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The Lost Victory of World War I
By Nick Lloyd
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Passchendaele. The name of a small, seemingly insignificant Flemish village echoes across the twentieth century as the ultimate expression of meaningless, industrialized slaughter. In the summer of 1917, upwards of 500,000 men were killed or wounded, maimed, gassed, drowned, or buried in this small corner of Belgium.
On the centennial of the battle, military historian Nick Lloyd brings to vivid life this epic encounter along the Western Front. Drawing on both British and German sources, he is the first historian to reveal the astonishing fact that, for the British, Passchendaele was an eminently winnable battle. Yet the advance of British troops was undermined by their own high command, which, blinded by hubris, clung to failed tactics. The result was a familiar one: stalemate. Lloyd forces us to consider that trench warfare was not necessarily a futile endeavor, and that had the British won at Passchendaele, they might have ended the war early, saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. A captivating narrative of heroism and folly, Passchendaele is an essential addition to the literature on the Great War.
List of Illustrations
NPG = National Portrait Gallery; IWM = Imperial War Museum; AWM = Australian War Memorial; CWM = Canadian War Museum; BayHStA = Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv.
1. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (NPG: x12475).
2. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF (NPG: x84291).
3. General Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (NPG: x84583).
4. Kaiser Wilhelm II studying maps at the German High Command (IWM: Q23746).
5. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria (IWM: Q45320).
6. General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the British Fifth Army (IWM: Q35825B).
7. British stretcher-bearers in the ruins of Pilckem, 31 July 1917 (IWM: Q2630).
8. Men of a pioneer battalion getting out of light railway trucks, 31 July 1917 (IWM: Q5713).
9. Pack mules loaded up with shells move forward to the front somewhere near Ypres, 1 August 1917 (IWM: Q5940).
10. British troops moving forward over shell-torn ground near Pilckem, 16 August 1917 (IWM: Q2708).
11. Crown Prince Rupprecht distributing medals in Flanders (IWM: Q52820).
12. Kaiser Wilhelm II pays a visit to Flanders, August 1917 (IWM: Q023728).
13. Wounded German soldiers at the command post of 19 Infantry Regiment, somewhere near Ypres, August 1917 (BayHStA: Bs-III-k-9-d-49-g).
14. Soldiers of 5th Bavarian Division in trenches near Gravenstafel, August 1917 (BayHStA: Bs-III-k-1-a-179).
15. General Sir Herbert Plumer, commander of the British Second Army (NPG: x65455).
16. A shell bursts near a party of British stretcher-bearers and German prisoners near Zillebeke, 20 September 1917 (IWM: Q5973).
17. The view from Stirling Castle, 23 September 1917 (AWM: E01409).
18. The bodies of German soldiers lying outside a group of concrete blockhouses near Zonnebeke, 23 September 1917 (IWM: Q2892).
19. A German bombing patrol, with messenger dog, probably taken in late September 1917 (IWM: Q55558).
20. A German observation patrol, September 1917 (IWM: Q29878).
21. Men of the West Yorkshire Regiment shelter in a captured German pillbox (IWM: Q2903).
22. Royal Field Artillery ammunition limbers moving up the Menin Road, 26 September 1917 (IWM: Q2905).
23. Aerial view of Polygon Wood, 5 September 1917 (IWM: Q058428).
24. German prisoners captured during the Battle of Polygon Wood (IWM: Q3064).
25. A group of German prisoners make their way through the ruins of Ypres, 27 September 1917 (IWM: Q2911).
26. The headquarters of 3rd Australian Division in the ramparts of Ypres (AWM: E01184).
27. 24/Australian Battalion dug in on the Broodseinde Ridge, 5 October 1917 (AWM: E00918).
28. Senior German officers meet some of their men after the Battle of Broodseinde (AWM: C01090).
29. A German soldier takes the opportunity to snooze in the entrance to a blockhouse (BayHStA: Bs-III-k-6-51-g).
30. German troops and transports in the village of De Ruiter, southwest of Roulers, sometime in the autumn of 1917 (IWM: Q55191).
31. British 60-pounder guns firing in the mud near Langemarck, 12 October 1917 (IWM: Q3140).
32. Dead and wounded Australians in a cutting along the Ypres–Roulers railway, 12 October 1917 (IWM: E(AUS) 003864).
33. Captain Clarence Jeffries, awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions (AWM: P09373.001).
34. Troops of 10 Australian Brigade drying their clothes (IWM: E(AUS) 00943).
35. Sir Arthur Currie with his staff at the headquarters of the Canadian Corps at Poperinge (CWM: O.2235).
36. Canadian pioneers carrying trench mats pass German prisoners on the Passchendaele battlefield (CWM: O.2207).
37. Wounded Canadians take cover behind a pillbox, November 1917 (CWM: O.2211).
38. 'The worst place in the world'. A Canadian soldier attempts to cross the Flanders battlefield (CWM: O.2249).
