Peter Parker

Drowning in mud and blood

Passchendaele Ridge was conquered, only to be abandoned four months later. Six authors recall this most terrible of battles

George Orwell’s suggestion that the British remember only the military disasters of the first world war is certainly being borne out by the centenary commemorations. The focus of each year so far has been Gallipoli, the Somme and now the Third Battle of Ypres, popularly known as Passchendaele. The basic story is familiar. On 31 July 1917, in torrential rain, General Haig launched an attack against German positions in the Ypres Salient. The troops had to advance over ground that rapidly turned into a quagmire, shells having already destroyed the area’s network of drainage ditches.

The attacks would continue sporadically, against the advice of those on the ground and often in atrocious weather, until November. Men were repeatedly ordered towards impossible objectives against overwhelming odds, with the result that little was gained at a huge cost. ‘It’s just not conceivable how human beings can exist in such a swamp, let alone fight in it,’ a pilot flying over the battlefield commented.

Early historians agreed. ‘So fruitless in its results, so depressing in its direction was this 1917 offensive,’ wrote Basil Liddell Hart in 1934, ‘that “Passchendaele” has come to be a synonym for military failure, a name black-bordered in the records of the British Army.’ The Allies eventually captured Passchendaele Ridge, but four months later, during the German Spring Offensive, they were forced to abandon this shockingly hard-won ground. Quite as much as the Somme, Passchendaele has become a locus for the enduring ‘mud, blood and futility’ view of the first world war.

This view is now routinely challenged by ‘revisionist’ historians, who assert that even the most catastrophic battles were not entirely futile because military lessons were learned from them. Not, it would seem, by General Haig, who appears to have adopted more or less the same tactics at Passchendaele as he did at the Somme — with better artillery but in much worse weather.

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