One hundred years ago, in October and November 1917, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (C.E.F.) was engaged in a major battle in what was later known as World War I (1914 – 1918). There were many battles and campaigns in World War I including Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
A description of the Battle of Passchendaele follows:
Hard lessons are learned amid the mud and blood in Belgium.
The Canadians didn’t want to go to Passchendaele. They had been to Belgium’s Ypres Salient before and they knew the near impossible task that lay ahead.
The British under General Sir Douglas Haig had been slogging through an offensive in the area since the summer of 1917. In June, they had detonated nearly one million tonnes of explosives buried under German lines at Messines Ridge. On July 31, they officially launched the Third Battle of Ypres. Heavy German counterattacks, as usual, limited the success of British attacks during the month of August.
Throughout September and October, the British, Australians, and New Zealanders used a series of short, rapid attacks to make some gains, but their objective of capturing Passchendaele ridge — the only high ground in the region — remained elusive. Months of battle and the onset of rain in October transformed most of the battlefield into a quagmire of mud and water that devoured men and material. Nearly every identifiable landmark that could help direct the troops had been ground into the mud.
The Canadians were tasked with capturing what remained of the town of Passchendaele. General Arthur Currie, the Canadian commander, devised a series of four set-piece attacks over a two-week period that would allow them to capture the ridge.
The Canadians advanced through the wasteland toward Passchendaele, slowly clearing each German pillbox and machine gun strongpoint. By capturing Passchendaele, they managed to bring an end to one of the most controversial battles of the war. British commander Haig claimed victory, but the human cost was unimaginably high.
Over the course of four months of fighting, the Germans suffered more than 220,000 casualties, while British and Commonwealth soldiers endured more than 260,000 dead and wounded, including 17,000 Canadians. As if to underline the futility of fighting, nearly all of the territory the Canadians captured in 1917 was recaptured by the Germans during their spring advance of 1918.3
War was declared in 1914 and Canada sent its young men and women to Europe, to serve in the forces, assist the troops, and comfort the wounded. Kelowna sent hundreds of young people to the front. The names of more than 130 men who paid the supreme sacrifice during World War I are inscribed on the cenotaph in Kelowna City Park. These men from Kelowna and surrounding districts – Glenmore, Rutland, Ellison, present-day Lake Country, Okanagan Mission, South and East Kelowna, Westbank, and small communities scattered along the west side of Okanagan Lake – have their names inscribed in perpetual tribute to the high price paid for our freedom.
By Bob Hayes
Robert (Bob) Michael Hayes is a life-long resident of the Okanagan and a descendant of the pioneer Clement and Whelan families. He is a Director of the Lake Country Heritage & Cultural Society, a Life Member of the Okanagan Historical Society and a retired elementary school teacher. This article was previously published in The Daily Courier, November 6, 2017, p. B4.
2 Library and Archives Canada.