Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Passchendaele: The anatomy of a tragedy"

I recently finished reading "Passchendaele: The anatomy of a tragedy" by Andrew MacDonald (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2013, ISBN: 978 1 77554 030 4). In this year of increased interest in the Great War driven by the anniversaries, this is a timely title for those with an interest in the Great War, and New Zealanders more generally.

Having finished the book I can't help thinking that a more appropriate sub title might have been "Being an attack on Lieutenant General Alexander Godley".

MacDonald's basic thesis seems to be that the tragedy that was the II ANZAC Corps attack towards the Passchendaele Ridge on 10 and 12 October 1917 was a consequence of poor leadership by Godley.

His analysis is interesting (and for me) convincing (in the absence of wider reading). MacDonald's argument follows these stages:

1. Godley was a man of few private means for whom success in the army was essential to his financial success.
2. The troops engaged in the attack had developed the platoon, company and battalion tactical expertise to break through the German lines, as evidenced by the success of the earlier attack at Broodseinde on 4 October. He cites ample evidence of the successful use of platoon fire and manouvre tactics, used alongside good artillery support and good logistics in the 4 October operation.
3. Godley pushed ahead with the 10 and 12 October attacks, accelerating the 'operational tempo' of the offensive at the very time that the deterioration in the either meant that the tempo needed to be slowed in order to allow for the appropriate concentrations of artillery and general logistical support.
4. The consequence was that much of the artillery support was either not in the correct position or not able to fire at all, resulting in a much diminished creeping barrage. The pace of advance of the creeping barrage was not adjusted to allow for the slower rate of advance that the infantry were capable of in the poor ground conditions.
5. Currie's consequent success in capturing Passchendaele with the Canadian Corps was the result of Currie insisting on a slowing of the operational tempo to allow preparations to be completed before the attack.

This is a good read whether you accept MacDonald's thesis or not. In the absence of more convincing argument, MacDonald convinced me.


  1. Very interesting Robin, now I will have to dig this out and read it :)

  2. Thanks for the kind words.
    Andy Macdonald