Passchendaele at 100: New exhibit looks at WW1 victory that haunts us still

New exhibit at the Atwater Library in Montreal traces Passchendaele's fall from grace among Canada's First World War battle honours.

'In the Mind's Eye' examines why we remember Passchendaele the way we do

German prisoners help a wounded Canadian soldier navigate through the shellholes and mud. Many wounded drowned on the battlefield, accounting for the battle's large number of missing. (Courtesy of Canadian Centre for the Great War)

"The more I think of our assault the more wonderful it appears, we were given almost the impossible to do and did it."

These lines, written by Lt. Col. Agar Adamson to his wife Mabel on Nov. 8, 1917, may sound like a description of the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge eight months earlier, but they refer to a battle few now consider a success: Passchendaele.

Known more for its muddy horrors than its military triumph, Passchendaele is the subject of a new exhibit at the Atwater Library in Montreal that explores its fall from grace among Canada's First World War battle honours over the last 100 years.

The quote from Adamson, who commanded the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry at Passchendaele, figures among the texts, official war photographs and personal items that the exhibit employs to trace the rise of the battle's long scar on our collective imagination.

Its curator, Caitlin Bailey of the Canadian Centre for the Great War, based in Montreal, says Passchendaele and Vimy have much in common, and yet what they've come to mean to Canadians is almost diametrically opposed.

Two battles, two national narratives

Both victories saw the Canadian Corps take objectives that the British army and others had previously failed to achieve.

And both victories came at a mind-boggling human cost — more than 11,000 Canadians wounded and dead at Vimy Ridge and more than 15,000 over 15 days at Passchendaele, including many who drowned in the mud.

Members of the 16th Canadian Machine Gun Company dug in at Passchendaele. The conditions haunted many soldiers for years. (Courtesy Canadian Centre for the Great War)

Four Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth's highest award for valour, at Vimy Ridge; nine Canadians earned a Victoria Cross at Passchendaele.

"It was a very tough objective, it cost a lot of lives, a lot of injuries and we just don't see it the same way we see Vimy," Bailey says. "It has a place in our imagination, but it's a very different place from Vimy."

Bailey says Passchendaele has come to represent everything that was wrong about the First World War, while the narrative around Vimy has emphasized valour, despite its similar horror.

"When you read about Vimy, there were still bodies poking out of the ground from past assaults — one memoir I've read commented on the smell at Vimy and how terrible it was," Bailey says. "There was three years of death and destruction in this tiny little area that the Canadians walked into. Yet Vimy, for many reasons, was built up to be what it is now."

Mud and blood

Official war photographs taken at Passchendaele and texts written about the battle in the days and years that followed help us to understand the evolution of its negative narrative.

Collected by Alfred Soden English, a Montreal officer who served at Passchendaele, the photos are nothing like the triumphant photos we associate with Vimy, of smiling soldiers cheering from the back of trucks.

Canadian soldiers cheer after the capture of Vimy Ridge. The victory was celebrated across Canada and the rest of the British Empire. George Metcalf Archival Collection | 19920085-292. (Canadian War Museum)

Instead, the photos of Passchendaele are haunting and bleak.

"Mud, single people standing alone in this enormous, wet muddy landscape — the Passchendaele photos are just horrendous," Bailey says.

The texts, meanwhile, show that the Canadian victory at Passchendaele was celebrated at first, only to see that narrative shift in the 1930s, '40s and '50s to one of mud, incompetent commanders and mass, ignoble suffering and death.

That narrative has since solidified, Bailey says, pointing to a headline from 2017 that reads "Century-old battle in Belgium sums up horrors of World War One."

This human cost is emphasized by a display of belongings taken from the pockets of John Black Berteaux, a Canadian soldier killed at Passchendaele on Nov. 10, 1917, and whose grave was later lost to the mud. 

This official war photograph of a Canadian soldier at Passchendaele captures the conditions the Canadian Corps faced during the battle. (Courtesy of Canadian Centre for the Great War)

History and memory

Bailey says she doesn't question Passchendaele's grim reputation, she just wants the exhibit to spark a conversation about why we remember it the way we do, and how our collective memory of the battle has evolved.

"There's an opportunity here with Passchendaele to point out that we create these narratives, we change them and we use them as we want," she says. "It has the potential to have the same proud, national narrative that we have around Vimy, that people tried and failed, tried and failed and then finally it was the Canadians who came through and took the objective."

And yet that's not the case with Passchendaele, which leaves Bailey with a second, more humble objective. 

"We're also just trying to remind people that Passchendaele happened," Bailey added. 

"More than 16,400 Canadians were killed, injured, or missing for this village."

In the Mind's Eye: Passchendaele and Public Memory is now on display at Montreal's Atwater Library. It runs until Nov. 27.