This is what ‘Passchendaele’ has come to mean in the public mind: a struggle that, even by the standards of the Great War, entered the realm of the abominable, infernal and monumentally futile. Men, animals, ordnance and pouring rain were thrown together in a maelstrom of steel and flesh in the name of a strategy that prescribed casualty lists in the hundreds of thousands. Such huge losses were not some epic blunder. They were planned for, anticipated as 'normal wastage' in the minds of commanders captive to an offensive they were helpless to avert.
What happened at Passchendaele was the expression of the wearing-down war, the war of attrition, at its most spectacular and ferocious. Fought between July and November 1917, the battles here produced the images that would forever be associated with the Great War: blackened tree stumps rising out of fields of mud, men and horses drowning in shell holes, terrified soldiers huddled in trenches awaiting the whistle.
Passchendaele lays down a powerful challenge to the idea of war as an inevitable expression of the human will, and examines the culpability of governments and military commanders in a catastrophe that destroyed the best part of a generation.
The contest of the world:
By 1916, Europe had turned into a vast armed camp. Great armies, millions strong, gazed across no-man’s-land, bristling for action. No, it would not be over by Christmas, not this year or the next... These oceans of toiling humanity lapped either side of that great fissure of black earth running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Alps, where, on this ‘Western Front’, the contest of the world would be decided.
David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister (1916-1922):
A formidable political leader with the hide of a rhino and the personal drive to bind the Liberal–Conservative coalition in an all-out effort to defeat Germany: that was how David Lloyd George sold himself as the fittest man to rule Britain at war – and, by extension, the Dominion armies. We aim chiefly to distill the personal attributes of this immensely gifted, exceptionally self-confident and deeply duplicitous character that helped or hindered his leadership in the darkest year of the war, after which the memory of Passchendaele would weigh on his conscience for the rest of his life.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief, British and Dominion forces, on the Western Front:
Like a surgeon in the days before anaesthetics, Haig was ‘entirely removed . . . from the agony of the patient’, Churchill would write. Haig’s methods have provoked the wrath of regiments of critics, some of whom portray the British field marshal as a rogue butcher, over whom the War Cabinet had no control. That impression, whose chief architect was Lloyd George, is false. One man alone cannot have borne the weight of responsibility for 1917; rather it was the dysfunctional relationship between Haig and Lloyd George that kindled and fomented the tragedy of Passchendaele.
Haig: a tool of the Almighty?
Often Haig suggested that God had selected him to lead the Allies to victory. ‘All ... somehow give me the idea that they think I am “meant to win” by some Superior Power,’ the field marshal confided in a letter to his wife. The trouble with this way of thinking was that the thinker could validate any outcome, no matter how disastrous, as the mysterious workings of the Lord... If Haig was ‘not a religious fanatic’, his faith in Calvinistic predestination seems to have been a dangerous psychological disposition in a man at the head of an army: for what scale of sacrifice was necessary to win the war and realise the will of the Lord? How many casualties would justify the ways of God to men?
Drowning in mud:
The long files of men were easy targets. Many were shot off the duckboards and bled to death as they drowned. Would-be rescuers could find no traction, or trees from which to attach ropes, to drag them out. None would forget the sound of a man drowning slowly in mud, ‘a terrible kind of gurgling noise [of] this liquid mud burying them alive'. Unaware of what was happening to them, the poor horses bucked and jerked about in the grip of the mud. Most were shot before they drowned – a mercy not extended to men.
The cruellest month - October 1917:
Stuck in the open beneath the spur, without artillery protection, the men came under merci- less German sniper and machine-gun fire, which spattered across the bog like a wave of hail. The entire Antipodean attack broke down in the swamps of the Ravebeek Valley. Thousands were shot standing knee-deep in mud, unable to move. Within hours, Australian casualties had reached 4500, dead and wounded.
The survivors withdrew and tried to dig in beneath the spur, a ‘ridiculous’ notion to the New Zealand Machine Gun Company, who found themselves sitting in water. ‘You can’t dig water!’ Private W. Smith observed. Seeing their plight, the Germans emerged arrogantly from their pillboxes and started shooting the men floundering in the bog below. The New Zealanders were reduced to a leaderless rabble, staggering around in the mud, expecting at any moment to be picked off. In their pathos, some soldiers tried to crawl towards Passchendaele...
"Paul Ham concludes that the tragedy of Passchendaele was largely the result of a highly personal clash between these two very powerful personalities, and that Haig more or less abandoned his original plan in order to pursue a war of attrition. He is particularly critical of Lloyd George, whom he characterises as scheming, untruthful and self-serving. Ham takes time out from his unrolling narrative of the battle for compelling chapters on the dead and the wounded..." ― Peter Parker, The Spectator
"From the immense body of material he has assembled, Paul Ham has come to the conclusion that the ‘needlessly prolonged … tragedy of Passchendaele’ owed largely to the ‘poisonous relationship’ between England’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George and his military commander-in-chief Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. This epic work is a painstakingly detailed illustration of the terrible consequences that can follow from such tensions between an elected government and its military leader. Passchendaele is both a moving examination of the suffering of individuals within this worldwide catastrophe and a skilful exploration of the large-scale political machinations that created it. In his meticulous description of the events and miscalculations that led to its pointless bloodshed, Ham cleverly and subtly reminds us of the continuing relevance of this long-past battle to government decision-making today." ― The Judges, The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, NSW, Australia (winner).
"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... 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. In his own way, in Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth, the productive and prolific Australian writer Ham is doing just that." ― Ross Fitzgerald, Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, The Australian
"Ham has written a string of acclaimed popular histories; all fat volumes, testifying to his tenacity as a researcher – he does his own... Passchendaele is a solid account of one of the Great War's most terrible battles (it is one of just four chosen by the British government to be commemorated during the centenary, a sign of its continuing power). He describes it all soberly and meticulously, without need of a rat-tat-tat or a ka-boom." ― Professor Peter Stanley, Australian Historian at the University of New South Wales, The Sydney Morning Herald