A military historian re-examines “this infamous battle, considering it afresh with the accumulated knowledge of a century of scholarship.”
Although traditionally portrayed as the usual World War I horror show, the “ultimate expression of meaningless, industrialized slaughter,” the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele does not qualify, writes Lloyd (Military and Imperial History/King’s Coll., London; Hundred Days: The Campaign that Ended World War I, 2014, etc.), whose lively if gruesome account concludes that its generals were not as stupid as portrayed and that Passchendaele was an Allied victory—sort of. By early 1917, painful experience had taught Britain’s commander, Gen. Douglas Haig, that mass assaults on enemy defenses produced unacceptable casualties. As a result, he had adopted a tactic of immense artillery preparation followed by coordinated attacks on specific strong points. The Germans countered by constructing multiple defensive lines, manning forward trenches lightly, and keeping large forces in reserve to counterattack. This worked, and Haig’s initial attack in July failed with catastrophic losses. Displaying uncharacteristic imagination, he turned to Second Army leader Herbert Plumer, whose solution (“bite and hold”) was to attack, halt after the initial short advance, dig in, and send reinforcements to resist the inevitable counterstrike. The results in September and October were three victories (by WWI standards), which greatly distressed the German high command. Carried away, Haig continued to launch offensives, minus careful preparation and in the face of torrential autumn rains and increasing resistance. All failed amid unspeakable misery in the legendary Flanders mud. Lloyd excels in describing the campaign’s run-up and consequences, and he shows equal skill describing the fighting. However, since this was a relentless series of individual actions featuring terrible casualties and unimaginable suffering under awful conditions, followed by more of the same, many readers will find it a tough slog.
For World War I and military scholars and historians.