Remembrance Day — the sacrifice made by Canadians at Passchendaele

by Bruce Cherney

General Sir Arthur Currie was far from impressed when British Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig suddenly turned up at Canadian Expeditionary Force headquarters on October 3, 1917. An order personally delivered  by Haig sounded so disdainful to Currie that he openly argued with his commander-in-chief, something few others had the courage to do. 

The dreaded order from Haig informed the Canadian commander that the CEF was expected to take over where others had failed and capture Passchendaele.

The real estate agent from British Columbia told the British and Dominion commander that taking Passchendaele — a position Currie believed that had by then no real military value — would probably cost the Canadians 16,000 casualties. 

“Passchendaele is not worth one drop of blood,” Currie confided in his diary.

Haig did listen to the “big, flabby, real-estate promoter” who turned into a “great field commander” (Desmond Morton and J.L. Granatstein in Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919 ), because he needed the Canadian troops to extricate him from what had turned into an unmitigated disaster.

Since the offensive was launched three months earlier, the Third Battle of Ypres, called Passchendaele by Canadians, had already accounted for tens of thousands of British, New Zealand and Australian casualties without any appreciable territorial gains.

Haig originally visualized the battle as the first major breakthrough of the First World War with the eventual objective being the Belgian seacoast and the capture of German submarine pens. In the summer and fall of 1917, German U-Boats were ravaging Allied merchant shipping in the North Atlantic. British Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had advised Haig and the British government that the losses incurred by the merchant fleet could not be sustained and something must be done.

Haig’s answer to relieving the pressure on the fleet was not enthusiastically greeted by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who believed Passchendaele was a foolish undertaking. Yet no one else had come up with a credible alternate military plan for the autumn of 1917, so Lloyd George reluctantly gave his approval.

When preparing his offensive, the worst assumption — completely false as events proved — Haig made was that morale in the German army was at an all-time low as a result of the Allies’ earlier success during the Battle of Messines. 

In his memoirs published after the war, Haig cited another reason for continuing the battle after the first bloody days: the widespread mutiny raging in the French army resulting from carnage of the Nivelle Offensive, named after French General Robert Nivelle. He said Marshal Philippe 

Pétain had urged continuation of the Ypres offensive to prevent the Allied war effort from collapsing — an after-the-fact argument that carries little weight with most historians. 

“There is not a scrap of evidence in Haig’s very profuse contemporary diary that Pétain  begged him to continue the offensive for the sake of the French,” wrote B.H. Liddell Hart in How Myths Grow — Passchendaele. In fact, Pétain had crushed the mutiny on his own by selectively punishing the ringleaders and improving the soldiers’ conditions and instituting more leave.

The Germans were also well aware that an attack was planned to capture the high ground of the sickle-shaped Passchendaele ridge. To counter the attack they knew was coming, the Germans had prepared strong defensive positions, featuring 1 1/2-metre thick concrete pillboxes to protect troops during bombardments. The German defenders would only re-emerge after the barrage stopped to mow down attackers using heavy 

machine-gun fire and artillery. Reserves kept in the rear away from 

Allied artillery fire were to be used for counter-attacks.

During his trip to Canadian headquarters, Haig listened to Currie’s protests, but eventually made it clear that he expected the general to take Passchendaele. One day he would tell Currie why the objective was so important, Haig added. 

Currie reluctantly accepted Haig’s order, but also knew the strength of his position and managed to wrangle some conditions from the British general. For one, the Canadians would not attack until they were adequately prepared and weather conditions had improved.

Currie’s powerful position came from previous Canadian successes such as the capture of Vimy Ridge in April and the taking of Hill 70 (Currie called it “altogether the hardest battle in which the corps has participated”) in August. As a result of its battlefield successes, the CEF’s 120,000 men under the command of Currie became known as the shock troops of the 

Allied army.

General Sir David Watson, who led the Canadian 4th Division during the Battle of Passchendaele, said it was “no surprise that the Canadians by this time had the reputation of being the best (Allied) shock troops ... They had been pitted against the select guards and shock troops of Germany and the Canadian superiority was proven beyond question. They had the physique, the stamina, the initiative, the confidence between officers and men (so frequently of equal standing in civilian life) and happened to have the opportunity.”

Despite the strength of the Canadian contingent nothing could have prepared the troops for what they saw at Passchendaele.

Watson wrote that “the front, and on beyond, were simply beyond description. Wastes of mud, destroyed houses, roads torn up by constant shelling and above all, the vile weather conditions, that made life a burden.”

