Following the many battles of 1917, the winter months of 1918 provided a brief respite for the Canadian Expeditionary Force as it settled into the “relatively quiet Lens sector” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 338). Without scheduled attacks, save for the nightly raiding parties, some Canadians took the time to step back and reflect on what they had just experienced. On 18 January 1918, one soldier’s letter home was published in a local newspaper :
“Any person who went through that Passchendaele Advance can safely say we went through more mud and shell fire, than was ever experienced in this God-forsaken hole called Europe… it is impossible to imagine what the Germans had to contend with… One prisoner who was captured said the Germans thought the Canadians were superhuman, and would not face them at all. It certainly looked like it, the way they disappeared when we started after them.”
– Lieutenant D. Lynn Dudley, 4th Canadian Trench Mortar Battery, private letter published in The Cobourg World, Friday, 18 January 1918, Page 5:3. (Climo, Let Us Remember – Lively Letters From World War One, p. 269).
On this day in 1917, the Canadian Corps’ launches the final phase of the Battle of Passchendaele. With the subsequent capture of the high ground at Vindictive Crossroads and Hill 52, the Passchendaele offensive comes to an end. On the final day, another 1094 Canadians become casualties, including 420 dead. In total, Canada suffers 15,654 casualties in the Battle of Passchendaele (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 327).
One hundred years later, such mud, misery and destruction still endures as the world’s collective memory of that horrific patch of land.
No one knows how much I miss you No one knows the bitter pain I have suffered since I lost you. Life has never been the same. In my heart your memory lingers Sweetly tender, fond and true There is not a day, dear Gordon That I do not think of you.
Clifton Gordon Carpenter was born in 1898 in Montreal, Quebec. His father, Silas, served as the first chief of Montreal’s detective force before moving the family to Alberta in 1912. As a young man, Gordon was an avid sportsmen, who curled, skated, played hockey and baseball and loved the outdoors. (Note – he went by his second name, even signing his attestation papers as Gordon Clifton Carpenter).
When war broke out, Gordon’s height seemed to mark him for military service, so much so that he would be stopped on the street and asked why he wasn’t in the army. Consequently, in November 1915, Gordon enlisted with the 82nd Battalion in Calgary, lying about his age (he was only 17). In his diary he noted that training in Calgary was lonesome, without family to visit. Before heading east, he was able to make final visits with his family in Banff, and even stopped off in Montreal to see relatives.
Once in England, his diary talks of training, visits to Folkestone, Shorncliffe, and Hythe to go to the movies and out for meals, and playing baseball. Eventually, through a number of reinforcement drafts, Gordon joined the 1st (Western Ontario) Battalion in late-April 1917. In September 1917 he was promoted to Sergeant, following the death of a Sergeant Adam Young, Service Number 406219 (presumably Gordon’s predecessor). He was sent to a Canadian Corps School and rejoined the battalion on 3 November 1917.
Only three days later, on 6 November 1917, during the third phase of the Canadian Corps’ attack at Passchendaele, the 1st Battalion advanced on the village of Mosselmarkt. Sadly, just as the final objectives were gained by the Canadians, an enemy shell struck Gordon, killing him instantly. In the mud and destruction of the Passchendaele battlefield, Clifton Gordon Carpenter’s body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial To The Missing.
As one of the missing, Gordon’s family never had the opportunity to provide an epitaph on a tombstone for him. However, his grief-stricken mother, who was never able to come to terms with losing her son, did make an undated entry in her personal diary, perhaps to serve as the lasting epitaph she was never able to set in stone:
No one knows how much I miss you No one knows the bitter pain I have suffered since I lost you. Life has never been the same. In my heart your memory lingers Sweetly tender, fond and true There is not a day, dear Gordon That I do not think of you.
Clifton Gordon Carpenter’s story was brought to our attention by his family, who hoped to help commemorate both the centenary of his death and the Battle of Passchendaele. All family notes, diary details and photographs come from the family collection.
On 6 November 1917, the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions entered the attack on Passchendaele, having relieved the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions on the Blue Line during the night of 4-5 November. The objectives for 6 November now included the village of Passchendaele itself and the smaller hamlets of Mosselmarkt and Goudberg, encompassed within the boundaries of the Green Line. Once again, the mud made its presence felt, with Canadians having to advance through the knee or waist deep morass (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 324). All the while, in the skies above, pilots from either side strafed each other’s infantry. (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 324).
