19 June 2008

I'll pay money to see it, but I won't promise anyone I'll like it

Warning: The following includes a long rambling discussion of the First World War.

I have often thought that it is a pity there are so few movies dedicated to Canada's history. We rarely bring our history to life on screen, and when we do the result is often horrible, like the CBC's Dieppe, or CBC's story of the Avro Arrow.

Particularly lacking are any good movies about Canada's history of war. Our dedication to remembrance is often lacking, and today we have a whole host of intelligentsia who would rather forget that our nation once produced warriors and men of mettle, and would rather put forward their own ideal of manhood- a eunuch. Now, we have of late produced a fair number of excellent- really excellent- documentaries on the first and second world wars, but we have no equivalent of, say, Battle of Britain, Longest Day (though Canada is mentioned in Longest Day) Saving Private Ryan, All Quiet on the Western Front, and so on.

So it is with mixed feelings that I learned there is a movie about a battle of the First World War in the making, soon to be released- made in Canada, by Canadians, for Canadians. It's called Passchendaele.

Why are my feelings mixed? To be truthful, I had thought this particular battle could be the focus of a good movie, but I am worried that this may not be it. Let me begin by telling you a bit about Passchendaele.

The battle took place over the summer and autumn of 1917 in the salient around the city of Ypres- in fact, another name of the battle is actually The Third Battle of Ypres. It began, sort of, when British miners finished digging a series of tunnels under the German lines, and detonated a series of mines in an area near Ypres called Messines Ridge. The huge blast caught the Germans by surprise and the British virtually walked up the ridge to take over the German positions. The Germans lay dead everywhere on the ridge, killed by the concussive force of the blast, and with little effort, the British took control of the ridge.

It was a major victory, but what came next is a matter of some debate. Some say the British had a plan for a follow up, others say the British had no plan. Those who say the British failed to plan seem to me to be a bit more correct, for nothing happened for the next few weeks while the generals debate what to do with their new advantage, this hole in the German line. The battle to take advantage of the hole began three weeks later, the Generals seemingly under the impression that the hole was still there, when in truth it was closed perhaps an hour after the detonations.

The plan of the battle was to sweep through the hole in the line, swing to the North and capture the German submarine bases on the north shores of Belgium. The Generals, particularly Field Marshall Haig, were confident they would succeed. This confidence was due in part to a victory won by the Canadians a few months earlier at Vimy ridge. Haig had concluded the Canadians had won because the Germans were on the point of collapse. As a result, he used none of the innovations and tactics adopted by the Canadians which lead to their success. Instead, he more or less dusted off the plans from the previous year's battle, the Battle of the Somme, completely undeterred by the fact that the Somme was the greatest disaster in British military history.

So the Third Battle of Ypres opened up with a seven day bombardment of German lines. As was the case at the Somme, the bombardment did nothing. The Germans did not rely solely on trenches at Ypres, as the area had a very high water table, and any trenches were soon filled with water. Instead they adopted concrete structures which were soon nicknamed "pillboxes." The pillboxes were virtually immune to anything but a direct hit from the very heaviest of guns. The Germans hunkered down in their fortifications, and waited.

When I say the bombardment did nothing, I mean it did nothing much to the Germans. It did achieve something else: it destroyed the ancient drainage system in the area, so water could not drain from the area in the battle. It also blasted all the vegetation in nothing, and battered the land into a barren, cratered moonscape, just in time for the wettest summer on record.

Mud was the signature of Passchendaele. It is the mud for which the battle is remembered and cursed. Men drowned in it. Horses sank into and vanished. The soldiers were ordered not to help anyone who fell into the mud, but to push on. Soldiers often wrote later of how they would pass a man in the mud going one way, and pass the man again hours later going the other way, and they could see from the man's eyes that his mind was gone. The craters filled with water that soon became covered with a thick, oozing oily slime. Charge after charge was ordered into a battlefield that could not support the feet of the men who trod it. And conditions grew worse.

Flies bred in the craters and fed on the bloated corpses of the men and horses. The fields had been manured for centuries, and bacteria was everywhere. Any wound, even a simple scratch, almost inevitably became infected, in an era before reliable antibiotics. The battlefield resembled Hell to the men there. The name Passchendaele translates as the valley of the Passion. This was the place where God died, and God did die for many of the men here. Many troops became confirmed atheists in this battle, for they could never believe that a loving God would have allowed any of this to happen.

Summer bled into autumn, and the British forces had not even advanced far enough to capture the planned objective of the first day of the battle, the village of Passchendaele. Haig was under pressure. Parliament was growing unwilling to grant him more men for what they saw as Haig's futile schemes. Haig pulled in troops from other areas of the front. By fall, Australian and New Zealand troops had captured most of Passchendaele Ridge, but the village itself remained stubbornly in German hands. Haig realized he would be sacked if he did not at least capture the village and declare some small victory. He called in the last troops he had left: the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.

The General of the Corps, Sir Arthur Currie, resisted being sent to Passchendaele. "It'll take sixteen thousand casualties," he told Haig. "And it's not worth one drop of blood!" Haig believed sixteen thousand more casualties was a just price to save his career. He had already lost 300, 000. Haig ordered Currie to make the attack, or be relieved.

Currie dispensed with Haig's plans, and went and reconnoitred the battlefield himself. He chose his own line of attack, and set his own goals on the way to the village. The attack took place in three separate phases, with rest days in between to build up for the next attack.

The Attacks were successful due to good planning and a kind of insane courage the Canadians had become known for. In testament to this courage, nine men of the Canadian Corps were awarded the Victoria Cross for valour, the most ever to receive the award for a single battle. By November 10th the Canadians held the high ground. When Currie called Haig to tell him the village had been captured. Haig only replied 'Thank God, thank God." He declared victory. His job was safe.

Except there was no village to speak of anymore. It had been blasted into nothingness. The price to capture this nothingness was almost exactly what Currie had claimed. The total advance over those long bloody months was about seven or eight miles- seven or eight miles into a swamp.

It is said that a member of the British High Command, Genereal Kiggle, went forward to inspect the battlefield. As his driver lead him forward, Kiggle is said to have looked upon the field and said "Good God, did we order men to fight in that?" To which his driver replied: "It's worse up ahead, sir." Kiggle broke down, and wept.

There is a bitterness to this battle not seen anywhere else, not even the Somme which claimed twice as many casualties. The Somme is seen as a mistake, an error in judgement. Passchendaele is seen as a crime. The Generals lost so many men at Somme, and they learned nothing, and could think of nothing but to slaughter more men pointlessly again. To add a final insult to injury, all the gains made by the British forces at Passchendaele were swept aside in less than a week by the Germans in their final spring offensive of 1918. Winston Churchill described it as "a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility." It is a horror of the twentieth century, never forgotten by the men who served and saw it. One writer I have quoted before wrote of the battle in the "blood manured fields" and said "After Passchendaele, no man was ever the same, was more or less a stranger to himself." Men went insane there, and it only within the last decade or so that the last one of those men has died- his mind trapped for seventy years in the muddy hell that was Passchendaele.

So why do I have reservations about this movie? Because they've made it a love story. That's right, a love story. The tagline for the movie reads: "In love there is only one rule... don't die." Apart from being a hokey and badly written, what does this have to do with the battle? Perhaps this can be pulled off- maybe, just maybe, but why do the producers and writers and directors feel the need to give some kind of sugar coating to the event?

I will go see the movie, and for now I will reserve judgement, but I have fears that it will not do the battle, our men, justice. Then again, could any movie? I will only say, people seeing such a movie should come out remembering the men and their sacrifice, not that the leading man was a hunk, and the love story was just dreamy.

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