FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Memories of Futility: The Passchendaele Method of War

“So fruitless in its results, so depressing in its direction was the 1917 offensive, that ‘Passchendaele’ has come to be synonym for military failure, a name black-bordered in the records of the British Army.”

-Basil Liddell Hart, 1934

Rarely does one word trap an image with such nerve tingling fright and awe. But as an image of slaughter, of men needlessly butchered, lives surrendered over absentee stone hearted generals with an understanding of war lost in the amnesia of small arms fire, spears and straw dress, one suffices. Passchendaele became the code for blood needlessly spilt; for decisions that should have, in any other context, demanded the trial and execution of its initiators.

A century ago, wave upon wave of men were shredded, pulverised and drowned according to misplaced notions, killed by obsolete ideas in what was the Third Battle of Ypres. The Americans had yet to arrive to make a difference in the conflict, while a bleeding Russia had been vanquished, facing revolution. The French, preoccupied with mutinies, needed a fortifying distraction.

Britain and its imperial forces were intent on providing one, with Sir Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig convinced that the German line would collapse with one last, but all-comprehensive strategic thrust.

The battle had been preceded by what came to be considered the largest man-made explosion in pre-atomic times, featuring 19 tunnelled mines beneath German lines on Messines Ridge. E.S. Turner goes so far as to claim that British prime minister Lloyd George, it had been rumoured, wanted to be woken up at 3 in the morning that June night.

The initial enthusiasm, as with so much in the Great War (1914-1918), was misplaced. “I died in hell,” recalled war poet Siegfried Sassoon. “They call it Passchendaele.” As the blood drained in conditions so swampy as to render the trenches almost aquatic (many soldiers drowned in shell holes); as the ammunition and shells were expended, humanity’s great skill of killing for reasons of futility became apparent.

It was a futility that kept the awards machine busy. Lasting three months and a gain for the Allies of a mere five miles, the Victoria Cross, deemed the highest of Commonwealth military honours, was awarded 61 times. Haig had lost a sixth of the British army. As historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson note in Passchendaele: The Untold Story (1996) a psychological breakdown also took place during the battle, marked by desertion and drunkenness.

The accounts have been saturating the commemorations across several countries whose soldiers perished in the muddied industrial abattoir. In Christchurch, New Zealand, an opening exhibition titled “The Belgians have not forgotten” shined a grim light upon a conflict which cost the combating sides over half-a-million casualties. For this sliver of a country, some 2800 troops were killed wounded, or went missing within a matter of two hours.

New Zealand’s fraternal neighbour, Australia, also busy on the commemoration circuit. It had committed its fair, grotesque bounty of blood to the battle. By the time the battle ended on November 10, Australia’s five committed divisions had suffered 38,000 casualties, including 12,000 killed.

In London’s Trafalgar Square before the National Gallery, a mud soldier, the creation of Dutch artist Damian Van Der Velden, was erected, to be left in gradual dissolution before rain. The statue itself was compacted from the historically churned Passchendaele mud.

These exhibitions and ceremonial points all serve a similar purpose. For Dave Adamson of the Waimakariri Passchendaele Trust, it was the promotion of “peace and understanding”. But the peace and understanding such efforts have are less to the members of the public than those who would bag and hoodwink it. For them, war remains a good, even necessary thing.

Harry Patch, the supercentearian “last Tommy” who died at venerable age of 111 in 2009, put the case flawlessly: “I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle the differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalized mass murder.”

The end point of such futility is that humankind hugs the death god with all too much enthusiasm. Gone are the trench filled nightmares of industrial slaughter. Now, conflicts are undeclared, open-ended, described as forensic horrors marked by surgical strikes.

To live life, to be loved, and then, to be surrendered to an insidious Thanatic drive all too often willed on by others. “We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,” goes John McCrae’s haunting words, “Loved and were loved and now we lie/in Flanders fields.”

