Hell on earth — the huge shell holes were often reddened with human blood

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

On November 10, the high ground at Passchendaele was captured, and British Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig finally felt he could call the operation a success and end the Third Battle of Ypres.

“The price of victory for the Canadians was heavy in physical suffering,” wrote British war correspsondent Philip Gibbs in a New York Times report of the battle. “Unwounded men as well as wounded had to endure agonies of wetness and coldness, and thirst, and exhaustion. It was only their hardness which enabled them to endure.

“‘I saw some fellows in front of me,’ said a wounded lad, ‘and I helloed to them because I wanted company and a bit of help, but they didn’t hear all my helloing (due to the din of shell fire). They went faster than I could and I could not catch up with them because my leg was bad.’

“‘It was water we wanted most,’ said a young Canadian, ‘and some of us went for days thirsty in the front line. No blame was due anybody. It was that condition of ground.’

“‘I had a poisoned finger,’ said a young field gunner, ‘and my arm swelled up, but I couldn’t leave the battery before the show, as they were shorthanded.’”

Canon Frederick George Scott, the senior chaplain of the 1st Canadian Division, said stretcher bearer parties “tired and pale” struggled to carry the wounded several kilometres though the morass of mud to dressing stations.

“I came across one poor boy who had been killed that morning,” he continued. “His body was covered with a shiny coating of yellow mud, and looked like a statue made of bronze. He had a beautiful face, with finely shaped head covered with close curling hair, and looked more like some work of art than a human being.”

Describing the battlefield, Canon Scott said, “The huge shell holes were half full of water often reddened with human blood and many of the wounded had rolled down into the pools and been drowned.”

The chaplain heard a faint voice and hurried to the spot where the sound originated. He found a man who had been in a shell hole for hours with his legs almost covered by water. Surprisingly, the man was smiling cheerfully. Canon Scott got a party of stretcher bearers to help the man out of the pool of water. “One of the men asked him if he was only hit in the legs. He said, ‘Yes,’ but the man looked up to me and pulling up the boy’s tunic showed me a hideous wound in his back. They carried him off happy and cheerful.”

After the victory, Gibbs posed the rhetorical question: “What is Passchendaele?” His reply: “As I saw it this morning through the smoke of gunfire and the mist, it was just one ruin. Only the ruin of its church, a black mass of slaughtered masonry and nothing else, not even a house was left standing. Because of its position as the crown of the ridge that crest seemed to many men to be the prize for which all these battles of Flanders have been fought ... great numbers of our most gallant men have given their blood ... the enemy has spent much of his manpower and his gun power without stint ... throughout these months he has never ceased by day or night to pour hurricanes of fire over all these fields in the hope of smashing our progress.”

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

Lieut. 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. 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 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. O’Kelly then led a successful attack against six pillboxes and in the process captured 100 German troops. O’Kelly and his men 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, O’Kelly received the VC.  O’Kelly survived the war but drowned near Red Lake 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 general Sir David Watson, who led the Canadian 4th Division.

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

Following the war, British Prime Minister Lloyd George heavily criticized Haig in his memoirs for continuing the Third Battle of Ypres once it became clear that a breakthrough would not materialize. 

Of course, Haig bitterly attacked Lloyd George in his own dairy — he hated politicians as well as journalists. Yet, many historians agree that Lloyd George presented an accurate account of the events of the war, and many historians from Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been highly critical of Haig’s grand strategy and pursuit of objectives to the “last man standing.” Actually, Australians and New Zealanders still write about Haig as a “butcher” due to the heavy casualties their nations’ soldiers sustained while attacking Passchendaele Ridge.

“It must seem incredible ...,” wrote Lloyd George in his memoirs, “that (Sir Hubert) Gough’s (commander of the British 5th Army) entreaty to the Commander-in-Chief (Haig) that he should break off the attack (on Passchendaele) was never reported to the War Cabinet … and Sir Douglas Haig had given a promise to the Cabinet that they would break off the attacks as soon as it became clear that victory was unattainable ... Sir Douglas Haig alone retained his faith in the merits and ultimate triumph of his project…  

It shouldn’t have surprised Lloyd George that Haig continued the attack contrary to the advice of others, since the British general had done the same thing a year earlier during the Battle of the Somme. By the end of the battle, Allied dead and wounded totalled 623,907 (24,029 Canadians), while the Germans had 465,525 casualties.

As he told British General Henry Rawlinson, another reason Haig may have continued the battle at Passchendaele for 99 bloody days is that he believed the war could be won in 1917, if the Allies were prepared to push the attack against the Germans all along the Western Front.

“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 Sir Arthur  Currie proved at Vimy Ridge that training, sound preparation, skilled commanders and massive fire power could create military victories, while minimizing casualties relative to the extremely adverse conditions of the Western Front where flanking manoeuvres were impossible. 

Although casualties were high at Vimy and other successful battles fought by Canadians under Byng and Currie (who took over as Canadian Corps commander after Vimy), they never approached the slaughter inflicted by Haig’s orders to assault heavily-defended enemy positions when there was no prospect of victory.

While Lloyd George looked upon Haig with increasing disdain — the feeling was mutual — the British prime minister began to take note of Currie, calling him a “brilliant military commander.” At one time, Lloyd George thought of replacing Haig with Currie as overall commander of British and Dominion troops. 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. 

In his memoirs, written 15 years after the war, Lloyd George said he didn’t sack Haig because: “During the critical days of the War, when it was important not to undermine public confidence in the Commander-in-Chief of our own Army, I made no public attack on his personal fitness for so immense a responsibility, but I never concealed from myself or my colleagues that I thought Sir Douglas Haig was intellectually and temperamentally unequal to the command of an Army of millions fighting battles on fields which were invisible to any Commander.”

Using less inflammatory language, Winston Churchill described the strategy of the British High Command under Haig as “a series of extremely labourious and mystifying manoeuvres.” 

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. 

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, proving the battle was only a fleeting success.

On April 17, 1918, the Associated Press reported that British soldiers, who occupied Passchendaele following the Canadian victory, rejoiced that they were abandoning the ridge system that was under threat during the great German offensive of 1918. The offensive was designed to destroy the British Army before American troops could be brought to the battle lines — the U.S. had entered the war in April 1917, but most of its massive force was still in training and had yet to be deployed in significant numbers on the Western Front. Also, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia and Germany had signed a treaty in the spring of 1918 to end the war in the east, which allowed the Germans to transfer one-million troops from the Eastern Front for the attack on the Western Front. The German attack was initially successful, but eventually became too costly in terms of men and material and could not be sustained.

The Daily Graphic, a British newspaper, said it was wise to withdraw “to avoid the risk of ... being cut off and compelled to surrender.”

The reality was that capturing Passchendaele was not a factor in ending the war as Haig originally promised.