- Passchendaele: The Untold Story by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson
Yale, 237 pp, £19.95, May 1996, ISBN 0 300 06692 9
On a June night in 1917, in his home at Walton Heath in Surrey, the Prime Minister asked to be roused at 3 a.m., because there was something he did not want to miss: the big bang from afar which would signify that British sappers had blown the top off the German-held Messines ridge. The sound came through on schedule. This was almost certainly the greatest man-made explosion of pre-nuclear times. Lloyd George later seemed unwilling to confirm that he had arranged to be woken for this occasion (it was a Press Association story) and the New Statesman thought it would have been ‘subversive of national dignity’ if he had.
The eruption of Messines was a curtain-raiser for the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly called Passchendaele, the massacre-in-the-swamp which came to symbolise the First World War; a land battle which was likened to a naval battle because of the water-spouts raised by shell-fire from flooded craters. The operation supposedly had to be mounted to keep the Germans busy while the French Army pulled itself together after a wave of mutinies. The Russians had just collapsed and the Americans had not yet arrived. The Third Battle of Ypres began a year after the Somme and it cost Britain 275,000 casualties, 70,000 of whom were killed; the German casualties were at least 200,000, probably far more. The Passchendaele ridge, seized after four months, was lost in three days the following year. And yet, only 12 months after the Third Battle of Ypres petered out, the Central Powers were routed, and Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs joined Romanovs on the dust-heap, with the Sultan of the Ottomans to follow.
Four score years is a long time to wait for the so-called ‘untold story’ of Passchendaele. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson are Australian historians who tell us, a little loftily, that ‘Great War studies have yet to escape their protracted adolescence.’ Their adult investigation is reminiscent of those relentless inquiries into scams carried out by district auditors, or DTI inspectors, armed with plenary powers and a determination not to be hoodwinked by individuals with much to cover up, or to be awed by great reputations. All documents are turned over, all evasions exposed, all ill-based theories dismissed (‘This hypothesis is groundless,’ ‘There is nothing in this’); then judgmental words like ‘lame’, ‘complacent’ and ‘abysmal’ are applied as the inspectors see fit. The resulting report is well-represented, lucid and persuasive, free from all that over-quoted war poetry, but it can be worrying stuff for those who grew up in the shadow of that war. Here are two academics, with the advantage of eighty years of hindsight and well-tended archives, appraising the skill and judgment of a knot of hard-pushed military knights who, by an accident of history, found themselves commanding armies vastly greater than those at the disposal of Wellington or Marlborough. It wasn’t their war or their idea of a war and they had to wage it as best they could, on a field which the Almighty had abandoned to Noachian rains. ‘Donkeys’, were they? But fine, fortifying figures they looked, one remembers, on the eagerly collected cigarette cards of the day: keen-eyed, accipitrine thoroughbreds fated in later years to be played as the boobies of a ‘lovely war’ by a whole cluster of theatrical knights.