Bloody battle was devastating for Canadian soldiers mired in deep mud, but recapturing Passchendaele Ridge was crucial. There were 15,000 Canadian casualties.
An older city in Belgium, Ypres was not yet captured by Germans. Held by the British, it was a rounded bulge of land in Flanders Plain. A treacherous place for Allied soldiers, it was surrounded on three sides by the enemy. It was an important position to hold at all costs. The enemy had the advantage of ridges bordering the area, giving them places to easily observe and attack with artillery fire, yet were themselves protected.
Passchendaele Ridge was transformed into a fortress by the Germans. Pill-box stations, said NM Christie in his book, Slaughter in the Mud: The Canadians at Passchendaele 1917, “were square rooms of reinforced concrete with walls and roof about five feet thick with one door in the rear leading into a fire trench.” When attacked, the German soldiers ran out to man the fire trenches. The British needed to take the Ridge – it would be the only way to keep Ypres. The Battle for Passchendaele began on July 31, 1917.
The Canadians made the first assault through a quagmire
The Canadian Battalions had been successfully fighting the enemy in other theatres in Europe and were now assigned to take the Ridge. By their October 1917 arrival, the town and farmland of Ypres had been blasted to ruin. Rain poured down, but because the drainage systems had been destroyed during three years of bombing, there was nowhere for the water to go. The rich soil turned into a quagmire of mud, “a sea of oozing, yellow mud, at depths which slowed movement to a crawl and threatened to drown the soldiers who waded through the morass.” The repulsive mud was so deep and thick that the men could hardly move through. Boards or man-made tracks used to get across the muck made easy targets for German machine guns. Even more horrific, the corpses of soldiers and horses killed in battle were incased and decomposing in the ooze.
Through steady shelling and poison gas attacks launched by the determined German army, the Canadians put their plans into action, getting equipment, supplies and ammunition in place before their offensive could begin. On October 26, 1917, the offensive commenced. Dividing the attacks into two assaults, the 3rd Canadian Division was sent to gain the northern Bellevue Spur. The 4th Canadian Division was sent south of Ravebeek, an area held by the Australians, then onward to Passchendaele Ridge. In the first day, the Canadians gained between 400 and 1000 metres, with 598 dead, over 2,300 injured.
Landmarks were gone in the second Passchendaele offensive
On October 30, the offensive continued, with Canadian Divisions making gains and taking heavy losses. Because of previous shelling and mud, landmarks and map reference points were erased. The front line was difficult to locate and the Germans kept up a steady defence. At the end of the grisly barrage, 884 soldiers were killed and 1,437 were injured for a gain of 300 to 900 metres. The Allies were now within 1000 metres of Passchendale.
Fresh Canadian soldiers prepared for the third assault
Fresh soldiers arrived from the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the Canadian army to replace the battered, slaughtered 3rd and 4th Divisions. Battle restarted on November 6, the soldiers stepping around shattered dead bodies. The rain still came. The mud, nearly as treacherous as the enemy, “clogged rifles, ruined food and rendered artillery useless,” said Jack Turner on Industry Canada. With some troops wading through water waist-deep, the soldiers slogged on and in a final assault, recaptured the village of Passchendaele.
On November 10, 1917, through heavy shelling by the Germans, the Passchendaele Ridge was finally in the hands of the Allies. Over the few months since battle began, more than 15,000 Canadians were wounded or killed. Collections Canada noted that the British suffered over 260,000 casualties in the grueling, bloody battles. Nine Canadian soldiers earned the most treasured honour of the Victoria Cross for their extreme heroism in battle.
The Battle of Passchendaele was finished, known as one of the most horrific battles of the Great War. The Ridge was reclaimed, but World War One was not yet over.
Slaughter in the Mud: The Canadians at Passchendaele, 1917, NM Christie, CEF Books 1998