Monday 31 July 2017 – The Battle of Paschendaele

Monday 31 July 2017
A Sermon on the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Paschendaele
The Very Revd David Monteith

As children, wallowing in the hollow with the happy hippopotamus we sang ‘mud glorious mud’. Contrast that with the Psalm in this service – ‘I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is… o let me be delivered (Ps 69)’. A number of you may have walked the gentle slope up into the inconspicuous village of Passchendaele or you will have heard about various ridges conjuring great hills but this is the flatlands of Flanders. The grassiness of fields today stands in contrast to the summer months of 1917. Ypres is only 20 metres above sea level. The water table is high. The sudden big down pours of recent July days in Leicester have been a tiny reminder of what summer rain can be like. But this was the worst rain in 1917 that had fallen for 30 years. The land was already in a mess from previous shelling.

The sheer scale of ammunition used and ammunition needed was enormous. 4.5 million shells were fired in the first two weeks of this battle. The reality of this was not only felt on Flanders Field. Just up the road from here in Chilwell, Nottingham factories worked night and day. Many of the men were in Flanders so the women known as the Canaries worked here – their hands becoming yellow and poisoned by the TNT; hence the name.

10,000 people populated this depot – on one day producing 46,725 shells. It is no surprise to learn of terrible accidents and explosions where young women in their teens such as Louie Chaplin, aged 19, and Fanny Taylor, aged 21, died in an explosion killing 134, wounding another 250 with only 32 even being able to be identified. Time and time the costs of the First World War become manifest – a war described by the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan as ‘tragic’ and ‘unnecessary’ (The First World War, Pimlico, 1999, p3).

General Haig was determined to take this territory back. He believed that if he could get to the sea with the potential of then dealing with the German submarine fleet. However, the German concrete blockhouses gave a stability to them which was not to be had in allies’ quagmire where a slip of a duck board could easily have meant drowning in the mud. This was further complicated by the fact all this took place in a salient – the progressing front line jutted out on three sides into German territory, making troops vulnerable to gunfire.

By July 1917 manpower from British and Irish troops was depleted – 1.2 million men on both sides had already died in the Somme. So more troops were drawn from the Commonwealth, especially from Canada, Australia, New Zealand but also from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent – many of the later having already fought in the First Battle of Ypres.

These vast numbers are difficult to comprehend and it is only when the story become much more immediate with a named story that our hearts and minds can really begin to take it on board. Many of us have heard something of Harry Patch, the last Tommy of the Great War who died in 2009 aged 111. He was 19 when he fought at Passchendaele. But his story stands for countless more.

Locally, take a young man from Ibstock here in Leicestershire. John Gray was a 19 year old miner who signed up at Coalville in 1915, eventually embarking to France in 1916, becoming part of the Leicester Tigers Brigade at the Somme. He was shot through the top of both legs but survived and was sent back to England. Nine months later he has recovered well enough to be sent back to France. In September 1917 his Division headed north to the Ypres Salient to Polygon Wood. On Monday 1st October early in the morning they came under heavy barrage. Led by Lt Col Bent who was shot but posthumously awarded the VC, many of the Leicester’s died but a few survived including John Gray. But that next day, in the mud and mire he was exposed to mustard gas. Badly burned and blinded, he survived and is evacuated on 14 October to Manchester. Sixth months later he returns to Leicestershire but his health wains and on 20 March 1919 he dies and is buried in the village churchyard in Ibstock.

What can be said about all these things beyond standing reverently before the immense loss on all sides and the huge sacrifice made by so many? Those of you who read the history of the First World War will be aware that it is a contested history – not the facts about the conditions or the loss of life but rather about the wisdom and purpose of this war.

Contested history over territory is always likely to be part of the human story as we compete for shared resources. Our bible reading from the Book of Numbers is so different from Passchendaele yet the parallels are clear. In the bible, it is not mud which is the problem but sand as this is the Negeb. The people led by Moses have been wandering in the wilderness for years without roots, without the chance of building and developing their community and constantly under threats from other nomadic tribes. So they are promised a place in a new land. But to test out what they are to expect, spies, a reconnaissance party is sent out. They need to move towards the coast. The land is good and fruitful but it is already occupied by the Amalekites. They are those descended from the tribe of Esau – he was Abraham’s son – the one who was ruddy and a wild hairy man. In other words they are no push over.

Moses as the General of his day wanted to push forward but the ordinary people didn’t entirely trust his leadership. So they went on their own mission to seek out the territory for themselves. This platoon don’t see the potential in the land but instead report how the people they encounter were huge – the Nephilim – described elsewhere in the bible as primeval tyrants. These spies described themselves as grasshoppers in comparison. To one set of eyes, this was a campaign worth risking because it was seen to be doable and the prize was great. To the other the prize was far from clear and the campaign far less wise or winnable.

Military commanders since biblical days onwards have had to make such weighty decisions and with hindsight we see that they haven’t always got it right. Passchendaele eventually was taken by the allied forces on 10 November 1917. Five miles of territory was gained by the allies. 5000 men were killed or wounded every day. That means over 500,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead or injured. The rights and wrongs are debated – Haig’s rationale was set and despite Prime Minister David Lloyd George disagreeing, in the absence of any other coherent approach by the allies, this battle was commenced.

One hundred years on to the day we see there is no escaping the costs. Harry Patch said of Passchendaele that it was ‘hell with the lid on’; we see the blood and the mud yet also the commitment and the courage.

Our reading from John reminded us that Jesus laid down his life as the ultimate sign of his commitment to his friends. Whatever the precise shape of our emerging future is to be, the peace of Europe will be our concern as a commitment of friends. The mud and horror of this day does not tell us to repeat this. Instead we are to hear the hope and the challenge of Jesus’ words – ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another’. (John 15: 12). Our commemoration will ultimately be most fitting and worthwhile if we can only learn this.