James Gault reviews Passchendale - A New History by Nick Lloyd
Nearly every family in Europe has a connection with the First World War. My family have two : the Somme and my grandfather, who survived, and Flanders and my grandmother’s brother, who didn’t. Private Willie Currie was missing in action on 20th September 1917, halfway through the Third battle of Ypres, known more commonly as the battle for Passchendale. When military historian Nick Lloyd’s new history of the battle came out, I had to read it.
The battle began on 31st July 1917 and went on until early November. The intention had been to break the German lines and clear a path to the Belgian coast, freeing up the key ports and depriving German U-boats of a safe haven. The result was unmentionable casualties and the gain of a few kilometres of mud, puddles, shell holes and destroyed buildings. And the loss of the reputation of the British military leaders: ‘donkeys leading heroes’.
The author doesn’t so much challenge the accepted view of this disaster as nuance its interpretation. Field-Marshall Haig retains his image as an incompetent and opinionated leader who carried on sending men to their death when all hope was lost. But elsewhere Lloyd finds examples of good leadership and of exceptional bravery too. And he questions the view that the battle achieved nothing. The German records of the battle throw up enough to show that the Allied forces were hurting the Germans more than had previously been supposed, and that the battle may have softened up the enemy for their subsequent surrender the following year.
The book is a detailed account of the politics, the planning and the fighting of the battle, overseen by the insightful analysis and comments of the author. It’s an unmissable read for anyone with a family connection to the battle, or anyone with an interest in the history of the Great War.
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