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Topical Film Company
The Duke of Connaught inspects Canadian artillery in training Camp.’ The Duke of Connaught arrives to be greeted by officers and a lone civilian. Canadian’s 18-pounder guns and limbers pass the Duke - in the background massed horse artillery can be seen stretching across the plain ready to pass in review. Medium shot of the Duke as he takes the salute.
Pieces of History
Overseas Training in the Canadian Expeditionary Force
the sole object of training is to prepare our forces for war, success in battle being constantly held as the ultimate aim... It is the function of training to develop the mental, moral, and physical qualities as highly as possible in each individual, and also to inculcate by theory and practice the methods of employing the various arms in co-operation to the best advantage...1
As this passage demonstrates, military instruction consisted of two fundamental aspects: training of the individual soldier and training of formations. When new recruits joined the service, they first needed to learn the basic skills of soldiering—marching, drill and marksmanship. Once these were mastered, the soldier would continue to train for his specialized trade, whether it be infantry, artillery, engineering, signals, medical or supply. Then the individual would join a formation based on his trade, and training continued at the unit level on a regular basis. The ultimate objective was for each component of the army to function cooperatively as part of the whole; this was achieved through exercises at the battalion, brigade and divisional levels.
The first overseas contingent of Canadian troops was formed at Valcartier, Quebec, during August-September 1914. Much of the time at Valcartier was occupied with administrative details, and limited training was accomplished before the contingent—soon to be known as 1st Canadian Division—embarked for England in October. Upon arrival, the division was posted to Salisbury Plain, a large British training area, where it remained until February 1915.
The weather that winter was especially wet, and until recently, scholars have agreed that relatively little training was completed before the division moved to France. Recent research suggests, however, that despite inclement weather and other distractions, most elements of the division engaged in productive training on Salisbury Plain. The infantry learned to manoeuvre in conjunction with artillery and machine guns. Other divisional elements, such as engineers, artillery and signals, as well as mounted and transport troops carried out their own specialized programs. The engineers, for example, learned how to construct field fortifications, while the artillery brigades rehearsed their gun drills. The divisional transport and ammunition columns, meanwhile, discovered the intricacies of moving supplies around the battle zone.
The training of 1st Division did not cease after it crossed the English Channel in February 1915. Upon arrival at the front lines near the Franco-Belgian border, the Canadians were matched up with experienced British troops for orientation tours. The evidence suggests that this formative experience was overwhelmingly positive. As one soldier later recalled, “nothing could surpass the patience of” his British teachers “or their brotherly kindness to us as comrades in arms.”2 The Canadians also learned about the costs of war, as they suffered their first casualties and witnessed the damage inflicted on the landscape.
In the summer of 1915, the 2nd Canadian Division arrived in England and began to train at Shorncliffe Camp. The open ground was ideal for company and battalion manoeuvres, and much of the instruction revolved around the challenges of trench warfare. Some of the officers attended British courses, while others went to France for short combat tours with 1st Division.3 With the expansion of the Canadian Corps to four divisions during 1915-16, additional training space was required for the new arrivals in England. A camp was opened at Bramshott in late 1915, and additional camps were added in 1916, including Crowborough, Hastings, New Shoreham, Seaford and Witley.4
As the war progressed, a broad selection of specialized schools was established—both in England and in France—covering everything from hand grenade training to field sanitation. Instructional programs were gradually standardized, while the British Army Printing and Stationery Depot produced a vast selection of training literature on every conceivable subject.
New technology appeared on the battlefield throughout the war and was reflected in training programs. In April 1915, for example, the German Army introduced chemical weapons to the Western Front. All soldiers were issued with respirators for the duration of the conflict and gas drill became an important component of basic training. Later in 1915, the .303 calibre Lewis gun, a portable automatic rifle, was issued to British and Dominion forces. Here again was a new piece of equipment to be mastered. In common with other types of military training, the correct procedure was subdivided into a simple series of component tasks.
