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Now, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled post.
Canadians Off to War
After a period of training in England, the First Contingent, formally known as the 1st Canadian Division, went to France early in 1915. They were briefly initiated to trench warfare on the periphery of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915.
Some of the significant battles that the Canadian Corps fought in prior to the 100 Days Offensive:
2nd Battle of Ypres
The Canadians saw their first large-scale combat at the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, in April 1915. This was also the first poison gas attack launched by Germany. On 22–23 April 1915, front line French troops who were in the path of the gas cloud suffered 2–3,000 casualties, with 800 to 1,400 fatalities. The French fled in all directions. The German troops, following the green cloud, advanced into the gap between Allied units and dug in. The Germans released more chlorine gas at Canadian troops defending the southern flank the following day. Canadian counterattacks eventually repelled the Germans and closed the gap. The Germans reported having treated 200 gas casualties, 12 of whom died. The Allies reported 5,000 killed and 15,000 wounded.
The Battle of Mount Sorrel
In an attempt to divert British resources from the Somme and to take the high ground overlooking the Ypres Salient, the German 2nd Army mounted several local attacks on Mount Sorrel and adjacent high points. Initially, the Canadians were pushed from their high ground positions before counterattacking and regaining their strongholds. The Canadian Corps remained in the Ypres Salient in a stationary yet aggressive status until the beginning of September when the Corps was transferred to the Somme.
During the battle, Major General Malcolm Mercer Commander of 3rd Canadian Division was killed. He remains the most senior Canadian officer to be killed in action.
The Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme was fought from 1 July to 18 November 1916. In the summer of 1916, the British launched the largest battle of the war on the Western Front, against German lines. The offensive was one of the bloodiest in human history. Over the course of five months, approximately 1.2 million men were killed or wounded at the Somme.
The Canadian Corps was involved in the final three months of fighting. The Newfoundland Regiment (not part of Canada at the time) was, however, involved on the first day at Beaumont-Hamel. The Newfoundland Regiment’s involvement in the War and it’s aftermath will be visited in a separate post.
The Battle of the Somme produced little gains and has long been an example of senseless slaughter and the futility of trench warfare.
The Battle of Courcelette
As part of the Battle of the Somme, on 15 September, Canadian soldiers launched a large-scale attack, capturing the remnants of the village of Courcelette. They successfully held their newly captured ground in the following days against German counterattacks. During this battle, Canadian soldiers used several new military tactics that would eventually solve the riddle of the trenches in later engagements.
First, was the creeping barrage. In the assault, Canadians walked behind an artillery barrage that would steadily advance towards German lines until the Canadians were on top of enemy lines and ready to fight. Prior to this, in an attack, soldiers would wait for their artillery bombardment to end before getting out of their trenches to charge across no man’s land and into enemy guns. This gave the defending troops time to get out of their bunkers and prepare for the attack.
Second, tanks were used on the battlefield for the first time, alongside the Canadians. Although slow, plodding and difficult to move, the large and imposing tanks were an effective psychological weapon against the Germans. In the end, only one tank reached its objective.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, Easter Sunday, 9 April 1917, was a part of the Battle of Arras. This battle has such significance to Canada that it deserves a special post of its own. Watch for it on Vimy Day, 9 April 2022, 105 years after the battle.
The Battle of Passchendaele
The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the 3rd Battle of Ypres, raged from July to November 1917 for control of the ridges south and east of Ypres and served as a vivid symbol of the mud, madness, and senseless slaughter of the Western Front. Early in October 1917, the Canadians were sent to Belgium to relieve the battered ANZAC forces and take part in the final push to capture Passchendaele.
General Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corps commander, inspected the terrain and was shocked at the conditions. He tried to avoid this assignment but was overruled by his superiors. As at Vimy, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps would see action. However, the ubiquitous mud, flat terrain, and relative lack of preparation time and artillery support would make Passchendaele a far different battlefield than the one the Canadians had encountered at Vimy Ridge. The Canadian victory at Passchendaele added to the Corps’ growing reputation as having the best offensive fighting force on the Western Front. While ostensibly an Allied victory, it was achieved at enormous cost. Of the 100,000 Canadian troops involved in Passchendaele, 4,000 were killed and 12,000 were injured.
The result of the Battle of Passchendaele was devastating. After 100 days there was a movement of the frontline of merely eight kilometres. Passchendaele was, arguably, decisive in the outcome of the First World War. The cost, however, was enormous, with more than 600,000 casualties.
Military cemeteries grew substantially. Tyne Cot Cemetery, which was originally an advanced nursing station, grew further in size after the Third Battle of Ypres. It is now the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world.
Many soldiers did not die at the hands of the enemy, but actually drowned in the mud of the waterlogged Ypres Salient battlefield. During a visit to the Passchendaele Museum, I saw this piece of art, “Falls the Shadow”, by Helen Pollock. The gesture of the arms symbolize soldiers’ sacrifice and the futility of war. It can also be viewed as representing the vigour of new growth, the indestructibility of the human spirit and a symbol of peace and regeneration.
German Spring Offensive 1918
With the success of the Bolshevik Revolution and the end of the Russian participation in the War, the German Army had gained a temporary advantage in numbers as nearly 50 divisions had been re-deployed from the Eastern Front. The Germans realised that their only remaining chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the United States could fully deploy its resources. As a result, on 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a series of offensives along the Western Front.
