“On Roads Muddy and Gray”: The Passchendaele Centenary

The quote in the title comes from a poem written by Alexander Sinclair, a Driver with the Canadian Field Artillery. Sinclair fought at Passchendaele with the Canadian Corps in November 1917, when the battle was winding down. But Passchendaele, a gigantic battle with hundreds of thousands of casualties, began much earlier than the official Canadian centenary.  Next week, the centenary of the beginning of the  battle will be celebrated on 31 July. 

Image: “Passchendaele” [members of the 16th Canadian Machine Gun Company at Passchendaele], A.S English Fonds, Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2016.3.1.1-44

For many of us, Passchendaele represents the archetypal World War I battle; a bloody debacle in hip-deep mud with a hollow victory at the end. It remains one of the most controversial battles of the war, and was deeply divisive even at the time it was planned. Haig did not receive approval for the battle until 25 July, less than a week before his planned launch.

The weather was also indisputably bad. The area around Ypres is flat, with a very shallow water table, and August 1917 was unusually wet. One hundred years later, historians are still debating whether the rain in August was a yearly event, as was advanced by some British historians shortly after the war, and that Haig had ignored it, or that it was an anomaly and Haig had been correct in expecting sun and favourable conditions. Whatever the debate, between the rain and the firing of thousands of artillery shells, the terrain was reduced to a mud pool, where men and horses drowned, and maps were of little use.

Passchendaele weighed heavily on the memories of veterans as well. For many it was their worst experience of the war – the one that came back nightly and haunted them for the rest of their lives. Will Bird wrote of the experience “often we sank in mud and water of gruel thickness until the slime rose above our hips. The only thing solid underneath was a dead man”[1]. For Private Donald Fraser it was the shelling that struck him. The terrain was too soft for artillery to be effective and he “watched the shells send up fountains of mud and water as they exploded.”[2]

For many, however, it was the memories of the deaths of their fellow soldiers that stayed. Passchendaele was not a good place to be wounded. Thomas Rattray of the 30th Battalion was wounded while in an Observation Post, but was one of the lucky ones. “Six men carried me out, up to their knees in mud.”[3] Many thousands of wounded men were drowned while awaiting medical attention. There were simply too many, and the conditions too bad to effectively evacuate them.

Begun on 31 July, with an ambitious 4 objective plan, Passchendaele dragged on and on for months past what was predicted by Haig and his subordinates. The Canadians, occupied at Hill 70 near the city of Lens, escaped the first three months of the battle, but the Corps was eventually brought into play in late October and managed to take the village of Passchendaele in November, effectively ending over 3 months of grinding attritional war.

Lloyd George wrote in 1938 that Passchendaele was “one of the greatest disasters of the war”, and to this day no one can agree on whether the battle was worth the casualties it took to win. In fact, historians can’t even agree on accurate casualty numbers, there are simply too many who went missing and were never recorded.

 

[1] Bird, Ghosts have Warm Hands, 72.

[2] Fraser, The Journal of Private Fraser: 1914-1918 Canadian Expeditionary Force, 313.

[3] Reid, ed., Poor Bloody Murder: Personal Memoirs of the First World War, 165.

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