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1917: The battle of Passchendaele

The Story

On Nov. 6, 1917, Canadian troops captured Belgium's Passchendaele ridge, ending a gruelling offensive that had begun on July 31. The Battle of Passchendaele is remembered for its atrocious conditions, heavy casualties and Canadian valour. Canadians, instrumental in securing victory, earned a total of nine Victoria Crosses for their courage. In this CBC Radio documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, survivors describe feeling a sense of pride at having succeeded where those before them had failed.

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: Nov. 6, 1967
Guests: Ross Cameron, Gregory Clark, George Kilpatrick, John Mackenzie, John McKay, Andrew McNaughton, Victor Odlum, George Pearkes, Robert Shankland
Narrator: J. Frank Willis
Duration: 7:14

Did You know?

• General Currie was reluctant to enter his troops into the Passchendaele offensive, predicting 16,000 casualties. He was overruled, but insisted he be given time to reorganize before proceeding. This time was used to improve roads and drainage systems, build duckboards to traverse the mud and platforms for artillery.

• Hauntingly close to Currie's prediction, 15,654 Canadians were killed or wounded.

• The Battle of Passchendaele was waged on former swampland. Elaborate drainage systems had effectively dried out the land, but shelling quickly destroyed this fragile structure. Combined with the heaviest rains in 30 years, this created the infamous muddy hell.

• Mud clogged rifles, contaminated food, weighed down clothing and prevented the digging of trenches.

• Despite all the problems it caused, the mud provided one small consolation: shellfire and bombs were absorbed into the soft ground, reducing the damage they inflicted.

• Heavy shelling and difficult terrain restricted the ability of both sides to remove their dead from the battlefield. Many of these bodies were not cleared until the following spring. In one case the corpses of a Canadian and a German were found locked in struggle, presumably having drowned in the mud as they fought.

• Approximately 1,000 of the Canadian soldiers killed were left in the mud.

• Many wounded or unconscious soldiers drowned in the mud. British poet Siegfried Sassoon  summarized the Passchendaele experience: "...I died in Hell (they called it Passchendaele)..."

• Mustard gas, also known as Yperite, was first used by the Germans at Passchendaele in September 1917. Canadians were among the first to suffer the painful and debilitating effects of this lethal gas, which include blindness, severe skin blistering, internal bleeding, pulmonary edema and often death.

• Over half a million lives were lost in the Battle of Passchendaele - 260,000 German and 325,000 Allied troops. The entire offensive lasted over three months and gained only five miles of ground for the Allies.

• Winston Churchill described Passchendaele as "a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility."

• British commander Sir Douglas Haig was criticized for his poor appraisal of the objective, the geography and the weather.


The First World War: Canada Remembers more