2nd and 10th Battalions in Training
09 min 04 s
Canadian War Records Office
This film contains images of the 2nd and the 10th Battalions as they engage in training and recreational activities at the Shorncliffe and Bexhill training camps in Britain. The initial segment features men from the 2nd Battalion as they receive instruction in the use of barbed wire, Lee Enfield rifles with bayonets, Lewis machine guns and smoke grenades.
The next segment shows members of the 10th Battalion being trained in the use of gas respirators and Lee Enfield rifles. We then see them in a series of athletic exercises and games intended to improve general strength and agility. The clip concludes with images of soldiers playing baseball and badminton.
Both the 2nd and 10th Battalions were formed at Valcartier and were part of the 1st and 2nd brigades respectively of the 1st Canadian Division. Camp Valcartier was established by the Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes, in August 1914, at a location 25 km north of Quebec City, along the Jacques Cartier River. Hughes, who was later dismissed from cabinet for insubordination, was credited with the rapid organization of the camp. Within three weeks, over 30,000 men were being trained at Valcartier and the first forces were ready to set sail for Europe. Hughes, an enthusiastic if somewhat bombastic supporter of the war effort, addressed the first Canadian soldiers as they prepared to depart from Pointe-aux-Père, on the St. Lawrence River.
The men serving in 2nd Battalion were from Eastern Ontario, and the 10th Battalion were volunteers from Vancouver and Winnipeg. As the war proceeded, these regional affiliations would be maintained through the ongoing reinforcement program. Valcartier remains an important base for the Canadian military to this day.
As for the baseball game, the players were probably among the Canadian-born minority within the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Over half of the Canadian forces were, in fact, first-generation British immigrants, who on the whole preferred to play soccer in their leisure time.
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.
Canadian Small Arms of the First World War
Although the carnage of the First World War was unprecedented, there was nothing truly new about the small arms used during the fighting. The story behind these weapons and their terrible efficiency stem from the tremendous advances in science and technology made throughout the late 19th century.
By 1850, arms factories in Europe and the United States were making the most of advances in metallurgy and mass production, and were capable of manufacturing hundreds of rifles daily. Repeating rifles, which could fire several shots before being re-loaded, were used extensively during the American Civil War (1861-65), as were the first simple multi-barrelled machine guns. More powerful ammunition was available in the 1870s. The American inventor Hiram Maxim introduced the first true machine gun, capable of firing 450 rounds per minute, in 1884. The water-cooled barrel gave Maxim’s machine gun the ability to fire for hours without stopping. By the turn of the century, most European and North American soldiers carried high-powered rifles that could fire 15 shots per minute at an effective range of 800 metres. The days of reloading a single-shot rifle, in the open, five or six times a minute, were long gone. The stage was set for the killing fields that were to come.
Two late-19th-century inventions, the Lee-Enfield rifle and the Ross rifle, the first Canadian-made military rifle, are central to this story.
In the late 1870s, the British Army accepted Scottish-born Canadian James Paris Lee’s rifle design for trials, ultimately resulting in the adoption of the Lee-Metford rifle, then later the Lee Enfield Mk 1 rifle. It was purchased by Canada and used in the South African War.
Sir Charles Ross designed his straight-pull bolt-action rifle and patented the design in 1897. The bolt mechanism, based on the Austrian Mannlicher rifle, also included Ross’s own innovations. In theory, this type of bolt-action was very easy to use and could be reloaded very quickly. The more quickly a rifle can be re-loaded, the more firepower it provides. Its drawback was a complicated manufacturing process and its fragile loading mechanism. Ross revised his design, introducing it as the Model 1900, then later with an improved bolt mechanism in 1901, both of which were submitted to American trials as a potential service rifle.
After the South African War, Sir Fredrick Borden, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, lobbied unsuccessfully to have the Lee-Enfield rifle built by a British firm in Canada. When the British turned down Borden’s request, the Canadian government turned to Ross and his rifle. After a series of modifications, Canada accepted the design, Ross built a factory at the Citadel in Quebec, and the rifle went into production. In 1904, the Royal North West Mounted Police received 1,000 rifles, the Department of Marine and Fisheries another 500. In the coming years, the rifle underwent continual modifications and developments to suit various requirements, including target shooting by the Canadian team at Bisley, where the Ross excelled. In August 1905, the militia received its first order of 1,000 Ross Mk 2 rifles. By 1911, the Mk 3 had been accepted and was being manufactured for the militia.
