The Battle of Passchendaele
31 July – 6 November 1917
The Battle of Vimy Ridge gave birth to a nation and the Battle of Passchendaele reminded Canadians that they were still very much a colony. The engagement was recognized as folly by Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, the newly-installed commander of the Canadian Corps. Besides, when called upon to join the fighting three months after it had begun, he protested that the time was not right for a Canadian assault. The general even predicted with alarming accuracy that 16,000 members of the Corps would be lost.
Of all the controversies in the First World War, that which surrounded the Battle of Passchendaele was by far the greatest. The strategy employed was condemned and criticized as vain and reckless. While the deaths at Vimy Ridge had been considered a glorious sacrifice, the losses in the Battle of Passchendaele were viewed as a contemptible waste of human life.
The battle was yet another attempt by the Allies as breaking the stalemate that had taken root in the trenches of the front line.
Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief was determined that major offensive engagement should continue and he looked towards the Ypres Salient, which he was convinced would provide the greatest opportunity for a breakthrough. In this belief Sir Haig was supported by the Royal Navy, which hoped that capturing the ports on the Belgian coast, then being used as bases for German submarines, would eliminate enemy attacks on British seaborne trade. The strategy involved punching a hole in the German lines and the capture of Passchendaele Ridge, to be followed by an advance to the English Channel.
For the Allies, the Battle of Passchendaele was a disaster form the start. Artillery bombardments, designed to eliminate the German defensive trench network, obliterated the region’s drainage system. This destruction, in combination with an unusual period of constant rain (there were forecasts of rain, but Haig ignored them) transformed what was largely reclaimed marshland into a sea of mud and stagnant water. Movement was impossible and newly introduced tanks bogged down. The equipment simply disappeared, swallowed up by liquid-like mud. The digging of trenches was impossible, leaving all engaged in each assault exposed to machine-gun fire and artillery.
Meanwhile, the Germans remained secure and relatively dry, sheltered from the rain and shells in a series of heavily constructed pillboxes.
By October 1917 the British had gained little. Their casualties were high and in the middle of the month the Canadian Corps joined the front line, taking up position between the British and the Australian and New Zealand corps.
Carrie devised a strategy through which Passchendaele would be taken in a series of engagements, each with a narrow objective. Together they would support the overall goal of driving a wedge into the position of the German army.
The Canadians launched their first assault shortly after dawn on 26 October, with the 3rd and 4th Divisions attempting an advance over a deteriorating field of mud through a cold rain. After three days of fighting, the Canadians had gained 700 m at a cost of more than 2,500 casualties.
A second assault was launched on 30 October with similarly devastating consequences. Within 24 hours, the Canadians suffered a further 2,300 dead or wounded – all for no more than another kilometre of ground.
A week later, a third attack was launched. This time, soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Division waded through waist-deep water to liberate the village of Passchendaele, situated on the ridge.
The final assault occurred on 10 November. It was only then, after 98 days of fighting that Haig ordered an end to the offensive. The fighting over, the Battle of Passchendaele was recognized for what it was: a futile struggle, fought under horrendous conditions. While the Germans incurred 260,000 casualties, more than 448,000 Allied soldiers were dead or wounded. Canadian casualties amounted to 15,654.