Passchendaele, World War I bloodbath of poets and other soldiers

Australian stretcher bearers trapped in mud, Battle of Ypres, 1917. Photo courtesy Australian War Memorial

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Passchendaele: ‘I could taste their blood in the air’

Tuesday 1st August 2017

BRITISH soldiers killed at Passchendaele were remembered yesterday on the centenary of the start of the WWI battle in Belgium.

More than half a million men from both sides were killed or injured in more than 100 days of fighting in the rain-sodden summer and autumn of 1917.

The Tyne Cot cemetery near the Belgian village is the largest Commonwealth burial ground in the world, with 11,971 servicemen buried and remembered there, 8,373 of whom are unidentified.

An account by Private Bert Ferns of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who fought in the battle, was read out by Fusilier Shaun Mclorie.

He said: “I staggered up the hill and then dropped over the slope into a sort of gully. It was here that I froze and became very frightened because a big shell had just burst and blown a group of lads to bits; there were bits of men all over the place, a terrible sight, men just blown to nothing.

“I just stood there. It was still and misty, and I could taste their blood in the air.”

This is a music video of a song from the British musical Oh! what a lovely war. About World War I. The lyrics are:

Forward Joe Soap‘s Army

Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear,
With our old commander, safely in the rear.
He boasts and skites from morn till night,
And thinks he’s very brave,
But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave.
Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear,
With our old commander, safely in the rear.

From the World Socialist Web Site, 31 July 2017:

At 3:50 on the morning of July 31, 1917, the allied troops of Great Britain and France begin the so-called Third Great Flanders Offensive, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. …

It becomes a grueling battle of attrition and a terrible slaughter that continues through November. For months, the ruins of a single location are fought over. For the first time, aerial battles take place involving more than 100 fighter planes. Only with difficulty does the German military command manage to replace the divisions which are quickly disabled.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans overcome their disadvantage by using mustard gas for the first time, the barbaric chemical agent that burns the airways and skin within seconds. Professor Adolf Julius Meyer, the creator of mustard gas, later boasts: “The effect of mustard gas in the Flanders battle of 1917 grew more and more and it was often the case that the enemy was happy if he was able to keep a quarter of his men unharmed.”

The fighting lasts through mid-November. The military objectives of the offensive are not achieved. The only result—a relocation of the front line by 8 kilometers—is paid for on the British side with approximately 50,000 killed; 38,000 missing in action; and 236,000 wounded. On the German side, approximately 46,000 are killed and missing while 281,000 are wounded and seriously ill.

The grave of Hedd Wyn at Artillery Wood Cemetery in Belgium

Also from the World Socialist Web Site, 31 July 2017:

Western Front, July 31: Two poets, Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge, killed in action

Irish poet Francis Ledwidge and Welsh poet Hedd Wyn are both killed during the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres.

Ledwidge, born in 1887, was associated with the Gaelic revival movement prior to the war, and he was also active in trade union circles. He tried and failed to establish a local club of the Gaelic League, a literary and cultural organization that promoted the use of the Irish language and was associated with the development of nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century. He was more successful in creating a local branch of the Irish Volunteers in Slane, the organization formed in response to the creation of the Ulster Volunteers to ensure the implementation of home rule for Ireland. Though Ledwidge initially sided with the minority of the Irish Volunteers, which, on the outbreak of war, opposed participation in the British army, he soon shifted his position and joined the military in October 1914.

Ledwidge’s poetry was influenced by rural life. He also responded to the radicalism of the 1916 Easter Rising, writing in “O’Connell Street”:

“A Noble failure is not vain
But hath a victory of its own
A bright delectance from the slain
Is down the generations thrown.”

Wyn, born Ellis Humphry Evans in 1887, is also killed near Ypres. He adopted the name Hedd Wyn, meaning blessed peace in Welsh, in 1910. His poetry drew heavily on the influences of the Romantic era, including themes of nature and spirituality, although he has also written several war poems since the conflict broke out. Wyn initially opposed the war on Christian pacifist grounds. He was conscripted in 1916 and then arrested by the military police in early 1917 after overstaying a period of leave at home. Wyn posthumously won an award at the National Eisteddfod, a festival of poetry and music, for his poem Yr Arwr.

