The soldier made of Flanders mud, placed in Trafalgar Square to commemorate Passchendaele is, in my opinion, the most poignant work of war-art ever made. Watch him melt, destroyed by the weather of another wet summer, and to understand the 3rd Battle of Ypres, you hardly need Siegfried Sassoon’s chilling words: “I died in Hell. They called it Passchendaele.”
The First World War provided several images of the inferno – the one known as Passchendaele lasted ninety-nine days.
At 3.50am, on 31st July, 1917, the first British attack began, of a campaign intended to take the last ridge outside Ypres, finally break the German line, and end the war. It should have been dawn, but unbroken cloud, heralding the endless rain to come, and the windless, sunless days which would ensure the pulverised ground never dried, meant it was still dark. The day ended with three British brigades driven back with 70% losses. The campaign ended on 6th November, when the Canadians took Passchendaele.
It is a collective memory of countries who were considered family then, and to which we still feel bound by blood, language and culture: British, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, all drowned in the shell-holes in the endless liquid Flanders mud, alongside war horses, and men burned and blinded by the mustard gas released by the Germans.
With distance, it became fashionable to ignore historical record and label the First World War a meaningless blood-bath, a mere squabble between royal cousins, but nobody thought so at the time – because it wasn’t so. Those floods of men who volunteered during the first two years of the war, before conscription was enforced for the first time in our history, supported the aims of the conflict because the integrity of nations was under threat, not because they were stupid.
There was no benefit to war, for any of the nations of Europe which had built empires and alliances and were enjoying a golden age. German expansion within Europe was an aggressive aim, fuelled by resentment at having missed out on grabbing a ‘place in the sun’ during the years when Germany was a hotchpotch of argumentative Ruritanian mini-states. Russia, with enviably vast ‘living space’ and France, with that long disputed border, were on the Kaiser’s shopping list long before shots rang out in Sarajevo.
The Von Schlieffen Plan – to violate Belgian neutrality in order to invade France, which is what brought Britain into the conflict – began to be put into practical action in 1905. The building of railway stations with platforms a quarter of a mile long, ideal for embarkation of troops, in tiny border villages, was reported by our man on the ground – such an inept spy that he was nick-named ‘Mon General Rosbif’ by locals as he cycled around Alsace-Lorraine with his binoculars – but the Liberals were so keen to avoid war that they did nothing to nip it in the bud.
The bullying by the Kaiser of the doddering Austrian Emperor Franz Josef – so senile that in the end he declared war on Russia in a letter sent to the Tsar by ordinary post (“…gas….electricity….Rasputin’s bar-bill…oops, we’re at war with Austria-Hungary..”) – was the act of a man crazed with power, but when he finally realised the magnitude of the impending doom, he was unable to stop things for the most Teutonic of reasons: his generals told him the train time-tables were fixed for the following six months.
It was a relentless German war-machine, not a royal hissy-fit, which pulled the pin on the grenade which detonated in Europe, and we insult those who were there, when we deny history.
My grandfather was a regular with the East Surreys, a standard-bearer for the Old Contemptibles, and Passchendaele was part of his war when he was twenty-three years old. At the age of seventy-nine he would still sometimes, without warning, drop his head into his hands and rock. Although he didn’t die in hell he certainly revisited it often – but he never thought it had been senseless, and, twenty-one years later, seeing how the wind was blowing, he volunteered for service again.
To truly respect those who fought, we must respect what they fought for. As you buy poppies and post memes honouring the dead, think how, if you were about to step on a train to hell, you would like to be assured that the things you loved were in safe hands.
After much bickering, the number of British and Commonwealth casualties during the Passchendaele campaign has been put at just over 275,000 killed or wounded, around 116 men down every hour of the campaign. This means that, over the past century, there were between three and four million babies who were never born, because the men who should have passed on the shape of their hands, the colour of their eyes and hair, and the talents they had inherited, instead became one with the mud of Flanders fields.
And that’s just one campaign.
And that means that those who were born, who carry on the lines which survived the inferno – you, me, even those men or women you pass in the street, who you think are thick, or annoying, or in need of cultural enrichment – are the progeny of men who survived hell, or who went to war leaving children who would grow to adulthood without them. For the sake of those men, their descendants are infinitely precious.
Among the descendants are those who have inherited the military traditions which have guarded us for centuries, have already faced savagery many prefer to pretend is imaginary, and stand ready to defend us still – belittled, beleaguered and underfunded by the kind who were equally short-sighted a century ago – while we pour resources into some nations who have differing collective memories and may yearn to see us brought to our knees, and into others who avoid responsibility for their own stagnation by blaming us for their failures, like malcontent middle-aged children who won’t quite leave home.
Those men and boys who left the shires, kissed wives and children goodbye, were given packets of sandwiches and twists of tea and tobacco, wore scarves knitted by hands which they would never hold again, and are now names carved on plinths of sad memorials in villages which lost their hearts when they lost their sons and fathers -what would they think of us, if we don’t defend the land they died for, the homes they dreamed of, and the children who are their immortality?