A Staff Officer's Revelation: The Traqedu of Passchendaele
"Currie," said Haig," do you realize this is insubordination?" The Canadian Commander knew. But he refused to sacrifice his Corps unnecessarily. Here is the story of what led up to one of the most dramatic episodes of the World War; the story of the French mutiny; of the desperate effort of British troops; of 400,000 British casualties in a cesspool of hell. Colonel Bovey was a staff officer with the Canadian G.H.Q. He knows what the late General Sir Arthur Currie went through.
THE WORLD is filled with rumors of war. The great powers of today are feverishly adding to their armaments just as they were before 1914. Intelligent men are working just as such men were working before 1914 to avert calamity, but unfortunately most people are not intelligent and, still more unfortunately, much intelligence is being applied in the wrong direction. Very soon, at the rate we are going now, another generation of youth will be called upon to immolate itself. It makes very little difference whether that generation suffers and dies for the gods of stupidity, ambition and greed, or fighting a false faith; it will still suffer and it will still die. Before that happens, it is worth taking time to look back twenty years, to see whether in the history of the Great War for Civilization, as our medals œil it, there are not some lessons to be learned. There are few lessons more terrible than those that will be linked for ever with the name of Passchendaele.
Passchendaele was a tragedy with a triple theme. The account of what happened in the late summer and autumn of 1917 is written in parallel columns. One tells of the appalling sufferings of the wounded, of those who died bogged in slime, drowned in the bloody water that filled innumerable shell holes. This perhaps is the side of the story that most of us think of. But an even more saddening column tells of the incapacity of mankind to deal with great issues. Our politicians and our officers may have done as well as men could do, but they were unable to handle the monstrous thing called war. Human weaknesses and human fallibilities were stronger than any strength humanity possessed.
It is only fair that one thing should be explained. It was the custom during the war to attribute praise or blame to the commander who was nominally responsible. It was a custom derived from other days when a general could and did direct and control his forces practically single-handed. In theory, it is true, there had been no change; the
commander of an army was responsible in 1917 as he had been in 1817. That was the polite fiction. In point of fact there had been a very great change, particularly in the British Army.
Commanders were surrounded by technical advisers; they had around them officers of the General Staff and officers of the Administrative Staff; the former responsible for plans and their execution, the latter for supplies, transport, reinforcements and the thousand other details of an army. All the members of the staffs, to whatever commander the individual might be attached, formed a single group and were supposed to be in close touch with one another. The commander who had failed to obtain or, except in extraordinary circumstances, to follow the advice of his staff officers would have incurred a very grave responsibility; indeed he could not have commanded. So when and if we censure this general or that one, we cannot speak of him as an individual but only as the head of a group whose views and opinions centred in him. It is important, moreover, to remember that the staff officers were, as a rule, men who had given some evidence of intelligence and ability and passed through a strict apprenticeship. Their ideas had naturally great weight with the men, frequently less brilliant and less well trained, under whom they served.
Sir Douglas Haig, for example, once spoke of Plumer as “his most reliable Army Commander.” Brigadier-General Charteris, one of Haig’s staff, says that this was “high praise for both Plumer and Harington” (who was the chief of Plumer’s General Staff), “for nobody knows where Plumer ends and Harington begins.”
The French had not gone so far. Their generals retained their individuality; they did not as a rule look for advice, and often did not take it. The results were not always good, but those of the British system were not always good either.
The Gloomy Epic
TO UNDERSTAND the gloomy epic of 1917, we must go back to the earlier days of that dark year.
In February, Germany began ruthless submarine warfare, in spite of the fact that the United States would obviously in consequence join the Allies. One hundred and twenty-three ships were sunk in the first five weeks, 154 in the next month.
On April 3 the American Congress declared war, but even the Germans knew that months would elapse before any considerable American force could be sent to Europe.
On March 8, the Russian Revolution began, and before long it was evident that the Allies could have very small expectations from Russia, although their hopes died hard.
The rulers of Germany felt that they had not only the need but now the opportunity also to reorganize the nation,
to make new arrangements for the provision of men, supplies and munitions; in the meantime they must stand on the defensive. To make this possible, Ludendorf decided to shorten his line on the Western front; and, leaving only a sufficient garrison to contest the advance of his opponents, he moved his army back. At the conclusion of the operation the Germans had left a dangerous salient and held a very strong position on a long shallow curve.
