Commemoration of Passchendaele

13th July 2017

Keith Simpson speaks in a debate to commemorate the Battle of Passchendaele.

May I begin by thanking the Minister for outlining the various ceremonies that are to take place over the next two or three months to commemorate the battle of Passchendaele? I also thank the spokesman for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), for talking about the wider impact of the war, which we are also commemorating.

It seems to me that, at times, this commemoration is a bit like the first world war in that, year by year, we remember another campaign, another battle. I wanted to speak in this debate for a number of reasons. I am so old that I interviewed dozens of first world war survivors in the 1970s for a writing project—I published two or three books. I have a deep, connected memory of the first world war, as my grandfather served in it. As a member of the Prime Minister’s advisory panel on the first world war, I am also conscious of the fact that we need to get the balance right—this point was made in an intervention on the Minister—between commemoration and not glorifying war. How do we bring the war to young people? I have a personal connection as I can remember talking to survivors of Passchendaele, but for my son, who is 26, the battle of Passchendaele is as far away from him as the battle of Waterloo.

Secondly, why are we remembering Passchendaele? Is it just because we have got into the habit of putting hooks on our commemoration? In other words, it was obvious that, in 2014, it was going to be the battle of Mons. We glided through 2015, but there was of course Gallipoli, which was very, very important to the Australians and the New Zealanders. The great irony there is that the Australians and New Zealanders played a far more important and significant role as part of the British Armies in Belgium and France in ’16, ’17 and ’18 and, indeed, suffered far worse casualties. Now, in 2017, we are largely, but not wholly, commemorating Passchendaele. Next year, we will end up commemorating the great German Spring offensive, which nearly broke the allied line; the Hundred Days offensive, which was the more mobile campaign; and then the collapse of the Germans in October and November 1918. That is it—the end of the first world war, but of course it was not.

As the Minister pointed out, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission celebrates its centenary this year. It was the work of a remarkable man, Fabian Ware, who served with an ambulance unit—he was too old to serve in a frontline unit—in 1914. He was struck by the extent of the casualties and what was going to happen to them. Through the adjutant general, one of the chief of staff officers in the British Armies’ general headquarters, he began to collect bodies together—he began some form of formalisation. In 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission was established. Its work really began after the Armistice in 1918. As the Minister pointed out, Tyne Cot—named after a reference on a map—outside Passchendaele, became the largest cemetery for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Nearly 50,000 men are commemorated there, the majority of whom have no grave.

That brings me on to my next point, which is that, for younger people, Passchendaele is about the sheer extent of casualties. I suspect that it is also associated in their mind not only with poetry and literature, some of which we have heard, but with film and photographs. The great thing about the first world war—if there is a great thing—is that we can actually see it. There is cine film, which is slightly more difficult, and a raft of photographs, many of which were taken on the frontline. It was against King’s regulations for servicemen to take cameras onto the frontline. Most of them ignored that, and sent their photographs back home, which has given us a graphic display of what happened.

I talk to children and young people about the war. They say to me, “Another three or four years and I would have been old enough to have fought in the war. How did those people endure that? What did the Government do to force them to fight in the British Armies in the first world war?” It comes as quite a surprise to them when I say that there was no conscription until 1916-17 and that the majority of the servicemen were volunteers—either Kitchener volunteers or they were in the territorial army. There was a pretty dramatic and drastic military discipline code—we know, for example, that dozens of British servicemen were executed in the first world war, some for cowardice and some for murder. What I was struck by all those years ago when I talked to veterans and read their diaries and letters—it was clear that many of them were appalled by the death of their friends and the suffering—was that they volunteered partly out of a local interest. Many of them served with their friends, volunteering to serve in pals battalions or to serve alongside men from the same village or even the same streets. It was a Victorian concept of duty. Of course one of the most important stimulants and determinants in battle, which I was always told when teaching at Sandhurst by men who had done this, is small-group loyalty. They were doing it not for their battalion, but for the people in their section—I am talking about half a dozen people.

We must remember that Passchendaele, as the Minister and the shadow Minister pointed out, was not a one-day battle. It was a series of campaigns from the end of July right through until 10 November and was only one part of the work of the British Armies in Belgium and France in 1917.

The next point I want briefly to touch on is that one question that is asked, not just by young people but by people who are interested in the first world war, is why the generals were so stupid—the point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). I have never been particularly in that camp; what I try to remember is that they came from a limited background and had limited experience and perception of war. We also need to bear in mind that the British expeditionary force of 1914—mainly regular and reservist, with a few TA—was about 150,000 men. Douglas Haig commanded a tiny part of that. In 1917, the British Armies in France were roughly 1.3 million men—an enormous expansion in war. Many were not soldiers; they were on the logistics or support side. To use a modern academic term, the learning curve required to recruit, train, deploy and fight these armies was enormous.

