What is the significance to you of Passchendaele?
This has… a complex answer, but I’m really glad you asked it.
I guess there are probably three main things I’d want to say about Passchendaele or as I usually refer to it, the Third Battle of Ypres.
First and foremost I dislike how far it’s been mythologised. How modern memory of the campaign, because it’s much more than a single battle, has simplified it to the point of falsehood. This is a common complaint of the historian and I make no bones about repeating it, but Third Ypres was a lot more complex and not as black and white (mostly black) as portrayed. 100 years had taken one part of the campaign, albeit an awful part, and enlarged it to the point where it obscures or outright erases most of the a month long campaign. The MUD of Ypres is the part you will hear about endlessly. Mud and blood and rain. And yes there was rain and there was mud. The conditions were shitty. But the rhetoric that has grown up about the campaign obscure the weeks of stifling heat. The ground baked so dry that dust raised from artillery obscured the fall of shot and that of marching men made them easy targets on approach roads.
Secondly it’s seen as yet another in an endless series of unimaginative bloodbaths enacted by a dimwitted Haig who was ever in search of an elusive breakthrough.
Not a whole lot could be further from reality. Far from unimaginative the campaign was the climax of three years of hard fighting and showed value of the set-piece and bite-and-hold attack method, but also its drawbacks. It was a campaign that used a highly developed doctrine, relying on combined arms and a ton of new technological and scientific advances.
And although Haig cops a lot of shit for his strategic planning I don’t see any real alternative here. He understood the kind of war being fought, selected a strategy that would allow for an Entente victory (attrition), but still looked about for innovative methods that might end the war more quickly. And as for his lusting after a breakthrough to unleash the cavalry into, who wouldn’t? It would be irresponsible to plan a Grand Offensive (as the large campaigns were so lovingly called) and not have a contingency plan to be able to implement if a gap did appear in the enemy lines. Strategic plans are always looking towards high end goals but reacting to on the ground realities. Haig wasn’t any worse than any other commander, and he was decidedly better than many.
Thirdly and finally the campaign showed that the British and French could break into the German lines at will, given the time and resources to plan a set-piece attack. As long as the infantry could be adequately supported by artillery then almost any objective could be taken at (by WW1 standards) low cost. The problem was that the effective range of the artillery was much shallower than the depth of the German defences. The bite and hold method could take a few miles of line and kill a lot of Germans, but alone it couldn’t win the war.
What it did do was inspire British and French military thinkers to approach the offensive in a new way, as each years fighting had done, to come onto a winning method.
If there’s anything that’s not clear or someone would like expanded upon, let me know.
I really like more questions like this, or anything really, if people have them.