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76 of 78 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars MacDonald delivers again, 5 Nov 2003
This review is from: They Called it Passchendaele: The Story of the Battle of Ypres and of the Men Who Fought in it (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Nov 2011 12:04:58 GMT
Read this book over 10 years ago, and it is still with me. The event you mention regarding the horse drawn ammunition wagon was one I especially remembered. Unimaginable horror.
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Location: Lancashire, England.

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