Britain tested the Ross rifle between 1900 and 1912, rejecting it because of problems with the design, including a propensity to jam.
The British Army continued to use the Lee-Enfield and in 1903, introduced the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (S.M.L.E.) into service. The S.M.L.E., a shortened version of the Lee-Enfield Mk I, had been developed as a result of experience gained during the South African War. The design and construction were simple, if not crude, but also robust, functioning under less than ideal conditions.
Ross continued to develop and fine-tune his design, resulting in dozens of variations. Between 1903 and 1915, 419,130 Ross rifles were manufactured, with most going to Canadian troops, and some to Newfoundland and Britain.
The Canadian forces entered the First World War with the Ross rifle, Mk 2, Mk 3, and its subsequent variations. Almost immediately, its shortcomings became evident.
On March 10, 1915 the 1st Canadian Division went into battle at Neuve Chapelle, France. The Canadians were heavily engaged and, to the horror of the soldiers, their Ross rifles began to jam. The reasons for this were numerous: the ammunition provided was often inconsistent in size; muddy conditions allowed dirt to build up in the complicated loading mechanism, and the heat generated by rapid-firing caused the closely machined parts to expand and seize. A design flaw also made the bolt difficult to lock, if it had been assembled improperly, and some bolts were said to have blown back into the user’s face. Canadian soldiers soon began discarding the Ross in favour of the British S.M.L.E. Mk 3*, when they could find them in the field. General E.A.H. Alderson, commander of the 1st Canadian Division, was forced to issue an order banning the use of the S.M.L.E by Canadian troops.
When the Canadians fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, in late April 1915, the Ross failed again. Outnumbered and facing the first gas attack of the war, the Canadians found their rifles jamming. Some reports had them “Clubbing furiously at their seized bolts with trenching tools and boot heels.” By the end of the battle, hundreds had discarded their Ross rifles in favour of the trusted S.M.L.E.
By June 1915, British Field Marshal Sir John French ordered the Canadians under his command to be re-armed with the S.M.L.E. However, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions that soon arrived in Europe still carried the Ross.
In May 1916, a study into the Ross’s problems confirmed the jamming and recommended modifications to the rifle’s bolt-stops. Earlier tests had reported the Ross worked well with Canadian ammunition made at Dominion Arsenals in Quebec, but this ammunition was in short supply. New, poorly fitted stocks made from improperly seasoned birch were also causing problems as the wood warped and pressed against the metal frames. In light of the report, a few rifles were re-built with 26-inch barrels, trimmed stocks and larger bolt-stops. Although the rifles were reported to have worked “superbly,” soldiers had lost all confidence in them. In mid July, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig re-armed Canadians with the S.M.L.E. and the Ross was officially withdrawn from front line service by the end of that year.
By this time Sir Charles Ross was running into other problems. Skilled labourers were finding better work in the United States, machinery ordered in 1914 had yet to arrive, and supplies were increasingly difficult to secure. Ross won a $22,500,000 contract to make one million rifles for Russia, but had to let it go to the United States due to inability to meet his deadline. A second order from Russia was cancelled after the Mk 3 was withdrawn from Canadian service. On March 28, 1917, the Canadian Government expropriated the Ross Rifle Company. Canada’s first and only national rifle had failed as a battlefield weapon.
The Machine Gun
In 1912, the British Army adopted the water-cooled Vickers Mk 1machine gun, an improvement over the 1884 Maxim design, as its standard machine gun. The slightly lighter Vickers, like the Maxim, made use of an ammunition belt, and could fire 450 rounds per minute. Its water-cooled barrel could sustain this fire over very long periods of time, often for hours. Classified as a medium machine gun, the Vickers Mk 1 was used primarily on a tripod from defensive positions. It could be fired directly at a visible target, or indirectly, like artillery, at targets or positions at long range or behind obstacles.
In response to the need to provide quick-moving infantry with machine gun support, light machine guns appeared on the battlefield in 1914. The Lewis, the first light machine gun used by the British and Canadian forces, had been introduced into service with the Belgian army in 1913. It weighed about 18 kg and could be carried “over the top” like a rifle, to give advancing troops added firepower.
