On 31st July 1917, the order was given by Sir Douglas Haig to commence the Flanders Offensive.
Officially the battle was known as the Third Battle of Ypres, yet history recounts the horror which unfolded simply as Passchendaele.
It’s name has become synonymous with the futility, and senseless loss of life which would prevail over the next three months.
Buoyed by previous “victories”, Haig ordered the offensive based on political motivation rather than tactical prowess – and by doing so exemplified the notion that those brave souls on the front line were “lions led by donkeys”.
There was no real tactical gain which could be gained from the offensive, yet the territory was the last part of Belgium still occupied by the Allies – and due to the fact that Britain had gone to war in 1914 under the facade of preserving Belgian neutrality, then it was thought that giving it up would send a defeatist message to other occupied territories, as well as to the German High Command.
To this end, Haig was prepared to sacrifice over a quarter of a million fathers, sons, friends and brothers just to ensure that he kept face across Europe.
The day before the offensive began, the area of Flanders experienced their heaviest rainfall for thirty years, and coupled with the damage which previous shelling had caused to the drainage, it made the terrain boggy and waterlogged – as well as giving off an inhumane stench which would became unbearable.
The extent of the conditions encountered by the troops led Great War Poet Siegfried Sassoon to write –
I died in hell. They called it Passchendaele”
Yet at 03:50 am on 31st July 1917, the order was given for the British Troops to go “over the top”, and with it began the start of one of the greatest mass acts of senseless slaughter that the world has ever seen.
Due to the swampy terrain, tanks had become immobilised, whilst men and horses would regularly drown to their deaths, as the ground became as much of a threat as the German snipers.
Over the next 105 days, 275,000 men under British Command were either killed or wounded, alongside a further 220,000 under German Command.
95 of these men were from Macclesfield and the surrounding area. One of these was Private Frank Cundiff, whose death was reported in the Macclesfield Advertiser on 26th October 1917 as follows –
Mr T Cundiff, 5 Mill Lane, Macclesfield, has received the news that his son, Private Frank Cundiff, transport driver, was killed in action on October 4th. Deceased was 28 years of age, a native of Whirley and was educated at Broken Cross C.E. School.
He was recommended for a Military Medal, and his Commanding Officer states on the card “that his gallant action on the field of battle was highly valued, and his bravery would never be forgotten.”
Private Cundiff enlisted in January 1915 and was married 16 months previously”
Macclesfield Advertiser 26th October 1917.
Throughout the campaign, Haig was under constant pressure to halt the slaughter, yet it took him until 6th November to do so.
Despite the fact that Haig claimed a “victory”, historians remain divided as to whether there was a decisive outcome to the battle. Yet, after advancing just five miles, and with the loss of 250,000 British and Empire troops, how anybody could claim a “victory” is mind numbingly sickening.
In his memoirs which were published in 1938, Prime Minister David Lloyd George echoed the thoughts of many when he stated –
Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war….No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign”
Former British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (1938).
One hundred years later, we stand together to pay tribute to those who fell during this catastrophic waste of human life, and also to those whose lives were affected by this in ways which we could only ever imagine.
At 07:10 am tomorrow morning, the Royal British Legion will detonate four rockets at the Park Lane War Memorial to mark the anniversary of the battle, and this will be followed by a short service of remembrance.
There will also be a free exhibition at the Salvation Army Hall on Roe Street on Saturday 5th August, which will commemorate the lives of those who fell at Passchendaele.
Speaking to the Macclesfield Express, Councillor Rachel Bailey stated –
There were many families in Cheshire who suffered the loss of a loved one during this appallingly difficult and brutal battle. So it is only right that now, 100 years on, we remember them and pay tribute to their great sacrifice.
“It is tremendously important that today’s generation, thankfully largely untouched by conflict, continues to remember and honour the sacrifice made during the First World War.”
Councillor Rachel Bailey speaking to the Macclesfield Express.
Those who perished on the fields of Flanders were only heroes by default – they did not wish to be such, more than anything they wanted to be at home with their families and friends – just like you and I.
The fact that they gave their lives in such catastrophic numbers is something which despite the passing years, we should never ever be allowed to forget.