I came across this horrific story while reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent history of WWI, “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion.” Actually, the book is not a general history of WWI, but rather a history of the tiny but important opposition to the war in Britain. Hochschild follows the lives of several families who were torn by the war, with opponents pitted against their family members who were very much in favor of continuing the inter-imperial slaughter. It s a beautiful and moving book, and I highly recommend it.
In one chapter Hochschild tells of the disaster at Passchendale. I’ll summarize:
This was a brutal battle, typical of WWI 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 in 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. Both sides had used this technique in battles farther to the south.
However, the ground where the battle took place – near the Belgian village of Passchendale – was at a low altitude above sea level. This made for effects that neither side had anticipated. 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 triumphantly 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.”
”I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele”
When You see Millions of the Mouthless Dead, by Charles Sorley
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.