The initial offensive “Michael”, using savage barrages of gas and high explosive artillery, was intended to break the British control at the Somme. Michael caught the Allies by surprise and by the end of the first day, German troops had advanced more than seven kilometres and inflicted almost 30,000 British casualties. In total, this assault allowed the Germans to advance over 64 km to the outskirts of Paris. These advances were short lived and came at great cost to the German Army. The rapid advance exhausted the German troops as they outran their supply and artillery support. As a result, the offensive was halted by the General Ludendorff in early April.
In spite of early successes, the German spring offensives failed to defeat the Allies. Germany’s own loss of 800,000 killed, wounded or maimed from March to July exhausted its manpower reserves. It was also the first time that the newly arrived US troops were used along the Western Front.
The Canadian Corps escaped largely unscathed from the Germans’ spring offensive, but Sir Douglas Haig would soon call upon it to help lead a strategic counterattack. This offensive, launched in August against German forces badly weakened by the spring fighting, would be called the Hundred Days Campaign. The Hundred Days to Victory will be the subject of a future post.
A National Army
Canada was automatically at war with Germany and its allies in August 1914 as part of the British Empire. Yet the country had almost no military forces to commit to the war, other than a tiny navy, a small professional army of about 3,000 soldiers, and a variety of part-time militia units. Volunteer recruitment remained strong and the CEF grew steadily until 1916, by which time a Canadian Corps had been formed. The Corps consisted of four divisions, with a strength of 100,000 men, including infantry, artillery and engineering troops, as well as logistical and medical units.
The CEF was initially plagued by poor administration, largely thanks to political interference from Sam Hughes. He would appointed cronies to senior officer positions, and insisted that troops fight with the unreliable, Canadian-made Ross rifle instead of the British Lee-Enfield. After Hughes was pushed out of Cabinet by Borden in 1916, the CEF was gradually professionalized by its British and Canadian military leadership.
Canadian authority over the entire CEF steadily strengthened between 1914 and 1918, assisted by the Canadian Ministry of Overseas Military Forces, set up in London in 1916. Canadian training in England became entirely a Canadian responsibility. By the end of the war, what in 1914 had been merely a colonial contingent, was now a Canadian National Army.
The Canadian Corps took overall orders from the British military command, and was directly led by British generals. In 1917, following the Corps capture of Vimy Ridge, Arthur Currie was appointed the first Canadian commander of the Corps. As the war continued, the Corps repeatedly distinguished itself in battle, gaining a reputation as one of the elite fighting forces among the Allied armies. This success, combined with the fact that it was a national corps recruited and supported by the Canadian government, allowed commanders such as Currie to exert significant independence in deciding how the Corps was used and deployed in the field.
At home, volunteer recruitment for the war remained strong and the CEF grew steadily until 1916, by which time a Canadian Corps had been formed with four divisions. The Corps was Canada’s principle fighting force throughout the war, with a strength of 100,000 men by late 1916, including infantry, artillery and engineers, as well as logistical and medical units.
By late 1916, recruitment had slowed to a trickle, partly due to growing awareness about the horrors of trench warfare and the slaughter on the Western Front. In 1917, as Canadian casualties mounted, and the need for reinforcements increased, the government introduced the Military Service Act – conscription. The debate over conscription divided the country. For the most part, English Canada backed Borden, while Québec was opposed. Riots over the issue broke out in Québec, where support for the war had always been lukewarm. Borden managed to push the Military Service Act through Parliament and it became law on 29 August 1917. While only 24,132 conscript soldiers served on the front lines in Europe, they helped bolster the depleted divisions of the Canadian Corps during the final, important battles of 1918.
Throughout the war, 630,000 Canadians served in the CEF, mostly volunteers. About 425,000 of those went overseas. The price of their sacrifice was high — more than 234,000 were killed or wounded and thousands more came home alive, but traumatized by their experiences.
Ferocity in the Trenches
At the start of the war, Germans viewed Canadians as a minor variation of the British, albeit with very rough edges. They wore the same uniforms, trained in England and were commanded by British officers! At the start of the war, they could have been excused for making that mistake. However, by war’s end, that had all changed! The Canadian Corps’ reputation as an army of “no mercy” was known all across Northern France and especially among their German opponents. The German soldiers had begun to refer to the Canadians as “shock troops”; troops that would use shock and awe to break enemy lines. The Corps was almost exclusively used in an offensive role. When the Germans saw that they were facing Canadian troops, they knew exactly what to expect – an attack. More significantly, Germans who faced Canadians knew that surrender was pointless. Canadians were reluctant to take prisoners. However, unlike Germany, Canada had a near-untarnished record with respect to the treatment of civilians.
Canadians had come to Europe to end a war and it was a widely accepted opinion that they wouldn’t do anybody any favours by fighting that war in half-measures. General Currie did not mince words about what he had ordered Canadians to do in France, but he wasn’t bloodthirsty about it. After the war, he is quoted to have said: “War is simply the curse of butchery and men who have gone through it, who have seen war stripped of all its trappings, are the last men that will want to see another war.”