Due to a shortage of light machine guns, the British and Canadians also adopted the Hotchkiss machine gun in 1916. The Hotchkiss was based on the French medium machine gun the Mitrailleur Mle. 09, modified for use as a light machine gun. Although lighter than the Lewis, the Hotchkiss was more complicated and was used mainly by the cavalry. The Hotckhkiss remained in service for training and home guard use after the First World War and was not declared obsolete until 1946.
The decisions regarding when and how to deploy, or advance against small arms fire relate to the concept of the ‘beaten zone’ or ‘killing zone’ that existed between the lines, and the time-versus-lead equations; the idea that a storm of bullets and/or artillery shells poured into a given area made the task of ‘advancing to contact’ extremely difficult, if not impossible. This led to obvious challenges: crossing the zone more quickly (tanks) or by stealth (surprise attack, often without pre-shelling); better tactics to bypass resistance (storm troops, combined arms warfare); and heavier bombardments to keep enemy heads down, destroy obstacles, etc; and in the meantime, drove troops into the ground (trenches) to escape slaughter.
Most of the casualties during the war were inflicted by artillery or small arms fire coming from a distance. However, there was still some close and brutal fighting, often as part of larger operations, but particularly during trench raids.
All rifles were fitted with bayonets, which took the form of a long knife or spike that could be attached to the muzzle of the rifle, effectively forming a spear. By the First World War, British, and Canadian soldiers had been training to use bayonets for 200 years and were very efficient in its use. The bayonet also had an enormous psychological impact. Hundreds or thousands of enemy troops running towards you firing their rifles, screaming and brandishing long blades or spikes, was a terrifying and demoralizing sight. Despite the psychological advantage, many officers considered the bayonet perfectly useless, even in the 19th century. Firepower and broken terrain could keep cavalry at bay from c1860 onwards in most battles, thereby removing the bayonet’s one real advantage – warding off cavalry. When fighting in the confined spaces of the trenches, the length of a bayonet fixed to the muzzle of a rifle could be a great disadvantage. To this end, many soldiers equipped themselves with other weapons, both standard and non-standard issue. These weapons were especially important for trench raids.
Usually conducted at night, trench raiding was extremely brutal, tending to resemble medieval warfare. Soldiers made use of pistols, grenades, clubs, axes, morning stars, knives and even sharpened shovels. As a defensive measure, body armour was brought back into use and worn openly by infantry for the first time since the 17th century.
Pistols were issued officially to officers and NCOs exclusively, but they were also occasionally picked up or traded by soldiers and used for close fighting.
At the beginning of the First World War, Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence, ordered 5,000 semi-automatic .45 ACP calibre Colt model 1911 (Government Model) pistols through one of his “Honorary Colonels,” causing a short-lived political scandal. The pistols were issued to non-commissioned officers and made available to officers for purchase, along with some older Colt revolvers left over from the South African War. Canadian officers serving with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, or other units assigned to British formations, were issued with Webley revolvers of various marks.
With the forces rapid expansion, the military needed more pistols by mid 1915. Due to shortcomings found with the Colt Model 1911, the government purchased 1,500 Smith & Wesson .455 Hand Ejector Second Model revolvers on August 21, with later orders for 13,000 between 1915 and 1917. Revolvers were considered more reliable in harsh conditions.
Immediately after the ceasefire of November 11, 1918, many First World War small arms developments were shelved. Advances had been made in designing lighter, more efficient machine guns and submachine guns, but, in the debt-ridden postwar years the last thing most governments wanted to spend money on was small arms.
The Department of Militia and Defence was now faced with the disposal of the unwanted Ross rifles. Some 120,000 Mk 2 and Mk 3 rifles were taken overseas and turned over to the British, and 20,000 were sold to the United States for training. Of the rifles sent overseas, 9,334 were later returned to Canada. The Ross continued in use as a sniper rifle throughout the war, and well into the Second World War, making use of its initial design as a sporting and target rifle. Many Ross rifles were also re-issued during the Second World War for training and Home Guard use and eventually made their way into the hands of the armies of China, Chile, the Baltic states, Spain, New Zealand, Holland, India, Indonesia and the Soviet Union.
The S.M.L.E. remained in service well into the Second World War and was replaced in 1942 by the Lee-Enfield No. 4. James Paris Lee’s basic rifle design is still in limited service with the Canadian Forces in the 21st century with the Canadian Rangers and Cadets.
