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

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Road to Passchendaele
Reviewed by David Beer

The Road to Passchendaele:
The Heroic Year in Soldiers' own Words and Photographs

by Richard van Emden
Pen and Sword, 2017

As an author of books on WWI, Richard van Emden needs very little introduction. This, his latest book, maintains the high standards of his previous ones and proves to be not only lively and full of detail but also captivating. The author makes full use of his enviable personal archives of photographs taken sub rosa during the conflict, plus the letters and diaries of the men who were there. In this case van Emden focuses on four 1917 offensives: Arras, Messines, Third Ypres (Passchendaele), and Cambrai. By the time I finished this book I felt I had considerably more insight and empathy regarding the true feelings of the men and officers who fought in these battles.

British Wounded at Passchendaele

It was a pathetic sight to see the old horse, of whom I had grown very fond, bleeding profusely and suffering pain, and my conscience smote me for having spurred and sworn at the poor creature when he had stood petrified with fright a quarter of an hour before (p. 276).

1917 was a terrible year for everyone, men and horses. At sea there was unrestricted German submarine warfare and Britain's blockade of Germany. The Western Front saw some of the nastiest warfare yet. Increasing numbers of Britons were being conscripted and sent to France, some unhappily.

We were getting many conscripts from home, and I was intensely sorry for them. Many were middle-aged, with wives and families, and to be put straight into action, as many of them were, was beyond all question a far greater trial than we veterans had to begin with (p. 28).

It was gradually dawning on both sides that this might become a war of attrition, and what the United States would do was still an open question. Moreover, the winter of 1917 was unusually severe in northern France and Flanders. This is the context in which The Road to Passchendaele presents the written thoughts and feelings of the participants. Conditions are effectively brought to light by some 170 rare sepia-toned photos, as well as by the text:

3 August: Still raining. Great difficulty experienced with the guns owing to the trails and wheels sinking so deeply into the soft, wet ground. The whole battery had to heave on one gun every time it had to be pulled out to switch. Every conceivable means was adopted to try and prevent the trails sinking so deep, but none were very successful (p. 270).

Eight chapters cover the battles, and apart from the author's relatively brief discussions of the background military situations, we're carried through events by the words of the men: officers of various ranks plus privates, sappers, gunners, linemen, drivers, stretcher bearers and NCOs-although overall more officers are cited, possibly because of their superior writing skills. Occasionally there is a cheerful note but more likely it is the opposite, as, for example, on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 at 3:00 AM:

A wretched awakening, pitch dark, cold, with a keen wind blowing. One can perhaps imagine the feelings of everybody that morning searching about in the darkness for equipment, chilled to the bone, half asleep, stumbling over other men's equipment and on top of all, the knowledge of a very fair prospect of 'pushing daisies up' before nightfall (p. 70).

British Soldiers, Some Wearing German Helmets, Cambrai, November 1917

At this advanced date of the war it's surprising that cavalry was still sometimes used. At Monchy the results of an ill-advised charge were clearly seen:

As we turned the bend of the road to go up the hill, I stopped. The sight that greeted me was so horrible that I almost lost my head. Heaped on top of one another and blocking up the roadway for as one could see lay the mutilated bodies of our men and horses. These bodies, torn and gaping, had stiffened into fantastic attitudes. All the hollows of the road were filled with blood. This was the cavalry. (p. 93)

Elsewhere we learn a lot about tanks and how they were so limited in their movements. The arduous and dangerous work of "ambulance men" (stretcher bearers) and telephone linemen during battle are described by more than one writer, as are many other situations experienced and processed by those in the trenches. Occasionally I was surprised by conflicting emotions. During an advance through a barrage, after seeing numerous German corpses—including one with the top half of his head blown off—a young private writes:

Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun. You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects…I never enjoyed anything so much in my life-flames, smoke, lights, SOS's, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage properties to set off a great scene…From the pictorial point of view nothing could be finer or more majestic. . . (p. 356-358)

Another soldier, on the night before moving up to the trenches to go over the top, is more introspective:

I tried to concentrate my thoughts on the distant future when war should be no more, and the accursed trenches were only a memory, but I could see no future. I could not look beyond the next two days. My life, and the lives of thousands of other men, were but the playthings of the moment. In a couple of days, perhaps less, the acres of Klein Zillebeke would be stained with forty-eight hours their fresh young bodies would have started to rot…It was a stark raving fact that 20 per cent of the men were not expected to be living in two days from now. (p. 323)

It's been said before that the Great War had as many interpretations and reactions to it as there were people fighting in it. The Road to Passchendaele hints at this as it takes a broad cross-section of those who were there and gives us rich insights into their feelings, reactions, fears, and personal triumphs. I found these insights absorbing and enlightening and I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the very personal side of World War One in 1917.

David Beer


  1. Thanks for this fine review David. It sounds like a book that will end up on my shelves....

  2. A very thoughtful review.
    How are the maps?

  3. Just three maps, Brian, but they are large and clear. They're for the Battles of Arras, Messines, and Third Ypres.

  4. The photo shows British soldiers wearing captured German helmets, not German prisoners.