39. The Cloth Hall, Ypres, lit by moonlight (CWM: O.2165).
40. View of Passchendaele church in the summer of 1917 (BayHStA: Staudinger-Sammlung 2591).
41. 'The defenders cowered in their water-filled craters without protection from the weather, hungry and freezing, continually exposed to the overwhelming enemy artillery fire' (BayHStA: Bs-III-k-3-a-135).
42. Tyne Cot CWGC Cemetery (author's collection).
List of Maps
1. The Western Front, Spring 1917
2. The 'Northern Operation'
3. The Planned Advance, 31 July 1917
4. The Opening Assault, 31 July 1917
5. Langemarck, 16 August 1917
6. The Battles of 19–22 August 1917
7. The Fight for Inverness Copse, 22–25 August 1917
8. Menin Road, 20 September 1917
9. Polygon Wood, 26 September 1917
10. Broodseinde, 4 October 1917
11. Poelcappelle and First Passchendaele, 9–12 October 1917
12. Second Passchendaele, 26 October–10 November 1917
13. Final Line, 17 November 1917
AIF: Australian Imperial Force
ANZAC: Australian and New Zealand Army Corps
AWM: Australian War Memorial, Canberra
BA-MA: Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, Freiburg
BEF: British Expeditionary Force
CAB: Cabinet Office files
CIGS: Chief of the Imperial General Staff
CLIP: Canadian Letters and Images Project
CMR: Canadian Mounted Rifles
CWM: Canadian War Museum, Ottawa
DTA: Deutsches Tagebucharchiv, Emmendingen
GHQ: General Headquarters (British Expeditionary Force)
GOC: General Officer Commanding
GQG: Grand Quartier Général (French High Command)
IWM: Imperial War Museum, London
KA: Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Abteilung IV: Kriegsarchiv, Munich
LAC: Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa
LHCMA: Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College London
NCO: Non-Commissioned Officer
OHL: Obersteheeresleitung (German Supreme Command)
PPCLI: Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
RFA: Royal Field Artillery
RFC: Royal Flying Corps
TNA: The National Archives, Kew
WO: War Office files
'Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?'
The words of Sir Launcelot Kiggell, a senior staff officer at British GHQ, upon visiting the Passchendaele battlefield, are some of the most notorious in the history of warfare. Sharp, to the point, shot through with horror and shock, they seem to encapsulate perfectly the appalling way in which battles were conducted between 1914 and 1918; by almost criminally negligent 'chateau generals' with no idea of the conditions on the front, who sent a generation of young men to squalid, terrifying deaths. The story first appeared in Basil Liddell Hart's The Real War, which was published in 1930, and was an explosive exposé of the Great War written by one of Britain's foremost military thinkers. Kiggell himself was not named (something Liddell Hart would only reveal after Kiggell's death in 1954),1 with Liddell Hart referring instead to a 'highly-placed officer from General Headquarters who was on his first visit to the battle front':
Growing increasingly uneasy as the car approached the swamp-like edges of the battle area, he eventually burst into tears, crying, 'Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?' To which his companion replied that the ground was far worse ahead. If the exclamation was a credit to his heart, it revealed on what a foundation of delusion and inexcusable ignorance his indomitable 'offensiveness' had been based.2
For Liddell Hart, the Flanders campaign of 1917 was the perfect illustration of the myopia that British High Command suffered from and its terrible consequences. Passchendaele has become, he wrote, 'like Walcheren a century before, a synonym for military failure–a name black-bordered in the records of the British Army'.3
Whether Kiggell ever made these remarks has been regularly disputed, with a number of historians casting doubt on the veracity of the incident and questioning whether Liddell Hart–a notorious gossip–could really be trusted on such an issue.4 Others have argued that there was simply no way that British commanders could have been as ignorant of front-line conditions as Liddell Hart claimed.5 The story originally seems to have come from Sir James Edmonds, who was then working on the multi-volume official history of the war. Liddell Hart regularly corresponded with Edmonds, sending him drafts of his books, and the two would often meet up over lunch and discuss old times. Contained in Liddell Hart's papers is the note he made after a talk with Edmonds in October 1927, which sketched out the incident, albeit with a slightly different quotation ('Did we really order men to advance over such ground?'). It must have resonated with Liddell Hart because he included it in The Real War, after of course conveniently redrafting Kiggell's words to enhance their dramatic effect. Thus a legend was born.6
The story of the 'weeping staff officer' has become firmly established within the popular memory of the war. Kiggell's words have found their way into collections of military quotations and psychology textbooks, and are a ready-made soundbite for commentators eager to spark an emotional response.7 Indeed, to some, even if not strictly accurate, Kiggell's story reveals a larger truth. When the literary scholar Paul Fussell examined the quotation, he felt that it sounded 'too literary to be quite true, as if originally either conceived or noted down by someone who knew his Greek tragedy and perhaps Shakespeare's history plays', but it was nonetheless 'true in spirit'.8 This book is, in a sense, an investigation into Kiggell's haunting words; an attempt to unearth the reality of one of the most infamous battles of the twentieth century. Why was it fought? How was it even possible? How could men fight and die in such awful surroundings and for what seemed like such pitiful gains? The questions over Passchendaele, why and how it was fought and what it meant, remain to be answered, or at least considered afresh, one hundred years on.
