–Mud, death and despair at the Battle of Passchendaele

October 13, 2017

Mud. Mud like wet soap. Nothing could move in the mud. Guns were bogged for three days. They put 26 horses on one gun to drag it free. A Digger fell off duckboards in the dark and sank up to his neck. His mates tried to get him with a chain of rifles but he drowned in the wet earth, begging to be shot.

The hellish landscape around a Biblically-named village in Belgium was turned into a charnel house of shattered trees, suffocating poison gas, rumbling artillery and chattering machine guns and the dead. In the trenches rats bred like flies, feeding on corpses.

Thirty-five Australians died for each metre of land taken at Passchendaele.

Australia’s acclaimed official war photographer, Frank Hurley, portrayed death everywhere. One hundred years ago last Thursday he took perhaps his most poetically poignant and tragic photograph of the war.

Writing about it later, Hurley said every 20 paces lay a dead body. “Most [were] desperately mutilated without legs, arms,  and heads  and half covered in mud and slime and under a questionable sheltered  bank lay a group of dead men and sitting by them in little scooped out recesses sat a few living but so emaciated by fatigue and shell shock you couldn’t tell the differences,” Hurley wrote.

The Australian War Memorial’s recollections include those of one exhausted British soldier who slithered into a pill box for safety at Passchendaele and fell asleep against a dead German. They capture horror and nonchalant heroism: “Next day I was awoken by a voice, ‘You the Lancashire Fusiliers? Well piss off. We’re the Australians and we’re here to relieve you’.”

The Battle of Passchendaele in the autumn of 1917 was known for years afterwards by Australians as “Wipers” because the name of the small textile town, Ypres, sat uneasily on British Commonwealth tongues. It was known as the Third Battle of Ypres but later called Passchendaele for the modest village that was the final objective. Perhaps the echoes of Christ’s passion and death better explain the catastrophe.

The battle opened on July 31, 1917, with more than a quarter of a million British, French and Commonwealth soldiers attacking along a 13 kilometre front with encouraging gains, as massed artillery obliterated German defences and annihilated inevitable German counter-attacks but Passchendaele soon turned to disaster.

The Australians were relieved by the Canadians on October 18 and by that time the five Australian divisions had suffered 38,000 casualties, including 12,000 dead and missing.

Total casualties at Passchendaele were estimated at some 500,000, about 275,000 British and Commonwealth and maybe more than 200,000 Germans. Nearly 15,700 Canadians and 5300 New Zealanders fell there, killed, wounded or missing.

Sixty-one Victoria Crosses were awarded, nine to Australians. Five months later the Germans took it all back in three days.

On Thursday, the nightly Last Post at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra was dedicated to Passchendaele. The director, Brendan Nelson, declared October 12 one of the most significant days in Australian history.

“Throughout the 1920s and 1930s whether in Australia  or New Zealand,  only one word was used to describe inconsolable grief and mourning and a suffering and a pain that would never go: and that word was Passchendaele,” Nelson said.

The eight-month Gallipoli campaign in 1915 had cost 26,111 Australian casualties, including 8141 deaths. Strategically it achieved nothing.

But if Gallipoli was embraced as the necessary blood sacrifice of a new nation, by the time of Passchendaele enthusiasm for war back home was starting to wane. The images of men and beast floundering in a never-ending sea of mud at Passchendaele came to define World War I in the Australian public’s imagination.

Australians fighting overseas in World War I had enlisted voluntarily and troop numbers remained buoyant until the enormity of Australian casualties on the Western Front hit home. Passchendaele occurred smack dab in the middle of a bitter national argument on conscription that was fought on political and class grounds and pitted workers against employers while widening the secular divide between Christians from or descended from various parts of the British Isles.

Not only were fathers, sons, husbands and lovers dying but the public became aware that despite small gains made at Passchendaele, the overall result left both sides in deadlocked positions similar to where they had started.  The disaster brought condemnation on British army commanders. Military historians now make harsh judgments about Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

When he died in 1928, his funeral became a day of national mourning but post World War II, Haig’s name has become synonymous with carnage and futility. His troops arrived at that conclusion long before the historians: they called him “Butcher Haig”.

By 1916 Britain had started to pressure Canberra to send more troops and prime minister William Morris Hughes announced a referendum on compulsory overseas service. The October 28 vote resulted 1,087,557 for and 1,160,033 against. NSW, Queensland and South Australia voted “No”.

Victoria’s agreement to send more soldiers was perhaps surprising.

They used to say that Irish convicts left Sydney for honest work as servants for Melburnians made newly wealthy by gold, while cockney convicts stayed in Sydney to deal real estate. The World War I memorials scattered around Australian cities, towns and villages bear some but not many Irish surnames and a deep divide had opened between Irish Catholic Australians and other Christians following the British crushing of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Yet many Melbourne Catholics voted for conscription even though one of their leading priests said Australians were already doing enough to help the British cause on the Western Front. 

After the referendum loss, Hughes was tossed out of the Australian Labor Party. He established a new party, the Nationalist Party, and won the May 1917 federal election. The following day the Irish priest, Daniel Mannix, became Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. During the election campaign Mannix had denounced the inequality of sacrifice, endorsing the justice of strikes and declaring that a vote for Hughes would be a vote for conscription.

The British demanded more Australian troops but the shadow of Passchendaele fell and on December 20, 1917, Hughes put a second conscription referendum and the people again rejected it, by a larger majority than before: 1,015,159 in favour and 1,181,747 against. This time Victoria also voted “No”.

For the World War I generations, time never healed Passchendaele. But in 1936, two large stone guardian lions were donated to the Australian War Memorial by the burgomaster (mayor) of the Belgian city of Ypres.

The lions had originally stood on plinths on either side of the Menin Gate at Ypres. This gate was one of only two entries into the medieval fortified city. Allied soldiers, including Australians, marched to the Passchendaele battlefields through the Menin Gate. The limestone lions were toppled by shellfire during the war as the town was reduced to rubble.

The lions were given to Australia as a gesture of friendship, and reconstructed, they have been at the entrance of the Australian War Memorial since 1987.

These past few years, the Menin Gate lions have been in Ypres as part of the World War I commemorations but will return to Canberra after Remembrance Day 2017.

The lion at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium in September.

The lion at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium in September. Photo: AAP – #1 News in a FLASH

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