Pass­chen­daele’s tragedy lingers

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

In April, Cana­di­ans marked with quiet pride the 100th an­niver­sary of the in­cred­i­ble vic­tory won by Cana­dian sol­diers at Vimy Ridge. Some even claimed this na­tion was born on that French bat­tle­field.

But few paused last week 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.

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 Ger­man­held 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, Gen. Arthur Cur­rie, who be­lieved Cana­dian lives would be squan­dered. 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 that peo­ple might be­come blasé 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? 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.

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