The machine gun continues to be a vital part of the arsenals of all armies. The Vickers machine gun was used in the Second World War, the Korean War, and was not officially declared obsolete until the 1960s. The Lewis gun saw limited service in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, notably at Hong Kong.
The bayonet is stilled issued and used as a standard attachment to most military rifles worldwide.
The small arms designs that were rooted in the late 19th century and used during the First World War evolved very little throughout the first half of the 20th century. Although infantry tactics evolved considerably and the casualty figures of the First World War seem incomprehensible today, killing over open sights remains the foot soldier’s basic role.
Edgecombe, David W. Defending the Dominion, Canadian Military Rifles 1855-1955. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2003.
---. Small Arms of the World: A Basic Manual of Small Arms. 12th rev. ed. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1983.
Ezell, Edward C. Handguns of the World: Military Revolvers and Self-Loaders from 1870-1945. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1981.
Hogg, Ian V. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Firearms. London: New Burlington Books, 1978.
---. Military Small Arms of the 20th Century. 7th ed. Iola: Krause Publications, 2000.
Law, Clive M. Canadian Military Handguns, 1855-1985. Bloomfield, ON: Museum Restoration Services, 1994.
---. Without Warning: Canadian Sniper Equipment in the 20th Century. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2004.
Maze, Robert J. Howdah to High Power: A Century of British Breechloading Service Pistols (1867-1967). Tucson: Excalibur Publications, 2002.
Meek, John F. Over the Top: The Canadian Infantry in the First World War. Orangeville, ON: John F. Meek, 1971.
Morton, Desmond. A Military History of Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1985
Nelson, Thomas B. The World's Submachine Guns. Cologne, Germany: International Small Arms Publishers, 1963.
Phillips, Roger. The Ross Rifle Story. Sydney, NS: John A. Chadwick, 1984.
Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Saunders, Anthony. Weapons of the Trench War, 1914-1918. Phoenix Mill: Alan Sutton, 1999
Skennerton, Ian D. The British Service Lee, Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles and Carbines 1880-1980. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1982.
---. The Lee-Enfield Story. Piqua: I.D.S.A. Books, 1993.
Desperate to find a solution to the deadlock of the trenches on the Western Front, the Germans turned to poison gas despite its banning at the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions. Tear gas had proven useless in several battlefield experiments in 1914 and early 1915. But when lethal chlorine gas was unleashed on April 22, 1915, its first victims, French and Algerian troops, were sent reeling in panic. A second gas cloud attack on April 24 against the Canadian Division was not so successful. Gagging and choking, the Canadians continued to fire into the cloud, effectively stopping the German advancing troops behind it. Nonetheless, the first two chlorine attacks had been stunning, and they forced Entente scientists to frantically prepare their own chemical retaliation. They did so while their propagandists proclaimed loudly the barbarity of the Hun, who had sunk to new levels in using chemicals to poison men.
While the Germans had initial success with gas cloud attacks on the Western Front in 1915 and continued success against the poorly equipped Russian troops in the east throughout the war, these gas clouds were never dependable. The chlorine was transported in metal canisters, opened and sent across no man’s land with the aid of a strong breeze. Too often, however, operations had to be postponed due to poor weather, leaving commanders and soldiers mistrusting chemical warfare.
The first British gas cloud attack occurred at Loos on September 25, 1915, and although it was effective in incapacitating German defenders, it was remembered primarily for having turned on British troops when the wind reversed, resulting in 2,000 casualties. Thus, while poison gas had initially been offered as a solution to the deadlock of the trenches, the rapid introduction of respirators and the unstable nature of the delivery system ensured that poison gas would not be a war-winning weapon.
Yet scientists continued to experiment with new and deadlier gases. With their advanced prewar chemical and dye industry, the Germans, under the leadership of future Noble Prize winner Fritz Haber, proved to be the leaders throughout the war. In December 1915, the Germans introduced phosgene gas, which was eight times more lethal than chlorine. Although the British had been forewarned and were thus able to equip their soldiers with proper respirators – a chemically treated bag that fit over the head and tucked into the battle jerkin – phosgene was another lethal addition to the battlefield. Invisible and nearly impossible to smell, phosgene (and later diphosgene) inhibited the transfer of water in the lungs. Victims could be gassed without even knowing it; within hours, a seemingly healthy man would begin to choke and vomit up fluid. It was a painful and grisly way to die.
