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Road to Passchendaele

Richard Van Emden
I’ve reviewed two Passchendaele books over the past few months and thought that this book would be much in the same theme, not at all, it’s a book that starts at the end of the Somme battles and proceeds north via the Battles of; Arras, Cambrai and then up to Ypres for the Battle of Messines and eventually the battles of Passchendaele. In each phase the author gives tactical reasons for each of the battles, and then the results are explained at each chapter’s end. The route north is made up with ‘soldier stories’ taken from men of all arms of the army that were present at each battle. Some of their job descriptions are quite an eye opener, especially men of the Heavy Gun Batteries, Heavy horse limber drivers, and those running the Casualty Clearing Stations; the infantry of course gets most of the coverage.

By 1917 there were nearly 2 million British and Commonwealth troops in France, that year was very costly in casualties. 1916 with the Somme and the battle of the Ancre caused an average of 2950 casualties per day, the totals for 1917 was 4070 per day, this takes into consideration that no fighting took place between Early April until Messines Ridge in June of that year. During those interlude hot months men bathed in Rivers, rested in the fields and did a few days training each week; mostly route marching, musketry, Lewis gun and bayonet fighting.

One battalion, the 10th Worcesters were lucky in that they were selected to go bathing at Boulogne, they were to take Rifles and groundsheets only. They marched to the transport four miles away, and were about to board for departure, the Adjutant thought that they should have their water bottles as the day was quite hot, they marched back for the bottles and back to the transport again, all together a total of 12 miles. The drive to Boulogne took three hours, just in time to catch the afternoon sun. Without costumes the men piled into the waves, Some RMPs noted that they were naked and placed out pickets so that the men could not leave the beach, and that civilians should not go near them. They later got back onto the transport and sang themselves hoarse on the long ride home… there’s no daunting good old ‘Tommy’.

The training and discipline continued and one soldier remarked “If shiny buttons, clean equipment and shiny boots could decide this war, then we would be in Berlin in days”.

The individual and varied descriptions of the Battle of Messines is good reading, it comes out strong in the text of just how much trust and respect the front line men held for General Plumer of 2nd Army, they liked and trusted him, and with apparent good reason.

The author has certainly done a very good job with the research, he has produced photographs, both British and German that are rare and unique, I have scoured WW1 books for very many years and each image in this book is quite new to me. The soldier stories are well produced and very descriptive, death came daily in and around them; it’s quite amazing how they took it in their stride. Limber drivers or artillery men loved their horses and sometimes would weep when horses were wounded or killed.

During the attack on Passchendaele the Royal Sussex were relieved after ten days in the line with hardly any sleep, their depleted numbers staggered back to Ypres which took them eight hours of slog, cold wet tired and hungry, they arrived at 4am. Said one L/Cpl; “ I arrived at my billet in the town and went into a warm cellar, a fire was roaring in a brazier, someone handed me a brew of hot tea and the cook brought in a tray of hot sausages from which we made sandwiches with fresh bread, it was sheer heaven!”

In the advance on Passchendaele a Black Watch company took cover in and around a large captured German shell dump, Jerry suddenly remembered its location and started to shell it heavily. The Jocks couldn’t go forward, and wouldn’t go backwards; however their express exits to the right and left at speed, gave great mirth to their fellow soldiers that were watching events from the sides.

There are about eight excerpts from the German archives for the Passchendaele battle; A German Sgt remarks; “The English opened fire with HE into our forward line, our company was 140 strong, the shells were 11 inch and came continuously for 25 hours. They didn’t cause wounds they just killed our men outright. The first night we buried 85 of our men in a very large crater, we should not have bothered, as another large shell destroyed the crater, and most of the dead just disappeared. We were then 35 total and then the company commander was killed, our Pl Commander was only a boy 20 years old, he courageously took command but did not survive the night. At dawn the English came, blobs and waves of them, nothing could stop them and we moved back, but we knew that the ground would have to be retaken again, and very soon”.

There are some good Coy Commander and Pl commander and Pl Sgts descriptions of life on the ‘start-line’ minutes before the advance on Messines and later on Passchendaele. One Coy Commander recalled “I have been out since 1914 and cannot reconcile my thoughts as to how men take the strain such as now. Some, perhaps, an equal number seem almost to thrive on it, while others, they just die a tiny death a few times a day”.

In the bitter fighting up on the Passchendaele Ridge, a certain respect was felt for the Germans; this was reciprocated in that mostly the stretcher bearers were left unmolested by either side. Two British wounded were collected after laying out for six days just in front of the German wire in the sleet and freezing rain, they told that for a few nights a German had crawled out to them with a hot drink.

To cap the Passchendaele action, below is a remark made by soldier who survived the battle of Passchendaele:

Whatever is before me and whatever life brings, I must always be a better man for having known these things, and having lived with such men.’
Pte Thomas Hope 1/4th The Kings Liverpool Regt​

I recommend the book. It is a publication that will not bog you down with detail, yet it gets the story over from the aspect of the men doing the fighting. I found it an easy read, well written, good images and well researched and full of good Passchendaele and World War 1 interest generally.
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