World War Without Reason? Passchendaele & the Lacuna of Purpose in Public Memory of WWI

3:50am, July 31, 1917 was Zero Hour. At that moment, artillery shells fell upon no man’s land. “The whole horizon,” one witness recalled, “was lit up by one continuous dancing flame.”[1] Behind this wall of fire, along a line almost ten miles long, some one hundred thousand British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and followed the shellfire into the German army’s defenses. They formed the first attack wave of what is now called the Battle of Passchendaele—also known as the Third Battle of Ypres—one of the costliest engagements of World War I.

Going was slow. British soldiers plodded across broken terrain weighed down by 80 pounds of equipment, dodging shrapnel and machine gun fire.[2] By late morning, a damp drizzle covered the ground with a low, thick mist. Bogs, now made invisible, swallowed some men up to their waist.[3] Many soldiers still reached their planned objectives on time, but these small successes marked the beginning of the worst. With startling speed, the German army pushed the British back, through the viscous muck, as they re-took lost ground “with the bayonet and grenade.”[4] By four in the afternoon, a hard rain began to fall. The rest of the day’s fighting took place in knee-deep mud.

Sergeant Bill Booth—who was fortunate enough to have survived the war intact—told historian Lyn MacDonald that what had struck him that day was the irony that separated his training from the battle itself. For weeks beforehand, he had participated in practice attacks at a farm the high command had selected on account of its alleged similarity to the sector he was supposed to actually overtake. The first day’s final objective, Kitchener’s Wood, had been represented by severed tree limbs jammed into the ground, and Booth and his men had had to navigate a corn field to get there.

One hot summer day, Booth and his platoon had emerged from the corn to see Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, standing by the fake woods. Haig nodded in approval, and then told Booth, “Wish all your men the best of luck,” before whisking himself away.  “Now,” wrote MacDonald of Booth’s first day in the real battle, “leaping, stumbling, slithering between the churned up craters, dodging the bursting shells . . . Booth could not see the faintest resemblance, try as he might, between the practice and the real thing.” As he struggled through the morass, he had wished that Haig could see him and his men now.[5]

Booth’s sense of disconnect is a fitting metaphor for World War I in public memory today. Present interpretations would seem as alien to veterans of the war as it would appear in contrast to our own lives now. As Booth skirted the craters of no man’s land, he undoubtedly did so with a sense of purpose, a belief that his actions counted for more than just the endangerment of life and limb. Today’s popular culture depicts the historical terrain Booth and his men crossed as little more than an ersatz forest of dead branches, detached from anything but a sense of absurdity and futility. The absurdity of World War I was something that Booth certainly grasped, but if he was anything like the average British soldier of the time, he did not view his experience as futile.

Popular representations of the first great European calamity of the twentieth century usually portray it as something meaningless, or at least devoid of substantial cause. Wonder Woman, though a fine movie in many respects, is particularly adept at presenting World War I as a giant, bloody donut: all-encompassing but devoid of center. Characters describe the war in abstract terms, but never seem to muster a reason to fight.

The lengthiest summation of the war comes early in the movie, from Steve Trevor: “The ‘War to End All Wars.’ Four years, twenty seven countries, twenty five million dead. Soldiers and civilians. Innocent people. Women and children, slaughtered! Their homes and their villages looted and burned. Weapons far deadlier than you can ever imagine! It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s like the world is gonna end.” Trevor describes carnage without cause, killing fields with no grounds.

Neither Diana nor any other Amazons feel a need to ask him what started the war in the first place. The Amazons’ own understanding of war is framed by the legend of Ares, the God of War, which in turn frames the movie’s understanding of war. Ares, the movie’s major villain, seeks to corrupt mankind, poison their hearts with jealousy and suspicion, until they ultimately destroy themselves. In other words, there is no human agency in war. Its causes, direction, and outcome are predetermined by celestial forces. The film’s other villain, Erich von Ludendorff (an actual historical figure), is driven by Ares’ corruption in his pursuit of the vague concept of “victory” at any cost.

While the timing was most likely unwitting, Wonder Woman’s theatrical release roughly coincides with the 100th anniversary of the commencement of Passchendaele. The relationship between the two events, however, goes much deeper than that. For one, there is a deliberate choice in setting the story against the backdrop of World War I. Audiences would be less comfortable with a movie that cast the Allies’ fight against Hitler as a malicious god’s scheme to embroil corrupt men and innocent pawns in a causeless war. Another commercial reason probably drives the choice as well, which journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw clearly articulates in her review of Wonder Woman: “Hollywood is already up to the neck in Nazi-killing adventures.”

More important, though, is the filmmakers’ choice to set most of the action in Flanders, the site of not only Passchendaele, but two other brutal battles that centered on the British positions surrounding Ypres. I can only speculate the filmmakers’ motive here, but it is most likely because Flanders’ role in the war already has some public familiarity. There is the famous poem by John McRae, “In Flanders Fields,” published in December, 1915 (after the Second Battle of Ypres; the first to employ chemical weapons). In the 1983 prime-time special, What Have We Learned Charlie Brown?, the gang stops at a cemetery near Ypres, and Linus tells the legend of the poppies in Flanders, and then recites an edited version of the poem. There are good odds, then, that at least a few moviegoers would recognize the name Flanders and associate it with World War I.

