Allies endure hell at Passchendaele

Darrell
Darrell Cole
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I died in Hell (they called it Passchendaele).

Those words by English poet Siegfried Sassoon summed up the sentiments of thousands of young men in describing the horrendous conditions at the Battle of Passchendaele that started 90 years ago this week in 1917.

I died in Hell (they called it Passchendaele).

Those words by English poet Siegfried Sassoon summed up the sentiments of thousands of young men in describing the horrendous conditions at the Battle of Passchendaele that started 90 years ago this week in 1917.

The conditions the men had to endure were unbelievable and the price they paid was steep just to gain a few yards of mud, said Ray Coulson, curator of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum.

Amherst and Cumberland County were both well represented at Passchendaele through the 25th and 85th Canadian Infantry battalions. The names of those who fell there are inscribed on the towns cenotaph.

It came at an awful cost. They would lose tens of thousands of men in frontal assaults and then turn around and do it again, said Coulson.

Local historian John McKay knows all too well the horrors of Passchendaele. His father, John, fought with the 25th battalion and was wounded in October 1918 at Cambrai, spending three years in hospital.

One British officer who went up to see the conditions at the frontline and he cried because he couldnt believe they were sending people to fight in such conditions, McKay said. When they moved they had to lay duckboards on the ground in front of them. If a man got wounded and fell off the duckboards the odds were good that he would drown in the mud.

McKay, who wrote about the battle in his 2003 novelette, Haig: Supreme Commander or Incompetant Butcher, said the Canadians gained such a reputation at Vimy Ridge that British Field Marshal Douglas Haig decided to march them north to take Passchendaele, which by the fall of 1917 had been reduced to a quagmire by heavy shelling and driving rains.

The plan was to drive a hole in the German lines and advance to the Belgian coast, capturing German submarine bases located there. In the end it became a battle of attrition designed to wear the Germans down.

The Canadians, including the 85th and 25th battalions, joined the frontline in mid-October and immediately went into action in the second battle for Passchendaele advancing a few hundred yards at a cost of 12,000 dead and wounded.

After three months of intense fighting, the Canadian Corps captured the village on Nov. 6, 1917. The cost was high with 448,000 Allied dead and wounded, including 16,000 Canadians. The land gained by the Allies at Passchendaele was lost in just three days in early 1918.



dcole@amherstdaily.com

Organizations: North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum, Canadian Corps, Allies

Geographic location: Cumberland County, Vimy Ridge

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