Despite all this, the Canadians advanced with great speed. At Mosselmarkt, surprise gained the surrender of four officers and 50 other ranks from a threatening pillbox and the Green Line was secured in only two hours (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 324). To the south, within three hours Passchendaele village was captured, aided by Private James Robertson, who received a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions. By day’s end, Canadian casualties numbered 2238, of which 734 were killed in action or died of wounds (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 325). Two more Canadians earned the Victoria Cross for their actions, bringing the Canadian total to nine from the Battle of Passchendaele.
Colin Fraser Barron, VC
Colin Fraser Barron was born in Mill of Boyndie, Banffshire, Scotland, emigrating to Canada in 1910. He worked in Toronto as a teamster before enlisting on 11 January 1915 with the 35th Battalion.
On 31 July 1915 he joined the 3rd (Toronto Regiment) Battalion as a reinforcement in France. His first year in France was littered with illness, being hospitalized with bronchitis, a foot infection, gastroenteritis (infectious diarrhea), and then gonorrhea. On 24 April 1917 he finally rejoined his unit with an extended period of good health and by 22 August 1917 was promoted to Corporal.
On 6 November 1917, the 3rd Battalion was tasked with protecting the Canadian Corps’ left flank in the north. Three-hundred and fifty yards south-east of Vapour Farm, where George Randolph Pearke’s little band of fighters had held firm on 30 October 1917, the Germans had another strongpoint at the Vine Cottages. Before the 3rd Battalion could reach the Goudberg Spur, the Vine Cottages would have to be captured.
Just as they had on 30 October, the swamp lands of the Lekkerboterbeek tributaries created an isolated, bitter struggle, as Barron’s company went in against the Vine Cottages alone. When the Canadians came under tremendous fire from no less than six machine guns, Corporal Barron worked his way around to a flank. Assuming a position out in the open, Barron set his Lewis gun down and let loose a stream of accurate fire, methodically knocking out one enemy crew after the other. With two crews eliminated, Barron charged forward with his bayonet, eliminating four more of the enemy and setting the rest off in retreat before his platoon could catch up with him. Seizing one of the enemy machine guns, Barron turned it around and caught the retreating enemy in the open with devastating fire. The Vine Cottages strongpoint was now in Canadian hands, and Goudberg Spur would soon follow.
For his actions that day, Colin Fraser Barron was awarded the Victoria Cross. He would survive the war, ending the war with the rank of Sergeant. Barron later re-enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War, serving with the Royal Regiment of Canada. He would survive that war as well, passing away in Toronto in 1958.
James Peter Robertson, VC
James Peter Robertson was born in Picton County, Nova Scotia in 1883. He was nearly 32 years old and working as a railroad engineer in Alberta when he enlisted on 14 June 1915. In England by the summer of 1916, he was taken on strength by Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), but within two months had been sent to the 11th Reserve Infantry Battalion. Within two weeks he was sent as a reinforcement to the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion, joining the unit in France in November 1916.
Robertson would prove to be a difficult soldier, with his service file recording some of his more eventful moments overseas. Shortly after his arrival in France, he was hospitalized with suspected influenza, which soon developed to ulceration of the tongue. When these ailments failed to heal by the second week of December, it was quickly identified as syphilis, and Robertson was punished, forfeiting his field allowance of 50 cents per day for the duration of his hospitalization (54 days). Robertson’s troubles didn’t end there. In July 1917 he was docked three days pay for disobeying the order of a senior officer by being in an estaminet during prohibited hours. Then in September 1917 he received 10 days field punishment for drunkenness.
On 6 November 1917, Robertson was free of disciplinary action and back with his Battalion, taking part in the attack on the village of Passchendaele. When his platoon’s advance was checked by uncut wire and enemy machine gun fire, Robertson slipped through an opening to the flank. Charging the gun alone, he eliminated four of the crew in a desperate melee. Taking hold of the machine gun he had just captured, Robertson turned it around and fired on the now retreating enemy. He then led his platoon’s advance against the final objective with the captured machine gun in his arms, using it again to eliminate retreating groups of the enemy. Later in the day, two Canadian snipers were wounded while out in front of the trench. Disregarding the danger, Robertson climbed out and carried the first wounded man to safety. Returning for the second, Robertson was seen to fall, presumably wounded, but regained his feet and hoisted the wounded sniper. Just as he was reaching relative safety with the second man, a shell exploded nearby and Robertson was killed instantly.
