What it was really like fighting in 1917

As Sam Mendes Oscar-nominated epic sparks fresh interest in ‘the war to end all wars’, author Lyn Macdonald recounts her time with soldiers who fought that year for real in the rubble of Ypres, and the unforgettable stories they told her.    

Lyn Macdonald
1917 film
Dream Works

A hundred years have elapsed since a succession of weary men fought their way up the low ridges that surround the town of Ypres to capture some heaps of rubble and brick dust — all that was left of the village of Passchendaele. It had taken over three months and cost some 200,000 lives to get there. Even after a century the names Ypres and Passchendaele have a haunting resonance — a far off echo of the cataclysmic events of 1917. ‘Ypres was a terrible place,’ I was told by Corporal Reg Pinneo who served with the Canadians, ‘I was there three times and I never hear the name without a shiver of apprehension.’

He was one of many old soldiers whom I have had the privilege of knowing since 1972 when I was a producer on BBC radio, and happened to hear of a group of veterans who had been going back to the battlefields since 1928 and were at the point of going again for the very last time. What a story! A ready-made 30 minute documentary that even came with a ready-made title. After a telephone call to the secretary of the 13th Service Battalion The Rifle Brigade, the organiser of the trip, I was invited to join them.

Monchy-le-Preux, a hilltop village turned into a fortress by the Germans, was captured during the Battle of Arras in April 1917 the by the 37th Division, which included the men with me. It was here that the Rifle Brigade memorial had been built on the very top of the hill. As we made our way up to lay a wreath, we were followed by what seemed to be the entire population of Monchy including every child and every dog. There were a few minutes of silent contemplation looking across the hard-won ground below, then it was backdown the hill to the village hall where the champagne flowed and the entente cordiale was well and truly toasted. There were speeches in broken English and fractured French which few must have understood but it hardly mattered. It was the Rifle Brigade’s umpteenth visit and they and their hosts understood each other very well. 

'The mood changed as we neared Ypres'

It was a jolly party that rejoined the coach. The long drive from our base in Ostend had been solemn; we had stopped at several war cemeteries where relations or pals were buried. But now Fred White took out his mouth organ (also his teeth the better to play it) and the sing-song began. The tunes were familiar — who doesn’t recognise those old refrains?— but the words were not. ‘That’s the wrong way to tickle Mary,’ they warbled to the strains of Tipperary, and Mademoiselle From Armentières became ‘Farmer have you any good wine, fit for a soldier up the line, Inky pinky parlyvoo’, with many audacious verses to follow.

The mood changed as we neared Ypres where we stopped at the great Menin Gate Memorial, which straddles the road into the town. On its walls are carved the names of more than 56,000 men who died or drowned in the quagmire of mud and whose bodies were never recovered, and every night at 8 o’clock the traffic is stopped and buglers play the Last Post. We stayed for a long time after that as people looked for names they knew.

‘We’d been behind. St. Julien in the gas attack of 1915, but when we went back in 1917 the whole area was utterly devastated,’ Gunner Jack Brown told me in a quiet chat later.

‘There was no trace of the farms and barns that were there before - nothing but the ocean of mud and dumps and a few battered pillboxes. Having just come from billets we were all spruced up and we hadn’t gone far when we saw some infantry coming out of the line all tattered and dishevelled and covered in mud. When they spotted us they started yelling, “Turn back, boys. You’d better not go any further. There’s a war going on up there!”’

And there were stories of horrific experiences, like the one told by lewis-gunner Reg Le Brun: ‘The first morning in the line I had to go back to the dump to fetch the rations for the team and the whole way was nothing but shell holes with bodies floating in them. It always seemed worse when you didn’t see the whole body, only legs or arms. The shelling never let up.

‘I heard someone nearby calling for help so I dodged across round shell holes and there was this chap sitting propped up on his elbow holding his stomach. His insides were all spilling out. He said, “Finish it for me mate. Put a bullet in me, I want you to.” I didn’t have my revolver. All my life I’ve never stopped wondering what I would have done If I had.’

Last trip to Monchy was duly broadcast. The books came later, because, during the course of making it and finding and talking to many more veterans, I realised that in the decades since the First World War, these old soldiers had never had their say, and what they had to tell us was truly mind boggling – at least to me. To them it was merely the simple truth.

Passchendaele:  The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres by Lyn Macdonald is out now.

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