Some of Wyn’s works have been translated, including the poem Rhyfel (War), which begins,

“Why must I live in this grim age,
When, to a far horizon, God
Has ebbed away, and man, with rage,
Now wields the sceptre and the rod?”

Death and injuries at the battle of Passchendaele

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Passchendaele: They lied then, they lie now

Tuesday 1st August 2017

ONE hundred years ago today, Daily Chronicle war correspondent Philip Gibbs recorded events on the first day of the third battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele.

An Irish soldier had gone over the top to attack the German lines in atrocious weather, glad to escape the “awful noise” of the field guns on the British side. He and his comrades had crossed blasted ground, where “trenches had disappeared, concrete emplacements had been overturned, breastworks had been flung like straws to the wind.”

Many of the so-called enemy had been buried alive along with their machine guns, trench mortars and bomb stores.

As Gibbs noted: “But there were other dead not touched by shell-fire, nor by any bullet. They had been killed by our gas attack which had gone before the battle. Rows of them lay clasping their gas-masks, and had not been quick enough before the vapour of death reached them.”

Over the following four months, half a million men and boys were killed or wounded in a series of brutal battles for five miles of Belgian mud.

In December 1917, Prime Minister David Lloyd George attended a private banquet where Gibbs recounted his experiences at the front in graphic, gory detail. The next day, Lloyd George confided to Guardian editor CP Scott the impact that this account would have on the home front: “If people really knew, the war would end tomorrow. But of course, they don’t know and can’t know.”

The press barons and state censors ensured that most civilians never did read the truth about the Great War between the ruling classes of the British, French, Russian and Italian empires on the one side and those of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire on the other.

As Lloyd George had gone on to say: “The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds.

“The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can’t go on with this bloody business.”

But he and his successors did go on with this “bloody business,” not only in Europe but in Iraq, India, Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus, the Falklands and Afghanistan.

And still we are not told the truth. At yesterday’s commemorations, a procession of military figures, princes, politicians and priests concealed the real causes and motives of the 1914-18 slaughter in a cloud of guff.

They yapped about freedom, duty, courage, service and sacrifice — but uttered not a word about the war criminals who incited, organised and applauded one of the biggest and most pointless mass slaughters in history.

Fittingly, this was on the same day that the High Court threw out an attempt to hold Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Lord Goldsmith to account for waging the murderous war of aggression against Iraq in 2003.

Meanwhile in Ypres, ever ready to let slip the dogs of war, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon linked Passchendaele and the first world war to Britain’s present-day military commitments and alliances.

They are indeed connected, although not, as Fallon would have it, in some common, timeless struggle for freedom and democracy.

Rather, Britain’s foreign and military policy remains to make the world safe for big business profits, bringing troublesome peoples and governments to heel while monopoly capitalism exploits their human and natural resources.

We would best honour the victims of Passchendaele by redoubling our efforts to challenge British imperialism, its bloody interventions, its nuclear weapons of mass extermination and its servile Nato alliance with US imperialism.</blockquote

From daily News Line in Britain:

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Passchendaele – where imperialism murdered hundreds of thousands of British & German workers

THE BATTLE of Passchendaele saw 275,000 British soldiers, workers in uniform, killed or wounded alongside 220,000 German workers in uniform.

This was a great imperialist slaughter directed by Anglo-French and German imperialism to re-divide the world between themselves. The general staffs and the governments involved fought resolutely and determinedly down to the last worker in uniform in the struggle in which shell-shocked workers were executed for desertion or cowardice.

It was … the ruling classes of the planet determined to safeguard and expand their empires no matter how many workers’ lives this cost. The Second ‘socialist’ International collapsed at the start of the war and supported their own governments, displaying ultra-patriotism and an extreme willingness to sacrifice workers lives for the benefit of their particular empire.

