This is a hulk of a book and quite lot of reading, however the author maintains the flow and the interest throughout. He must have spent at least a year in the ‘National archives’ to achieve the detail that he lavishes on the reader.
- Paul Ham
In order to give a military and political overview of the period of the war in question, there are many instances of anecdotes between David Lloyd George the Prime minister, and Field Marshal Haig, both who quite hated each other, Haig hated Lloyd George for meddling in military affairs, and constant criticism of Haig’s actions in France. Lloyd George hated Haig mainly because he was aristocracy and of ‘Inherited wealth’ and in LG’s opinion he also wasted the lives of his soldiers. LG wanted Haig sacked over this last reason, his method of trying to do this was to constantly ‘drip poison’ regarding Haig, both at home and with the French government, also with the French military Headquarters. LG also used what he called his ‘arsenal of ink’ to destroy Haig via the Newspapers at home. This failed as the Newspaper editors refused to agree to his plan, more than one remarked that they would prefer to destroy Lloyd George. Lloyd George’s final insult to Field Marshal Haig was to subordinate him and the whole of the British expeditionary Force to be placed under the Command of the French Gen Neville who Lloyd George considered the ‘Better General and to take the British Army out of the ‘Blood soaked’ hands of Haig.’ This was only rescinded after Neville conducted a disastrous battle with large losses to British and French troops. There is much more to read about this connivance in the book.
Some of the author’s observations of Haig’s behaviour are interesting. Haig was never seen to lose his temper and always remained calm, apparently any uneasiness over a situation was only shown by a ‘Gentle smoothing’ of his moustache with his thumb and forefinger, he prayed a few times a day especially before a major action like Passchendaele. He was the eleventh child of his parents whose ancestors came over at the time of William the Conqueror.
Early 1917 was a bad start to the year for the allies. There were large losses in the Air War over France, and increasing losses due to German U-boats sinking more British commercial shipping each month and growing, culminating in one monthly figure of a million tons lost. Thus Passchendaele was born in order to take the Belgium coast and to capture the German U-boat Pens of Ostend and Zeebrugge. The Passchendaele Battle was meant to be The Coup de Grace for Germany. Haig had much more interest in his war of attrition, and the wearing down of German forces.
With the overall international larger Battle Picture fully and interestingly told the author then goes into detail, firstly with Gen Plumer’s 2nd Army’s successful attack on Messines Ridge in June of 1917 and finally Passchendaele a month later. Along the way the author successfully uses archive conversations and descriptions of the battle from the young officer and the NCOs, and the soldier’s points of view. There is very good descriptions of the weapons used by both armies from the larger calibre guns down to Trench Mortars to rifles and Grenades (I would correct him on the introduction of the Mills Grenade. The Author states 1917, in fact it was first used during 2nd Ypres in May of 1915)
There is good detail given of the Basic training of German, British and Dominion soldiers. I was surprised to read that Germans were sent to the rear of the Front in France after only three weeks training at home, they received two more weeks training in the rear Divisional echelon area before entry into the Front Line. British and Dominion troops, often to their disgust were periodically put back through training at the ‘Bull Ring’ in Etaples for sometimes up to a month, even though many had had perhaps six to nine months Basic training at home and had perhaps had a few years of service in France or Belgium. Soldiers returning from being wounded or long courses were mostly placed once again through the ‘Bull Ring’ system.
From the archives the author feels that the only tactic gained from the Somme Battles was the French idea of the ‘Creeping Barrage’ It was certainly used to very good effect at Messines Ridge coupled with the multiple mine explosions. It was used again to very good effect at phase 1 of 3rd Ypres ‘Passchendaele.’ This was a system of the infantry moving forward about 200 yards behind a devastating artillery barrage while the heavier guns stoked up the enemy rear areas.
