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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Passchendaele  1917

Robert J Parker                        Amberley, 2017

I took this book to read during a few days of a battlefield tour of the Ypres Salient. It is not a guidebook at all – one should take, for example, Major and Mrs Holt’s reliably excellent Ypres guidebook for that. But this volume does an excellent job in putting everything one sees into context.  Parker writes with calm authority, however there is much overlap between Prologue and the opening chapters. Indeed there is overlap during the whole book. Clearly the editor shirked from taking out his metaphorical scissors on any material scale. Initial chapters give an overview of tactics and equipment in the British Army at this time.


Parker rightly describes at length the appalling conditions on this battlefield. The region is very flat, and any ridges, so highly sought by the opposing sides, appear as barely ripples in the landscape. Although the book is not a dissection of Field Marshal Haig’s strategic strengths – or lack of them – Parker sets out the results of Haig’s dogged approach. Refined during the several attempts to take the Passchendaele Ridge, and others such as Messines, ‘success’ was deemed to accrue when pre-battle artillery barrages reached infernal intensities. Any existing drainage was destroyed, and the low-laying clay ground became a soup which swallowed pack mules, guns, men, indeed anything which tried to cross it. There terrible deaths on an horrific scale.


To put some human context on this: I counted the names of more than 4,000 privates from just one of my county regiments (the West Yorkshires) on the Tyne Cot memorial. This records those who fall in the last 15 months of the war who have no known grave.


Another slight quibble in this book. It becomes rather monotone in character as Parker rolls through the various attempts to shift the line in the area. It fails to give any colour to the life of an average Tommie here at the time, not portraying, for example, what was available to them when behind the line.


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