Hell on earth — Canadians defy the odds and capture Passchendaele Ridge

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

Director, screenwriter and actor Paul Gross has brought the bloody Battle of Passchendaele to the silver screen. The Passchendaele screenplay written by Gross is based on an extraordinary period in Canadian history related to him by his grandfather, Michael Joseph Dunne. The film has received mixed reviews, primarily due to its overemphasis on a love story, although most reviewers say the $20-million epic is a valuable depiction of one of Canada’s most important battles during the First World War and accurately portrays the horrific conditions Canadian troops endured to attack the ridge. Whatever the film’s reviews, it is particularly appropriate that it was released near the 90th anniversary of the end of the so-called “War to End All Wars.” The film is a reminder to Canadians of the sacrifices made by our nation’s citizens — most of them teenagers and young adults — so many years ago. The following is what actually happened at Passchendaele ...

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.

Philip Gibbs, an official correspondent with the British Army as well as for numerous newspapers, including the New York Times, who witnessed all phases of the assault on the ridge, wrote that the “real terrors” of the battlefield were the nights of “darkness and rain and quagmires ... every shell hole was brimful of brown or greenish water.” He said men slipped on the slime on duckboards (wooden planks over the mud), falling helplessly into the shell holes. 

When the British, Australians and New Zealanders attacked, they “had come up against an abominable machine gun fire” from concrete blockhouses set up by the Germans on the ridge, according to Gibbs.

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 had to 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 Haig made — completely false as events proved — 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. 

Writing about the Canadian attack, Gibbs said the German defenders at Passchendaele had “good morale and they were full of confidence in their defensive position.”

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 the 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 11⁄2-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.”

Canon Frederick George Scott, the senior chaplain of the 1st Canadian Division, wrote in his book, The Great War as I Saw It, which was based on the war-time diary he kept, wrote he took an ambulance to a 

forward dressing station. “Then I started to walk up the terrible, muddy roads till I came to the different German pill-boxes which had been converted into headquarters for the (Canadian) battalions. 

Finally, after wading through water and mud nearly up to my knees, I found myself the next afternoon wandering through the mud and by the shell holes and miserable trenches near Goudberg Copse, with a clear view of the ruins of Passchendaele ... The whole region was unspeakably horrible. Rain was falling, the dreary waste of ploughed mud, yellow and clinging, stretched off into the distance as far as the eye could see.”

Gibbs said the position would not be characterized as a “ridge” in North America. At its highest point it was just 60 metres above sea level, “and the approaches to the crest are gradual undulations in most places. As a matter of fact, it is really composed of a series of ridges and hills.”

The weather had conspired against the attack in the Ypres salient from the onset of the battle months earlier. The worst rainfall in 30 years fell on the land occupied by the Allies. “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 of “beeks,” or streams, kept the land from flooding. Gibbs said the exploding shells blew away the banks of the beeks which then overflowed forming wide bogs.

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 lines 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 phase used objective lines —called red, blue and green — separated by delays in order to consolidate captured positions in the event of enemy counter-attacks. The delays allowed fresh troops and artillery to be brought up to the new positions in support of renewed attacks. Currie 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 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 to capture Vimy Ridge a few months earlier.

The morass the Canadians faced at Passchendaele made the delays between stages absolutely essential, allowing the men time to lay duckboards over which men and artillery could pass. 

But any misstep could bring calamity. 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 duckboard 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 (an easy target 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.”

When Gibbs described the capture of Bellevue Spur, he said it was a “fine and thrilling ... act of persistent courage by bodies of men struggling against great hardship and under great fire.”

The initial Canadian assault on the spur was beaten back, but the soldiers reorganized “and scaled the slope again and drove machine gunners out of their blockhouses.”

Gibbs said it was “small parties of grim, resolute fellows” who finally overcame the blockhouses “to get a footing on the higher slopes, scrambling and stumbling and falling with the deadly swish of bullets about them ...”

The largest blockhouses housed 30 Germans, while the smaller ones contained 15 to 20 men, all told by the German high command to hold their positions at all cost.

(Next week: part 2)