There were exceptions however. In Britain, John Maclean, James Maxton and the Clydeside Workers Committee opposed the war. James Connolly did the same in Ireland. In Germany, the anti-imperialist war struggle was led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxenburg, with Liebknecht voting against war credits in the German parliament on December 2nd 1914.

He told the parliament: ‘I am voting against the War Credits Bill today for the following reasons. None of the peoples involved in this war wanted it, and it did not break out to promote their welfare – not in Germany or anywhere else. It is an imperialist war, a war to dominate the capitalist world market and secure for industrial and financial capital the possession of important territories for settlement.’

In the Russian socialist movement … Lenin saw the Great War as the prelude to the socialist revolution of the working class. He would not support the war of the Czarist autocracy and saw the war as a great opportunity for overthrowing Czarism, breaking up the Czarist Russian empire which he termed ‘the prison house of the nations’. …

In November 1918, the mutiny of the German navy at Kiel saw the red flag raised over the fleet and in fact ended the First World War. On November 3rd, the sailors in Kiel, joined by workers from the nearby city, detained their officers and took control of their ships. They also formed Elective Councils, their own ‘workers soviets’ that drafted the Kiel Mutineers list of demands, the first six points being;

1. The release of all inmates and political prisoners.
2. Complete freedom of speech and the press.
3. The abolition of mail censorship.
4. Appropriate treatment of crews by superiors.
5. No punishment for comrades returning to ships and barracks.
6. No launching of the fleet under any circumstances.

This is a music video of a song from the British musical Oh! what a lovely war. About World War I. It is a parody of What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

World War I in Britain, January 1918: here.

World War I propaganda in video games: here.

War warning. Sam Mendes’s 1917 is a grim reminder of the dreadful consequences of armed conflict, says MARIA DUARTE.

42 thoughts on “Passchendaele, World War I bloodbath of poets and other soldiers

  1. Memorial Tablet

    By Siegred Sassoon

    Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
    (Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). 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.

    At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
    He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
    For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
    ‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
    Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
    I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
    Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
    What greater glory could a man desire?


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  3. Wednesday 20th September 2017

    JOHN ELLISON looks back 100 years ago to the mid-point of the Ypres offensive and the beginnings of peace

    A CENTURY ago today was the mid-point of the third British Ypres offensive on the western front. It was not then popularised as the Battle of Passchendaele, because the taking of that pulverised former village (by Canadian soldiers) was more than six weeks away.

    Ordered by King George V’s friend and working-class enemy commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig but carried out — with vast casualties — by his troops, the campaign began on July 31 (after 10 days of artillery bombardment) and was concluded on November 10, without any confession of guilt for another bloody failure.

    Haig had believed that the German armies were close to breaking point, that attacks aimed at extending the Ypres bulge at the front would pierce the German lines, and enable the British armies to swing northwards and on to the Belgian coast.

    This enormous misjudgment was not Haig’s first. Passchendaele was supposed to have been passed on the fourth day of advance. It was less than five miles from the starting point and was reached after almost 100 days of bitter struggle against mud-filled shell craters as much as against the armies opposite — armies soon to be strengthened by divisions released from an eastern front from which many Russian soldiers had already walked home.

    The German forces had been given plenty of warning of the attack, while Haig and his confederates simply ignored the impact of shells on the surface of the land on which the troops were to advance.

    The water table was almost at the heavy clay surface in this sector, and the initial British bombardment unsurprisingly turned the terrain ahead into a dark and murderous swamp — in which an unknown number of the “missing” drowned.

    The total number of British and Empire casualties in this third Ypres assault amounted to well over a quarter of a million, including 62,000 dead.

    The war, wrote A J P Taylor in his book The First World War, “did not need revolutionaries to make the war unpopular. Blunders by the generals could do that by themselves.”

    The boneheaded Haig had learned nothing from the previous year’s Somme offensive, when the price of gaining seven square miles of land from the German armies had been almost half a million casualties (over 19,000 dead on the first terrible day), plus, as Taylor wrote, the loss of idealism amongst the survivors.

