camouflage) … and the barrage soon got ahead of the plodding infantry, who fell in swathes to German machine gun fire. By the end of August Haig gave up, there had 68K casualties that month.

 

Prime Minister Lloyd George, given the visible collapse of Russia and French exhaustion, advised that he abandon the attack. The British army was simply running out of men. The Italian campaign was in bad trouble. A diversion there maybe might be more profitable?

 

In September, the weather dried up. The ground became so hard that shells bounced off! Battle resumed on 20 Sept up the Menin Rd, towards Passchendaele, and the ANZACs on the right at Polygon Wood. Methodical attacks with limited objectives had some success. The Germans suffered terrible losses, their counter attacks were broken up by British artillery, spotted from the Ypres Cloth hall and balloons. But they modified their defence, and held more men in the front-line ready.

 

In October, the battle went well for the British, Gravenstafel and Poelcappelle were taken. Over 4500 Germans were captured, and General Ludendorf bleakly acknowledged that ‘the battle was extraordinarily severe, and we only came through it with enormous losses.’

 

But the weather broke on 9th Oct. Terrible wet conditions once again hampered the attackers and defenders alike. The British had 2 goes at capturing the tiny village of Passchendaele, and Canadians eventually succeeded by 1th November, though with vast losses. Haig called it all off at that point. The British had lost 245,000 men. The Germans admitted to 217K, but unofficial records suggest a figure of 400K

 

So was it all worth it?

 

The Times report of Nov 8th1918 thought so. ‘The larger meaning of the operations of the last three months is not sufficiently clear to the general public. The weight of our military resources is not being thrown into this local struggle merely for the possession of a few ridges. Their capture is the first and probably by far the most difficult step. Whenever we choose, we should be able to utilize with infinitely greater profit the positions we hold today.’

 

Really? A few months later almost all the gains were lost in the great German offensive of early Spring 1918. “Historians will continue to haggle over the merits of 3rd Ypres or to use then name burnt into popular memory, Passchendaele. Some will show that it prevented the Germans from demolishing the tottering French, and reduced their strength by attrition: they will also declare that opponents of the Western Front can point to no really satisfactory alternative theatre of operations. Others will survey the tiny gains, a short morning’s walk will take you comfortably from the British start line to Passchendaele, and ask whether this slip of Flanders soil justified the expenditure of so much life?”

 

For me, the tragedy lies in the way both sides believed they were serving the demands of the Prince of Peace. Followers of Jesus on both side of no man’s land and back home were convinced that God was on their side. Was God content that civilised nations serve him in this way?

 

As in USA with Vietnam, our own nation was never the same again. Time has passed, and the battle of Passchendaele has almost slipped out of the nation’s memory, as will Vietnam for the Americans.

 

But ‘we will remember them’.

 

(Information and quotes are mostly taken from ‘Fatal Avenue’ Richard Holmes. Jonathan Cape, London. 1992)