Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones
July 31, 2017 4:23 PM   Subscribe

The Battle of Passchendaele begins One hundred years ago today British imperial forces opened the Battle of Passchendaele, attacking German positions in an effort to win Channel ports and take pressure off of the mutiny-weakened French. Attacks would go on through November over sodden, hideous terrain, involving tanks, air power, artillery, and mustard gas. Fighting nearly exhausted both sides, costing hundreds of thousands of casualties for each, and yielding several miles of territory.

It is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, as two previous battles had been fought there in 1914 and 1915. Two more were to come before the Western Front fell silent in November 1918.

After the Battle: Polygon Wood
Troops moving up at eventide - men of a Yorkshire regiment on the march
A map of the battlefield
Siegfried Sassoon, "On Passing the new Menin Gate"
A memoir of devastation
German commander Ludendorff (yes, that one) reflects
One documentary
posted by doctornemo (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
posted by doctornemo at 4:24 PM on July 31, 2017

“Ten million dead. Gas. Passchendaele. Let that be now a large figure, now a chemical formula, now an historical account. But dear lord, not the Nameless Horror, the sudden prodigy sprung on a world unaware. We all saw it. There was no innovation, no special breach of nature, or suspension of familiar principles. If it came as any surprise to the public then their own blindness is the Great Tragedy, hardly the war itself.” ―Thomas Pynchon, V.
posted by chavenet at 4:44 PM on July 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

Oh my goodness. I'd previously heard of Passchendaele in a story about the Order of the White Feather. During WWI, there were these bands of women who would go around giving white feathers to men in civilian dress. In the U.S., a white feather is a symbol of courage and marksmanship, but in the U.K. it is a symbol of cowardice. The idea was to encourage able-bodied men to enlist. But of course these people on the streets had no way to check whom they were giving the feathers. They just handed them out to any man in civilian dress who wasn't obviously incapable of service. And of course, sometimes they gave feathers to soldiers home on leave, as in this story:
One such was Private Ernest Atkins who was on leave from the Western Front. He was riding a tram when he was presented with a white feather by a girl sitting behind him. He smacked her across the face with his pay book saying: "Certainly Ill take your feather back to the boys at Passchendaele. Im in civvies because people think my uniform might be lousy, but if I had it on I wouldnt be half as lousy as you."
The whole affair is horrible, but now that I know more about Passchendaele I appreciate even more how justifiably angry Atkins must have felt. Imagine being given a feather after coming back from that meat grinder.
posted by d. z. wang at 5:01 PM on July 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

Canadian General Arthur Currie protested against this pointless battle, to such an extent that Haig nearly had him charged with insubordination.

"Passchendale? What's the good of it? Let the Germans have it! - keep it! - rot in the mud! It isn't worth a drop of blood!"
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:43 PM on July 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

In 2004 Iron Maiden recorded an epic take on the battle. Say what you will about the Irons, they do have a sense of history.
posted by Ber at 7:01 PM on July 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

The kings are grinning, the kaiser and the czar—they are alive riding in leather-seated motor cars, and they have their women and roses for ease, and they eat fresh-poached eggs for breakfast, new butter on toast, sitting in tall water-tight houses reading the news of war.

I dreamed a million ghosts of the young workmen rose in their shirts all soaked in crimson … and yelled:

God damn the grinning kings, God damn the kaiser and the czar.

- Carl Sandburg, "A Million Young Workmen" (1915)
posted by ryanshepard at 7:17 PM on July 31, 2017 [13 favorites]

From The Economist, today: Epitaphs from the Great War find new life on Twitter.

"EVERY DAY at 5.30pm, an epitaph from the grave of a Commonwealth soldier or nurse killed during the Great War is posted on Twitter. They vary from the emotive (“Brave, upright, sincere, kind, a loved son, a widowed mother’s pride”), to the patriotic (“Surrendered self to duty, to his old home, and England his country”). The poetic—“Whose distant footsteps echo through the corridors of time”—stand alongside the subversive: “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war.” Sarah Wearne, the historian behind the @WWInscriptions account, has been tweeting since August 4th 2014 and will continue until November 11th 2018, the centenary of the armistice agreement."

Epitaphs of the Great War: Passchendaele
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:33 PM on July 31, 2017 [7 favorites]

My great-grandfather fought and was wounded at Passchendaele. He was then captured by the Germans, but it probably saved his life, and certainly his leg. At the POW hospital, they initially wanted to amputate, but a German doctor said he could save it, and did. This was after he had already survived pneumonia, contracted while spending a winter in the trenches of northern France. He was a Highlander, so he had to wear a kilt, even while on the line.

