Now that was a thought! Hell? Passchendaele had been hell. Bodies split, heads blown off, groveling fear, shrieking fear, unspeakable fear! The world made mud! But I knew it was Bible hell she had in mind, hell that went on and on, an aching timeless hell. … We sloughed off the pals who’d gone down into death. While it was day that is. At night, in the dark, for a time they came back but we wanted no part of what they now were: theirs was another world—hell, if you care to call it that.
It was famous not only for the scale of its casualties, but for the mud.
Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the conflict, which began July 31, 1917, and ended on November 6, eventually left more than 600,000 casualties on both sides. Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, had long mulled the idea of launching a major offensive in Flanders, but he could not have anticipated the record rainfall, which liquefied the battlefield. The land soon became cratered, like the moon.
The drive for the tiny, already burnt-out Belgian village, which would offer little in the way of a prized capture, had already annihilated entire divisions of exhausted Britons, Australians, and New Zealanders. Morale plummeted as troops watched their comrades fall into giant craters in the earth and drown in the muddy water. It was the low point for the Allies, the strategy clouded in controversy, and its legacy one of futile death.
The use of mustard gas added a new horror to war, one that could incapacitate victims en masse. The Germans used it for the first time at Passchendaele. One nurse, Vera Brittain, wrote in her 1933 autobiography, Testament of Youth: “I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.” The trauma of gas was at least as great as shell shock. The fear of it overwhelmed the soldiers with dread.
Tom Birken and Charlie Moon often refer to Passchendaele quickly, furtively, as something not to be spoken of, a word to be dropped quickly and then move on. Or else the conversations happen “offstage”; Carr was perhaps unwilling to describe the carnage, which even photographs fail to capture. The battle, a counterpoint to the peace of Yorkshire, is more powerful for what remains unsaid.
“I cannot attempt to describe the conditions under which we are fighting,” wrote soldier 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.”
One Canadian writer, Robertson Davies, described the battle in his novel, Fifth Business:
“My fighting days came to an end somewhere in the week of 5 November 1917, at that point in the Third Battle of Ypres where the Canadians were brought in to attempt to take Passchendaele. It was Thursday or Friday; I cannot be more accurate because many of the details of that time are clouded in my mind. The battle was the most terrible of my experience; we were trying to take a village that was already a ruin, and we counted our advances in feet; the Front was a confused mess because it had rained every day for weeks and the mud was so dangerous that we dared not make a forward move without a laborious business of putting down duckboards, lifting them as we advanced, and putting them down again ahead of us; understandably this was so slow and exposed that we could not do much of it. I learned from later reading that our total advance was a little less than two miles; it might have been two hundred. The great terror was the mud. The German bombardment churned it up so that it was horribly treacherous, and if a man sank in much over his knees his chances of getting out were poor; a shell exploding nearby could cause an upheaval that overwhelmed him, and the likelihood even of recovering his body was small. I write of this now as briefly as I may, for the terror of it was so great that I would not for anything arouse it again.”