Signature Scripts Journey to Passchendaele

The centenary of World War One offered writers around the world abundant opportunities to contemplate the profound, alongside sacred and profane aspects of war.

What can be captured through words and images, revising existing commentaries and offering new contemplation on events that are distant yet utterly informing?

A sense of presence amidst the horrifying newness of mechanised warfare, the extraordinary and prolific social upheavals, meaningful change in the gendered identity not only of warfare but the societies that went to war.

It can be tricky to find the line between prosaic exposition and purple prose: the line that avoids elevating the existing and implicit drama to a hyperbolic image that misses the moment, failing to evoke distinctive mixtures of normality, despair and razor sharp instincts and the excitement and struggle reported by those on and beyond the firing lines.

Fortunately the diaries, letters and reports of the time feature copious and remarkable accounts of the likeness of wartime existence, as well as fever-induced heights in other-wordly experiences.

In this script, Journey to Passchendaele, I wanted to capture the hardships experienced by men even before reaching the front lines of battle, in the sodden landscapes of Flanders, at the middle mark of the war.

1917 was a diabolical year and the first, second and third battles of Passchendaele were some of the year’s most infamous memories, notwithstanding events such as the collapse of the Tsarist Autocracy in Russia, and civilian famine in Germany.

Anzac engineers carry duckboards to the front of the tracks they’re laying for the infantry’s single column advance to the front lines of battle in the Ypres Salient.

The script was for a video diorama, the production of which is described in detail here. But it’s also designed to be listened to with eyes closed. And this version is featured below. Sound design, which I value as at least as important as visual design in evoking emotional landscapes, was created with Andrew Stevenson of We Love Jam, and the marvelous Richard Roxburgh narrates.

The Script: Journey to Passchendaele

By the second half of 1917, the fields and woodlands of Belgium had steadily transformed
under incessant artillery fire, into a mire of churned earth, debris and splintered, broken trees.

Heavy rain fell across the Ypres Salient,
transforming the already destroyed landscape into a sea of mud,
upon which soldiers of the Allied armies struggled against their German counterparts.

Leaving the solid surfaces of roadways, soldiers would wend their way forward along tracks made from duckboards,
careful not to slip off into the quagmire on either side.

In single file they slowly trekked toward the starting lines of battles,
steady targets for snipers, machine guns, mortars and artillery.

Understandably, soldiers were constantly unnerved by what they saw around them,
making feelings of loneliness and despair difficult to counter.

Blended in to the roiled landscape, the violence of war was regularly found in the dark, still form on the wayside.
Thousands of soldiers and horses were lost to the deep, sucking mud, and remain buried there to this day.

Ahead of the battles themselves, teams of engineers were tasked with creating paths to the front,
and regularly needed to find clever ways to ensure these survived in the muddy, water-logged expanses of land.

But as the weather worsened and the Allied advance closed on Passchendaele, the quagmire became overwhelming.

Within this morass, Stretcher-bearers demonstrated a quite different type of courage to the infantrymen they aided.
Their slow and repeated forays into no-man’s-land and back down the line to relay points
and aid stations, was extremely strenuous work.

They had to resist instinctive responses of fight or flight, instead conditioning themselves to the perils of slow,
methodical endurance surrounded by extreme danger, and compounded by the sucking mud.

As they struggled back with the wounded, and in the process were themselves killed,
their plight reflected a different view to that of the generals who described the ‘great successes’ of battles.