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The forgotten battle of Passchendaele
« on: November 23, 2007, 12:32:16 PM »
A few small obvious problems with the article, but interesting.


Andrew Chung
Staff Reporter

Like that old axiom about riddles, enigmas and mysteries, perhaps some of the soldiers bogged down in the World War I fight for Passchendaele saw in the battle futility, wrapped in recklessness, wrapped in death.
At least that's how the hindsight of history remembers it.
The drive for the tiny, already burnt-out Belgian village, which would offer little in the way of a prized capture, had already annihilated entire divisions of exhausted Britons, Australians and New Zealanders. Morale was sinking as troops watched their comrades fall into giant craters in the earth, and drown in the muddy water.
Perhaps this is one reason why so few Canadians know about the battle for Passchendaele, which finished 90 years ago yesterday, and carries such a frustrating dual legacy. Like a serpent's forked tongue, Passchendaele was a victory; the Canadians succeeded where others failed. But, at the same time, it was the Great War's low point for the Allies, clouded in controversy and mired in seemingly useless death.
Passchendaele, nevertheless, deserves a more prominent place in our collective consciousness, many argue, not simply because of the wrenching fact that 16,000 Canadians were cut down, but for the thousands who fought in spite of the toll.
"For courage this is probably Canada's greatest battle," says Norm Christie, author of two books on Passchendaele and whose grandfather participated in the battle working with the field ambulance. "We had better planned and executed battles, but for the Canadians, to be able to take that little piece of Belgium is just phenomenal.
"It was won on pure tenacity. Small groups of men were always breaking through," he says.
Nine members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Passchendaele received Victoria Crosses, the highest award in the Commonwealth for military bravery. That's more than in all of World War II.
One of those was Toronto's Colin Fraser Barron, a corporal with the 3rd battalion whose story symbolizes this country's efforts at Passchendaele.
The Canadians were trying to break through the German line and take Passchendaele village and ridge. But rain had turned the shelled earth into a torn-up, impenetrable morass. The slimy mud swallowed their boots, sometimes their thighs. Soldiers gained ground painfully slowly, and at great cost.
Just outside Passchendaele, at the hamlet of Goudberg, it seemed as if each side had hammered each other into a standstill.
Typical for this cursed battle: no one was going anywhere.
They were outside a fortified farmhouse benignly named Vine Cottage. Germans were machine-gunning anyone who approached.
But the enemy didn't see Barron worming, inching his way ?mirroring the campaign in general ? toward the house. When he was near enough, he lobbed several mill bombs inside. He rushed in and turned the guns on those fleeing. The Canadians advanced.
Then there was Pvt. Tommy Holmes ? from Owen Sound, later settling in Toronto ? who, at 19, again broke a stalemate and ran like a man with a death wish across no man's land, throwing grenades into a pillbox ? concrete bunkers the Germans fashioned on the battlefield to protect their troops. He knocked out the machine guns and
Historians agree that it was efforts like these that allowed the Canadians to seize Passchendaele after two weeks of fighting.
But despite the tactical victory, it led to none of the strategic objectives envisioned, such as the re-taking of the Belgian ports that Germans were using for their fearsome U-boats.
"This is why Passchendaele is almost the shorthand for the futility of the First World War," says Tim Cook, World War I historian at the Canadian War Museum.
Largely regarded as a failure, Passchendaele was, in the end, merely a symbolic victory, says Cook. "It's pretty much a disaster, it's the lowest point in the war."
Why is Vimy Ridge remembered ? the great monument in France was re-dedicated earlier this year ? and Passchendaele all but forgot?
"It was a battlefield of despair, the place where soldiers went to die in the mud," Cook says. "Vimy is our success story, where we attacked together and we succeed."
Passchendaele reflects a kind of "black hole" in our memory, says military historian Jack Granatstein. "Canadians have recently come to think that Vimy won the war, and that anything that followed after was unimportant. I think that's part of our desire to mythologize victory at Vimy and give ourselves a very important role in the war.
