Route to the Past # 103 - Passchendaele                     November 10, 2008

 

The call went out from British High Command. Send in the Canadians. After nearly three months of stalemate between the Germans and the combined forces of Britain and New Zealand, the task fell to the elite members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The objective: capture the high ground around what remained of the Belgian town of Passchendaele.

In July of 1917 British commander Sir Douglas Haig determined to seize vital rail heads and strategic German submarine bases in Flanders. The main campaign began on the final day of July with a prolonged artillery barrage meant to weaken the German defenses. More than 3,000 heavy guns fired over 4 million shells! Instead, it served to warn the Hun of impending attack, and it churned the landscape into a battlefield of potholes and dust bowls.

The area around Passchendale had been reclaimed from the sea generations before and parts of it were below sea level. Unusually heavy rains that began to pour on the very night of the offensive soon turned the whole area into a quagmire of mud. Many a trooper drowned when they fell into the waterlogged shell holes, or simply disappeared as they were swallowed up by the mud. When British soldiers slogged through the morass, they became easy targets for German machine gunners. It’s been reported that in addition to the regular 60 to 80 pound weight of their battle kit, soldiers had to carry an additional 50 pounds of mud that became embedded into their uniforms.

By September little had been accomplished in the way of capturing any enemy territory. The Brits, Aussies, Anzacs and Indian troops were all exhausted from the tough slog. The Canadian Corps that had established its commendable reputation during the capture of Vimy Ridge was called in to save the situation.

Commanded by Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, the elite Canadian troops were respectfully feared by their German counterparts. The Hun had a name for the Canadians; they called us Storm Troopers.

When Currie saw the battlefield for the first time he protested that the operation was impossible without heavy cost and that he would not fight under the direction of the British Fifth Army. He was ultimately overruled and so the careful and painstaking planning for the final assault began. He was given two weeks to prepare corduroy roads to move heavy equipment, sections of wooden sidewalks called duckboards for the troops, and plans for how to move reinforcements up to the Front.

In a series of attacks beginning in the last week of October 1917, 20,000 Canadians inched their way forward, under the semi-protection of a creeping barrage, from shell hole to shell hole. Metre by metre they moved onward but injuries were still remarkably high; one Battalion suffered 70% casualties. But by November 6th they had reached the village of Passchendaele itself and Hill 52 four days later, thereby securing final victory.

Victory had been achieved but at what a cost! Both sides had suffered more than a total of one million casualties. For his part, Currie had estimated 16,000 Canadian casualties and he was eerily accurate: 15,654 Canadians were listed as killed, wounded or missing in action. Of that total more than 4,000 had paid the ultimate price.

One soldier described it as Hell on Earth. “If Hell is anything like Passchendaele, I would not wish it on my worst enemy.” The current movie “Passchendaele”, made by Paul Gross, graphically and I think accurately captures the frightfully dismal conditions in which our Canadian heros faced their foes and bravely fought in hand to hand combat.

And for what benefit? The Canadians had once again proven their tenacity and skill, but the British troops who had been left in charge of the area lost it again during the German offensive in early 1918.

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