The Battlefield of Imperishable Memory
Passchendaele and the ANZAC Legend
Clayton, Vic: Monash University Publishing, 2021
Paperback 336pp RRP $34.95
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, March 2022
In a war best remembered for its massive casualty lists and the ongoing squalor of trench-warfare, in a conflict dominated by quick-firing field artillery and heavy siege guns, the battle also known as Third Ypres, or 'The Battle of the Salient', stands out as one of the bloodiest.
Haultain-Gall's book is an interesting addition to the extensive bibliography on the five battles fought in Belgian Flanders for possession of the medieval city of Ypres. The city was a significant communication centre, overlooked by ridges that rose about 30 to 50 metres above the surrounding flat countryside. These ridges gave the German troops, who held them, vantage points from which they could see the Allied positions, control their artillery, and reverse slopes which concealed and protected their gun positions from observation and counter-battery fire.
The German objective was to break through the Allied defences, take Ypres, and push on through Hasbrouck, another important road and rail centre, and capture the Channel Coast ports through which the British forces were supplied. Field Marshal Haig, the British Commander, saw that an Allied attack that drove the Germans from the ruined villages of Poelcappelle, Passchendaele, Broodseinde and Gheluvelt, and the tree-clad hill of Polygon Wood, would deprive the enemy of its favourable observation positions and the relatively safe sites for their artillery. It would also deny them access to their objectives in the Pas de Calais.
It was not a 'small battle'. The Germans, commanded by Crown Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria, had some 88 Divisions, many under-strength and weary, available, with which to defend their positions. Against them, Haig had 3rd Army [General Gough] and 5th Army [General Plumer], some 44 British divisions, four Canadian divisions forming 1st Canadian Corps [Lt-Gen Currie] and I ANZAC Corps [Lt-Gen Birdwood] and II Anzac Corps [Lt-Gen Godley] – the two corps consisting of five Australian and one New Zealand division.
The British War Cabinet, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was unwilling to support Haig's plan, as were General Foch, the French Commander-in-Chief. Lloyd George and General Robertson, the British Chief of Staff, withheld reinforcements from the large number of troops then available in Britain. Despite Haig being supported by Admiral Jellicoe, who wanted a successful campaign which would clear the Germans from their U-Boat bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend.
Permission was not granted to go ahead until 27th July, but Haig had deliberately refrained from telling the War Cabinet that the weather would break in August, leading to heavy rain, which would turn the flat Flanders farmland into a swamp – because the drainage system, built up over about 300 years, had been destroyed by shellfire between 1914 and 1917. With limited railways and few, poor unsealed roads, the whole battle area would turn into a morass of mud, limiting movement of troops, guns, munitions, and all other supplies. Many wounded men fell and were drowned in the muddy water-filled shell-holes and blocked watercourses.
The battle was bloody. It is estimated that the Allies lost over 275,000 men killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner, and the Germans lost at least 250,000. On the memorial plaques of the Menin Gate are inscribed the names of more than 50,000 Allied troops with 'no known grave' - over 5,000 of these are Australians. [Casualty figures, as cited, vary according to the source from which they were derived. As a consequence, different totals may be found in other sources].
Mr Haultain-Gall's theme is that the Australian troops who fought and died in this disastrous attempt to break the German Army have not been recorded in the collective memories of Australians, and that those who were casualties in this badly-handled military enterprise do not form part of the 'ANZAC Legend', which was founded on Gallipoli Peninsula, and further built upon at places, mostly in France, like Pozières, Amiens, Bullecourt, Mont St Quentin and Villers-Bretonneux. In particular, while the Australian sacrifices in World War One are recognised in France, and here in Australia, they are not as fully recognised in Belgium, and were at first given only peripheral reference in the Australian National War Museum, and In C E W Bean's monumental Official History in the War 1914-1918, he explains this in Chapter 6 – 'Lost in a Surfeit of Memory', and this chapter is central to the book's theme. Also, in the entire book, there is no mention of one of the great Australian contributions to the Allied cause – the Australian Light Horse Charge at Beersheba, also in 1917, one of the outstanding performances by the Desert Mounted Column, led by one of Australia's greatest generals, Sir Harry Chauvel, and made up largely of Australian Light Horse, and which had an integral part in the creation of the ANZAC Legend.
The book is interesting, as it does give full coverage of a brutal campaign, and the valiant role of the 100,000 or more Australian soldiers who took part in it, and in which over 6,000 became casualties. Unfortunately, there are two gaps in the book – there are no maps of the Ypres battle-fields, and of the strategic positioning of the belligerents. Also, the 27 [mostly coloured] plates are placed in one part of the book, between pages 142 and 143, instead of being positioned close to the text to which they relate. Almost all the Plates are printed 2 to a page – and it is hard to appreciate the Septimus Power print [Plate 8] when reduced to 11 cm x 5.5cm. The superb Longstaff painting 'Menin Gate at Midnight' [Plate 12] has also been reproduced at the same dimensions, and so loses its impact.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.