During the 1916 Battle of Verdun, the French introduced chemical artillery shells filled with lethal gas and the Germans perfected their use. This increased reliability also meant that fireplans could include a combination of high explosive, shrapnel and gas bombardments. Poison gas supported a number of tactical missions: to harass soldiers, to strangle the supply of logistics and to blanket opposing artillery-men beneath a gas cloud, thereby forcing the wearing of respirators that inhibited the rate of fire.
To respond to these chemical advancements, respirators were continually improved, and by mid 1916, most armies had developed an effective gas mask for their troops. However, equipping terrified soldiers with a flimsy respirator did not end casualties or suppress the fear. Soldiers had to be taught how to get their respirators on quickly, how to identify gases, how to establish efficient warning systems, and how to fight while wearing them.
With respirators and better anti-gas discipline saving most soldiers from chemical attacks, the Germans again changed the nature of the gas war by introducing mustard gas in July 1917. Mustard gas burned the lungs like conventional chemical agents, but also the skin. Even low doses of the vapour were enough to cause suppurating blisters and temporary blindness. Here was a terror weapon that seemed to negate all that soldiers had been told up to this point in the war: with a respirator you would be safe.
Unlike chlorine and phosgene that dissipated within minutes or hours depending on the weather conditions, mustard gas remained active, lying dormant in the mud and water of the battlefield. Days or weeks later, a soldier passing through the area, especially after the sun had warmed the ground and released the still-potent vapour, could fall victim, going blind, suffering burns or developing hacking coughs and subsequent bronchial infections. This chemical plague was particularly insidious against soldiers as they huddled together for warmth in their dugouts.
By 1918, all armies were employing gas with greater frequency. The German March Offensive was unleashed behind a thunderous barrage of high explosives and chemicals. Employing their refined infiltration tactics of moving around areas of resistance, the German infantry pushed deep into Entente territory. In the process, gas bombardments, with heavy concentrations of mustard gas, were employed to protect vulnerable flanks. When the Entente armies responded with their own multi-army offensive in the last half of 1918, all of the operations relied heavily on poison gas to lower the frontsoldatens’ morale, sow confusion in the enemy’s rear areas and disrupt gunners with chemical counter-battery fire. The Germans, in turn, employed gas bombardments to slow the Entente advance and reduce the fighting efficiency of the attacking troops. If the war had extended into 1919, as many expected, poison gas would have been employed even more frequently, further rendering the Western Front a chemical wasteland.
Soldiers had to be trained to survive in the chemical environment of the Great War. For the poor Russian infantry, who received desultory instruction at best, they were gassed to death in the tens of thousands; for the brash, inexperienced Americans, a full one-fourth of all their battlefield casualties came from poison gas. Although it is notoriously difficult to gauge gas casualties, as they were often lumped in with other wounds, the German, French and British armies suffered approximately 200,000 gas casualties each, while Canada’s forces had 11,572 recorded cases. However, the death-rate was very low: about 3% in comparison to the 25% from more conventional weapons.
The steady trickle of gas-induced casualties aside, the wearing of a respirator – even under ideal conditions – was always debilitating. Respirators did not allow enough oxygen into the lungs so that men became exhausted from even minor exercise. Poison gas became an essential weapon against soldiers in a war that was based on a policy of attrition. Furthermore, poison gas was terrifying: men could at least understand the effects of bullets and shells, no matter how terrible they were, but a chemical agent that poisoned the very air that soldiers breathed, that blinded eyes or burned genitalia, and that damaged the lungs, was seen collectively as beyond the pale of civilized warfare.
Most soldiers did survive the scars and inhalations of poison gas. But the Great War soldier, wearing his respirator while going in for the attack or while huddled in his trench under a chemical deluge, well understood the terror of gas warfare.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.
Dancocks, Daniel G. Welcome to Flanders Fields. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988.
Haber, Ludwig Fritz. The Poisonous Cloud. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
Richter, Donald. Chemical Soldiers: British Gas Warfare in World War I. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992.
Palazzo, Albert. Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).
