The Road to Passchendaele Part Eleven – 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Memorial

Up on the Passchendaele Ridge, this memorial to the 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion, the Nova Scotia Highlanders, can be found in the fields where they fought in the last days of October 1917.

We are just half a mile south of Passchendaele village itself, the rebuilt village church on the horizon,…

…and quite frankly, without this grass pathway that leads to the memorial,…

…which must really annoy the farmer,…

…we wouldn’t be getting anywhere near it with conditions underfoot as they are today.

But it once again reminds us what the soldiers faced on a daily basis,…

…our grass pathway making its way across the mud very much like the duckboards you see in so many old photographs,…

…as they snaked their way across the swampy wastelands of Passchendaele.

The memorial looks quite recent, or so I believed when we visited.

And indeed it is, but its story is far older, as the inset photo shows.

The battalion erected a memorial here before the war’s end, quite literally with their own hands, using water from the surrounding fields to mix cement, symbolically, at least, ensuring that their colleagues, whose bodies had been enveloped by the Flanders mud and would forever be missing, in some way became a part of the memorial.  It remembers 148 officers and men who fell in the four days of fighting around here between 28th & 31st October 1917, but by the late 20th Century the memorial was in poor condition and, it seems, threatened with collapse.

Word spread in Nova Scotia that the monument (never an official Canadian memorial, and therefore, presumably, looked after by nobody) was in danger, and a remarkable story unfolded.  People who felt strongly that the memorial should be saved banded together; families with grandfathers and uncles who fought at Passchendaele sent money (one lady whose grandfather was there donated a massive piece of Nova Scotia granite for a replacement memorial which the Belgian Army transported to the site), and a new plaque was made (the original is back in Halifax),…

…and now the new plaque, affixed to the new memorial, is sited here, near the limit of the battalion’s advance on 30th October.

The 85th had arrived in the line on the evening of 28th October 1917, just as the Germans launched a counter-attack in the area of Decline Copse.

The Canadians were immediately thrown into the fray, causing confusion among the Germans who began to withdraw, but not before themselves inflicting serious casualties among the Canadians, including ten of their twenty company officers killed (twelve if you include HQ staff and reinforcements), and many wounded,…

…as this document, from the 85th Battalion War Diary, shows in stark black & white.  The names of the officers who were killed are all on the memorial.

The battalion held the line throughout 29th October, the Germans in some places no more than twenty yards away, before attacking up the slope in the early hours of the following morning, an attack that, by the end of the day, had seen the Allies advance of a thousand yards along a mile and a half front,…

…and the capture of the ridges to the immediate south of Passchendaele itself.

View looking south, across the land over which the attacking Canadians advanced, towards, further in the distance, bearing in mind that this is the Salient, land still occupied by the Germans.  For once, and at long last, it was the British who held the high ground.

The trees in this panorama grow alongside the old Ypres-Roulers railway line,…

…the shaded area showing the rough site of Decline Copse in 1917.  Vienna Cottage, also mentioned on the memorial, was somewhere in the vicinity of the railway.

Looking east, the land beyond, sloping down on the eastern side of the ridge, unseen by the British Army for three long years.  There follows the six-page Appendix A from the 85th Battalion War Diary, describing the actions during these last days of October in detail:

Passchendaele itself would finally fall a few days later, on 6th November 1917, and we shall take a brief look at the rebuilt village (below) and its war memorial next post.

Huge thanks to Jennifer Holmes (see comments below) for her assistance with this post.

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24 Responses to The Road to Passchendaele Part Eleven – 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Memorial

  1. Sid from Down Under says:

    An excellent modern-day depiction of what WW1 soldiers endured daily. Mud and slush. The roadside sign points along the grass pathway to the memorial …. as a matter of interest, there didn’t appear to be a parking area …. where does one park the car before setting off on foot?

    OK – to better enjoy the cold, you were astride a motor bike LoL

    • Magicfingers says:

      Me? I don’t do motorbikes. Or any kind of bikes actually!!

      The parking business is a good question, actually. In Belgium, in my experience, at any rate, you can park your car most places briefly – actually, maybe that’s just me, as a foreigner, not caring (nor knowing) about the rules and urging Baldrick to “leave the car over there for a few minutes – It’ll be okay”. Oops. At the Nova Scotia Memorial you can see where we parked a few photos before the end of the post. But there are many occasions where we are on single track roads with ditches on either side, and that does present a problem. Hence the occasional extrication by tractor (you may remember) – but we always get to see our objective in the end!!

  2. Eric Sturk says:

    Visited the site on September 21, 2017. Left a poppy and Canadian flag in memory of Perry MacNeil. Parked in front of the sign. As we were leaving, 3 young men on bicycle rode by, and rudly shouted “You can not do that” meaning park over the bicycle lane. it annoyed me. There is a spot for one car on the dirt. The other Belgians we met were very nice, especially in Ypres.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Yes, I know one or two nice Belgians. Pity you encountered hoodlum cyclists, Eric. Coincidentally, I shall be just down the road from the memorial myself later this week.

