From July to November 1917 British and Commonwealth troops fought for control of the ridges to the South and East of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders. General Haig’s Passchendaele offensive or, as it would also be known, the Third Battle of Ypres, began on the 31st July – one hundred years ago tomorrow.
As we commemorate an offensive in the Great War that would cost an estimated 550,000 Allied and German troops either being killed, wounded or lost, we also remember the 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were missing, the 50,000 that were buried without being identified and the estimated 42,000 that were never recovered from the Belgian fields of Flanders during the Passchendaele offensive. In doing so we recognise too the strong ties that continue to bind the Belgian and British people as strong allies within NATO.
Today, as happens every day of the year at 6pm, a lone bugler will sound the ‘Last Post’ at the beautiful Menin Gate Memorial in the Belgian town of Ypres. The Menin Gate is dedicated to all those British and Commonwealth troops killed at Passchendaele and in its large Hall of Memory can be found names of 54,395 soldiers who died and whose bodies were never found.
I have chosen two poems – the first by Edmund Blunden was written in November 1917 and, recalling his own personal experience, provides a deep sense of helplessness that must have been felt throughout the Passchendaele offensive. The second, equally evocative but shorter, is a more modern poem written by Dan Lake.
Edmund Blunden was to survive the ‘Great War’ and died in 1974:
‘THIRD YPRES’ by Edmund Blunden
“Triumph! How strange, how strong had triumph come on weary hate of foul and endless war when from its grey gravecloths awoke anew the summer day
Among the tumbled wreck of fascined lines and mounds the light was peering, half smiling upon us, and our new found pride; the terror of the waiting night outlived, the time too crowded for the heart to count all the sharp cost of friends killed in the assault.
No hook of all the octopus had held us, here stood we trampling down the ancient tyrant. So, shouting dug we amongst the monstrous pits.
Amazing quiet fell upon the waste, quite intolerable to those who felt the hurrying batteries beyond masking hills for their new parley setting themselves in array in crafty forms unmapped.
No, these, smiled Faith, are dumb for the reason of their overthrow, they move not back, they lie among the crews. Twisted and choked, they’ll never speak again.
Only the copse where once might stand a shrine still clacked and suddenly hissed its bullets by. The War would end, the Line was on the move, and at a bound the impassable was passed. We lay and waited with extravagant joy.
Now dulls the day and chills; comes there no word from those who swept through our new lines to flood the lines beyond? But little comes, and so, sure as a runner time himself accosted.
And the slow moments shake their heavy heads and croak, they’re done. They’ll none of them get through. They’re done, they’ve all died on the entanglements, the wire stood up like an unplashed hedge and thorned with giant spikes – and there they’ve paid the bill.’
Then comes the black assurance, then the sky’s mute misery lapses into trickling rain, that wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world, and those distorted guns, that lay past use, why- miracles not over! – All a-firing!
The Rains no cloak from their sharp eyes. And you, poor signaller, you I passed by this emplacement, you whom I warned, poor daredevil, waving your flags, among this screeching I pass you again and shudder at the lean green flies upon the red flesh madding.
Runner, stand by a second. Your message. – He’s gone, falls on a knee and his right hand uplifted claws his last message from his ghostly enemy, turns stone-like. Well, I liked him, that young runner, but there’s no time for that. O now for the word to order us flash from these drowning roaring traps and even hurl upon that snarling wire? Why are our guns so impotent?
The grey rain, steady as the sand in an hourglass on this day, where through the window the red lilac looks, and all’s so still, the chair’s odd click is noise – the rain is all heavens answer, and with hearts past reckoning we are carried into the night and even sleep is nodding here and there.
The second night steals through the shrouding rain. We in our numb thought crouching long have lost the mockery triumph and in every runner have urged the mind’s eye see the triumph to come, the sweet relief, the struggling out of hell into what burros may be given for life’s recall.
Then the fierce destiny speaks. This was the calm, we shall look back for this. The hours is come; come, move to the relief!
Dizzy we pass the mule-strewn track where once the ploughman whistled as he loosed his team; and where he turned home hungry on the road, the leaning pollard marks us hungrier turning.
We crawl to save the remnant who have torn back from the tentacle wire, those whom no shell has charred into black carcasses – Relief! They grate their teeth until we take their room, and through the churn of moonless night and mud and flaming burst and sour gas we are huddled into ditches where they bawl sense awake, and we in frenzy that none could reason calm (whimpering some, and calling on the dead), they turn away: as in a dream they find strength in their feet to bear back that strange whim in their body.
At the noon of that dreadful day our trench and death’s is on a sudden stormed with huge and shattering salvoes, the clay dances in founts of clods around concrete sties, where still the brain devises some last armour to live out the poor limbs.
The wrath oncoming found four of us together in a pillbox, skirting the abyss of madness with light phrases, white and blinking, in false smiles grimacing, the demon grins to see the game, a moment passes, and –still the drum-tap dongs my brain to a whirring void – through the great breach above me the light comes in with icy shock and the rain horribly drips.
Doctor, talk, talk! If dead or stunned I know not; the stinking powdered concrete, the lyddite turns me sick – my hair’s all full of this smashed concrete. O, I’ll drag you, friends, out of the sepulchre into the light of day, for this day, the pure and sacred day.
And while I squeak and gibber all over you, look, from the wreck a score of field-mice nimble and tame and curious look about them; (these calmed me, on these depended my salvation).
There comes my sergeant, and by all the powers the wire is holding to the right battalion and I can speak – but I myself first spoken hear a known voice now measured even to madness call me by name.
For God’s sake send and help us, here in a gunpit, all headquarters done for, forty of more, the nine-inch came right through, all splashed with arms and legs, and I myself the only one not killed nor even wounded.
You’ll send – God bless you!’ The more monstrous fate shadows our own, the mind swoons doubly burdened, taught how for miles our anguish groans and bleeds, a whole sweet countryside amuck with murder; each moment puffed into a year with death still swept the rain, roared guns, still swooped into the swamps of flesh and blood, all to the drabness of uncreation sunk, all of thought dwindled to moan, Relieve!
But who with what command can now relieve the dead men from that chaos, or my soul?
‘ON THESE FIELDS OF PASSCHENDAELE’ – by Dan Lake
On these fields of Passchendaele, skylarks sing and cattle graze; in these fields of Flanders lives were spent in far off days.
No hint of what went on here! No sign of blood or bones; but sixty thousand souls rest here beneath the white headstones.
On these fields of Passchendaele, where roam silent sheep, the only sound of wailing winds: those mothers who still weep: Over the fields of Passchendaele…
On these fields of Passchendaele, men walked against the fire, while lead and splinters fell like rain, they clung to bloodied wire.
They prayed to God almighty that this day they might get through, but God’s not listening Tommy son, he hasn’t time for you.
On these fields of Passchendaele, where donkey’s planned their war, far from the filthy trenches they were spared what lion’s saw. On these fields of Passchendaele….
On these fields of Passchendaele I stand without a clue of what you poor men suffered. Or what you had to do.
But I can feel your pain as a vice surrounds my heart that crushes breath within me till it forces tears to start for men who died so bloodily, from gas or lead or shell, who drowned in blood and mud, in this place of utter hell.
On these fields of Passchendaele…..
CHW (London – 30th July 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785