This put the French and British in a difficult situation. General Nivelle, then the French Commander-in-chief and temporarily in command of both French and British armies, had made a plan of campaign involving a British attack eastward which should draw the German reserves away from the French front, and a French attack northward to exploit the expected British victory.
These attacks were still made; the battle of Vimy was part of one. The British gained a certain amount of ground, at a very high cost, and then came to a standstill. The French failed altogether. This failure was due to three factors. The German retirement had increased the difficulties of the intended movement so that even Petain and Micheler, then Nivelle’s subordinates, were opposed to it; the Germans obtained full details of the plan; Nivelle made the dreadful error of using men where he should have used projectiles.
France was sunk in gloom. Political defeatists made the most of Nivelle’s lack of success and many of them were
serving in the army. In time more soldiers learned of the dissensions among the generals; they learned of the capture of the plans; that the battle had gone ahead in spite of that, and what it had cost in men’s lives; they learned that the medical service had been botched; and, with a considerable amount of reason, they showed their disapproval.
French Troops Mutiny
r~PHE TROUBLE began in May. Rioting soldiers behind A the line shouted “A bas la guerre, plus de boucheries.” (“Down with the war, no more butcheries.”) Camps were placarded with notices declaring that the men could not go back to the trenches; one battalion refused to advance: there were many mutinies and there were more than 21,000 desertions in the year. Soldiers on leave passed on the news to civilians, and there were strikes everywhere. The whole country was getting into a dangerous state. The French Government took action. After much consideration Nivelle was superseded by Petain, with Foch as Chief of Staff. Petain took steps to stop the spread of the revolt and began by visiting the camps where trouble had arisen. He promised that there would be no more attacks of the type which had caused such losses. He also promised more rest and more leave, and saw that his men got both.
It is impossible to condemn the French poilus. They had
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The Tragedy of Passchendaele
Continued from page 11—Starts on page 10
borne the brunt of the war in the first years; they had fought for next to no pay with indomitable pluck; they had undergone every kind of hardship. They had suffered in one badly organized attack after another, and considered that they had the best of reasons to distrust their leaders. If it had not been for their burst of resentment we may well believe that the same methods would have been continued and that the genius of Foch would never have had its chance.
The Marshals Disagree
NOW BEGINS one column of the story of Passchendaele. the column which records our sad inability to cope with great problems. Distinguished sailors and soldiers had clear views; and all of them were wrong, and the rest of us might well have made the same mistakes.
Sir Douglas Haig and his staff had been thinking of an attack on the northern part of the line for a long time. We have Haig’s own statement for it. By 1916 they had made up their minds that if they could once get well to the east of Ypres, the Germans would have to evacuate the Belgian coast.
In early May the project had been discussed at Paris at a meeting where the Prime Ministers of Britain and France, Haig. Nivelle, who was in process of being superseded, Petain, who was superseding him, and two admirals, Jellicoe and Lacaze, were all present. It had then been agreed that the Flanders attack should proceed. If the plan was not a good one later it was not a good one then, and the fact that subsequent developments made it impossible does not remove its original flaws. Yet everyone agreed to it.
What happened next in France altered the situation, so far as Passchendaele was concerned, for the worse.
The French Government approved a new plan of campaign proposed by Petain. During the remainder of 1917 the French activities were to be reduced to a series of smaller offensives, with limited objectives. Various more or less official statements have told us that this was due to the Russian collapse, to the need to reorganize munition supply, and to the wish to wait for American aid in 1918. But the need to restore the morale of the French army was an even more important reason.
Petain thought that the British Army should adopt the same tactics as the French and play a waiting game, but the British staff officers did not agree. They had several reasons. They believed sincerely that a further British effort was essential to restore the confidence of France in her ally and in herself, and to prevent the Germans from attacking the weakertgd French or the Italians.
They were pushed on by the efforts of a number of English labor organizers, including Snowden and Ramsay MacDonald, who on May 23 summoned a convention to "follow Russia,” “to establish Democracy in Great Britain,” and by the news thát Germans and Russians were already fraternizing on the Eastern front.
As a result of their own calculations, they believed that by continued fighting they could bring Germany to the end of her man-power resources by the end of the year.
