Scenes In and Around British Headquarters
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British Topical Committee for War Films
Arrival of General Cadorna, the Italian
Commander-in-Chief, on the British zone of the Western
Front for the Allied Commanders’
Conference of 12 March 1916.
Cadorna arrives at Calais on board a British destroyer, met by British, French and Italian liaison officers. He leaves for British headquarters at St-Omer. In the main square of the town Cadorna (described as “the French commander’) presents medals to men of the Canadian Corps. A march past follows and the decorated men are chaired across the square by their fellows. On leaving, Cadorna walks with Field Marshal Haig past a guard of honour of the Artists Rifles into the railway station, where the two men shake hands in farewell. (Note in the scene of Cadorna’s arrival at Calais the British official photographer, Ernest Brooks, at work.)
The British Topical Committee for War Films publicity for this film adds a subtitle “The Spirit which animates the Allies is one of complete and cordial co-operation”.
Pieces of History
The Incomparable Seventy-one : Canada's Victoria Cross Winners
A former Irish-born constable with the North West Mounted Police, Michael O'Leary became the first of 71 Canadians in the Great War to be awarded the VC, that highly prized decoration for valour. Out of a nation of less than nine million, this represented more per capita than in any other Commonwealth country.
On February 1, 1915 at Cuinchy in northern France, O’Leary single-handedly put an enemy machine gun out of action, killing eight Germans and taking two prisoners. “Mick” also became famous as the only VC honoured with a wax effigy at Madame Tussaud's.
In April that year, during the Ypres poison gas attacks, the first two posthumous Canadian VCs—of 29 such in 1914–1918—were awarded. Machine-gunner Fred Fisher lost his life fending off German attacks while alone. Rifleman William Hall was killed by a bullet to the head rescuing a wounded comrade under fire. Two other VCs awarded for valour in that battle were infantryman Edward Bellew and medical officer Francis Scrimger.
At the Battle of Givenchy on June 15—his 47th birthday—machine-gunner Frederick Campbell was awarded the third posthumous VC for dispersing an enemy counterattack all by himself.
In 1916, during the bitter battles of the Somme, four more Canadians were added to the VC roster. Leo Clarke, armed only with a revolver, killed 19 Germans; John “Chip” Kerr led an attack that forced 62 Germans to surrender. Thomas Wilkinson was killed rescuing a wounded comrade. Jimmy Richardson gave his life to rally his comrades by piping Highland airs while on the march under enemy rifle and machine-gun fire at the height of battle.
Altogether, the capture of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 yielded six Canadian VCs. Frederick Harvey led a cavalry charge to capture Guyencourt stronghold two weeks before the assault. On the morning of the attack, Thain MacDowell single-handedly took 75 Germans prisoner. Willie Milne, Ellis Sifton and John Pattison were killed silencing machine-gun nests. On May 3 in the wake of the battle, Robert Combe led an assault on Acheville, capturing 80 prisoners before being killed by a sniper's bullet.
The following month a new dimension to the VC scenario was added when, at dawn on June 2, Billy Bishop became the first of three Canadian airmen to be awarded the medal—in Bishop’s case, for a solo raid on an enemy aerodrome in which he destroyed three German planes.
Between August 15–25, 1917, six Canadians were rewarded with the VC for their bravery during the battle of Hill 70, three posthumously: to Harry Brown, a 19-year-old messenger; Frederick “Hobbie” Hobson, a Boer War veteran; and company commander Okill Learmonth. Two Irish emigrants, platoon leader Robert Hanna and stretcher bearer Mickey O'Rourke, also won the decoration. The most flamboyant of the six was Filip Konowal, a Russian army veteran who employed his skills as a bayonet instructor to flush out 16 Germans from machine-gun nests concealed in tunnels, craters, dugouts and cellars.
During the murderous Battle of Passchendaele (October 30–November 10) in which Canadians suffered 1,600 casualties, nine VCs were awarded. Collectively six of them, Tommy Holmes, Colin Barron, Robert Shankland, Christopher Kelly, George Mullin and Hugh McKenzie, who was killed, captured nine enemy pillboxes and took 303 Germans prisoner.
Others cited for the VC were Cecil “Hoodoo” Kinross, who subdued a machine-gun nest head-on; future Minister of National Defence George Pearkes, who directed the capture of a stronghold while severely wounded; and James Robertson, killed while destroying an enemy machine-gun.
Two other VCs were linked to Passchendaele—one two weeks prior, the other three weeks afterwards: Philip Bent was killed directing the defence of Polygon Wood and Harcus Strachan led a cavalry charge to capture Bourlon Wood.
