PASSCHENDAELE, Belgium — Canada Gate was dedicated at a ceremony here on Thursday in the heart of Flanders fields, the area of Belgium where tens of thousands of Canadians died during the Great War.
Canada Gate, located at the edge of Crest Farm, is now part of the Passchendaele Canadian Memorial. Its wooden base is marked with the outline of soldiers’ boots and steel poppies grace the memorial’s four corners.
While looking uphill toward the village, the Passchendaele church is framed by the memorial’s arches. But a century ago, the church and village could only be found on maps — after years of fighting and shelling in Flanders, they had been destroyed.
Today the village again sits at the top of the gentle-rising ridge, surrounded by farmland.
“Graveyard swamp of mud and slime”
A century ago that land was a quagmire — months of rain had turned the land into a swamp. Prolonged shelling turned up the earth and the resulting craters were filled with water. There were no trenches to speak of and soldiers often took cover in folds of earth.
Soldiers and beasts of burden were slowed by waist-deep mud.
Rotting human and animal corpses caused a stench that could be detected kilometres away.
Flanders was no stranger to wars, dating back to the time of the Roman Empire, and the earth was again to be soaked with the blood of men — hundreds of thousands died here during the summer and fall of 1917.
Lasting from July 31 to Nov. 10, 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres was one of the bloodiest of the Great War’s campaigns. Passchendaele, the campaign’s last battle, was launched on Oct. 12 and it followed such battles as Pilckem, Langemarck 1917, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and Poelcappelle.
"Rumours had come that we were going to the (Ypres) Salient, that graveyard swamp of mud and slime, to the long agony of Passchendaele, and the men were restless,” writes Will Bird in his memoir And We Go On, published in 1930.
The soldiers didn’t know that their leader, Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie, the commander of the Canadian Corps, didn’t want to fight there. He tried to convince British Field Marshal Douglas Haig that the objective was not worth the lives it would cost.
“Battlefield conditions were beyond dreadful,” writes Tim Cook in Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918. “. . . by October — after almost three months of fighting — the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had advanced less than 10 kilometres at the expense of almost 200,000 casualties.”
On the heels of their victories at Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 in France, the Canadians were called in to relieve the British, Australians and New Zealanders at Passchendaele in mid-October 1917.
They would capture the village and ridge on Nov. 10.
“The memory of Passchendaele a nightmare”
“We went on the next night through a fearful shelling up to an abomination of desolation, finding curled tangles of wire in absurd places, men squatted in the muck, silent, staring, stiff-moving men, who muttered as they got up and vanished in the gloom like mud-swathed phantoms,” writes Bird, a Nova Scotian who fought with the 42nd (Black Watch) Battalion.
“We wallowed often to our armpits in mud and water mixed to porridge thickness and the only thing solid underfoot was a dead man or his equipment. As we got the guns in their new places big black-winged Gothas came overhead and dropped bombs on us, or the track that was some hundred yards away. There, ammunition-laden mules were packed in line and I saw direct hits made on broad rumps or on the shaky planks of the ‘board road.’ More carcasses were piled beside the way, more legs to stiffen toward the skies, more bodies to distend and afford footholds for rats. Shambles of heads and heels and entrails were shovelled into the mire and the procession kept on,” writes Bird.
In Shock Troops, Cook quotes a soldier of the 102nd Battalion. “We had just done the little that we had been set to do, but had suffered casualties out of all proportion to our task, and that it is which makes the memory of Passchendaele a nightmare.”
Between Oct. 26 and Nov. 10, the Canadians launched four attacks and met their objectives but the cost was huge. Lt.-Gen. Currie’s prediction of 16,000 casualties was almost bang on.
One of the Canadians’ objectives was Crest Farm, located less than a kilometre from the remains of the village.
A century later, Crest Farm is the location of the Passchendaele memorial and it is where Canada Gate is installed.
The Canada Gate project was developed and led by Halifax duo Ken Hynes, curator at Army Museum Halifax Citadel, and Corinne MacLellan, a member of the museum’s board of governors.
They were in Belgium to take part in the dedication.
Belgians haven’t forgotten the sacrifices of Great War soldiers and “we all share that responsibility,” said Hynes.
More than half of Canada's 60,000 dead from the Great War lie in Flanders, he said.
“Canada Gate rises as a testament to the strength and service of our soldiers, who were just like you and me, real people with hopes and dreams; tens of thousands of whom never got to live out those dreams,” he said.
“Walking through Canada Gate . . . I can’t imagine the courage it took for them to hold fast. It’s probably one of the most profound things you can do as a Canadian,” said MacLellan.
The one-tonne gate was shipped from Halifax in late September, culminating the years-long project to commemorate Canadians who fought in the First World War.
It arrived in Passchendaele in late October, almost to the day when 100 years earlier the Canadian Corps launched their 16-day attack, ending in the capture of the ridge and village.
Canada Gate is a companion to the Last Steps Memorial that was unveiled in August 2016 on the Halifax waterfront, another project led by Hynes and MacLellan. The Last Steps arch stands on a pier near where about 300,000 soldiers left Canada for the Great War battlefields, many taking their last steps on Canadian soil. Canada Gate is located on the former battlefield, where thousands of our country’s soldiers “literally walked their final steps," said Hynes.
Both of the memorial arches were designed by Keating. Canada Gate was built by Al Simm of Avon River Metalworks.
Note: By Christine Soucie Madill.
Christine Soucie Madill travelled to Belgium courtesy of Visit Flanders, the Belgian government’s tourism agency. They have not reviewed this story.