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The murderous mud of Passchendaele

The Story

At one time, Passchendaele, Belgium, was a pleasant crossroads village surrounded by rich farmland. But heavy bombardment and heavier rains turn the reclaimed marshland into a nightmarish sea of mud and muck, which the British called "The Slough of Despair." In this clip from CBC-TV's Their Springtime of Life, Canadian veterans recall what it was like trying to stay alive in the deadly mud of Passchendaele. 

Medium: Television
Program: Their Springtime of Life
Broadcast Date: Aug. 22, 1972
Guest(s): Paul-Émile Belanger, James Emo, George Pearkes, Bill Perry, George Stevens
Host: Bill Hawes, Frank Williams
Duration: 13:08
Photo: William Rider-Rider/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002156

Did You know?

• The Battle of Passchendaele is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres (the village of Passchendaele is close to Ypres.) In 1917, the Allies hoped to punch a hole through German lines, relieving the beleaguered French forces and possibly allowing the capture of German submarine bases on the Belgian coast.

• The battlefield of Passchendaele was reclaimed swampland that was used for farming. Prolonged shelling destroyed the drainage, and the heaviest rains in 30 years turned the battlefield into a muddy quagmire. Trenches could not be dug, and planes were often grounded due to weather. The mud clogged rifles, contaminated food and weighed down clothing. The only solace was that shellfire and bombs were absorbed into the soft ground, reducing the damage they inflicted.

• British commander Sir Douglas Haig looked to the Canadians to bring his ill-fated campaign to some sort of conclusion. In October, Allied forces were bolstered by the arrival of the Canadian Corps under the command of Gen. Arthur Currie. 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. The time was used to improve roads and drainage systems, and build duckboards to traverse the mud and platforms for artillery.

• 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 one thousand of the Canadians soldiers killed were left in the mud.

• British poet Siegfried Sassoon summarized the Passchendaele experience in Memorial Tablet:
"I died in Hell -
(they called it Passchendaele); my wound was slight
and I was hobbling back; and then a shell
burst slick upon the duckboards; so I fell
into the bottomless mud, and lost the light"

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

• Mustard gas, also known as Yperite, was first used by the Germans at Passchendaele in July 1917. Canadians were among the first to suffer the painful and debilitating effects of this lethal gas.

• On Nov. 6, 1917, Canadian troops captured Belgium's Passchendaele ridge, ending a gruelling offensive that had begun on July 31, 1917.
• 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. Hauntingly close to Currie's prediction, 15,654 Canadians were killed or wounded.

• Over half a million lives were lost in the Battle of Passchendaele -- 448,000 Allied and 260,000 German troops. The entire offensive lasted over three months and ended in a stalemate. The Allies gained only eight kilometres.
• You can hear a 1967 CBC Radio documentary featuring first-person accounts from Canadian survivors in the CBC Archives clip 1917: The battle of Passchendaele.


The First World War: Canada Remembers more