The Ross Rifle and other Small Arms in World War I
Sir Sam Hughes, the future minister of militia and member of the 1901 militia committee, was a supporter of the Ross rifle. The Mark 1 Ross rifle was not delivered until 1905 and 1000 units were supplied to the RNWMP but various problems plagued this model of rifle and it was eventually recalled in 1906. Changes were made to the production model until 1910 when the various models of the Mark 2 were produced. Great Britain at that time was strongly urging Canada to adopt the Lee-Enfield rifle for its armed forces so as to have consistency within the Empire regarding weaponry, and because Canada refused to halt production of the Ross rifle, strains developed over imperial defence. The Mark 2 rifle was adopted by the Canadian armed forces in 1911, and in that year work was begun on the Mark 3, although few were produced before 1914. In the first years of WWI the Ross rifle received a bad reputation. It was seen as unsuitable for the "trench-and-charge" tactics employed during that war because of its weight, 9 lbs 14 ozs (c 4.5 kg), its overall length, 60½ inches (c 1.5 m) with bayonet fixed, and the continual jamming problem plus the occasional "blowback." The cause of the jamming was eventually corrected but came too late for the rifle to maintain its use. In the summer of 1916 the rifle was withdrawn from service and by mid-Sept Canadian troops had been rearmed with the British-made Lee-Enfield. The Canadian government expropriated the Ross Rifle Co in March 1917 after paying Ross $2 million. The total production of the Ross rifle was approximately 420,000 with 342,040 units being purchased by the British. During WWII, the Mark 3 Ross rifle was given to the Royal Canadian Navy, the Veteran's Guard of Canada, coastal units, training depôts, the British Home Guard and the Soviets.
GLENN B. FOULDS
Reproduced with permission from The Canadian Encyclopaedia, Historica Foundation of Canada
The 10th (Western Canadians) Battalion
First commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Russell Boyle, was killed in the unit’s first combat action. On April 22, 1915, the 10th and 16th battalions counterattacked German positions at Kitchener’s Wood at midnight near the town of St. Julien, in the Ypres salient, Belgium. In the course of the intense 6-hour battle, there were 80% casualties for the Canadians. St. Julien is commemorated annually in April.
The 2nd (Eastern Ontario) Battalion
During the Battle at Hill 70 in August 1917, the 2nd Battalion knocked out and captured three machine guns and the western edge of Fresnoy and then stormed the village. The battalion had similar success at Bois Hugo by pushing back the Germans and holding the position intact. They engaged in more fighting at the Battle of Amiens, August 8-11, 1918. During the Battle of the Scarpe on August 30, 1918, the 2nd Battalion, together with the 1st Battalion, caught the enemy completely by surprise by hiding behind an ingenious barrage, resulting in further movement northward.
Adapted from Nicholson, C.D., Colonel G.W.L. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1918.
Films : 2nd and 10th Battalions in Training and Sir Robert Borden with the Canadien Troops 1
Background Notes for the Teacher
Gas was used as a weapon by both sides during World War I. The French army experimented with tear gas grenades and the Germans developed canisters that released sneezing powder upon impact. Both were largely ineffective. Then the Germans manufactured cylinders filled with chlorine. When combined with water in the lungs, eyes, nose and mouth, the chlorine produced a hydrochloric acid that burned the skin, caused internal bleeding and, in the most severe instances, caused its victims to choke to death on their own blood. This deadly gas was used for the first time in October 1914. On April 22, 1915, at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans fired 5000 canisters toward French and Canadian troops. A prevailing wind carried the gas directly into the Allied lines, causing panic and death. The gas mask instantly became a standard part of every army uniform. By the end of the war, both sides had used gas as a weapon, killing over 75,000 troops and wounding nearly one million .
Introducing the Subject
Discuss boxing and some of the rules: no punching below the belt, no hitting behind the head, etc. Talk about why such rules exist in every sport.
Ask why there is a “third man in” rule for fights that break out in a hockey game. (If a third player joins in a fight and creates an unfair advantage, that player is automatically ejected from the game.) The discussion should lead to the concept of a fair fight.
In times of war, do any rules apply to battle or is there no such notion as fighting fair?
Establish that during WWI, both sides used gas attacks to suffocate and kill large numbers of enemy troops.
Teaching and Learning
Examine the film footage that depicts soldiers donning gas masks as a part of their training regimen.
Provide documentation that describes the effects of chlorine gas on soldiers.
Applying the Knowledge
Debate the use of gas as a weapon during World War I. Was the decision to use gas a moral issue or is any weapon acceptable when two sides are at war?
Were students able to form opinions based on the facts presented?
Were individual opinions on the notion of fighting fair consistent with their view on the use of gas?
Did anyone change their original position as a result of the discussion?