The battle took place between 31 July and 10 November 1917, a few miles east of the town of Ypres–the place where the great German advance of 1914 had come to a halt–and left a legacy of carnage and bitterness that was still palpable decades later. In four months of intensive fighting, upwards of 500,000 men were killed or wounded, maimed, gassed, drowned or buried here in this small corner of Belgium. As the poignant Memorial to the Missing at the Menin Gate in Ypres reminds us, many of the bodies were never found; they just disappeared into the thick, glutinous Flanders mud. Indeed, in a war that came to symbolize futility, Passchendaele stood out as the ultimate expression of meaningless, industrialized slaughter. According to the historian Dan Todman, the battle has become 'a cultural reference point that sums up everything bad about war–what it does or does not mean, how it is fought, and above all the risk of a disconnection between ends and means'.9
The British would officially call it the Third Battle of Ypres. For the Germans it was the Flandernschlacht (the Battle of Flanders). Yet it has become more commonly known as Passchendaele, named after the small hamlet that marked the apex of the British advance that year. This village, pulverized by shellfire into a muddy smear, came to symbolize the lost hopes and pitiful achievements of an offensive that the British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, hoped would have a decisive effect on the war. Originally conceived as a mass offensive that would break through the German line, liberate much of Belgium and seize the enemy's submarine bases along the coast, by the time operations came to a halt in November 1917, the British had advanced just five miles. If the Somme of 1916, particularly its ghastly first day, has become a metaphor for a kind of innocence lost, when a generation of Britons faced the awful reality of total warfare, then Third Ypres is a slough of despond; a descent into the perils of Dante's Inferno with no possibility of redemption. As the historian A. J. P. Taylor once wrote: 'Third Ypres was the blindest slaughter of a blind war.'10
With hindsight it would seem almost prophetic that the war poet Siegfried Sassoon's 'open letter', in which he spoke out against the war, appeared in The Times on the day the offensive began. Sassoon's 'wilful defiance of military authority' called into question whether the war had become one of conquest and was being 'deliberately prolonged by those who had the power to end it'.11 Sassoon never fought at Ypres, but he would pen one of the most moving poems about the battle–'Memorial Tablet'–with its barren description of death in the Salient:
Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight
(Under Lord Derby's Scheme). I died in Hell–
(They called it Passchendaele); my wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back, and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duckboards; so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.12
It was little wonder that the battle has become defined by mud. Britain's wartime Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, would call it 'the campaign of the mud' in the second volume of his War Memoirs, which was published in 1936. Lloyd George excoriated what he saw as Haig's myriad blunders in the battle ('one of the greatest disasters of the war'), and accused both him and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, of misleading the War Cabinet on several vital issues, including the condition of the French Army, the (apparently) inferior numbers of the enemy, and the state of the ground. 'Victories were much overstated. Virtual defeats were represented as victories, however limited their scope. Our casualties were understated. Enemy losses became pyramidal… All disconcerting and discouraging facts were suppressed', while 'every bright feather of success was waved and flourished in our faces'. Haig had 'completely lost his balance' and 'persevered stubbornly with his attacks' rather than admit his failure. Third Ypres was a 'senseless campaign' that 'imperilled the chances of final victory'.13
Lloyd George's wholly negative account of the battle was heavily influenced by Liddell Hart (who had been employed as an adviser on War Memoirs) and directed squarely at his enemies in the General Staff. Yet he did not have it all his own way and there were always those–including senior commanders and military historians–who argued that the campaign was both worthwhile and necessary. One of those was the Conservative MP Duff Cooper (author of a biography of Haig in 1936), who tried to push back against this tide of 'mud and blood', emphasizing both the logic and rationale behind fighting in Flanders–undoubtedly Britain's most vital sector of the Western Front–and the need to take pressure off the French Army. For Cooper, the battle was certainly fearful, but by the time it ended the British had improved their positions around Ypres, their French Allies had recovered, and the German Army had 'been given no respite in which to heal their wounds or to produce new plans'.14
