The Long, Long Trail: Making Sense of Third Ypres
Written by: Mark Connelly
The Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, as it is so regularly called, has become ingrained in the British cultural memory of the Great War. Percy Wyndham Lewis, the enfant terrible of the British art world, and by 1918 an official war artist, summed up the emotive grip in the name of that small Flanders village sitting at the top of a ridge some seven miles from Ypres: ‘the very name, with its suggestion of splashiness and of passion at once… was very appropriate. The moment I saw the name on the trench map intuitively I knew what was going to happen’. Whether Wyndham Lewis was truly blessed with foresight, or whether he invented it for his 1937 memoir is almost immaterial, for Passchendaele had already become synonymous with suffering and heavily tinged with associations of futility and meaningless slaughter.
Almost from the moment the war ended the battle was thrown open to scrutiny. Revising his wartime part-work on the conflict in 1921-2, John Buchan lavished praise on the endurance of the British and Imperial forces in the Third Battle of Ypres, but at the same time implied that the campaign had achieved very little. A correspondent to the Saturday Review leapt to support Buchan stating his belief that ‘our Generals may be brave and “pukka” Sahibs, but are pitiably deficient in military genius.’ Just over a decade later Lloyd George used his memoirs to pour scorn on Haig and British generalship during Third Ypres and in the reprint included much carefully selected personal testimony from veterans to vindicate his position.
In 1948 the British official history volume on the battle was published. The result of much behind-the-scenes wrangling, the final version steered a middle line refusing to apportion outright blame to Haig or his subordinate commander, Hubert Gough, for the conduct of the battle. Ten years later Leon Wolff produced his wonderfully readable, In Flanders Fields, turning the story into a haunting Greek tragedy in which incompetence, vanity and a dreadful sense of inescapable fate infused the well-worked prose. A.J.P. Taylor came to a similar conclusion in 1963 deeming the battle ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’. Building on this strong emotive line, Lyn Macdonald provided a similarly powerful evocation in her 1978 book, They Called It Passchendaele. Driven by vivid eye-witness accounts, the reader was left in no doubt that the battle quickly degenerated into a mess literally sucking the life out of young, brave men.
The so-called ‘revisionist’ school has reacted against such simplistic polarities in which doddery generals and politicians conspire to slaughter legions of soldiers. However, it has been extremely hard to rehabilitate Third Ypres entirely for no explanation can provide a truly satisfactory justification for the battle as conceived, conducted, nor of its outcomes. Haig seemed to have high expectations of breakthrough: none occurred and it is difficult to determine whether it was ever a likely possibility; deeming it efficient attrition also means stretching definitions; finding evidence of tactical superiority on the ground is undermined by matching evolutions in German military procedures. Thus, explaining away Third Ypres is tricky. This leaves the question of blame and whether anyone should be held to account. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson in their 1996 study, Passchendaele: the untold story, suggest that Lloyd George and the British government ultimately were culpable for not exerting civilian authority over the generals firmly enough when serious doubts began to emerge. As Taylor himself argued, blaming the generals alone was too simple a judgement. But, in determining responsibility historians have largely admitted that it is a question of explaining military failure.
The British Army and the First World War by Ian Beckett, Mark Connelly, and Timothy Bowman