Sunday, October 19, 2008


click on these images to enlarge. The first one is of the town of Ypres. Around the time of the third battle of Ypres, the one the Canadians call Passchendaele.

The troops would march down this street, and turn left at the other side of what used to be the Cloth Hall, then march towards Menin. Through the Menin gate, and on for a mile and quarter. Hell will be on their right. When I visited the area last April, it was pretty, a bit chilly, and not at all like it was back then. I have posted on that visit in the archives, so I won't bother doing it can check them out here.....

Above is the arial view of Ypres, looking down at the cathedral. Not much left of it.

The Germans, clever people that they were, held all the high ground. The Canadians got the low ground. This under some stupid idea that one should never give up even an inch of ground. You call THIS ground? Once the shelling started, the drainage failed, and those pools of water...those are the trenches. Some Canadians spent as much as three months up to their chests, moving from one shell crater to another. Trench foot was a serious problem. The duck boards were necessary if you wanted to get anywhere. Note the lack of barbed wire, or anything "trench" like. There might be as many as two hundred men in the above picture...they are keeping their heads down. Or none.

The village of Passchendaele before and after the Candians got through with it. It is placed on hill 47...that means it is only 47 meters above sea level. A gentle rise in the ground is all. The Canadians lost more than 5000 troops in twelve days (fourteen thousand troops by the time it was all over) taking that little town and five times that many for every inch of ground. 35 troops for every square yard. The name of this place means "the place where Christ died".

Here is a good view of what it was really like....the stretcher bearers are skirting one of the thousands of water filled craters. The chances were better than even that there is at least one corpse in the bottom of that crater. And that the stretcher bearers are treading on body parts. This was a one of the most horrible battles of a horrible war.

So what got me thinking about this battle, enough to find original pictures of the battle? Well, we all went to the new movie "Passchendaele". It was produced by Paul Gross, the story of how it came about is here in his interview. A film that goes in fits and starts...the teen sex in Calgary, the recruiting pressures, the colonel blimp character we are all (with secretly guilty pleasure) happy to see die a random pointless death, and a few zen like moments about why we do all this. The tear jerking ending was forced harder than a dime romance novel, and was in my opinion unnecessary. And of course the big crucifiction scene where his nightmares became true, thereby bringing the Vale of Passion to life, was perhaps understandably over the top. Though I think the connection should have been stated at least once to avoid a lot of nonsense that will be written in the next few months.

Aside from being far too introspective and too much of a showcase for Gross himself, the movie was a tour d'force of effects and acting. The Candians all sounded like Canadians "Hay..ya got a smoke eh?" rather than British or American, and the movie had subsonics which probably only exist in the theatre. You could feel the floor shake from the "thump" of the artillery shells...and the fight scene was harsher than anything in Private Ryan. A lot of it takes place in the dark, with weird lighting from star shells and fires. All in contrast to the foothills of home in Alberta.

Not a single person was talking in the theatre when I left...everybody was either dabbing at their eyes, or looking stolid. I picked stolid....and didn't risk talking for at least five or ten minutes.

I will see it again, but I need a good break before I do.

At Ypres (pronounced Epray, though the Canadians called it "Wipers", the great northern city gate was rebuilt as a monument. Blomfield's memorial at the Menin Gate combines the architectural images of a classical victory arch and a mausoleum and it contains, inside and out, huge panels into which are carved the names of the 54,896 officers and men of the commonwealth forces who died in the Ypres Salient area and who have no known graves. This figure, however, does not represent all of the missing from this area. It was found that the Menin Gate, immense though it is, was not large enough to hold the names of all the missing. The names recorded on the gate's panels are those of men who died in the area between the outbreak of the war in 1914 and 15th August, 1917. The names of a further 34,984 of the missing - those who died between 16th August, 1917 and the end of the war, are recorded on carved panels at Tyne Cot Cemetery, on the slopes just below Passchendaele.

"What are you guarding, Man-at-Arms?
Why do you watch and wait?"
"I guard the graves," said the Man-at-Arms,
"I guard the graves by Flanders Farms,
Where the dead will rise at my call to arms,
And march to the Menin Gate."


Cara said...

Fascinating stuff. War is horrible horrible horrible.

Dick Stodghill said...

There were so many horrible things about Passchendaele that for the men involved it probably was the worst battle in history. Excellent job of presenting it.

STAG said...

Thank you. I am aware that you know, both about horrible battles, and about presenting them, so I take this as high praise indeed.