Of the three battles fought in the Ypres salient, Passchendaele was the deadliest. On the first day of fighting, thirty thousand British soldiers became casualties in barely twelve hours. The German army also took thirty thousand casualties that day. In all, the British army had managed to advance half a mile.[6] But July 31 was only the first day of a three-and-a-half-month ordeal that left over 210,000 British soldiers wounded and 70,000 dead by November 12, 1917.[7] Forty-two thousand bodies were never recovered, lost forever to the mud.[8]

In drawing inspiration for Steve Trevor and Diana’s experience of World War I, the makers of Wonder Woman would not, if they were so inclined, find more fertile ground than the most persistent historical interpretations of Passchendaele. Writing in 1930, B.H. Liddell Hart described it as “a plan that was founded on faith rather than on reason,” where “both plan and faith were to be sunk in the mud of Flanders.”[9]

Thirty three years later, historian A.J.P. Taylor called Passchendaele “the blindest slaughter in a blind war.”[10] His assessment of World War I overall is not too different from Wonder Woman’s:

No one asked what the war was about. The Germans had started the war to win;  the Allies fought so as not to lose. There were no clear war aims. Of course the French hoped to recover Alsace and Lorraine; the British were determined to liberate Belgium. But these were not enough in themselves; they were symbols of victory, not the reason it was being pursued. Winning the war was an end in itself.[11]

Like Steve Trevor, Taylor describes carnage without real cause. Did Ares simply nudge Gavrilo Princip, Kaiser Wilhelm, and H.H. Asquith into war?

John Keegan, in 1998, felt nostalgic enough to chide our “more timorous age” for failing to appreciate the gallantry of the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Gallipoli, but he casts no such glow on the men who suffered through the Third Ypres. “The point of Passchendaele,” he wrote, “defies explanation.” At best, he can only call it a “slough of despond.”[12] Hew Strachan, in his centennial history of the war, was more circumspect, noting that the battle “has become for the British the embodiment of the First World War’s waste and futility.”[13]

It is easy, of course, to take such a view. As the crow flies, the wooded ridge of Passchendaele, which marked the farthest extent of the British advance, lies barely five miles from Ypres. Seventy thousand dead, more than half of whose bodies would never be recovered, is an appalling cost for such a distance, even by the grisly standards of trench warfare. In hindsight, Douglas Haig’s belief  that the attack would break the German line, and allow a rush of cavalry (yes, cavalry) to reach the Belgian coastline, appears, at the very least, delusional.

Also in hindsight, Passchendaele was but one of the bloodier battles of an unprecedented war that failed to prevent an even greater catastrophe. It was not, by any stretch, the “War to End All Wars,” and its causes seem to lack the Manichean urgency of World War II. When viewed from a world that had subsequently learned of places like Auschwitz and Stalingrad, it can be difficult to understand how Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to the horrors of the trenches.

World War I cannot be understood, however, if it is contextually lashed to World War II. Men and Women in 1917 had no idea of what the future would hold; they only had hopes for one. It is from these hopes that the derivation of meaning from World War I can begin. For one, World War I had concrete causes, which interacted with the participants’ motives. In August 1914, Germany invaded Belgium and France, which gave residents of these countries strong incentives to fight.

Britain’s motives for entering the war were complex, but no less comprehensible. Treaties aside, Britain’s political leadership feared that German aggression would shift the balance of power on the continent. This was not an abstract conceit, but a potential threat that could economically estrange England from the rest of Europe. British leaders also worried about the emboldening effect that a successful German conquest could have on the Kaiser’s subsequent foreign policy.[14]

British soldiers’ motives were not so impersonal as economics and power politics. In a broader sense, German aggression disrupted the British sense of place in the world and the peaceful order they felt the Empire had built. British soldiers marched into the Flanders mud to defend the Pax Britannica, to maintain what they believed to be traditions of civic virtue and orderly civilization. Historian Modris Eksteins describes this ethos as a belief that “civilization was possible only if one play the game according to rules laid down by time, history, precedent, all of which amounted to the law. . . Civilization and law, then, were virtually synonymous.”[15]

In hindsight, this may seem like rank hypocrisy, given the price Britain’s colonies paid for this sense of order. Still, those who dismiss World War I as futile should acknowledge that this ethos was enough to motivate a soldier to write his parents on October 1, 1914— a time when the war began to descend into trench warfare— and tell them, “It is our great privilege to save the traditions of all centuries behind us.”[16]

The British were also horrified by the German conduct of war. Newspapers, spurred by the British government, exaggerated certain accounts, and sensationalized others, but many of these reports still carried a measure of truth. The alleged “Rape of Belgium” may be the most famous example of lurid British propaganda, and may have made the British skeptical of reports of Nazi atrocities, but it was based on actual events. Historian Dan Todman succinctly separates fact from fiction in The Great War: Myth and Memory: “Whilst [the German army] did not violate nuns, cut off children’s hands or spit babies with their bayonets, as later propagandists would suggest, they did murder somewhere between 3000 and 5000 civilians, and destroy three major towns including the historic university library of Louvain.”[17]

As the war progressed, the horror grew. Germany bombarded British towns from the sea and air. Unrestricted U-Boat warfare was especially repugnant to the British, who fashioned themselves as exemplars of naval conduct. The harshest reaction came when Germany introduced asphyxiating gas at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.

