The Battle of Passchendaele: Resources at Library and Archives Canada

"It was really a miserable day, quite miserable. We were lying practically on the bed of the river which had been shelled all to pieces and it was just a marshy bog … our company headquarters got blown to pieces … before we started off … and the battle hadn't even begun."

Alex Strachan, 43rd Battalion, war diary of 43rd Battalion. RG 9, series III-D-3, vol. 4938, file 434.

Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, was one of the most controversial battles of the entire war, denounced by contemporary politicians as savage, vain, bloody and a pitiful waste of human courage. The spectre of soldiers dying, even drowning in a sea of mud, was so harrowing that it inspired poets, composers and artists to depict the unspeakable horror years after it took place. Nature conspired to turn the battlefield into the nightmare they described. Situated in a low-lying area reclaimed from marshy lands by means of an elaborate drainage system, the vulnerable terrain was easily and quickly destroyed by shellfire. Once shelling started, flooding would rapidly turn the whole battlefield into a sea of mud.

The Battle of Passchendaele (The Third Battle of Ypres)

After Germany's initial invasion of Belgium and France in August 1914, the first three years of the First World War witnessed a total stalemate on the Western Front. The two sides, the Allies and the Central Powers, constructed a long series of static trenches stretching from the North Sea all the way to the Swiss frontier, from which each side shelled the other on a daily basis. Periodically, the Allies attempted offensives with the objective of breaking through the enemy's front, as at Vimy in April 1917.

While the capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 was a great achievement, the success could not be exploited, as the French offensive that it had been designed to support had not succeeded. The horrendous losses of the French had led to widespread mutinies during the summer. As a result, the burden of continuing the attack on the Germans in the second half of 1917 fell to the British forces.

Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, chose the Ypres salient as the site for his new offensive. He believed this area offered the greatest scope for a breakthrough, and the Royal Navy supported him, hoping that the army could capture the ports on the Belgian coast that the Germans were using as bases for their submarine offensive against Britain's seaborne trade. The offensive began on July 31, 1917, but made disappointingly small gains. The British artillery bombardment, which was needed to shatter the enemy's defensive trench system, also wrecked the low-lying region's drainage system, and unusually rainy weather turned the ground into a wasteland of mud and water-filled craters. For three months, British troops suffered heavy casualties for limited gains. In October, the Canadian Corps, now commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, took its place on the front lines, with the British on its left and the ANZACs on its right. On October 26, the 3rd and 4th Divisions launched the first Canadian assault, in rain that made the mud worse than ever. Three days of fighting resulted in over 2,500 casualties, for a gain of approximately a thousand metres. A second attack went in on October 30. In a single day, there were another 2,300 casualties -- and only another thousand metres gained. On November 6, the 1st and 2nd Divisions launched a third attack that captured the village of Passchendaele, despite some troops having to advance through waist-deep water. A final assault on November 10 secured the rest of the high ground overlooking Ypres and held it despite heavy German shelling. This marked the end of the Passchendaele offensive.

Passchendaele was one of the war's most futile battles. The unspeakable conditions led to terrible losses -- nearly 260,000 Allied casualties, including over 15,000 Canadians killed and wounded. This suffering produced no significant territorial gains, though it did help wear down the German forces. Perhaps more than any other battle, Passchendaele has come to symbolize the horrors of the First World War.

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