What have we learned in the century since the third battle of Ypres?
The battle of Passchendaele has a special place in the history of the first world war because it was the only time when the British experience of war in Europe approached the unredeemed horror that almost all our European neighbours would experience in the 20th century. There were other first world war campaigns that were quite as dreadful and fruitless as Passchendaele, the third battle of Ypres, in Belgium. The Italians could hold up their own pointless slaughter in the Dolomites above Trieste, where 11 futile offensives came to nothing between 1915 and 1917. There were other British military fiascos. But Iraq and Salonica (Thessaloniki) were quickly forgotten and involved small armies. Gallipoli and the Somme could be remembered – and often were – for the heroism of the soldiers involved as much as their outcome. The industrialised slaughter of Passchendaele could not be spun as triumph over tragedy. It was a story of dreadful losses transformed into crushing failure. Such an annihilation of hope is hard to draw lessons from. It is hard even with confidence to say “never again”. The richest and most technologically advanced continent on the planet tore itself apart after 1914. Not all its idealism, wealth and organisation could save it. Without wisdom, compassion and humility they won’t save us either.