Primary Documents - Sir David Watson on the Canadian Effort at the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917

Sir David Watson Reproduced below is the text of Sir David Watson's assessment of the key Canadian role during the culminating effort of the Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as 'Passchendaele'.

Watson - a Canadian general during the war who led the 4th (Canadian) Division from April 1916 until the close of the war - made clear his belief that the Canadian infantry proved vital in securing ultimate victory during the battle, citing supporting comments from the British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig.

Click here to read General Sir John Davidson's arguments supporting Haig's strategy; Davidson served on Haig's GHQ staff during the battle.  Click here to read Erich Ludendorff's account of German losses at Third Ypres.

General Sir David Watson on the Third Battle of Ypres

What a sacrifice this operation entailed, and yet so necessary in the great final victory.

No one of us, who had previous experience of the Ypres Salient fighting, could anticipate without horror and dread, the orders received for the great effort and still greater sacrifices of Passchendaele.  The approaches to the front, and on beyond, were simply beyond description.  Wastes of mud, destroyed houses, roads torn up by constant shelling and above all, the vile weather conditions, that made life a burden.

Sir Douglas Haig, at a conference with the Canadian Generals some days prior to the attack, stated that the Canadian Corps would be the determining factor, for the date of the operation, as ours was the big effort, all the others being subsidiary to our main operation of the capture of Bellevue Spur, Crest Farm, and Passchendaele itself.

Our engineers at once started to lay our French Railways, guns were brought well forward, dumps of ammunition and supplies established, dressing stations located, and proper jumping off positions for the infantry were dug and prepared.  Night and day the work progressed under most trying and difficult situations.

It was decided to carry out the scheme in three staged operations, all of which as explained in the story following, were successfully accomplished and carried out precisely according to schedule.

It need hardly be a matter of surprise that the Canadians by this time had the reputation of being the best shock troops in the Allied Armies.  They had been pitted against the select guards and shock troops of Germany and the Canadian superiority was proven beyond question.  They had the physique, the stamina, the initiative, the confidence between officers and men (so frequently of equal standing in civilian life) and happened to have the opportunity.

As Philip Gibbs said of the battle of Passchendaele:

The Canadians have had more luck than the English, New Zealand and Australian troops who fought the way up with most heroic endeavour, and not a man in the army will begrudge them the honour which they have gained, not easily, nor without the usual price of victory, which is some men's death and many men's pain.

After an heroic attack by the Canadians, they fought their way over the ruins of Passchendaele and into the ground beyond it.

Their gains held, the seal is set upon the most terrific achievement of war ever attempted and carried through by British arms.

At and around Passchendaele was the highest ground on the ridge, looking down across the sweep of plains into which the enemy had been thrust and where he had camps and dumps.  Sir Douglas Haig's official report said:

Night operations were undertaken this morning (November 6th, 1917) by Canadian troops with complete success against the enemy's defences in and around Passchendaele and on the spur north and north-west of the village.  The assembly of our troops for the attack was carried out successfully, and at 6 a.m., the assault was launched as arranged.

The enemy had been ordered to hold this important position on the main ridge at all costs.  Hard fighting took place at a number of points on the Goudberg Spur.  None the less our troops made steady progress, and at an early hour the village of Passchendaele was captured with the hamlet of Mosselmarkt and Goudberg.

Before mid-day all our objectives had been gained, and a number of prisoners had been taken.

The enemy might brush aside the advance for the moment as the taking of a mud patch, but to resist it had at one time or another put nearly a hundred divisions into the arena of blood; and the defence cost him legions in dead and wounded.  To defend the ridge the Germans had massed great numbers of guns, machine guns which seemed absolutely without number, so incredible was their volume, and many of the finest divisions in the German army.

Passchendaele was but a dot on the map, but that the British should not take it the enemy spent much of his man-power and gun-power.  There had flowed up to his guns tides of shells, almost as great as flowed up to our guns in those later days of ammunition without stint.  Throughout these months he never ceased, by day and night, to pour out hurricanes of fire over all these fields in the hope of smashing the British progress.

A few days before, orders were issued to the German troops, given in the name of Hindenburg himself, that Passchendaele must be held at all costs, and if lost must be recaptured at all costs.

For several days the enemy had endeavoured to thrust the British back from the positions held round Crest Farm and on the left beyond the Paddebeek, where all the ground was a morass.  The Naval Brigade who had fought there on the left in the last days of October, had a hard and tragic experience; but it was their grim stoicism in holding on to exposed out-posts-small groups of men under heavy shell fire-which enabled the Canadians to attack from a good position.

Great tribute is due to two companies of British infantry, who with Canadian guides, worked through a large plantation, drove a wedge into the enemy territory, and held it against all attempts to dislodge them.

Through the night the enemy, who was not taken by surprise in what was happening, increased his fire, as though he at least guessed his time was at hand and he must fight with all the strength of desperation.  All night long he flung down barrages which were harassing, rained shells from his heavies and used gas shells to search and asphyxiate our batteries.  All night through he tried every devilish thing in war to prevent the assembly of troops.  Yet it was done.

The Canadians assembled lying out in shell craters and in the deep slime of the mud under all this fire.  Though these were anxious hours and a great strain upon officers and men, and casualties happened here and there, the spirit of the men was not broken, and in a wonderful way they escaped losses.

The night had been soft and moist, with threatening rain, but at daylight the sun shone in a clear sky.  Below the ridge our field guns were firing steadily and from away behind them heavy guns were sending through the air shells high overhead into the German lines. The forces which made the attack were from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Eastern and Western Ontario.  The enemy had added to his defensive army a new division, brought up the day before from Champagne.

All below the Passchendaele Ridge, the German monster shells were flinging up masses of earth and water.  Through all this the Canadians burst upon the enemy.  They fought up to and around the crest village from which the place takes its name.  They fought up to and captured blockhouses which were spitting streams of machine gun fire.  They fought in the cellars, in and around the village of Mosselmarkt and on the Goudberg spur.

The Germans could not withstand the fury of the onslaught.  Shot down, bayoneted and prisoners, they yielded, and the attacking forces passed on.

The bit of ridge so dearly held by the enemy was in the hands of the Canadians, and they had direct observation upon the enemy everywhere for miles around.  How many were taken prisoner by the Canadians can never be known.  Thousands of the stream which was sent back never reached our lines, being blown to pieces by their own barrage fire.

It is known that the cost to the Germans was fully 100,000 men.  The enemy simply swept all over the territory with his barrage fire when he knew he had lost.  That is why so many of the German prisoners became German dead.

Passchendaele was proudly added to the list of splendid engagements on the colours of Canada.  The northern bastion of Flanders and a position of vital importance had been captured.  The last of the chain of heights which the enemy had begun to fortify between the sea and Soissons at the end of 1914 had fallen.  It had gone the way of the Albert, Vimy and Messines ridges.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Duck-Boards comprised slatted wooden planking used for flooring trenches or muddy ground.

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