Wartime

Wartime

Moving Heavy Equipment On Muddy Roads

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Running Time
07 min 58 s

This footage probably dates from the campaign known as the Battle of Passchendaele in the fall of 1917, when the wet muddy terrain posed great difficulties. In the first segment, men struggle to load a large rolling gun onto a narrow-gauge railway trolley. The next shot of a mounted officer leading a horse-drawn battery is followed by images of artillerymen straining to position a BL 6” 26CWT (breech loading, 6-inch-wide barrel, 26 hundred weight) howitzer and a subsequent shot of the crew preparing to cover the gun with tarpaulin.

An image of three men digging lumber out of the mud is followed by images of men using horses to free heavy artillery from wet ground. We then see shots of men handling heavy equipment that has been fitted with wheel pads to ease movement over soft ground. Yet another shot of men struggling to position heavy artillery into firing position is followed by a high-angle shot of field artillery and their horse teams. An image of a large artillery piece being towed by tractor is followed by shots of horse-drawn artillery moving across a battlefield. A nearby corpse is visible. The clip closes with another sequence of men toiling to move heavy artillery through mud and a final shot of men digging lumber from wet ground and assisting horses.

The Battle of Passchendaele was fought in horrific conditions. Over five days in mid-October 1917, Canadian troops marched out of the train station in Ypres to find a town where the bombed-out cathedral and cloth hall were among the few surviving buildings. Leaving the ruins of the town, they marched northeast onto a desolate expanse of destruction. The few among them who had fought here in 1915 could barely recognize the terrain. Former landmarks had been obliterated along with entire villages. Intense shelling had destroyed the irrigation systems that drained the low-lying farmland, and the whole area had been transformed into a fetid sea of mud, littered with artillery shells and human remains. Unusually heavy rain made matters worse. Troops had to make their way over slippery duckboards, and those who fell into the mud risked drowning. Many men and animals would die this way.

The wet cold and poor hygiene contributed to ill health. Men came down with tuberculosis, meningitis, flu and a host of other diseases. Regular foot inspections were conducted to minimize “trench foot,” an incapacitating condition caused by wet boots.

Finding dry ground to locate heavy guns was a constant challenge. As the front line moved forward, gunners had to move weapons from one firing position to the next. Supplying ammunition was hazardous, with men carrying fresh stocks across the featureless and boggy terrain at night and piling them alongside the gun. At any time an enemy shell could strike, setting off an explosion that would destroy all men and equipment in the area.

The fighting continued until November 6, when British and Canadian troops took Passchendaele village, and Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig finally ended the attack. It was one of the most controversial episodes in the war. In total, the Allies lost about 300,000 men, including almost 16,000 Canadians.


Pieces of History

Artillery: The Great Killer

Military Logistics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1919


Images

Getting a Howitzer into Position on the Canadian Front, [ca. 1918] Positioning the Heavies Hauling Heavy Shells Pack Horses Taking Up Ammunition to Guns of 20th Battery. C. F. A., Neuville St. Vaast, April 1917 The Frost-hardened Ground of the Ridge Melted as the Day Wore on

Teaching Materials

Warfront: Building Bridges