07 November 2017

CWGC takes a look at Canada in the Third Battle of Ypres as the country marks the conflict’s centenary

Canadian commemorations marking the centenary of Passchendaele will take place at the CWGC’s Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium this week. Ahead of the commemorations, we take a look back at the country’s victorious actions that ended the battle.

 Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele, 1917, by Alfred Bastien

Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele, 1917, by Alfred Bastien

Background

By mid-October 1917, after three and half months of fighting the British Army was still short of its revised objective of Passchendaele Ridge. The British Army was fast running out of fresh divisions, most already having been mauled by one or more deployments during the Third Battle of Ypres.

On 13 October a temporary halt was called by army command. But the decision was taken to continue the offensive, to secure positions on the relatively dry ground of Passchendaele Ridge, and to keep German attention fixed on Flanders to assist the French attack in Champagne (23 October) and for the upcoming attack at Cambrai in November.

Further attacks would only be launched after a sufficient amount of artillery could be brought forward to support the attacking infantry. Fresh troops were brought in, including the Canadian Corps who had a growing reputation as a formidable fighting force.

Enter the Canadian Corps

Having initially been spared involvement in the campaign, on 9 October 1917 the Canadian Corps was ordered north to Belgium. Nine days later, the Canadians relieved the exhausted Australian troops holding the lines facing Passchendaele village. Despite some improvement in the weather, the ground around Passchendaele was still almost impassable. General Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corps Commander, wrote in his diary on 17 October: “Battlefield looks bad.

“No salvage has been done and very few of the dead buried.”

Meticulous preparations were made for the Canadian attack. Behind the lines, teams of British and Canadian personnel worked to improve supply lines. In the Canadian Corps area alone over two miles of double-plank road and more than 4,000 yards of tramways were laid, often under fire. Extensive reconnaissance was made and German positions were carefully mapped ready for the attack. All effort was made to bring forward guns and ammunition to support the infantry.

Assault on Passchendaele 12 October - 6 November: Canadian Pioneers laying tape through the mud for a road to Passchendaele. © IWM (CO 2253)

Assault on Passchendaele 12 October - 6 November: Canadian Pioneers laying tape through the mud for a road to Passchendaele. © IWM (CO 2253)

On the slopes of Passchendaele Ridge

On 26 October, the Canadians took their first steps towards the village of Passchendaele. The Canadian Infantry attacked at 5.40am behind a moving wall of exploding artillery shells with British and Australian units to left and right. The infantry struggled through the rain and mud on either side of the flooded Ravebeek stream. The first German pillboxes were rushed at the point of the bayonet, or targeted with machine gun fire and rifle grenades to cover comrades who attacked from the rear.

The Canadian attack led to mixed success, mud and heavy German fire meant that units where still short of their objectives, but a vital foothold had been gained on the higher ground around Bellevue Spur and the southern part of Passchendaele Ridge.

Over the following days, minor operations were conducted to improve these positions and to connect the new frontline to the rear areas, while mule trains and working parties struggled under the cover of darkness to bring forward the required ammunition and supplies.

On 30 October a second attack was launched. Despite the mud and enemy fire the Canadians took most of their objectives and managed to establish forward outposts some 100 yards from the outskirts of Passchendaele village. Another pause followed for consolidation and to bring the supplies forward for the next attack.

Men of the 16th Canadian Machine Gun Company holding the line in a landscape of mud and water-filled shell holes, November 1917. © IWM (CO 2246)

Men of the 16th Canadian Machine Gun Company holding the line in a landscape of mud and water-filled shell holes, November 1917. © IWM (CO 2246)

Victory and loss at Passchendaele

At 6am on 6 November, the Canadian Corps began the attack which would see them capture the village of Passchendaele. Advancing from assembly positions in no-man’s land, the Canadian infantry escaped the German counter barrage. In the shattered remains of Passchendaele, Canadian troops fought bayonet-to-bayonet with the German defenders. The ruins, cellars and dugouts were cleared with Lewis gun fire and grenades, before Canadian troops took up positions on the far side of the village.

By mid-afternoon the Canadian Corps had reached all of its objectives and had taken more than 500 German prisoners. During the afternoon, German counter-attacks were broken up before they could advance by British and Canadian artillery and by 7.30pm the new frontline was comparatively quiet, the ruins of Passchendaele village were finally in Allied hands.

During a rainstorm on 10 November one final attack was made northwards along the line to Passchendaele Ridge. While Canadian units reached their objectives, British units to their left were forced back by a determined German counter-attack.

Further advances towards the village of Westroosebeke were considered, but in light of the forces being sent to Italy and the impeding attack at Cambrai, these were deemed impracticable. On 14 November the exhausted, but victorious Canadian Corps was withdrawn from the line.

The Canadian Corps paid a high price for its capture of Passchendaele. For the period 26 October to 11 November, the Canadian Corps recorded casualties of more than 12,400 wounded, missing or killed, of whom some 4,000 were dead.

A Canadian military funeral at a cemetery at Poperinghe, Belgium, 11 August 1917. The coffin is draped with the union flag. © IWM (Q 5875)

A Canadian military funeral at a cemetery at Poperinghe, Belgium, 11 August 1917. The coffin is draped with the union flag. © IWM (Q 5875)

The CWGC commemorates in Belgium more than 3,700 servicemen of Canadian forces who died during the Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 October to 10 November 1917). There graves can be found throughout the countryside surrounding Ypres:

 

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