What's On Winnipeg Review - Passchendaele

What's On Winnipeg
Reviewed by: Ron Robinson

With Remembrance Day on Tuesday, it is worth noting that Passchendaele is as close as Valour Road. The legendary First World War battle is where Winnipeg's Robert Shankland won his Victoria Cross. Just as our new mural remembers his courage, and gives a hero a face, so these two new books make the past present. Both books straddle their chosen categories. The first is a 48-page picture history. That's not a lot of pages to describe an involved story, but author Norman Leach, who also served as historical adviser for Paul Gross's film Passchendaele, succeeds.

Leach introduces the war, giving context and Canadian expectations -- our close ties with Britain and adventure. He follows this with the training regimen and the introduction of our troops into the stalemate of trench warfare. Canadian innovations are highlighted - both Gen. Julian Byng at Vimy and then Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie at Passchendaele saw to it that all troops knew what their objectives were, realizing that extensive preparations increased the likelihood of success with fewer casualties. Fewer casualties still meant staggering losses. Currie estimated 16,000 at Passchendaele, and the civilian turned soldier was right. Canadians were nicknamed "storm troopers'' by the Germans, and that reputation meant attacks that required ferocity and determination were assigned to them Passchendaele was part of Gen. Douglas Haig's great plan to move swiftly to the Belgian coast to capture submarine bases that were threatening British supply lines, and a very serious threat to victory.

Since the British Army had been bled dry, the French were facing mutinies and Russia was teetering towards collapse, which would free up German troops for the Western Front, the Canadians were ordered to take the heights of Passchendaele. Currie agreed, but saw to it that the Canadians would fight as a unit and with sufficient preparation and artillery support. On Oct. 26, 1917, the Canadians, including the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, went over the top. The landscape was a Bosch painting brought to life. With the man-made dikes destroyed by shelling, the excessive rainfall and constant artillery barrages between the trenches, it was a quagmire. In 16 days the Canadians achieved where others had failed.

Leach avoids the language of hero worship and points out that it wasn't long before all the territory the Canadians had paid so dearly for, including the bodies of over 1,000 Canadian soldiers that were never found, had been given back to the enemy. Leach's book concludes with an end to the war and a summation that for all its seeming failure, Passchendaele made a significant contribution to ending the four years of slaughter.

This title is suitable for adults as well as classroom use, the marriage of layout and content is very satisfying. The quality of the photos, in both substance and reproduction, push the statistics off the page and put you in the sodden, mud laden, poorly made boots of one poor bloody infantryman. The second book, a novel, also straddles its category. Passchendaele, based on the screenplay by Paul Gross, faces the danger of most 'based on' projects -- the gruel gets thinner the farther it's removed from the original. Indeed, most titles of this nature are like ill-fitting suits on skeletons -- they lack substance. Credit then to the unnamed writer. The danger is to make it all visual. Here the story pays attention to all the senses, from the stench of battle to a fresh breeze on an Alberta hillside, from the tingle and itch of morphine addiction to fingers tracing a lover's scars. The novel, a love story, with its wartime impetus, shows us the Canadian home front in Calgary, as well as the unrelenting horror of the trenches. It tries to include too many social issue revelations, and has a coincidence that would make Dickens blush, but serves as a complementary volume to the illustrated one.

Both include an educational section at the end for further reading and research. And both take John McCrae's poetic 'We are the dead' and bring it to life for a new audience. Article by Ron Robinson.

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