My current work in progress is a historical novel partly set during the Great War. In order to write the time period accurately, I’ve been spending many hours reading and researching. One of my characters will be in the mud of Passchendaele in 1917. I visited the area in 2013. It is still chilling to think of the horrors that the soldiers endured.
The stalemate along the Western Front in 1917 looked like it might finally be breaking, with successes by British and Canadian forces in taking Messines and Vimy Ridges, respectively. The German salient had been pushed back and the plans to break the line were being formulated. The forthcoming battle would officially be known as the Third Battle of Ypres, but would be more famously known as The Battle of Passhendaele, after the little village a few miles to the east of the site.
The area from Ypres to Passchendaele slopes continuously uphill—not an ideal way for the British to forge into battle. Even the soil around the area was about to become an obstacle. It had the consistency of clay—dense and heavy and prone to holding water. Before the war, the farmers who worked this land had needed to build up an elaborate drainage system to draw off the water during the rainy season. The battles fought in the area over the course of the war had demolished this fragile system, with the result that rain-soaked fields would become mires of thick, clinging mud. The success of the British advance in the Third Battle of Ypres was dependent on the weather cooperating.
June 1917 proved to be a good month for getting ready. In July the weather was for the most part agreeable, and the gun batteries came forward and took up their positions. The standard means of attack was to use heavy artillery to bombard the enemy in their trenches and then to send infantry ‘over the top’ to fight man to man. The initial bombardment could go on for weeks at a time, rendering the field into which the soldiers would follow a nightmare landscape of craters, rubble and ash. Though this approach had so far not proven to be an effective method, the generals were still enthralled by the idea of ‘more’ —more artillery cannons, more guns, more men, and not to mention, more casualties.
Airplanes had become a means of reconnaissance and the reports brought back by the pilots stated that the German morale was low and conditions looked good for an attack. However, British intelligence-gathering during the war was neither very objective nor accurate. The spies were told what the commanders hoped was true, and the spies basically confirmed that it was.
The artillery began raining death on July 18th, with the infantry attack scheduled to begin on July 31st. But as the shriek and blast of the heavy mortars went on for those two weeks, the weather began to turn. At first, occasional heavy rains filled the myriad shell holes littering the fields and due to the poor drainage, they remained that way. Still, on that last day of July 1917, the men crawled from the trenches at day break, carrying 60-80 pounds of gear on their backs and began to advance. They made two miles by nightfall and considered it a good start.
The next day, the first of August, it began to rain in earnest. This was no summer shower; it was a steady, soaking, continuous downpour. It rained for two weeks straight. The already saturated soil began to dissolve. The shell holes filled and the engineers tried to build up wooden walkways around them. The soldiers were slipping in the mud, falling in, and with their heavy packs weighing them down, drowning. The boards laid down to create footing were little better. In the rain, they became slick so that the soldiers had to tread carefully. The Germans shot the slow moving infantrymen off the boards, they fell in the mud and drowned.
August gave way to September and still the rain fell. Despite all this misery, the attack went on and finally Canadian troops took and held the village of Passchendaele. The advance on the Ypres Salient had gained the British four miles at the cost of a quarter million men.
British military historian Basil Liddell Hart relates the story of a staff officer who visited the battlefield after the fact. As he gazed out at the sea of mud, he said, “My God, did we send men to advance in that?” He then broke down and wept as his escort led him away.
There would never be another battle like Passchendaele. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night that battles like those fought on the Western Front could never be fought again:
“See that little stream we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation. …This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes.”
He meant the only people that could fight that sort of battle were those who possessed a sure faith in their countries, their institutions, and their own unquestioned value systems. Only that kind of faith and confidence could prepare men sufficiently to endure the hell of such battles. Men like that were now gone: rotting in the fields of Belgium and France or if they lived, no longer in possession of such faith.
Nevertheless, the war itself had another year to run. New methods and new weapons were about to change the practice of war forever.
Images courtesy: Canadian War Museum, The Times of London, The Spectator, and Wikipedia