For his actions that day, James Peter Robertson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Provided a field burial, his body was later exhumed and re-buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery.
George Pearkes was born in Watford, England. Immigrating to Canada, he served 5 years with the North-West Mounted Police before enlisting in Victoria, B.C. on 2 March 1915 with the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR). Pearkes’ service is a remarkable example of progression through the ranks, with both the medals and wounds to show for it.
Before embarking for England, Pearkes had already been promoted to Lance-Corporal. In September 1915, the 2nd CMR landed in France, where Pearkes soon attended a course at Grenade School, becoming a bomb thrower. By the early spring of 1916 he was an Acting Lieutenant and attached to the 8th Brigade’s Headquarters as Brigade Bombing Officer. In May 1916, Pearkes was hospitalized with severe gunshot wounds to the head and arm. In September 1916 he was transferred to the 5th CMR, quickly becoming Acting Captain, then Acting Major. By October 1916 he had been wounded again.
In December 1916 Pearkes received the first of many awards – the Military Cross, for his actions on 21 November 1916. (See Image Below).
On 30 October 1917, the 5th CMR’s went into the attack on the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade’s left flank, bordering with the 18th British Corps. Fighting along a unit boundary line tends to create awkward, disjointed advances, and this proved true again as the 5th CMR’s British counterparts were unable to keep pace, creating a dangerous open flank.
Although wounded by shrapnel in the buttocks, Pearkes had led the 5th CMR’s through hard fighting to their objectives. With reinforcement hampered by the swampy low grounds of the Lekkerboterbeek (literally “Yummy-butter-brook”) tributaries, the men were on their own against increasing enemy counter-attacks. Locating enfilading fire coming from a strong point called Source Farm, Pearkes rallied his men and charged over the unit boundary line, taking the place by storm. Now greatly reduced in strength (some sources say only 20 fighting men – see Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 69), Pearkes established a defensive line from Source Farm to Vapour Farm, and they continued to beat back enemy counter attacks. All this while, Pearkes had kept battalion headquarters appraised of the situation via carrier pigeons (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 322).
Realizing the importance of Pearkes’ gains, General Currie issued orders “at 7:00 p.m. that every effort should be made to hold the line.” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 323). When reinforcements of the 2nd CMR’s advanced over the swampy ground to join them, many were seen to fall from heavy enemy machine gun fire. But those that could carried on, reinforcing Pearkes’ tenuous position and saving the situation.
For his actions and leadership over 30 – 31 October 1917, Pearkes received the Victoria Cross. Pearkes survived the war, despite being wounded on five separate occasions, and ultimately received a Mention in Despatches, the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Victoria Cross. He would end the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel in command of the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion, and remained a career soldier, serving again in the Second World War. He then retired and entered politics, ultimately serving as the Minister of National Defence from 1957 – 1960.
George Randolph Pearkes, VC, DSO, MC, CDG passed away in Victoria, B.C. in 1984.
On this day in 1917, the Canadian Expeditionary Force renews its assault at Passchendaele. The plan is to gain what remains of the uncaptured Red Line, and then carry the advance a further 600-700 yards east to the Blue Line. On paper, the Canadians face positions with misleadingly peaceful names such as “Vienna Cottage”, “Crest Farm”, and “Duck Lodge”. But by nightfall, three Canadians have earned the Victoria Cross, while 884 have been killed and 1429 wounded (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, p.323).
Cecil John Kinross, VC
Cecil John Kinross of Uxbridge, England, emmigrated to Lougheed, Alberta where he worked on the family farm before enlisting with the 51st (Edmonton) Battalion in 1915. Once in France, he was transferred to the 49th (Edmonton Regiment) Battalion. In October 1916 he was wounded for the first time, taking shrapnel in his arm and neck.