They accepted a view put forward by the Admiralty. They were told—and believed—that it was essential that Ostend and Zeebrugge should be closed by a land operation; that until this was done the submarine menace could not be dealt with; and that, moreover, the Germans could not be prevented from landing on the French coast in the rear of the British forces. Sir William Robertson, then Chief of the Imperial Staff at the War Office, passed on these Admiralty apprehensions to Sir Douglas Haig.
Finally, the British staff had that fixed belief that they could make an attack on the Passchendaele Ridge east of Ypres, break through, and oblige the enemy to abandon the coast altogether. The sketch plan shows what they hoped for.
Not a single reason was valid. The French, at least as good judges as we of what was needed to restore their own morale, did not support the scheme any longer. Foch enquired bluntly "who was it that wanted Haig to go on a duck’s march through the floods to Ostend and Zeebrugge?” Petain declared that the attack was certain to fail. It is just as well that this point should be made dear now. for there have been many misunderstandings over it. Whoever proposed the “Flanders Offensive,” it was not undertaken at the request of the French.
The importance of pacifist efforts in England was obviously exaggerated. Russia as an ally was gone in any case, and nothing could be done to alter that situation.
The calculations as to impending German casualties were inaccurate.
The Admiralty was wrong as to Ostend and Zeebrugge. Sir Roger Keyes proved the next winter that the Channel could be protected while these ports were still open and held by the Germans, and for a month after they had been closed, the German submarine successes increased.
An advance over Passchendaele Ridge was impossible. It may well be asked how anyone could have been expected to know this in advance. The answer is not that it should have been known—for nothing of the future can be known—but that the odds were wrongly measured. Here, too, our human element, with all the will in the world to succeed, failed hopelessly. Did Sir Henry Wilson, whose diary shows that he, almost alone among our senior officers, was not optimistic, understand the difficulties? Even he does not say so, but he never had much knowledge of front line warfare. Did Petain and Foch realize the problem? Probably not, or Foch’s comment would have been even more pointed. It is quite certain that Sir Douglas Haig and his advisers had few doubts. We should hardly have found them saying, as they did, in their orders; "In the operations subsequent to the capture of the Passch'endaele-Staden Ridge, opportunities for the employment of cavalry in masses are likely to occur.” By the time we had a foothold on the ridge, it was surrounded for miles by such a sea of mud and blood that neither horses nor men could move in it.
But, with all those reasons which they believed had a bearing on the matter, British General Headquarters were ready to go ahead.
One thing was necessary. The scheme involved what was, a little callously, called "using up man power” as well as using up munitions, and the consent of the War Committee of the Cabinet was essential. The pressure brought upon the War Committee by G.H.Q. and the War Office was as strong as possible. Petain’s desire that we should carry out a number of limited offensives was interpreted to mean that the French wanted some strong action on our part. Petain’s doubt as to the wisdom of the Flanders attacks never seems to have been reported. The British staff joined with the French in keeping secret for a long time, even from the British Cabinet, the story of the disaffection in France. Sir Henry Wilson, then the British liaison officer with the French headquarters, was far more concerned over the personal conflict between the leaders, of whom he much preferred Nivelle, than in the psychology of the men who had to fight. In any case it was not his part to communicate with the Cabinet, and Sir Douglas
Haig did all his duty when he passed on his information to the War Office, once he was satisfied of its accuracy. When the facts did get to the War Committee, they were used as a reason for the Flanders offensive. Obviously they were nothing of the sort, they were a reason against the Flanders offensive: but the collective mind of the War Committee was by now thoroughly confused. Mr. Lloyd George tells us that he was opposed to the plan, but that the Admiralty again put forward their argument for capturing the Channel ports, and it was enough to carry the day.
As to the cost in casualties, although we know that comparatively accurate forecasts can be made, in this case there is no indication that any forecast was ever undertaken. It is hard to believe this, but what are the alternatives? If the cost had been calculated and disclosed, then the War Committee would never have agreed to the operations. If it had been calculated and not disclosed Sir Douglas Haig would have been responsible for a breach of faith, which he would never have committed. It was none of Sir Douglas Haig’s business to make these calculations himself, but we are forced to the conclusion that his advisers did not reckon what they were risking, or underestimated the dangers.
