Book review: Passchendaele: A New History, by By Nick Lloyd

A stretcher-bearing party carrying a wounded soldier through the mud near Boesinghe during the battle of Passchendaele in Flanders.   Photograph: John Warwick Brooke/Getty Images
A stretcher-bearing party carrying a wounded soldier through the mud near Boesinghe during the battle of Passchendaele in Flanders. Photograph: John Warwick Brooke/Getty Images
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Did Passchendaele mark the moment when German morale collapsed on the Western Front? Nick Lloyd makes a compelling case

Last year it was the Somme; now Passchendaele. Next year the centenary commemoration of the First World War will – or should – culminate with the Allied victory and the succession of battles which, together with the blockade, forced Germany to seek an Armistice. It’s unlikely that these successes will get as much attention as the Somme and Passchendaele (properly, or officially, the Third Battle of Ypres). These are written deep in folk memory, whereas the series of battles won by the British Army from June to November 1918 are rarely remembered. As it happens, Nick Lloyd, Reader in Military and Imperial History at King’s College, London and based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, has already written a fine book, Hundred Days: The End of the Great War; it’s certain that Passchendaele will have more readers.

It will do so because the Western Front is popularly seen as a place of horror, the war as catastrophe. As for Passchendaele, fought from 31 July to 10 November, the words that echo down the years are those of a weeping Staff Officer: “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” Lloyd is not the first to question their authenticity, but, as he writes, “Passchendaele stood out as the ultimate expression of meaningless, industrialized slaughter”. What were described as “battle and trench wastage casualties” amounted to almost a quarter of a million men. (This figure included the lightly wounded, who often returned to front-line duty.) German losses were almost the same.

The battle was fought, partly to take pressure off the French, partly in the belief, held strongly by Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, that a breakthrough which would liberate Belgium and capture the enemy’s submarine bases on the Belgian coast could be achieved. By the time the operation was at last halted, the British Army had advanced only five miles. Nevertheless John Terraine, in a biography defending Haig, insisted that Passchendaele marked the moment when German morale on the Western Front began to collapse. The implication is that without it the victories of the following year would not have been possible. This may be true.

Lloyd does not dissent from this view. While he is severely critical of the tactics employed in the battle, he asserts that “major success was within Britain’s grasp in the summer and autumn of 1917” and might have been achieved if “the battle had been managed slightly differently”. It could even be said that Third Ypres was, in some respects, one of the “lost victories” of the war. This may never be a popular opinion, but, on the evidence Lloyd assembles, it is a fair one.

The account of the battle is detailed and compelling. Whatever justifications may be advanced the horror does not – cannot – fade or be denied. One of the many strengths of this book is that it examines “the other side of the hill”, giving the German side of the story, itself “a remarkable one of courage and ingenuity in the face of almost unimaginable horrors”. Historians, Lloyd writes, by concentrating on “the mistakes and weaknesses of the British High Command, have sometimes downplayed the awful experience of the ‘Flanders bloodbath’ for the defenders”. The charge against Haig, which none of his advocates have answered, is that he persisted too long in a battle which could no longer be won, and that he failed to realise which tactics were successful and which were not. He may have been stolid and unimaginative, but he was also, in Lloyd’s opinion, “a compulsive gambler. “The contrast with the cautious, defensively-minded French Commander-in Chief, Marshal Petain was marked, and explains that, while many after the war reviled Haig as a butcher, Petain was hailed by the French as “our most humane General”, a reputation which also explains why the majority of the French turned to him as their Guardian in the disaster of 1940.

There will be other books about Third Ypres this year, but it’s unlikely that any of them will be better-researched, more intelligent or fairer than this one. Without in any way minimising the awfulness of the battle, Lloyd makes its inception and course comprehensible. Both as narrative and analysis, this book is masterly

Passchendaele: A New History is published by Viking, £25