An entire century has passed since 16,000 Canadians were killed or wounded fighting to secure the Belgian village of Passchendaele from German forces during WWI.
Many historians have described the two-week battle as ‘Hell on Earth.’
Rob Porkka, a former history teacher and vice principal at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School, says conditions during what is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres were not what people had signed up for. It was desolation and a cratered swamp which not only consumed soldiers in the fall of 1917, but was home to hundreds, if not thousands of unburied ones from past hostilities there.
“There weren’t supplies and it was difficult to get food and support to the front lines. One of the difficulties during that battle was the communications were very poor,” Porkka explains. “It wasn’t very well planned. This is what led to many difficulties and many casualties. There were also different views by the Canadian command about what should happen.”
Historical records show there were disagreements leading up to the battle between General Douglas Haig, who was the Commander of the British armies in Europe, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Canadian Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps’, also considered Haig’s plan reckless and famously predicted 16,000 Canadian casualties, less than 500 off from the final count.
Effectively, it was hoped troops could capture the plateau overlooking the Ypres salient, which would provide a clearer path for the Allied Forces to reach the Belgian shore.
Michael Dawe tells of his grandfather, John Hodgkinson, who fought at Passchendaele and once came off the battle lines with four bullet holes in his uniform, but with no actual wounds. John, his brother Sam Hodgkinson, and Sam Laycock, Dawe’s godfather, all served in the 187th Battalion and all made it home, though not without lasting injury or trauma.
Ted Meeres, another Red Deerian to serve at Passchendaele, was a runner (messenger) according to Dawe. The job was far from easy as Meeres found out one day a shell struck nearby.
“He’s thinking this is what death is like, black nothingness and complete silence. After a while, he’d realized what had happened was the mud was so deep at Passchendaele, the shell came in behind them, but went down into the mud so deeply that it blew up and there was this big buffer of mud. So he was in shock, it blew out his eardrums,” Dawe says. “When you see the shell and think okay that’s it, this is the end of my life and you wake up in this black nothingness, not feeling or hearing anything, you think well this is what death is, and it wasn’t.”
Dawe says though Vimy is revered as a victory, and rightfully so, Passchendaele deserves its due.
“Both came at great costs, but Passchendaele was such a horror that to me, it’s really a tribute to Canadians that they succeeded under such dreadful conditions -- though it’s a tragedy that they were even asked to go through that type of thing. Even Winston Churchill said the battle was ‘a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility.’”
Meanwhile, Porkka believes World War I and World War II will be remembered the same five, 10, 20, and even 50 years from now while more recent conflicts such as Afghanistan will eventually become more part and parcel to modern Remembrance Day ceremonies. 9/11 was a turning point for remembrance, he says.
“Remembrance Day was always observed, but I don’t think students or the general public for that matter really understood the importance of it as World War I, World War II or the Korean conflict were further away,” he says. “I had worked on loan as a teacher for the department of national defence in Germany and saw the Canadian Forces Base. I came back to the school and said we need to do a better job of recognizing Canadian contributions.”
Thus began the well-crafted Remembrance Day ceremony Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School presents to the community each year.
To this day, Dawe points out, there is a ceremony under the Menin Gate in Ypres every night at 8 p.m. to honour all those who fought and died during each of the battles in that region. Week-long commemorations are taking place this year.
“I think when we talk about Passchendaele, it really epitomized the very worst of the First World War, asking people to fight through shear mud with probably a 50/50 or maybe 75 per cent chance that you’re going to be killed or wounded,” Dawe says.
“They went through that, they did what they were asked to do. The courage and the stamina -- I’ve heard the stories, but I can’t imagine what it was like to go through that, but I think it’s really important to think about how those people went through such horrors to fight for our country and for what they believed was right.”
The Battle of Passchendaele ended 100 years ago on November 10. It’s believed 20 soldiers from Red Deer died during that battle.
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