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Battle of Passchendaele, 1917
The third major battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, took place between July and November, 1917.

Stained Glass Window, Church of the Redeemer, Bloor Street & Avenue Road, Toronto

Canadian troops captured Belgium’s Passchendaele ridge, ending a gruelling offensive that had begun on July 31, 1917. The Battle of Passchendaele is remembered for its atrocious conditions, heavy casualties and Canadian valour. Canadians, instrumental in securing victory, earned a total of nine Victoria Crosses for their courage.

Casualties

 Country
Killed
Total
  Canada
4,028
15,654

Map

Audio
 
Date: Nov. 6, 1967. Duration: 7:14.

Overview

By the time the Canadians entered the battle on the Passchendaele Ridge, British and Australian troops had fought there for more than three months. Their efforts had been unsuccessful: 100,000 casualties for very little ground won. The situation looked hopeless and Canadian Commander Sir Arthur Currie was reluctant to become involved. Although his objections were overruled by British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, his reluctance won the Canadians a delay that allowed them to prepare for the battle.

Objectives

The Allies’ objective in this battle was to break through the German defences, seize the highlands of Passchendaele Ridge and from there capture the German-occupied Belgian channel ports. These ports were important to the German strategy, as many of their deadly submarines operated from them. Once Passchendaele Ridge was captured, this high ground could be used to launch a decisive attack on the German-occupied channel ports.

At this time the only part of Belgium that remained in allied hands was a bulge of land around Ypres, known as the Ypres Salient. It was here that the allied forces launched their attacks. The Ypres Salient was one of the most dangerous places on the entire Western Front as it was vulnerable to German attack from its front or either side at any time; however the allies were intent on keeping this last bit of Belgium free and were prepared to defend Ypres at all costs.

To the south the French offensive on the Chemin des Dames under General Nivelle was a disaster - although some ground was gained, the results were nowhere near as good as Nivelle had promised. With losses in the neighbourhood of 200,000 men it precipitated a wave of mutinies which semi-paralyzed the French army for some months and generally made it only capable of defensive activity.

The Canadian Plan

The Canadian plan in taking Passchendaele was simple: they would attack in a series of battles, each with a limited objective. Step by step, they would take the village, the overall objective being to secure a defensible position on the Passchendaele Ridge. If successful, they would drive a thin wedge into the German positions, leaving them exposed to enemy fire from all directions.

A final note on the terrain: The Ypres Salient was utter desolation. The continuous bombardment and shelling of the area had destroyed the existing drainage system, and the heavy rains that lasted days on end had turned the entire salient into an oozing quagmire of yellow mud. In this terrain, it was impossible to dig trenches, so the Germans had devised a system of interlocking square rooms of reinforced concrete, called pillboxes.