    But Haig had too many military, political and royal friends to fear dismissal, and though prime minister and Liberal imperialist David Lloyd George could perceive Haig’s inadequacy, his priority was to minimise his own vulnerability.

    Lloyd George did this by tolerating Haig, for a start, but also in other ways. Arriving in Glasgow to be awarded the freedom of the city on June 29, he was faced with a large demonstration calling for the release of socialist and anti-imperialist John Maclean, who had in spring 1916 been given a jail sentence of three years with hard labour. Maclean was released for anti-war service the next day.

    Reduced war enthusiasm in summer 1917 found a symbol in a dramatic statement of a serving officer and published poet on convalescent leave in London.

    This was second lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, whose words first appeared publicly in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought on July 28 1917, three days before the third Ypres offensive began.

    Sassoon declared: “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it… I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

    Days later these words were read aloud in the House of Commons. Although Sassoon was to retreat into political silence (and even to return to the front), and although no prosecution followed, the thing had been said and heard.

    Direct opposition to an imperialist war by anti-war socialist groups was being pursued in the context of increased working-class anger at ever higher food prices and related profiteering, while in manufacturing districts sharpening class tensions, expressed through the advance of the shop stewards’ movement and mass engineering strikes in May.

    Anti-war fires in Britain were being stoked too as a consequence of the March revolution ending Tsarist rule in Russia, and bringing with it powersharing with a provisional government by workers’ and soldiers’ councils — soviets.

    If the importance of June’s Russia-inspired convention in Leeds of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils — supported widely by left-wing groups — can be exaggerated, the fact remains that such a gathering the previous year could not have been imagined.

    It was in this changing environment that on August 10 a Labour Party conference voted by a large majority for a full international socialist conference on peace aims, and to include German socialists.

    This was an unprecedented blow to the government’s war policy, supported as it had been by Labour leader and war cabinet member Arthur Henderson.

    Lloyd George then forced Henderson’s resignation, but sadly the conference majority in favour of the conference barely survived a second vote on August 21.

    The project was aborted but the level of support for it within the Labour Party and trade unions proved that the peace forces were gathering strength.

    Such was the overall backdrop to the Passchendaele offensive, during which war fatigue was evident in the mutiny of thousands of British troops at the base camps of Etaples beginning on September 9.

    There the most brutal of training regimes faced soldiers before consignment to the front, causing them to regard the Red Cap military police-run hell at Etaples as worse than the hell of the trenches.

    The killing of an ordinary soldier by a Red Cap sparked the week-long mutiny, which featured hand-to-hand fighting and for a while was out of control. It has been estimated that 10 mutineers were shot after court martial. Some official records about the affair are still withheld from public access.

    An enormously powerful hint that in time the war parties might be defeated by the peace parties came on November 7, three days before the end of the offensive, when the Russian Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin, assumed political power in Petrograd. The following day came its Peace Decree, of which four million copies were speedily sent to the eastern front. This called for an end to all hostilities.

    Weeks later the Bolshevik government released the texts of the infamous secret treaties made between the Allies, and immediately the Manchester Guardian’s man in Petrograd, Michael Phillips Price (later a Labour MP) sent back dispatches about the treaties.

    Full articles appeared in three issues of the paper before the end of November. Phillips Price commented much later in his memoir, My Three Revolutions, after listing agreements in which France and Romania were to be beneficiaries of territory: “Then there was the treaty giving Russia Constantinople and five […] provinces of eastern Turkey, while France got Syria and Great Britain Mesopotamia. There was another iniquitous treaty which, after the war, would virtually have partitioned Persia between Great Britain and Russia…”

    Other national newspapers reported the “secret treaty” revelations scantily, but the Manchester Guardian had, for many people, nailed the lie that Britain’s role in the war was a disinterested one, that it had gone to war to defend “little Belgium.”

    The truth was that the war, for Britain, was to maintain and if possible to extend its empire. For Germany it was to snatch part of the empires of Britain and France for itself. Sassoon’s declaration was not fantasy.

    A year was to pass after the bloody Passchendaele fiasco, before the German revolution (following advances secured by massive reinforcement from US forces) finally ended the war.


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