by Douglas Phillips
On Saturday, November 11th as a nation we come together around our local and national war memorials at the eleventh hour, and at the eleventh minute, we all pause for a minute’s silence to remember those brave men and women who gave their lives so that we may all live in freedom.
As we mark our 150th Anniversary, a hundred years ago the Canadian Expeditionary Force was knee deep in the mud of Flanders Field as it fought its way up the Passenschendaele Ridge to capture the village of the same name.
With Victories at Vimy Ridge and Hill 70, Canadians were called again to the frontline, three months after the first attacks in July by the British and Australians who had paid with more than 250,000 casualties for an advance of only 5,500 metres.
Known as the Third Battle of Ypres, it later became known as the Battle of Passchendaele, which began with the first attack by the CEF 3rd and 4th Divisions on October 26th, 1917. Three years of fighting on the Ypres Salient had devastated the landscape leaving only skeletons of trees scattered on ground pitted with gaping water-filled shell holes from the continuous bombardment that had destroyed the town of Ypres.
The heaviest autumn rain in 30 years had turned the battlefield in to a quagmire of mud where wounded soldiers were sucked in and drowned, their reaching hands often the only part of them left exposed; a grim reminder of their horrific death. Passchendaele represents the horror of WW1; it was a living hell. I know this firsthand from the words of my grandfather who fought alongside Canadians. My grandfather was awarded the Military Medal for an attack on a German machinegun bunker. He spoke about one missed step on the trench boards and a man disappeared into the mud to be eaten by the large rats the size of small dogs that fed on the rotting corpses.
Fighting continued into the early days of November, and the CEF 1st and 2nd Divisions were called up to lead the final assault on the 6th. At 6 p.m. a heavy artillery barrage exploded across the front and the assaulting infantry advanced through the marshes and up the ridge attacking and destroying German machinegun bunkers. They swept upon the enemy and within three hours they had captured the Village of Passchendaele that had been so long an Allied objective. It was another well planned and decisive Canadian victory that has became part of our heritage.
Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded for the highest acts of bravery, two of them posthumously. The human cost of 11,000 Canadians wounded and 5,000 dead was a very high price to pay for a village that had no buildings standing, just piles of rubble from shelling by both sides.
The memory of this battle can be seen in the cemeteries that surround Ypres. Three kilometers from the Village of Passchendaele is Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world, it contains 12,000 graves of which 70 percent are unidentified that were recovered from the battlefield mud in 1922. On the outskirts of Passchendaele stands the Canadian Memorial at Crest Farm in a parkette surrounded by maple trees. The wounded were first transported to hospitals on the French coast and then to England and finally to Canada to rehabilitation centers like the one in Whitby, Ontario.
The veterans of these battles are long forgotten, just memories from photos and letters and some of us who happened to meet the wounded. I did meet some of these veterans with my grandfather on market day trips. They sat in their wheelchairs by the Market Square suffering from missing limbs and shellshock (today we call it PTSD).
I was reminded of these WW1 veterans during the recent Invictus Games in Toronto. The courage and determination of these wounded warriors who take part in competitive sports, most with missing limbs. As Prince Harry said in the opening ceremony, “you will be moved and inspired by these men and women”. The medals they wore with pride said, “I am the Master of my Fate”. These people are overcoming many injures from recent conflicts, hostilities that are on our television screens every night. As part of Remembrance Day this year, please take the time to say hello and thank you to these extraordinary and special people.
75th Anniversary of Dieppe Raid August 1942
As part of the Invictus Games a special tribute was paid to the Canadians who took part in Operation Jubilee, an attack by the 2nd Canadian Infantry on the north French port of Dieppe in the early morning of 19th August 1942. The objective of the raid was to open a western front in Europe, capture the port and destroy coastal defences. The operation was a disaster, the Canadian force was trapped on the beach by German fire and obstacles. Ten hours later of the men who made it ashore, Canadian casualties were 900 killed, 600 wounded and 1,950 captured who became POWs until liberated in 1945. On the outskirts of Dieppe is the Canadian War Cemetery. The failure of this raid led to better planning by the Allies for the D-Day Landing in France June 6th, 1944.
Highway of Heroes –
A Living Memorial
The Highway of Heroes begins at CFB Trenton, along the 401 to the Coroner’s office in Toronto, that transported our fallen Canadian military and civilians from Afghanistan. Mr. Tony DiGiovanni, Executive Director of Landscape Ontario suggested a reforestation of the Highway of Heroes, and together with Mark Cullen, gardener and author, and 14 non-profit organizations, they have planted a living tribute of 12,200 trees so far. The goal is 117,000 – a tree for every fallen soldier since Confederation. More information can be found at:
Damian van der Velden, a Dutch artist, wanted her war memorial to reflect the horrors and sacrifices faced by soldiers on the mud-soaked battlefield of Passchendaele. Using mud and sand from the actual battlefield, she created The Mud Soldier. This was unveiled in July, 2017 in London’s Trafalgar Square to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Battle. The attached video shows the soldier slowly being washed away by rain. www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJZ_
• The Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War 1964
• For King & Empire. The Canadians at Passchendaele Norm Christie 1999