That was the experience not just in Britain but in Belgium, France, Germany and Russia, and I have to say that bearing in mind the extent of the casualties at Passchendaele—we are talking about perhaps 500,000 to 600,000 men, give or take 10,000, and that sounds appallingly inaccurate—we need to think about this in terms of the casualties of the second world war. To give just one example, historians now tell us that the average British infantry battalion in Normandy had more casualties than its equivalent in France in 1917. Passchendaele was unique in one sense, but there is a commonality in major war on a vast scale.

Then there is the question of the coalition Prime Minister mentioned by the Opposition spokesman, David Lloyd George, and what became the battle of the memoirs—involving Lloyd George, Churchill and the politicians on one side and the generals on the other—about who was responsible for the casualties and whether there was an alternative. Lloyd George wanted, for very good reasons, to avoid engaging the German enemy in the main theatre of operations, the western front. He was always looking for a way to knock the props out from under Germany. On the whole, the generals were against that. As far as they were concerned, the main battle was in Belgium and France, where we were a subordinate and then an equal partner of the French. There is no doubt in my mind that Lloyd George had, in theory, the power to have halted the campaign in third Ypres after the first month, when General Gough’s army ground to a halt in the foulest of weather. He had that power—except he did not, because he felt weak up against Douglas Haig. Haig had the press on his side, and they were on his side until the end.

The debate is still going on today among historians about whether there was an alternative. There probably was not, but we did not have in place the methods and organisation to have proper debates about such matters during the first world war. That was the big lesson that Churchill learned. Churchill, of course, left the Government after Gallipoli, and went and served in France before Lloyd George reluctantly brought him back as Minister of Munitions. When Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, the one lesson he had learned from the first world war was that the Prime Minister pretty much had to have total power. He therefore made himself Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, but he also sought to have a continuous day-by-day debate with the chiefs of staff over the full range of strategy and to use Government Committees to run the war. Churchill was in many respects a dictator, but almost without exception he never overruled the chiefs of staff.

Lloyd George did not have that ability. Not only did the Navy not talk to the Army, but Lloyd George had great difficulty pinning down the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Wully Robertson, the only man to go from working-class private to head of the Army and a field marshal. His contempt for Lloyd George was such that at one meeting he walked out; he just decided he was not going to continue the debate. These are the kinds of things with which I try to get young people engaged—issues that are still alive today.

My final point concerns the sorrow and pity of war. Putting aside the plans and personalities of the senior officers, the battle of Passchendaele was defined by two things as much as anything. The sheer weight of artillery firepower was on such a scale that it totally dwarfed anything that had taken place at the battle of the Somme. We are talking about an ability to bring down box artillery firepower in very small areas, and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has illegally shown us photographs of what Passchendaele looked like. The second element was the two periods of atrocious weather—absolute downpours of rain that ground everything to a halt. That is a phenomenon that we cannot deal with today.

If Members want to think about the impact of firepower, they should read the book “We Were Warriors” by our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). It is based on his three tours of operation in Afghanistan as a Royal Artillery officer attached to the Royal Marines. Members can see in that book that despite all the technology we now have—the firepower and the Cobra and Apache helicopters—it is still difficult, and there is an overwhelming desire not to kill or injure civilians.

I welcome this commemorative debate and I know that colleagues on both sides of the House will contribute to it. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to read out two short contemporaneous accounts that combine the shellfire and the strain on soldiers. The first is from Britain and Private Bert Ferns of 2nd/6th Lancashire Fusiliers, describing an attack in October 1917—in other words, halfway through the Passchendaele campaign. He said that Mr Kay—obviously a platoon officer—

“came up and said ‘Come on lads, it’s our turn,’ and we just walked round the corner of the pillbox and up the hill. The Germans didn’t have much to fear from me that morning—there was no fire in my belly—no nothing. I staggered up the hill and…froze and became very frightened because a big shell had just burst and blown a group of lads to bits; there were bits of men all over the place, a terrible sight, men just blown to nothing. I just stood there. It was still and misty, and I could taste their blood in the air. I couldn’t move. I stood there staring. Then an officer came across and shouted we were too far left and must go half right. I would have probably been dead but for him jolting me out of it. These men had just been killed and we just had to wade through them to get on. That’s one thing I’ll never forget, what I saw and what I smelt.”

The second short account is from the other side of the hill, as Basil Liddell Hart would have said, and a letter from an unknown German officer dated 20 September 1917:

“Dear Mother,

On the morning of the 18th, the dug-out, containing seventeen men, was shot to pieces over our heads. I am the only one who withstood the maddening bombardment of three days and still survives. You cannot imagine the frightful mental torments I have undergone in those few hours. After crawling out through the bleeding remnants of my comrades and the smoke and debris, and wandering and fleeing in the midst of the raging artillery fire in search of refuge, I am now awaiting death at any moment.

You do not know what Flanders means. Flanders means endless endurance. Flanders means blood and scraps of human bodies. Flanders means heroic courage and faithfulness, even unto death.

Your Otto.”

I do not know whether he survived.

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