ONE hundred years ago today, Daily Chronicle war correspondent Philip Gibbs recorded events on the first day of the third battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele.
An Irish soldier had gone over the top to attack the German lines in atrocious weather, glad to escape the “awful noise” of the field guns on the British side. He and his comrades had crossed blasted ground, where “trenches had disappeared, concrete emplacements had been overturned, breastworks had been flung like straws to the wind.”
Many of the so-called enemy had been buried alive along with their machine guns, trench mortars and bomb stores.
As Gibbs noted: “But there were other dead not touched by shell-fire, nor by any bullet. They had been killed by our gas attack which had gone before the battle. Rows of them lay clasping their gas-masks, and had not been quick enough before the vapour of death reached them.”
Over the following four months, half a million men and boys were killed or wounded in a series of brutal battles for five miles of Belgian mud.
In December 1917, Prime Minister David Lloyd George attended a private banquet where Gibbs recounted his experiences at the front in graphic, gory detail. The next day, Lloyd George confided to Guardian editor CP Scott the impact that this account would have on the home front: “If people really knew, the war would end tomorrow. But of course, they don’t know and can’t know.”
The press barons and state censors ensured that most civilians never did read the truth about the Great War between the ruling classes of the British, French, Russian and Italian empires on the one side and those of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire on the other.
As Lloyd George had gone on to say: “The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds.
“The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can’t go on with this bloody business.”
But he and his successors did go on with this “bloody business,” not only in Europe but in Iraq, India, Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus, the Falklands and Afghanistan.
And still we are not told the truth. At yesterday’s commemorations, a procession of military figures, princes, politicians and priests concealed the real causes and motives of the 1914-18 slaughter in a cloud of guff.
They yapped about freedom, duty, courage, service and sacrifice — but uttered not a word about the war criminals who incited, organised and applauded one of the biggest and most pointless mass slaughters in history.
Fittingly, this was on the same day that the High Court threw out an attempt to hold Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Lord Goldsmith to account for waging the murderous war of aggression against Iraq in 2003.
Meanwhile in Ypres, ever ready to let slip the dogs of war, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon linked Passchendaele and the first world war to Britain’s present-day military commitments and alliances.
They are indeed connected, although not, as Fallon would have it, in some common, timeless struggle for freedom and democracy.
Rather, Britain’s foreign and military policy remains to make the world safe for big business profits, bringing troublesome peoples and governments to heel while monopoly capitalism exploits their human and natural resources.
We would best honour the victims of Passchendaele by redoubling our efforts to challenge British imperialism, its bloody interventions, its nuclear weapons of mass extermination and its servile Nato alliance with US imperialism.