Gilbert Stuart MacDonald and Passchendaele

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald
Gilbert Stuart MacDonald, 1889 – 1917

As I’ve mentioned before, there is not much of a tradition of military service in my direct ancestors.

One served in the 42nd Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War. But he joined in August 1864 and was out in less than a year. The company was on “post and garrison duty” in Illinois during that time.

Before that I have to go back to the American Revolution for ancestors who were in the military (as well as ancestors who were Loyalists and had to flee to Canada after the war).

But among indirect relations on the Canadian side several saw combat. One was in the Canadian Mounted Rifles in the Boer War.

Two were involved in World War One. One never left Canada and served as a cook in a training camp.  (He was also an American citizen born in Missouri but drafted in the Canadian Army. I am unclear about the legalities involved.)

The other was Gilbert Stuart MacDonald who died 100 years ago today.

I was told he died at Passchendaele, so I took a couple of books on the battle off the shelf and read them for the anniversary.

Review: Passchendaele: The Tragic Victory of 1917, Philip Warner, 1987 and Passchendaele: The Untold Story, Robin Price and Trevor Wilson, 1996.

Americans give little thought to Passchendaele. Neither American soldiers or marines fought in it, and Americans generally don’t give a lot of thought to World War One. It is the American Civil War and World War Two which are important in American culture and thoughts.Warner Passchendaele

But the British and Australians and Canadians and New Zealanders definitely still think about it. It was, in some ways, the most horrible battle of the war.

The bare metrics of the battle don’t agree for battles Commonwealth forces fought in. John Terraine’s The Smoke and the Fire provides some. It says Passchendaele lasted 105 days to the Somme’s 21 days. The Somme and the British offensive of August through November 1918 had more casualties than Passchendaele’s 244,000. Many other battles in the war exceeded its casualty average of 2,121 per day.

Nor was the battle the worst in the number of casualties measured against the ground taken or movement of the lines.

But it was the worse for the conditions it was fought in. (The fighting in the Italian Alps between Italians and Austrians, where avalanches and tunnels were part of the weaponry,  has its own unique, if smaller scale, horror.)

Some of the most iconic pictures of the war are from Passchendaele: men and beast moving across duckboards in a landscape of flooded craters and a few shattered trees. Men and horses really did drown when they stepped off those boards. Wounded men really did scream as they lay helpless in craters filling with water. Marches that would take an hour under normal conditions would take many multiples of that as men moved through the mud. Weapons clogged in the mud and rain; artillery shells had to be cleaned of mud before firing. Men waded exhausted across swamps under machine gun fire.

Passchendaele’s horrors came from the incessant rain and the nature of the battlefield.

It was fought on low ground, badly drained because of an underlying layer of clay. What little drainage work had been constructed before the war was destroyed by massive use of artillery, the highest density of shelling yet seen in the war.

Rain was expected around Ypres – the official name of the battle is the Third Battle of Ypres, but the rains were unusually heavy that year.

The battle started with a bang, a very loud bang, the largest explosion in history when 19 mines were detonated under the Germans at 3:10 AM on June 7, 1917. Over a million tons of ammonal explosive going off was heard as far off as London where David Lloyd-George, the British Prime Minister, was working late in his office. To give an idea of the low topographical relief, one of the mines was under Hill 60, a German strongpoint a mere 60 meters above sea level. [Update: The detonation of the mines was not heard in England. The following artillery barrage was as per historian Simon Jones.]

Yet, the chaos caused by those mines, some sources say about 10,000 German troops were killed when they exploded, didn’t start the battle proper. General Douglas Haig’s offensive started on July 31, 1917 and ground to a halt, the Germans pushed off their “high ground” of Messines and Passchendaele Ridges and the Gheuvelt Plateau, on November 10, 1917. [Update: Simon Jones says the German casualties from the mine were nowhere near this amount.]

I read Prior and Wilson’s book second, but I should have read it first. Even Martin Marix Evans, author of several books on the battle, points out in the February 2007 issue of Over the Top: A Magazine of the First World War (put out by the people who do the Roads to the Great War site listed on my blogroll), who disputes their conclusion that the battle lacked “discernible consequences or achievements”, admires the clarity of their presentation.Wilson Passchendaele

They break each phase of the battle into its own chapter with relevant, clear, small scale maps showing lines of movements and zones of operation for the Commonwealth forces. Warner’s book, a popular history, uses 1920 maps from French sources. While they sometimes show important villages and topographical features lacking in Trevor and Wilson, they don’t show locations of units. It’s even hard to discern the Menin Road that is so much a part of British memory (as much as anything of World War One is) and site of the Menin Gate monument.

Both books present prequels to the mine blasts of June 7th. But Warner’s (32 out of 269 pages) gives us a general history of battles in that area of Belgium and World War One to that date. Trevor’s and Wilson’s (53 out of 237 pages) provide a much more useful prequel. They provide details like the lack of precision in artillery fire even under identical weather conditions and firing position which necessitated such massive bombardments to smash trenches, barbed wire, and enemy guns.

They also talk about the details of the creeping barrage, the curtain of artillery fire preceding troops after they went over the top. It was designed to either destroy enemy forces or keep them from shooting until the advancing troops reached the trenches. The standard advance of the barrage was a 100 yards every four minutes, but, slogging through the mud, troops were usually unable to keep up that rate and were exposed to fire from German trenches.

