This past Monday, Nov. 6th, 100 years ago in Belgium, after 99 days of the most atrocious conditions imaginable, the Canadians and British forces attempted for the third time to capture Passchendaele Ridge and the village.
With an aggressive campaign under General Douglas Haig, the British were determined to break through the German lines in Belgium to free coastal ports in the summer of 1917. It was the same land that had been fought over since 1914, in was what was called the Ypres salient, the Flanders region of Belgium.
The British launched a huge barrage into a plain that had been devastated at the beginning of the war. A million shells were accompanied by torrential rains. All that could be seen was a quagmire of mud pocketed by large shell holes filled with water. Yet, that was not all that was there. Canadians had defended this same land in 1915 and this new barrage churned up the rotting, unburied bodies of dead soldiers and horses of both sides.
Although pressured in September, Haig refused to halt this unsuccessful offensive. In October he decided to sacrifice the Canadians. Lt. General Arthur Currie, our new commander, objected. The loss of lives was not worth the price as there was no strategic gain to the plan. But Currie had little choice, and took the time to strategically plan his battle to afford the same success Canadians had at Vimy. First the Canadians took two weeks to remove the dead and repair the brush roads (brush laid in the mud), and tramlines so they could get the massive supplies needed for the men and horses, as well as needed armaments and other supplies to the front. Of course they were being constantly shelled and attached by the Germans.
Tillsonburg’s Jerrod Mansfield wrote about the mud in his diary. He was leading a horse with two boxes of ammunition slung on each packsaddle and joined a line of horses and men on a narrow brush road through the mud.
“Then, suddenly, came the great howling shells that screamed through the air and tore gaps in that line of men and animals. Gaping holes appeared in the roads and fields; geysers of smoke and earth shot high into the air, and the roadside was strewn with what had once been men. Bodies without heads and legs mingled with the crippled and dying horses, and shattered equipment was dumped in heaps everywhere.
“It was a horrible sight. A great ragged hole nearly the width of the road had been blown out and was soon filling in with reddened water. The remains of what had been men, were rolled in muddy, blood soaked blankets beside the road, and the wounded, with bandages on the arms and legs, straggled past going to the rear. The horses that had been killed were rolled in the shell holes that the line might move on again. One of the horses was not dead yet, and it looked up at us trying to understand what it was all about. It was past help and was soon crushed when the artillery passed over it. I was following a piece of artillery, being hauled in bits on three teams. They were axle deep in mud. The gunners put their shoulders to the wheel and heaved, the driver brought their whips down and away they plunged over the shell hole, over dead horses and live ones alike. There was no other way around and it had to be done. I followed them, stepping on something round and solid to keep from sinking knee deep in the mire. I jumped, pulling my horse after me; he refused, shied off the road and sank knee deep in the mire. He lunged and managed to get his forefeet on the edge of the road, where he lay half in the muck up to his hips. Unloading the ammunition I coaxed and pulled until finally after a desperate effort the poor beast managed to stagger back onto the road.
"There was no time to lose and re-loading the two boxes, I once more crossed over that hole in the road. That time I used one of the dead animals to assist me. The round hard thing I had used before had been a man’s head. O, God in Heaven! And they told us it was a glorious thing to die for your country; that the glorious dead were covered with honour, and that God would take care of our souls and we need not worry about the hereafter.”
From Oct. 26, to get positioned for the big attack, we gained 2,000 yards of mud and lost 3,000 men. Nov. 6 the attack was launched and the village taken. Then came counter-attacks. By Nov. 10, they cleared the enemy from the east of Passchendaele Ridge.
Of the approximate 100,000 Canadians in the battle, 4,000 died and 12,000 were wounded. They were among the total ‘British’ 70,000 dead and 275,000 casualties plus 220,00 Germans killed and wounded at Passchendaele. Nine Canadians earned the Victoria Cross, our highest honour.
Was it worth it?
In 1918 all the ground gained was evacuated in the face of a German assault.
In 1938, Britain’s Lloyd George wrote, "Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war."
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