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Canadians Join the Fight at Passchendaele

For the week of Monday October 24, 2005

On October 26, 1917, the Canadian Corps, led by Sir Arthur William Currie, engaged in its first action under his command against the German forces with the goal to capture the town of Passchendaele, Belgium during the First World War. The well-entrenched Germans had been fighting the Allied forces during the summer of 1917, but both sides achieved relatively little success. Currie in fact opposed plans by British commander Haig to include the Corps in the attack, arguing it was a high-risk and high-cost operation. Nevertheless, the Canadian Corps joined the fray in the muddy quagmires of the Belgian countryside to aid the Allied troops.

Sir Arthur William Currie
Sir Arthur William Currie
© Library and Archives Canada / National Defence Collection / PA-001370

This event marked the beginning of a long battle, during which 2834 Canadian lives were lost and Canadian casualties reached almost 16 000 in order to gain a meagre but important 5 km of land. This land held strategic German rail lines and submarine bases on the Flanders coast. On November 7, after a combined 500 000 lives were lost between the two sides, the battle of Passchendaele ended and the town was in Allied hands – largely due to the success of Currie’s leadership and the valour of the Canadian Corps. Two Canadians under Currie’s command were awarded the Victoria Cross on this first day of battle.

The muddy battlefield at Passchendaele
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-002165
Even though his military experience was limited, Currie, a native of Napperton, Ontario, was the first Canadian appointed commander of the Canadian Corps. He promoted a sense of unity among his troops as they fought together as a Canadian force. Currie also utilized a strategically important manoeuvre, called “creeping barrage” whereby the troops would walk behind an advancing line of Canadian artillery that shielded the soldiers as they approached the Germans. These and other military strategies, including the successful planning and assault on Vimy Ridge, earned Currie the respect of many, including British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Knighted in 1917, Sir Arthur William Currie was also presented with the British Order of Bath, the French Légion d’honneur, the Croix de Guerre, and the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal. After serving as Inspector General of the Canadian Militia from August 1919 to July 1920, Currie was awarded the title of Vice-Chancellor of McGill University in Montréal. He held the position until his passing on November 30, 1933. A National Historic Persons of Canada plaque dedicated to Currie exists in London, Ontario. The Currie Gymnasium at McGill University and the Montréal Neurological Institute also remain as fixtures of his endeavours.

For additional information, please visit "Canada's Hundred Days"  – the Canadian Corps march towards Mons - on the Veterans Affairs Canada web site.

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