World War I Poetry and the Third Battle of Ypres: Paschendaele

“Paschendale” (Dance of Death, 2003) commemorates a long-lasting battle of WWI. Its imagery is vivid; the described horrors mortifying. Yet, what if I told you that I have seen the described dead bodies  in barbed wire on a photograph, a sight I will never forget? You will see something similar if you watch the live record of the song, as found on Death on the Road (2006). You will also hear a poem preceding the song, Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem of Doomed Youth”, which focuses on the deaths of soldiers in battle. “Paschendale” is, in fact, not an isolated phenomenon, it is rather a later version of a whole category of WWI poetry. I will show that “Paschendale” is part of a larger picture – the artistic reception and commemoration of the Third Battle of Ypres in particular and WWI in general.

Historical Background

The Third Battle of Ypres during World War I lead to the loss of a total of about 490 000 lives – 275 000 died under British command, 220 000 were killed or injured on the side of the Germans. Victory was of little gain – not only was the only achievement a more or less useless swamp, but it was also as soon abandoned as it was under the Allies’ control. The area was of strategic importance only. It was hoped to gain access via this area to German submarine harbours, an objective which did not work out as planned. This event is usually remembered under an iconic name, the name of a village in Flanders: Paschendaele. (cf. Encyclopedia Britannica

© IWM (Q 2979)

The conditions of this battle were beyond imagination. The soldiers had to spend months in mud filled trenches under constant bombardment. The area was so swampy that carrying off the wounded proved to be almost impossible with the carriers sinking more than ankle-deep into mud and thus making slow progress while facing bombardment. The trenches were in fact so swampy, that some soldiers sank in their sleep and drowned. (cf. Encyclopedia Britannica The descritpion that soldiers actually drowned in mud has to be taken literally.

© IWM (CO 2252)

(For more historical photos see link below.)

Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, © Greg Scrase
Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, © Greg Scrase

WWI Poetry

Several poets coped with these horrors within their poetry, most famously Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Isaac Rosenberg wrote in a poem with the griping name “Dead Man’s Dump”, describing the dead bodies laying in the mud: “The wheels lurched over sprawled dead / But pained them not, though their bones crunched”, “Burnt black by strange decay / Their strange faces lie”, “The grass and coloured clay / More motion have than they”.  Wilfred Wilson Gibson describes an almost ordinary scene from every-day life: breakfast. The soldiers lie in the trenches, having breakfast, joking. The disturbing element is this very feeling of an every-day experience, which it was: “We ate our breakfast laying on our backs / Because the shells were screeching overhead”, “Ginger raised his head / And cursed, and took the bet. And fell back dead”.

One of Siegfried Sassoon’s first person narrators mourns the loss of a beloved friend who defied the war as much as possible. He had “Longed to get home and join the careless crowd” (an echo of the refrain). But now he has gone missing, leaving his friend wondering what might have happened to him. The narrator only hopes “I wish they’d kill you in a decent show”. (“To Any Dead Officer”).

(For a selection of WWI poetry see link below.)


Paintings depicting motives of WWI, such as works by Paul Nash, are dominated by harsh geometric forms, creating worlds which have lost their details. The paintings thus lack life; they appear reduced and “dead”. Paul Nash’ “The Ypres Salient at Night” almost exclusively consists of dark colours, except a bright, shining light which is reminiscent of salvation or luck (like the star of Bethlem or a falling star) but stands for doom and destruction. The shining light in the night is in truth a lethal threat.

Nash, Paul. Ypres Salient at Night. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1145)

His painting “We Are Making a New World” shows black, dead trees in a green swamp. The only thing hinting at a new world or hope is the sun behind some mountains. Yet the title suggests the question what this new world looks like. The former forest has been destroyed, only leaving the dead boles behind – the new world created by war. As I have pointed out before the world has been reduced to the bare essentials; beauty and life (the leaves) have gone. The background curtain used for the live performance echoes this style by a choice of subdued colours and strong geometric forms.

Nash, Paul. We Are Making a New World.  © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1146)

(For other paintings see link below.)

The song

The song  is strongly connected to its forerunners. Not only does the stage design mirror visuals of paintings and photographs alike, as pointed out above, but the lyrics also echo WWI poetry. They feature the same brutal imagery and depict the constant threat of death. In my eyes, the poem which shows most semblance to the lyrics is Siegfried Sassoons’s “Counter Attack”. It is also told from a first person narrator – like “Paschendale” – and it also ends with the death of the soldier.

Steve Harris has re-used his strategy he has already used for “The Trooper” (Piece of Mind, 1983); he narrates battle as a personal narrative of one soldier. We follow his steps, see the battlefield through his eyes and we experience his death immediately.  (→ my two pence on “The Trooper”)

Yet, in contrast to “The Trooper”, the song does not end with the death of the soldier. The soldier turns into a spirit, doomed to wander the battlefield even longer. In death, the dividing line between the enemies seems to vanish; all spirits wander the battlefield together. This ending is open to two interpretations. The former enemies will either be united in death or they will keep on fighting forever. Depending on which reading one choses “Paschendale” ends with an optimistic or very pessimistic outlook (the soldiers damned to fight on until all eternity). This seems to be open to personal interpretation.

Yet, there is another fact about “Paschendale” which helps to turn it into a message of peace.

The Live Record of a Concert in Germany as a Sign of Peace

Harris fulfils the wish of his own invented soldier who wishes for his story to be told – another wording for the well-known slogan “Lest We Forget”. Going back to Death on the Road, I want to point out that this story was told to a German audience. And no-one seems to even realise. The long tradition of British Paschendaele and WWI reception has not only travelled to Germany, but was also recorded there. A British band and their German audience commemorate Paschendaele together; something which shows that Paschendaele has been overcome and is yet unforgotten. In my eyes, this record of a live concert has a much deeper meaning and much more impact than it might have at the first glance. This is a message of peace and hope.

Selection of WWI Poetry Focused on Paschendaele (all taken from Poetry Foundation (

Archive of the Imperial War Museums: Photos of the Third Battle of Ypres [11/13/18]

Archive of the Imperial War Museums: Paintings [11/13/18]


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