Remembering the valour of 'The Royal Ottawas' at Passchendaele

Soldiers from across eastern Ontario fought as part of the 38th Battalion at Passchendaele, the horrific First World War battle being remembered this month on its 100th anniversary.

Horrific First World War battle being remembered on its 100th anniversary

Members of the 38th Battalion were recruited in Ottawa and served in many battles during the First World War, including the battle of Passchendaele. (The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa Museum)

"The land had no features, no woods, no buildings. It was just tormented soil that swallowed men." 

Those were the words of a First World War Canadian soldier, from a 1965 CBC Radio documentary series called Flanders' Fields, describing the horror of Passchendaele: a four-month-long battle which came to an end 100 years ago on November 10, 1917. 

It's a description that likely resonated with the 500 to 600 men of "The Royal Ottawas," the nickname for the the Ottawa-based 38th Battalion that was part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force under British command.

The allies were fighting to push the Germans from a ridge in front of the village of Passchendaele, in northeast Belgium, to cut off the enemy from nearby ports which served as crucial supply lines.

The 38th Battalion, a group of eastern Ontario regiments and "off the street" men who jointed up as recruits, found themselves in the thick of the misery and mud. 

Dan Mackay, honorary Lieutenant-Colonel, Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

'Unbearable' conditions

But Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, felt the assault was futile given cold, wet weather had set in. Previous fighting in the area — specifically, the first and second battles of Ypres — had turned the terrain into what was described as a "porridge of mud."

The battalion, which had already fought in more than a dozen battles including Vimy Ridge, were beyond weary by the fall of 1917, according to Dan Mackay, the honorary lieutenant-colonel of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa and the curator of the museum devoted to its history. (The battalion later became the Cameron Highlanders.)

Sgt. Robert Percy Barr, a member of the 38th Battalion, was only 19 when he died of his wounds at the battle of Passchendaele. (Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa Museum )

"Passchendaele called upon each member of the battalion to reach down for resources that rarely, rarely [were] called upon, because the conditions were so unbearable," said Mackay.

"Their chances of survival were barely none — and yet they persevered and got through it."

The 38th Battalion was in a reserve position behind other Canadian battalions on the front line on Oct. 30, 1917 when it was heavily shelled by German forces. Fifty-four members were killed and 85 were wounded.  

One of the dead was 19-year-old Sgt. Robert Percy Barr from Oxford Mills, south of Ottawa.

One month earlier, he'd been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in a charge of bombers."

Barr's citation when he was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

"At a critical moment he established a block on an exposed flank, and with great gallantry and determination, held in check superior numbers of the enemy until artillery support could be obtained," his citation read.

The ability to fight, said Mackay, even when a soldier knew it was futile, was maintained by a simple guiding principle: comradeship.  

299 awards for bravery

"It was all about morale and men saying 'I have a job to do,'" Mackay said.

Some of the 299 awards for bravery given to members of the 38th battalion, however, were for actions not associated with combat.  

"Some acts of valour were simplistic, like one lieutenant who received the Military Cross because he was in charge of the mule train which brought supplies up to the soldiers. And he had to come up through the mud through a heavy military barrage from the Germans," Mackay said.

Death at Passchendaele, like in other battles in France and Belgium, came not just from an enemy shell or machine gun.  

The land at Passchendaele had been shelled for three years. The drainage system was destroyed, turning the land into a series of lakes and churned-up mud, Mackay said. 

Wooden planks called "duck boards" were placed to traverse the mucky mess. 

"Unfortunately, it was impossible to move across this ground," said Mackay. "And if a soldier's wool overcoat was caked in mud — plus carrying all his heavy equipment — and if for some reason he slipped off a duck board, he would fall into one of the holes and would drown." 

Members of the 38th Battalion of Ottawa are pictured on Parliament Hill. (Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa Museum)

Amidst the horror and devastation, there were moments of humour, Mackay said. For instance, one private wrote in his diary about an unusual shower several days before the October 30 attack. 

"It was a 10-second shower, with six other people in the same trench," said Mackay. 

"They were also issued a new pair of underwear that had been thoroughly boiled and rolled to kill all the vermin that existed in them. But [the private] noted it was somewhat disconcerting to find the remains of the vermin locked into the seams of the underwear."  

While the allies captured Passchendaele in late fall of 1917, it was a victory that underscored the futility and inhumanity of war, Mackay said.

It was also short-lived, as the Germans recaptured the ridge five months later.

Pastoral farmland has become hell on earth, and thousands of Canadians are dying in it. 13:08