Timeline

  • Early October 1917: The returning Canadians who fought at Ypres in 1915 and 1916 are shocked at the scenes in the salient. Everything is destroyed, nothing green remains. The dead of the earlier battles are everywhere and the ground is a maze of interconnected, water-filled shell holes. Canadian soldiers have heard rumours about the upcoming battle and are unnerved.
  • October 17, 1917: Canadian engineers and pioneers begin to extend the transport system, construct artillery positions and move ammunition and supplies to the front, all in preparation for the coming battles. They work amidst continuous shelling, gas attacks and the most horrendous conditions possible.
  • October 26, 1917: The front of the Canadian Corps is split by an impassable morass that had been the valley of the Ravebeek River, and so it launches a two-pronged attack up the drier spurs of the ridge. The 3rd Division is to attack the Bellevue Spur on the north ridge and advance 1,200 metres toward Passchendaele. The attack occurs at 5:40 a.m. As the 3rd Division advance along the Gravenstafel Passchendaele road, it captures the frontline Germans positions and moves steadily forward. The Germans quickly retaliate with massive shelling and force the Canadians back. They are only able to hold the Bellevue Spur because of individual feats of bravery. They do not meet their objective, but at Passchendaele any gains are good.
  • The 4th Division is to attack south of the morass of the Ravebeek, up the Passchendaele Ridge. It is successful, and through continuing battles on October 27 is able to move its lines 700 metres closer to Passchendaele. Fighting conditions are unbelievably hellish and the casualty list is high.
  • October 30, 1917: The exhausted soldiers of both Divisions are replaced with fresh battalions and the battle continues. The 3rd Division, now hanging on in shell holes, is given the formidable task of capturing the remaining length of Bellevue Spur. The battalions spread into three groups for a full frontal attack, but heavy German opposition and artillery fire crush their efforts. Individual feats of bravery again save the day, and they manage to capture two major German defences at Source and Vapour Farms. Again the 3rd Division is short of its objective, but it secures additional ground and is now on drier land. Heavy losses are suffered in this attack, particularly by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and the 49th Battalion.
  • The 4th Division also launches a three-pronged attack from the stronghold it had established partway up Passchendaele Ridge. They have great difficulty determining where they are to attack: All landmarks shown on reference maps had been obliterated; roads, trees and most buildings were reduced to dust. Nonetheless, the attack goes according to plan. Although suffering heavy casualties, they capture a series of fortified buildings - Vienna Cottages and Crest Farm - both near Passchendaele.
  • November 6, 1917: The Canadians are now on drier land and Passchendaele Village is only 100 metres away. The depleted battalions of the 3rd and 4th Battalions are withdrawn and their replacements are fresh soldiers from the 1st and 2nd. The 1st Division, emerging from the Bellevue Spur, is to attack Passchendaele Ridge from the north. The 3rd Battalion from Toronto protects the northern flank of the assault by seizing a fortified farm that was pouring machine-gun fire into the Canadian attack. This allows everything to go as planned and the 1st Division’s assault is a huge success.
  • The 2nd Division’s assault is directly on what remained of Passchendaele Village: it is remarkably successful. The 27th Battalion, recruited from Winnipeg, is given the task of liberating the village. The fighting is often hand-to-hand as the Germans try desperately to hang on. After the bloody fighting, Passchendaele is finally in the hands of the men from Winnipeg.
  • November 10, 1917: The Canadians are now firmly established on top of the Passchendaele Ridge. However, German soldiers still cling to the slopes east of the village. A final attack is launched to secure their hard-won position on the ridge. North of the village, the 1st Division successfully captures the German positions and drives them eastward on to the flat plain below. On the southern flank, the 2nd Division is also successful in pushing the Germans off the eastern slopes.

Conclusion

The battle slogged on for months with neither side making progress due to the inhospitable conditions. In the face of these horrible circumstances Canadian soldiers performed exceptionally and, in the end, were instrumental in securing victory. Through the 3 months of fighting the Canadians established themselves as an elite fighting Corp and received honours reflecting that. In the end, 9 soldiers received the Victoria Cross in recognition of their outstanding effort at Passchendaele.

Victoria Crosses

  • Colin Fraser Barron
  • Thomas William Holmes
  • Cecil John Kinross
  • Hugh McKenzie
  • George Harry Mullin
  • Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly
  • George Randolph Pearkes
  • James Peter Robertson
  • Robert Shankland

 Photo Gallery

Personnel of the 16th Canadian Machine Gun Company Company holding the line in shell holes during the Battle of Passchendaele.
Troops in Gas Masks on the Front Lines.
Canadian Pioneers carrying trench mats with wounded and prisoners in background during the Battle of Passchendaele.
Wounded Canadians on way to aid-post.
Canadian soldier lighting German prisoner’s cigarette, Nov 1917, Passchendaele, Belgium.
Mud and barbed wire through which the Canadians advanced during the Battle of Passchendaele. Nov 1917, Passchendaele, Belgium.
A Canadian finds that a Boche shell has disarranged his home. Battle of Passchendaele. November, 1917.
The destroyed landscape of the Passchendaele battlefield. Nov 1917, Passchendaele, Belgium.
Canadian Pioneers laying trench mats over mud. Battle of Passchendaele. Nov 1917, Passchendaele, Belgium.
Mud and Boche wire through which the Canadians had to advance.

Sources: For King & Empire, Veterans Affairs Canada, CBC Archives, Canada Dept. of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada


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