October 23, 2017
Chronicle Journal (A3)

Thousands of men and women from Port Arthur, Fort William and the region served in the armed forces during the First World War. The poppy was adopted as a national symbol of remembrance in Port Arthur in 1921.This monthly column will share stories and photos about life here in Thunder Bay and overseas during World War One.

Passchendaele has become a byword for mud, rain and men drowning in flooded shell holes. The great Allied summer offensive, or ‘push’, in 1917 was literally bogged down from the start by bad weather. Land which already had a high water table was inundated with persistent heavy rain, turning the trenches and No Man’s Land into an impassable quagmire. The front line became nothing more than a series of isolated machine gun posts in which the men had to live and fight. The Germans were more fortunate in that they held the higher ground leading up to the Passchendaele Ridge which was the Allied objective. Today this ridge looks no more than a gentle slope with a village at the top; but from July-November 1917 it became the most bitterly contested battle field in France and Flanders. Not only could the Germans look down on the Allied positions, but they had a series of concrete and steel pill-boxes spread across the ridge which enabled machine gunners to lay down a deadly intersecting field of fire.

Thunder Bay’s own 52nd Battalion was involved in the attack which took place on 26 October 1917. Getting the assaulting troops up to the front line was in itself an exacting task. No communication trenches could cross the swampy ground, and the only means of approach forward of the roads and light railways were narrow duck walks which wound between the shell-holes and were in places submerged knee deep in mud. Men and pack animals slipping off these tracks were in danger of drowning. The weather had unexpectedly turned fine on the 15th, but nowhere save in a few captured pillboxes was life comfortable. The majority of the troops huddled in shell-holes covered with their rubber groundsheets.

During the night the weather broke. The attack went in at 5:40 a.m. under a wet mist that changed to rain lasting all day. The barrage, edging forward in lifts of 50 yards every four minutes, moved slowly enough for the infantry to keep well up while negotiating the encumbering mud.  When general failure in the centre of the Corps front resulted in a partial retirement on both flanks, Lieut. Robert Shankland, D.C.M., of the 43rd Battalion, who had reinforced his own platoon with elements of other companies and two detachments of the 9th Machine Gun Company, managed to maintain a small but important footing on the Bellevue spur, just north of the Mosselmarkt road.

With Shankland’s party holding on grimly in captured pillboxes and shell holes, Brig.-Gen. Hill’s 9th Brigade prepared a further attack. Towards noon a company of the supporting 52nd Battalion plugged the gap between his little band and the main body, while other companies went on to complete the capture of the Bellevue spur. Then working southward they successfully engaged one pillbox after another. Infantry sections created a diversion with their rifle grenades and Lewis guns, allowing smaller parties to work their way round to the blind side to throw in their hand grenades. By these means the defences of the Flanders Line were finally overcome. By mid afternoon the 52nd had captured Bellevue and Laamkeek, thereby taking a firm grasp on the intermediate objective. Lieut. Shankland’s was the first of three Victoria Crosses won by the 3rd Division that day. The other winners were. Capt. C. P. J. O’Kelly, M.C., who led his company of the 52nd Battalion in capturing six German pillboxes and 100 prisoners; and Private T. W. Holmes of the 4th C.M.R., who single-handed knocked out two machine-guns, captured a pillbox and took nineteen prisoners.

It had been a satisfying but costly attack. On 26, 27 and 28 October the Canadians had suffered 2481 casualties, including 585 killed, 965 wounded and eight taken prisoner on the first day. They had killed many Germans and captured 370. Though not completely successful, the operation had placed the attackers on higher, drier, ground and in a good tactical position to deliver the next blow.

This article runs on the fourth Monday of each month. John Pateman is a member of the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project committee. Please visit www.tbayworldwarone.com for more information about this project or to contribute personal stories and photos.