Review of “Passchendaele: 103 days in Hell”

Passchendaele: 103 days in Hell
By Alexandra Churchill with Andrew Holmes and Jonathan Dyer
Published by Helion & Company, 2017
ISBN 978 1 911512 30 1
Hardback, 193 pages plus sources and index. Illustrated throughout.
Cover price not stated.

I must admit to a small pang of cynicism on first sight of this book: it has all the physical hallmarks of a coffee-table centenary-bandwagon-jumper. Luxuriously produced in a large format that doesn’t fit any of my bookshelves, it looks the sort of thing that will appear for £1 in “The Works” somewhere down the line. But it was only a pang, for appearances can be deceptive and the author is well known as a producer of good work including a well-received similar book on the Somme in 1916.

So I soldier on. “103 days in Hell” narrates the story of the Third Ypres (Passchendaele) offensive through the blending of biographical details of 103 of the battle’s dead, one per day of the campaign, with a clear explanation of events. It is well illustrated, almost all individuals having a portrait photograph, and some excellent maps. The dead are obviously selected to cover as broad a range of rank, unit and background as possible. There are British, Australian, Canadian, West Indies; ordinary fighting men; officers; a chaplain. One, nurse Elise Kemp, is female. That they shared a common experience becomes very clear. If I have a criticism it is that I would have liked to have seen greater German representation. They were, after all, engaged in not dissimilar numbers to the British. I think I am right in saying (not easy when there is no list) that there are two, one of whom is the well-known aviator Werner Voss. On the other hand, I was delighted to see a French soldier from early in the battle. It is often ignored that the French played an important part on the British left flank.

The book includes an interesting and beautifully-shot selection of black and white “now” photographs of some of the memorials, cemeteries and gravestones relevant to the narrative.

The “103” stretches the officially-recognised dates of the battle somewhat, for it includes an episode very shortly afterwards that has been covered so well in Michael LoCicero’s “A moonlight massacre”. No surprise, perhaps, for he also happens to be the publisher’s commissioning editor, although he tells me it was the author’s idea to include it.

Overall, excellent and a good buy. I doubt that “The Works” will see a copy!

Buy it

Postscript

“103 days” includes something I have been noticing increasingly frequently – and that is the titling of photographs as “Author’s Collection”. Well, that may be but it does not necessarily mean that the author has right of publication. I have many photos from the Imperial War Museum, downloaded freely from their website, but recognise that this does not give me any rights. I get the sense that publishers (for this applies broadly, not just Helion) are increasingly prepared to “publish and be damned”, especially when the photos are well-worn portraits of Haig, the ruins of Ypres, and so on.