Michael LoCicero talks ‘A Moonlight Massacre: The Forgotten Last Act of the Third Battle of Ypres’

1German-born and Pennsylvania-raised, our Commissioning Editor – Michael LoCicero – quickly rose to prominence in the Midlands’ military history scene following the completion of his PhD at the University of Birmingham.

Here, the adopted ‘Brummie’ tells all about his new book: ‘A Moonlight Massacre: The Night Operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917. The Forgotten Last Act of the Third Battle of Ypres’.

What motivated you to write A Moonlight Massacre?Moonlight cover

“It was in the late 1990s that I first came across a clearly rendered operational battle map entitled: ‘PASSCHENDAELE RIDGE 1/2 December 1917’ while leafing through a dog-eared 1926 edition of The Eighth Division 1914-1918 by Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Boraston and Captain C.E.O. Bax.

‘This surprising discovery occurred during a leisurely shelf-browse at the popular ‘Shell Hole’ bed and breakfast/antiquarian bookshop not far from the Grote Markt in Ypres. Baffled, I contemplated the date: ‘December 1917? Surely Third Ypres had finished up by then?’

‘I found (through subsequent research) that little had been written about the affair beyond a miscellaneous assortment of personal memoirs – one divisional and a dozen or so battalion histories – primarily (but not exclusively) produced during the inter-war period which, by their very nature, focus on individual experience or a particular unit without (more often than not) any sort of broad perspective or contextual evaluation.

‘Added to this was the fact that the risky night attack had also been overlooked in the British Official History of the Third Ypres campaign. This was despite the fact that its German equivalent depicted the event as the last major enemy effort before winter set in. This glaring gap in the available historiography – combined with the desire to assess and explain the forgotten final act to what is commonly referred to as ‘Passchendaele’ – were the primary motivations for A Moonlight Massacre.”

What research did you have to undertake; what sources did you utilise – and
over what timeframe?

“Tracking down primary source documents, images and printed sources; tramping over the former battlefield site whenever possible; and the lengthy research and writing process were carried out over a period of 11 years. Indeed, new material was still being added through the final proofing period!

‘A wide range of documents from the National Archives’ extensive WO series (a fundamental starting point for those wishing to understand the British army during the First World War) provided the essential war diaries, operation orders, intelligence and after-action reports on which the book is based.

‘Examination of the available papers of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston and Major-General W.C.G. Heneker (amongst others) disclosed the thoughts and actions of over a dozen participants from GHQ to platoon level.

Exploration of the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv and Bayerisch Kriegsarchiv put paid to the general assumption that German operation orders, telegraph/wireless messages, situation reports, interrogation reports etc. were lost forever following the 1945 air raid that reduced the Reich’s central military archive to ashes.

‘Six relevant Hessian and Thüringian regimental histories provided the principal source for understanding sharp-end perspectives, collective experience and course of events relating to the ‘other side of the hill’. The factual gulf between these accounts and the wealth of British sources was, in comparison, very limited (the former – more often than not – complimenting the latter).”

Of all the military engagements of the First World War, what is it about this particular one that excited your interest?

“General interest was based on the engagement’s relative obscurity and place within the chronology of the Third Ypres campaign. Whether or not the Germans had foreknowledge of the assault – as surmised in the majority of consulted British documents and printed sources – was, in addition to the tactical validity of what was a novel attack plan, of particular interest throughout the long road to publication.”

The book is described as a ‘reinterpretation’ and a ‘corrective’ to previous publications. What is the biggest misconception about Passchendaele that it challenges?

“The biggest misconception is that the Canadian Corps achieved all of its objectives following the last official attack of Third Ypres. Failure to do so was the primary reason for sanctioning the subsequent early December night assault. This observation is not meant to denigrate the considerable Canadian effort and resultant battlefield achievements during the controversial post-strategic phase of operations. Keeping in mind that British troops were called upon to carry on this work, it is worthwhile to note that the controversial 1917 campaign should – amongst others – be viewed in a British Empire context.”

What do you think will surprise people in the book?

“That so much occurred in the immediate aftermath of Third Ypres. As Franky Bostyn, former director of the Passchendaele 1917 Memorial Museum, once observed: ‘We know a lot happened after 10 November, but we don’t know a lot about it.’”

What will the casually interested reader take from it and what is there to excite academics?

“The casual reader will, I hope, appreciate the engaging in-depth battle narrative with analysis approach and specially commissioned artwork. The academic may take note that this opaque episode of the First World War has been thoroughly examined for the first time in all of its political, grand strategic, strategic, operational and tactical complexities.”

As an American, what are your reflections on the role of the USA in the First World War?

“The United States benefited from the conflict in the long run inasmuch as it laid the foundations of Washington’s subsequent global dominance. Conversely, the efficacy and impact of the American Expeditionary Force during 1918 operations on the Western Front are often overstated – despite a relatively recent trend of balanced academic reassessment. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the morale and military consequences of America’s participation ultimately tipped the balance in favour of the Allies.”

You have lived in the UK for some time now. What have you observed are the differences between the American and European perspectives on the First World War?

“The late John Terraine once remarked that the First World War is almost a ‘non-event’ in the United States. Our late entry into the conflict and consequent overshadowing by the Second World War has done much to eradicate it from popular memory. That being said, recognition of its significant relationship to the aforementioned global dominance throughout the so-called ‘American Century’ and beyond has generated much renewed interest amongst Stateside academics and enthusiasts alike.”

Click here to purchase ‘A Moonlight Massacre’ and to enter our monthly prize draw for a chance to win £100 of credit to spend on Helion-published books and shipping.

Moonlight paintingIlluminated by discharged Verey lights, advancing worm columns of 11th Border Regiment are detected by German defenders on Vat Cottages Ridge in this stunning artwork produced by Peter Dennis and inspired by ‘A Moonlight Massacre’. Purchase your limited edition print – one of only 500 – here for just £20.

Photo Caption: Top left – East of Vat Cottages, February 2014 

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2 Responses to Michael LoCicero talks ‘A Moonlight Massacre: The Forgotten Last Act of the Third Battle of Ypres’

  1. Alan Englefield says:

    I should be very grateful if my comments could reach Dr Lo Cicero.

    Having tried unsuccessfully for years to discover why my late father, a Royal Engineer Signaller, was awarded a military medal, finding “Midnight Massacre” was truly a “Eureka Moment”. I had in 2014 discovered the 32nd Division Signal Company diary in the National Archive, but it does not identify the actual locations. Father’s medal was awarded on 17 December 1917 for an action at the end of November/beginning of December which, knowing that the third battle of Ypres had ended on 21 November, I assumed that I might be looking at Cambrai. The archive records show a communications map with locations Kronprinz Farm, Bellvue, Kansas Cross, Cheddar Villa, etc, but having been told that these were likely to be code words I was ready to give up until I googled them from my Ypres hotel and discovered Dr Lo Cicero’s thesis which immediately revealed what I had been seeking for so long.

    So this is simply to say a heart-felt thank you for at last my family and I know where father was and what he did – he never would discuss it – and we shall go to Ypres later this year to walk in his footsteps.

    Yours sincerely,

    Alan Englefield

    • admin says:

      Many thanks for your very kind feedback Alan. We will ensure it is forwarded to Michael, and are pleased to hear that this title has been helpful to you and your family. We will remember your father with sorrow for your loss and grateful thanks for his service.

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