If the British prided themselves on “civilizing” the indigenous peoples of their colonies, they feared that the Germans were beyond rehabilitation. In April, 1915, shortly after the gassing at Ypres, the Daily Mail published an editorial titled “The Mind of the Hun,”opining that “his methods of warfare do not bear comparison with those of even a savage.”[18]

It is true that soldiers and civilians alike questioned the war. Sigfried Sassoon declared the war “evil and unjust” in 1917, in part due to the slaughter of Passchendaele. Nonetheless, Sassoon was willing to return to the front in 1918. Also, as Dan Todman observes, “uncertainty or disillusion was not the same as rejection.”[19] Even when faced with the horrors of the war, many Britons did not draw the same conclusion as Sassoon. They may have become pessimistic, or feared that the war would drag on, but they often continued to believe their cause was just.[20]

Though Britain’s motives to go to war in 1914 are explicable, they are not above qualification. It would be remiss to ignore the fact that Britain adopted chemical weapons to their own arsenal not long after the Second Battle of Ypres. It also must be said that the British waged their own, brutal forms of warfare against those they considered “savages.” Nonetheless, the British fought World War I for a decent, albeit imperfect, cause. Their imperial pretensions do not change the fact that they fought to arrest the aggression of another, more brutal imperial power. This is enough of a reason to be remembered, and sufficient to be explained as more than a war without cause.

The idea that the war meant nothing was simply not pervasive between 1914 and 1918. Instead, this belief arose after the Armistice, and for a variety of reasons. When eleven percent of the British workforce was unemployed in 1921, many out-of-work veterans loudly wondered why they had risked their lives to serve their country.[21] The shock of World War II had the greatest influence on the notion that World War I had been futile. At a time when Germany threatened to invade England, many Britons began to wonder what so many had died for the first time around. Their leaders were quick to rally people by depicting World War I as a failure to be put right.[22]  The myth of futility found new uses in the Cold War, when fears of nuclear war led historians, such as A.J.P. Taylor, to use World War I as an example of the failure of policies of deterrence.

Personally, I believe that those who died at Passchendaele, or in the rest of the war, are done a disservice if their fight is viewed without cause or meaning. Yet as a public historian, I am hesitant to bathe Passchendaele, in all its bituminous horror, with rays of glory. World War I was a tragedy that could have been avoided. The Third Battle of Ypres, with its conflicted planning and Haig’s stubborn compulsion to knowingly gamble against terrible odds, was a microcosm of this vile universe.

Dan Todman identifies a crossroads of memory in 1918, when interpretations of the war had not been fully set. “Looking back at the war,” he writes, “Britons drew their own conclusions about what it had meant. Personal experience during and after the war, political orientation, location and audience could all affect whether they thought it had all been worthwhile or not.”[23] These different factors persist today, and continue to impact the memory of World War I. It is in this multiplicity, the opportunities for contested meaning and debate, that the dead of Passchendaele are done the greatest service. More than simply imbuing something supposedly futile with a new significance, public memory of World War I, and those who experienced it, deserves many meanings and understandings.


[1] Nick Lloyd, Passchendaele: The Lost Victory of World War I (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 106.

[2] Lyn Macdonald, The Called It Passchendaele:The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres and of the Men Who Fought in it (London: Penguin UK, 1978) , p. 101.

[3] Lloyd, p. 111.

[4] Lloyd, p. 117.

[5] Macdonald, pp. 104 – 105.

[6] Lloyd, pp. 118-120.

[7]  Hew Strachan, The First World War (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 253.

[8] MacDonald, p. 240.

[9] B.H. Liddell Hart, History of the First World War (London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1930),  pp. 426-427.

[10] A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War, an Illustrated History (London: George Rainbird, Ltd., 1963), p. 148.

[11] Taylor, p. 45.

[12] For Passchendaele, see John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), pp. 368-369; Gallipoli, see Keegan, p. 245.

[13] Strachan, p. 250.

[14] Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), 2673-2687, Kindle.

[15] Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern World (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1989), p. 117.

[16] Eksteins, p. 119.

[17] Todman, 2727, Kindle.

[18] Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War, p. 60

[19] Todman, 2793, Kindle.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Todman, 2830, Kindle.

[22] Todman, 2964-2971, Kindle.

[23] Todman, 2823-2825, Kindle.