Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory

by Martin Marix Evans
Pen and Sword, 2005

Stretcher Bearers Crossing the Inundated Battlefield

Passchendaele (also Third Ypres, July–November 1917) was and remains a controversial battle, with participants and historians feuding over its strategy and outcome over the past century. Martin Evans retells the story, ultimately arguing for Passchendaele playing a positive role in helping the Allied cause to eventual victory.

As a Pen and Sword publication, Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory focuses entirely on the battle. Readers seeking contemporary geopolitical context, social history, or diplomatic analysis should look elsewhere. Instead Evans offers a meticulous examination of military events, including a detailed probe of geography (including the soil conditions, which proved horrendous), order of battle, and events on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Evans offers a good account of disputes among British commanders, notably the divide between campaign organizer General  Sir Douglas Haig and operational leader General Hubert Gough. The latter famously argued for caution and slower timetables at key moments (61). The campaign's bogging down depressed Gough badly but left Haig energetic and demanding (139–140, for example).

Evans makes excellent use of primary sources, like this vivid depiction by 2d Lt. D.G. Browne of the Allied bombardment's effects :

The [German] front line was not merely obliterated: it had been scorched and pulverized as if by an earthquake, stamped flat and heaved up again, caught as it fell and blown all ways; and when the four minutes' blast of destruction moved on, was left dissolved in its elements, heaped in fantastic mounds of mud, or excavated into crumbling pits already half full of water. There cannot have been a live man left in it. At our point of crossing there was nothing to be seen which remotely resembled a trench; before us yawned a deep muddy gulf, out of whose slimy sides obtruded fragments of splintered timber, broken slabs of concrete, and several human legs clothed in German half-boots…(43)

Or this scene of classic horror:

From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning…And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham was crying quietly beside me…(76)

The book is profusely illustrated by period photographs. Some are quite striking, like the ruined tank (44) or the classic Menin Road shot (107). Was Passchendaele an Allied victory? Evans carefully makes the case for yes, largely by hedging his claims and identifying enormous Allied challenges ("If, then, this was a victory…In the long run…it was not without value" [249]). First he shows that the terrain was terrible for both infantry and machine and that summer 1917 saw unusually bad weather, worsening the scene still further, leaving the ground soupy and nearly impassable (62, 156). Second, Evans reminds us that it saw the use of many technologies which were experimental or in early days at the time, even though most became wartime staples by 1918, such as radio (7).

Most important of these technologies was the tank, which was still in early trials, and often malfunctioned badly around Ypres. Evans offers many rich accounts of tanks bogged down in confusion, mud, or mechanical failure, along with fascinating details, like soldiers laying down long tapes for tank drivers to follow (38), especially when drivers couldn't see well enough to avoid going off-road (111). Tanks did score some successes, but were sometimes misused on inappropriate terrain (62–67; 80; great anecdote 69–70) or in numbers too small to be effective.

One captain notes this sad view of the new technology during the course of the campaign:

Any plan for using [tanks] as fighting weapons appears to have been abandoned. In an endeavor to find a job for tanks, my two were being sent forward to be used experimentally as tractors for hauling guns and supply sledges…(123)

Third, new tactics were beginning to surface at Passchendaele. The massed charges of 1914 were gone, and in their place practices emerged such as focusing machine gun fire against strongpoints (79). Creeping barrages were improving (106). The Germans were also developing new tactics in response to Allied pressure, like lightly manning a front line as a "forefield" from which survivors of an attack could easily retreat to enable an artillery response (134).

Australians Wearing Box Respirators, Ypres, 1917

Fourth, the Allied offensive around Ypres drew down German resources strategically. Ludendorff sometimes viewed the Allied attack as hurting his ability to exert force elsewhere, as in the Italian theater (130), and found British persistence to be depressing (148). Arguably this contributed positively to the cause, as other Allied offensives failed badly during this time, Nivelle's and Kerensky's in particular. And yet the Allies failed to effect a breakthrough, despite gaining some ground, and they suffered horrible casualties

Evan's Passchendaele: The Hollow Victory is therefore useful but does suffer from some problems. It lacks any footnotes, and instead asks readers to write in for sources (ix)! Furthermore, the maps—ah, how frustrating they turned out to be. On the one hand I'm delighted to see so many of them, around 20, in a short book. Unfortunately nearly all are period maps, lovingly reproduced, but not always helpful. Some of the originals were clearly huge, and suffer too much data compression by being crammed onto a half page (the two on 143 might be the worst examples). Several original sketch maps do serve well enough (74), but others are more useful as glimpses into commanders' thinking, and less as aids to the reader.

As for Evans's conclusion, it feels persuasive to me, especially in the larger geopolitical context, and given the Allied learning curve with new technology and tactics. Recommended for any student of the Western Front.

Bryan Alexander


  1. This is a detailed and insightful review--thank you, Bryan! It's hard to believe the business about having to write in to get the author's sources. The map situation is, alas, all too common. However, this is now another book I know I must read!

  2. History is something which is of my interest and I wasn't aware about paschendaele battle, going to look for more information about it. Thank you for sharing this piece with us