The carnage of the Battle of Passchendaele .
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.
The Third Punic War:
Now, please note that, obviously, many of our sources are old (Livy, Plutarch, etc), and therefore not considered 100% reliable. It’s our job to read between the lines! Secondly, to understand the third Punic War… you have to understand what lead up to it. So our story actually begins long before the Third Punic War….we’ll start with the end of the Second. Or pretty much what ended up being the end….you get the point. Let’s jump straight in!
So. Hannibal Barca is probably a name you know rather well. You know, that crazy general who led his mercenary army across the Alps, spending the next 15 years ravaging Italy without any significant support from the Carthaginian government…THAT Hannibal Barca! So, small problem with him being in Italy – Rome had literally beaten Carthage back everywhere else. And they had a trump card of their own – who went by the name of Scipio (later) Africanus. This guy had won the war in Sicily, in Spain, and was now in North Africa, kicking Carthaginian ass. So Carthage, panicking a bit because he’s making eyes of “Oh helLO there babe” at her, sent envoys to Scipio, trying to organize a truce until Hannibal could get back. Scipio (probably knowing full well what they were doing), decided to play along. He offered the following terms:
- The Carthaginians were to hand over all prisoners of war as well as Roman deserters and refugees.
- They were to withdraw their armies (And their authority with them) from Italy, Gaul, and Spain, as well asall islands between Italy and Africa.
- They were to surrender their entire navy with the exception of twenty vessels
- They were to provide HUGE quantities of wheat and barley (More on this later) to the Roman army
- They were to pay an indemnity of 5,000 talents of silver (Each talent was equivalent to the mass of water required to fill an amphora – a Roman talent was about 72 pounds. 5,000 x 72 = 360,000 pounds of silver. Today, that price comes out to about $101 million USD. Just for perspective!)
Now, Carthage knew that Scipio’s original intent was to completely destroy the city. So they agreed to all the terms – and sent another delegation to Rome to finalize the treaty (Once more, playing for time and trying to shift all the blame onto Hannibal). Hannibal, obviously, didn’t take the news that he was being recalled all that well. Here’s Livy’s description of his reaction (Probably not absolutely accurate, but gives you a good idea):
It is said that he gnashed his teeth, groaned, and almost shed tears when he heard what the delegates had to say. After they had delivered their instructions, he exclaimed, “The men who tried to drag me back by cutting off my supplies of men and money are now recalling me not by crooked means but plainly and openly. So you see, it is not the Roman people who have been so often routed and cut to pieces that have vanquished Hannibal, but the Carthaginian senate by their detraction and envy. It is not Scipio who will pride himself and exult over the disgrace of my return so much as Hanno who has crushed my house, since he could do it in no other way, beneath the ruins for Carthage.” He had divined what would happen, and had got his ships ready in anticipation. The unserviceable portion of his troops he got rid of by distributing them ostensibly as garrisons amongst the few towns which, more out of fear than loyalty, still adhered to him. The main strength of his army he transported to Africa. Many who were natives of Italy refused to follow him, and withdrew into the temple of Juno Lacinia, a shrine which up to that day had remained inviolate. There, actually within the sacred precinct, they were foully murdered. Seldom, according to the accounts, has any one left his native country to go into exile in such gloomy sorrow as Hannibal manifested when quitting the country of his foes. It is stated that he often looked back to the shores of Italy, accusing gods and men and even cursing himself for not having led his soldiers reeking with blood from the victorious field of Cannae straight to Rome. Scipio, he said, who whilst consul had never seen a Carthaginian in Italy, had dared to go to Africa, whereas he who had slain 100,000 men at Thrasymenus and at Cannae had wasted his strength round Casilinum and Cumae and Nola. Amid these accusations and regrets he was borne away from his long occupation of Italy.
Obviously, Livy sees Hannibal in a bit more of a negative light – however, you get the gist of what he was saying.
Needless to say – this treaty with Rome didn’t last long, as the Carthaginians, buoyed by Hannibal’s presence, acted much as if they were still at war. They pirated Roman supply ships, lynched Roman envoys, etc. Well, Rome didn’t take too kindly to that, and they told Scipio (still in North Africa) to engage. Scipio (this part’s important!) summoned his Numidian allies (They generally provided amazing cavalry and flipflopped to whoever had the most money.) to help him out against Carthage.
…from there – Rome beat Hannibal’s army (He only had a small core of veterans, whereas Scipio’s entire army was veteran), forcing Carthage into negotiations. Again. These ones were FAR more severe (obviously). In addition to all the previous terms (scroll up):
- Carthage was now forbidden from fighting any wars outside Africa. Additionally, if they wanted to fight any wars (read: Fight at all), they had to have permission from Rome first.
- The indemnity was set at 10,000 talents now (That number from earlier times 2), and they had to pay it over the course of 50 years.
- Carthage had to hand over ALL its war elephants and the number of ships she was allowed to have was reduced to 10.
So, those are the terms Carthage had to live under. REALLY not all that hot, but hey, the losers have no other choice, eh? Either way. Carthage was in deep shit. Luckily for them, they had the one person who was so amazing that he could dig them out. Hannibal fucking Barca. That guy that the Council of Elders hated to their very cores was the man who would turn Carthage’s fortunes completely around. He remained in charge of the remnants of his army, which he set to planting olive groves. He reorganized the government by making the membership to the Council of One Hundred and Four only last one year, and had that membership decided by popular election. He personally oversaw the audits of public revenues, where he discovered huge amounts of state funds (gasp!) were being lost to embezzlement. So many funds were lost, he found, that if duties were properly collected on property and trade, then there would be plenty of money to pay the yearly indemnity without resorting to higher taxes. Well. Guess who fucking loved Hannibal after this? The people! 😀 Guess who fucking HATED Hannibal after this? The aristocrats! 😀 He also rebuilt the residential quarter, supervised a TON of construction, and in general improved the quality of life in the city. Well, that lasted until Roman envoys headed to the city, saw Hannibal in charge, and were all “OH NO YOU DID NOT.” He was forced to flee into exile, where he remained hiding for the rest of his life from the vengeful arm of Rome.
Well, luckily for Carthage, their hero had put them on the craziest turn around in ancient history. The city which had been devastated by the Second Punic War staged a REMARKABLE comeback, and was even able to pay back that entire indemnity a mere ten years into the 50 year period. Rome, pretty shocked by this, immediately refused. Remember the grain that Carthage had to supply for Rome? Here are some numbers for ya! 😀
- Immediately after the end of the war, Carthage provided 200,000 modii (8.73 L per modius.) of wheat to Rome.
- In 191 BCE, Carthage was providing 500,000 modii of wheat and 500,000 modii of barley.
- In 171, it was 1,000,000 of modii of wheat and 500,000 modii of barley.
Carthage was fucking loaded. They didn’t have to worry about war anymore, just support Roman armies a bit. They didn’t have to worry about administering an empire and the costs that were associated there. What they DID still have were some crazy awesome trade networks – especially with Italy – that were SUPER profitable. On top of the tributes of agricultural products, their merchants ALSO sold a ton, as well as Carthaginian wine and other products. The construction projects continued, the most ambitious of which was a new port complex. Here’s Appian’s description of it (which is supported by archaeological evidence):
The harbors had communication with each other, and a common entrance from the sea seventy feet wide, which could be closed with iron chains. The first port was for merchant vessels, and here were collected all kinds of ships’ tackle. Within the second port was an island which, together with the port itself, was enclosed by high embankments. These embankments were full of shipyards which had capacity for 220 vessels. Above them were magazines for their tackle and furniture. Two Ionic columns stood in front of each dock, giving the appearance of a continuous portico to both the harbor and the island. On the island was built the admiral’s house, from which the trumpeter gave signals, the herald delivered orders, and the admiral himself overlooked everything. The island lay near the entrance to the harbor and rose to a considerable height, so that the admiral could observe what was going on at sea, while those who were approaching by water could not get any clear view of what took place within. Not even the incoming merchants could see the docks, for a double wall enclosed them, and there were gates by which merchant ships could pass from the first port to the city without traversing the dockyards. Such was the appearance of Carthage at that time.
If you head to that source, he also gives a GREAT description of the actual defenses of Carthage – needless to say, the city was grand as SHIT. Here are some pictures that show you what the harbor actually looked like. The reason this is important is because it factors in later on – besides being a very obvious display of wealth. Notably, that harbor was entirely dug out. Which required about 235,000 cubic meters of earth to be excavated from a swampy marshland (no small feat, even today).
So. Now that we’ve established that Carthage was a rich fucking city (her walls were even lined with plaster, giving the city a magnificent white marble shimmering effect when seen from a distance), what do people do with rich cities that can’t defend themselves? Oh right. They get beaten up. Well, the Numidians (remember them?) started raiding Carthaginian lands (You know, the ones that had been set in that treaty with Rome). So, following the treaty, Carthage complained to Rome. Well, the Numidians sent envoys right along with them. And after much chin-stroking, the Romans (of course), sided with the Numidians. Despite the fact that it was Carthage that had been bent over. Well, of course, you give a man an inch, and he’ll take a mile. Numidia began deeper and deeper incursions into Carthaginian territory, taking over more and more land. Carthage complained and asked Rome for help over and over and over again, and Rome steadily refused, siding with the Numidians time and time again. Desperate, the Carthaginians finally put together an army to fight off the Numidians – an army that was promptly crushed, and the Numidians complained to Rome that the Carthaginians had fought back. DIPLOMACY 8D. Yeah, so guess who the Romans sided with? The Numidians! 😀 And they sent envoys to Carthage telling her to fuck off, forcing them to pay the Numidians 500 talents of silver. The Roman Senate didn’t like Carthage very much (could you tell?) – and the leader of that faction that REALLY hated Carthage was a crotchety old asshole (in his 80s) named Cato the Elder. He led the embassy to Carthage in 152 BCE, and he was terrified in his old man dangly bits over what he found. Here’s a quote from Plutarch about what he found: (A quick note – Plutarch was a biased fuck when it came to Cato.)