The weather had conspired against the attack from the onset of the battle months earlier. The worst rainfall in 30 years fell on the land occupied by the Allies in the Ypres Salient. “Rain and Mud” became known disparagingly as the allies of the German army.

Compounding the effects of the heavy rain was the artillery barrage initiated to soften up the German positions (the Allies used over four-million shells during the four-month battle). Only the previously well-tended drainage system kept the land from flooding, but exploding Allied shells destroyed ditches, turning the land into a quagmire.

If anything should have dissuaded Haig from continuing the offensive, it was the vast expanse of mud the soldiers had to traverse to attack the enemy. Yet Haig apparently had little idea about the conditions on the front. The British general planned the assault in the comfort of his rear-area headquarters and had not visited the front lines. When Haig’s chief-of-staff visited the battlefield after the fighting was over, he was appalled by the conditions, saying, “Why was I not told?”

But Currie was not Haig and he always went to the front before planning an attack. He was noted for having a great grasp of battlefield terrain and developing tactics to suit the conditions. At Passchendaele, he came up with a three-phase attack, each stage — called red, blue and green lines. Each phase was separated by delays which were used to consolidate captured positions in  the event of counter-attacks. The delays allowed fresh troops and artillery to brought up to the new positions in support of renewed attacks. He called it a “bite and hold” strategy. 

Currie promised his men that they would not “be called upon to advance until everything has been done that can be done to clear the way for you. After that it is up to you.”

Indeed, it was ordinary soldiers who endured and overcame abysmal conditions, faced murderous rifle, machine gun and artillery fire and were responsible for taking objectives drawn by generals as lines on a map.  

Part of Currie’s preparations involved the replacement of artillery earlier lost to enemy counter-artillery fire. Currie’s philosophy was that it was better to “pay the price of victory in shells — not lives.”

Currie had also adapted and perfected the use of creeping barrages — first used by the French army — that shielded  troops as they advanced toward the enemy. The barrage crept forward 100 metres in three-minute intervals with soldiers advancing just behind it. The goal was to keep the Germans under cover in their trenches and pillboxes to prevent them from maintaining their fire against the advancing troops. A creeping barrage was effectively used by the Canadians to capture Vimy Ridge a few months earlier.

The morass the Canadians faced at Passchendaele made the delays between stages absolutely essential, allowing them time to lay duck-boards — wooden sidewalks —over which men and artillery could pass. Any misstep could bring calamity, especially for wounded soldiers. If a wounded man fell into a shell hole, he was likely to drown in the deep water that filled the crater.

W.E. Curtiss of the 10th battalion, when relating his Passchendaele 

experience years later (Library and Archives Canada:Oral Histories of the First World War), said he stepped off a duck-board while carrying a Lewis machine gun and a young officer tried to lift him out. “I created an obstruction and the men were bunching up (and easy targets for enemy fire). Some kind friend in the back, I won’t use his expression, but he did say, ‘Leave the son of a gun there!’ That’s what he should have said if he was going to be polite. It was better to lose one man than a dozen.” Fortunately for Curtiss, he was freed from his muddy trap. 

“It’s simply miles and miles of shell holes — all filled with water and the whole ground so water-logged that you go down over your knees every step and you have to keep moving or I guess you will go out of sight,” wrote William McLellan of Edmonton in a November 1 letter home. “To say it’s muddy is putting it mild by a long ways ... You get wet and stay wet all the time you’re in the forward area.”

On October 26, 20,000 Canadians moved across the mud of No Man’s Land toward the German defenders to begin the process of capturing Bellevue Spur, Crest Farm and finally the village of Passchendaele. In the first three days of fighting, the Canadians suffered over 2,500 casualties to advance just one kilometre. The second phase of the attack was launched on the 30th and also gained just a kilometre. In the second phase of the attack, the casualties for a single day were 2,300. On November 6, the 1st and 2nd Divisions initiated the last phase of Currie’s plan and captured the village of Passchendaele. 

But another phase in the attack had to be added to compensate for British and Australian troops on the Canadian flanks failing to keep pace, allowing a salient to form that jutted out into enemy lines. To protect the flanks, Currie ordered his men to capture the dangerous high ground over the Canadian position. 

“If the Canadians can hold that,” commented an Australian soldier, “they are wonderful troops.”

On November 10, the high ground was captured, and Haig finally felt he could call the operation a success and end the Third Battle of Ypres.

During the fighting, Canadians won nine Victoria Cross medals — including two for men from Manitoba — the British Empire’s highest medal for valour. 

