The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele was part of one of the worst episodes of World War I, itself one of the worst conflicts in human history. The offensive, which spanned more than three months on the Western Front, was controversial from the moment it happened and remains so today, with historians debating the motivations behind it and whether its vast human cost can possibly be justified. Here, historian and author Nick Lloyd looks at the evidence afresh, suggesting that – despite all of its horror – the Battle of Passchendaele may have been more important to the Allied war effort than sometimes thought.
For people who might not know, what happened in the Battle of Passchendaele and why was it so important for the war effort?
The Battle of Passchendaele (or Third Ypres) was one of the most brutal battles of World War I. Originally planned to break out of the Ypres Salient and roll up the Belgian coast, by the time it came to an end in November 1917, the British Expeditionary Force had advanced just five miles and sustained more than 200,000 casualties.
The battle was notorious for the terrible conditions in which it was fought, with abnormally heavy rainfall turning the battlefield into a swamp. While widely considered to be a British defeat (or at least a pyrrhic victory), certain phases of the battle – particularly a series of well-prepared attacks in September and October – put enormous pressure on the German army. The battle also illustrated the changing nature of warfare on the Western Front and the continuing development of combined arms tactics, which would prove highly effective for the BEF in 1918. In many ways, the Third Battle of Ypres was the climax of trench warfare on the Western Front.
In what ways has this particular battle become the defining image of World War I?
Passchendaele has always been associated with mud and, by extension, futility. The images that were taken of the battlefield, particularly a memorable series of photographs by the Australian official photographer, Frank Hurley, are some of the most recognisable of the war. One of his most famous shots was of Chateau Wood, with a series of Australian soldiers returning from the sodden battlefield across a thin duckboard track – an image that seems to epitomise the horror and desolation of World War I (see below).
Are there any characters in this story who you think deserve more attention?
I think it would have to be General Sir Herbert Plumer, commander of the British Second Army, who was placed in charge of Ypres operations in late August 1917. Plumer rescued the campaign and orchestrated a series of hammer blows upon the German Army that proved highly effective. His meticulous preparation, attention to detail and care for his men would mark him out as one of the most successful British generals of the war.
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In what ways is our common view of Passchendaele incorrect?
The common perception of the battle is that it was totally futile, utterly devoid of purpose, and (on the British side at least) conducted in an abysmal manner. This is incorrect. While the British made mistakes and did not always fight in the best way possible, the battle was a much closer-run thing than we have assumed. The British pushed the German Army extremely hard in Flanders in 1917.
If you could somehow travel back in time and ask someone involved in this episode of history a question, what would you ask?
It would have to be Crown Prince Rupprecht, the commander of Germany’s Northern Army Group (which faced the British in Flanders). I would ask him what he thought of the British Army’s tactics and how close he came to ordering a major retreat in the autumn of 1917. The answer would, I suspect, be surprising.
Nick Lloyd's book, Passchendaele: A New History, is available to buy now.