Lyn Macdonald (1978)

A military and social history of the Third Battle of Ypres, heavily supported by material from the soldiers who were there – the Allied soldiers only, which is a shame, as it would have been nice to hear the defenders’ perspective too.

It’s trite to say that the story is horrific. Were it not that it’s so well-known in outline, it would be unbelievable that anyone could live through such a battle, or survive at all on the moonscape that Flanders was reduced to by then. The soldiers’ own stories, which Macdonald both quotes from memoirs and obtains from interviews, emphasise the sheer randomness of the deaths. There are so many stories of one man being killed when the man standing right next to him survives, or leaving a trench or shell-hole only for a shell to immediately kill everyone else who remained.

There’s a common trope aboutthe unfeelingness of senior officers towards their own men, but that isn’t on show here – with the possible exception of Douglas Haig, who adopted a deliberate strategy of attrition that accepted casualities as long as the other side was taking them too. The divisional commanders, however, are shown to have protested many times about the timing and purpose of attacks, with one (in charge of the Canadian divisions who eventually took the Passchendaele ridge) refusing to attack at all until he had positioned all the supports and artillery he needed – and then succeeded when others had failed.

There’s terrible irony to the whole campaign. At the end of the battle, the Allies were left in possession of ground that they’d lost in the First Battle of Ypres when the defenders had been Belgian and French (and some of their bodies, still in fine uniform, are surfaced by the shellfire). And later, when the final German attack of 1918 happens, the troops are pushed back to a line that had first been proposed by their own commander in 1915 – for which suggestion he was cashiered. It’s a fitting summary of the pointlessness (in hindsight) of much of the First World War.

4/5. Finished Sunday 31 December, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)