This month has seen the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres, more popularly known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Stuart Crawford reflects on a battle which, even by the standards of World War One, is known for its tragic human cost.
The Battle of Passchendaele was a giant military undertaking in the latter half of the Great War, which stuttered on in Flanders from July to November 1917 and cost thousands of casualties on both sides. Many more soldiers had their futures blighted, physically and mentally, by their experiences. The true human toll will probably never be known as so many soldiers simply disappeared into the mud. Enough has been said elsewhere about the dreadful conditions in which the battle was fought; suffice to say that Passchendaele, plus the Battle of the Somme barely a year earlier, has become synonymous for the futility and hopelessness of the First World War.
Our collective view of Passchendaele, and indeed of the Somme before it, has been coloured by the memories of those who participated in that grim late summer and autumn of 1917. By this time in the war, the British Army was essentially a citizen-army, largely a volunteer army at the Somme, and primarily a conscript one by the time of Passchendaele. The regular, professional army which had formed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1914 had all but disappeared by Christmas that year, with the fight sustained by the Territorials and Commonwealth units through 1915 until the New Army of patriotic volunteers was “ready” for combat in 1916.
For these shiny-new, optimistic citizen-soldiers, their first experience of war must have been shattering. Notwithstanding their training, which was limited at best, the noise, horror, and sheer physical effort of combat must have been overwhelming, not to mention the impact of casualties. Heavy losses would have been felt keenly in the “Pals” battalions on the Somme, where a failed attack – or even a successful one – might have wiped out the menfolk of close-knit communities, men who had joined up together in the same units.
The survivors, and the perished who left records of their experience, are whose memories have coloured our view of the Great War. It is through the prism of their baptisms of fire that the vivid horrors of war were captured. Their letters, diaries, poems, sketches, and paintings have been ingrained in our collective consciousness.
In contrast, the British regular army, the BEF of 1914 which was virtually destroyed in the first few months of the war, has left fewer memories. It was recruited mainly from the working-class poor, plus a sprinkling of “gentlemen rankers” who were escaping previous lives for whatever reason, and officered in general by public schoolboys. For them, being a soldier was a way of life, a job at which one became expert over time. Many of them would have been veterans of the Boer Wars and service in India, and it is a commonly held view that the BEF of 1914 was the best British army that had ever left these shores.
I often wonder how the veterans of the BEF of 1914 would have reported on Passchendaele in 1917 had a substantial number of them survived that far. I had the great good fortune to command regular soldiers, men of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, and to recognise that they were indeed a breed apart. My soldiers, volunteers all, were hard men. Not hard as in thuggery and violence, but in the sense of uncomplaining endurance built up over many years of professional soldiering.
We shared freezing and boiling weather – “baltic” and “roastin’” in soldier vernacular – days and nights without sleep, wind, rain, sleet and snow, and the noise, dirt, and mental and physical exhaustion of living on and maintaining our tanks. And that was only on training exercises. Thank goodness, in retrospect, that most of us never had to it for real.
Would the soldiers I knew have been able to cope with Passchendaele? I cannot be sure, of course, but I suspect the answer is yes. Like the BEF of 1914, the men were professionals and used to the hardships of military life. The battle might possibly not have come as quite the same shock to them as it did to the citizen-soldiers of 1917.
Does that make the Passchendaele troops more or less brave than their professional counterparts might have been? If we accept that the essence of bravery is having the courage to confront and overcome one’s own fears, then I think we’re looking at evens. The conscripts would have had to overcome their fear of the shocking and new, the professionals would have had to deal with knowing better what was to come.
What is certain is that the soldiers of Passchendaele endured the most difficult of conditions with a fortitude that almost defies belief. Above all else it is a testament to the strength of the human spirit in defeating the horrors of war.
Stuart Crawford attended Hutchesons’ Boys’ Grammar School, Millfield School, Somerset, and Cambridge University. He spent 20 years as an army officer in the 4th Royal Tank Regiment (Scotland’s Own) and retired in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Since then, he has worked as a political lobbyist, media communications and defence and security consultant, and a freelance journalist.
Featured Image: Wounded Canadians on way to aid-post during the Battle of Passchendaele. Image: Wikimedia Commons