It was not until after the Second World War that the official account of Third Ypres was published, by which time the battle lines were already deeply entrenched. Of all the volumes of the British Official History, none were more troublesome than or went through such a tortuous birth as Military Operations 1917: Volume II. Work began in September 1939, but it proceeded at a slow pace, suffering from frequent rewrites and disagreements over content.15 It was eventually published in 1948–the last of the British official histories to be completed. Its author, Sir James Edmonds, tried his best to dispel some of the myths that had grown up around the battle, particularly 'the mud legend', which had been peddled by what he called 'eminent civilian critics with the ear of the public'–an unmistakeable shot at Lloyd George and Liddell Hart. Although Edmonds did not shy away from criticizing the Commander-in-Chief–particularly over the choice of General Sir Hubert Gough (GOC Fifth Army) to command the main assault–he was broadly supportive of Haig's conduct of the campaign, including the choice of battlefield and its objectives. In the conclusion he returned to one of the major themes of his work: the lack of preparation for a major continental war before 1914 and its inevitable, baneful results in wartime. 'A nation cannot expect great and immediate victories', Edmonds warned, 'unless it supplies the means, the men and the material.'16
As was perhaps to be expected, Military Operations 1917: Volume II was never to find universal acceptance. When it appeared, it provoked flurries of correspondence, with Frances Lloyd George (née Stevenson) accusing Edmonds of 'whitewashing' the Passchendaele campaign.17 The former Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Trenchard, disagreed, calling it 'exhaustive and accurate',18 and Sir John Davidson (who had worked at GHQ) said that it was 'fair and reasonable' and allowed readers 'to place Lord Haig's responsibilities and decisions in a proper perspective'.19 As for Liddell Hart, he was convinced that Edmonds had deliberately presented a more moderate and pro-Haig interpretation of the battle than the evidence warranted, apparently because his official position and his close military friendships meant it was impossible for him to 'put the hard truth' into print (which was perhaps why he had been so keen to share his anecdote about the 'weeping staff officer').20 Whether this was true or not, Edmonds's attempt to tell Haig's side of the story, or at least to banish some of the more outlandish criticisms of the offensive, were destined to fail. Military Operations 1917: Volume II would never be able to shift the dominant perception of Passchendaele that Lloyd George and Liddell Hart had fostered; that high ground had already been taken.21
Even as memories of the battle began to fade, the arguments continued. In the late 1950s the historian John Terraine began what would become a lifelong attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Sir Douglas Haig, who was by now condemned as the chief 'donkey'. For Terraine, Lloyd George and Liddell Hart had been responsible for 'a distortion of history' and a 'deep injustice' to those who had planned and fought the battle.22 Objecting to an overly emotional reading of what happened (he would never use the term 'Passchendaele', preferring instead the more sober 'Third Ypres'), Terraine continued along the path Edmonds had sketched out: emphasizing the strategic importance of the Belgian coast, the urgent need to keep the pressure off the French Army, and the terrible effect that fighting in Flanders had on the defenders. The battle may have failed in its grandiose objectives, but it marked the moment when German morale on the Western Front began to collapse. It also, moreover, contributed to the developments in British tactical skill and weaponry that would culminate later in the war, particularly at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, and which, for Terraine, allowed Ypres to be understood in its proper context as an important milestone on the road to victory.23
Liddell Hart and Terraine argued with each other for years; disputing everything from the reliability of Haig's diaries to British and German casualty statistics; a debate that was continued by subsequent writers, albeit frequently generating much heat but little light.24 Leon Wolff, a US Air Force officer, wrote one of the most widely read accounts of the battle, In Flanders Fields (1958), which was very much in the mould of Liddell Hart, portraying Passchendaele as a meaningless slaughter conducted by commanders without understanding or imagination. Although Wolff claimed that he had originally intended to write his account with what he called 'inhuman neutrality', he admitted that 'I could not believe what I was writing.'25 Little had changed by the time Lyn Macdonald's They Called It Passchendaele was published in 1978. Based upon over 600 eyewitness accounts, Macdonald's book brought the story of those 'Tommies and Anzacs and Canucks' who served at Ypres to a whole new generation. Although she generally avoided outright condemnation of either Lloyd George or Haig, she noted that, in places, her book read more like a novel or a horror story than a sober work of military history, and its great popularity helped to solidify further the popular understanding of Passchendaele as being a 'blood-bath… beyond imagining'.26
