- 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.
After the Somme the War Cabinet had little enthusiasm for a repeat match. Lloyd George favoured sending reinforcements for the Italians who were attacking Austria, or increasing pressure on Turkey (a game known as ‘kicking away the props’). The generals disliked sideshows and remembered the fiasco of Gallipoli. They held a line of trenches from the Channel to the Alps. Were they to do nothing in the 1917 campaigning season, before the Americans landed? Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, convinced the Germans were about to crack, planned a bold strategic advance, breaking from the Ypres salient and striking north to the Belgian coast, thus liberating the U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. Lloyd George and the War Cabinet viewed this plan with a shudder, but the military assured them that their own plans, in so far as they had any, offered worse dangers. In the end the civil warlords authorised Haig’s plan, reserving the right to halt it if results disappointed. The contention of this book is that they shamefully failed to call off an operation which was ‘eminently haltable’, even before the rains had turned the pulverised Belgian countryside into a Pit of Tophet.
It was to have been a battle of which St Barbara, patron saint of artillerists, could have been proud, with more guns and ammunition in readiness even than on the Somme. Elaborate new tactics had been devised, under which infantry and tanks were to make carefully timed advances under creeping barrages. General Sir Hubert Gough’s attack with Fifth Army was preceded by a 15-day bombardment, using more than four million rounds. Yet the artillerists could not achieve mastery of the field. Prior and Wilson usefully set out the reasons. Shells varied in performance with the temperature and the wind. They also varied from batch to batch, though the standards of the munitions factories had improved since early days. Bombardments were ineffective if guns were not accurately sited; they were even less effective if every round fired from an ill-sited gun caused it to sink deeper into the mud. Ammunition which was muddy was useless. Targets could not be accurately located in foul weather, either from land or from the air, and sonic ranging failed for similar reasons. In any event a thin zigzag trench was as elusive a target as could be devised. There was firepower enough to mash up a vast landscape and wreck the water table, but it still took hundreds of rounds to kill one man.
Most of the book deals with the shifting battle tactics of Gough and General Sir Herbert Plumer, who commanded the Second Army, as seen from command level (a good overall map of the entire Western Front would have been a help), but there are occasional horrific glimpses of life at the slimy end: men shoulder-high in mud advancing on machine-gun nests; the wounded audibly drowning as the craters in which they lay filled with water; the man with a ‘Blighty wound’ left stuck in a shell-hole from which 16 of his mates were unable to pull him with ropes. At one stage new troops entering the battle had to traverse three and a half miles of bog to reach their starting-line. Even so, in that spectral scene of headless men and gutted horses, there were moments of black farce, as when messenger pigeons were blown backwards by the wind and messenger dogs, their handlers having become casualties, broke loose and started a battle of their own.
So how was life at Walton Heath, and in Whitehall? Were the nation’s leaders agonising over whether to call a halt? It appears that throughout August and most of September 1917 the War Policy Committee, which had authorised the campaign, failed to meet. The War Cabinet, consisting mainly of the same people, discussed air-raids on Britain and other topics and spent four hours composing a letter of rebuke for Arthur Henderson – a Labour member of the War Cabinet – who had broken ranks. The authors seek to convince us that it was the Cabinet’s military adviser, the ranker-general Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who tried to concentrate the minds of the civilians and persuade them to evaluate the achievements in Flanders, not the civilian ministers who were trying to oblige him to do so. The Cabinet had begun to go off the alternative plan of substantially reinforcing the Italian Front, on the grounds that the situation there did not warrant abandoning the Flanders battle, which the Germans might then regard as a victory. Lloyd George, the authors say, did not attend the War Cabinet meetings: he was resting at the home of Lord Riddell, owner of the News of the World, and was out of telephonic touch with Whitehall – the weather was stormy. His defenders are entitled to retort that wars are not won by sitting at a telephone; they could also point to the passage in the Prime Minister’s War Memoirs where he says that, moved by the ‘ghastly hecatombs’ on the Ypres Front, he repeatedly reminded Robertson of the agreement that the attack was to be abandoned once the object was seen to be unobtainable, only to be told, in effect, that things would improve when the rains stopped. Prior and Wilson emphasise that ‘the Prime Minister who was proclaiming the futility of this undertaking failed to raise a finger to stop it,’ an abstention which ‘beggars comprehension’.