The 5th Army under Gen Gough fought the first Battle of Passchendaele in mid-July 1917, it was successful to start with, and then due to out of season rain ( highest rainfall for 75 years) that turned the ground into a ‘brown porridge’ The attack floundered and bogged down. Men lived and fought in two feet of sticky watery mud. Horses and the wounded, and sometimes the unwounded got sucked under and drowned. The descriptions of these events are quite hard to read, the joke among the soldiers was ‘Who will bring up the rations for the last man left alive.’ One Australian grieved for his drowning horse called ‘Billy’ It was a Battery stallion and a real great favourite with the men, it was wounded by hostile aircraft. The Australian wrote a little epitaph for him, ‘ He was only a blomin’ heavy, only a Battery Horse, but if there’s a Heaven for horses, then Billy won’t be lost’
The author goes into detail of the three phases of Passchendaele, in fact three different battles, fought by different commanders. First Gen Gough, then Gen Plumer and finally Gen Arthur Curry. Gen Gough was sacked for sending back some of Gen Haig’s orders with the words ‘Bullshit! Impossible’ written across them. Gen Plumer succeeded Gough with his own ideas and with ANZAC and British Divisions. He had good success at first due to sound planning, but beaten again by “General weather”. Then Gen Curry with the ‘Bite and hold’ system that got possession of Passchendaele Ridge. The ridge was held until lost due to the German ‘Operation Michael’ of March 1918 when it was lost once again, to be regained in the summer 1918.
The suffering of the British, Canadian and ANZAC soldiers as described is quite unbelievable. The Germans suffered similar fate and stretcher bearers from both sides often held their fire when casualties were being collected from their respective fronts. It sometimes took up to six hours to collect a stretcher case and take him back to the Aid Post two hundred yards behind the line of water filled shell holes that comprised the front line. The German suffering was no less than the attackers. One German Platoon commander wrote in his diary as he surveyed his much wounded and shaken platoon holding the line, trembling with wet cold and fear he wrote; ‘God, Forsake me if you must, but please don’t forsake these, my beloved brave comrades’
The medical problems of treating the wounded was made almost impossible by the terrain and the Mud, a candle being lit in an aid post would see the post quickly shelled flat. Soldiers ordered to dig deeper trenches replied ‘We can’t dig water.’ Relief in the line was a rushed affair, often with just the words “Fritz’ is over that way!” and the exhausted relieved man crawled back towards ‘Wipers’ and rest, and sleep glorious sleep! An Australian CSM, not known for perfect trench manners arrived at the front and on being asked who he was, he replied. “We’re the Australians, we are you’re relief now **** off out of our trench, so we can get on with it!” There is plenty of good earthy infantry stuff to read in this book, once read, I don’t think many will forget it’s content.
The author provides graphs and plentiful statistical details from the archives which add interest at the end of the book. The total casualty figures for the Passchendaele battles from the middle of July to end of November 1917 were as follows:
British and Dominion losses 271,600. German losses 217,000
The author correctly states: Attacking troops will always receive more casualties than defenders, due to attackers being in the open, and the defender’s in static prepared defences.
The book is packed with descriptive and interesting facts, it is a good instructional book. Field Marshal Haig comes in for much criticism from the author, so does David Lloyd George, mostly for what the author terms as ‘The Butcher’s Bill’ The area around Passchendaele has thousands of dead still under its soil, the land now returned to corn, crops and small woodlands and villages. Passchendaele was described after the armistice by a WW1 soldier who fought there as, ‘The Bivouac of the Dead’
I award the book four stars, the four are for the facts and style, there are so many interesting facts that keeps the readers interest. The ‘author’s varied opinions’ and criticism of WW1 Leadership is laid on a little heavy, he is entitled of course to do that, however. Haig was not hated by the Soldiers, they may have hated the war however. There were more people and ex-soldiers at Haig’s funeral in 1928 than attended Dianna’s funeral a few years ago. Also in 1919 the Victory parade was held in London and not Berlin. At war’s end the British army was the only army in France that was stronger in 1918 than it was in 1914, those facts I believe are due to ‘leadership’ not only Haig’s leadership of course, but very many thousands of other good leaders under his command.
Foot Note: Last year some well -constructed German dugouts were found during excavations on the edge of Passchendaele Village. I briefly saw them last year. The dugouts, which for their 100 years of existence are really quite well preserved, they also contain some items left by their soldier inhabitants; rifles, ammo, mess tins, equipment etc.. The dugouts are being left open for inspection by visitors because of the 100 year anniversary, but only until late September this year when building construction will continue.