  3. Jennifer Holmes says:

    Thank you for your photos of the 85th Battalion Monument and the surrounding area! Today, for first time, I was able to read the name of my great-uncle on the plaque. It made me weep. He died on October 30, 1917, and is buried in the New British Cemetery (so I viewed those photos, with great interest, as well). I thought that you might be interested in reading the story of the erection of the replacement monument.

    Thank you for bringing our fallen loved ones a little bit closer.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Hello Jennifer. What a very kind way to tell me that I’d got it wrong! I didn’t realise that the original memorial actually has been replaced. I did think it looked in remarkably good shape when I visited. Thanks ever so for that article. I shall correct and update the post later. Other than spotting my error (I’m only kidding – I rely on the folk who follow this site to put me right on the rare occasions I make an error – did I really say that?! – but I do seriously try to research as carefully as possible, but stuff can still slip through), I am so glad you found this post. I’m not going to apologise for making you cry though. I am so pleased you found his name, and, if I am allowed to say so, so glad you care enough about him to react in such a way.

      • Magicfingers says:

        I have updated the post, and you get a namecheck. Many thanks again Jennifer.

        • Jennifer Holmes says:

          Your description of how the new monument came to be, is wonderful. Thank you. There’s no need to keep my name there for posterity, but your acknowledgment was very kind. Your readers might be interested in a history of the battalion, which is available in digitized format on the internet, “The Eighty-Fifth, Canadian Infantry Battalion, in France and Flanders “, by Lt. Col. Joseph Hayes. I see that the author’s preface is dated Dec. 1st, 1919. My grandfather and a second great-uncle were also part of the 85th, and it is a fascinating read.

          I continue to enjoy your informative posts and incredible photographs.
          All the best.

          • Magicfingers says:

            You are too kind Jennifer! I am pleased you aprove of my quickly put together new text. I shall have a proper look at the link you sent me, for which thanks, and please do continue to tune in; if you tick the ‘Notify me of new posts by email’ box below, then it will do exactly that.

          • Magicfingers says:

            Following Claude’s comment, the post has changed yet again, as you will see. And you no longer get a mention – at least not until the very end now – ha! Credit where credit’s due, that’s what I say.

  4. Jennifer Holmes says:

    I learned today that “Canada Gate” is currently on board a ship, en route from Nova Scotia to Passchendaele. I hope that the following link works. If not, I’m sure that references can be found online. There is also video footage available. It is my understanding that the official unveiling is to take place in November.

  5. Claude says:

    great post as usual, would some people have pictures of the old memorial.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Hello Claude. Most kind. Your comment got me searching and I found a small photo of the original – the only one I could find – and I have included it now in the post.
      I have a cheeky favour to ask you. Either next year or 2019 I want to revisit the Ploegsteert cemeteries and update the whole ‘Tour of Ploegsteert’ that was published back in 2012 – the very first ‘tour’ on this site. Would it be possible to arrange for Baldrick and me to come and visit you at that time – I know there are areas of the wood where I would be trespassing if I entered, and I try not to do trespassing – and use some of your expertise for the update and see some of the wood that I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise? As I said, cheeky of me perhaps, but if you don’t ask you don’t get. So I have asked! Anyway, thanks again for your kind comment, and glad you’re still tuning in.

  6. Chip Buerger says:

    Visited the site on 7 November, placing a small wreath on the Memorial on behalf of those of us in the USA and Canada that promote the history of “the Neverfails” via living history events and reenactments (my cousin John William Finn served with the 85th, was KIA 2 September 1918). Got some beautiful shots of the site at sundown.

    Thank you for an excellent description. I had no difficulty finding the Memorial, nor any parking by the side of the road.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thanks for your kind comments Chip. Glad you appreciated this post. A friend of mine is/was a reenactor, English Civil War period. A good way to teach history. By the way, did you read (and follow the link) Jennifer’s comment above about “Canada Gate”?

  7. Erwin says:

    The Canada Gate is indeed a permanent memorial;

    Best regards


  8. Magicfingers says:

    Thank you Erwin. I shall certainly visit it the next time I head for Passchendaele.

  9. Bruce Bain says:

    Very nice pictures of the monument. I was there 3 years ago because I wanted to see where my grandfather was.

  10. Paul Henderson says:

    This was the first private monument erected on the western front. It is deep in the farmers field as the men placed it on line where they jumped off Oct. 31, 1917.
    An excellent painting done by Mary Ritter Hamilton i 1920 can be seen here:

    • Sid from Down Under says:

      Thank you Paul for this wonderful web link. An amazing site I enjoyed clicking around for at least one hour marveling over Mary Hamilton’s on-site many oil paintings soon after the Armistice. The bonus is they can be freely saved as JPEG. Commended for all to click around

  11. Paul Henderson says:

    Sid – When the 85th Bn., Nova Scotia Highlanders, CEF jumped off on Oct. 30th (not 31st as I noted above), on their right was the Ypres – Roulers railway. On the other side of the railroad were the 34th, 36th and 37th Battalions of the AIF. There was interaction between the two especially when 24 of 26 officers of the 85th were casualties. The Aussies sent some officers to keep the attack organised.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Paul. Thanks for your comments. I too spent some time looking at Mary Ritter Hamilton’s paintings, so thanks for the link.

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