Great War Wednesday: Passchendaele


PasschendaeleImagine drowning, not in water, but in mud. Not thin quicksand, but thick, sucking, grasping mud. Picture your mate up to his armpits in chalky quagmire. He’s been there two days now but you can’t reach him and he’s too weak to grasp a rope. He’s just slowly sinking into the mire and every time you pass he begs you to shoot him so he doesn’t drown in mud.

That is a word picture of the Battle of Passchendaele. Some battles become famous for their commanders, some for where they are fought, some for a new technological advance. All who remembered Passchendaele until their dying days remember mud.

The new tanks couldn’t traverse the muck; they simply sank into it and forced their crews to abandon them in the field and try to reach the safety of the lines without stumbling into the mud themselves. The only way to the trenches from the rear areas wound over a sinuous path of duckboards — basically pieces of board, wide as possible, laid out on top of the mud to spread out a person’s weight. Most of the boards were barely wide enough for two men to pass abreast. Fall, step, or be blasted off the duckboards and you’d likely end up in the mud . . . and then you stood a very good chance of dying from smothering in the crushing mire.

The battle, also known as The Third Battle of Ypres, began in July 1917 and stretched into November. It lasted a total of three months, one week and three days. Like most offensives of the Great War, its aims far exceeded the ability of the forces sent to the fight.

While initially, Ypres had been the hottest spot of the war, little had happened in the sector since mid-1915. As a result, troops on both sides had become somewhat complacent and adopted a live and let live type of existence. All that changed when the British commander, General Haig, took a notion into his head to destroy the submarine bases which lay along the coast of Belgium. Why he felt so strongly about attacking THOSE bases RIGHT THEN is lost to history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the stranglehold the U-boats had around the British Isles. Perhaps he felt compelled to cut the head of the snake and end the U-boat threat. We’ll never know.

What is known is the attack began with the customary shelling by around 3000 British guns firing off about 4 million shells, which churned up the ground even more than it already was. Then the attack began. Then, about three days into the attack, the rains came. It rained more than the inhabitants of the area had seen in thirty years, at least, and did not stop for the entirety of the campaign. The ground turned into glue as the abundant water had no were to drain to and so continued to saturate the battlefield. The soil around Ypres is heavily mixed with chalk and the water simply made soup of the entire area. The mud swallowed up guns, tanks, men, horses, and pack mules. Horrible doesn’t begin to describe it. Passchendaele was the ultimate culmination of the misery of which was trench warfare.

Truthfully, I don’t feel compelled to write up the specifics of the battle for one reason. By this point, if you’ve followed any of my other posts on the Great War, you KNOW how the battle went. The British, later joined by Canadians and ANZACs, shelled the hell out of the German front lines then went screaming over the top, dashed like madmen across no-man’s land, captured the front line of German trenches, whereupon the Germans would launch a counterattack and push the Brits back across the killing zone to their trenches. Just like every other battle of World War I from the Battle of the Frontiers until the stalemate broke in Spring 1918 and things started moving again.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

The battle was a tactical and strategic failure all around. To gain five miles of ground, which included the nearly destroyed town of Passchendaele that gives the battle its name, Haig sacrificed 275,000 soldiers of the British Empire. German casualties weren’t much lighter with 200,000 of the Kaiser’s men destined to never see the Fatherland again. Five miles at the cost of half a million lives.

Probably the saddest commentary on the battle is the fact Haig was under tremendous pressure from the British government to stop the attack during the entire duration OF the attack. Prime Minister David Lloyd George would later write in his memoirs of the war years that the only reason the campaign was allowed to continue at all was because they HAD to attack SOMETHING and no one could come up with any better ideas than what Haig proposed.

Just imagine if you were a British soldier and you knew that fact. You are dying in the mud simply because a bunch of old men can’t think of a better place to spend your life.

Siegfried Sassoon, the brilliant British war poet, wrote about Passchendaele in one of his works called “The Memorial Tablet.” The first stanza reads:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell –
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

Drowning in mud for five miles of ground. If that doesn’t sum up the horror of war, I don’t know what does.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.


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