I never knew him, but my mother tells me he was a life-long pacifist.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:37 PM on July 31, 2017 [10 favorites]

Also, I hope Butcher Haig is in hell, and suffering even half of what his troops suffered at the Somme and Passchendaele. I should spit every time I ride past Haig Boulevard.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:41 PM on July 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

"I died in hell - they called it Passchendaele" by Siegfriend Sassoon (read by David Suchet)
posted by mogget at 8:37 PM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

I question the humanity of anyone able to stand amongst the sea of graves near Ypres and not leave a pacifist.
posted by deadwax at 10:46 PM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

My great grandfather was at Hill 70 in an attempt to divert German resources from Passchendaele. He was shot a total of 5 times, we still have three of the bullets, he got to meet the king on account of it. When he came back to northern Saskatchewan his truck went through the ice but he couldn't escape the vehicle due to his injuries. What a mess.
posted by furtive at 11:34 PM on July 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

The real horror of Passchendaele in the stories I always read was not the shooting, but the mud. The dams had been burst, and the floodplain inundated just beneath the soil. It was a battle fought on narrow planks laid over thick quicksand, in places. Men would fall in and almost immediately beg their superiors to shoot them, and they often did: it was merciful to prevent them from suffocating slowly in the mud.

This passage in particular has always haunted me:
A party of ‘A’ Company men passing up to the front found … a man bogged to above the knees. The united efforts of four of them with rifles beneath his armpits made not the slightest impression, and to dig, even if shovels had been available, would be impossible, for there was no foothold. Duty compelled them to move on up to the line, and when two days later they passed down that way the wretched fellow was still there; but only his head was now visible and he was raving mad.

Major C. A. Bill

Fifteenth Battalion

Royal Warwickshire Regiment
And still we have politicians glorifying this, even in our own Parliament. The poppy is meant to symbolise the folly of sending so many to their deaths, but it has been appropriated by warmongers. I hope that democracy can survive this anniversary, and thrive.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 4:09 AM on August 1, 2017 [10 favorites]

I've gained so much appreciation for WWI from Dan Carlin's HCH. I can't believe the terribleness resulting directly from hubris. Such a sad waste.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 4:52 AM on August 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

...To give some cover to the military strategists of the time, this was also a war where the innovative pace of the industrial revolution was on full display. Trying to adapt to that maelstrom was an impossible task...especially when the difficulty was compounded by stupidity and bravado further up the chain of command.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 4:53 AM on August 1, 2017

Epitaphs of the Great War: Passchendaele

I cataloged books like these this summer. They just have so many pages.
posted by Hypatia at 5:38 AM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I cataloged books like these this summer. They just have so many pages.

I had a job once in a government documents library, shifting the collection. I wound up finding a large region of WW1 related material, including medical texts about treatment of injuries from shell fragments, gas, etc. Looking in those was a mistake; they were just hellish.
posted by thelonius at 6:33 AM on August 1, 2017

In the twenty-first-century there's a danger that this inscription might be taken the wrong way; it could sound as though the speaker was implying that he was a muggins for volunteering - "of course I was one". I am absolutely sure that this is not how Frank Loker's father, who chose the inscription, meant it. After all, Frank Loker wasn't the only one to volunteer in September 1914, his father, also called Frank Loker, volunteered on the 20 September, twelve days after his son....

Sergeant Major Frank Loker ... remained in France until he was transferred to the reserve in February 1919. But I'm not sure that he came home even then because his address after the war was C/O War Graves Commission, St Omer, France. He may have become a gardener with the Commission, many old soldiers did, and why not when your son was buried in one of its cemeteries.
posted by Hypatia at 6:46 AM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Harold and his son Ronald Moorhouse, who both died there within an hour of each other; link includes a video of Rebecca Lisle, Harry’s great-granddaughter.
posted by gudrun at 8:19 AM on August 1, 2017

I saw pictures from the hundredth anniversary commemoration. I was struck by notes of brightness and pageantry, which (in my mind) seemed a bit off for such a sombre occasion. Which is not to say that I know what a fitting commemoration would really be.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:35 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Um, thanks rum soaked space cowboy, that is an image that will never leave me.
posted by YouRebelScum at 12:43 PM on August 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

« Older Conversations with people that hate me   |   The Preserver of the Passengers Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments