The Third Battle of Ypres - Passchendaele

Mud and barbed wire through which the Canadians advanced during the Battle of Passchendaele, November, 1917 - Rider-Rider, William.

From The Journal of Arthur Currie, Canadian Brigadier-General                                                 


November 14th, 1917

It seems that the Ypres has been won. After weeks of exchanging fire across the Ypres Salient, our troops went "over the top" on November 6th and on the 10th, we seized control of Passchendaele (Taylor (No.7)). The admirable effort from our soldiers secured high ground and ensured safety and security in preparation of the long winter forthcoming.

It is my solemn belief that many years in the future, Passchendaele will stand as a reminder of the horrific event that is the "Great War". In fact, it is reported that Prime Minister Borden recently stated to the British Prime Minister Lloyd George: "I want to tell you that if there is a repetition of the battle of Passchendaele, not a Canadian soldier will leave the shores of Canada" (Quinlan, Baldwin, Mahoney, Reed ( r5t6h7y 6)). In a war fought in the trenches, the men at Passchendaele - on both sides - were brought to their lowest, reduced to war - trained machines, with only eyes for the enemy - and, if unsuccessful, a hope for a quick death. Though we were the last nation to enter the horrors of Passchendaele, I would be remiss if I did not recognize the heroic efforts of the other Allied nations. The Allied Forces fought at Passchendaele for almost a year. The Brits spearheaded the attack in the spring of this year, 1917, in hopes of a large territorial gain. Finding themselves pushed back by vicious counterattacks and locked in a stalemate, they called in men from Australia and New Zealand in succession from August to November. Under political pressure to stop the Passchendaele attack, Sir Douglas Haig refused and continued the assault. Some say that approximately 70,000 Allied troops had been lost before we entered the war (Taylor (7)). Finally, they turned to us, the Canadian Corps, for the victory. While we rest amidst the blissful silence now, we must not forget the tens of thousands slain here - some buried in the mud or drowned under the rain-filled craters. In spite of our victory, my heart is filled with grief over the countless casualties we suffered on this soil. I have always believed that the victory should be paid for in shellfire, not lives (it is my hope that my troops are assured of this), and it truly pains me each time a soldier is lost. But perhaps they are the lucky ones; I have seen the horror in the young lads' eyes from the things they have seen from the trenches, and I have heard it said from those irreparably wounded that surely death could not be worse than this hell-ish battlefield. But as their general, I must stay strong. I will not say that this battle was reckless, but it is hard to imagine justification for this bloodshed. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Douglas Haig, and certainly he is a great man, decent and honorable (I have said before that, "he is a thoroughly honest, decent and manly man" and I will not stray for that), but I cannot help but think that the strategic rationale behind the attack was questionable. In a war where 10km is near impossible to obtain, marching 40km to the German U-boat ports through the enemy line is but a fantasy in my estimation. Already, we have lost close to 16,000. I hope to God that humankind will never experience this kind of warfare again. Our records say that perhaps a couple million(!) Allied men have been lost. By the end of this war, the world may lose more than 10 million young soldiers. Not just soldiers, but fathers to innocent children, and sons to grieving mothers. And when they ask us, "For what gain did they die for?", how can we respond? Assault after assault has gained minimal territory in the war. Trenches line tens of kilometres long on both sides, and sending troops over the top has become madness. Like Passchendaele, we gain a few kilometres only to be pushed back by brutal counterattacks that decimate our troops. How many more can we afford to lose? Surely Passchendaele will be synonymous for the unimaginably horrifying conditions that we have fought in in this war. Craters mark the ground at every step, and the never-ending deafening fall of  rain and artillery shells drove the soldiers, who must charge across this land, insane. Here, one could drown alone in the man-made craters, along with the possibility of being gunned down. I am truly of the opinion that Passchendaele is an experience that has never been seen before by mankind, and one that symbolized the recklessness and futility of the Great War.

Canadian Pioneers carrying trench mats with wounded and prisoners in background during the Battle of Passchendaele. - Rider-Rider, William.

