Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Lyn Macdonald - Passchendaele: The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres 1917
The battle for Passchendaele takes place in the context of the Ypres Salient, a bulge in the allied lines into German captured terroritry. Straightening the line out, and then pushing onwards cost the lives of thousands and was less about defeating the enemy than making sure that trench warfare continued. By the time of the Third Battle (the earlier two were conflicts that set the scene for the later confrontation) the British High Command had an ambition of moving so far forward they would capture the channel ports from the enemy and cut off their access to submarine bases, thus aiding the cross Atlantic supply convoys. It was a laudable aim, but in the context of trench warfare, the weather and the German defences it was fantasy.
I was struck that British politicians, particularly Lloyd George understood this instinctively. Field Marshall Haig however liberally interpreted his orders and turned preparations into a major offensive. Summer weather turned into a horribly wet autumn. Flanders turned into a sea of mud. Perhaps 40,000 bodies still lie under this mud, and our guide showed us six recent graves of soldiers who'd recently been found. Veterans recalling watching friends and comrades slowly drown in mud, begging to be shot will remain with me forever.
I wrote that the accounts of eyewitnesses (both soldiers and non-combatants such as civilians and nurses) were horrific. At the beginning of the book Lyn Macdonald apologises in advance, but reminds the reader that this is all true. It's an apt point to make. Almost exactly 100 years to the day when I visited Ypres, the Germans began their Spring Offensive of 1918. In a few days of intense fighting, they wiped out the limited gains the Allies had made towards Passchendaele. Tens of thousands of men were slaughtered in an utterly pointless few years of fighting. If you do ever visit Ypres, then I'd recommend Lyn Macdonald's book, but even if you cannot go to France and Belgium then read her book. It deserves a wide readership lest we forget the true horrors of what took place between 1914 and 1918