Along with the Somme, the name ‘Passchendaele’ perhaps captures more than anything the horrific legacy of the Second World War. Properly known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the big offensive of 1917 has gone down in history as Passchendaele. Even though the fighting for Passchendaele itself only encompassed a small part of the battle in the Autumn. Millions of men were fed, sausage-factory style, into the Ypres Salient between July and October 1917. This was Haig’s second attempt at the ‘big push’ after the slaughter on the Somme the previous year.
There are some harrowing accounts here – indeed, it almost feels trivial to call them fascinating. Stories of thousands of men drowning in mud – can there be a more horrific way to die? One shocking story even relates how a man became trapped in the Flanders mud, and sinking up to his neck, begged his comrades to shoot him and put him out of his misery.
And not only does McDonald focus on the British Tommy – Aussies, Canucks and Kiwis all fought in the battle too, and some of their stories are included here. The Western Front – and, indeed, Passchendale – were truly Allied operations. And the accounts are carefully and sensibly selected, to give an impression not only of the fighting itself, but also of the human cost of war, and of the social history – letters home, leave, rations, wounds and treatment and officer-men relations.
One review of this book on Amazon refers to Lyn McDonald as the ‘recording Angel’ of the common soldier, in particular the Great War Tommy. When this book was published, Oral History was very much in its infancy. It was still a completely new concept that the experiences of the ordinary, common soldier might be anything as interesting as the deliberations of those much higher up the food chain. 30 years on however, this book shows its age somewhat. Nowadays historians might be more inclinded to weave Oral History in with conventional writing in a more complementary manner.
Presenting the Great War through the eyes of the millions of men who fought in it changed the way that military history was approached. For too long the study of armed conflict – in particular that of 1914 to 1918 – was far too focussed on Haig, French, Lloyd-George and the like. The men in McDonald’s book, however, lived and died on the strength (or weakness) of those mens egos and decision making. McDonald does not get too bogged down in the age-old ‘Lions vs. Donkeys’ debate, thankfully. Instead she gives us the barest details of the grand strategy, whilst letting the stories of the common men shine as only they can.