Passchendaele: Canada's Battle
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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 worse after the barrage”, “I am delighted about the spirit of the men, and if human endurance can stand it, we will be successful”.
For Curries second attack on Passchendaele he plans to advance the troops another 1000 meters. With the advance from days earlier, the new offensive will be pushing into heavy German territory, full of Pill boxes littered over the battlefield like a chess board. This would be perfect cover for the Germans from the barrage and shelling as the thick concrete design would not crumble, even with the most direct of hits.
At zero hour, the barrage is lifted, and the soldiers are ready to go overtop, knowing full well the Germans are shuffling out of the pillboxes and taking aim. The PPCLI rush over the top to be met with German fire, losing 360 of their 600 men for an advance on only 500 meters.
By the end of the second attack, the Canadians had pushed ahead 900 meters. Casualties for this second day would be 2,300 casualties, with having 900 of which be dead or missing.
For every one meter gained one soldier has given their life. The Canadians still have 1000 meters to go, and the Germans are bringing in more troops to protect the ridge.
This step in the Passchendaele advance became known not for gun and shelling combat, but more hand to hand and close quarters combat. Without the individual acts of bravery from so many soldiers, this battle would be lost. And with these acts of bravery stand out 9 Canadian soldiers who won the Victoria Cross - the Empires highest medal. One soldier is Captain Christopher O’kelly, who’s section eliminates 6 pill boxes and takes 100 prisoners on this day.
Taking The Ridge
With the objective in sight, the Canadians are sent out on night raids to eliminate any obstacles that still stand in their way. The poor visibility and unknown of what was ahead caused many of these missions to sustain large losses. Many Canadians losing their way walk right into the line of German machine guns, taking out full battalions at times.
November 6th, 6:00AM every Canadian gun opens fire, the barrage creeping forward. The Canadian First Division on Bellevue Spur, and the Second Division on Passchendaele Ridge were successful in capturing the now rubble town of Passchendaele. JP Robertson showed yet another act of bravery while advancing the attack on Passchendaele Village. He jumped over barbed wire onto a group of German soldiers manning a machine gun, bayonetting 2 soldiers immediately. As the other Germans fled he turned the machine gun on the Germans killing them all. JP Robertson died at the battle Passchendaele rescuing fellow soldiers who were wounded on the battlefield. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
The Final Assault
A final assault on November 10th was to capture the remaining areas of high ground on the Ypres Salient - the final day of this 4 month battle. Under Sir Arthur Currie the Canadians capture Passchendaele on schedule, and according to plan.
The day Passchendaele fell Field Marshall Haig’s chief of staff phoned Arthur Currie and asked, “Is it true that the village has fallen?”. “Yes.” Currie answers, “Thank God.” is the reply.
Through the Battle of Passchendaele yet another heroic Canadian victory came to be, but not without a sacrifice of human lives. The Canadians tallied their losses at close 4,000 dead or missing, with a total of 16,000 casualties - precisely what Sir Arthur Currie had calculated prior to the battle. For the men who fought at Passchendaele, they may still be alive and human, but none would be the same ever again.
In the fighting for Passchendaele more people died then people who were killed in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. For a ridge no more then a strategic vantage point over the fields of Flanders, was the complete disarray of human life and tactical fighting worth it? No matter the answer it is our duty to never forget the sacrifice so many young brave soldiers made in the fight.
Our Anniversary Tour
With the 100th Anniversary of Passchendaele this November, 2017, let us join together, not in pity or shame of what our forefathers had to witness, but in celebration and thanks that they would sacrifice so much for us. In their honour, we remember them by acknowledging the incredible event that took place here, and by keeping their story alive, we aim to never forget.
If you would like to join us on the upcoming program commemorating Passchendaele’s 100th Anniversary, or if you would like more information in regards to the events taking place on Passchendaele’s 100th, click here
The Passchendaele Nine Plus One:
The Canadian Encyclopedia:
For King and Empire:
Veterans Affairs Canada: