Halifax keeps memory of Passchendaele alive
By ROY MacGREGOR
Wednesday, November 6, 2002
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HALIFAX -- Eighty-five years ago today, the Canadians knew they had it won -- but at such a cost.
"I died in hell," the poem goes. "(They call it Passchendaele)."
Hell, said those who survived the battle, was a pretty weak description of what they had seen and would never forget. It was the fall of 1917, and British command had turned, in desperation, to the Canadians in an attempt to make headway on the most impossible battlefield of the war, the muddy fields surrounding a small Belgian village near Ypres.
The mud is what those who returned would always talk about. Mud formed on low-lying ground after months of rain and the explosions of an estimated four million shells. Mud everywhere -- slimy pools of it, glutinous swamps where men would sometimes slip down and never be seen again. The stench of dead bodies, horses as well as men, was said to be as terrifying as the constant bombardment itself.
The Canadians managed what other forces had not, but the cost of victory was enormous: 15,000 Canadian dead and wounded. A remarkable nine Victoria Crosses were awarded from this one battle alone.
One senior officer is said to have come to survey the Canadian victory and said, "My God, did we really send men to advance in that?" before falling to the ground in tears.
It was at Passchendaele that the 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion of Nova Scotia picked up the nickname the Neverfails. They were young boys mostly, many barely 18 years of age, and new to battle, having seen their first action at Vimy. At Passchendaele, 600 went into battle, 148 were killed and 280 were wounded; 85 of the dead have no known grave.
So powerful was this experience for those who survived that, in the spring of 1919, members of the 85th returned to erect their own makeshift memorial. They brought their own cement, but used water and sand from what had been called no man's land, so that those lost forever in the mud would, in a small way, form their own monument.
Lieutenant-Colonel J.L. Ralston, the commander of the 85th, the Nova Scotia Highlanders, wrote a letter that day to the families of those who had died, saying it had been "a melancholy satisfaction" to put up the memorial, knowing that all who died had perished within 550 yards of where it would stand. The surviving soldiers paid for a bronze plaque with the names of those who were lost there.
That plaque now sits in a room on the second floor of the Cavalier Building at the Halifax Citadel.
The monument the men put up with their own hands -- never an official Canadian war monument -- eventually cracked and crumbled and was on the verge of being removed when, three years ago, a group of Nova Scotians came together to make sure the sacrifice of the 85th would never be bulldozed away and forgotten.
When word came back to Halifax that the memorial was threatened, Stephen Kempton of the Canadian Coast Guard, whose grandfather had served with the 85th, went to work with Kevin Robbins, a Parks Canada historian, local politicians and families of the survivors to raise enough money to replace the structure.
It is a charming story of volunteerism, but it is made astonishing by the 85-year span of time. It involves children and grandchildren of those who fought sending in cheques and small bills. It involves a woman whose grandfather was at Passchendaele contributing a huge chunk of Nova Scotia granite to serve as the new memorial. It involves the Belgian Army pitching in to transport the huge rock to the site and building a special concrete platform to hold it. And it even involves the descendants of the farm owner saying, as the original owner had, that so long as this memorial is cared for, it will stand where the men originally erected it.
"People just kept turning up to help out on this project," says Robbins, who plans to put the original plaque on exhibit at the Citadel this coming year. A new plaque is on the granite block that now stands at Passchendaele.
The 85th fascinates Robbins, who works at the Citadel and each morning cuts across the ground where the battalion stood to be photographed before heading overseas. He sometimes looks at the old faded picture and tries to imagine which ones survived and which never made it out.
"They were mostly just high-school age," he says. "And they put up this memorial not to glorify war, but to remind us of the enormous cost of fighting for what you believe in."
The new memorial is still being paid for -- organizers remain about $5,000 short -- but it, too, was erected to remind.
"It just shows you," Kempton says, "history is still living."