- Chris McNab
(Under Lord Derby's scheme). I died in Hell
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight.
And I was hobbling back: then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: I fell.
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light“
Extract from Memorial Tablet, Siegfried Sassoon.
This is what I would call a “Coffee Table Book“, as a young Jock I would have used it as a coaster for my coffee mug, but I was an uncultured swine then, it offers no new insight and it's definitely not an academic study of the battle. I don't want to disappoint anyone but it's definitely not a pictorial study of the battle in a chronological order more a very well illustrated brief overview of the battle.
We have an introduction which sets the scene and explains that along with the Somme, Passchendaele has entered the British consciousness and epitomises the needless slaughter of a generation in whilst their Generals quaffed champagne in a Chateau far from the front line. This book is not written to change that view or explain the strategic thinking behind the battle, it's just another description with added photographs, which add to the description.
We start with an introduction followed by an illustrated timeline which brings us up to 1917 and it's here we jump into chapter 1, where a Historical Background to the Battle is given, which also explains why it's classed as the Third Battle of Ypres. The subsequent chapters cover the Planning of the Battle, Preparations, On the Battlefield, the Experience of Battle, The Battle of Passchendaele, After the Battle and finally The Legacy. It's then followed by an Order of Battle, a page of further recommended reading and an index.
Whilst the writing is informative, what the cover states it is “The Third Battle of Ypres in Photographs“, so what I was expecting was lots of photographs and thankfully there are, along with maps (both period maps and more modern descriptive line maps) and examples of propaganda posters. Many of the main personalities are also pictured in copies of Wills Cigarette cards throughout the book, they are all reproduced in black and white, personally I feel to reproduce them in colour (as they were printed) would have better. While some of the photographs you'll undoubtedly have seen before many were new to me. A few pictures did leap straight out at me; a British Army Field Bakery producing loaves of bread (no sign of the RAOC named day wrappers familiar to generations of BAOR soldiers), German Army butchers preparing a table of dead pigs, a supply column travelling along a stretch of the Menin Road which has been screened off with hessian as a camouflage measure and a dazed German being captured by Canadian soldiers. All the photographs have been well selected and illustrate the text well, a true expert may question the selection and captions under some of them (a miner in a tunnel which appears to have been dug out of almost glowing white chalk, raised my suspicions) as not really being specific to either the area or time frame, whilst others are classic illustrations of everything we “know“ about Passchendaele; blasted landscapes with shattered trees reaching up to a grey looming skies, an empty landscape with innumerable water filled shell holes and a corduroy track stretching to a hazy horizon; a ragged collection of mud covered spectres holding a position consisting of shell holes and mud. While there are very sparse personal accounts of the actual experience of the Battle, this is not the words of the men involved but it is pictures of them, and as the saying goes “a picture paints a thousand words“.
An informative book with copious pictures. Three and a half mushroom heads.