Trident Review - Passchendaele

Reviewed by: Virginia Beaton

A new illustrated book about Passchendaele, written by historian Norman Leach, has just been released to coincide with the debut of Paul Gross' film of the same name. The two men met before Gross began shooting his film and Leach recalled 'I loved his passion for the story and he loved my passion for history and the two of us knew we were going to work together. ' The author of three previous books about military history, Leach was historical advisor on the film. Of his new book, Leach stated 'It was essentially done for grades 10 to 12, though we think it has broken through and will speak to adults too.' He described Passchendaele as "one of the seminal battles' of that war. 'Each one advances Canada's position not just in World War I, but also where we are in the world.'. Together with Vimy and the battle for Hill 70, Passchendaele is a historical marker for the nation, Leach believes. Significantly, Field Marshal Haig requested, rather than ordered Canada to attack Passchendaele, Leach noted. 'If we were forged as a nation at Vimy, we were certainly tempered at Passchendaele.'

News regarding the battle was kept quiet at home because of the conscription debate that was taking place. 'If conscription didn't go through, Canada's whole position in the Allied army and its position as a nation would have been threatened because volunteers weren't filling the gaps any more. We couldn't keep our commitments without conscription. So Passchendaele gets lost in the politics of the day.'

Leach lectures about Canadian military history across Canada and around the world and commented 'The one thing I keep hearing is we have no military history, we are a peacekeeping nation. That's only true if you think Canada's military history starts in 1956, because prior to 1956 and peacekeeping in the Suez Canal crisis, we did have a military history. A significant one.'

While the book focuses on Passchendaele, Leach provides background to the First World War and insight into the young Canadian men who joined the military, and the experiences they endured in trench warfare on the Western Front. Through photos and text, Leach sets up a picture of a battlefield with conditions that are almost unimaginable today. There were chlorine gas attacks, constant artillery shelling and explosions, rain, and mud so deep, both men and horses drowned in it. Leach quoted one Canadian soldier who wrote 'The mud was waist-deep, and it rained almost continually. The engineers had laid wooden duck walks over the mud... If you stepped off the track you sank almost to the hips in mud... The troops were lying in open trenches wet to the skin, and the rain still came down.'

Leach said when he speaks to school groups, audiences often ask him why so many Canadians volunteered for service. Leach noted 'It was a very different time. Your friends signed up, your others signed up... Young men saw this as a grand adventure and they wanted to go. Not just to serve God and country, but also to impress girls and to tell the family they had done something important.'

In addition to the text, the book contains many black and white photographs, vintage recruiting photos and maps. Many of the photos are not widely known, according to Leach. Passchendaele: An Illustrated History is priced at $19.95 hardcover and is available from Coteau Books. Article by Virginia Beaton

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