Book Review: N. Lloyd, Passchendaele: A New History (London, 2017)

Nick Lloyd’s new book covers the controversial Third Ypres campaign giving a valuable and unique insight into the both the allied and Germans experiences.

I had always been fascinated by the Battle of Third Ypres. My grandfather fought there during one of the constituent actions, the Battle of Langemarck, where he was serving with the 1/13 Battalion, London Regiment (Kensingtons). The Kensingtons were part of the 56th Division and were due to be in the supporting waves of the initial attack but the order to advance was never given as the first waves were beaten back to their start line.[1] The divisional history labelled the attack ‘sorry story’ as it cost over 2,000 casualties for nothing.[2] The blame for the failure of the attack was placed with the staff with post war battalion histories blaming the staff for badly handling units with a plan that had an ‘inherent weakness’; many believed those responsible should have been sacked.[3] Actions like this during the Battle of Third Ypres have coloured historical perceptions of the conflict with many agreeing with veteran historian A.J.P. Taylor that it was the ‘blindest slaughter in a blind war’.[4] In his new book, scholar Dr Nick Lloyd, from King’s College London, seeks to challenge these assertions that have so shaped the popular, public and historical interpretations of the Battle fought 100 years ago.

 

Lloyd’s book was written for three reasons; the Battle has received little recent historical attention and is relatively unexamined compared to the attention lauded on the Somme, the German experience in the battle has been ignored and new archival material has emerged in the last 20 years.[5] His book is a military and political narrative of the Battle of Third Ypres that covers the strategy and key operations of the Battle that lasted from 31 July to 18 November 1917.

 

Lloyd addresses many of the areas of conflict historians have fought over in the past century. The role of the generals in the Battle has taken up much ink and paper. The role of Commander in Chief sir Douglas Haig has been a central issue of contention. Some have argued he epitomised ‘chateau generalship’, being out of touch and incompetent.[6] Others, notably, John Terraine, have sought to rehabilitate Haig, arguing the Third Ypres operation had strategic merit to capture the Belgian coast and divert German attention away from exploiting a weakened French army still recovering from their Spring mutinies.[7] Lloyd argues that Haig does not come out of the Battle well. Haig wanted the battle to achieve a breakthrough rather than a limited operation (‘bite and hold’) and he allowed the battle to continue beyond the point where operations were achieving any useful outcome. Haig had a ‘compulsive gambler’s habit of throwing good money after bad’.[8]

 

The other area of historical dissonance is over the role of Prime Minister Lloyd George in the Battle. Lloyd George himself maintained after the war that the ‘campaign in the mud’ was all Haig’s fault, the latter having mislead the former.[9] Robin Prior and Trevor Pryor said that Lloyd George shared with Haig the joint responsibility for Third Ypres disaster because he tacitly allowed the campaign to go ahead and continue when he could have ended it. [10] However, Lloyd has limited criticism of the ‘Welsh Wizard’. Though Lloyd George had culpability for not controlling Haig and the strategy, he had not seen the original plans, the strategy was collectively signed off by the War Cabinet and the Battle had a gravitational pull that once started was nearly impossible to stop. The nine-day artillery bombardment which opened the offensive, starting on 16th July, was initiated without political approval and this started the train of events.[11]

 

The two new dimensions which that Lloyd brings to the understanding of the Battle are his exposition of the German side of the conflict and his contention that the Battle was a ‘lost victory’ for the British. Lloyd suggests that Third Ypres could have been won if the British had played to their tactical and technological strengths. General Plumer demonstrated in the Battles of Menin Road (September), Polygon Wood (September) and Broodseinde (4 October) that short advances, which focused on consolidating ground and covering with a defensive curtain of artillery firepower against German counter attack, could deliver decisive results. However, though Plumer took over operations in late August 1917, he was plagued by poor weather and lack of time to prepare. [12]

The other aspect that Lloyd brings to the understanding of the battle is some insight into the German perspective of the battle. This was the most interesting and original dimension to the book. Very few historians cover the German side of the battle, Jack Sheldon aside, so Lloyd’s insights into German preparations, personalities, perspectives and and experience of the battle are important. For example, he gives some useful insights to German defensive tactics and how they coped with the individual battles. In many ways, it is a pity the book does not deal with the German experience throughout the battle as it was these insights I found the most fascinating.

 

Lloyd’s book fits the conventional pattern of history books that cover Great War campaigns in that it takes a top down top down perspective in a longitudinal narrative. It deals with the conventional historical arguments and does not propose any new radical interpretation on our understanding of Haig or Lloyd George’s role. These points are observations rather than criticisms. Writing an overview of a highly complex campaign and telling a good story at the same time is hard and Lloyd’s style and prose make it an interesting and enjoyable read. However, it is Lloyd’s inclusion of a German perspective into the account makes that makes it the best account of the Battle that I have read to date.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes: 

[1] O.F. Baily & H.M. Hollier, The Kensingtons (London, 1936), pp.128-130.

[2] C.H. Dudley Ward, The Fifty-Sixth Division (London, 1922), p.160.

[3] F. Maude, History of the London Rifle Brigade 1859-1919 (London, 1921), p.205. F.C. Grimwade, The War History of the 4th Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) (London, 1922), p p.305. W.E. Grey, 2nd City of London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War (London, 1929), p.232.

[4] A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War (London, 1966), p.194.

[5] N. Lloyd, Passchendaele: A New History (London, 2017), p.8.

[6] L. Wolff, In Flanders Fields (London, 1958).

[7] Lloyd, Passchendaele, p.6.

[8] Ibid., pp.295-297.

[9] D. Lloyd George, War Memories of David Lloyd George (London, 1933), Vol.2, pp.1247-1270.

[10] Lloyd, Passchendaele, p.7.

[11] Ibid., pp.297-300.

[12] Ibid., p.301.