The Battle for the Passchendaele Ridge was without doubt one of the Muddy-est, Bloody-est, of the whole war. – Arthur Turner, Alberta
In Canadian memory, the battle of Passchendaele is synonymous with mud and blood. In October 1917, the Canadian Corps overcame horrible conditions and faced senseless death to capture the ruined village of Passchendaele. The Battle of Passchendaele remains a symbol of the terrible price of war on the Western Front. For the Canadians the capturing of Passchendaele cost 15 600 causalities, which remarkably high for a city that would only be held until the following year.
In response to the German’s unrestricted submarine warfare, the commander of the British armies in Europe, General Douglas Haig, encouraged Britain to launch a new offensive against the enemy. Haig proposed an attack on the German forces at the Ypres salient, which had been a highly contested area since 1914. By breaking the line at Ypres, the British could then capture the German submarine ports. Defeating the Germans at Ypres would be a difficult and costly feat without any guarantee that they could captures the forts as well. While there were skepticisms and concerns, the British went ahead with the offensive in July of 1917. The battle which, would become known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
In October, the Canadian Corps was called upon to relieve the New Zealand forces in the push to take Passchendaele. The new commander of the Canadian Corps, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, voiced strong concerns over the attack. He considered it to be both reckless and non-strategic. Currie stated that for the Canadians to take the city of Passchendaele it would take around 16 000 causalities, which for the objective was not worth it. Over ruled Currie began preparing for battle. The battlefield was a mess, boggy, muddy, and flat – an absolute quagmire.
On October 26, 1917 the Canadians launched their attack. While the Canadian Corps was able to push past the German despite heavy mud and heavy resistance, the advance was slow and came with heavy losses. To navigate the battlefield plank roads were constructed to move troops across the mud of Passchendaele.
Passchendaele was just a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible place. We used to walk along these wooden duckboards – something like ladders laid on the ground. The Germans would concentrate on these things. If a man was hit and wounded and fell off he could easily drown in the mud and never be seen again. You just did not want [to] go off the duckboards. - Private Richard Mercer.
German artillery actively targeted these board walks to impede the advances of the British and Canadian Corps. The accounts of the soldiers during the battle depict the horrible conditions faced by the men on the battle field:
Our feet were in water, over the tops of our boots, all the time. We were given whale oil to rub on our feet . . . this was to prevent trench-feet. To solve it I took off my boots once, and poured half the oil into each foot, then slid my feet into it. It was a gummy mess, but I did not get trench-feet. – Arthur Turner, Alberta
The enemy and ourselves were in the selfsame muck, degradation and horror to such a point nobody cared any more about anything, only getting out of this, and the only way out was by death or wounding and we all of us welcomed either. – Private John Sudbury
In a heavy rainstorm the Canadians reached the edge of Passchendaele by the end of the month. A short week later, the Canadian and British launched a second attack on the village itself. On November 10th, the city fell to the 27th Battalion (largely made up of Winnipeggers) after heavy fighting.
The cost of this victory was high, there were more than 4 000 Canadian deaths during the battle and 12 000 more were wounded. The casualties amassed were almost exactly the amount that Currie had predicted.
...I died in Hell (they called it Passchendaele) my wound was slight and I was hobbling back; and then a shell burst slick upon the duckboards; so I fell into the bottomless mud, and lost the light. - Siegfried Sassoon, First World War Poet
Canada’s success at Passchendaele added cultivated the country’s reputation for being a formidable force on the Western Force. There were nine men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions in battle: Private Tommy Holmes, Captain Christopher O’Kelly, Sergeant George Mullin, Major George Pearkes, Private James Peter Robertson (post-humorously), Corporal Colin Barron, Private Cecil Kinross, Lieutenant Hugh McKenzie (post-humorously) and Lieutenant Robert Shankland.