Unending Seige


Field artillery bound for the front, circa 1916-18

Caption: Field artillery bound for the front, circa 1916-18

Since late July 1917 the Passchendaele sector had been a target of bloody attacks by the British, though little ground had been gained. In the autumn the depressed British troops were still floundering in a foul sea of mud while the heights remained in German hands. It was a matter of urgency to capture the little plateau or fall back to more distant quarters. The Canadians were ordered to return to this sector, where they had been in 1915, and take the hill, by now unrecognizable. The drainage system had been ruined. Guns sank up to their axles in the mud. In the shattered plain, covered with useless weapons, thousands of human and animal corpses were rotting. The air was putrid and steadily falling rains turned the whole area into a nightmare. Veterans of the Somme relived a situation they knew only too well.

Strategically, the conquest of Passchendaele would be insignificant in the Allied drive towards victory, and, although tactically feasible, the mission would be very costly. Currie informed his superiors that the operation could involve more than 16,000 casualties. Was Passchendaele worth this sacrifice? The British answered that it was, since it would enable them to increase pressure in the north of the front and afford the French the break they needed.

The Canadians therefore repeated the painstaking preparations that had earned them the successes recorded since the beginning of the year. To spare the gunners having to constantly readjust their sights, bases were built to support their guns; to ensure that the troops were supplied, the roads were made suitable for motor vehicles over the 15 kilometres of marshland separating Ypres from the front.

On 18 October the Canadian 3rd and 4th divisions moved into position in front of the objective. Under a chilly rain that soaked this nearly three-kilometre-wide quagmire on 26 October, the attack began. Having been unable to surprise the enemy, two battalions launched an assault on Bellevue Peak. The men were decimated by sheltered German machine-gunners. At last a small group from the 43rd Battalion managed to gain a foothold and dig in. The 52nd Battalion, spurred by their comrades' exploit, seized six blockhouses.

The partial victory of that 26 October came at a heavy cost to the Canadians, who counted 2,500 casualties, but Passchendaele was still beyond their reach. On 30 October a new 800-metre advance was won at a cost of 2,300 casualties. There remained 400 metres to cross in order to occupy the remnants of the unfortunate village. Heavy and field artillery were brought up when the 1st and 2nd divisions replaced the 3rd and 4th. On 6 November operations were concluded: They had inflicted 16,041 casualties including 3,042 killed.

All this to advance five kilometres in a salient soaked on three sides. A few months later the British would abandon Passchendaele. The Canadians had already earned eight Victoria Crosses on the Somme; Passchendaele gave them nine. The question of which of these two sectors of operations had been the more terrible remains unanswered by the Canadian participants in both of the battles.