July 31 this year marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), a battle that need not have been fought as it had no strategic purpose. It was British Field Marshal Douglas Haig's attempt to get a victory to end off 1917. He was responsible to his political masters in London and they craved for an Allied victory. British Second and Fifth armies had been toiling 2 1/2 months before Haig finally put the call out for the Canadians to assist. Dug in at Vimy, the entire Canadian corps under its commander General Arthur Currie moved 40 km north to Flanders. In the incessant rain the Canadians worked tirelessly to build shelters and dug-outs, difficult as the water table here was very high and its natural drainage had been destroyed by enemy artillery -- it was a sea of mud everywhere. Roads were impassable and moving heavy artillery forward was near impossible. With every shell fired the gun would sink further into the mud, which necessitated moving it to a drier wooden platform if possible and re-aiming.
When General Currie surveyed the battle area his conclusion was not to attack. It would achieve no purpose and by his estimation it would cost 16,000 Canadian casualties. Currie's advice was ignored by Haig and he was ordered to plan his attack to take the ridge line and the small village of Passchendaele atop it. Currie planned an assault in 4 phases, each with limited objectives. In previous battles Currie ordered his troops forward as close to zero hour as possible, however at Passchendaele he wanted his assaulting formations in the forward area 2 days in advance, as they had to negotiate so much mud, and by being early they could (hopefully) get some rest.
Currie called on his 1st and 2nd Divisions for the bulk of the fighting leaving the 3rd and 4th to lay duckboards or bathmats (wooden structures much like ladders to lay on the mud to create dry paths, but they kept sinking and needed constant replacing), repair trenches, bring up food and remove the wounded. The 75th, part of the 4th Division took on this role. Over the five weeks at Passchendaele, the 75th had 18 fatalaties, and numerous wounded, mostly from shelling. The Menin Gate in Ypres bears the names of 55,000 missing from the British Commonwealth armies in the fighting in Belgium. Among those names are 8 of the 75th Battalion.
The Canadians were successful, as if there was any doubt; Haig got his victory and the Canadian corps returned to Vimy.
Fast forward to March 1918 - The Germans had one last big push or offensive thrust in March of the next year and the British who now stood tall on Passchendaele ridge withdrew from the ridge and the village under the German advance. When Currie heard of this he fumed to Haig that the British had given up far too easily and that the work from the previous autumn was all in vain. But Haig got his victory in 1917. Thus was the total futility of the Great War and some of its commanders who simply refused to listen and to learn.
photo 1 - removing the wounded
photo 2 - site of the Canadian memorial (at the time Crest Farm) and the jumping off point for phase 4 of the battle
photo 3 - TSR contingent visit Passchendaele, July 2015
photo 4 - Tyne Cot British Commonwealth Cemetery -- there are over 11,000 graves here - it was also the place where a remembrance service with members of the Royal Family which took place earlier this week.