Lest we forget: 100 years since Passchendaele



Today is Remembrance Day, variously called Armistice Day or Veterans Day in various countries.

99 years ago, the First World War came to an end. Over the years and many wars since then, on the anniversary of this day we pause to think about the war and the people who fought, were wounded and died in it.

And we often think, too, about the families and communities they left behind.

As the author of three books set during wartime, I do a lot of research into the wars, and I am struck by the very different ways we think about it now compared to a hundred years ago.

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, known in Canada as the Battle of Passchendaele because that phase of the battle was fought by the Canadian Corps.

The Canadian Corps had established a reputation at Vimy Ridge six months earlier as the most effective Allied fighting force. They relieved the Anzacs at the Ypres Salient on October 18. Their three attacks, on October 26, October 30 and November 6, met fierce resistance, but the final attack captured the town of Passchendaele in three hours. By November 10, the Canadians had cleared the enemy from the high ground north of the village.

Learn more about the battle at the Veterans Affairs Canada website.

Almost 16,000 Canadians were casualties in the battle, including over 4,000 killed.

From Veterans Affairs Canada

Euphemisms

Think about some of those words, like “cleared” and “casualties.” They’re stand-ins for “killed” or “horribly wounded.” Men who were not wounded so badly they could not fight were patched up and sent back to the front lines. Those sent home lost limbs, eyes, the ability to walk, or such severe “shell shock”—known now as PTSD—they could not continue to fight. They all carried these wounds for the rest of their lives.

Think about those numbers, too. 12,000 Canadians wounded. Over its course from July to November, the Third Battle of Ypres killed more than half a million soldiers on both sides.

That’s a good-sized city wiped out, and that does not include the numbers wounded.

The numbers are shocking.

Also shocking is the attitude of the commanders who kept sending men into the fight, following the thousands already killed. The commanders called the men killed during “quiet periods” on the front “normal wastage”—up to 35,000 men per month.

Thirty-five thousand every month. More than a thousand killed every day, for no reason, achieving no goal.

Legacy

We tell ourselves today that the men who fought and died for our countries in these conflicts did it to preserve our way of life, freedom, democracy and human rights.

That’s arguable, but let’s accept it for now. Let’s remember that the people on all sides of a conflict believe they’re defending something worthwhile.

And let’s remember the impact on the families and communities left behind by those killed. Widows, orphans, parents grieving. After the First World War, the number of women who would never marry climbed significantly because so many young men had been killed.

A century later

The First World War ended a century ago. For many young people, that makes it almost ancient history. They think about it much differently than I did, because when I was a teenager, there were still people around who lived in those times and fought in those battles.

I remember talking about the First World War with my grandmother, who told me about how thoroughly the people at home in Canada believed the narrative (or propaganda).

But there’s no one, or almost no one, left who can remember that time first-hand. There are precious few who can remember the Second World War.

The focus of Remembrance Days now is shifting to later wars. For Canadians, that includes Korea, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

We lost so many irreplaceable people in those conflicts. The world lost so much.

And yet we continue to go to war.

We remember, but it seems we have not learned anything.

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