The last of his public services is supposed to have been the destruction of Carthage. It was Scipio the Younger who actually brought the task to completion, but it was largely in consequence of the advice and counsel of Cato that the Romans undertook the war. It was on this wise Cato was sent on an embassy to the Carthaginians and Masinissa the Numidian, who were at war with one another, to inquire into the grounds of their quarrel. Masinissa had been a friend of the Roman people from the first, and the Carthaginians had entered into treaty relations with Rome after the defeat which the elder Scipio had given them. The treaty deprived them of their empire, and imposed a grievous money tribute upon them. Cato, however, found the city by no means in a poor and lowly state, as the Romans supposed, but rather teeming with vigorous fighting men, overflowing with enormous wealth, filled with arms of every sort and with military supplies, and not a little puffed up by all this. He therefore thought it no time for the Romans to be ordering and arranging the affairs of Masinissa and the Numidians, but that unless they should repress a city which had always been their malignant foe, now that its power was so incredibly grown, they would be involved again in dangers as great as before. Accordingly, he returned with speed to Rome, and advised the Senate that the former calamitous defeats of the Carthaginians had diminished not so much their power as their foolhardiness, and were likely to render them in the end not weaker, but more expert in war; their present contest with Numidia was but a prelude to a contest with Rome, while peace and treaty were mere names wherewith to cover their postponement of war till a fit occasion offered.
In addition to this, it is said that Cato contrived to drop a Libyan fig in the Senate, as he shook out the folds of his toga, and then, as the senators admired its size and beauty, said that the country where it grew was only three days’ sail from Rome. And in one thing he was even more savage, namely, in adding to his vote on any question whatsoever these words: “In my opinion, Carthage must be destroyed.” Publius Scipio Nasica, on the contrary, when called upon for his vote, always ended his speech with this declaration: “In my opinion, Carthage must be spared.” He saw, probably, that the Roman people, in its wantonness, was already guilty of many excesses, in the pride of its prosperity, spurned the control of the Senate, and forcibly dragged the whole state with it, whithersoever its mad desires inclined it. He wished, therefore, that the fear of Carthage should abide, to curb the boldness of the multitude like a bridle, believing her not strong enough to conquer Rome, nor yet weak enough to be despised. But this was precisely what Cato dreaded, when the Roman people was inebriated and staggering with its power, to have a city which had always been great, and was now but sobered and chastened by its calamities, for ever threatening them. Such external threats to their sovereignty ought to be done away with altogether, he thought, that they might be free to devise a cure for their domestic failings.
Meh, fuck Cato. That’s actually what he was known best for – that one line. “Carthage must be destroyed.” Well, unfortunately, the situation between Carthage and Massinassa (Numidians) had descended into all-out war. And what did Rome say about Carthage going to war? Oh right. That was a no-no. Rome had JUST finished a couple of foreign wars, too, and oh hey, look at that city that’s super fucking rich and pretty much defenseless that’s…in Cato the old fuck’s words… “Only three days hence.” So in 150 BCE, Rome mobilized an army bound for North Africa.
Well, Carthage heard of this, and (obviously), they were preeeeetty worried about it. So they sent envoys to Rome, who were met rather frostily, and were informed that the army was already in Sicily. So they begged for how they could fix the problems…Rome’s response? “You must satisfy the Roman people.” Yeah, cause that’s not ominous at ALL. Cato, of course, was continuing the drumbeat of war – we only have fragments of these speeches, but here’s the climax of one of them:
Who are the people who have often broken their treaties? The Carthaginians. Who are the people who have waged war with the utmost cruelty? The Carthaginians. Who are the people who have disfigured Italy? The Carthaginians. Who are the people who ask to be forgiven? The Carthaginians.
