In south-western Belgium, deep in the fields of Flanders, lies a tiny unimportant village called Passchendaele whose name would come to define the very horror of war for millions of people nearly a century later. The Battle of Passchendaele (or the Third Battle of Ypres) has become, for Canada, the very reason why an entire nation pauses on November 11 of every year to pay homage to our war dead.
The battle took place in October and November of 1917 around the important Flemish city of Ypres. In 1914, as the French and German armies raced for the sea and left 2,000 km of trenches in their wake, a giant salient, or ‘bulge’, in the French lines around Ypres emerged. This meant that the Germans could fire on the salient from three sides. For the next three years the Ypres Salient would become the deadliest piece of real estate on the Western Front. Bombarded and fought over constantly, troops moving in and out of the salient would come to call it “Hellfire Corner”.
In 1915 the British took over the western half of the Western Front, including the Ypres Salient, and British troops moved into the bulge. The Germans had been shelling and sniping and mortaring the the 500 square kilometers of the salient for two years. In the spring of 1915 Canadian divisions, under British command, relieved British and French forces in the center of the salient line. Unfortunately the Germans attacked with mustard and chlorine gas at this very same moment, and the Second Battle of Ypres was underway (the first was a confused melee that occurred at the start of the war). The Canadians, by urinating into handkerchiefs and covering their faces with the soaked fabric, were able to hold the line in the face of the gas attacks while French units around them retreated in terror. This action earned Canadian soldiers a reputation among both sides as ferocious combatants.
Unable to break through the Canadian lines, the Germans retreated back to their own trenches. The Canadians, meanwhile, were moved east to take part in the massacre on the Somme the following year.
With their bravery recognized after two years of war, and the economic and political clout of the government in Ottawa growing, all the Canadian divisions were finally put under autonomous command under General Arthur Currie and the Canada’s first truly national army, free from Imperial intervention, was formed. The Canadian army would prove itself in the astounding victory at Vimy Ridge on Easter of 1917, a battle that would earn Canada complete independence from Britain at the post-war negotiating table.
In the summer of 1917 British Field Marshall Douglas Haig opened a new offensive to break through the Ypres Salient and capture the Belgian Channel ports. For this ambitious plan British engineers spent a year tunneling an extensive mine network right under the entire Salient and the German front-line positions. Deep under a high ridge on the western side of the Salient, the Messines Ridge, British engineers planted thousands of tonnes of explosives, and on the 1 year anniversary of the slaughter on the Somme, the British detonated the mines.
The explosions were heard in London, a hundred miles away. The ground was permanently terraformed from the massive detonations, and the entire German front line on Messines Ridge, along with 10,000 German soldiers, was completely destroyed. Waves of British and New Zealand infantry followed the explosions and at first it seemed that the offensive would go well.
The weather, however, had different plans. In August of 1917 the worst rains in Belgium’s history poured down on the Ypres Salient. The entire region of Flanders is reclaimed from the sea through an intricate network of irrigation ditches and ancient canals. 3 years of bombardment and heavy combat had obliterated the sensitive drainage system, and the torrential rains that lasted for nearly 40 days turned the entire salient into a stinking, muddy quagmire. Haig’s offensive broke down in the soupy morass of Flanders.
The trench lines on both sides had disappeared and positions were nothing more than watery shell craters. Engineers tried to lay duckboards down but the constant artillery fire from both sides broke up the makeshift roads. Wounded men who fell were more likely to drown than be rescued, slowly sucked in to the mud. Supplies had to be manhandled by teams of 20 men, sunk into the mud up to their waists. The Ypres Salient had become pure hell for both Allies and Germans alike, and Haig’s grand offensive foundered in the muck.
The Canadians were now known as shock troops across the Western Front by both allied and German armies. With such a reputation comes pride, but also the toughest jobs. In the fall of 1917, following their stunning Vimy Ridge victory, the Canadian army was tasked with ending the stalemate in the Ypres Salient and capturing a tiny but important town to straighten out the lines. That town was Passchendaele.
The Canadians moved into the Ypres sector in October, 1917, relieving the tired and badly-mauled British corps that had been stuck there all year. The Canadians were given the task of capturing the village of Paschendaele, on the Paschendaele Ridge that overlooked the entire Salient. An Australian division would cover the left flank while four British brigades covered the right. Five Canadian divisions, about 100,000 men, would go straight up the middle, through the mud and shellfire, to take the village.
As the Canadians arrived into the salient, they were horrified by the muddy moonscape that greeted them. German shells and snipers continued to play havoc on anyone who stuck their head up above the trench lines. One Canadian officer commented “By God! We’re actually looking at hell!”