Lieutenant Robert Shankland of Pine Street (now Valour Road in memory of the three First World War VCs won by Shankland, Frederick Hall and Leo Clark who all lived on the street) in Winnipeg won a VC on October 26. Shankland led his platoon of 40 men from D Company to the crest of Bellevue Spur, the main enemy trench defending Passchendaele and managed to overrun the critical position. For hours, Shankland and his men withstood withering German artillery shelling and counter-attacks. Many of his men were lost in the process and the company’s two flanks were left exposed, so Shankland knew the position was on the verge of collapse and reinforcements were desperately needed. He braved enemy fire en route  to battalion headquarters where he helped develop a detailed plan to dislodge the German troops about to surround his men. 

With reinforcements from the 52nd and 58th battalions, Shankland returned to his beleaguered men and led the successful attack that removed the threat.

Shankland died in 1968 in Vancouver.

Winnipegger Major Christopher O’Kelly commanded A Company of the 52nd and was ordered to aid Shankland and his men. His company managed to gain the crest of Bellevue Spur where they completely routed a German column advancing towards Shankland’s position. After stopping the advance, O’Kelly led a successful attack against six pillboxes and in the process captured 100 German troops. O’Kelly and his men dug in to ward off German counter-attacks, but that night found time for a raiding party. In the space of 18 hours, O’Kelly and his men had captured 284 Germans and 21 machine guns. For his actions, the O’Kelly 

received the VC. 

O’Kelly survived the war only 

to die in a boating accident at Lac Seul, Quebec, in 1922 while prospecting.

“We were given the almost impossible to do, and did it,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Agar Adamson of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

“Passchendaele was proudly added to the list of splendid engagements on the colours of Canada,” wrote Watson. “The northern bastion of Flanders and a position of vital importance had been captured.”

If Haig’s attack had broken through when first launched in July, Passchendaele may have been of “vital importance,” but when the Canadians captured the village and high ground, the military significance of the position had virtually been lost. 

However, the Canadian accomplishment cannot be understated — they had succeeded when so many others had failed, although at a terrible cost. Securing Passchendaele resulted in 15,654 Canadian dead and wounded, almost exactly what Currie had predicted in early October.

In four months of fighting during the Third Battle of Ypres, the British, Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and Canadians suffered nearly 310,000 casualties (70,000 killed) compared to the German’s 260,000.

Following the war, Lloyd George heavily criticized Haig for continuing the Third Battle of Ypres once it became clear that the original plan for a breakthrough would not materialize. 

It should have come as no great surprise to Lloyd George that Haig continued the attack contrary to the advice of others, since the British general had done the same thing during the Battle of the Somme a year earlier. For two months, Haig threw wave after wave of troops against German positions in a futile attack. On July 1, 1916, 21,000 British attackers were killed, including 310 of 801 Newfoundlanders at Beaumont Ridge. By the end of the battle, Allied dead and wounded totalled 623,907 (24,029 Canadians), while the Germans had 465,525 casualties.

“The nation must be taught to bear losses,” said Haig, who believed that a war of attrition was the only way to defeat the Germans. “No amount of skill on the part of the higher commands, no training, however good, on the part of officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories without the sacrifice of men’s lives.”

Actually, British General Julian Byng and Canadian General Currie proved at Vimy Ridge that training, sound preparation, skilled commanders and massive fire power could create military victories — and keep casualties down to a bare minimum under the adverse Western Front conditions where flanking manouevres were impossible. As commander of the Canadian Corps — he took over from Byng after Vimy — in subsequent battles, Currie showed the hollowness of Haig’s words. 

While Lloyd George looked upon Haig with increasing disdain, the British prime minister began to take note of Currie. At one time, Lloyd George thought of replacing Haig with Currie as overall commander of British and Dominion troops (over one-million men) — perhaps a good move militarily but very bad politically. Few in England would accept a so-called “colonial” commanding all the British soldiers on the Western Front. 

Although he had promised, Haig never revealed to Currie why it was so important to capture Passchendaele. But when the Canadians took Passchendaele, they literally saved Haig’s military career. Was this the real reason behind the pointless continuation of the offensive? 

Despite the sacrifices made by so many British, Anzac and Canadian soldiers, Passchendaele did not remain in Allied hands. A few months later, the Germans had regained all the land lost to the Allies from July to November 1917, proving the battle was only a fleeting success. Passchendaele was not a factor in ending the war as Haig had originally promised.