The Third Battle of Ypres and Passchendaele

To the south the French offensive on the Chemin des Dames under General Nivelle was a disaster—although some ground was gained, the results were nowhere near as good as Nivelle had promised. With losses in the neighbourhood of 200,000 men it precipitated a wave of mutinies which semi-paralyzed the French Army for some months and generally made it only capable of defensive activity.

In July the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, launched his controversial drive in Flanders to seize strategic rail heads and capture the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. The offensive had a successful prelude at Messines in June (where Canadian Tunnelling Companies played an important role), but this local success was followed by weeks of delay caused by logistical requirements and political indecision.

The second and main stage of the attack got under way at the end of July with a tremendous artillery barrage which not only forewarned the Germans, but also ground the battlefield into potholes and dust. Unusually heavy rains poured down on the very night that the offensive began, and in no time the area became an impassable swamp. The impressive gains of the first day were overshadowed by the morass the battlefield soon became. As the British soldiers struggled in the mud, the Germans inflicted frightful casualties from lines fortified with machine guns placed in concrete pill boxes. But in September the sun came out, and new tactics were adopted—a series of "bite and hold" operations—to which the Germans had no obvious answer and themselves suffered huge casualties.

Early in October, with the strategic objectives still in German hands (although a significant proportion of the high ground from which the Germans had dominated Ypres for years had been captured) and the British forces reaching the point of exhaustion, Haig determined on one more drive. The Canadian Corps was ordered to relieve the decimated Anzac forces in the Ypres sector, and prepare for the capture of Passchendaele.

Lieutenant-General Currie inspected the muddy battlefield and protested that the operation was impossible without heavy cost; and that he would not fight under the command of Fifth Army. He was overruled (but came under Second Army), and so began careful and painstaking preparations for the assault. In a series of attacks beginning on October 26, 20,000 men under heavy fire inched their way from shell-crater to shell-crater. Then on October 30, with two British divisions, the Canadians began the assault on Passchendaele itself. They gained the ruined outskirts of the village during a violent rainstorm and for five days they held on grimly, often waist-deep in mud and exposed to a hail of jagged iron from German shelling. The total of attackers killed came to 4,028 by November 11. Currie's estimate of 16,000 casualties proved frighteningly accurate; in fact there were 15,654 for this period in the Salient. Passchendaele had become a Canadian Calvary.

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