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Six battles shaped by weather and climate

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By Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter
Monday, November 10, 2014, 10:09 AM

November 10 marks the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the largest battles of the First World War, and one of the earliest proving grounds of Canadian arms and courage.

Aside from the staggering death toll, the battle is famous for the nightmarish morass of mud and rain that consumed the battlefield.

Perhaps appropriately for a country with a such a diverse array of winter climes, the weather has been a huge factor in many battles that shaped our national character.

Passchendaele is just one of six we selected for this feature.

October and November 1917 - Passchendaele

If you’re looking for one battle that sums up almost the whole experience of the First World War, it’s the Third Battle of Ypres. Or, as we know it, Passchendaele.

Image: Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons

Thousands of lives were lost for minimal territorial gain, among them 15,000 Canadians killed or wounded in one of the battles that helped forge our nation’s identity.

And as for the weather, it was so dismal it has become a part of the story.

The worst rains in 30 years turned the already bombed-out landscape into a nightmarish morass. Schoolchildren learn the stories of men and horses sinking and drowning in the mud. The quagmire clogged rifles and bogged town tanks. The downpours flooded foxholes and craters alike, robbing the advancing Canadians and British of valuable shelter, even as they pressed forward in waist-deep floodwaters.

Still, they made it, securing the area by November 10, including the bombed out ruins of Passchendaele itself.

To this day the argument rages over whether the whole thing was worth it, even as the courage of Canadian troops, in one of the first real tests of their mettle, continues to be celebrated.

June 6, 1944 - Juno Beach

When Allied boots hit the ground on the beaches of Normandy, it was the beginning of the end for Germany’s stranglehold on Europe.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

At the time, though, it must have seemed like a big gamble. As it was, the June 6 landing date was already 24 hours later than planned, due to lousy weather.

That same weather limited the amount of damage aerial and coastal bombardment could do against the Nazi’s seaside defenses, so when Canadian troops set sail in their landing craft for Juno Beach, they would potentially face the defenders at full strength.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Making matters even worse were choppy waters, with waves more than two metres high, that made it hard to land the tanks the Canadians would need to meet their objectives.

Still, the 15,000 men of the landing party made it to the beach, and faced some of the toughest resistance of all the Allied forces participating in the assault.

Several hundred of the invaders at Juno were killed – but not only did they take the beach, Canadian units penetrated deeper inland than any of their British and American comrades, making a good head start on the eventual liberation of the continent.

CALLING IT: The forecast for D-Day was very touch and go. Read about the down-to-the-wire decisions of Eisenhower's meteorologists.

December 1944 - The Battle of the Bulge

Although German forces never had a realistic chance of turning back the Allies once they’d made it past the beaches of Normandy, at the time, it seemed like Hitler’s counteroffensive in the Ardennes might do the trick.

The operation, launched in December 1944, was aimed at driving a wedge between, and surround, Allied forces, including the legendary Canadian First Airborne Division. 

Image: Library of Congress

Image: Library of Congress

Its German planners were specifically banking on the weather coming to their aid. Low fog and cloud neutralized Allied air superiority, and German disinformation campaigns had a good degree of success.

The Germans, in the meantime, expected the ground to be frozen solid, ideal for the kind of tank warfare that had served them well in the initial conquest of Europe.

Despite their great initial successes, the counteroffensive faltered when the weather cleared, and the Germans ran into serious fuel shortages that put a big damper on their tank tactics.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

While it was mainly American forces that felt the brunt of this last gasp by the Germans, the First Canadian Airborne division played its part, and is today credited with venturing deeper into enemy territory than any other Canadian force.

NEXT PAGE: That one time America invaded Quebec. In winter.

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