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

Monday, August 14, 2017

August 1917: What It Was Like at Passchendaele

Sgt. Robert McKay was a stretcher-bearer with the 109th Field  Ambulance, 36th Ulster Division. This month a century ago, he was recording some impressions of the great battle.

How Sgt. McKay Served His King

6 August 

Today awful: was obliged to carry some of the wounded into the graveyard and look on helpless till they died. Sometimes we could not even obtain a drink of water for them. Yesterday and today have been the most fearful couple of days I have ever put in.

7 August 
Bringing the wounded down from the front line today. Conditions terrible. The ground is a quagmire. It requires six men to every stretcher. The mud in some cases is up to our waists.  Every place is in full view of the enemy who are on the ridge.

14 August 
One party of stretcher-bearers was bringing down a wounded man when an airman swooped down and dropped a bomb deliberately on them. The enemy shells the stretcher-bearers all the time.

16 August 
The infantry took a few pill-boxes and a line or two of trenches from the enemy in this attack but at a fearful cost. It is only murder attempting to advance against these pillboxes over such ground. Any number of men fall down wounded and are either smothered in the mud or drowned in the holes of water before we can reach them. We have been working continuously now since the 13th. The stretcher-bearers are done up completely.

17  August
Captain Johnston  said that the Division was being relieved tonight and to warn men of the 109th Field Ambulance that they could make their way down to headquarters.  One man, B. Edgar, asked me when I was going down, and I said in the morning between two and three o'clock, Edgar then said he was going to have a a sleep and not to go down without calling him.  I looked at him and said, "Where in Heaven's name are you going to sleep here?" and for answer was told that there were two dead men at the entrance with a blanket thrown over them, and I would find him under the blanket, and here he would not be disturbed, as all three were lying in the open above ground.

19 August
I have had no sleep since I went on the 13th. Never do I want to be in such a place again. The 109th Field Ambulance alone had over thirty casualties, killed, wounded and gassed—and this out of one hundred men who were doing the line.

Sources:  Imperial War Museum


  1. This beggars the question of 'no man left behind'... and full accountability in the face of over welling WAR. It confused me as a child visiting Verdun in 1955, how could the U.S. honor the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, when so many thousands remain unknown and unburied... and maybe goes to the idea of when a tragedy becomes a statistic.