On 30 October 1917, as the 49th Bn. advanced through the Red Line and on to the Blue Line, Kinross’ company was checked by a machine gun position. Surveying the situation, Kinross ducked into cover and stripped off all of his equipment. Now lightened of his load, carrying only his rifle and bandoliers of ammunition, Kinross stole across the pock-marked battlefield, creeping up on the machine gun. Having closed the distance, Kinross rose up and charged the position head on, killing the six-man crew and destroying the gun. Relieved and inspired by his actions, Kinross’ company then advanced another 300 yards, storming two more strongpoints.
Later in the day, Kinross was caught in a shell explosion and suffered serious shrapnel wounds to his right arm and left temporal region of his head. These wounds ultimately left him medically unfit for service, leading to his discharge in February 1919.
Cecil John Kinross, VC passed away in Lougheed, Alberta in 1957. Mount Kinross in the Canadian Rockies’ Victoria Cross Ranges is named in his honour.
Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM
Born in Inverness, Scotland, Hugh McKenzie immigrated to Verdun, Quebec in 1911. With six years of service in various artillery units, Hugh enlisted almost immediately, on 12 August 1914.
By 22 May 1915, McKenzie had landed at Rouen, France. On 11 March 1916, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (see citation from service file). He later received the French Croix de Guerre and a Lieutenant’s commission. Having initially enlisted with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), he was later transferred to the 7th Canadian Machine Gun Company in the field.
On 30 October 1917, while the PPCLI attacked the crossroads at Meetcheele, McKenzie and his section of 7th CMGC guns advanced alongside them in close support. When German machine gun pillboxes beside the road cut into the PPCLI, McKenzie saw the leading officers of his old unit fall and the entire company begin to falter. Acting quickly, McKenzie left command of his gun section to a Corporal and assumed control of the infantry. Rallying the PPCLI, McKenzie reconnoitered the positions and sent out flanking parties, one of which included Sergeant G.H. Mullin, who would receive a Victoria Cross for his actions as well. With the men in position, McKenzie placed himself at the head of the frontal assault and charged. With McKenzie drawing the attention of the enemy, the flanking parties made quick work of the position, but not before McKenzie was shot and killed.
For his actions that day, Hugh McKenzie was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His body was lost during the subsequent fighting in the quagmire of the Passchendaele battlefield. He is commemorated on Panel 31 of the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.
George Harry Mullin, VC, MM
George Harry Mullin was born in Portland, Oregon. His family moved to Moosomin, Saskatchewan when George was two years old, where he later worked as a farmer before enlisting. On 14 December 1914, George enlisted in Winnipeg with the 32nd Battalion, later joining the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).
In June 1916, Mullin suffered gunshot wounds to the forehead, ear and groin. Evacuated to England, he recovered over two months, convalescing at Dartford and Epsom. Rejoining the PPCLI, Mullin received the Military Medal for bravery in the field in late 1916. He was soon promoted from Private to Corporal. By August 1917 he had reached the rank of Sergeant.
On 30 October 1917, Mullin was with the company of PPCLI held up by the machine guns in pillboxes at the Meetcheele crossroads, as described in the above account of Lt. McKenzie. When Lt. McKenzie left his machine guns to come take charge of the faltering PPCLI, Sgt. Mullin was tasked to one of the flanking parties. While McKenzie prepared his charge from the front, Mullin crawled out to the flank on his own reconnoiter. As the attack went in, with McKenzie charging head on, Mullin ambushed and destroyed a sniper’s post before crawling up on top of the concrete pillbox itself. In full view of the other Canadians rushing the post, Mullin used his revolver to eliminate the two German machine gunners, before jumping down from the pillbox roof and taking the surrender of the remaining ten defenders. The troublesome pillbox had been eliminated, but not before Lt. McKenzie was shot and killed in his courageous charge.
For his actions that day, Sergeant Mullin was awarded the Victoria Cross. He survived the war, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant, and returned to Saskatchewan, passing away in 1963.
On this day in 1917, three Canadians receive the Victoria Cross during the opening attacks on Passchendaele.
Thomas William Holmes, VC
Born in Montreal, Thomas William Holmes was working as a chicken picker in Owen Sound, Ontario when he enlisted with the 147th (Grey) Battalion in 1915. Having joined the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR) as a reinforcement on 7 April 1917, he was shot through the arm at Vimy Ridge just a few days later. He would rejoin the 4th C.M.R.’s on 13 October 1917, in time for the Battle of Passchendaele.
