Published: November 8, 2017
Courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada
The Battle of Passchendaele raged in Belgium in the summer and fall of 1917. The Canadian Corps joined the fighting there in October and would overcome almost unimaginable hardships to triumph on a brutal and muddy battlefield. This victory only came at a high price, however, as over 4,000 Canadian soldiers lost their lives and almost 12,000 more were wounded.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The service and sacrifice of the Canadians who fought there will never be forgotten.
When Britain went to war in Europe in August 1914, Canada—as a member of the British Empire— automatically found itself at war as well. The First World War soon turned into a stalemate of trench fighting along the Western Front, with a heavily defended 1,000 kilometre-long network of trenches stretching across Belgium and northern France from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland. On one side were the forces of France and Britain (along with other allies such as Canada) and on the other were the Germans. From their opposing trenches they faced one another across a blasted “No Man’s Land” of barbed wire, exploding artillery shells and deadly machine gun fire.
In the fall of 1917, the Canadian Corps—after its great success at Vimy Ridge that April—was sent north to Belgium. It would be all-too-familiar ground for the Canadians who had seen heavy fighting there earlier in the war.
Early in October 1917, the Canadians were sent to Belgium to relieve the battered ANZAC forces and take part in the final push to capture Passchendaele. Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie inspected the terrain and was shocked at the conditions he saw. He tried to avoid having his men fight there but was overruled by his superiors. As at Vimy, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps would see action. However, the ubiquitous mud, flat terrain, and relative lack of preparation time and artillery support would make Passchendaele a far different battlefield than the one the Canadians had encountered at Vimy Ridge.
Currie took as much time as he could to carefully prepare and on October 26, the Canadian offensive began. Advancing through the mud and enemy fire was slow and there were heavy losses but our soldiers clawed their way forward. On an exposed battlefield like that one, success was often only made possible due to acts of great individual heroism to get past spots of particularly stiff enemy resistance. Despite the adversity, the Canadians reached the outskirts of Passchendaele by the end of a second attack on October 30 during a driving rainstorm.
On November 6, the Canadians and British launched the assault to capture the ruined village of Passchendaele itself. In heavy fighting, the attack went according to plan. The task of actually capturing the “infamous” village fell to the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion and they took it that day. After weathering fierce enemy counterattacks, the last phase of the battle saw the Canadians attack on November 10 and clear the Germans from the eastern edge of Passchendaele Ridge before the campaign finally ground to a halt. Canadian soldiers had succeeded in the face of almost unbelievable challenges.
The fighting at Passchendaele took great bravery. Nine Canadians earned the Victoria Cross (the highest award for military valour that a Canadian could earn) there.