The murderous mud of one First World War battlefield

This year, 2018, marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. The Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 was, for the Canadian Corps, one of the most destructive. CBC Archives presents some of the memories of men who fought in that battle.

Passchendaele battle was a treacherous slough of mud and muck, and an enemy in itself

Canadian gun stuck in the mud, Passchendaele, 1917 (Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada 1964-114 NPC)

This November 11, 2018, marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, which took place during the Third Battle of Ypres, was, for the Canadian Corps, one of the most bloody and destructive of the war. 

With mudholes deep enough to swallow a man, the treachery of that battlefield and the futility of the achievement evokes the senselessness of the four-year war. 

On Nov. 10, 1917, Canadian troops captured Belgium's Passchendaele ridge, ending a gruelling offensive that began for them 15 days earlier, and ending the drive for Vimy which had begun in June.

In 1972, the CBC presented the story of the battle, as told by some of the men who were there. Here, from CBC Archives, are excerpts from that program, Their Springtime of Life.

'The men would simply sink and disappear in that mud'

The mud and barbed wire of Passchendaele, Nov. 1917 (William Rider-Rider / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002165)

As veterans George Stevens and Paul-Emile Bélanger recounted, for some hapless soldiers the muddy earth of the shell-blasted farmland itself brought death.

Canadian battalions are tasked with taking the Belgian town of Passchendaele, beginning Oct. 26, 1917. 3:22

George Pearkes, who was one of nine soldiers who received the Victoria Cross for their part in the battle, described the land which had been transformed from pastoral farmland to a "quagmire," due to the continual shelling during the earlier part of the campaign.

Shelling had destroyed the agricultural plain at Passchendaele and transformed it into a quagmire. 3:25

'The Canadians got hell'

Stretcher bearers carry wounded to the aid-post at Passchendaele, Nov. 1917 (Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/ PA-002107 )

"It wasn't the heavy fighting" that made the objective so difficult, according to Pearkes. 

He described the difficulty of moving over the heavy ground to keep up with the Canadian barrage, which was moving at the rate of only 100 yards every eight minutes. 

Men who slipped into the shell holes faced the impossibility of getting out without help, and Pearkes said he was positive that "many wounded men slipped into those shell holes and would have been drowned or suffocated by the clammy mud."

Veterans of the Battle of Passchendaele describe how the mud and swamp made advancing up the ridge near-impossible. 5:14

A 1965 CBC Radio program, Flanders' Fields, which tells the story of the battle, can be heard here.