Book Review : They Called it Passchendaele by Lynn MacDonald

They Called It PasschendaeleThey Called It Passchendaele by Lyn Macdonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lynn McDonald is one of the pioneers of a certain style of writing historical narratives – one where personal accounts are crafted into an explanatory historical narrative.

In my opinion, she does this brilliantly and seamlessly blends fascinating personal accounts from servicemen who were there, many of whom she interviewed herself, with a well crafted explanatory historical narrative. The result is a very readable & highly enjoyable book.

In the authors foreword you get an idea of this style when she says :

“If this book reads like a novel, or even at times like a horror story, please do not blame me. It is all true, or rather it is compiled from more than 600 true stories and eyewitness accounts of men and women who were there in the blood-bath of Ypres.”

In addition to the personal experiences she provides some very good maps showing you where each of the participants were at any one point in the action she is describing. She takes a number of these personal accounts from different parts of the battlefield and uses them to describe how the battle proceeded over the ground covered by the advance.

The words and testimonies she shares illustrate the absolute horror of this campaign as shown in some of these extracts :

Private W. Morgan, No. 24819, 10/ 11th Btn., Highland Light Infantry

“By the time I got back, the battalion was away up towards the next objective. As I went on, over the place I’d left them, over the ground where I knew they must have crossed to get to the third line, there was nothing but dead bodies lying all around. There were shells exploding everywhere and bullets flying around as if the devil himself was at the guns, and when I got up to the front there was this terrible fighting. I could see troops in front of me crawling and jumping up and crawling again and dodging into shell-holes. Away ahead, it was all smoke and explosions and bullets flying out of Lewis guns like streams of fire all around these buildings they were attacking. I couldn’t see anybody belonging to my lot at all. Eventually I managed to make my way forward a bit and I found Sergeant McCormack with Lieutenant Burns. We were really held up at this place but the bombers were at it, attacking it from the flanks. There were boys there with buckets of bombs, and one lad in particular I saw crawl up to the wall and reach up and chuck bombs in at the window of the gun emplacement. They were all going at it, hammer and tongs. They were still going at it when it started to rain. They were still going at it an hour later, and by that time we were practically up to our knees in water. Lieutenant Burns said to me, ‘You’d better get a message back, Morgan, and let them know what’s happening. We must have reinforcements.’ We were standing in this wet shell-hole and he was just handing me the message when the machine-gun bullet got him. He fell right over on to me and we both went right down into the water. I managed to pull him a bit up the side of this crater and laid him down and knelt down beside him. His eyes were open and he looked straight up at me and he said, ‘I’m all right, Mum.’ And then he died. He was younger than me. I was twenty. Sergeant McCormack crawled across, and looked at him. Then he looked at me. ‘Get back with the message, Morgan,’ he said.”

W. Lockey, No. 71938, 1st Btn., Notts & Derbyshire Regiment (The Sherwood Foresters)

“It was a terrible sight, really awe-inspiring, to see the barrage playing on the German front lines before we went over. It was an inferno. Just a solid line of fire and sparks and rockets lighting up the sky. When the barrage began to lift we went over like one man towards what had once been the German front line. It didn’t exist. There was not a bit of wire, hardly a trench left, that hadn’t been blown to smithereens by our barrage … The chap on my right had his head blown off, as neat as if it had been done with a chopper. I saw his trunk stumbling on for two or three paces and then collapsing in a heap. My pal, Tom Altham, went down too, badly wounded, and Sergeant-Major Dunn got a shell all to himself.

Rifleman G. E. Winterbourne, No. 551237, 1st Btn., Queen’s Westminster Rifles

“In a lull in the shelling we heard cries, and there was a poor chap about fifty or sixty yards away. He was absolutely up to his arms in it, and he’d been there for four days and nights –ever since the last attack –and he was still alive, clinging on to the root of a tree in the side of this shell-hole full of liquid mud … All we could do was leave a man behind to look after him. It was another twenty-four hours before he was rescued.”

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Book Synopsis

‘Official’ Book Description

The third battle of Ypres, culminating in a desperate struggle for the ridge and little village of Passchendaele, was one of the most appalling campaigns in the First World War. A million Tommies, Canadians and Anzacs assembled at the Ypres Salient in the summer of 1917, mostly raw young troops keen to do their bit for King and Country.

Lyn Macdonald’s Passchendaele tells their tale of mounting disillusion amid mud, terror and desperate privation, yet it is also a story of immense courage, comradeship, songs, high spirits and bawdy humour. Passchendaele portrays the human realities behind one of the most disastrous events in the history of warfare.

‘It is rare to find a history of the First World War which manages to convey the front-line soldiers’ experiences and to describe what it was that enabled those who survived to get through it. Lyn Macdonald has done just that’ Sunday Times

Over the past twenty years Lyn Macdonald has established a popular reputation as an author and historian of the First World War. Her books are based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and survivors, told in their own words, and cast a unique light on the First World War. Most are published by Penguin.