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Canada in the First World War - Passchendaele

Updated on April 14, 2011

The Battle of Passchendaele was the final phase of the Third Battle of Ypres. Originally conceived in 1915 by General Haig, it was not until June of 1917 that Field Marshal Haig had the opportunity to finally launch his offensive. This was a battle the British War Cabinet did not want, but circumstances told against them. In May, after the failed Nivelle offensive, the French army began to mutiny. In Russia there was a revolution under way and the Russian soldiers preferred to fight each other rather than the Germans. The Italians had suffered massive losses against the Austrians. The deciding vote, however, was cast by the Royal Navy. Shipping losses to U-boats had been horrendous, if the Belgian ports, which U-boats sailed from, were not captured Britain would not survive to the spring of 1918. The die was cast, Haig was allowed to prepare for his Ypres offensive.

Part of the preparation called for the capture of Messines Ridge, a feature of high ground some 4 km due south of Ypres. British engineers had dug 19 tunnels underneath the German positions atop Messines Ridge, it had taken them a year. On June 7 those mines were detonated. The German positions were obliterated and the British and ANZAC troops occupied the top of the Ridge. Having broken the German line no further advance was made, the plan called for the advance to take place at Ypres.

As conceived by Haig, the plan was to breakthrough the German lines at Ypres and advance fifteen miles in 8 days to the town of Roulers, a railway junction fifteen miles to the northeast of Ypres. Once Roulers was captured a specially trained amphibious force would land behind the German lines in Belgium and the British Fourth Army could be an advance along the coast retaking the vital port cities. That was the plan.

The British attack began on July 31st, it advanced nearly two miles. On August 1st it began to rain. The water level around Ypres was already high because the dikes had been opened to stop the German advance. The artillery bombardment made the drainage worse. Now the rain turned the fields into mud. This was not a sloppy mud, this was mud that was knee deep on the German held high ground, mud that was waist deep in the areas the Royal Engineers were called upon to dig trenches and lay duck board walkways. If you were unlucky enough to be blown off the walkway be the explosion of an artillery shell, you would find yourself up to the armpits in mud, at which point your friends and fellow soldiers had one of two options open to them, shoot you and put you out of your misery, or watch you drown. The rain continued throughout August as did the offensive, by the end of the month the British had suffered nearly 68,000 casualties.

The offensive would include British, Australian, New Zealand and South African troops. At the end of August General Gough, commanding the Fifth Army, suggested that the offensive be stopped. At the beginning of October, General Gough and General Plumer, commanding the Second Army, suggested that the offensive be stopped. Field Marshal Haig went to visit Lt. Gen. Currie of the Canadian Corps, General Currie suggested that the offensive be stopped. Haig ordered Currie to capture Passchendaele, Currie told him it would cost 16,000 men, Haig confirmed the order.

On October 18th the Canadians began to take their place in the line at Ypres. Currie had refused to serve under General Gough, who had been the Army commander at the Somme, instead, the Canadian Corps was attached to Plumer’s Second Army. The Canadian plan was to use bite and hold attacks to advance to Passchendaele. The first attack took place on October 26th. The 3rd and 4th Divisions were the forward formations in this attack. This first attack was intended to capture high ground some 1100 metres to the front of the Canadians. It would take four days of fighting to capture all of the objectives. The two assaulting divisions suffered 2,800 casualties in those four days.

The second attack began on October 30th. Again the 3rd and 4th Division were the assaulting force. This attack was part of a general attack all along the line with both British and ANZAC divisions attacking. The objectives were only 600-800 metres but it was still uphill and strongly defended territory. One Canadian unit, the 72nd Battalion followed their barrage by only 20 metres (normal separation was 90 metres), finding that the mud prevented casualties from shrapnel. They were on the German positions so quickly after the barrage passed that the Germans had little opportunity to resist. Other units had a much harder time, the 49th Battalion, my wife’s grandfather’s battalion, suffered 443 casualties out of 588 men. By the time the Canadians had captures their objectives and beaten back all counterattacks they had suffered over 2,300 casualties.

Among the difficulties faced by all of the British forces at this time was the problem of the artillery. Artillery pieces were sinking into the ground. Sometimes it was with each shot fired that the gun was driven down into the mud, other times it was simply the weight of the gun. Guns and ammunition would sink and be lost to their units. Passchendaele was one of the few battlefields where the ground literally swallowed men and guns.

At this point there was a pause in the fighting. The attacking divisions were rotated out of the line and the 1st and 2nd Divisions brought forward. During this lull the Germans made extensive use of mustard gas. As a persistent agent the gas would lie dormant overnight, then as the sun rose it would vaporize. Without a barrage to warn them of attack men were surprised by the gas, hundreds of casualties were caused this way.

The next assault was to capture the village of Passchendaele itself. Starting on November 5th the two Canadian divisions moved forward. Again the infantry moved closely behind the barrage and again the Germans were surprised by the speed of the Canadian advance. By the end of November 6th the village of Passchendaele was in Canadian hands. A smaller operation was launched on November 10th to capture the ridge behind the village and on November 11th the Battle of Passchendaele ended.

The Third Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele lasted 109 days, total British losses were nearly 275,000. In the three weeks of the Canadian portion of the campaign, the Canadian Corps suffered just over 16,400 casualties. The town of Roulers, the original objective for the campaign would not be captured until war’s end. The Germans suffered almost 220,000 casualties. The German U-boat campaign would fail without the British capturing the Channel ports.

 

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