Lessons from Passchendaele
One hundred years ago today, at 3:50 AM, thousands of British soldiers began to advance across hundreds of feet of no-mans-land. This was July 31, 1917, the first day of the great battle of Passchendaele (pronounced as PASSION-dale).
The attack had been scheduled for the early dawn light, but mist and heavy clouds covered the skies. As the soldiers charged forward, thousands of artillery shells whizzed through the air above them – a creeping barrage meant to flush out the Germans in front. Yet three months and half a million casualties later, the allied forces had only gained five miles of ground. What happened at the battle of Passchendaele? More importantly, what can we learn from this battle?
By 1917, Europeans were sick of fighting each other. Russia and Italy were on the verge of surrender. French armies were in mutiny. Germany was running short of men. Consequently, there was a sense of desperation on both sides. The Germans had to win a strategic battle in order to succeed, while the allies longed for a victory before German troops were freed up from the Russian front.
As an island nation, the British were dependent on maritime imports. German U-boats threatened to destroy their supply chain. If the British could destroy the German U-boat ports in Belgium, perhaps the submarine threat would disappear.
General Haig determined that he would make an assault near the Belgian town of Passchendaele. Two battles had already been fought in the vicinity (the first and second battles of Ypres). Haig hoped that the German lines would crumble and the Allies would march toward the Belgian coast, capturing the U-boat bases. Even though other members of the high command were skeptical, they relented in the end: no one else seemed to have a better idea.
On July 31 – one hundred years ago today – the first wave of British troops made their early morning assault. They hoped that it was a surprise attack, but days of artillery bombardment had given away the secret – the Germans knew that an infantry attack was coming. On the first day, the troops were partially successful, advancing toward Passchendaele (which was held by the Germans), and holding at least some of the ground that they captured.
Yet by the afternoon, rainy weather set in. August was normally a dry season, but the August of 1917 was one of the wettest for 30 years. Now, rather than simply run across the harrowing no-mans-land, advancing troops had to wade through mud that was churned up by exploding artillery shells. The mud became so deep that some men drowned in it. After the first day of the battle, the area around Passchendaele became a laborious give-and-take of attacks and counterattacks. Now it was being fought in torrential rain and muddy swamps.
It wasn’t until November 10, 1917 that the battle finally ended. By then, the Allied forces had advanced around five miles, capturing the remains of Passchendaele. Once a small Belgian hamlet, it was nothing but a muddy plot of shot-up ground.
After three months of fighting and over half a million casualties on both sides, it had become obvious that the German lines weren’t going to collapse, and the British weren’t going to arrive at the Belgian shore. While we don’t know exactly how many casualties occurred in the battle, we can roughly estimate around 260,000 on each side, with slightly more casualties on the Allied side than the German side.
Summing up the battle, Prime Minister of Britain Lloyd-George later said, “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …”
How could so many men be sacrificed in futility? While Passchendaele is a vivid reminder of the senselessness of the first world war, we can benefit from noticing a few lessons.
#1 Not All Objectives Are Worth the Cost
The objectives behind the Passchendaele campaign were tempting – the U-boat bases were destroying Allied shipping, and the possibility of a breakthrough sounded alluring. Yet the price tag to achieve these things was staggering.
Of course, General Haig didn’t know what the price tag was when he first attacked – but it didn’t take long to realize that it would be a hard-fought battle.
We all have objectives that we want to achieve, but there is always a price tag. It may not be a quarter-million men from our army, but we must pay with something: time, money, attention, maybe even relationships or other things we value. Is the cost worth it?
When you determine to excel in work, but your family suffers, will you look back and say that the objective was worth it? When you pour money into a sinking business venture, is it worth the money that you are putting in? If you sink yourself in debt for a new car or larger house, will you look back with contentment on that decision? Or if you sacrifice your conscience for the sake of someone else, is the cost really worth it?
#2 Humility is Better than Symbolic Victory
By the time that the war was over, General Haig had acquired an uninvited nickname: Butcher Haig. In part, this was because he determined to pursue his goals, even when they weren’t worth the cost. In fact, when it became clear that the Passchendaele campaign was not going to succeed, he still didn’t end the battle. Instead, he sent another force of Canadian soldiers into the fight.
After nearly 16,000 casualties, the Canadians succeeded in capturing the bombed-out remains of the hamlet of Passchendaele, but it was only a symbolic victory. Now Haig ended the campaign, having symbolically ‘won’ the village.
If Haig had admitted the stupidity of the fight, he could have saved 16,000 soldiers for the next campaign. But instead, he wanted to end with a symbolic victory. Of course, we don’t think of him as victorious for this. Only bloody.
There are certainly times when a symbolic victory is useful, but not always. Sometimes a humble conclusion is better than a symbolic victory.
Arguments – especially with those we love – immediately come to mind. We always have this urge to end the argument on the moral high ground, as if ‘I was right and you were wrong.’ The constant fight for the high ground prolongs the argument. In the end, regardless of who wins the symbolic victory, it is obvious that both sides lost tremendously. There is no real victory for anyone.
#3 Don’t Fight Against the Elements
Mud and rain were a huge factor in the battle of Passchendaele. When the weather was clear and the ground was dry, the infantry could charge forward easily, often capturing their goals. Yet as the terrain grew more muddy, casualties mounted and the victories slowed down.
When the high command realized that August did not have the sunny weather they predicted, it was time to reevaluate. Is it worth it to fight against the elements?
There are always things that you cannot control. Do you orient your decisions to go with, or against, those factors? Fighting against the unchangeable factors is hard and draining. Reconsider whether it is worth it.
Of course, sometimes it is worth it. Maybe you even have some control over factors that you didn’t think about. But often times, fighting against the elements is counterproductive and useless. It’s like trying to start a telegraph company when the world is converting to telephones, or arguing a good idea after your friends already decided not to try it. Or sending your troops to charge through a mud pit in pouring rain.
In the end, Passchendaele stands as an austere reminder to us of the brutality and suffering of war. It is good to be reminded of history, but let’s also remember to learn from it. It offers lessons to us that can guide our lives in matters both great and small.