Trevor and Wilson also talk about the unique problems, beside the ground and weather, of fighting at Passchendaele. German forces occupied the high ground and had for years. They were able to direct their artillery by direct observation and that artillery was on the other side of the high ground, out of direct observation by Commonwealth forces who had to rely on indirect observation methods of sonic and flash detection for fire control.

There was also observation by airplane and balloon – when the weather permitted which it often didn’t during the battle. The weather also hampered communication with supporting artillery.

Knocking out enemy artillery was crucial. If it was not done, German troops, as dictated by their doctrine of flexible defense, would counterattack with its help. Artillery cover also dictated that prudent plans involved a bite-and-hold strategy where Allied troops didn’t advance too far so their own artillery could rain fire down on counterattacks.

What was the purpose of the offensive?

Trevor and Wilson talk about that. Haig expected to pull off a massive breakthrough against demoralized forces. Cavalry, and Haig was still thinking in terms of cavalry not least because that was his personal experience, would break through. Advancing Allied forces would link up with an amphibious landing on the coast of Belgium and German U-boat bases would be captured.

Whether that was really the purpose, or plausibly achievable if it was, is the great theme of Trevor and Wilson’s book since they are interested in the politics and command behind the battle. They relied on a wealth of documents not available to earlier writers on the battle.

Of particular interest to them is why subordinates were allowed to go forward with plans once nixed, and why preparations for bite-and-hold attacks were abandoned despite earlier warnings. In particular, they show many instances of military and civilian leaders letting unnecessary attacks go forward rather than stopping them when they had the authority to do so and often the knowledge to judge them unlikely to succeed.

As is probably expected in even an academic history, Trevor and Wilson note actions where Victoria Crosses were awarded, and Warner does likewise. Both are critical of Haig and see little point in the battle given that the land taken was evacuated in three days in March 1918 during the German spring offensive.

Trevor and Wilson, as befitting academics, lay out their clear conclusions that the battle was plagued with irresponsible command, too ambitious, should have begun sooner after the mines were exploded, and didn’t use tactics whose success had already been proved at Messines and Vimy Ridge earlier that year. They also think Haig should have sat tight and waited for the deployment of American forces.

Warner is less concise in his conclusion but seems to agree about the delays in the battle and poor tactics. What Warner does more of is humanize the battle. His book is full of interviews from soldiers in the battle or their diaries and memoirs. (Trevor and Wilson provide fewer such quotes, but they are concise and vivid and don’t repeat Warner who doesn’t even get a mention in the bibliography.)

Warner looks at the experience of German soldiers, stretcher bearers who had their own special hell at Passchendaele, chaplains, and the men who put out a magazine for their fellow soldiers in the battle.

Both books come with photos, bibliography, and index though Warner’s footnotes are really just asides on the text for the most part.

Worthwhile books and read the Trevor and Wilson first, and I want to read Evans who disagrees that the battle was totally pointless and argues it was necessary in the great learning curve that took a pre-war Victorian British Army to combined-arms victory in 1918.

And what of Gilbert Stuart MacDonald?

It turns out he did not die at Passchendaele but at Hill 70, a battle little mentioned in Canadian military history. A recent one is Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First War edited by Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger. However, I have not read it. But  I did read Matthew Walthert’s “Neglected Victory: The Canadian Corps at Hill 70” in Volume 19 Issue 1 of Canadian Military History.

Haig wanted an attack to divert German forces from Passchendaele to the north. The British wanted the nearby town of Lens for its coal. The Germans wanted its railhead.

Canadian General Arthur Currie was in command of the Canadian Corps, the first time it had ever been commanded by a Canadian. He disagreed with Haig’s plan and thought Hill 70 needed to be taken before Lens could be. (Currie was one of the war’s best generals – more remarkable because, when the war started, he had no professional military experience though he was serious about his duties as a militia officer.)

The attack on Hill 70 began at 4:25 AM on August 15, 1917. By 6:00 AM, the initial objectives were taken by the Canadians. The Germans, of course, were not going to just go away and counterattacked — 21 counterattacks as it turned out.

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald was a member of the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan), and I do not have many details on where he was in the action. I will note that a 1978 book by James L. McWilliams and R. James Steel about the unit was called The Suicide Battalion and says of its 5,374 men who served in the war 4,917 were killed or wounded.

Of Private MacDonald’s death I only know what his military record says: “Killed in Action” at “trenches west of Lens”.

It’s most probable he died from artillery fire, the most common killer in the war. He may have died from machine gun fire or rifle fire.

It’s possible he died from one of the newer horrors in the war. During the night of August 17th and 18th, the Germans fired 15,000 to 20,000 gas shells.

German troops may have gotten close enough to use grenades. It’s even possible that MacDonald died from a variant of older weapons: trench knife, bayonet, club, and sharpened shovel.

He may even have died of heat exhaustion as some Canadian troops did on August 15th.

Whatever it was that killed him, he and the other 1,876 Canadians who died in the battle now have a monument of their own which is set to be officially opened on August 22, 2017.

Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park (Photo from

More reviews of World War One titles are indexed on the World War One nonfiction page.

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