So anyways. Rome started making her demands to Carthage – Terms to make Carthage NOT get destroyed. First off, Carthage, in 149, sent 300 of her noble children to Rome as hostages. That same year, Rome’s army of 80,000 infantry and 4,000 horse landed in Utica (North African city). The next envoys had to walk through the ranks of the legions to speak with the consuls (remember, Roman generals were all politicians, and the top dogs were the consuls – think the presidents – and they generally were the commanders in chief). The next terms were for Carthage to disarm herself – and the Carthaginians complied, sending a train of wagons with armor and weapons for 20,000 men to the Roman camp, as well as 2,000 giant catapults. Then, Rome summoned Carthage’s 30 leading citizens for their final term: All of Carthage had to move inland by at least 16 kilometres. The city itself was slated for destruction.
Yeeeeah, that didn’t go over well. Here’s Appian on that:
Consul Lucius Marcius Censorinus said to the Carthaginian envoys:] “Your ready obedience up to this point, Carthaginians, in the matter of the hostages and the arms, is worthy of all praise. In cases of necessity we must not multiply words. Bear bravely the remaining commands of the Senate. Yield Carthage to us, and betake yourselves where you like within your own territory at a distance of at least fifteen kilometers from the sea, for we are resolved to raze your city to the ground.”
While he was yet speaking, the Carthaginians lifted their hands toward heaven with loud cries, and called on the gods as avengers of violated faith. They heaped reproaches on the Romans, as if willing to die, or insane, or determined to provoke the Romans to sacrilegious violence to ambassadors. They flung themselves on the ground and beat it with their hands and heads. Some of them even tore their clothes and lacerated their flesh as though they were absolutely bereft of their senses. After the first frenzy was past there was great silence and prostration as of men lying dead.
The speech by “Banno, surnamed Tigillas, the most distinguished man among them,” is heartrending to read, and it’s right below that quote in the source. Seriously…the man says everything he possibly could to try to save the city – and it’s possible that that speech may be accurate. Needless to say, however, the Romans were all “Meh, fuck you guys.” Or, if you prefer a more literal quote, “We considered you to be Carthage, not the ground where you live.” Roman diplomacy involved being a huge dick, apparently.
Needless to say, those diplomats were torn limb from limb by an angry mob when they returned – and Carthage prepared for war. Every available space was turned into a workshop (we know this as total war today), in which both men and women worked side by side in shifts. Back to Appian!
The same day the Carthaginian senate declared war and proclaimed freedom to the slaves. They also chose generals and selected Hasdrubal for the outside work, whom they had condemned to death, and who had already collected 30,000 men. They dispatched a messenger to him begging that, in the extreme peril of his country, he would not remember, or lay up against them, the wrong they had done him under the pressure of necessity from fear of the Romans.
Within the walls they chose for general another Hasdrubal, the son of a daughter of Massinissa. They also sent to the consuls asking a truce of thirty days in order to send an embassy to Rome. When this was refused a second time, a wonderful change and determination came over them, to endure everything rather than abandon their city.
Quickly all minds were filled with courage from this transformation. All the sacred places, the temples, and every other unoccupied space, were turned into workshops, where men and women worked together day and night without pause, taking their food by turns on a fixed schedule. Each day they made 100 shields, 300 swords, 1,000 missiles for catapults, 500 darts and javelins, and as many catapults as they could. For strings to bend them the women cut off their hair for want of other fibers.
Total. Fucking. War. The Romans laid siege to the city, but again and again were driven back by the incredibly high and strong triple wall. Meanwhile, one of the Hasdrubals (The outside one) was wreaking havoc behind Roman lines, raiding their supply lines and their communications. Well…Rome wasn’t happy with how this war was being worked out, so they elected a new consul, Lucious Calpurnius Piso, who attempted to force Carthage to surrender by attacking the towns in the region that supported Carthage – hitting their supplies and reinforcements HARD. His second in command led an assault on a weak point in Carthage’s defenses, but was driven back after breaching the wall, and they were saved only because a certain young man had come to save the day with reinforcements….and to take over the campaign. His name was Scipio Aemilianus, who was the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus. The same guy who had beaten Carthage over 50 years before. Scipio quickly had a mole constructed, blocking off the Carthaginian harbor and providing an avenue for the Roman troops right up to the weaker harbor walls – and that’s where he made his final assault. Interestingly enough, we have an eyewitness account of the final fall of Carthage – and his name is Polybius. Here’s an excerpt from his writings:
Turning round to me at once and grasping my hand Scipio said, “A glorious moment, Polybius; but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my own country.” It would be difficult to mention an utterance more statesmanlike and more profound. For at the moment of our greatest triumph and of disaster to our enemies to reflect on our own situation and on the possible reversal of circumstances, and generally to bear in mind at the season of success the mutability of Fortune, is like a great and perfect man, a man in short worthy to be remembered.
The desolation of the city lasted for six days. Scipio was forced to rotate his men into killing squads to preserve their sanity, and the only survivors of a city estimated to have anywhere from 400,000-700,000 residents were 50,000 people who begged the Roman general for their lives – and were granted this mercy by being sold into slavery.