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Passchendaele

Passchendaele wins 5 Genies - April 2009

  • Best Motion Picture (Niv Fichman, Francis Damberger, Paul Gross, Frank Siracusa)
  • Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design (Carol Spier, Janice Blackie-Goodine)
  • Achievement in Costume Design (Wendy Partridge)
  • Achievement in Overall Sound (Lou Solakofski, Garrell Clark, Steve Foster)
  • Achievement in Sound Editing ( Jane Tattersall, Kevin Banks, Barry Gilmore, Andy Malcolm, Dave Rose)

The official Passchendaele movie website - revamped and now showing the movie trailer, photo galleries, interviews with cast and crew, WW1 artefacts etc.

Principal Filming - official press release.

Passchendaele - The Movie (Facebook group)

Front Lines - The Trenches. Claude Guilmain, 2008, 9'45".

This short documentary, narrated by Paul Gross and made in 2008, looks at life in the trenches in the First World War. Front Lines features veterans' letters to their families and images from the NFB archives, the Canadian War Museum and Library and Archives Canada. If you can't see the video, check your pop-up blocker settings.


More on this at the National Film Board of Canada website.

Barbed wire

Paul Gross has never been able to forget watching his grandfather die.

"He went completely out of his mind at the end. He started telling me about a hideous event that happened during a skirmish in a little ruined town in World War I. He'd killed someone in a miserable, horrible way and that had obviously haunted him throughout the rest of his life. As my grandfather died, in his mind he was back in that town, trying to find a German boy whom he'd bayonetted in the forehead. He'd lived with that memory all his life - and he was of a time when people kept things to themselves. When he finally told the story, it really affected me and I've not been able to get it out of my head." - Paul Gross, Now Magazine (UK), 11 June 1998

Unable to rid himself of the tale, Paul decided to put it down on paper. It is now a screenplay and on 8th November 2005 came the long-awaited announcement that the project was to go ahead. Filming started on 21st August 2007 and the movie will be released on Remembrance Day, 11th November, 2008. The Government of Alberta is helping to fund the project and their initial press release is here. You can watch a video of the news announcement and hear Paul pay tribute to his grandfather here.

During his online AOL chat in 2000, Paul explained that his Passchendaele screenplay is "set in the First World War in Flanders (Belgium) and in Canada (Calgary). It's largely a love story that culminates in the third battle for Ypres, which was known as Passchendaele and has more or less become synonymous with the futility of modern war. It's still a little ways off though - it costs a lot a lot a lot of money. Anyone with forty million?"

Now, eight years down the line and with filming now completed, we have more detail. Passchendaele follows the life of Sergeant Michael Dunne, a soldier who is transferred from France during World War I to recover from injuries in a Calgary hospital. While recovering, he meets Sarah, whose family has also been affected by the war. Sergeant Dunne leads Sarah's reluctant brother David back into the gruesome battlefield in Passchendaele.

Barbed wire

And while we eagerly await the film's release, in case you were wondering how exactly Canada got involved in a European war here's some of the background.

CanadaGreat BritainAt the beginning of this century Canada still had many bonds with Britain. Political ties automatically involved Canada in any war Britain fought, but the emotional ties were equally strong. Many citizens of this young nation were first generation immigrants and they felt it was their obligation to fight for their ancestors' homeland.

Europe in 1914On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was shot dead in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. One month later, Austria declared war on Serbia and so the First World War began.

It was a war waiting to happen. Europe was already divided into two hostile camps, with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire lined up against Russia, France and Great Britain.

Russia was on the brink of revolution, so the Tsar was glad of the opportunity to focus his people's attention on supporting their slavic ally, Serbia, against the Austro-Hungarians.

France was still suffering from the humiliation of having been forced to give up Alsace-Lorraine to Germany following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71.

Germany invades BelgiumBritain was worried about Germany's military strength and the balance of power in Europe. Germany had spent decades acquiring a large colonial empire and the military strength with which to defend it.

When Germany invaded neutral Belgium in order to attack France "through the back door", Britain and her allies - including Canada - decided to enter the war.

So the stage was set for the "war to end all wars", which was to last four years and cost eight million lives.

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"We're not making a sacrifice.
Jesus, you've seen this war.
We are the sacrifice." - Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

A Soldier's Tale, by Monika Krzizala

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

When we came here we expected something. We were young and we wanted adventure. We wanted to defend the homelands of our forefathers. We wanted to put our skills as doctors and nurses to the test. We wanted to help. We wanted to get away from home. But we didn't want this.

They taught us to hold a rifle, to dig trenches, to march, to obey orders.

It was always night when they changed the soldiers in the trenches. We stayed for a week at a time. No one could endure it longer. We did it. The enemy did it. Passchendaele was a sea of mud, churned up mud with mucky shell holes. There were no trees to be seen anywhere. We had to march in single file for five or six miles because of the mud.

DugoutsMarching at night, it was pitch black; you couldn't see a thing. You noticed the smell, though. There were open latrines everywhere. Bodies were rotting away and you couldn't do anything about it. And you couldn't lie down anywhere, so you lay in the mud or you dug a hole in the ground or made a cut in the wall of the trench.

With the morning light the snipers and shells came. You never saw the enemy. All you could see was the sky above you. We were wet and cold. There was water everywhere. Once, I wrapped my coat around my feet so they wouldn't freeze off, but a sergeant came and ordered me to remove it, saying I was too comfortable. So we sat in our holes. We fired back. And we waited. God, it was boring.

We sat and listened to the shells for days, just waiting for one to hit our dugout. If you stuck your head over the parapet, a sniper might get you. We couldn't bury our dead properly. Sometimes it was hard to fill a sand bag without disturbing the remains of someone buried too close to the surface.

There were unspoken agreements with the enemy. Our commanders wanted a certain number of shells fired, so we fired them during certain times of the day and avoided others. Meal times we avoided. If we made life particularly miserable for the Germans, they would make it just as bad for us.

There was this one Christmas, in 1914. They started singing Christmas carols and we joined in. On Christmas Day no shells were fired, no snipers were at work. For a few hours we were just people. But it was a one-off thing. The next day the war continued nastier than ever, and it was as if Christmas had never happened.

Then the gas came - mustard gas. It crept over the ground and there was no escape from it. If it touched any part of you, on the inside or the outside of your body, you got blisters and huge sores. Until they invented gas masks, a piece of wet cloth was all the protection we had. Many of us fled in panic as the cloud of gas rolled nearer, and then got hit by shells and shrapnel.

Someone's final resting placeWhen you got wounded, you had to get to triage in the dressing station first. There, people were divided into the hopeless, the badly wounded and those who didn't need immediate attention. If you could still walk and the dressing station was full, you had to go to the next one, which might be five or six miles away through the mud and the gore.

There were never enough doctors and nurses, and for 900 men we had 16 stretchers. There was no time for fancy surgery. The doctors patched us up and sent us out - home if we were lucky, or back to the war if we could still be used. Some people lost limbs; others lost half their faces and had to have masks made after the war to hide their disfigurement.

This went on for four gruesome, bloody years. In the end everybody just wanted it to be over. We'd had enough of the cold, the mud, the wounds, the dysentery, the rats, death. We couldn't stand the thunder of the shells and the cries of our friends. We didn't want to fight any more for pieces of raped earth. We were sick of being sacrificed.

And when it was finally over and we were allowed to go home, many of us couldn't make it any more. We had to be left behind, buried in foreign soil. Or, like me, lost somewhere in the mud of Passchendaele.

Poppies
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

- John McCrae (1872-1918)

Page written and researched by Monika Krzizala