Wednesday 26 October 2011

Five Miles of Mud

“Nevertheless, the competence, confidence, and maturity began in 1915 at Ypres a short distance away, and at Vimy Ridge earlier that spring, again confirmed the reputation of the Canadian Corps as the finest fighting formation on the Western Front.”

So wrote esteemed Professor of History Doctor Ronald Haycock at the Royal Military College of Canada.  How did a small country like Canada with a virtually non-existent military, not only build an army, but a convincing one, in the years 1914 to 1918?  With a victory at Vimy Ridge, the Canadians were in fighting form when they were asked to fight the Germans at Passchaendale, a task that both the British and Australians had failed to do, eventhough they had been trying for three months.  When the Canadians arrived in late October of 1917, all of that changed.  Led by Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadians slowly took foot by square foot of land on a swampy area that had filled with water.  Shelling had destroyed the drainage system and the existing water was just soaking into the ground, making it nothing but a quagmire of yellow mud.  Some soldiers and horses even drowned in the quicksand-like earth.  It was impossible to dig trenches in the mud and so troops built concrete pillboxes instead. 

For some time, it looked like the battle would be a stalemate, but eventually the Canadians gained ground, but at a high price.  They were able to secure 5 square miles of mud, but at the cost of 15, 654 soldiers; this was a real blow to a country whose whose population stood at just over 8 million at the time.  Australians lost 36, 500 men and the British suffered 310,000 fatalities.  Although the Germans did take Passchaendale one more time, after the battle it was clear that the Canadian Army was a force to be reckoned with.  Nine soldiers were awarded Victoria Crosses for their valour on the Belgian battlefield.

Note:  Canadian actor Paul Gross wrote, directed and starred in a movie called Passchendaele in 2008, loosely based on the experience of his grandfather.

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