The orders later issued by G.H.Q. to the Commander of the five armies which together made up the British Expeditionary Force, bear this out. They were told “the drafts available to replace casualties are limited in number, and in the great struggle before us it is essential that, without in the least degree relaxing the strength and continuity of our efforts, we shall conserve the energy of our officers and men so that we may outstay the enemy.” It could not be done. You cannot fight as hard as you can and preserve the health of your troops. That was still, apparently, to be discovered.
Preparations For Attack
'"THE Passchendaele-Staden Ridge lay to L the eastward of the British line before Ypres. To the left the line ran northwestward toward the sea, to the right was the Messines Ridge which the British took in June by the simple and inexpensive method of blowing most of it up—trenches, defenders and all. This operation had changed the British position at Ypres from an uncomfortable salient to a long curve bent eastward. The left extremity of the line where it reached the sea, was protected by miles of marshes which had been flooded soon after the beginning of the war. That section had been held by the French since the line became stabilized, and was still held by them. Next on their right came the Belgians on-what was left of their own soil, then the British Fifth Army and the British Second Army. An arrangement was made with the French by which the seaward sector was taken over by the British. This was with the object of making a combined sea and land attack in which semi-amphibious tanks were to be used. Other French troops, their First Army, took over a sector between the Belgians and the British Fifth Army, which now held about eight miles of line. It was to this Fifth Army, under Sir Hubert Gough, that Haig entrusted the work in hand, and the French were to support him.
Most of the area was a wet level, with next to no natural drainage. The Flemish farmers had filled it with drain pipes and brought it under cultivation. The artificial drainage made the ground passable, but no more. What the bombardments were to do to it was still to be found out, although it might have been guessed beforehand. At the northeastern end of the slope was a long low hill stretching roughly north and south; that was the Passchendaele Ridge, the first objective of the great Flanders offensive.
All the preparations took time. Apart from the movements of troops, which could not be fast, especiallv with so many changes between French and British, there
was much to be done. Roads had to be built; artillery had to be massed; ammunition had to be gathered; casualty clearing stations and hospitals had to be prepared; telegraph lines had to be run, and railway sidings had to be built. The artillery concentration was larger than had ever been organized. On the Fifth Army front there was at the outset one gun to every six yards, on the French front one to every 2 yards.
The Germans in the meantime had been fully apprised of every step taken. They knew of the decisions as to a Flanders attack which had been made at Paris; they knew of the change of French policy; and before the middle of June, Prince Rupprecht, who commanded the group of armies in Flanders, had gathered from the reports he received exactly what was taking place. He made most careful preparations, strengthening his line by the construction of reinforced concrete “pillbox” redoubts, collecting guns and adding to his troops.
On July 10 he attacked on the coastline and put an end to the possibility of the projected sea and land operation there.
By July 15 the Germans were quite ready, and on that day the British and French bombardment began. The British first endeavored to destroy the German trench line; the French began by trying to knock out the German batteries. But it is hard to knock out batteries which will not shoot—you cannot find them—and on a single day of the preparation the Germans only fired 4,000 shells to the French 75,000.
Then the Germans, with an uncanny certainty as to what we were doing, moved their guns back, and the batteries had to be discovered all over again. Their guns had a far longer range than ours, so they were taking no risks. The attack which had been fixed for the 25th was put off until the 28th. General Anthoine, who commanded the French, asked for still more delay. Delay was dangerous. Flanders is a rainy country. Unless the fine weather held, our chances of success would be reduced to almost nothing—we were already gambling with the odds against us —but it was impossible to refuse Anthoine’s request and the delay was agreed to.
Throughout all the early preparations as well as during the later operations, the British artillery suffered more than in any other campaign. Their positions were wide open; they were shelled and bombed continuously, and the ground which they had to use was appalling.
If the Germans did not disclose all their positions by firing all their guns, the fire they did use was extremely effective and unpleasant. They introduced us to shells which drenched a whole area with “mustard oil.” This did not kill, but it burned and blistered and put men completely out of action. It spread from one soldier to the other; it affected doctors and nurses; it lay in the ground and was released when the soil was dug into. The soldiers “stuck it” nobly. One military apologist takes less note of the horrible pain and discomfort than of the fact that there were few “selfinflicted casualties!”
The Attack—and Rain
VWJTHIN a fortnight, German, French Y V and British shells had churned up most of the area over which we were to fight; the Flemish drain pipes were broken into millions of fragments. The odds of fine weather were already against us; now we had loaded the dice against ourselves.
