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Most of us with an amateur interest in the history of New Zealand’s involvement in the Flanders battles of the First World War probably never focus on victory or defeat but rather on muddy stalemate and thoughtless waste of life.
There were victories, particular for New Zealanders at Messines and Les Quesnoy. But there were also tragedies with little to gain, especially at Passchendaele. There, the battle of Third Yypres (often miss-pronounced by soliders as ‘wipers’, instead of ‘yeepray’) or First Passchendaele, saw 845 New Zealanders killed on the first day (12 October, 1917) along with 1952 wounded. Over the period from 13-18 October 1917, 570 New Zealanders were killed with 620 reported missing and 2016 injured. Most of the missing were probably dead.
With Andrew MacDonald’s Passchendaele we now have a forensic study, providing a deeper understanding of why our young country paid such a price. MacDonald has truly dissected this battle. And a reader can only conclude that the tragedy was avoidable.
The author explores the strategic thinking, the development of new tactics to overcome machine guns and barbed wire, and the technology of artillery. The building of the necessary roads and narrow gauge rail lines, working out how to move dead and injured back into structured and layered medical facilities, are all studied.
In fact, the British and Dominion armies had learned many lessons in the years of the war leading up to Passchendaele and had developed strategies and tactics for set piece attacks that were shown to work – if all the pieces were in the right place. MacDonald Identifies that, in effect, there were ‘handbooks’ on how to conduct such battles, known as Field Service Regulations (FSR) and Instructions for the Training of Divisions for the Offensive Action (SS135).
‘The significance of FSR and SS135 in planning, preparing and conducting tactical-level battles should not be overlooked’, writes MacDonald.
One of the key achievements of these ‘handbooks’ would appear to be how they caused the co-ordination of different elements of the army, from logistics, engineering and supply units to infantry, and artillery to achieve overall success. These strategies and tactics had been developed from the Somme and had been used successfully at Menin Road and Polygon Wood.
So what when wrong at First Passchendaele? Implementation of FSR and SS135 was tragically lacking. Who’s fault was it? MacDonald lays that fault firmly upon Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Godley, commander of the II Anzac Corps.
This book looks very closely at Godley with MacDonald aserting, ‘little has been said (before) about how and why Godley’s command affected II Anzac’s battle at Third Ypres’. British born Godley was highly ambitious with a keen eye, according to MacDonald, and a reputation of wanting to impress commanders above him, especially the overall commander Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. While it seems incredible, MacDonald makes a strong case to suggest that Godley forced divisional commanders to rush the lead up time to prepare for the battle; that he failed to recognise that everything, according to the rule books of FSR and SS135, was not in place. He also ignored advice to delay, all of this because he wanted to ensure a lengthy army career that would financially compensate for the lack of family money. The ensuing battle with very limited success but a huge and gruesome death toll is told with clarity and precision.
Sometimes the book may seem to be dispassionate – like a pathologist’s objective, cold record of an autopsy. And in many ways this is an autopsy. However, MacDonald does account for the human side of this battle, especially in Chapter 1 ‘It Makes me Shiver to Think of It’, where individual solders are quoted speaking of the horrors, including Private Jesse Stayte’s observation ‘I saw some pitiful sights, dozens of our men (Rifle Brigade) were coming back wounded and the track for 2 miles was sprinkled with blood’.
But it is Godley that MacDonald clamps the blame upon very firmly: ‘Without question Godley emerges against the backcloth of the muddy and bloody Third Ypres battlefield as an incompetent bungler who willingly drove his II Anzac to the cusp of destruction’. It is from this standpoint that MacDonald uses again a damnation of Godley first used following the disastrous Battle of the Nek on Gallipoli in 1915, described by an Australian as ‘Godley’s Abbattoir’. MacDonald’s meticulous research allows him to draw no other conclusion than Third Ypres, First Passchendaele was another ‘Godley’s Abbattoir’.
Andrew MacDonald is a trained and experienced journalist, turned war historian and author. He has brought to this book a reporter’s skill to sort the facts from the myths. It has been praised by professional historians such as Dr Christopher Pugsley as a ‘benchmark for future battle studies’. For the ordinary kiwi with an interest in the first world war, it will be a very important reference as we lead into 2014 and the anniversaries of so many battles for New Zealanders, Passchendaele being perhaps the the bloodiest.
Reviewed by Lincoln Gould, CEO Booksellers NZ
Passchendaele: The Anatomy of a Tragedy
by Andrew MacDonald
Published by HarperCollins NZ