November 16th, 1917

If any should read this in the distant future, here are the events as they transpired at the Third Battle of Ypres pertaining to the Canadian Corps. After intense preparation, we began firing artillery on the 21st of October. It lasted four days, as the field guns were used to mask the timing of our upcoming ground assault. We soon began our assault and after almost two weeks, we were able to secure the high ground of Passchendaele. We accomplished this through multiple small assaults that drove a thin wedge through the German defense(Nicholson (4)). The initial accounts say that we lost more than 10,000, perhaps much more. Though I question the strategic value of securing Passchendaele, one cannot deny that the Canadian Corps performed honorably and exceedingly well. Approaching this battle, we prepared for every circumstance and every aspect of the upcoming assaults. For weeks, we practiced on replicas of the German defense, studied the terrain, and implemented new tactics: counter-battery fire – pre-emptively taking out the enemy artillery – and what we call the "creeping barrage" – the art of neutralizing the opponent by placing artillery fire a few steps in front of our advancing troops. Long hours were placed into perfecting these strategies; we even had the soldiers practice the speed of their advance behind the creeping barrage – not too slow, and not too fast (Nicholson (4)). As the general of our troops, it was my objective to train our soldiers so thoroughly that the commanders would have utter faith in each and every man to complete their missions, a key part of any battle. Before calling upon us, Haig remarked, “the Canadian Corps would be the determining factor…all the troops being subsidiary to our main operation of the capture of…Passchendaele.” (Nicholson (4)) I attribute high praise to the Canadian soldiers, who repeatedly distinguished themselves at Vimy Ridge, Somme and again in the past couple of weeks. Without a doubt, they will be remembered as a very distinguished ensemble. I have heard it said that the Germans refer to us as “the Storm Troops” (Leach (2)). In the end, our determination and will proved to be sufficient in ending this battle.  When the Great War is finally concluded, among the great grief that will envelope our nation, surely there will be an enormous pride in our army and recognition around the world of our strong military accomplishments.

Wounded Canadians on way to aid-post. Battle of Passchendaele. November, 1917. - Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada

November 20th, 1917

Not only did Passchendaele prove our military acumen, but also in the grand picture, perhaps Canadian citizens back home will begin to truly unite together as a nation as a result. It has been 50 years since we received independence from the British Empire, yet we still find ourselves closely tethered to our mother country. Whether it was our duty to join this war is not for me to decide, but it is my personal belief that it is time to establish ourselves among the grand powers of the world. In these years of war and frustration, abroad and in our government, it is my hope that successes of the Canadian army here at Ypres will solidify the identity of our people as one that is resilient and proud, strong and free. In 1914, when Prime Minister Borden promised 20,000 troops to Britain as the Canadian Expedionary Force despite our regular army consisting of 3,000 troops, 40,000 signed up in less than a month (Nicholson (4)). I believe that this attests to our desire to make a name for ourselves, to come out of our shell, so to speak, and establish ourselves as a premier nation. Even when Sir Borden brought conscription into being, our citizens stepped up. We may have left as part of the British Empire, but I have confidence that we will return with an unprecedented amount of Canadian pride.   

Personnel of the 16th Canadian Machine Gun Company Company holding the line in shell holes during Passchendaele. - Rider-Rider, William

November 26th, 1917

After days of contemplation, I have arrived at a couple conclusions. Passchendaele was undoubtedly one of the bloodiest, muddiest, most futile clashes of the Great War and something that I will never forgot as long as I walk the earth. Yet there is optimism, a light at the end of the tunnel. I am catiously optimistic that in 100 years, the brutality of Passchendaele will be remembered as part of a grander venture, a brave stroll onto a bigger stage for our country, both for out military and for our people.

The Canadian Ensign during the Great War - David Thompson

Works Cited

1. "Arthur Currie." Arthur Currie. Wikipedia, 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

2. Leach, Norman. Passchendaele: Canada's Triumph and Tragedy on the Fields of Flanders : An Illustrated History. Regina: Coteau, 2008. 1-16. Print.

3. Marsh, James H. "The Battle of Passchendaele." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1985. Print.

4. Nicholson, Gerald W. L. "Passchendale: Canada's Other Vimy Ridge." Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1964. Print.

5. "Passchendaele." Passchendaele: Remembrance of Things Past. Print.

6. Quinlan, Don, Doug Baldwin, Rick Mahoney, and Kevin Reed. "Unit 1: Forging a Canadian Identity: 1914-1945." The Canadian Challenge. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2008. 36. Print.

7. Taylor, David. "Passchendaele." Key Battles of World War I. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2001. Print.

Sir Arthur Currie - War Museum of Canada

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