The German defences proved to be deeper and more ingenious than expected, with breastworks, block-houses, pill-boxes and fortified farmhouses. Enemy morale, despite Haig’s instincts, held. In his memoirs Ludendorf said that Passchendaele had imposed terrible losses on his forces and led them to dread any renewal the following year, but Prior and Wilson are sceptical of that. A man in love with the grand strategic design, they say, Ludendorf would naturally support Haig, a fellow visionary. The authors are careful to point out that it was never a war of attrition in the sense that the commanders were willing to trade man for man until the side with the most survivors won (an idea developed in Sir Arthur Bryant’s English Saga, quoted with scorn). They would like to have seen attrition applied in a ‘creative and hopeful’ sense: the step-by-step elimination of the enemy’s fighting force, not cancelled out by corresponding losses. Positive attrition! A grand wheeze, but one equally attractive to the enemy. Yet Prior and Wilson are probably right that the latter half of 1917 would have been better spent in a well-prepared series of ‘bite and hold’ operations which would have kept the enemy at stretch, and which would have left Haig’s armies in better shape to meet the Germans’ deadly spring offensive of 1918. After the worst scare of the war, Haig had his triumph, as unexpected as it was swift. He was to be notoriously trounced in Lloyd George’s memoirs and his own diary hardly flattered the Prime Minister. In retrospect, as many have conceded, the tragedy was that there was nobody to replace Lloyd George and nobody to replace Haig. Lloyd George might just have got away with sacking his commander-in-chief had there been a glittering pool of generals each capable of inspiring and handling men by the hundred thousand.
Thinking the unthinkable – that newly fashionable exercise – the authors ask: Why didn’t Britain’s rank-and-file, subjected to unimaginable stress, engage like the French in ‘collective indiscipline’, refusing to be used as cannon-fodder in useless attacks? They can find ‘no convincing explanations’. The French, as they rightly point out, had suffered a far worse blood sacrifice, notably at Verdun (in the final reckoning French casualties, like those of Germany, were twice the British). The Russians collapsed because their social structure lacked the strength and resilience of the British, who were still firm behind the main purposes of the war. Even so, Prior and Wilson find it ‘bewildering’ that the British military at this stage should have risked their troops’ fighting spirit by waging the Third Battle of Ypres. ‘There is no evidence,’ they say, ‘of any highly placed general pleading with Haig to halt the battle.’ The official history by Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds says that Gough and Plumer at one time indicated they would ‘welcome a closing down of the campaign’, but the authors say they can trace no record of any meeting at which such views were expressed. What will continue to mystify the lay reader is how the headquarters staffs, on the basis of intelligence reports from the Front, could have gone on planning mathematical advances. It is a mystery on which Prior and Wilson could have shed more light. They refer, but only in parentheses, to an after-the-battle purge of Haig’s intelligence staff. They do not relate – perhaps they could not confirm? – the well-worn story of how General Kiggell, Haig’s chief of staff, visiting the edge of the battlefield for the first time, broke down and exclaimed, ‘Good God, did we really send men to fight in this?’ As Correlli Barnett leniently puts it, in his entry on this general in the Dictionary of National Biography, ‘Kiggell himself seems to have been strangely affected by the belated realisation of the gulf between his paperwork and the reality of the Passchendaele battlefield.’ The authors have studied the Kiggell papers, but the General rates only one passing mention in the text and Brigadier-General John Charteris, Haig’s overoptimistic chief of intelligence, is absent from the book. Both men were ‘unstuck’ when it was too late to matter. After the war Sir Lancelot Kiggell was sent to govern Guernsey.
On the Home Front, we are told, there were only minor manifestations of dissent in 1917. One of these, which the authors do not mention, was the ‘peace cranks’ convention at Leeds, where plans were devised for ‘soviets’ of soldiers and workers on the Petrograd model to be set up in every town and village in Britain. It was a feeble echo of the conventions which had brought treason trials and transportation for their British organisers in the shadow of the French Revolution. The Leeds escapade died of derision and natural decay. At the height of Passchendaele the Government bolstered the nation’s morale, as it thought, by announcing the formation of a new order of chivalry, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Newspapers which had filled their pages with the small-print names of the dead now listed the names of civilians who had helped in one way or another to keep the struggle going. Three of the highest awards went to staff of the Bank of England. The scorn, jealousy and merriment aroused by the names of many of the first OBEs did much to keep people’s minds off the Western Front.