Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
8 Oct. 2021
Review by J.-Guy Lalande, St. Francis Xavier University
Passchendaele: The Lost Victory of World War I
By Nick Lloyd
New York: Basic Books, 2017. Pp. xxi, 410. ISBN 978–0–465–09477–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War I, Passchendaele Print Version

There is a rich, controversial literature on Passchendaele (or 3rd Ypres), a battle fought in a small corner of Belgium (16 July–10 Nov. 1917) which injured, gassed, drowned, and killed close to 500,000 men. Debate has centered on a number of questions: why and how was the battle fought? How could soldiers persevere so long in such dreadful surroundings for such pitiful territorial gains? What did it mean when physical exhaustion and poor weather halted operations on both sides, the Allies having advanced just five miles, far short of their original goal of breaking through the German lines? Who was responsible for launching and continuing this offensive? Passchendaele's defenders[1] have maintained that the campaign was, despite its minimal results, both worthwhile and necessary. Their arguments stress the need (1) to take pressure off a French army, which, after the failed Nivelle Offensive and subsequent mutinies, could no longer contribute much to the Allied war effort in the coming months, (2) to hamper the German campaign against Allied shipping by seizing enemy submarine bases along the Belgian coast and, thus, (3) to improve the Allies' position in this key sector of the Front.

Its defenders also argue that Passchendaele was a successful attritional battle that inflicted terrible losses on the German army and marked the moment when morale on the Western Front began to collapse—a milestone on the road to Amiens (Aug. 1918) and Germany's ultimate surrender (11 Nov. 1918).

Passchendaele's detractors[2] describe the battle as a senseless bloodbath needlessly protracted by the stubborn and deluded Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who, "imprisoned by his own rhetoric of the 'knock out blow'" (299), supported the Flanders campaign without taking responsibility for it and failed to suspend it when he should have. This is a good example of the serious disconnect in wartime Britain's civil-military relations.

Military historian Nick Lloyd (Joint Services and Staff College, Shrivenham) acknowledges that, like many of his peers in other armies, Haig fought according to the understanding of war drilled into him at the Staff College, one that "prioritized bold manoeuvres, decisive offensives, and culminating attacks" (294). Nevertheless, he shares the detractors' view of Haig, a general as "fossilized in his own certainties" (65), over-confident, moved "by a powerful sense of religious destiny" (67), and therefore "convinced that the climactic moment in the war had arrived and that he would be able to deliver the coup de grâce" (67). As for Lloyd George, the author finds him "wanting" (136) for failing to stop Haig, "the compulsive gambler" (252, 297) who insisted on breakthrough operations rather than more promising and sensible bite-and-hold attacks simply to save his "own skin" (255).

This well researched, lucid, and cogently argued monograph is based on source materials including official reports, letters, war diaries, memoirs, and other accounts of personal experiences. With the help of first-rate maps, Lloyd recounts Passchendaele with due attention to tactical, operational, and strategic levels. In particular, by blending German and British experiences, he contends that Haig's forces, led by the Briton Herbert Plumer and the Canadian Arthur Currie, came near to a decisive success in September and October 1917. Hence the use of the expression "Lost Victory" at Passchendaele. Lloyd offers a tantalizing scenario that he believes "stands in sharp contrast to the dominant perception of the battle as being totally futile and devoid of meaning and purpose" (9). Not every reader, however, will agree that "British forces opened up a window of opportunity for significant political and strategic results—maybe even some kind of compromise peace" (9). Strong German resistance kept Haig from achieving his objective in Flanders. But the success of the Central Powers at Caporetto, the collapse of Russia, which allowed the transfer of a significant number of German troops from the Eastern Front, and the German decision to launch a major offensive on the Western Front before the arrival of the Americans—all these things made it highly unlikely that the Germans would be interested in a compromise peace in late 1917.

Passchendaele: The Lost Victory of World War I is a misleading title. The Great War saw a number of other battles (the Brusilov Offensive, Jutland, and the Ludendorff Spring Offensive readily come to mind) that could be labelled "lost victories." Nick Lloyd's choice of title reflects his institutional affiliation. As such it will interest first and foremost faculty and students at military academies. That said, his thought-provoking study is a most welcome contribution to our knowledge of an event that will always remain contentious.

[1] Esp., John Terraine, The Road to Passchendaele: The Flanders Offensive of 1917: A Study in Inevitability (1977; rpt. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 1984).

[2] E.g., Leon Wolff, In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign (NY: Viking, 1958; often reprinted) and Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, Passchendaele: The Untold Story (1996; 3rd ed. New Haven: Yale U Pr, 2016).

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