Passchendaele’s tragedy lingers
15,600 Canadians were killed or wounded
In April, Canadians marked with quiet pride the 100th anniversary of the incredible victory won by Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge.
Some commentators even claimed this nation was born on that French battlefield.
But few if any of us paused on Monday to remember the anniversary of another battle fought in the same year, one that unlike Vimy came only to symbolize the waste, futility and carnage of the First World War.
It was a battle that dragged on more than 100 days and claimed more Canadian lives than Vimy Ridge.
It is known most notoriously today as Passchendaele, a name synonymous with blood, mud and great human courage thrown up against even greater human folly.
And it ended, unlike Vimy, not in victory but total disaster.
In a desperate attempt to break through to the Belgian coast and capture the enemy submarine bases there, British troops climbed out of their trenches just before 4 a.m. on July 31, 1917 and charged a German-held plateau overlooking the city of Ypres.
Quickly, their attack became bogged down. Pounded by artillery over the three previous years, the battlefield was already a wasteland, devoid of trees and pockmarked by shell craters.
When the rains fell that summer, the ground dissolved into a quagmire into which men and horses often vanished. Ground was taken one day, only to be lost the next.
Yet the battle raged on. In October, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps were thrown into this meat grinder, despite the protests of their commander, General Arthur Currie, who believed Canadian lives would be squandered on a lost cause.
He was right, and 15,600 Canadians were killed or wounded at Passchendaele.
Horrible as those numbers are, they were but a fraction of the half million men on both the Allied and German sides
who died or suffered injury at Passchendaele.
It is little consolation to know the Canadian troops achieved the only real success in this battle when they captured Passchendaele Ridge in November.
Despite their valour and sacrifice, in early 1918 the Germans recaptured all that ground.
The last three years have been filled with many First World War centennial anniversaries.
And so many other anniversaries are constantly being reported – whether it’s Canada’s sesquicentennial or even the 50th birthday of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – that people might become blase about all the backward glances at history.
We forget Passchendaele, however, at our own peril.
Before the First World War started, many great minds were convinced the wealthy, powerful, industrialized nations of Europe were too connected, too civilized and too intelligent to stumble their way into a general conflict and Armageddon. They were wrong. Could we make the same mistake today in a world that is wealthier, more technologically advanced and surely considers itself more civilized than its predecessors of 1917?
We have greater weapons of mass destruction than they could have imagined.
It is questionable whether we have grown wise enough to avoid another Passchendaele.
Canadian troops carry a wounded comrade to a first-aid station during the battle of Paschendaele in France during the fall of 1917.