Ninety nine years ago, the Battle for Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres) lasted from July 31 to November 10, 1917. The final offensive to capture the ridge, upon which the tiny village of Passchendaele was situated, would take away a German strategic advantage. For the Yukon, the most glorious and the most tragic day of this campaign was October 30.
Around the city of Ypres lay a ten-kilometre-wide zone of craters filled with water and bloated, rotting corpses. “Passchendaele Ridge dominated the Allied Front,” writes historian Tim Cook in his book Shock Troops, “with spurs and heights that channelled attacking soldiers into killing grounds and provided the enemy with sweeping fields of fire.”
“A fit man could probably have run up the ridge in ten minutes; through the glutinous mud, barbed wire, and enemy fire, it would take the Canadian Corps nearly three weeks and every step cost a few lives…. The eviscerated dead and desiccated horse corpses jutting from shell craters or pushed off the few dry roads provided clear evidence of the terrible battles that had been fought over this godforsaken land.”
Fred Wyatt, a miner from Dawson with the 72nd Battalion (Seaforth Highlanders), had been killed in an offensive a few days earlier. Now the Canadians planned to approach the village along ridges to the left and the right. When 420 field guns opened fire at 5:50 a.m on the morning of October 30th, the 72nd Battalion was part of the assault on the ridge on the right-hand side.
Among the 270 casualties the 72nd suffered that day, two northerners were killed. Frank Desales was an Irishman who had been mining in the area of Atlin, British Columbia, before signing up in Victoria in June of the previous year. George Cassidy was a Dawson miner who had enlisted in Victoria three days after Desales.
The objective of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) lay along the north side of a bog, protected by several fortified concrete enemy pill-boxes — positions from which heavy machine gun fire could be laid down with impunity despite Allied rifle fire and artillery bombardment. With communication lines broken, and under heavy fire, Yukoner Lieut. James Christie passed through the enemy barrage several times to deliver vital information to the command post. His party took brutally heavy losses until they reached a seemingly unassailable pill-box, with machine guns firing in every direction.
Most of the officers had been wounded or killed. So Christie and two other “Patricias” — 26-year-old American-born sergeant George Henry Mullin, and Lieut. Hugh MacKenzie, of the Brigade Machine Guns — seized the initiative.
Christie, who led a sniper unit, took up a position from which he could lay down deadly covering fire. MacKenzie dashed from shell hole to shell hole to organize the assault. As his small party rushed up the slope, machine guns in the pill-box concentrated their fire upon them and MacKenzie was killed.
Meanwhile, Mullin crawled up the slope and took the pill-box single-handedly. “He rushed a sniper’s post in front, destroyed the garrison with bombs, and, crawling on to the top of the ‘Pill-box,’ he shot the two machine-gunners with his revolver. Sgt. Mullin then rushed to another entrance and compelled the garrison of ten to surrender.”
For this Mullin and MacKenzie were awarded the Victoria Cross; Christie received the Military Cross.
Meanwhile, to their left, another Yukoner, Major George Pearkes, a Mountie who had been posted to Whitehorse before he enlisted, had an important objective. Ahead of him lay a number of heavily armed strong points known as Source Farm, Vapour Farm, Vanity House and Vine Cottages. These points held a commanding view of the Canadian operation and had to be taken if the Canadians were to succeed. Early on, Pearkes received a shrapnel wound to his thigh, but continued forward with his men.
Within a couple of hours of the start of the battle, they had successfully taken their target, but advancing through exposed low-lying ground, they had suffered heavy casualties. They held onto their tenuous position with grim determination. During the day, Pearkes repeatedly sent messages back to headquarters indicating their perilous situation, and asking for reinforcement. A few men succeeded, under heavy fire, to join them, but they were so low on ammunition that they had to crawl in the open to retrieve the ammunition, grenades and machine gun pans from their dead comrades.
They fended off enemy counterattacks, but Pearkes’ command was reduced to a handful of desperate men. Just after dark, he dispatched a message back to command. “Men of 5th CMR Bn all in,” he reported, “Do not think I can hold out until morning.” But hold they did, until they were relieved sometime after midnight.
If Pearkes and his men had not taken and held this position during the bloody battle, it is possible that the assault on Passchendaele could have failed. For his leadership in this battle, Pearkes was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The battle took a heavy toll that day. In addition to the two volunteers from the 72nd Battalion, seven Yukoners from the PPCLI were killed. Among them was Peter Allan, a forty-five-year-old Klondike miner from Dawson, who was last seen around six o’clock in the morning, as his company went into action. George Otis, a Dawson volunteer, was, like Allan, originally from Quebec, and also a miner.
Short and stocky, with dark hair and hazel eyes, Francois “Frank” Pregent mined at Granville on Dominion Creek. Before the war, Joseph Tilton had been a teamster living at Moosehide. All four men, in their mid-forties, enlisted with the George Black contingent, but found themselves transferred to another infantry unit. As a result they reached the Western Front in time to die for their country at Passchendaele.
Three more brave Yukoners from the Princess Patricias died at Passchendaele on October 30: Fred LaBlanche, William Kerr, and Peter Morrison. Ten percent of all of the Yukoners who died in service during the war were killed that day. Tragically, none of their remains were recovered for burial. Their names are among the thousands inscribed at the Menin Gate, a memorial to the missing soldiers, located in Ypres, Belgium.
The German and Allied forces suffered more than half a million casualties between them during the Third Battle of Ypres, and for what? The village of Passchendaele was reduced to a pock-marked moonscape into which no living thing dared venture. It was to become symbolic of the callous waste of human life, in the face of some of the worst battlefield conditions ever encountered.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org