Passchendaele Centenary: "the blindest slaughter of a blind war"

To mark the centenary of World War I's Battle of Passchendaele, fought between July and November 1917, on the Western Front  (south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres, West Flanders) Lord Black of Brentwood called a debate in the House of Lords. Passchendaele was an important milestone on the road to victory.

Lord Black told the House that the Battle affected the whole nation-  as a result very few war memorials don't bear the names sons and fathers who did not return from this battle- and also many Commonwealth countries too.

A video of the speech is available here and the text of the speech is below.


That this House takes note of the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele and of Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to commemorate it.

My Lords, to lead a debate commemorating the horror and savagery of the third battle of Ypres, black-edged in the annals of British and European history in which half a million men lost their lives, were wounded or went missing in the most appalling conditions imaginable, is both a privilege and deeply humbling. A century on, it is still a struggle to find the right words to describe what became known as the Battle of Passchendaele and to do justice to the tale of sacrifice, killing and loss that characterised the three-and-a-half months of the late summer and early autumn of 1917, which the historian AJP Taylor has perhaps most succinctly summed up as, “the blindest slaughter of a blind war”.

I am exceptionally grateful to all noble Lords who are joining me today in commemorating those who suffered and died at Ypres and trying to find those right words.

I have wanted this House to take time to remember since I toured the First World War battlefields last autumn. With friends, I visited first the Menin Gate, one of the world’s most iconic memorials. It bears the names of more than 54,000 men who died serving the forces of Britain and many other countries from what is now the Commonwealth who have no known grave, their bodies sucked into the thick, glutinous mud of Flanders, and where to this day “The Last Post” is still sounded at 8pm every evening. From there, we went to the haunting cemetery at Tyne Cot, the final resting place of almost 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen, of whom more than 8,000 are unidentified, their graves bearing the inscription only that they are: “Known unto God”. I spent more than an hour there, looking not just at the graves but watching the faces of young people who arrived on coaches. They entered the cemetery often in boisterous form. Within moments they fell silent and their faces became ashen not just as they realised the scale of the loss—something unintelligible ​to a generation which has known Europe at peace—but as they realised, looking at the ages of those whose names were etched on to the gravestones, that these were people of their own age who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

For that reason alone, the powerful message that these memorials send anew to each generation—a terrible warning from history—they deserve to stand cared for and tended for all time, and we as a nation are immensely lucky that we have the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to do just that. I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to its outstanding work.

A debate still rages today about the rights and wrongs of Passchendaele and whether things could have been done differently. There will never be a resolution to this debate—it will probably be raging a century from now—and, for me, today is not the place to rehearse those arguments but simply to remember. The battle was conceived by Field Marshal Haig to break out of the Ypres Salient where the British had been stuck for several years. The aim was to punch through the German lines and get to the coast in order to stop the devastating loss of vessels crossing the Atlantic being destroyed by U-boats that was threatening our survival as a nation.

As noble Lords know, it began on 31 July 1917. A century ago this month, it was grinding its bloody, grimy path to a conclusion on 10 November and, in doing so, in Churchill’s words, “disgorged its streams of manhood”.

By this time in October, the village of Passchendaele had been all but wiped from the map. A soldier with the 13th Reserve Infantry Regiment wrote almost 100 years ago to this day:

“In all directions there was yawning emptiness, ruins, ruin and destruction.”

By the time the battle had finished, a quarter of a million men on both sides were dead or wounded in exchange for an advance of just five miles by British troops. The small strip of land over which they fought had been turned to desolation. A few years later, the brave war reporter, Philip Gibbs, who saw the battle at first hand, said that, “nothing that has been written is more than the pale image of the abomination of those battlefields, and ... no pen or brush has yet achieved the picture of that Armageddon in which so many perished”.

Apart from the extraordinary tale of sacrifice, this “Armageddon” was a battle marked by two things in particular. It was marked first and foremost by the bravery of the men. More Victoria Crosses were won on the first day of Passchendaele than on any other single day in the First World War. It would be useful to hear from my noble friend what is being done to commemorate their particular sacrifice.

It was marked above all by the most dreadful physical conditions imaginable because of the heavy rainfall which accompanied the start of the battle and turned the area into a quagmire which trapped soldiers and immobilised their weaponry. Indeed, the battle has become defined by what Lloyd George called, “the campaign of the mud”.​

In his extraordinary poem about Third Ypres, Siegfried Sassoon describes the horror of death in the Salient:

“I died in hell -

(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,

And I was hobbling back; and then a shell

Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell

Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light”.

Many of your Lordships will know that I have spoken a number of times in this House about the welfare of animals. In describing the horror of the conditions in the battle, I want briefly to mention the plight of the animals that served and died in the war and whose suffering is so powerfully commemorated on the Animals in War memorial in Park Lane. Dogs and, above all, horses were particularly vulnerable in the swamp of land. In his superb book on the battle, Nick Lloyd describes the conditions as fighting raged in the lines around Becelaere 100 years ago to this day. One soldier wrote afterwards how horses just disappeared into the muddy quicksand. He wrote:

“Officers and men attempted, in some cases up to their necks in icy water, to free the horses ... this proved to be impossible … There was nothing else … but to put them out of their … misery with a revolver shot … further on, another team fell into a crater where, before it could be rescued, all the horses drowned”.

It is right that we remember them.