Private Holmes received the Victoria Cross for his actions on 26October 1917, when he single-handedly stormed a concrete pillbox with only his rifle and a few grenades. Killing and wounding some of the two machine gun crews within, he retreated to his comrades for a third grenade and then charged the pillbox again, after which the 19 remaining occupants surrendered.
Holmes survived the war, ending with the rank of Sergeant. He embarked for Canada from Kinmel Park Camp on 30 March 1919, interestingly just 25 days after the massive Canadian riots there. In 1935 his Victoria Cross was stolen from his home in Owen Sound. Thomas William Holmes, VC, died on 4 January 1950. His Victoria Cross remains unrecovered.
Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, VC, MC
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly enlisted with the 144th (Winnipeg Rifles) Battalion in 1916. As a member of the Active Militia’s 90th Regiment, Winnipeg Rifles, O’Kelly enlisted with the pre-existing rank of Lieutenant. On 2 March 1917, he joined the 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion overseas.
On 26 September 1917, he led a bombing party against a machine gun, bombing the crew and capturing the gun, ending a threat to their flanks. For this, O’Kelly received the Military Cross. A few days later, he was temporarily promoted to Acting Captain.
Then on 26October 1917, after his Battalion’s opening attack had failed, O’Kelly rallied two companies and made an advance forward of 1,000 yards, securing the enemy trenches and leading further attacks against concrete pillboxes. O’Kelly’s company captured six of the pillboxes, tallying 100 prisoners and 10 machine guns. A later counter-attack was repelled, with more prisoners taken, and then, during the night, an enemy raiding party was thwarted, with the capture of one officer, ten men and a machine gun.
Later in the war, on 28 September 1918, Captain O’Kelly was hit by machine gun fire in the groin, and then again by shrapnel in the leg while laying wounded. Evacuated to hospital, the machine gun bullet was removed from his left buttock and O’Kelly was also found to have fractured his foot. Despite all of this, he recovered.
O’Kelly survived the war and returned to Canada. Sadly, he is believed to have drowned during a storm on Lac Seul, Kenora District, Ontario in November 1922. His body was never recovered.
Robert Shankland, VC, DCM
Robert Shankland, VC, DCM
Born in Ayr, Scotland, Robert Shankland immigrated to Canada in 1911, settling in Winnipeg, Manitoba on Pine Street. Prior to the war, he worked as a clerk at Crescent Creamery Company (he would later assign a portion of his service pay to be sent directly to the company cashier).
On 18 December 1914, Shankland enlisted. At 27 years old, with prior service in the Active Militia’s 79th Regiment, Shankland was given the rank of Company Sergeant-Major in the 43rd (Cameron Highlanders of Canada) Battalion upon arrival in England.
One month after arriving in France, Shankland’s actions on 22 July 1916 resulted in his receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal; “For conspicuous gallantry in volunteering to lead a party of stretcher-bearers, under very heavy shell fire, and bringing in some wounded and partially buried men. His courage and devotion were most marked.” (The London Gazette, Publication date: 18 August 1916, Supplement: 29713, Page: 8248).
Then on 26October 1917, the 43rd Battalion took part in the opening attacks of the Battle of Passchendaele. Despite initial success, as the 43rd and 58th Battalions reached the Dotted Red Line objective, the Germans brought down heavy artillery fire on their old positions (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 319). Now a Lieutenant, Shankland quickly acted as the entire brigade began to falter and retreat. Cobbling together a rag-tag force of reinforcements to bolster his own platoon, Shankland established a small hold on the Bellevue spur. Shankland’s force held firm, enabling the 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion to come forward and re-establish the line while other companies went around to the south and flanked enemy pillboxes being engaged by Shankland’s group with diversionary rifle grenades and Lews guns (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 320).
For his actions that day, Shankland received the Victoria Cross. In the heat of battle, despite suffering a gunshot wound in the back, Shankland remained in the line. Similar injuries of gunshot wounds to the head and neck from November 1917, were not reported until after the war, during his medical exam before demobilization.
Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba would later be renamed Valour Road, as the home address of Shankland and two more Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War (Leo Clarke and Frederick Willian Hall). Shankland would serve again during the Second World War before retiring to Vancouver. He died on 20 January 1968.
