Friday 30 October 2015

The Canadians at Passchendaele

The capture of Passchendaele Ridge by the Canadian Corps at the end of October took place in four phases that began on October 26th and ended two weeks later when the village of Passchendaele was captured by the "City of Winnipeg" 27th Battalion.

This is the story of the second phase of the attack that took place through pouring rain and concluded on October 30th, on the outskirts of the Village, ninety-eight years ago today.

They Called it Passchendaele!
On the Bellevue Spur, looking across the now pastoral
Ravebeek Gully towards Crest Farm and Passchendaele

So much imagery of the First World War can be conjured up simply by reciting names like Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele; villages that lost their identity for the battles that were fought there. That one word, Passchendaele, invokes some of the most obscene images of the war; oceans of mud, created by the destruction of the area's drainage system, swallowed men alive if they happened to stumble and fall off duck boards that been laid down like roads to traverse the lines behind the trenches.  

Passchendale is also a name that transcends borders. Unlike Vimy, which, despite being fought over  repeatedly by Britain and France in the first three years of the war, has been usurped by Canada to define her independence, Passchendaele must invoke the same sentiment to the British as it does to Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians: for all, those immortal words penned by Siegfried Sassoon ring true: “I died in hell - They called it Passchendaele.” 

When the Canadians returned to the Salient in mid October, 1917, having been fighting in the Lens-Arras area since the spring, the Flanders Offensive that had been launched in mid June with a stunning success at Messines Ridge, had virtually ground to a halt. The ten day bombardment that had preceded the attack, which expended more than four million shells (one every two seconds), destroyed the area’s fragile drainage system and eliminated any element of surprise. Heavy rains through August and October, among the wettest on record, had turned the area into a vast mud swamp. In the three months since it was launched, the series of battles along the 18 kilometre front east of Ypres had cost the British 100,000 casualties, and many of the objectives for the first day of the attack had still not been achieved.  

At Crest Farm, the view across the Ravebeek Gully
towards the Bellevue Spur.
Taking over from the ANZACs east of Gravenstafel Ridge, the Canadians were tasked with capturing the high ground of Passchendaele Village. Attacking north of the valley of the Ravebeek stream the Canadians would move up the Bellevue Spur towards Meetcheele; and across the valley, moving up Passchendaele Road, towards Crest Farm, ultimately  capturing the village itself.

“The deep gully of Ravebeek runs below the slopes on which Bellevue is raised, and down there there is one filthy swamp of mud and water. On the other side of the gully is a hill which raises to Passchendaele, and the separate hummock of Crest Farm southeast of that big pile of ruins, which commands a long, wide view of the plains.” 

Ravebeek stream had been turned in to a bog forcing them to attack along the exposed higher ground. 

The view from Crest Farm to Passchendaele.  The
penultimate phase of the attack was just 300 metres away
but achieving it would cost 2200 casualties.
“Bellevue on the one side and Crest Farm and Passchendaele on the other support each other from attack, and from their blockhouses they are able to sweep machine gun fire upon any bodies of men advancing up either slope. So the Australians found in the great attack of Oct 12, and had to fall back when Passchendaele itself was almost in their grip, because of an enfilade fire from the ground about Bellevue, while other Australians, trying to work up these slopes on the west side of Ravebeek, were terribly scourged by a machine gun barrage. The Canadians knew all that.”   The New York Times, October 31, 1917

Driving up the Bellevue Spur, along Gravenstaffel Road, it is just possible to get a sense of the challenge in front of the Canadians. While slight, the incline is discernable and steady for three kilometres.  At the crest of the spur sits the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, where more than 2100 soldiers are buried, more than 1200 unknown. Today, the Ravebeek Valley that once separated the thrusts of the Canadian attack on Passchendaele, is farmland; a narrow field of hay between two ridges, a kilometre apart, cows grazing not far from red shingled farms.

Graves of Canadian soldiers at Passchendaele New British
Cemetery on the Bellevue Spur.
“It was worse as bad on Friday morning and worse. Rain had poured down all night and the shell craters brimmed over and every track was so slippery that men with packs and rifles fell at every few steps. Beyond the dockboard tracks there were no tracks for 1,500 yards and there was a morass knee deep and sticky so that the men had to haul each other to get unstuck. . .  Unwounded men as well as wounded had to endure agonies of wetness, and coldness, and thirst and exhaustion. It was only their hardiness which enabled them to endure. They lay in the cold slime, and a drop of rum would have been an elixir vitae to them.”  The New York Times, October 31, 1917

The centre of Passchendaele - 300 metres from Crest Farm
where the Canadian memorial now stands.

It’s about three hundred metres from Crest Farm to the church at the centre of Passchendaele, the penultimate stage in the attack. The Canadian national memorial, is understated; a granite block, inscribed with a simple description of the achievement, in a well kept garden. It was an ideal spot to eat lunch on that Mother’s Day -  a sandwich bought at a small delicatessen, ironically in Langemarck. Looking across the the Ravebeek valley, it’s possible to make out the twin pillboxes of Passchendaele cemetery along the Bellevue Spur, and despite the pastoral scene, it’s difficult, as it is throughout this area, not to wonder at the events that brought us here.

By the time the Canadians joined the battle, the capture of Passchendaele Ridge had become a limited objective - to secure high ground for the winter. As one historian notes, “even the name Passchendaele was an objective in itself.”   The three month offensive cost the British 320,000 casualties and the Germans, 210,000. And, in three weeks of fighting, there were close to 16,000 Canadians who were wounded, killed or missing. 

The Canadian monument at Passchendaele - one of six
similar monuments

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