For a long time, I did not know how to sort out the memories on November 11. As a student I wore a poppy, held silent in a school assembly, and watched the widows lay wreathes beneath the cenotaphs. I was always impressed by the lofty sentiments about sacrifice expressed in the speeches that day, but my mind struggled to make a connection with my own family: my grandfather who bared his scars and bellowed the words "Vimy Ridge!” as a threat, and my father, whose injuries from the second war sped him into alcoholism and an early death.

How does memory speak to us? Each November, over 13 million poppies blossom on the jackets, dresses and hats of Canadians. Everywhere we are moved by the sad words penned by the Canadian medical officer from Guelph, Ontario, John McCrae:

John McCrae
John McCrae was the Canadian medical officer who penned the poignant poem "In Flanders Fields." (courtesy NAC/C-19919).

”We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”

We need to turn a few more pages of history to help us understand the true meaning of those words. Perhaps no one battle agitates the memory as much as one that took place in Flanders Fields in 1917, at a place called Passchendaele.

Historians still debate the reasons why Field Marshall Douglas Haig initiated the slaughter there. The immediate goal was some barely perceptible high ground, from which the Allies might make an unlikely breakthrough to the Belgian ports. Fought on what John Keegan called the "awful, blighted, blasted and half-drowned surface” of the Ypres Salient in Belgium, the battle began with a massive bombardment of some 4 million shells, which reached a crescendo on July 31, 1917.

The Germans would give up ground and then launch a murderous counterattack. British losses mounted into the tens of thousands, but Haig ordered repeated attacks through August, September and October, each gaining a few hundred metres of slimy mud at the cost of thousands of lives.

The men died in many ways, mostly from artillery shells. At worst a shell could disintegrate a human being, leaving not a vestige that could be seen anywhere. Just as deadly, shell blasts could create vacuums in the body's organs, rupturing the lungs and producing hemorrhages in the brain and spinal cord, leaving no more visible mark than some singeing on the uniform. Much more common were wounds from shell splinters or shrapnel, which could amputate limbs, decapitate, or otherwise mutilate the human frame. To all this, Passchendaele added the special horror of death in the soupy mud, "this muddy vesture of decay.”

The mud of Passchendaele, churned by millions of shells, was a soupy mix of dirt, water and blood (National Archives of Canada).

Even Haig's most enthusiastic apologists agree that he should have stopped at this point, but he refused. His British, Australian and New Zealand forces exhausted, he then turned to the Canadians.

In the autumn of 1917 the Canadian Corps was the most successful in the British army. They had won impressive victories at Vimy Ridge, Arleux, Fresnoy and Hill 70. But the Canadian commander, Sir Arthur Currie, was reluctant to commit the Canadians to the useless slaughter at Passchendaele. He objected, but in the end he complied.

The Canadian assault began on October 26th. Attacking in small groups, the Canadians advanced with determination through the barbed wire and the fetid water of the shell holes. Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded for acts of individual bravery, one to Private Tommy Holmes, who single-handedly knocked out two machine guns, captured a pillbox and took 19 prisoners.

By November 6th, the Canadians were storming the ridge north of the village of Passchendaele. The 27th Battalion, recruited from Winnipeg, was given the task of taking the village with hand-to-hand combat against the desperate defenders. At a critical point Private James Robertson destroyed an important machine gun post, opening the way for his comrades to enter the village. Robertson, who was later killed, was awarded the VC.

Passchendaele (painting by Alfred Bastien/Canadian War Museum).

It had taken the Allies more than 98 days and 250,000 casualties, 16,000 of them Canadians, to capture Passchendaele. All that was left of the town was smashed brick and dust. In 1918 during a German offensive, it was handed back without a fight.

Most of the bodies of the men killed in the two world wars rest in France and Belgium where they fell. The grieving families themselves have mostly died off, but it is difficult not to feel the sadness of long ago. To read Winston Churchill say that the battle was "a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility” makes us shake our heads. To read one mother's inscription on her son's grave, "Oh for the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice so still,” breaks our hearts.