On 9 October 1917, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment took part in the Battle of Poelcappelle, in Flanders, Belgium.
True to form, the mud of Flanders wreaked havoc with the preparations for battle; “Gun teams were struggling to bring the field artillery forward; and when the sweating horses became bogged belly-deep in the mire, manpower took over and dragged the guns into position.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 392).
The mud slowed the Newfoundlanders to such extent that while forming up the night before the attack, it took them five hours to march only five miles along washed out roads and mud-slicked duckboards, invariably skirting one shell crater before falling into the next (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 393).
As positions were taken up in support of the 4th Worcesters, the Newfoundlanders saw a Very light suddenly soar into the sky from the opposing lines at 5:10 AM. Though wracked with suspense, no response came as the light fizzled out. “A few minutes later a solitary shell was heard whining far overhead, followed a minute later by the sharp bark of a French 75. Then promptly at 5.30 came pandemonium as the barrage crashed down.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 394).
Wading across the Broembeek, the 4th Worcesters and Newfoundland Regiment became disorganized and entangled, to the extent that the Newfoundlanders now formed part of the leading wave in the attack. Fortunately, this left more men on-hand to mop up the enemy dugouts found along the Ypres-Staden railway embankment (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 395). By 7 AM, the Green Dotted Line was gained, and the combined units continued the push to the Blue Dotted Line against mounting resistance.
At Pascal Farm, concrete ruins bristled with machine guns but thorough tactics of fire and movement carried the day. Additional buildings along the Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road were to be shelled by four tanks, but the mud had prevented them from getting past the start line. On the left flank, the Newfoundlanders watched as Lewis Gun teams from the Irish Guards stood upright, resting the Lewis barrels on their shoulders while their comrades fired continuously during an attack on Cairo House. (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 394).
By noon, the Newfoundlanders were consolidating their thinly held positions along the Green Line, the third and final objective. Enemy counterattacks were successfully thrown back, but trouble on the flanks forced an orderly retirement to stronger positions just north of the Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road. The Newfoundlanders were relieved by the 2nd Hampshires at nightfall, signalling the end of another hard-won victory.
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment suffered 67 killed and 127 wounded on 9 October 1917. For their bravery, thirty-three decorations were awarded to the Newfoundlanders; seven received the Military Cross or Bar, five the Distinguished Conduct Medal, while the Military Medal or Bar went to twenty others. The fighting at Poelcappelle produced “the only appreciable gains on the northern flank, in the Fourteenth Corps’ sector.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 397).
On this day in 1917 (26 October), the Canadians launch their attack on Passchendaele. The Canadian Corps entered the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917 after a largely successful spring and summer of victories at Vimy and Hill 70. They were confident, well-trained, and most importantly, rested. Passchendaele had been dragging on since the end of July, and had consumed thousands of British troops in the slog to take the ridge from which the battle took its name. Plagued by bad weather, Haig’s battle had not gone well. By October, it became clear that he would need more men to reinforce the British Fifth Army.
The original plan had been for the Canadian Corps to re-attack Lens, the town they had failed to take at the end of the Hill 70 campaign in August; however, Haig met with Currie to explain the need for the Corps at Passchendaele instead. Here, Currie played the position of the Corps within the political structure of the Allies to its fullest advantage. The Corps would not be subordinated to Gough and the Fifth Army, Haig would provide extra artillery, and Currie would plan the attack himself. Even so, Currie predicted that the Corps would likely lose around 16 000 much-needed men at Passchendaele.
The Canadian attack began on 26 October at 5:40 am with a creeping barrage as the 3rd and 4th Divisions began their advance. Communication was problematic and the mud, sometimes waist high, hampered those going forward. It took two days, but the first objectives, including Bellevue Spur were captured by 27 October. The next phase of the four part battle began on 30 October, once again using the 3rd and 4th Divisions. Advances on the 30th were smaller, and the creeping barrage was less successful, particularly on the 3rd Division front.
The third and fourth part of the advance took place after the divisions were relieved, and the 1st and 2nd Divisions moved in to begin their work on 6 November. It was easy to get lost on the Passchendaele front, even with a map, and a member of the Canadian Corps wandered into German lines accidentally and revealed the date of the next attack – 6 November. Even with the warning, the Canadian barrage was heavy enough that the divisions could advance relatively safely and by the end of the day the village of Passchendaele had been captured. By 10 November, the last remaining German forces had been pushed from the ridge entirely and the offensive was called off – Haig declared it a victory.