Not all military instruction revolved around weapons systems and tactics. Sport and physical exercise were also important; peak fitness was vital if soldiers were to function under the strain of battle. As the British Army Manual of Physical Training explained:
a soldier should be well disciplined, a good marcher, intelligent, smart, active and quick, able to surmount obstacles in the field and capable of withstanding all the strains and hardships of active service...5
Fitness was achieved through physical drills, “Swedish” exercises and regular sporting events. Organized games and competitions not only fostered physical fitness, but also improved morale and encouraged teamwork. During the summer months, battalions, brigades and divisions organized their own sporting events in rear areas. After the war a veteran fondly recalled a sports day from the summer of 1918:
Who lives that does not remember the day of brigade sports at Izel-les-Hameaux? There were races and jumps and hurdles, something for everyone, a ring to box and wrestle in, baseball and football championships. The day was fine... everybody was there. It was a gay scene, the boys of four battalions and the airmen who joined us for the fun, all rollicking together...6
By late 1916 the Canadian Corps was a veteran formation, and had suffered heavy casualties in a series of costly battles, including Second Ypres, Festubert, St. Eloi Craters, Mount Sorrel and the Somme. In addition to formal training routines, this practical and bloody battle experience shaped the capabilities of the Corps. At the same time, the high casualty rates meant that large numbers of new recruits were constantly arriving in France and Belgium. Some Canadian commanders were dissatisfied with the level of basic training displayed by these reinforcements, and decided to establish their own courses at the battalion, brigade or divisional levels. These short refresher courses helped to ensure that new arrivals were familiar with the basics of soldiering before being thrust into the unforgiving front lines.
Training was an ongoing process throughout the First World War, as Canadian units were created, consumed in combat, reformed, and once again committed to battle. Under the challenging tactical and operational circumstances of 1914-18, nothing could have prevented high casualties, but effective training improved the chances that soldiers would succeed on the battlefield.
1Training and Manoeuvre Regulations, 1913. London: General Staff, War Office, 1913, p. 10-11.
2George Drillie Scott Fonds, LAC, MG 30, E 28.
3G.W.L. Nicholson. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1962, p. 113.
4David W. Love. “A Call to Arms”: The Organization and Administration of Canada’s Military in World War One. Winnipeg: Bunker to Bunker Books, 1999, p. 91.
5Manual of Physical Training, 1908. Rev. ed. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1914, p. 7-8.
6James H. Pedley. Only This: A War Retrospect, 1917-1918. Ottawa: CEF Books, 1999, p. 175-176.
Artillery: The Great Killer
In 1914 and 1915, artillery proved it was the great killer. For those caught in the open, shrapnel and high explosive shells wreacked havoc. Thousands were left rotting on the battlefields. However, artillery guns were vulnerable to small arms fire, and they could be driven away from the front. But the guns were soon firing indirectly from hidden positions several kilometeres to the rear, still causing terrible damage. Soldiers were forced to find safety in trenches, digging beneath the ground to escape the murderous fire.
As trenches were strengthened with barbed wire, deep dugouts, and machine -guns, an enormous weight of fire was needed to smash the enemy defences and support the infantry. But there were not always enough shells in the early years to feed the guns. And so the infantry were killed in the tens of thousands as they attacked undamaged enemy trenches in frontal assaults. As the war lengthened, artillerymen received nearly unlimited supplies of shells through the enormous production of munitions factories. New tactics were also developed to improve the accuracy of the guns.
Artillery shells contained high explosives, shrapnel, and, later in the war, poison gas and smoke. Both the high explosive and shrapnel shells were timed to detonate in the air above a target. High explosive shells blasted holes in the trenches and the concussion alone could kill, as lungs collapsed under the force of the explosion. Shrapnel shells were equally deadly, consisting of more than 300 rounded metal balls that exploded downward in a cone-shaped rain of whirling metal. As well, the casing of the shell was designed to explode outward, creating jagged, uneven shards of steel that tore through flesh.
By 1916, commanders believed that massive artillery shoots, involving hundreds of thousands of shells, would annihilate the enemy defenders. This would allow the infantry to punch a hole through enemy lines and restore mobility on the Western Front.
However, it was often hard to hit, and then destroy, the narrow and well-fortified trenches. The problem also lay in the shell fuses. Earlier types were not sensitive enough to explode on contact, especially with shells tasked to clear barbed wire. As a result, many of the shells exploded in the ground, killing very few of the enemy, leaving the infantry to fight their way through defences-in-depth. By the end of 1916, newer, sensitive fuses that exploded on the slightest contact harnessed the destructive power of the artillery and, equally important to the infantry, cleared barbed wire from in front of enemy trenches.
