Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

The Battle of Passchendale

I came across this horrific story while reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent new history of WW I To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion

This was a brutal battle, typical of WW I battles. Here, British Empire troops (including Britons, Indians, and Canadians) launched an assault against the German lines beginning July 17, 1917. While the battle was scheduled to be only a few days, it turned into several months. British forces would begin with a barrage of artillery shelling from the front of the enemy lines, then aiming farther back to cover the lines and the area behind them. Then soldiers would march forward, cutting barbed wire and enduring return shelling from the Germans. If all went well, they would push the Germans back and regain Belgian territory.

However, the ground where the battle took place – near the Belgian village of Passchendale – was at a low altitude above sea level. The water table was only a few feet below the ground. When the shelling began, the ground was dry, but after the artillery assault and return fire from the Germans, the land between the lines was cratered like the moon. Meanwhile, it had begun to rain.

The rain, combined with the high water table, turned the ground into a soupy mud. Men, horses and equipment became stuck in the mud. From the book:

“I cannot attempt to describe the conditions under which we are fighting,” wrote John Mortimer Wheeler, later a well-known archaeologist. “Anything I could write about them would seem an exaggeration but would, in reality, be miles below the truth…. The mud is not so much mud as a fathomless, sticky morass. The shell holes, where they do not actually merge into one another, are divided only by a few inches of this glutinous mud…. The gunners work thigh-deep in water.” Some British artillery pieces dug themselves so deeply into the mud with their recoils that they dropped below the surface; the crew would then put up a flag to mark the spot.

Injured men would crawl into shell craters to shield themselves from gunfire, only to find the crater filling up with water. Untold thousands drowned.

Private Charlie Miles of the Royal Fusiliers carried messages as a runner—a misnomer in this season: “The moment you set off you felt that dreadful suction…. In a way, it was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down…[then] you knew that it was a body you were treading on. It was terrifying. You’d tread on one on the stomach, perhaps, and it would grunt all the air out…. The smell could make you vomit.” And when shells landed, they blasted waterlogged, putrefying corpses into the air, showering pieces of them down on the soldiers who were still alive.

Meanwhile, the combination of censorship and state propaganda meant that a rosy picture of the battle and its heroism and victory was being pumped out all over Britain:

British, Australian, and Canadian troops inched ever closer to the little village of Passchendaele as newspaper headlines triumphally announced, “Our Position Improved; Heroism in the New Advance” (the Times); “Complete Success in Battle of the Pill Boxes; Haig’s Smashing Blow” (the Daily Mirror).

In the sanitizing language of newspapers and memorial services, these Canadians, and all the British Empire troops who lost their lives in the three-and-a-half-month battle, were referred to as the “fallen.” But in the mud of Passchendaele, falling dead from a bullet wound was only for the lucky:”A party of ‘A’ Company men passing up to the front line found … a man bogged to above the knees,” remembered Major C. A. Bill of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. “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.”

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