Currie’s prediction was correct. Passchendaele cost the Canadian Corps 16 404 casualties. Many of the wounded left on the battlefield drowned in the mud and water before they could be rescued. In total, Passchendaele cost 275 000 British and Dominion lives, compared to 220 000 German casualties. A high price for victory.
-Currie and his commanders planned Passchendaele in 14 days; in comparison, planning at Vimy took 3 months, at Hill 70, 1 month. In 1918, Currie would plan his Hundred Days assaults in even less time. The Corps had become a well trained, professional army, and needed less and less time to train
-Currie understood that artillery and its use were critical to the success of the soldiers on the front lines. Without a working creeping barrage and strong support, the men were trapped in their own lines and easy targets for German machine guns.
-As at Vimy, transport in and out of the Passchendaele lines was critical and the Canadian Army Service Corps and Engineers spent the 14 days before the battle laying hundreds of metres of road and duckboard in a desperate bid to create walkable paths in the mud. In many cases, the duckboards saved lives, as wandering off them meant drowning. The artillery transport crews worked at night to move up the guns needed for the battle, and thousands of horses and mules were killed in service.
Major Talbot Mercer Papineau, MC, was killed on 30 October, 1917, while serving with the PPCLI. Papineau, a grandson of the famous Patriote, Louis-Joseph Papineau, is most famous for his series of public letters written to his cousin Henri Bourassa that make a case for support of the war effort. Papineau was hit by a shell and his body never found.
No less than nine Canadians received the Victoria Cross (VC) for their actions at Passchendaele. On the centennials of their actions, full accounts of the VC recipients will be available by clicking on the hyperlinks in the men’s names.
Thomas William Holmes, VC,of Owen Sound, ON, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his lonesome attacks on a series of machine gun nests on 26 October, 1917. Holmes survived the war and died in 1950. His VC was stolen in a home robbery in the 1930s.
Christopher O’Kelly, VC, MC, of Winnipeg, MB, rallied two companies and made an advance forward of 1,000 yards, securing the enemy trenches and leading further attacks against concrete pillboxes.
Robert Shankland, VC, DCM, of Winnipeg, MB, (born in Ayr, Scotland), cobbled together a rag-tag force of reinforcements to bolster his own platoon and established a small hold on the Bellevue Spur. Shankland’s force held firm, enabling the 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion to come forward and re-establish the line. Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba would later be renamed Valour Road, as the home address of Shankland and two more Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War (Leo Clarke and Frederick Willian Hall).
Cecil Kinross, VC, of Lougheed, AB, (born in Uxbridge, England) charged a machine gun nest alone, with nothing but his rifle, enabling his company to advance 300 yards. Kinross was wounded at Passchendaele, but survived the war.
Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM,of Verdun, PQ (born in Inverness, Scotland), left his machine gun section to take charge of a faltering infantry attack. He placed himself at the head of the frontal assault and charged an enemy pillbox. With McKenzie drawing the attention of the enemy, the flanking parties made quick work of the position, but not before McKenzie was shot and killed.
George Mullin, VC, of Moosomin, SK, (born in Portland, Oregon), ambushed and destroyed a sniper’s post before crawling up on top of a concrete pillbox itself. In full view of the other Canadians rushing the post, Mullin used his revolver to eliminate the two German machine gunners, before taking the surrender of the remaining ten defenders.
George Pearkes, VC, DSO, MC, CDG,of Victoria, BC (born in Watford, England), led the 5th CMR’s through hard fighting to their objectives and beyond. With only 20 men left, Pearkes established a defensive line from Source Farm to Vapour Farm, and they continued to beat back enemy counter attacks. The advantageous position gained by Pearkes’ band of fighters was appreciated by General Currie, who issued orders “that every effort should be made to hold the line.” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 323).
Colin Fraser Barron, VC, of Toronto, ON, (born in Mill of Boyndie, Banffshire, Scotland), attacked a machine gun nest that was holding up his unit, killing the crew, and turning the gun around to use on the enemy. He survived the war and served in the Second World War with the Royal Regiment of Canada.