Tactics again changed during the later phases of the bloody battles of the Somme in the last half of 1916. The gunners would never be able to destroy all of the German defences, and even one machine -gunner could kill hundreds of attacking infantry. Instead, the artillery sought to suppress enemy fire through a “creeping barrage,” and give their own attacking infantry enough time to cross the killing zone of nNo Mman’s Lland.
Gunners fired their shells to create a “creeping” wall of fire that slowly moved forward over the enemy lines at fixed intervals: 50 yards (46 m) every couple of minutes, less for muddy ground, more for open warfare. In effect, it was a screen of fire and explosives. As this moving wall of shrapnel and high explosives chewed up the ground in its path, the infantry were told to “lean into the barrage” and stay as close as possible. Although friendly fire was expected and occurred, the casualties would still be lighter than if the creeping barrage moved off and allowed German machine -gunners, waiting in the safety of deep dugouts, to get to the top of their trenches before the infantry crossed nNo Mman’s lLand.
At the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the gunners had perfected the creeping barrage. Yet enemy gunners still took a fearful toll as they laid down their own counter-barrages to catch the follow-on waves of infantry. The enemy guns had to be stopped, or slowed, but it was exceedingly difficult to identify, target, and destroy camouflaged guns several kilometeres away.
Accurate intelligence was essential, and new and refined forms of science aided the gunners. The Canadian Corps was lucky to have Brigadier-General Andrew McNaughton, commander of the counter-battery office for much of the war, who embraced new technology and tactics. A prewar professor at McGill University, he turned to science to save his soldiers lives.
The Canadian Counter Battery Office (CCBO), established in February 1917, gathered intelligence and processed information on the enemy to assist in knocking out his guns. Aerial reconnaissance from the Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) was of great assistance as airmen photographed the front from great heights. Later in the war, observation aircraft circled the battlefield, passing real-time information to the gunners through letter drops and primitive wireless radio.
As the CCBO developed after April 1917, this information-gathering and target-selection became more sophisticated, with new technology, like sound-ranging and flash-spotting, assisting gunners to find and destroy enemy targets.
Flash-spotting involved the coordination of observers. At least three posts were needed, usually spread out along several kilometeres. When an enemy gun position was spotted by the revealing flash as the shell left the barrel, the observers were telephoned by headquarters to turn their attention to that spot. After studying the flash of the gun, the observers would hit a key that was connected to a lamp at headquarters. From the observers’ bearings, and by triangulating their estimates, enemy guns could be located with high precision.
Sound-ranging worked on a similar principle. Listeners sat two kilometeres behind the line with their microphones. Additional posts were manned well ahead of these positions. As long as there was not more than one shell per second being fired, on hearing the crash of an enemy gun, the forward listening post pressed a key that started an oscillograph, an instrument that recorded on film the sound of the shell in flight as it reached each microphone in turn. The time-intervals between the microphones allowed the CCBO to analyse the information and, if conditions were optimal, pinpoint enemy guns to within twenty-five 25 yards (23 m). All available counter-battery guns would be aimed on that spot to deliver a destructive shoot of 50-100 shells. Chemical shells were also used to kill or force the enemy gunners to wear debilitating respirators that severely affected the rate of fire.
In the last year of the war, artillery had perfected the creeping barrage and was steadily improving its counter-battery work. Further tactical refinement allowed gunners to fire more complicated barrages, like a box barrage. The box barrages set up a wall of fire and explosives around an enemy position —-- usually a trench —-- which effectively isolated it from reinforcements. It allowed assaulting Canadian infantrymen to capture and consolidate a position without fear of immediate counterattack.
By war’s end, 43,914 gunners had served in the Canadian artillery, and 2,565 had lost their lives from disease, injury, and battlefield wounds. They had fired tens of millions of shells, reducing the landscape to a desolate wasteland, and an estimated 60% of all wounds were inflicted by shell fire. The First World War was indeed a gunner’s war.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.
McNaughton, A.G.L. “Counter-Battery Work.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 3, 4 (July, 1926).
McNaughton, A.G.L. “The Development of Artillery in the Great War.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 4, 2 (January, 1929).
Nicholson, G.W.L. The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery, Vol. 1: 1534-1919 Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
Rawling, William. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Volume I. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.