Review published on July 18, 2017.
Siegfried Sassoon recorded Passchendaele in his poem Memorial Tablet, when he spoke about on behalf of one of the victims. It has become a byword for the futility and cruelty of war and that is before we get to the mud and slaughter. Passchendaele, or officially, the Third Battle of Ypres, has been reassessed by Nick Lloyd, Reader in Military and Imperial History at King’s College, who is also based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College.
There are no arguments that Passchendaele was a military disaster, and people often ask why the battle took place. The easy answer is because of French pressure on the British, but at the same time we cannot overlook the fact that this was occupied France, and they wanted the occupiers gone, understandably. We know that there was mass slaughter in the mud for the allied forces, and it was just as bad for the Germans too. Haig thought that a breakthrough here would allow Allied forces to capture the German submarine base on the Belgium coast as well as making inroads into Belgium. This is rather a traditional argument that Lloyd does not dissent from, but he argues about the tactics used in this battle as he reassesses their use and futility.
Lloyd gives the reader an excellent account of the battle; he does not sugar the pill about the slaughter on all sides and to me that is what attractive about this book. Lloyd does not just cover the story from the Allied view but also includes the German viewpoint, so we get a more rounded history and a proper sense of that the battlefield was like. There is no abstract view that historians of the past used, this is in your face realism reminding you there were two sides in this battle, and both suffered as much as the other. I like Lloyd’s view of Haig as a compulsive gambler, who was aiming to win, whereas usually he portrayed as unimaginative in his tactics and kept the battle going to long. But anyone can use hindsight to complain about tactics in the century after the battle, they were not in the heat of battle making the decision.
This one of the best researched and written histories that have been written during the centenary period of the First World War. I cannot recommend this highly enough; it will certainly be an excellent reference point for any historian.
Paul Diggett 5/5
Passchendaele: A New History by Nick Lloyd
Viking 9780241004364 hbk May 2017