James Robertson, VC,of Picton County, NS,charged a machine gun alone, eliminated the crew in a desperate melee, and then turned the weapon on the retreating enemy. Later in the day he went out to bring in two wounded snipers lying in front of the trenches. He carried in the first man but was killed by an enemy shell upon returning to relative safety with the second.
Today in France, the BVP 2017 students visited important sites from the battle of the Somme, including Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, and the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum. At Neuve Chapelle British Cemetery, Yaman delivered a powerful presentation about the contributions of Sikh soldiers in the First World War.
Please note: the students will blog in their preferred official language.
Today was our first day in France. After all we did today, our visit to Beaumont-Hamel left an impression so deep and significant that I will truly never forget it. Being a Newfoundlander myself, Beaumont-Hamel and the tragic story of the “Blue Puttees” is forever seared into our cultural memory. We lost a whole generation of young men from which our Dominion, (and now province), has never fully healed. Seeing the Caribou Monument, the shell craters, and trenches triggered something inside me to the point where I was overcome with emotion. The fact that I was there in remembrance of my great-grandfather and that I was commemorating my soldier there added to this emotional connection. I had never been to Beaumont-Hamel, having only seen the monument through photographs and video at home, but for some reason it felt like I had seen it before. The overwhelming response of love and support I received from my fellow Beaverbrook Vimy Prize participants after doing my soldier presentation was inspiring and heart warming. The connection I have developed not only to the fallen comrades, but also to my fellow BVP recipients is overwhelming, and I have never been filled with so much emotion. I hope that my great-grandfather, Fred, and my soldier, Cecil, would be proud and touched by my actions here today.
-Abigail Garret, Conception Bay, Newfoundland & Labrador
Aujourd’hui, je me suis senti très fier de présenter au groupe – lorsque nous étions en train de visiter le monument commémoratif de Neuve Chapelle – le soldat canadien sikh Buckam Singh, dont l’histoire a été oubliée pendant plusieurs décennies. Cet homme a souffert beaucoup et il est mort seul, sans avoir droit à un rituel religieux. Dû à l’absence de Sikhs au Canada à son époque, personne n’est venu visité sa tombe… jusqu’à ce qu’un historien ait retrouvé sa médaille de victoire dans une boutique anglaise.
Ensuite, nous avons visité Beaumont Hamel. J’ai adoré observer les réseaux de tranchées qui zigzaguaient dans l’herbe. Un caribou symbolique dominant le paysage se tenait majestueusement par-dessus un support. Abbey, l’une des participantes, nous a distribué à chacun deux drapeaux de Terre-Neuve et Labrador que nous avons planté devant les tombes de nos choix.
Finalement, lorsque j’ai aperçu le monument à Thiepval, c’était immense ! Les drapeaux français et britannique donnaient l’impression que ces deux pays se serraient la main. Il y avait un cimetière derrière la structure, séparé en deux sections : une section pour les soldats français où se tenaient des rangées de croix portant la mention « Inconnu » ; et une section pour les soldats anglais un peu différente, où les tombes étaient conçues d’après les standards de la CWGC, malgré que la plupart étaient également des tombes de soldats inconnus.
-Yaman Awad, Anjou, Quebec
Immense archways, thousands of inscribed names, a cemetery placed against the background of a picturesque countryside; today we visited the Thiépval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, dedicated to the missing British and South African soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Somme. As I walked through the memorial, my heart dropped at the sight of all the names of the soldiers who lost their lives in one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, and whose bodies have not yet been found. Continuing down the stairs of the memorial to the cemetery, I saw the graves of the French and British soldiers; the French on one side and the British soldiers on the other. The difference between the two nationalities could be easily spotted as there were stone crosses erected at the graves of the French soldiers, while for the English soldiers, there were the rounded Commonwealth tombstones that we had seen previously at other cemeteries. As I approached the French crosses, I realized that they all bore the same inscription, “Inconnu,” or “Unknown.” Row after row, there were crosses without the names of those who were buried there. When I saw this, my heart shattered. All these fallen soldiers once had names and identities, which have been buried under the horrors of the war. I now have an understanding of the contributions made by those who served their countries and felt a greater need to commemorate the fallen soldiers. I will continue to remember these soldiers and to search for and share their stories with others so that we will never forget those who gave up their lives so that we may live ours in peace.