31 October 2015

The worst war had to offer

Growing up, I had an old great uncle we used to visit. We knew he was a veteran of the First World War, but he, though a garrulous man, was reticent to speak of it, except for once. A cousin was visiting, and the two of them were sharing a few beers, when the cousin asked him if he had been at Passchendaele.

"Yeah, I was there," our uncle said.

"What was it like?"

Uncle took another pull on his beer. "Well, you're thirsty," he began. "But your water bottle's empty. There's a puddle the size of a pond in front of your foxhole, but there's a body in it- a dead soldier or a dead horsefloating . But you're still thirsty. So you take your water bottle..."

At that point my aunt walked in. "Oh Red," she said. Don't talk about that here."

He said no more. That was all any of us ever got out of him about the war.

Passchendaele is often remembered as the worst the first world war had to offer. The battle took place over the summer and autumn of 1917 in the salient around the city of Ypres- in fact, another name of the battle is actually The Third Battle of Ypres. It began, sort of, when British miners finished digging a series of tunnels under the German lines, and detonated a series of mines in an area near Ypres called Messines Ridge. The huge blast caught the Germans by surprise and the British virtually walked up the ridge to take over the German positions. The Germans lay dead everywhere on the ridge, killed by the concussive force of the blast, and with little effort, the British took control of the ridge.

It was a major victory, but what came next is a matter of some debate. Some say the British had a plan for a follow up, others say the British had no plan. Those who say the British failed to plan seem to me to be a bit more correct, for nothing happened for the next few weeks while the generals debate what to do with their new advantage, this hole in the German line. The battle to take advantage of the hole began three weeks later, the Generals seemingly under the impression that the hole was still there, when in truth it was closed perhaps an hour after the detonations.

The plan of the battle was to sweep through the hole in the line, swing to the North and capture the German submarine bases on the north shores of Belgium. The Generals, particularly Field Marshall Haig, were confident they would succeed. This confidence was due in part to a victory won by the Canadians a few months earlier at Vimy ridge. Haig had concluded the Canadians had won because the Germans were on the point of collapse. As a result, he used none of the innovations and tactics adopted by the Canadians which lead to their success. Instead, he more or less dusted off the plans from the previous year's battle, the Battle of the Somme, completely undeterred by the fact that the Somme was the greatest disaster in British military history.

So the Third Battle of Ypres opened up with a seven day bombardment of German lines. As was the case at the Somme, the bombardment did nothing. The Germans did not rely solely on trenches at Ypres, as the area had a very high water table, and any trenches were soon filled with water. Instead they adopted concrete structures which were soon nicknamed "pillboxes." The pillboxes were virtually immune to anything but a direct hit from the very heaviest of guns. The Germans hunkered down in their fortifications, and waited.

When I say the bombardment did nothing, I mean it did nothing much to the Germans. It did achieve something else: it destroyed the ancient drainage system in the area, so water could not drain from the area in the battle. It also blasted all the vegetation in nothing, and battered the land into a barren, cratered moonscape, just in time for the wettest summer on record.

Mud was the signature of Passchendaele. It is the mud for which the battle is remembered and cursed. Men drowned in it. Horses sank into and vanished. The soldiers were ordered not to help anyone who fell into the mud, but to push on. Soldiers often wrote later of how they would pass a man in the mud going one way, and pass the man again hours later going the other way, and they could see from the man's eyes that his mind was gone. The craters filled with water that soon became covered with a thick, oozing oily slime. Charge after charge was ordered into a battlefield that could not support the feet of the men who trod it. And conditions grew worse.

Flies bred in the craters and fed on the bloated corpses of the men and horses. The fields had been manured for centuries, and bacteria was everywhere. Any wound, even a simple scratch, almost inevitably became infected, in an era before reliable antibiotics. The battlefield resembled Hell to the men there. The name Passchendaele translates as the valley of the Passion. This was the place where God died, and God did die for many of the men here. Many troops became confirmed atheists in this battle, for they could never believe that a loving God would have allowed any of this to happen.
Summer bled into autumn, and the British forces had not even advanced far enough to capture the planned objective of the first day of the battle, the village of Passchendaele. Haig was under pressure. Parliament was growing unwilling to grant him more men for what they saw as Haig's futile schemes. Haig pulled in troops from other areas of the front. By fall, Australian and New Zealand troops had captured most of Passchendaele Ridge, but the village itself remained stubbornly in German hands. Haig realized he would be sacked if he did not at least capture the village and declare some small victory. He called in the last troops he had left: the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.
The General of the Corps, Sir Arthur Currie, resisted being sent to Passchendaele. "It'll take sixteen thousand casualties," he told Haig. "And it's not worth one drop of blood!" Haig believed sixteen thousand more casualties was a just price to save his career. He had already lost 300, 000. Haig ordered Currie to make the attack, or be relieved.

Currie dispensed with Haig's plans, and went and reconnoitred the battlefield himself. He chose his own line of attack, and set his own goals on the way to the village. The attack took place in three separate phases, with rest days in between to build up for the next attack.

The Attacks were successful due to good planning and a kind of insane courage the Canadians had become known for. In testament to this courage, nine men of the Canadian Corps were awarded the Victoria Cross for valour, the most ever to receive the award for a single battle. By November 10th the Canadians held the high ground. When Currie called Haig to tell him the village had been captured. Haig only replied 'Thank God, thank God." He declared victory. His job was safe.
Except there was no village to speak of anymore. It had been blasted into nothingness. The price to capture this nothingness was almost exactly what Currie had claimed. The total advance over those long bloody months was about seven or eight miles- seven or eight miles into a swamp.

It is said that a member of the British High Command, Genereal Kiggle, went forward to inspect the battlefield. As his driver lead him forward, Kiggle is said to have looked upon the field and said "Good God, did we order men to fight in that?" To which his driver replied: "It's worse up ahead, sir." Kiggle broke down, and wept.

There is a bitterness to this battle not seen anywhere else, not even the Somme which claimed twice as many casualties. The Somme is seen as a mistake, an error in judgement. Passchendaele is seen as a crime. The Generals lost so many men at Somme, and they learned nothing, and could think of nothing but to slaughter more men pointlessly again. To add a final insult to injury, all the gains made by the British forces at Passchendaele were swept aside in less than a week by the Germans in their final spring offensive of 1918. Winston Churchill described it as "a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility." It is a horror of the twentieth century, never forgotten by the men who served and saw it.Will Bird, in his book " Ghosts Have Warm Hands" concluded his chapter on the battle with these words:

Captain Arthur was kind to us. He stood and gazed at our pitiful ranks, gazed without speaking, and I saw in his eyes things of which no man speaks- the things words would kill. We had little drill, but rested and slept and had good food until finally we were more like human beings. But every man who had endured Passchendaele would never be the same again, was more or less a stranger to himself.

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