On July 31 the attack began. The first day was fairly successful. The British took 6,000 prisoners and gained most of their objectives on the left. On the right, they gained little and the casualties were heavy.
On July 31 it began to rain. There are military writers who claim that this was a setback which could not have been expected. August, 1917, was wetter than usual, it is true, but it was no wetter than August, 1915; and the months of July, August and September, 1917, taken to-
gether, were less wet than they had been in 1914,1915 or 1916. Some of the General Headquarters staff knew well enough what the secret gamble was. Brigadier-General Charteris says on August 11, "All my fears about the weather have been realized. It has killed this attack.”
The rain persisted, on and off, for days, then it showed signs of improvement and on August 16 a new attack was launched. The Fifth Army now consisted of the following "Corps,” from left to right, XIV, XVIII, XIX and II. (An Army Corps consisted of several "Divisions,” each under the command of a MajorGeneral with his own staff. A Corps might contain 100,000 to 150,000 troops, of whom about half were infantry and quarter were artillery. These figures varied according to requirements.) The Und corps on the right was to be supported by tanks. These could not reach it because of the mud, and the infantry had to get on as well as it could without them. The XIXth corps took the brunt of a counterattack and was forced back to its original position. Corps II and XVIII had to give up some of their hard-earned gains to conform to the XIXth, and finally, the only real gain was the capture of Langemarck, on the left.
There were other attacks on August 22 and 27, less ambitious, but very little more successful.
Slime and Blood
TZ> Y THE END of August the battle area U had become almost impassable. The drainage system once broken, there was nothing to carry off the surplus water and it turned the ground into a sea of mud, broken by shell holes, full of yellow ooze, too often stained with blood. How many soldiers were drowned in those abominable pits, God alone knows. Staggering, worn and perhaps wounded, through the clinging slime, a man fell into one and all was over. How much of this was realized at G.H.Q. it is impossible to say. Major Liddell Hart tells us that one "highly placed officer,” when he paid his first visit to Passchendaele after the battle was over, burst into tears, crying, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that!” Brigadier-General Baker Carr had one interview at G.H.Q. in which he told of the conditions. The reply was that things could not be as bad as he made out. "Have you been there yourself?” "No.” "Has anyone in Operation Branch been there?” “No.” Brigadier-General Charteris, who did see the line at the beginning of August, reported that it was a quagmire. And it had got worse and worse.
The British casualties in July and August were almost 160,000. Those deaths, wounds and drownings in the mud were the share of the line officers and men in the great Flanders offensive. At one spot we had advanced two miles !
The German success in defense was very largely due to the fact that they held the front line with a light garrison ensconced in "pill-box” forts so strongly built that only a direct hit from the largest guns would destroy them. As soon as an attack started the German artillery met our troops with a storm of shell; the "pill-box” garrisons sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, while supports and reinforcements were machine-gunned at close range by low-flying airplanes. Only the most incredible courage and endurance ever got the British troops as far as they did get.
In September the British tried a new system of attack, marked by the first arrival of the Australians. The General Headquarters staff still believed in our ultimate success. Sir Douglas Haig told an officer of the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps that if they could keep up their efforts through September we should have the Germans beaten.
Extraordinarily careful arrangements were made. The troops were to advance for short distances on broad fronts; their advance was to be prepared and covered by a meticulously arranged barrage of artillery fire. The ground to be occupied
for assembly was marked out by tapes. Each unit and each man was to know what to do and where to go. Everything was to go like clockwork.
The attack was set for September 20, at 5.40 a.m. Before midnight it began to rain. Before dawn the Germans captured an officer with complete operation orders. As a result, the advancing troops were met by a barrage. A violent British fire subdued it to a certain extent, but there were heavy losses. In spite of them, the British and Australians achieved their objectives, and such counterattacks as were made were unable to dislodge them. There is, moreover, no doubt that the German losses at this stage were very heavy.
On September 26 came another advance, equally carefully prepared; again British and Australians went ahead a few hundred yards and held their new positions.
The Australians had kept on through September: the Germans were not beaten. The British casualties in September alone were over 70,000, of which over 10,000 were Australian. The writers speak less of them than of the advances.