By the 1990s, increasing numbers of scholars, from both Britain and the Commonwealth, were beginning to re-examine the performance of British arms on the Western Front and spread the idea of a more positive 'learning curve'. Yet Passchendaele remained immune from this tide of revisionism. In 1996, the Australian historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson published Passchendaele. The Untold Story, but far from rehabilitating the battle, they described an even darker story. While the defenders of Lloyd George and Haig had slugged it out for years, shifting blame and trading blows over responsibility for the battle, Prior and Wilson emphasized both the 'delusions of the military command' and the 'waywardness of the political leadership'. The British Prime Minister was portrayed as a curious amalgam of energy and lethargy, determination and disinterest; a man who grudgingly supported the Flanders campaign, yet who declined to take responsibility for it or grasp the nettle and suspend it as he undoubtedly should have done. Meanwhile Haig was criticized for consistently failing to learn the lessons of previous battles and for an almost pathological over-optimism in the face of stubborn enemy resistance. It was, as the authors concluded, 'in no sense a pinnacle of the military art'.27
So why a new book on Passchendaele? Despite its iconic status, Third Ypres remains–by the standards of some other Great War battles–relatively underwritten. When researching their own book in the 1990s, Prior and Wilson found historical research on the battle to be 'astonishingly thin'–and only limited amounts of work have been done to rectify this in the intervening years.28 Most of the recent focus has been on the imperial aspect of the battle and Australian, New Zealand and Canadian historians have added much to our understanding of how far and wide the impact of Passchendaele would spread.29 Nevertheless, important elements of Third Ypres remain to be explored. The German story is the largest omission, with most accounts spending little or no time on how the German Army fought the battle and, in particular, how it adapted to the changing tactical and operational demands that fighting in Flanders presented.30
Passchendaele: The Lost Victory of World War I attempts to retell the story of this infamous battle, considering it afresh with the accumulated knowledge of a century of scholarship. It is based upon a greater array of source material than any previous history, including personal accounts, letters, memoirs, official reports and war diaries from both sides. It aims to present a new account of the battle, what it was like to experience, and what it meant for the overall war efforts of both the Allies and the Central Powers. It provides a fresh discussion of the battle at strategic, operational and tactical levels, and spends considerable time examining the 'other side of the hill'. About a third of the book deals with the soldiers of the German Army and how they defended their positions in the Ypres Salient. Their story is a remarkable one of courage and ingenuity in the face of almost unimaginable horrors. Indeed, it is only by combining the British and German experiences that we can reassess the battle in new ways and appreciate how near Haig's forces came to decisive success in September and October 1917. It could even be said that Third Ypres was, in some respects, one of the 'lost victories' of the war.
- "Red Cross files across western Europe. The German army's terrible suffering is duly explored, as well as that of Canadian and Anzac infantrymen. Published on the eve of Passchendaele's 100th anniversary, the book is harrowing but necessary."—Observer
- "Extensively researched... demonstrate[s] the war's sheer and utter waste of life and resources even as the old mainland Europe monarchical order brought about its own demise."—New York Journal of Books
- "[Lloyd] confirms his position among the best young scholars of WWI in this comprehensively researched, convincingly presented analysis of the still-controversial 1917 battle of Passchendaele. [His] thesis is controversial, but his scholarship makes it impossible to dismiss."—Publishers Weekly
- "Detailed and compelling... There will be other books about Third Ypres this year, but it's unlikely that any of them will be better-researched, more intelligent or fairer than this one. Without in any way minimising the awfulness of the battle, Lloyd makes its inception and course comprehensible. Both as narrative and analysis, this book is masterly."—The Scotsman
- "[Lloyd] retells the story of this infamous conflict with fresh knowledge and newly available materials, including letters, diaries, memoirs, and official reports from both British and German perspectives."—Library Journal
- ."[Lloyd's] narrative of the campaign is superb and written with clarity and dispassion... [he] has done his research thoroughly."—The Times
- "Lloyd's research is superb; the book is well-illustrated with photographs and maps; he brings the battle and its political context vividly to life... this is in almost every respect a model of what a work of military history should be, and is now perhaps the definitive account of this phase of the war on the Western Front."—Daily Telegraph
- "An eloquent re-telling of one of the First World War's most mismanaged battles. Lloyd movingly recounts the ordeal of German and British infantry in the mud and blood of Passchendaele."—Alexander Watson, author of Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I
- On Sale
- May 23, 2017
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Basic Books