Battle of Passchendaele
The Battle of Passchendaele is a vivid symbol of the mud, madness and the senseless slaughter of the First World War. In the late summer of 1917, the British launched a series of failed assaults against German forces holding the plateau overlooking the city of Ypres, Belgium.
The Battle of Passchendaele is a vivid symbol of the mud, madness and the senseless slaughter of the First World War. In the late summer of 1917, the British launched a series of failed assaults against German forces holding the plateau overlooking the city of Ypres, Belgium. The battlefield became a quagmire. Canadian forces entered the fray in October, capturing the Passchendaele ridge at a cost of 15,600 casualties — a high price for a piece of ground that would be vacated for the enemy the following year.
By the spring of 1917, the Germans had begun unrestricted submarine warfare — sinking merchant ships in international waters. At about the same time, legions of weary French soldiers began to mutiny following the failure of a large French offensive on the Western Front. With some French armies temporarily unwilling or unable to fight, the commander of the British armies in Europe, General Douglas Haig, decided Britain must begin a new offensive of its own. Haig wanted to attack German forces in the Ypres salient — a long-held bulge in the Allied front lines in the Flanders region of Belgium.
The salient had been an active battlefield since 1914 (see Second Battle of Ypres). Haig believed if the British could break through the German lines there they could also liberate the occupied ports on the English Channel coast, just north of Ypres, which served as submarine bases for German U-boats.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was skeptical of the scheme. Britain only had a small superiority in forces over the enemy. Even if German lines could be broken at Ypres, the Channel ports might not be captured, and the offensive wouldn't end the war, in any case. The only certainty was heavy loss of life. Despite these fears, Haig's plan was approved. The Third Battle of Ypres, as it became known, would begin in July.
The Canadian Corps, Canada's 100,000-man assault force (see Canadian Expeditionary Force), was initially spared involvement in Haig's 1917 campaign. The Corps, fresh from its April victory at Vimy Ridge, was instead assigned the task of attacking Germans occupying the French city of Lens (see Battle for Hill 70), in the hopes that this would draw German resources away from the main battle in the Ypres salient.
In mid-July, as the Canadians prepared to attack Lens, British artillery began a two-week bombardment of a series of scarcely visible ridges rising gently around the salient — including the Passchendaele ridge and the remains of its ruined town — on which the Germans waited.
Previous fighting since 1914 had already turned the area into a barren plain, devoid of trees or vegetation, pockmarked by shell craters. Earlier battles had also destroyed the ancient Flanders drainage system that once channelled rain water away from the fields. The explosion of millions more shells in the new offensive — accompanied by torrential rain — would quickly turn the battlefield into an apocalyptic expanse: a swampy, pulverized mire, dotted with water-filled craters deep enough to drown a man, all made worse by the churned-up graves of soldiers killed in earlier fighting.
British troops, supported by dozens of tanks and assisted by a French contingent, assaulted German trenches on 31 July. For the next month, hundreds of thousands of soldiers on opposing sides attacked and counterattacked across sodden, porridge-like mud, in an open, grey landscape almost empty of buildings or natural cover, all under the relentless, harrowing rain of exploding shells, flying shrapnel and machine-gun fire. Few gains were made. Nearly 70,000 men from some of Britain's best assault divisions were killed or wounded.
By early September, Haig was under political pressure from London to halt the offensive, but he refused. In September, Australian and New Zealand divisions were thrown into the fight alongside the worn out British forces, but the result was the same: the Allies would bombard, assault and occupy a section of enemy ground only to be thrown back by the counterattacking Germans.
In October, Haig — determined to carry on despite the depletion of his armies and the sacrifice of his soldiers — now turned to the Canadians.
Haig ordered Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corps' new commander, to bring his four divisions to Belgium and take up the fight around Passchendaele. Currie objected to what he considered a reckless attack, arguing it would cost about 16,000 Canadian casualties for no great strategic gain. Ultimately, however, Currie had little choice. After lodging his protest, he made careful plans for the Canadians' assault.
Over the next two weeks, Currie ordered the building and repair of roads and tramlines to help in the movement of men, armaments and other supplies on the battlefield. Gun emplacements were improved. Troops and officers were allowed time to prepare for the attack, which opened on 26 October.
Mud and Blood
For the next two weeks, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps took turns assaulting the Passchendaele ridge — their gains measuring only a few hundred metres each day, despite heavy losses. Under almost continuous rain and shellfire, conditions for the soldiers were horrifying. Troops huddled in waterlogged shell holes, or became lost on the blasted mud-scape, not knowing where the front line was that separated Canadian from German positions.
"Our feet were in water, over the tops of our boots, all the time," wrote Arthur Turner, an infantryman from Alberta. "We were given whale oil to rub on our feet . . . this was to prevent trench-feet. To solve it I took off my boots once, and poured half the oil into each foot, then slid my feet into it. It was a gummy mess, but I did not get trench-feet."
The mud gummed up rifle barrels and breeches, making them difficult to fire. It swallowed up soldiers as they slept. It slowed stretcher-bearers — wading waist-deep as they tried to carry wounded away from the fighting — to a crawl. Ironically, the mud also saved lives, cushioning many of the shells that landed, preventing their explosion.
"The Battle for the Passchendaele Ridge," wrote Turner, "was without doubt one of the Muddy-est, Bloody-est, of the whole war."
Wrote Private John Sudbury: "The enemy and ourselves were in the selfsame muck, degradation and horror to such a point nobody cared any more about anything, only getting out of this, and the only way out was by death or wounding and we all of us welcomed either."
Victory and Loss
On 6 November, the Canadians launched their third, large-scale attack on the ridge. They succeeded in capturing it and the ruins of Passchendaele village from the Germans. A final assault, which secured the remaining areas of high ground east of the Ypres salient, was carried out on 10 November — the final day of the more than four-month battle. Nine Victoria Crosses, the British Empire's highest award for military valour, were awarded to Canadians after the fighting.
Both Arthur Turner and John Sudbury survived the horrors of Passchendaele, and the war, but thousands of their countrymen did not. More than 15,600 Canadians were killed and wounded there — almost exactly the losses predicted by Arthur Currie.
These were among the 275,000 casualties lost overall to the armies under British command at Passchendaele. The Germans suffered another 220,000 killed and wounded. At the end, the point of it all was unclear. In 1918, all the ground gained there by the Allies was evacuated in the face of a looming German assault.
A century later, the Battle of Passchendaele is remembered as a symbol of the worst horrors of the First World War, the sheer futility of much of the fighting, and the reckless disregard by some of the war's senior leaders for the lives of the men under their command.