"Do you believe in hell, Mr. Birkin?" Hell? Passchaendaele had been hell. Bodies split, heads blown off, grovelling fear, shrieking fear, unspeakable fear! The world made mud."
Birkin was a "signaller, one of the most dangerous duties at the front.
from the companion volume to The Great War, the PBS series
the British; Passchendaele amounted to the horror of warfare in a morass,
in a surreal world where men and animals simply vanished in pools of mud.
Just getting to the front was a horrendous experience: horses and men
slipped off roads and disappeared before they could be rescued.
From the darkness
on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing
moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that
dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new
shell-holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to
move, they were slowly drowning. Horrible visions came to me with those
cries - of Woods and Kent, Edge and Taylor, lying maimed out there trusting
that their pals would find them, and now dying terribly, alone amongst
the dead in the inky darkness. And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham
was crying quietly beside me, and all the men were affected by the piteous
Haig had not fully appreciated the effects of fighting in such terrain, just as he had underestimated the enemy he confronted. Time and again he saw the Germans as on the brink of collapse; time and again he urged one more push to bring about the breakthrough that he knew somehow was just around the corner. During a period of dry weather in late September the British Army delivered three limited attacks, taking ground at Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood. Buoyed by these successes, Haig wrote in his diary on zs September that 'the enemy is tottering and ... a good vigorous blow might lead to decisive results'. Not at Passchendaele. For the rains returned, but Haig - and his commanders - pushed on as if the sun were still shining.
is Passchendaele?' asked the journalist Philip Gibbs:
I saw it this morning through the smoke of gun-fire and a wet mist it
was less than I had seen before, a week or two ago, with just one ruin
there - the ruin of a church - a black mass of slaughtered masonry and
nothing else, not a house left standing, not a huddle of brick on that
shell-swept height.... Thousands - scores of thousands - of our own home
stock and from overseas have gone through fire and water, the fire of
frightful bombardments, the water of the swamps, of the beeks, and shellholes,
in which they have plunged and waded and stuck and sometimes drowned.
Passchendaele, like Verdun and the Somme, lives on as a byword for military futility, a symbol of the way the machinery of war outgrew the minds of the men in control of it. If this was war, why go on with it? That question, and the answer it generated, dominated the next year of the conflict.L
Color pictures thanks to Sharon, Meluchie, Vicki and the FOF Roles Project