Today marks the centenary of the start of a battle near Ypres, the third in the area and better knows as Passchendaele.
It’s remembered for the shocking conditions, as the worst rain recorded in the area lasted for 6 months, turning the area into a swampland. Men and horses were drowned, tanks were useless, the shells competed with the rain.
As a military operation it is now seen as a folly to gain five miles and a town that wasn’t much in the way of strategic win. Yes, miles were won and the Germans pushed back by the allied forces but at a cost.
At the end of the battle 105 days after it started, nearly 500,000 men were lost on both sides, 90,000 weren’t identified and 42,000 weren’t found. That’s around 4700 men killed every day of the battle, in the worst conditions imaginable.
As a killing machine, this was the most effective of the war to gain little as a strategic advantage. More men were killed in this phase of the conflict than any other and it left it’s mark not only on the countryside but on the men, their families for a long while.
Streets, towns and villages were robbed of their young men as they signed up in Pals’ Battalions. Yes, they had the parades where they left as heroes but it was their final farewell to their homes and loved ones, dying in a flooded terrain in Belgium with their friends and neighbours.
It was the Great War, the war to end all wars, but that was expediency of the time as we have never really learned, either as leaders or a people. Many have died or been wounded in battle since, with the most recent in Iraq & Afghanistan taking its toll.
I have great respect for those in the military who can go to war in this way, as it does take a lot of bravery. The horrific nature of war does need to be seen to believed – the chaos, the noise, the fear. I’ve never been to war and can only imagine what it takes to keep moving forward in the way of WW1, over the top and keep running if you haven’t been shot.
What have we learned from all this? Not much, I wager, as we went to war again 21 years later and the mass killing started again, with more millions lost by the end of the conflict, with many more wars raging across the world. Young men changed completely and forever by what they’ve seen and they were the ‘lucky’ ones.
When younger, I read war poets and there was something so stark about their writing which chronicled the war, as well as the soldier’s own feelings. Dulce et Decorum Est is well known and read, with good reason. Translated it means ‘It is sweet and fitting’ but only makes more sense in the context of war when adding ‘pro patria mori’, which means to die for your country.
It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for your country.
Let that sink in and think why ordinary people have gone to war for their country. It’s sold as protecting freedoms, our way of life against a vile and oppressive enemy. In reality, it is usually the vanity and greed of leaders who have failed to communicate or decided they wanted more. That leads to conflict in which ordinary people die and the worst is that they are lied to by those who press them to war.
History has shown it and it is repeated, time and time again.
The old lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.