"But that neglects a few other very important battles," Granatstein says ? such as the victories during Hundred Days offensive at the end of the war in 1918, which had a real impact. Arguably, he says, neither Vimy nor Passchendaele really did.
By the time of Vimy, the Canadian corps became known as an elite fighting force, an idea reinforced by the victories at Hill 70 and Passchendaele, among others. Then-British prime minister Lloyd George once said, "Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst."
In fact, actor Paul Gross points out, the Germans even coined the word "storm trooper" {I believe this to be mis-translated and should be "shock troops"}  to refer to the Canadians.
Gross says that since the 1970s, the idea of teaching military history became controversial, tantamount to being "pro-war." And we became peace keepers rather than infantries. "But our actual military history is that we were ferocious fighters, the most feared of the Allied troops."
Gross has just wrapped up shooting a new $20 million feature film called Passchendaele, which he wrote, directed and stars in, and should be released next fall. He says it doesn't shy away from the sheer brutality of the battle.
The Canadians weren't shrinking violets on the battlefield. Written and oral histories point out the desire to kill the enemy at all costs, how forthright they were in stabbing with their bayonets a German who was shooting all the way up until his enemy was in his face, before he'd put his hands up in surrender.
Perhaps they were too effective. At Passchendaele, the British field marshal, Douglas Haig, turned to them to deliver him a victory and save his job. Already there were hundreds of thousands of Allied casualties, yet he was willing to risk more, despite the protests of Canadian commander, Gen. Arthur Currie.
"There is argument about whether Haig was brilliant or an idiot; I'm more inclined to the latter," Granatstein says. "This was Haig at his stubborn, stupid worst."
Canadians could be enraged at the scope of death for such little gain. But Haig was motivated by belief, says military historian Desmond Morton.
"He believed that God would give him victory if he showed sufficient gumption to prevail."
Currie managed to at least delay the start of the battle, instead preparing the swampy battlefield so troops might actually advance. On Oct. 26, they began. Four Canadian divisions repeatedly launched assaults, only to be pushed back by heavy German fire.
All around them it was the scene of horror: "A few yards away were three green scummed pools," Will Bird wrote in his memoir, Ghosts Have Warm Hands. "White chalky hands reached out of one, and from the farther one a knee stuck up above the filthy water. In another bit of old trench ... a soldier stood rigidly, feet braced apart. He had been killed by concussion, and his body was split as if sliced by a great knife."
Individual feats of bravery carried them forward. And given the high casualties, a sense of fatalism: "They assumed they were going to die," Christie says, "so they had the courage of death pushing them."
Notwithstanding the battle's futility, Haig needed us and the Canadians were there, says Morton, professor emeritus at McGill University.
There are parallels to today, he adds. "Why do we do the heavy lifting in Afghanistan? If you want your side to win, somebody has to do the dirty work."
Still, it's hard to believe the public could countenance as much death in Afghanistan as occurred at Passchendaele. There were 16,000 casualties, and 5,000 dead, in two weeks.
There have been 71 deaths over six years in Afghanistan.
"I think we'd be going through a real gut wrenching discussion in this country," Cook says.
Back then, the Passchendaele deaths still convulsed Canadians, but they were inured to mass death coming out of previous battles, such as at the Somme and Vimy ? where nearly 3,600 soldiers died in four days.
And Morton notes that people were more religious in those days; so death would be less traumatic because it wouldn't have seemed so "final" as it does in a secular society. At least you'd see your loved one again in heaven.
Gross says by remembering Passchendaele we can put our history, and Afghanistan, in context.
"Not that the (current) deaths are acceptable," he says, "but public reaction to it is disproportionate to our history. That's why it's important to know where we come from."

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The forgotten battle of Passchendaele
« on: November 23, 2007, 12:32:16 PM »
Hessen Antique (aff)