Passchendaele’s pointless butchery
Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth
By Paul Ham
William Heinemann 565pp, $45 (HB)
Passchendaele serves as an emblem signifying all the tragedy and suffering of World War I.
The battles at and around the small Flemish town were fought from July to November 1917. It was the worst year of the war for Allied forces, a time of catastrophic loss and unimaginable carnage on the battlefields of the Western Front.
Written with the aid of three researchers — Glenda Lynch in Australia, Simon Fowler in Britain and Elena Vogt in Germany — Paul Ham’s epic military history explores the interwoven lives and deaths of British, Anzac, Canadian, German and other soldiers who participated in this terrible conflict.
In the civilian mind, the word Passchendaele has come to epitomise, as Ham points out, “pointless butchery that, even by the standards of the Great War entered the realm of the infernal and monumentally futile.
Soldiers, animals, artillery and pouring, unrelenting rain were “thrown together in a maelstrom of steel and flesh in the name of a strategy that anticipated hundreds of thousands of casualties — and all for nothing.
Yet some military specialists now argue the battles of Passchendaele were not only necessary but achieved some key Allied goals against the German and Austro-Hungarian empires and were worth the cost. In this revisionist view, Passchendaele was part of a just and unavoidable war against tyranny. The tragedy is that this action, and others, also destroyed the best part of a generation of young men.
In one of the book’s key chapters, titled ‘What the Living Said’, Ham directly addresses this controversy and, in particular, asks: Was Passchendaele worth it? and How did it contribute to the final victory, if at all?
And finally, there is the vexed question: Should it have been fought in the first place?
As we approach its 100th anniversary, it is surely well and truly time to attempt, as Ham has done in ‘Passchendaele’, a new understanding of a campaign that has inspired so much righteous indignation and passionate debate.
In this finely illustrated book, subtitled ‘Requiem for Doomed Youth’ (inspired by Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’), one of the most fascinating parts of Ham’s harrowing narrative is the reproduction of the great English poet Siegfried Sassoon’s letter of protest against the war, and an extract from the impassioned debate about it in the House of Commons on July 30, 1917.
Equally as revealing is a brief secret statement, dated October 16, 1917, from British field marshal Douglas Haig, “Statement of British and German Wastage in Flanders”.
As commander-in-chief on the Western Front during the Flanders Offensive of 1917, Haig — a Calvinist, ultra-loyal to the empire — ordered his diverse troops to attack across fields of mud in pouring rain, knowing they faced massive losses. As an integral part of Haig’s wearing down war (his war of attrition), waves upon waves of young Allied soldiers were thrown at the German lines.
Unsurprisingly, Haig’s reputation as a courageous commander and clever strategist was, and is, questioned by many historians and observers. Indeed in late 1917 his arch enemy, British prime minister David Lloyd George, appalled by the litany of losses, tried to transfer command of the British army to the French, to sidestep Haig.
Lloyd George tellingly revealed in his ‘War Memoirs’, which were not published until the 1930s: “Whilst hundreds of thousands were being destroyed in the insane egotism of Passchendaele, every message or memorandum from Haig was full of these insistences on the importance of sending him more men to replace those he had sent to die in the mud. In fact, blunt as ever, Lloyd George even claimed that “the Passchendaele fiasco imperilled the chances of final victory.
I will not spoil Ham’s intricately argued and finely researched book by canvassing all its conclusions. But suffice it to say that much of the evidence now suggests that, during the time of his command, Haig’s forces were wiped out at a far higher rate than the German troops.
This resulted in an orgy of annihilation in which tens of thousands of young men died in the mud. As Ham points out, the battles of Passchendaele “ravaged the morale of the British and Dominion soldiers, whose spirit fell into the darkest slough of despond since the war began”.
In Richard Aldington’s brilliant 1929 autobiographical novel about the war, ‘Death of a Hero’, he writes of “the lost millions of years of life and of “lakes and seas of blood and suggests, “We have to make those dead acceptable, we have to appease them. But as to how, he is quite unsure. “I know, Aldington writes, “there’s the Two Minutes Silence. But after all, a Two Minutes Silence once a year isn’t doing much. Adlington concluded that, “Somehow we must atone to the dead.
In his own way, in ‘Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth’, the productive and prolific Australian writer Ham is doing just that.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, October 29-30, 2016, review, Books p 23.