Passchendaele was one of the deadliest battles in Canadian history, but a new poll released exactly 100 years later finds that most Canadians can’t even correctly identify which war it was part of.
When given a list of five wars to choose from–including the Second World War, Korean War, Vietnam War and war in Afghanistan– only 35 per cent were able to correctly identify Passchendaele as part of the First World War. Millennials (ages 18 to 34) fared only marginally better than chance, at 27 per cent correct. Even most those over age 55 couldn’t pick the right war, with 44 per cent correct.
That’s according to a new poll of 1,001 Canadians conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the Vimy Foundation between Oct. 18 and 20. The survey is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
When given a list of 10 battles throughout history and asked which two Canadians participated in during 1917, only 25 per cent of those polled correctly chose Passchendaele, while 49 per cent could name Vimy Ridge. A full 35 per cent said they didn’t know.
There were nearly 3,600 Canadians killed and more than 7,000 wounded at Vimy in April 1917. At the Battle at Passchendaele, which was between Oct. 26 and Nov. 10, the Canadians corps lost more than 4,000 people while 12,000 were wounded.
It was a heavy price to pay for a country of just eight million people, especially considering the gains were abandoned to the Germans the following year.
But historians agree that Passchendaele – along with Vimy -- helped gained Canada international respect at a time when it was a 50 years-old former colony struggling to define its independence from Britain.
Like Vimy, it was an astonishing feat and one achieved under brutal conditions.
Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum, tells CTV News Channel Thursday that it was a “terrible battle” on a field torn apart by millions of shells where soldiers fought through “glutinous mud.”
When the Canadians arrived, “there were unburied corpses, thousands of corpses in fact, and the Canadians were called there to deliver victory,” Cook said. “They fought in four battles and they eventually captured that ridge.”
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie’s troops set out on Oct. 26 and clawed their way toward the Germans.
“On an exposed battlefield like that one, success was often only made possible due to acts of great individual heroism to get past spots of particularly stiff enemy resistance,” according to Veterans Affairs Canada’s online history. “Despite the adversity, the Canadians reached the outskirts of Passchendaele by the end of a second attack on October 30 during a driving rainstorm.”
“On November 6, the Canadians and British launched the assault to capture the ruined village of Passchendaele itself. In heavy fighting, the attack went according to plan,” the official history goes on. “The task of actually capturing the “infamous” village fell to the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion and they took it that day.”
In a final battle on November 10, the Canadians cleared the remaining soldiers from the Ridge, succeeding “in the face of almost unbelievable challenges,” says Veterans Affairs.
Nine Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross, including two who died in the battle.
“This esteem helped earn us a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the First World War,” according to Veterans Affairs.
Cook says that the battle was an important part of a war that changed Canada in many ways, both good and bad.
The good included the extension of the federal vote to women, who had taken up much of slack on the home front as more than 600,000 men went to war.
The war also “nearly tore the country apart,” Cook says, pointing to the conscription crisis. French Canadians were mostly opposed to forced participation and Anglophones were mostly in favour.
“It was a war where we stepped out onto the world stage,” Cook adds. “It’s also a war that leaves deep scars in our country.”
While Cook says historians love to fight over the meaning of historical events, he says: “we can agree it’s a war that forever changed us.”
Every single night, at 8 p.m., those who died in the battle are memorialized at the Menin Gate in nearby Ypres, Belgium with buglers who sound the Last Post. On Thursday, a Canadian contingent took part.