The battle was marked by the great bravery of troops from today’s Commonwealth, particularly from Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, a country whose worst casualty figures of the Great War came from Passchendaele, and from Hindus and Muslims alike. Indeed, it was the Canadian 27th Battalion from Winnipeg which with British assistance finally took the village of Passchendaele on 6 November in an assault that took place, according to one Canadian soldier, in absolutely nothing but mud and water. Men came from every race, every faith, every culture, across the seas—as in the saying, “from the uttermost ends of the earth” - to fight and die for their king. And many did so on the Ypres Salient. It is essential that we pay tribute, as we have throughout the commemorations of the Great War, to the indispensable role that Commonwealth troops played in Passchendaele and in securing our ultimate victory.

We should also remember how important women were to the fighting at the front and the waging of war. Some of course served as nurses, 260 of whom died in the line of duty throughout the war. One was Nellie Spindler, from Wakefield, who was killed by the blast from a shell at a hospital just three miles from the front line at Passchendaele and who is the only woman buried at Tyne Cot, alongside 12,000 men. Her headstone bears the inscription “Staff Nurse” and in its simplicity sums up the heroism of all the women who endured the rain, the mud and the horrendous conditions to tend the sick and dying. Well away from the front, tens of thousands of women of course played a vital role in the war effort, producing munitions for the artillery which was so critical to the fighting at Passchendaele. Many suffered the most dreadful conditions and illnesses—we think of the canary girls whose repeated exposure to toxic TNT used in munitions production turned their skin yellow. I hope that at some point before the four years of commemorations of the Great ​War come to an end, this House will have an opportunity to mark their role. I would be grateful if my noble friend could tell us what is being done to pay the most profound tribute to women and their role in the war.

One enduring characteristic of all the battles of the Great War is the loss of youth and of so much potential, particularly in the worlds of music, art and poetry. Passchendaele is no exception. On the opening day of the battle of Pilckem Ridge, the talented Welsh poet Ellis Evans—better known as Hedd Wyn—a pacifist conscripted into the army, was killed. A similar fate that very day befell the gifted Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, known as the “poet of the blackbirds”. From the world of music, the brilliant young composer Ivor Gurney fought valiantly in the battle. Gurney was a student at the Royal College of Music where he was taught by Charles Villiers Stanford, who described him as potentially, “the biggest of them all”.

Gurney survived 15 months at the front and, having been shot and gassed, returned home with five of his most enduring songs. One mud-spattered manuscript, “By a Bierside”, was written by the light of a stump of candle in a trench. But war had destroyed Gurney in other ways: as a result of shell shock, mental illness overwhelmed him and he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital, writing little more. The loss of these artists as a result of Passchendaele underlines the pity of war and the waste of potential, for who knows what they and countless others who died in those four bloody years might have achieved had they lived.

There are a number of reasons why I believe it is important for us to commemorate the battle. One is that it was in many ways a turning point in the war. It may have failed in its objectives, but as Nick Lloyd puts it in his book “it marked the moment when German morale on the Western Front began to collapse”.

Equally important was that it contributed to development in British tactical skill and weaponry which gave us a decisive edge over the German armies in the summer of 1918. Passchendaele was a milestone on the road to victory.

Secondly, it was a battle in which the whole nation—and, as I mentioned, much of what is now the Commonwealth—was involved. I doubt that there are many communities in the land that do not have a war memorial bearing the names of their many sons and fathers who did not return from the hell-hole of Ypres. It is important to remember in particular the contribution of troops from Scotland. Three divisions fought at Passchendaele and made what was probably a disproportionate sacrifice in the battle.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the battle in so many ways epitomises the absolute essence of the Great War. On the one hand, it symbolises the nobility of war: the sheer scale of supreme sacrifice, the extraordinary acts of valour that was underscored by the number of VCs awarded, and the comradeship linking people of all backgrounds, faiths and cultures in a common aim. Yet on the other hand, it represents the futility of war: the immense loss of life and the squandering of so much potential—all for five miles ​of land which was then surrendered back in the blink of an eye to the Germans in the spring of 1918. A ridge that had cost so much blood was abandoned without a shot being fired.

Many organisations are involved in the commemoration of this great battle. I mentioned earlier the exceptional work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, to which should be added the War Memorials Trust which works so hard to maintain the war memorials across the United Kingdom that house forever the names of the fallen. The BBC and the Royal British Legion have played significant roles as well. The Imperial War Museum -I declare my interest as a trustee of the IWM Foundation - has this year put in place a comprehensive programme of commemoration and education. It has supported organisations across the world through the First World War Centenary Partnership, not least to bring alive for today’s young people the horror of this campaign through film, images and social media. Its Lives of the First World War project contains a permanent digital memorial to all those who sacrificed so much on the Ypres Salient in those deadly days of 1917. Their story lives on, too, in the museum’s remarkable First World War galleries.

I commend the work of my noble friend the Minister and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Together with the indefatigable work of Dr Andrew Murrison MP, they have done so much to make the commemoration of Passchendaele and all the significant milestones of the Great War, of which we have more to come next year, utterly memorable. I look forward to hearing from my noble friend more of what the Government have done and what impact they judge it to have had, particularly in terms of the education of young people. The department and the other organisations have between them generated a huge and almost insatiable public interest in the record of the sacrifice and heroism of those who died a century ago. I hope that today’s debate will contribute to the powerful record of commemoration of that fateful year, one which all those who are privileged to sit in this House, in this seat of freedom and democracy, should revere for all time.

Let me finish where I started, back at the Memorial to the Missing at the Menin Gate. It was opened in July 1927 with words of comfort for those who were never recovered from the battlefield: “He is not missing; he is here”. I like to think that all those who fell are here with us today.


Hansard source here