on 9 August 2004
I first read this book with only an outline understanding of WW1 - my Grandfather fought, and was wounded, at Passchendaele.
This led to adult curiosity.
I never studied history at school, but this book brought home to me the importance of the subject - it's not about dates and places, it's about people, ordinary people like my Grandfather, who not only suffered, what to us now is, unimaginable hardship - trust me, you have to read this book to even begin to imagine - but many of whom, in fact far to many of whom, paid for the world in which we live today with their lives.
Are we too prepared to be counted in this way today ?
I have gone on to read all of Lyn McDonald's books on the First War, and would recommend that if you have even the slightest interest in not just the overall social and political landscape of the world during WW1, but more importantly want to actually know what it was like to have been in the front line - to hear the words of those who actually were there - then this, 'Somme' and Lyn McDonald's other books are not only compelling and compulsive, but almost compulsory !
This book by Lyn MacDonald adds to an impressive range of WW1 books by the author. The strength of her books lies in the quality of research that records the first hand accounts of WW1 soldiers and for that reason alone all of her writing represents an important archive of the war. This particular book deals with the 3rd battle of Ypres - known as Passchendaele. I was vaguely aware of the line from Siegfied Sasoon's poem "Memorial Tablet" from which the title of this book is taken:
I died in hell- (They called it Passchendaele)
but never really knew what it meant until I read this book. The book deals with the allied advance from the Ypres salient in Belgium, 1917, starting with the Battle of Messines, which caused approximately 24,000 casualties but was at least a tactical success. The ultimate aim of the campaign was to capture the town of Passchendaele but this dragged on for a further 156 days during ever deteriorating weather. What struck me most about this book was the battle the allies had against the rain and mud. Many people were casualties from the obvious hazards of war but I found it difficult to conceive that so many had simply drowned in the mud. The casualties' bodies were churned into the morass from the constant shelling until the whole thing became a sorry, bloody quagmire of unimaginable proportions. Many tens of thousands of men were never recovered from this battlefield and their names can be found on the Mennen Gate in Ypres today. The recollections from the men who were there are told in such a matter-of-fact manner that one can only wonder how they managed to stay intact as human beings.
My only criticism of the book is that the author occasionally lapses into dramatic language when it is clearly uncalled for; the situation itself is more than dramatic enough. There are lines like "As the miserable, grey dawn stretched leaden fingers over the Passchendaele ridge..." and, "Taut as a clenched fist poised for the knock-out blow, the Fifth Army stood in position along the knuckle of the salient" which I found to be completely out of step with the frank and straight forward style of the rest of the book. I also found myself flicking backwards and forwards trying to connect the text with the maps, frequently without success which was also very annoying (see Martin Middlebrook's "The First Day on the Somme" for a very well written and well laid out example of a book of this genre).
My criticisms are minor though compared with the majority of this book, which is excellent. The defence of the Ypres salient from 1914 onwards cost approximately 430,000 casualties. This book tells the story of the people who were there.
on 24 August 2002
The true story of the harrowing slaughter at Passchendaele, in the words of the very soldiers who were actually there.
The author, Lyn MacDonald, has done everyone a great service in interviewing these survivors and portraying their story to us all.
Stories of brave, terrified young men in appalling conditions.
Passchendaele is a name which represents the epitome of horror to anyone with a knowledge of the First World War.
As these aged survivors become less and less with each passing year, we cannot allow their experiences to be forgotten.
This book and others like it by Lyn MacDonald ('The Somme' & 'The Roses Of No Man's Land'), which concentrate on the real life experiences of the soldiers who did the fighting, are indispensable.
on 5 November 2003
Over the last two decades Lyn MacDonald has established a reputation as ‘the recording angel of the common soldier’ with a series of powerful volumes exploring the experiences of fighting men on the Western Front. She has conducted interviews with hundreds of veterans and uses a range of private papers and first hand accounts to weave a rich tapestry of human life in time of war. They Called it Passchendaele was the first of her seven works about the Western Front, and recently I read it for the second time.
Third Ypres occupies a particular place of horror in the British collective memory of warfare, for the squalor, desolation - and above all mud - in which it was fought. The personal accounts upon which MacDonald relies bring a vivid immediacy to the description of life, death and the conditions that is frequently missing from secondary works. 2nd Lieutenant H.L. Birks (Tank Corps) describes arriving in the salient:
'You’d almost abandon hope. And as you got further out you got this awful smell of death. You could literally smell it. It was just a complete abomination of desolation. I wept when I came into the salient'.
MacDonald adds an interesting feature that is of great benefit to visitors to the area, by supplying accurate sketch maps showing the location of the major contributors at key moments in battle. So, for example, you can walk the preserved trenches at Sanctuary Wood armed with the words of Gunner Walter Lugg (C Bty, 53d Bde, 18th Div, Royal Field Artillery), who was trying to get a wounded comrade back to the British line after a disastrous attack out of the wood:
'I remember vividly that with each step he took, blood oozed out on to the loose loop of his braces and fell drop y drop onto his trousers…[he] couldn’t speak beyond a whisper, and he kept hanging onto me for grim death as if I was his only link with this world. In a way, I suppose I was. I just kept on telling him that he would be all right.
We got into a shell hole and there was a youngster in it, crying. He was obviously in a state of terrible shock, he flung himself on us and threw his arms round my neck, shouting for his mother. I don’t mind admitting that I was as windy as hell myself, but I said to him, "All right, all right. Stay with us and we’ll get you back".
Gunner Lugg did indeed get both men back to the British line. It took ten hours.
