“In this wilderness of flooded shell holes:” Canadians remember Passchendaele

“After a march all night, losing our way, falling in shell holes, slipping, and losing our tin hats in them, and having to fish them out, and the odd shells dropping around us. We were getting nearer to where we were supposed to dig in and hold the line. We couldn’t see much in the dark and picked out the best shell holes we could find and mounted our guns… Our guns were useless, full of mud and the water cooling barrel was punctured. The wounded officer told me he was going to see the other guns but as he left me a shell landed under him as he was crawling away. He was blown several feet away. I crawled after him, expecting any moment to share the same fate… After that terrible night, the mist of morning creeping over the sea of mud, my hands were covered with blood, steaming from the work of dressing the wounded…Eleven days and nights were spent under these conditions, which I have only covered briefly, in the cold and wet with no sleep. Haunted by the cries of those we had left in the sea of mud and torture, as it is now called- “Flanders Field where the poppies grow” – about 14 years ago.” [1]

Image: [ASE at Passchendaele], A.S. English Fonds, Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2016.3.1.1-56.

On July 31st, we remembered the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The Canadians being occupied in a strategic diversion at Lens, however, only arrived to the Passchendaele front in mid-October. In the vivid passage above, Private Reginald Le Brun described his experience arriving to one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. In his brief account, we could almost experience the rain, the mud, and the ensuing confusion that has not only framed our memory of Passchendaele, but has also come to symbolize the horrors of the First World War.

Before 1914, Passchendaele was a beautiful and rich agricultural land. After constant shelling, however, the drainage systems were destroyed and when Ypres suffered its heaviest rain in 30 years, the battlefield became a swamp. As the landscape dominated by shell holes became flooded, tanks were immobilized, rifles were clogged, and men and their horses were being swallowed whole by the mud. When the Canadians arrived in October to relieve Australian and New Zealand troops, they were not prepared for the appalling conditions of the terrain. Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corps’ new commander, ordered the construction and repair of roads and tramlines to support the transportation of men, horses, and supplies to the Front. Once the Canadians reached the Front, they were met with unrelenting rain and shellfire. On the morning of October 26th, they launched their offensive attack through the mud, on an exposed battlefield, in an attempt to capture Passchendaele and the high-ground behind it.

As the Canadians made their advance into no man’s land, they struggled to make any significant progress. Bogged down by the mud, sometimes waist-high, the men at Passchendaele were left exposed to enemy fire for longer periods of time. With so many water-filled shell holes, some as large as 30ft across, men were simply sinking and disappearing. [2] Once a man slipped in a shell hole, it was very difficult to climb out. If it was too deep, it was only possible to get out with the help of a fellow soldier offering their hand or their rifle to pull them out. If a wounded man slipped in a shell hole, however, it was almost certain he would drown. Drowning in shell holes, or buried in mud, stretcher bearers had a very difficult time removing the wounded from the battlefield. Under continuous enemy fire, it sometimes took as many as six stretcher bearers to rescue one wounded soldier. As such, many of the wounded and dead were never reached. With 90,000 bodies never identified and 42,000 never recovered, many of them still lie underneath the battlefield at Passchendaele. [3]

It is said the Canadian corps fought the enemy and the mud for fifteen days at Passchendaele. On the fifteenth day, they captured their objective, but at what cost? With over 275,000 allied casualties, the Battle of Passchendaele was one of the deadliest battles throughout the course of the war and forever shaped the way we remember the First World War.

References

[1] Lebrun, Reginald. Library and Archives Canada. Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5507 – 16.

[2] CBC Digital Archives. The murderous mud of Passchendaele. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/the-murderous-mud-of-passchendaele

[3] Ibid.

 

 

 

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