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on 18 August 2017
Lynn McDonald is one of the pioneers of a certain style of writing historical narratives - one where personal accounts are crafted into an explanatory historical narrative.

In my opinion, she does this brilliantly and seamlessly blends fascinating personal accounts from servicemen who were there, many of whom she interviewed herself, with a well crafted explanatory historical narrative. The result is a very readable & highly enjoyable book.

In the author's foreword you get an idea of this style when she says :
"If this book reads like a novel, or even at times like a horror story, please do not blame me. It is all true, or rather it is compiled from more than 600 true stories and eyewitness accounts of men and women who were there in the blood-bath of Ypres."

In addition to the personal experiences she provides some very good maps showing you where each of the participants were at any one point in the action she is describing. She takes a number of these personal accounts from different parts of the battlefield and uses them to describe how the battle proceeded over the ground covered by the advance.

The words and testimonies she shares illustrate the absolute horror of this campaign as shown in some of these extracts :
Private W. Morgan, No. 24819, 10/ 11th Btn., Highland Light Infantry
"By the time I got back, the battalion was away up towards the next objective. As I went on, over the place I’d left them, over the ground where I knew they must have crossed to get to the third line, there was nothing but dead bodies lying all around. There were shells exploding everywhere and bullets flying around as if the devil himself was at the guns, and when I got up to the front there was this terrible fighting. I could see troops in front of me crawling and jumping up and crawling again and dodging into shell-holes. Away ahead, it was all smoke and explosions and bullets flying out of Lewis guns like streams of fire all around these buildings they were attacking. I couldn’t see anybody belonging to my lot at all. Eventually I managed to make my way forward a bit and I found Sergeant McCormack with Lieutenant Burns. We were really held up at this place but the bombers were at it, attacking it from the flanks. There were boys there with buckets of bombs, and one lad in particular I saw crawl up to the wall and reach up and chuck bombs in at the window of the gun emplacement. They were all going at it, hammer and tongs. They were still going at it when it started to rain. They were still going at it an hour later, and by that time we were practically up to our knees in water. Lieutenant Burns said to me, ‘You’d better get a message back, Morgan, and let them know what’s happening. We must have reinforcements.’ We were standing in this wet shell-hole and he was just handing me the message when the machine-gun bullet got him. He fell right over on to me and we both went right down into the water. I managed to pull him a bit up the side of this crater and laid him down and knelt down beside him. His eyes were open and he looked straight up at me and he said, ‘I’m all right, Mum.’ And then he died. He was younger than me. I was twenty. Sergeant McCormack crawled across, and looked at him. Then he looked at me. ‘Get back with the message, Morgan,’ he said."

W. Lockey, No. 71938, 1st Btn., Notts & Derbyshire Regiment (The Sherwood Foresters)
"It was a terrible sight, really awe-inspiring, to see the barrage playing on the German front lines before we went over. It was an inferno. Just a solid line of fire and sparks and rockets lighting up the sky. When the barrage began to lift we went over like one man towards what had once been the German front line. It didn’t exist. There was not a bit of wire, hardly a trench left, that hadn’t been blown to smithereens by our barrage ... The chap on my right had his head blown off, as neat as if it had been done with a chopper. I saw his trunk stumbling on for two or three paces and then collapsing in a heap. My pal, Tom Altham, went down too, badly wounded, and Sergeant-Major Dunn got a shell all to himself.

Rifleman G. E. Winterbourne, No. 551237, 1st Btn., Queen’s Westminster Rifles
"In a lull in the shelling we heard cries, and there was a poor chap about fifty or sixty yards away. He was absolutely up to his arms in it, and he’d been there for four days and nights –ever since the last attack –and he was still alive, clinging on to the root of a tree in the side of this shell-hole full of liquid mud ... All we could do was leave a man behind to look after him. It was another twenty-four hours before he was rescued."
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VINE VOICEon 8 September 2003
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.
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on 1 September 2017
A totally readable World War 1 history book with mostly words from the men at the front. Gives a much better insight into the fighting of one of the last of the Army v Army full on battles from those at the "sharp end".
Some of the accounts were funny, some sad, most gave a serious real view of warfare at its worst and the reasons that the powers that made their decisions.
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on 12 June 2013
The Kindle edition of this is littered with errors and many of them quite important - even things like Regiments. This has been scanned into a format for Kindle and not even proofread. It made me really annoyed - these are real people's reminiscences and I think it's a fine book; it's quite disgraceful that this is put out on the marketplace.
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on 2 June 2017
Very easy to read. Gave me background knowledge for my visit to WW1 battlefields.
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on 20 August 2017
Just Brilliant
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on 12 August 2017
What I required.
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on 27 December 2016
I do not write reviews
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on 26 June 2017
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on 7 February 2009
I've read many history books on the subject of the First World War, but have only recently come to Lyn McDonald's excellent account of Passchendaele.

First published in 1979, the book is an excellent balance between riveting first-hand accounts from veterans who fought at the salient (sadly, of course, no longer with us) and the less personal, albeit essential, battle-history that puts their extraordinary experiences into proper strategic and geographical context.

As a result, the book is one of the easiest-reading and most rewarding volumes on the First World War that I've personally come across.

What Lyn McDonald has, I believe, got across very successfully, is the mechanism of how politics affected strategy and how that eventually, and violently, affected the common soldiers. Also, the unremitting willingness of the generals to openly trade in men's lives in a battle of attrition, simply because they were, apparently, devoid of any alternative ideas* for achieving their long-held dream of a cavalry breakthrough.

Definitely recommended for anyone who perhaps enjoys the "Forgotten Voices of the Great War: A New History of WWI in the Words of the Men and Women Who Were There (Forgotten Voices/the Great War)"-style of first-hand accounts and who would like to have a more detailed knowledge of the Passchendaele campaign.

(* "Band of Brigands: The First Men in Tanks" is a more difficult read, but interesting if you would like to know about the birth of the Tank and how the generals were not the impetus behind that alternative - botched its deployment and destroyed its potential as a war-winner.)
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