“I died in hell. They called it Passchendaele.”
The town of Ypres, Belgium and its surrounding countryside has special significance to the history of the Canadian Corps. In 1917, this area was the last portion of Belgium that remained outside German control. Little had changed in the region since Second Ypres in April 1915; the British held the city of Ypres while the Germans held the high ground of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge to the south, the lower ridges to the east, and the flat terrain to the north.
On July 31, 1917, British, Australian, and New Zealand forces launched an offensive that would be known as the Third Battle of Ypres. As heavy rains poured down on the thick clay soil, shell holes created by a massive artillery barrage filled with water. Attacking soldiers struggling in deep mud offered easy targets for German gunners, and by some accounts as many soldiers drowned in the heavy mud as died from their wounds. Casualty estimates for the battle, which lasted from July 31 to November 20, 1917, range from 300,000 to 400,000 for the Allies and a roughly equal number for the Germans.
In early October, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps were transferred to the Ypres salient and tasked with the near impossible: capturing Passchendaele and the ridge. The offensive, to be executed in three stages, began on October 26, 1917. In the first stage, the 3rd Canadian Division captured Wolf Copse before reconnecting with the British 5th Army line. In the second stage, beginning on October 30, Canadian units secured a number of objectives and sent patrols into Passchendaele itself. In the final stage, from November 3 to 5, troops of the 1st and 2nd Divisions captured the village of Passchendaele in less than three hours. A final push on November 10 ended the campaign as the Canadians captured the remaining high ground north of the village.
While the Canadian Corps had achieved what no other Allied force had been able to, over 4,000 men died in the effort and 12,000 were wounded. The Third Battle of Ypres bolstered the Canadians’ reputation as storm troops, one of the best fighting forces on the western front. Nine Canadians were recognised with the Victoria Cross for their extraordinary actions in one of the most horrific battlefields ever known.
Library and Archives Canada’s series, First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients will profile each of them over the next three weeks.
Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.