The Canadians at Passchendaele
The Third Battle of Ypres which would become better known as Passchendeale would start on the 31st July 1917.
Throughout the month of August, German counter attacks had limited the success expected by the British General Sir Douglas Haig. A swift change in Army commanders (Plumer replacing Gough) helps somewhat and throughout the following months of September and October, British and Australian troops made a series of gains using short sharp attacks known as bite and hold. However their main objective the Passchendaele Ridge, which constituted the only real high ground in the region, had still not been taken.
The weather affected the assaults with a dry spell creating a dusty battlefield which was churned up by artillery and then transformed into a veritable quagmire by the onset of rain. Troops and materials sunk into the gluttonous mud which would swallow them whole and the battlefield resembled a lunar landscape.
Third Ypres had caused a hundred thousand Allied casualties and Haig had still not achieved his ultimate objective. He was aware that these lives would have been lost in vain if Passchendaele was not taken. It is at this point that he calls on the Canadians not only to replenish his forces but to capture what remained of the town of Passchendaele and deliver victory which would effectively save his job.
Canadian commanding officer General Arthur Currie, having fought in the Ypres Salient before, knew that the task ahead of them was virtually impossible to achieve without further substantial loses. He predicted that it could be achieved but would cost 16,000 Canadian casualties. In accepting the task, Currie forced a number of concessions from Haig. These concessions included a two week respite in which the swampy battlefield could be prepared for the coming attack, no attack on Passchendaele until Currie himself was happy that his men were well enough prepared. More artillery should be brought up and used to soften the German defences and that once the battle was over his men would be allowed to leave the area and not get embroiled in defending the taken objective. Such was his hatred for General Gough, he insisted that the Canadians would only fight if they were under the command of Plumer and the 2nd Army. To all of this Haig agreed.
On the 26th October 05:40, Canadian heavy machine guns opened fire and two minutes later the Canadian artillery batteries opened fire. It is reported that this huge barrage could be heard in London. From their frontline trenches and dugouts 20,000 Canadian soldiers of the 3rd and 4th Divisions began the first Canadian assault moving behind a creeping barrage in a fine mist that soon turned to rain.
After three days of fighting which resulted in 2,500 casualties, only one kilometere of ground had been gained. The Canadians launched a second attack on the 30th October achieving and suffering the same fate, only this time the gain and subsequent losses happened in a single day.
Despite this, the Canadians tenaciously pushed on bringing the 1st and 2nd Divisions into action on the 6th November. Troops fought in appalling conditions and often waste deep in water but when the final assault was launched on the 10th November Passchendaele fell along with the rest of the high ground that overlooked Ypres in the distance and the Canadians had achieved the impossible and the taking of the town marked the end of the Battle of Passchendaele.
This battle was probably one of the wars most futile. It was fought in the most appalling of conditions. At the end of the battle Haig’s Chief of Staff Lt General Sir Launcelot Kiggell visited the battlefield. Upon looking over it he sat on the running board of his car and wept saying: “How could we send men to fight in this”.
The casualties were horrendous. The British had suffered losses of 260,000 men. Among them 16,000 Canadians as predicted by their commander General Arthur Currie. There had been no significant gains apart from the wearing down of the German forces. This was a battle that demonstrates the shear horrors of the First World War and should not be forgotten.
Lest we Forget.