‘MUD, de­struc­tion & wasted hu­man life’: A BAT­TLE Canada MUST NEVER FOR­GET


National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - Christo­pher Sweeney Christo­pher Sweeney is chair­man of The Vimy Foun­da­tion. Na­tional Post

THE BLOODY FIRST WORLD WAR BAT­TLE is now hardly known by Cana­di­ans, even though our coun­try­men suf­fered 16,000 ca­su­al­ties there, writes Christo­pher Sweeney. But we should know of it — and al­ways re­mem­ber the sac­ri­fices.

The vil­lage of Pass­chen­daele i n Bel­gium is to­day as it was nearly 100 years ago, a small, rel­a­tively in­signif­i­cant ru­ral vil­lage east of the medieval city of Ypres. Yet the name Pass­chen­daele con­tin­ues to send shiv­ers down the spine of all who know or come to know of its hor­rors.

The bat­tle was part of the broader Third Bat­tle of Ypres fought be­tween July 31 and Nov. 10, 1917, which re­sulted in nearly 400,000 Bri­tish and Im­pe­rial ( Aus­tralian, Cana­dian, In­dian, New Zealand and South African) ca­su­al­ties. The bat­tle fea­tured all of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that have be­come syn­ony­mous with the First World War; mud, de­struc­tion, wasted hu­man life, and neg­li­gi­ble re­sults. For these rea­sons, Canada was a re­luc­tant par­tic­i­pant in this bat­tle but du­ti­fully suf­fered more than 16,000 ca­su­al­ties in just over two weeks ( by to­day’s pop­u­la­tion, this would mean nearly 65,000 ca­su­al­ties).

Be­tween Oct. 26 and Nov. 10 of this year, Canada will be ob­serv­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the bloody Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, a bat­tle which, shame­fully, is now barely known by Cana­di­ans. We should know of it.

The Cana­dian Corps, hav­ing al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced the hor­rors of the Ypres salient in 1915, had no in­ter­est in re­turn­ing there from France, but it had no choice. The Bri­tish and non- Cana­dian Im­pe­rial forces, which in Au­gust 1917 had boldly sought to se­cure im­por­tant Bel­gian chan­nel ports oc­cu­pied by the Ger­mans, had by Oc­to­ber ground to a halt ridicu­lously short of their goal. The new goal was “sim­ply” to cap­ture the ridge on which Pass­chen­daele was lo­cated so as to hold the higher, dryer ground for the on­com­ing win­ter. But they needed fresh troops to do so, and the only ones avail­able were the Cana­di­ans who had been re­build­ing them­selves af­ter the 1917 bat­tles at Vimy and Hill 70. It was now un­for­tu­nately our turn to be thrust into the caul­dron. Lt.- Gen. Arthur Cur­rie, com­man­der of the Cana­dian Corps, i mme­di­ately saw the dif­fi­cul­ties of this mis­sion and gloomily pre­dicted that Canada would suf­fer 16,000 ca­su­al­ties — he was al­most dead-on in this as­sess­ment (if you ex­cuse the pun).

The Cana­di­ans were sent to the low out­ly­ing area east of the vil­lage of Pass­chen­daele with the mis­sion to take the ridge ... in waist- deep mud, a moon­scape of wa­ter and corpse- filled shell craters, against heav­ily en­trenched Ger­man de­fences on the rise. Through in­tri­cate plan­ning, based care­fully on learn­ing from the fail­ures of oth­ers, and mas­sive ar­tillery sup­port, in­clud­ing at­tacks be­ing pre­cip­i­tated by closely manned “creep­ing bar­rages” of shells ( by this time, all cut­ting- edge hall­marks of Cana­dian fight­ing on the front), the Cana­di­ans suc­ceeded in tak­ing Pass­chen­daele on Nov. 10, 1917. Like at Vimy and at Hill 70, the Cana­di­ans had suc­ceeded where all oth­ers had failed. Pa­tri­otic pride in this ac­com­plish­ment roared across the coun­try, tem­pered only by the tragedy of the mas­sive loss of lives.

The Cana­di­ans were soon re­lieved of their po­si­tion and brought back to the rear to lick their wounds, and to re­build their strength. The best that could be du­bi­ously claimed of this “vic­tory” was that the Ger­mans had suf­fered more losses “per capita” ( not even in raw num­bers) than the Bri­tish and Im­pe­rial troops in the Third Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele. Such was the def­i­ni­tion of vic­tory in the First World War. How­ever, barely five months later, the Bri­tish were re­quired to per­form a strate­gic re­treat from the area around Pass­chen­daele, with heavy losses, to bet­ter con­sol­i­date their de­fences against Ger­many’s last threat­en­ing of­fen­sive of the war, launched in March of 1918. All of the fight­ing by Can- ada, and oth­ers, had been for naught — all of the land gained had been lost.

At the time the 100th an­niver­sary of the bat­tle of Vimy Ridge in April of this year, my brother and I re-traced the steps of my great- grand­fa­ther, Martin Sweeney, who was fight­ing with the Vic­to­ria Ri­fles of Mon­treal dur­ing the bat­tle. We fol­lowed his route from the mag­nif­i­cently re­stored town of Ypres ( de­stroyed dur­ing the war) out to Pass­chen­daele and lo­cated the ap­prox­i­mate spot where he, and five oth­ers, had been killed by a shell on Nov. 5, 1917, two days be­fore the fi­nal as­sault on Pass­chen­daele had be­gun. For the first time, we re­al­ized that our long- lost great- grand­fa­ther had been within easy eye­sight of the ru­ined town of Pass­chen­daele, over which al­most one mil­lion men on both sides had been fight­ing for the pre­vi­ous three months, be­fore he was killed. Sur­pris­ingly, this gave us some so­lace, for he would have known that the Cana­di­ans were near their goal and about to achieve vic­tory ( cor­re­spon­dence from this bat­tle tells us the Cana­di­ans were now deeply con­fi­dent of their own fight­ing abil­ity).

Martin’s name is among the 6,928 Cana­dian names on the Menin Gate Me­mo­rial in Ypres ded­i­cated to those who lost their lives in Bel­gium, and for whom there is no known grave. In view­ing his name on the mon­u­ment for the first time, years ago, with my late fa­ther, we knew, sadly, that we were the first of Martin’s an­ces­tors to ever visit his me­mo­rial. I still won­der what he, as a 44- year- old man with three grown chil­dren, was do­ing there.

On this 100th an­niver­sary of the muddy, bloody Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, it is vi­tally im­por­tant that we com­mem­o­rate the sac­ri­fices of those who came be­fore us, for those who fought for Canada, and the time­less cause of free­dom. For make no mis­take, Canada at Pass­chen­daele, like else­where dur­ing the First World War (and, for that mat­ter, all our other wars), was fight­ing not for plun­der or gain, or out of ig­no­rance (as some mod­ern in­ter­preters would have us be­lieve), but for the free­dom of oth­ers. We de­clare at Re­mem­brance cer­e­monies, al­most by rote, that “we will re­mem­ber them.” In this year mark­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of Vimy, Hill 70 and Pass­chen­daele, it has never been more im­por­tant to “re­mem­ber them.”




A tank lies in the mud in Pass­chen­daele, Bel­gium, the scene of a bloody First World War bat­tle­field where Cana­dian troops suf­fered heavy losses. On the 100th an­niver­sary of the bat­tle, it is im­por­tant to com­mem­o­rate the sac­ri­fices of those who came...


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