Artillery Soldier Perspective - Katie Aubrey
By 1917, the Germans had captured most of Belgium but the final area of Flanders fields had been dragging on and on with neither side making any decisive victories.
The area was relatively flat and by late summer, with the onslaught of heavier than normal rains had turned extremely muddy. This was compounded by the fact that thousands of shells had destroyed irrigation dikes and left the landscape covered in water-filled holes. It was unbelievable how many shells had pummelled the land, perhaps a million.
Coming off the recent prestigious victory at Vimy, General Douglas Haig, Commander of the Allied forces “…ordered an assault at Passchendaele in Belgium” using the “…same men who had won so brilliantly”.(1)
This battle was important for the British (and Canada) as they needed a victory and by the fall of 1917 they had endured heavy losses. The British needed to push back the Germans, preventing them from capturing all of Belgium and most importantly the strategic ports. “The British offensive began on July 31, 1917, but made disappointingly small gains. The British artillery bombardment, which was needed to shatter the enemy's defensive trench system, also wrecked the low-lying region's drainage system, and unusually rainy weather turned the ground into a wasteland of mud and water-filled craters. For three months, British troops suffered heavy casualties for limited gains.”(2) “Few gains were made. Nearly 70,000 men from some of Britain’s best assault divisions were killed or wounded.” (3)
Fighting had been on going in this area for almost three years with little movement from either side. From Southwest Belgium through Northern France, this area was known as the Western Front. The Allied forces, which, in addition to Britain included Australia and New Zealand, had been growing weary which was why Haig summoned the Canadians to lead an offensive.
“Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, objected to the battle, fearing it could not be won without a terrible expenditure in lives, but Haig was desperate for a symbolic victory and insisted on the effort, believing that even a limited victory would help to salvage the campaign.” (4)
From the perspective of an artillery infantryman, the situation seemed insurmountable. The Germans were firing upon the troops continuously from the moment they entered the southern-most fields of Flanders. They had dug-in deep with machine-gunners situated in “pill-boxes” – small silo-like cement positions that gave them protection from the Allied troops.
However, to capture Passchendaele, the role of the artillery was pivotal. The flat landscape that lay below the German-occupied ridge made it near impossible for Canadian troops to penetrate unless the artillery was able to take out positions so as to allow their advance. Having no choice but to attack, Currie prepared carefully for the fight, understanding that deliberate preparation, especially for his artillery and engineers, was the key to advancing over this shattered landscape. (5)
The ground troops had no protection as there was nothing left in the barren wasteland to provide protection, only the pits of blown up shells or hand-dug trenches. The battle raged on for ten weeks. It was essential that the artillery take out enemy positions else the infantry men were "sitting ducks". “There we had a full view, in early morning we had a full view of everything. We could see our own planes, just these little moths; I suppose you'd call them in those days, going backward and forward. The enemy, of course he was doing the same thing and machine gunning us to the best of his ability.” (6)
On 6 November, the Canadians launched their third, large-scale attack on the ridge. They succeeded in capturing it and the ruins of Passchendaele village from the Germans.
The Battle of Passchendaele was very significant for Canada because it solidified our nation’s reputation “… as the best offensive fighting force on the Western Front”.(7)
In total there were approximately 275,000 casualties under British command and another 220,000 Germans who were killed or wounded at Passchendaele. The mere extent of the losses suffered on both sides certainly calls into question the point of this battle and others in the First World War.
A century later, the Battle of Passchendaele is remembered and is significant as a symbol of the worst horrors of the First World War, the sheer futility of much of the fighting, and the reckless disregard by some of the war's senior leaders for the lives of the men under their command.(8)
1 - Quinlan, Don. "1." The Canadian Challenge. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2008. 36. Print.
2- "Common Menu Bar Links." ARCHIVED. Library and Archives Canada, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
3 – "Battle of Passchendaele." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
4 - "Land Battles - Passchendaele | Canada and the First World War." Canada and the First World War Passchendaele Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
5 - "Land Battles - Passchendaele | Canada and the First World War." Canada and the First World War Passchendaele Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
6- "Common Menu Bar Links." ARCHIVED. Library and Archives Canada, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
7 – "Battle of Passchendaele." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
8 – "Battle of Passchendaele." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.