Friday, June 27, 2008

Catching Up on Canadian Cultural Icons -- Passchendaele

There’s a whole lot of ways this could be a Canadian Cultural Icon post. For one thing, there’s Paul Gross – a Canadian actor/director/producer/writer/singer. (That's not an official website, BTW.) He played Constable Benton Fraser in the television program Due South (also unofficial) for four years in the ‘90’s – a tall, gorgeous, polite Mountie (even the Mounties found him awkward to deal with in his honesty and diligence) who was unhappily posted in Chicago to keep him out of the way. He played the lead Sasha/Alex in the movie Getting Married in Buffalo Jump, and wrote, directed and starred as Chris Cutter in Men With Brooms. He will be an icon in his own right pretty soon, probably as Benton Fraser.

There is the Battle of Passchendaele itself. One of the horrific follies of World War I battles. Passchaendale is the town the English called Wipers. This is what Wiki has to say (I’ve taken out the links, except for the one to the article itself – you can go there and follow any you want to):

The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres or simply Third Ypres, was one of the major battles of World War I, in which British, ANZAC, Canadian and South African units engaged the Imperial German Army. The battle was fought for control of the village of Passchendaele (Passendale in modern Dutch, now part of the community of Zonnebeke) near the town of Ypres (Ieper in Dutch) in West Flanders, Belgium. The plan was to drive a hole in the German lines, advance to the Belgian coast and capture the German submarine bases there. It was intended to create a decisive corridor in a crucial area of the front, and to take pressure off the French forces. After the Nivelle Offensive the French Army was suffering from extremely low morale, resulting in mutinies and misconduct on a scale that threatened the field-worthiness of entire divisions.

Although the period of the battle saw spells of good weather lasting long enough to dry out the land, Passchendaele has become synonymous with the misery of fighting in thick mud. Most of the battle took place on largely reclaimed marshland, swampy even without rain. The extremely heavy preparatory bombardment by the British tore up the surface of the land, and heavy rain from August onwards produced an impassable terrain of deep "liquid mud", in which an unknown number of soldiers drowned. Even the newly-developed tanks bogged down.

The Germans were well-entrenched, with mutually-supporting pillboxes which the initial bombardment had not destroyed. After three months of fierce fighting the Canadian Corps took Passchendaele on 6 November 1917, ending the battle, but in the meantime the Allied Powers had sustained almost half a million casualties and the Germans just over a quarter of a million. The Allies had captured a mere five miles of new front at a cost of 140,000 lives, a ratio of roughly 2 dead soldiers per inch gained.

Compounding this staggeringly Pyrrhic figure was the fact that the area was not even considered particularly valuable from a strategic standpoint; in March 1918--a mere 4 months later--the Allies abandoned to the Germans every inch of territory gained at such cost at Passchendaele in order to free several divisions to cover more strategically valuable terrain during the German Lys Offensive towards Ypres.

Passchendaele was the last gasp of the "one more push" philosophy which posited that the stalemate of attritional trench warfare could be broken by brute offensive action against fixed positions. The massive and tactically meaningless casualty levels--coupled with the horrendous conditions in which the battle was fought--damaged Field-Marshal Haig's reputation and made it emblematic of the horror of industrialised attrition warfare.

This fall, there will be a movie released about the battle. I’m going to that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, again:

Passchendaele is a 2008 Canadian movie from Alliance Films. The project is spearheaded by Canadian actor and director Paul Gross. The film was shot in Calgary, Alberta, Fort Macleod, Alberta, CFB Suffield, and on location in Belgium, focuses on the experiences of Gross's grandfather, Michael Dunne, a soldier who served in the 10th Battalion, CEF in the First World War at the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres). The film is set to open the Toronto International Film Festival on September 4, 2008 and is tentatively scheduled to be released on Remembrance Day, November 11, 2008.

And now, I’m posting the trailer to the movie. I don’t do a lot of serious stuff here on Fridays – but I’m pretty passionate about the stupidity of warfare in general, and of some specific decisions, made by people who are supposed to know better. This is one. You can all draw a straight line from here to the things that require our attention and prayer in 2008.

1 comment:

Kate Morningstar said...

Well, I THOUGHT I'd taken out the links contained in the Wiki articles, but I guess I didn't.

And I have still not learned how to place a picture in the text to either the right or left side, and allow the text to wrap around it. I was a pro at that stuff, in Publisher, at work -- but Blogger defeats me sometimes.