The personal accounts relating to the final stages of the battle take on an especially horrific aspect. Flanders has a very high water table during the driest of seasons, but the late summer and autumn of 1917 were amongst the wettest on record. Churned by ceaseless shelling, the ground over which the Allies sought to advance became a vast lake of glutinous mud.
Lieutenant J.W. Naylor, Royal Artillery:
'It’s difficult to get across that it’s a sea of mud. Literally a sea. You can drown in it…On the day I reached my lowest ebb I’d gone down from the gun position to meet the ammunition wagon coming up the supply road [laid with planks to provide a surface]…There were six horses pulling that wagon and they took fright at [an] explosion, veered right of the road and down they went into the mud. We had no possible way of getting them out. In any event they sank so fast that we had no chance even to cut them loose from the heavy wagon. We formed a chain, stretched out our arms and managed to get the drivers off, but the poor horses just sank faster and faster and drowned before our eyes. The wagon and horses disappeared in a matter of minutes. One of the drivers was absolutely incoherent with terror.
That incident depressed me more than anything else in the war. I just felt "What the hell’s the use of going on? I don’t care a damn who wins this war." Well, morale can’t get much lower than that. It was a nightmare. I have it still.'
Yet They Called it Passchendaele is far from a scrapbook of memories pasted together, and MacDonald much more than just an editor. She links the first person accounts with a skilfully written narrative of the course and context of the battle. This does not go into great tactical or strategic detail, nor the subtleties of the higher-command decision making process. The fundamental debates between Plumer, Gough and Haig are passed over briefly, and the book does not tackle issues of responsibility nor morality head on.
The narrative does, however, serve an important purpose. Max Arthur’s recent Forgotten Voices of the Great War contains a selection of personal accounts from the Imperial War Museum’s sound archive, but without any explanatory narrative at all. This approach may work well for a general volume covering the whole war, but would be inappropriate for a detailed study of a particular series of battles, such as Third Ypres. Without her guiding hand the reader would be left without the context in which each of the personal struggles took place, without a clear idea of how they relate to the ground today, and without the full value of the primary material.
Perhaps unfortunately, the contributors include very few senior officers and almost no Germans. In part this is understandable, as it would be much more difficult to produce such a detailed yet concise volume if treating all sides of the subject equally. The wise chronicler should be clear as to the scope of her work, or risk attempting the impossible and producing the unreadable. However, some MacDonald’s later works do include more contributions from the German perspective.
In conclusion, this is an impressive work built upon firm foundations of human experience. It is not a military study in the narrow sense, as it is concerned as much with feelings and emotions of the soldiers as details of tactics and weaponry. Censorship, bawdy marching songs and home leave are covered in almost as much detail as the slaughter in the sea of mud. If the potential reader understands this before buying it he will not be disappointed. It is an important addition to the library of both the serious student of the Western Front and the more casual reader.
on 7 April 2013
I have read this book two or three times (first in paperback) and most recently on my Kindle (which I took on holiday with me to Northern France). This book is a worthy testament to the men who fought in this most terrible campaign. It is by turns shocking, terrifying, moving and even an inspirational read about a very important event in history involving the people who endured and suffered around Ypres in 1917. I have no criticism whatsoever of the book itself or the author (I have read several books written by Lyn MacDonald and they have all been impressive).
With this in mind it is truly a shame (in its proper sense) that the Kindle version is so poor. There are spelling mistakes and typographical errors on nearly every other page - on occasion I had to refer back to my old paperback copy to make sense of important passages. There really is no excuse for this poor rendition - especially concerning the very serious subject. It is almost as if the transfer was made by someone whose first language was not English and who relied only on a "spell checker"; unable to identify errors that the spell checker did not identify.
This is badly done Amazon, very badly done. You should sort this matter out straight away.
on 4 November 2006
I read this book a week after a trip round many of the places that feature in the book - which made it that much more "alive" for me (Quasimodo tours from Bruges - whom I'd also give 5 stars to if anyone is planning on something similar). But even without that the book is so well-written, interspersed with recollections from veterans, that I'd say this is one of the best, most sympathetic history books I've read. It's now nearly thirty years since it was published, and that so many of the people who contributed to the book must now no longer be with us just adds to the poignancy. This was the first of Lyn MacDonald's books I've read and I'll be reading more very soon.
on 14 August 2000
The reputed inevitability of the Passchendaele campaign has always remained an object of speculation. Was its timing justified in terms of strategy? Did "butcher" Haig set out to attain unrealistic territorial goals, believing that attrition had pushed German morale to the breaking point, thus living up to his nickname by risking unacceptable casualties in the vain prospect of delivering the final hammer blow to the enemy? And, had history taken a different course, would calling off the offensive at some point have been a realistic alternative? In her eloquent compilation of testimonies, Lyn Macdonald does not aspire to assess whatever was the contribution of Passchendaele to the eventual Allied victory. Following her in her brilliantly empathic approach - the one of the oral historian -, one wonders with the poor old sods what relentless higher power must have driven them on where there was no way left out of the hell ("Wading up to your armpits is difficult", is one of their blunt repartees) they found themselves in. Turning the pages, the reader cannot help but wonder at the unresolved questions that puzzled these men's battle-wearied minds: "Does the Army make you pay for the blanket it buries you in? Has your company been secretly chosen to be a suicide force?" and "Will the war be over by Christmas?" With an estimated toll of casualties of over a quarter of a million on either side and just over a year to go before finally the Armistice was attained, in our mind we wind our way again along the neatly plotted rows of 12,000 or so Portland headstones of "our" Tyne Cot Cemetery, towards the walls on which another 36,000-odd names testify to the missing for which the Menin Gate in nearby Ypres provided insufficient space. The sheer waste!