When Britain went to war in Europe, August 1914, Canada (a member of the British Empire) found itself at war too. WWI at that time was a stalemate of fighting in the trenches along the Western Front, a heavily defended 1000 kilometre long network of trenches stretching across Belgium and northern France; this stretched from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland. On one side – France and Britain (along with their allies, including Canada). On the other – Germany. Separating them – “No Man’s Land”, containing the “refuse” of war: barbed wire, craters from artillery and mortar shells, sometimes the wounded caught in the space…
In the fall of 1917, the Canadian Corps was sent to Belgium. The purpose was to relieve the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces as well as to participate in the final push to capture Passchendaele. The commander of the Corps, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, was shocked by the conditions of the terrain. The mud, flat terrain, and lack of preparation time, along with the lack of artillery support, would make this battlefield far different than the one the Canadians had encountered previously at Vimy Ridge.
Though he tried to avoid having the Corps fight there, Currie was overruled. He prepared as carefully as he could and the offensive began on October 26th, 1917. Advancing through the mud and enemy fire was extremely slow; there were heavy losses as the soldiers continued to move forward. With the terrain, success was often made possible by individual acts of heroism to move past areas of especially stiff enemy resistance. Despite this, Canadians reached the outskirts of Passchendaele on October 30th.
A few days later, on November 6th, the Canadians and British launched a plan to capture the ruined village of Passchendaele. The attack went according to plan; the task of actually capturing the village was given to the 27th Battalion (City of Winnipeg) and they achieved it that day. The last phase of the battle took place on November 10th; the Canadians attacked and cleared the Germans from the eastern edge of Passchendaele Ridge prior to the halt of the campaign. Canadians had succeeded despite enormous challenges.
This fighting took great courage. Indeed, nine Canadians earned the Victoria Cross. Singled out were the heroic actions of Major George Pearkes of the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Despite a leg wound, he led a few dozen of his men through heavy enemy fire across open ground to capture a strategically located farm. They fought off many counter-attacks for over a day; this prevented the Germans from destroying the main advancing Canadian force from their vulnerable flank side. However, Canadians paid a high price. More than 4000 soldiers died; 12,000 were wounded.
The Canadian victory at Passchendaele was indeed impressive and contributed to “our nation’s growing reputation as having the best offensive fighting force on the Western Front. This status meant that our forces would be at the forefront of the series of advances that eventually won the war for the Allies a year later. Canada’s great sacrifices and achievements on the battlefields of Europe indeed gained our country a new respect on the international stage. This esteem helped earn us a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the First World War.”