Even more important are the words that follow: that the dead shall be, as it were, trapped in an interminable state of restless, mournful sleeplessness, a nocturnal nightmare should faith be broken with the sacrifice of the fallen: “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders field.” If faith is there to be broken, is it not in the ties between humankind so much as its sanguinary leaders who keep insisting that slaughter and an inventory of dead are necessary for matters of state.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

April 19, 2018
Ramzy Baroud
Media Cover-up: Shielding Israel is a Matter of Policy
Vijay Prashad
Undermining Brazilian Democracy: the Curious Saga of Lula
Steve Fraser
Class Dismissed: Class Conflict in Red State America
John W. Whitehead
Crimes of a Monster: Your Tax Dollars at Work
Kenn Orphan
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Karl Grossman - TJ Coles
Opening Pandora’s Box: Karl Grossman on Trump and the Weaponization of Space
Colin Todhunter
Behind Theresa May’s ‘Humanitarian Hysterics’: The Ideology of Empire and Conquest
Jesse Jackson
Syrian Strikes is One More step Toward a Lawless Presidency
Michael Welton
Confronting Militarism is Early Twentieth Century Canada: the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Alycee Lane
On David S. Buckel and Setting Ourselves on Fire
Jennifer Matsui
Our Overlords Reveal Their Top ‘To Do’s: Are YOU Next On Their Kill List?
George Ochenski
Jive Talkin’: On the Campaign Trail With Montana Republicans
Kary Love
Is It Time for A Nice, “Little” Nuclear War?
April 18, 2018
Alan Nasser
Could Student Loans Lead to Debt Prison? The Handwriting on the Wall
Susan Roberts
Uses for the Poor
Alvaro Huerta
I Am Not Your “Wetback”
Jonah Raskin
Napa County, California: the Clash of Oligarchy & Democracy
Robert Hunziker
America’s Dystopian Future
Geoffrey McDonald
“America First!” as Economic War
Jonathan Cook
Robert Fisk’s Douma Report Rips Away Excuses for Air Strike on Syria
Jeff Berg
WW III This Ain’t
Binoy Kampmark
Macron’s Syria Game
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia’s Top Cop Defends Indefensible Prejudice in Starbucks Arrest Incident
Katie Fite
Chaos in Urban Canyons – Air Force Efforts to Carve a Civilian Population War Game Range across Southern Idaho
Robby Sherwin
Facebook: This Is Where I Leave You
April 17, 2018
Paul Street
Eight Takeaways on Boss Tweet’s Latest Syrian Missile Spasm
Robert Fisk
The Search for the Truth in Douma
Eric Mann
The Historic 1968 Struggle Against Columbia University
Roy Eidelson
The 1%’s Mind Games: Psychology Gone Bad
John Steppling
The Sleep of Civilization
Patrick Cockburn
Syria Bombing Reveals Weakness of Theresa May
Dave Lindorff
No Indication in the US That the Country is at War Again
W. T. Whitney
Colombia and Cuba:  a Tale of Two Countries
Dean Baker
Why Isn’t the Median Wage for Black Workers Rising?
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia’s Top Cop Defends Indefensible Prejudice in Starbucks Arrest Incident
C. L. Cook
Man in the Glass
Kary Love
“The Mob Boss Orders a Hit and a Pardon”
Lawrence Wittner
Which Nations Are the Happiest―and Why
Dr. Hakim
Where on Earth is the Just Economy that Works for All, Including Afghan Children?
April 16, 2018
Dave Lindorff
President Trump’s War Crime is Worse than the One He Accuses Assad of
Ron Jacobs
War is Just F**kin’ Wrong
John Laforge
Nuclear Keeps on Polluting, Long After Shutdown
Norman Solomon
Missile Attack on Syria Is a Salute to “Russiagate” Enthusiasts, Whether They Like It or Not
Uri Avnery
Eyeless in Gaza   
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Then, Syria Now
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail