Socialist Worker

The horror of Passchendaele couldn’t stop rebellion

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2564

British soldiers at Passchendaele

British soldiers at Passchendaele


The Battle of Passchendaele, which began 100 years ago this week, could be seen as just another bloody episode in the slaughter of the First World War.

The five months of slogging and near-suicidal offensives by mainly British troops fighting German forces left hundreds of thousands dead and the frontlines barely changed.

But Passchendaele displays even greater callousness by the generals and politicians than some other battles.

It is inseparable from the European ruling classes’ fears of the Russian Revolution, mutinies in the French army, and British working class revolt.

Mutinous

Just a few months before the battle began the Russian Revolution had brought down the Tsar—and mutinous troops had played an important role.

Every ruler wondered if they too might be torn down by insurgent troops and a population weary of years of empty sacrifice.

In the spring of 1917 the French army had almost fallen apart as division after division refused orders to attack.

An offensive earlier in the year by a million French troops had left 120,000 dead or missing within ten days.

When they were ordered to attack again they refused.

Those deemed to have led the rebellion were executed or deported to grim penal colonies.

Partly in an effort to stifle revolt the offensive was launched—and hundreds of thousands died on both sides.

But this did not stop the resistance. By June large sections of about half of the army’s regiments were mutinying in some form.

In Britain widespread strikes, involving hundreds of thousands of engineering workers, had taken place in May.

They had focused the mood against the endless deaths, the soaring cost of living and the shortage of basic goods.

War secretary Lord Derby wrote, “There is no doubt that the Russian Revolution has created an unrest which is revolutionary and dangerous.”

The ruling classes in France and Europe were terrified.

Offensives

Prime minister David Lloyd George advised a temporary halt to further offensives that would again see massive casualties.

But the generals disagreed. Field marshal Douglas Haig argued that a speedy victory would produce patriotic unity.

Haig wrote, “If the war were to end tomorrow, Great Britain would find itself not merely the greatest power in Europe but in the world.

“The chief people to suffer would be the socialists who are trying to rule us all.”

Partly in an effort to stifle revolt the offensive was launched—and hundreds of thousands died on both sides.

But its terrible price meant that far from snuffing out revolutionary movements, it encouraged them.

British empire troops mutinied in Etaples, northern France, in September 1917.

The Russian offensive designed to coincide with Passchendaele led to still wider revolts and pointed towards the October revolution.

And in Germany it deepened the pressures towards rejection of the war.

Everywhere it meant that activists were even more determined to end war and the system that produced it.


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