On October 4 there was another attack of the same type, which forestalled a German attack planned for the same day. It was, we are told, "an overwhelming blow.” “For the first time in years,” says the Official Australian History, “British troops on the Western front stood face to face with the possibility of decisive success.” The Army Commanders were not so sure. On October 5 they had a conference with the Commander-in-Chief and his staff, and most of those at that conference wanted to stop fighting for the year.
Finally the decision was made to stake everything on a last throw on October 9. At least one G.H.Q. officer, on October 8, observed, "Unless we have a very great success tomorrow, it is the end for this year as far as Flanders is concerned.”
On October 7 it rained. On October 8 it rained.
October 9 was dark and stormy, but the attack went ahead. It was far from the complete success that the others had been. Preparations were made for another effort on October 12, but the rain put an end to them. As a result, we had a worse line than on October 4 and thousands more casualties.
Currie Defies Haig
WE MUST turn back the clock for a fortnight and look in at another scene. The Commander-in-Chief had sent for Sir Arthur Currie, now in his fourth month as Commander of the Canadian Corps, and Currie had gone to G.H.Q. On the way his mind worked hard, for he knew that the summons presaged some great trial for the Corps. Currie was a softhearted man; however much he might hide that from others by his commander’s manner, he could not hide it from himself. He hated the thought of what men had to endure; he was literally sick after a battle. And he had one principle about fighting. The more rounds the gunners fired before a battle, the fewer lives would be spent for victory; the more roads were built, the easier would be the part of the troops. He knew that General Byng was planning his attack at Cambrai; he knew that Byng had asked for the Canadians, and he knew what had been going on in Flanders.
He reached G.H.Q. and was shown in to Haig. He has told more than once of his interview, and as my memory goes it ran like this:
"Currie,” said Haig, "I am ordering the Canadian Corps to go north. I shall want you to take Passchendaele.”
"Yes, sir,” and the rest of the reply Currie did not tell. He was a simple, direct man; he spoke to any other man as an equal, even if the other man were Commander-inChief. But he ended by asking why Passchendaele had to be taken, what justified the awful cost. "Our casualties will be at least 250 per
battalion, 12,000 for forty-eight battalions. It will cost 3,000 more for roads, 1,000 for service—16,000.” “Currie, a victory is absolutely necessary to the cause of the Allies. Passchendaele must be taken.” Currie still demurred. Could not the Canadians be kept for the Cambrai operation? “No.” Haig told of the depletion of his other divisions. “And Passchendaele must be taken.”
“Very well, sir. But let me say this, if we are to go to that area we shall not fight under any army commander but one we know and who has our confidence. If we go we must fight under Plumer. We know him and we know Tim Harington.” Had any Corps Commander ever undertaken to select the Army Commander under whom he would fight? Probably not.
“Currie, do you realize that this is insubordination?”
“Yes, sir, but I cannot help it. I am responsible for my men and I am not going o see them killed for want of preparation.”
He was fighting a battle; he must make Haig see his point. What happened to him later did not matter. Finally Haig gave way, as most men did when Currie was trying to save lives. He was to win another argument of the same kind next year.
“And there must be plenty of guns, and guns that will shoot,” insisted Currie. “I will not take over emplacements for guns and a lot of disabled artillery. And there must be roads.”
Currie knew what mud was and did not need to go to Passchendaele to see. He pictured that torn-up area in his too vivid imagination. He won those points, too, but it was with a heavy heart that he went back to his headquarters at Camblain I’Abbe.
The Canadians Advance
nPHE CANADIAN CORPS began to move north, and Plumer’s Second Army took over the battle front.
Currie and his staff were handed maps and information about roads and guns; they went to see for themselves. The roads were wrecked. Of the guns shown by their maps any number had been put out of action by German shells, some were half buried in mud, altogether a large proportion were useless. The Canadians held to Haig’s undertakings and insisted that the attack should not take place until the guns had been replaced and roads had been built, and undertook the construction of a plank road up to the line. That cost lives to build, but it saved more.
The plans for the operations were made extremely carefully and we had the experience of Vimy to guide us.
There was an immense artillery preparation, as had been promised. We had a splendid artillery organization, and it was used to the full. The Canadian Corps was on the Passchendaele front for about a month, and in that time fired more than 40,000 tons of shells into the German lines. Every two days we used up, as General McNaughton has pointed out, as much ammunition as was used by the whole British Army in the whole war in South Africa. Had it not been for that preparation, our casualties would have been far higher.
