This week I want to return to the tragedy of the First World War because July 31 marked the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of Passchandaele.
Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, it lasted just over three months and remains one of the most controversial offensives of the entire conflict, partially because British leaders could not agree on whether it was the right thing to do strategically and partially because the dire weather as the battle progressed made the already horrifying and miserable life in the trenches all the more unbearable. The Germans lost 217,000 troops, while the allied forces of British, French, Belgian, Canadian, Australian, Indian and South African suffered around 245,000 dead and wounded between them.
Lloyd George, the prime minister, deemed it “one of the greatest disasters of the war”. Others had wanted Field Marshall Haig to hold back until the Americans arrived at the front. The poet Siegfried Sasson wrote : “I died in Hell. They called it Passchendaele.”
For me, though, its legacy includes a wonderful reminder about how man can create something powerful and positive out of the worst experience. That reminder is the art by the likes of Paul Nash, CRW Nevinson and others, showing shell bursts, the wounded and suffering of those at the front in the battle – art that continues to command high prices at auction today, and acts as a warning to us about what we must avoid in future.