Passchendaele: Canada's Battle


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Passchendaele:

A historic, household name, set deep in the hearts of every Canadian. Although it sounds romantic, this is the story of Canada once again doing what no others thought possible. But there is much more in the glory that comes with successes on the battlefield, and it's a story that seems to have faded from peoples minds.

 

Sir Arthur Currie did not want his Canadians to be any part of it. He had estimated the cost of 16,000 soldiers to take the Passendale ridge, and argued with British Commander Douglas Haig that the sheer amount of lost lives it required to take such a small vantage point was not worth the sacrifice. With Haig desperate to take the ridge or risk losing his command, he ordered Currie to come up with a plan, and finally take the ridge.

In July 1917, Douglas Haig is planning his largest offensive of the war, and British soldiers started to unload millions of shells. He is going to attack from the city of Ypres and plans to advance and liberate Belgium from the Germans once and for all. First, by taking the Ridge of Passchendaele, then, continuing to punch North to the country's channel ports. For 10 days, four million shells rained down on the few square kilometres of battlefield in Flanders. German soldiers huddle into ditches and pill boxes scattered across the battlefield. With the barrage of ammunition - the biggest yet the war had seen - the medieval drainage system of Flanders is destroyed, and within days the rain begins. The rain pours ferociously and continuously in Flanders, quickly creating what we all know today as the muddy battlefields of Passchendaele.

The mud had a disturbing impact in Flanders. It would rip treads off of tanks - and not only were the heavy guns drowning, but so were the men and their mules ...a whole army swallowed in the mud. Field Marshal Haig’s offensive becomes stuck in a stinking wasteland. Despite the awful conditions, Haig does not accept defeat, and the soldiers are ordered to march on. Over the next 3 months the British army loses close to a quarter of a million men, and by October the ridge of Passchendaele is still in German hands.


To this day, the Belgian fields bring up deadly reminders of how severe artillery barrages could be in the Great War. A phenomenon called “Soil Creep” causes the ground to stir and rise, making it a common occurrence for local farmers and inhabitants to find new shell casings and live ammunitions dating back to the First World War in their backyards.

 

Building Their Battlefield

By October 1917, Haig had ordered the Canadians to take position in Ypres and to prepare to take on the offensive. Being only 6 months after the win at Vimy Ridge, and only weeks since the victory at Hill 70, Canadian soldiers going into Ypres were very confident. Even though, many were new recruits as those previous battles caused so many casualties. Only when the Canadians relieved the Australians and New Zeleanders do they realize the horror of this battle. The Anzacs had fought their way to the foot of Passchendaele Ridge, and there they were slaughtered. The Anzacs lost 38,000 men in this battle, and the few survivors they had, had faces of ghostly white horror as the left the battlefield.

The fields of Passchendaele were a barren battlefield with nothing but shell holes filled with water, and mud that could swallow you whole. Arthur Currie looks out at the ridge and realizes to himself that just to get to the foot of the ridge, he would need to create a series of duckboard roads to navigate the muddy fields. With the Canadian soldiers building the roads, the Germans continue to shell them constantly. Survivors account that the parties of workers would usually come back with 1-2 people less then they went out with that day. One soldier, Lance Corporal Bottomley, was said to have been hit with a German shell, along with 2 others who died immediately. Bottomley was hit with shrapnel to his arm, almost tearing it off entirely. It is said he stood there holding the stump of his arm and the rest only dangling by the tendons, smiling and laughed calling out a cheery, “goodbye!”, as he knew he was finally escaping the horror of Passchendaele.

As the Canadian roadways near completion the Germans build up their air attacks. Ammunition shells being fired at a higher rate, and German aircraft flying overhead spraying the workers with gunfire. Even if the Germans are able to have the Canadians step off of the working road there is a still a high chance that soldier will die, drowning in the deep mud. The Germans know if they can slow the Canadians down until the winter rains come, they will have won the battle.

Once the roads are complete and the Canadians reach the foot of the ridge, the Ravebeek Creek. By this time, with all of the prior shelling to the fields, the once small creek was now flooded and was a deadly morass. Currie realizes he has to split his attack in two. One division up the Bellevue Spur to the north , and the other up the Passchendaele Ridge to the south. Knowing now how the mud will slow down all attacks, Currie splits his attacks into 3 stages, followed by a pause in between each stage.


Over The Top

October 26th, 1917 - the day the Canadians went over the top. 4,000 soldiers from the 1st Canadian Division attack from Bellevue Spur, and another 4,000 men from the 2nd Canadian Division on Passchendaele Ridge.

On the first day, the men were able to push ahead about 700 yards. By Passchendaele standards this was a successful first day. Sadly, the casualties were close to 3,000 with 600 being dead or missing. Arthur Currie's now famous “Creeping Barrage” was supposed to keep the soldiers safe hiding them from the enemy's sights, but with the deep mud the guns were slipping and sinking. Firing off target with most guns ending up firing short, they end up hitting advancing Canadian soldiers. Private Pat Burns - with the 4th Division recalled moving forward and shells hitting them in the back, stating he believes there were just as many men lost by the Germans defensive as were being lost by their own guns. 600 dead by days end. for every 2 meters gained a man dies. “A fine success” is how Field Marshall Haig describes the first days attacks. The soldiers still have 2000 meters to go.

The Second Wave

Agar Adamson, Commander of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, writes home while inspecting the battlefield before the second attack, “Dear Mabel, it rains or blows all the time, the condition of the ground is beyond words, and of course will be much wor