It happened today - November 6, 2015
On Nov. 6, 1917, the Canadian Corps captured the infamous village of Passchendaele. Or rather, what was left of it after the bloody, brutal, apparently pointless battle to which it has given its name. It’s not exactly Vimy Ridge.
The funny thing is, it’s not exactly not Vimy Ridge either. The battle is often regarded as the epitome of the stubborn, callous, stupid nature of Allied generals in World War I, including thinking it worth persisting in costly attacks until they actually could claim someone in their side’s uniform was standing on the objective that no longer existed and wasn’t worth much anyway and certainly not the incredible toll required to take it. And yet (as I argue in my The Great War Remembered) this rather flippant dismissal of the entire leadership of Western armies in that awful conflict overlooks a number of key points.
First, Germany had attacked its neighbours and occupied and brutalized most of Belgium. It would have been foolish and cruel to let them get away with it, and weak and cowardly to quit a war intended to free this ally just because it was hard.
Second, relentless Allied pressure on the German positions from 1915 through 1917 was wearing them down too. German losses on the Somme, Passchendaele and elsewhere were not just enormous but unsustainable, driving them to gamble on unrestricted submarine warfare that, by bringing the United States into the war, sealed their fate.
Third, like Vimy in the spring, Passchendaele did not merely divert German forces that might have been used to devastating effect elsewhere, including against a French army large parts of which had mutinied in the summer of 1917 and were not prepared to fight until late fall. It also kept driving the Germans back, slowly wearing down not just their army but also their strategic position.
In the spring of 1918, the Germans launched one last desperate offensive, Operation Michael, that broke the Allied lines in a number of places and very nearly did win the war. Without the losses, and pressure, of battles like Passchendaele they might have had that little bit of extra strength needed to take Paris and drive to the English Channel.
Yes, it was a victory purchased at enormous cost, of Canadian and other Allied lives. It was not a glorious battle, to the extent that any battle is glorious. But it was a victory, the product of dogged tenacity, tactical skill and strategic intelligence. It should be remembered, with a shudder but also with pride.