The actual offensive began on the morning of October 26, 1917, with 3rd Division and 4th Division leading the attack. The assault was preceded by a rolling barrage, perfected by the Canadians at Vimy Ridge earlier that same year. At first the attack proceeded well, with the Canadians finding the German barbed wire well cut by the barrage. However, unlike at Vimy where Canadian artillery had been able to knock out all the German artillery before the battle, at Passchendaele the German artillery was well-hidden and well-sighted. An intense German barrage caught the two Canadian divisions stuck in the mud, and a British division on their right flank, out in the open. Because of the mud the soldiers couldn’t move very fast; every step required they suck their boots out of the muck. Whenever they attempted to dig in to the ground they found themselves drowning as water poured in from the tortured earth. The attack faltered.
The British on the right and the ANZACS on the left went in next, attempting to draw some of the fire off the two beleaguered Canadian divisions. They were all met with a ferocious bombardment and heavy concentrated machine gun and rifle fire from the Germans, who were well dug-in to the sticky morass. The Canadian 5th Division, sharing a flank with the ANZACS, attempted to rescue an Australian battalion that had been pinned down. The division charged the remains of a farm but were repulsed with heavy casualties. They made two more attempts before they, too, were bogged down in the mud.
On the far right, however, the Canadian 1st and 2nd Divisions managed to seize several German trenches and even captured a command center. They went on to throw the Germans out of Decline Copse (the remains of a forest), but the following day the Germans counter-attacked with several brigades and forced the exhausted Canadians to give all their hard-fought ground.
That first day of the Canadian offensive at Paschendaele cost Canada 1,800 dead and missing, and a further 2,000 wounded. For the next few days the Canadians would make assault after assault on the Paschendaele Ridge, and ferocious German counter-attacks would push them off. The going was slow and the rains came down ceaselessly.
The battle settled down into a drawn out stalemate. The artillery from both sides lobbed shells at the battlefield constantly, day and night, while both German and Canadian infantry charged each-other’s makeshift lines day and night, attempting to throw the other side out of the Passchendaele sector. Heavy casualties streamed back to field hospitals, and the dead were left in no man’s land, to be swallowed up by the mud and slime.
After a week of bitter and useless fighting, the Canadians launched a second attack, attempting to smash the main German defensive line, the Blue Line, and open the door to seize Passchendaele Ridge. The night before the attack, a platoon of Canadian infantry snuck up to a particularly troublesome German pillbox and, using satchel charges and bayonets, managed to knock it out. This allowed the entire 3rd Division to sweep up the ridge in the morning and fall into the Blue Line under the cover of a heavy rolling barrage. The German defenders were taken by surprise and fled for their lives. The Canadians dug in to their new positions and awaited the inevitable counter-attack.
The attack came that afternoon, with wave upon wave of screaming German infantry, supported by a heavy artillery bombardment, crashing down upon the Canadians. The Canadian infantry repulsed the first four German attacks with heavy casualties. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting and constant shelling decimated the Canadian ranks, and 2nd Division reserves were thrown into the battle in an attempt to hold the line. After a week of constant fighting, the Germans were forced to accept that the Blue Line was lost. The Canadians had lost more than 5,000 men during this desperate defense of the Blue Line.
Canadian commander General Arthur Currie had created his overall plan in four phases. With the Blue Line firmly in Canadian hands, it was time for Currie to finish up his operations. A massive attack with all five divisions simultaneously was launched in the second week of November during the middle of a downpour. A hundred thousand men, supported by the concentrated fire of more than 2,000 artillery cannons, rushed the ridge. The German defenders fought back valiantly, calling artillery down unto their own positions in some cases!
The battles on Paschendaele ridge raged for four days, with attack followed by counter-attack, snipers and artillery killing exposed soldiers, bayonets and machine guns ripping open flesh, and the sucking, stinking mud trying to smother everyone.
Finally, on November 16th the Winnipeg Rifles infantry regiment fought their way into the ruins of the village of Paschendaele and the last Germans retreated from the ridge. With both Messines Ridge and Paschendaele Ridge in Allied hands, the Salient that had consumed countless lives over three years was straightened out and was no more.
In four months of fighting the British had lost 110,000 men dead and the Australians and New Zealanders nearly 10,000. In the three-week Battle of Paschendaele, Canada lost nearly 17,000 dead and a further 25,000 wounded.
Paschendaele would live on for the rest of eternity as a symbol of the horrors of war, and for Canada in particular the battle would signify a mix of loss and sadness as well as pride in being able to accomplish the near-impossible.