A TV historian and author is set to mark the Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres by telling the personal stories of those who fought during a nightmare struggle which has become known a Passchendaele.
South-West London-based Alexandra Churchill penned Passchendaele. 103 Days in Hell with researchers Andrew Holmes and Johnathan Dyer.
Drawing extensively on official military records and working with the descendants and families of their chosen subjects, the authors paint a vivid and engaging picture of a battle that has become synonymous with the suffering and horror of the Western Front.
“This is a book about people,” Alexandra stresses. “It tells us what happened at Passchendaele through the eyes of those who were on, behind, above or below the battlefield. Almost everyone featured died – either during battle or due to their injuries – which is why we felt it was essential to make their stories heard.”
After explaining the contribution of the Battle of Messines, the book begins on 31 July 1917 when the Allies launched a renewed assault on German lines in Flanders, Belgium. The village of Passchendaele was eventually captured after 103 days of bloody fighting – hence the title of the book – but there was no substantial breakthrough on the Western Front. More than 300,000 British casualties and 260,000 German casualties were recorded, making it one of the war’s costliest and more controversial offenses.
“There are so many fascinating and tragic individual stories: Pte Harold Henry Mann, who had pioneering facial reconstruction surgery; Lt Arthur Rhys Davies of the Royal Flying Corps, who is credited with 25 victories in the air in just six months; and Gunner Norman Manley who survived the war and later became Premier of Jamaica. Tragically, his brother Roy was killed by shrapnel while trying to carry a wounded comrade to safety,” explains Alexandra, who contributed to Channel 5’s popular First World War archaeological series ‘The Big Dig’.
“We have ensured that all corners of the Empire, as it was then, are represented, from New Zealanders to West Indians, as well as every rank of soldier. Women feature too, including Muriel Thompson of the Calais Convoy, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, who is pictured on the front cover. It has been a remarkable experience but reading and writing about death every day for nine months has taken its toll. I never want to have to describe mud again!”
The book is the latest collaboration by Alexandra, Andrew and Jonathan, who share a mutual interest in the First World War and a passion for Chelsea FC. They co-wrote Over Land and Sea. Chelsea FC in the Great War in 2015, and followed up with Somme. 141 Days, 141 Lives last year.
Passchendaele. 103 Days in Hell has been released in time for the UK national commemorative events to mark the centenary, which will take place on 30 and 31 July. It contains over 100 images including portraits, original and modern photographs of the battlefield, and of Commonwealth War Graves sites.
“You don’t need any prior knowledge of Passchendaele to read this book,” says Publisher Duncan Rogers of Helion and Company Ltd.
“It offers a broad understanding of the battle without getting too bogged down in the technical detail. Alexandra and her fellow authors are to be commended on assembling an imaginative and balanced selection of voices from both sides of no man’s land. These combine to make a lasting and worthy tribute to own for the centenary of Passchendaele.”