The Canadians fought four battles in the mire. Canadian soldiers showed the same endurance and heroism that the British and Australians and New Zealanders had shown. Two divisions at a time struggled forward through mud and water in the face of artillery and machinegun fire, fought bitterly among the German pill boxes, gained their objectives and held them through sleepless nights lit by fiares and the flash of shells, and through days sodden by rain, until relief came.
The Canadian Corps had been told to
take Passchendaele. So we took Passchendaele.
And that ended the “Flanders Offensive.”
The total British casualties in October and November were over 180,000, of which the Canadians’ share was 17,000.
There were many other battles during the Great War in which the Canadian casualties were far higher in proportion to the number of troops engaged, and it has always been an astonishing fact that so many Canadians have picked on Passchendaele as a time of disproportionate losses. But 17,000 killed and wounded was a high price to pay for anything. Why was it paid?
Why the Price?
■pOR US the capture of Passchendaele ■L was the climax of the story. It was an anticlimax, although we did not know it. Nothing could have brought about the success of the “Flanders Offensive.” G.H.Q., writing for Sir Douglas Haig, reports in December: “In view of other projects which I had in view, it was desirable to maintain the pressure on the Flanders front for a few weeks longer.” No one knows apparently what G.H.Q. had in mind; in any case, no one has explained this phrase. The object cannot have been, as some writers indicate it was, the success of Lord Byng’s future operation at Cambrai, which had been deferred for months because G.H.Q. were using up all the troops which would have made that operation possible. The object was not the value of Passchendaele itself from a tactical point of view. They knew that to be nil, as was shown by G.H.Q.’s order issued on December 13, which stated that the position was not a good one. “These salients,” said the order, “are unsuitable to fight a decisive battle in.” There was some reason, we cannot doubt, or Sir Douglas Haig would never have signed the dispatch, whoever wrote it. One thing is worth noting. Haig does not say at this point that the operation was necessary for the support of the French.
We do know that, early in October, Haig had a report from Gough, who still talked of using the Cavalry Corps. The Commander-in-Chief may have had some such thought in his mind, but it is obviously unfair that we should assume it. The Cavalry Corps could not have gone through the mud, and if it could no artillery could have got ahead through the mud to support it. For all that, the cavalry was brought up to Ypres. We do know that, at a conference held on October 2 with the Army Commanders, Haig had decided to send fresh troops to Passchendaele, among them the Canadians. And
those facts are all that we are likely to know.
What was the final reward for all the heroism and suffering of the British Armies in Flanders? There lies the most terrific irony of all.
The great attack ended, as the chances had always been that it would end, without attaining its main objective—the capture of the coast.
Can it be said that the British armies were successful in protecting our Allies? I have already noted that the French never asked for protection of such a kind, and at such a cost. The British army, so weakened, was a danger to France. We did not save the Italians from the disaster of Caporetto.
The operation did not facilitate a success elsewhere along the line; it made such a success impossible. There is no need to emphasize here the fact that General Byng, in his offensive at Cambrai, started when Passchendaele was over, proved that a different method used in a different place could have succeeded. He failed because he could not get enough artillery and because there were no divisions left in reserve to exploit his first success. That is another story.
The total British and Dominion casualties in killed and wounded from July to November including the casualties at Cambrai were about 400,000.
The Germans are said to have lost about 230,000.
Over eighty per cent of the dead and wounded 400,000 were infantrymen; that number was almost two thirds of the average total infantry strength of the British and Dominion Forces.
It takes men as well as time to rebuild an army, and all through the winter G.H.Q. called on the Home Government for reinforcements to strengthen their ruined divisions. The reinforcements were not there. And when, next spring, the Germans staged their last great attack and the Fifth British Army, then at the south end of the British line instead of at the north, with weakened units and no reserves, was shattered into fighting but helpless fragments, the war was all but lost.
That was the main consequence of Passchendaele. We cannot blame Haig. We have seen that he was not alone responsible for the scheme that his advisers planned as much as he, that our Allies at one time approved it, that the Admiralty demanded it, that the War Committee of the Cabinet accepted. But war was too great a thing for them all; therefore the scheme failed—and war will sometimes be too great a thing for any successors they may ever have.