The Maple Leaf

12 November 2008
Vol. 11, No. 38

Passchendaele cemented Canada’s world role

Historian Norman Leach, who has written a book on the battle of Passchendaele, was recently interviewed by Army News’ Sergeant Robert Comeau.

Army News
What was the battle of Passchendaele?

Mr. Leach
Passchendaele started in July 1917 and rolled through until November. The Canadians really had a seminal role in the last ten days, the taking of the ridge. It’s equivalent to Vimy in terms of heroics and Canada fighting as a country.

Army News
Why did the ridge have to be taken?

Mr. Leach
Field Marshall Douglas Haig—commander of the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 to the end of the war— was in trouble.

Firstly, the Communists were coming to power in Russia. If Russia withdrew from the war, which it ended up doing, it would free a million men from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, and no general wants to face a million new men on the field.

Secondly, the submarines that were operating out of the north part of Belgium were devastating the shipping in the English Channel and Britain was running short of food.

Thirdly, the French were almost in full mutiny. The only way the officers could get them to stay in the trenches was to promise that they would not be ordered to attack for six months.

Field Marshall Haig had to get a breakthrough in northern Belgium, at Passchendaele.

Army News
What were conditions like at Passchendaele?

Mr. Leach
At the opening battle, the ground was dry and firm. The problem started in August with the worst rains in 30 years. The water table on the battlefield is only about a metre below the surface and it needs a complicated set of trenches to drain. Millions of artillery shells and rain created a quagmire. Battlefield conditions were the worst possible for infantry or equipment.

Army News
How did the soldiers cope?

Mr. Leach
The average Canadian soldier weighed about 140 pounds [63.5 kilograms], 150 pounds [68 kg] max. Fully kitted out, they carried 55 pounds [25 kg] of gear on their backs. Slugging through the mud, they would put on another 50 to 70 pounds [22.5 to 32 kg]. You can imagine a 140-pound [63.5-kg] soldier lugging 120 pounds [54.5 kg] on his back. In fact, men would fall into the shell holes and drown in two, three, four feet [a half a metre, a metre, one-and-a-half metres], of water. The weather got cold. The latitude is sort of like Calgary and so by late October there’s frost on the ground.

Army News
How important was Canadian participation at Passchendaele?

Mr. Leach
That was hugely important. The Canadians were so good at fighting the enemy that the Germans called them “storm troopers” because they came on like a storm. Canada’s position in the war had changed by then and Field Marshall Haig did not order General Currie to Passchendaele, but invited him.

Army News
General Sir Arthur Currie—commander of the Canadian Corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force—was initially reluctant to become involved in Passchendaele. Were his concerns valid?

Mr. Leach
They were somewhat valid, there’s no question. Canadians were tired and now had a reputation of winning the toughest battles. So, for the average foot soldier, it was kind of scary to get the call that they were going to another one, because they knew it wasn’t going to be easy. And so the soldiers had to steel themselves, but they were tough, tough men.

Army News
What was the Canadian strategy for taking the ridge?

Mr. Leach
General Currie used the “bite and hold”, taking a little piece, consolidating it, taking another piece of land, consolidating it, and inching forward over the 10 days. The Canadians never stopped and were never turned back; they just kept moving forward, piece by piece.

Army News
Was the battle a success?

Mr. Leach
It certainly was from the Canadian point of view. They got to the top of the ridge in 10 days. They did what others couldn’t do in three months. But it was costly – 15 564 casualties. They got to the ridge, they held it. Feldmarschall Eric Ludendorff—the chief manager of the German war effort—writing in his memoirs later, said the defeat of Germany started at Passchendaele where the Germans suffered 300 000 casualties, dead and wounded. The battle drained their reserves to such a point that they couldn’t replace them fast enough.

Army News
Canadian soldiers were widely known as the “shock troops” of the British Empire during the First World War. How did our actions at Passchendaele contribute to this view?

Mr. Leach
General Currie hadn’t been trained at the classic sort of command schools, so he looked at each problem differently than the standard officer did. And so the Canadians started doing something that no one else had done. They would go back about five kilometres from the battlefield and practise.

The men had maps when none of the other armies— the Germans included—trusted their men with maps. They were worried that the maps would fall into enemy hands and would give it away. The Canadians were told where they had to be and when. This really helped if you lost an officer or a non-commissioned officer, a sergeant for example, because they would know where to go. Each of them knew the next destination, they would take it and hold it and wait. We developed the creeping barrage. The British started to adopt the proven Canadian tactics.

Army News
What would you say in conclusion?

Mr. Leach
Passchendaele cemented Canada’s role in the world and made us an equal player with the British and with the French, and that’s a huge change from 1914, when the British army just wanted to separate all the Canadian units and use them as reserve forces. If Vimy was the forging of a nation, Passchendaele was the tempering of it. It meant we were now a full-fledged nation.