‘MUD, destruction & wasted human life’: A BATTLE Canada MUST NEVER FORGET
WHY WE SHOULD NEVER FORGET THE HORROR AND HEROICS OF THIS BLOODY BATTLE
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.”
THE CANADIANS HAD SUCCEEDED WHERE ALL OTHERS HAD FAILED.
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 before us, Christopher Sweeney writes.