During the “Great Retreat” between March 21–June 10, 1918, four VCs were awarded to Canadians holding the line against the German breakthrough. Three were killed: Edmund De Wind on the first day at Grougie; cavalryman Gordon Flowerdew at the Bois de Moreuil on March 30; and Joseph Kaeble on the night of June 7/8 at Neuville-Vitasse. For his action at Gravelle, fending off a German night attack April 27/28, George McKean's citation read: “His leadership has at all times been above praise.”
Meanwhile on March 27, for gallantry in the air, Alan “Bus” McLeod became the second Canadian airman to be awarded the VC. In a furious fight with the von Richthofen Flying Circus over Douai, though wounded, he struggled to bring his burning bomber to earth, while he and his observer shot down two enemy fighters.
Elsewhere, in the Middle East on May 1, during the capture of Jericho in Jerusalem from the Turks, Edward Cruickshank received the VC for running a message to headquarters asking for reinforcements, despite being wounded eight times by five explosive bullets to his legs and three to his arms and wrist.
And on May 9, during the operation to block the entrance to the U-boat base at Bruges, while serving with the Royal Navy, Rowland Bourke became the only Canadian sailor to be awarded the VC in World War I. Captaining a rescue launch, he saved over 40 survivors from a British cruiser loaded with ammunition that had run aground and exploded.
At the outset of the 100 Days (August 8–November 11, 1918) assault spearheaded by the Canadian Corps that ended the war, four VCs were awarded, three posthumously—to Jean Brillant, John Croak and Harry Miner. The lone VC survivor, Herman Good, was cited for capturing three enemy gun emplacements by overwhelming their crews in hand-to-hand combat.
Over the next five days, other Canadian VC recipients were Ralph Zengel, Alexander Brereton, Frederick Coppins, Denison Thomas, James Thomas and Robert Small, the last two posthumously. The citation to Zengel's award: “For his utter disregard for personal safety, and the confidence he inspired...” was applicable to all six.
At the end of August, Charlie Rutherford and William “C.K” Kennedy added the VC to their laurels, making them by war's end the most decorated officers in the Canadian army, by virtually winning the Battle of the Scarpe themselves. Rutherford captured 40 Germans; and Kennedy, though badly wounded, continued to direct his company under intense enemy shelling.
The capture of the Drocourt-Queant Line on September 2 earned seven Canadians the coveted medal, a record for a single day unequalled by any other Commonwealth nation: Cy Peck, Walter Rayfield, Bill Metcalf, Bellenden Hutcheson, John Young and two others, posthumously; Claude Nunney, who killed 20 Germans and Arthur Knight, who took an equal number of enemy prisoners.
Six Canadians won the VC during the last major battle of the war, culminating in the capture of Cambrai on October 9, 1918: George Kerr; Milton Gregg, a future cabinet minister; John McGregor; William Merrifield; Samuel Honey, posthumously; and explosive-expert, engineer Norman Mitchell, who was responsible for its capitulation by preventing the Germans from blowing up the main Pont d'Air bridge over the Canal de l'Escaudoeuvres, a crucial point for control of the city.
Before the war ended, four more Canadians were added to the list of VCs. On October 11, after leading the capture of Iwuy, Wallace Algie was killed returning to his battalion for reinforcements. Three days later, while leading an attack on a German stronghold, Thomas Ricketts, at 17, became the youngest man in the Commonwealth to win the medal. On October 27, Billy Barker—the third Canadian airman to win the VC—staged “the greatest combat in the annals of the war in the air,” battling 60 German fighters alone. Wounded in both legs, his left elbow fractured, he shot down five of them before losing consciousness and crashing into a shell-hole.
Hugh Cairns was the last Canadian of World War I to win the Victoria Cross and the last to whom it was awarded posthumously. In a firefight at Valenciennes on November 1, 1918, he killed 17 Germans and forced another 78 to surrender before being mortally wounded by an enemy bullet to his stomach.
Bishop, Arthur. Our Bravest and Our Best: The Stories of Canada’s Victoria Cross Winners. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1995.
Cave, Joy B. Two Newfoundland V.C.s. St. John's, NF: Creative Printers & Publishers, 1984.
Sorobey, Ron. “Filip Konowal, VC: The Rebirth of a Canadian Hero.” Canadian Military History 5, 2 (Autumn 1996): 44-56.
Swettenham, John. Valiant Men: Canada’s Victoria Cross and George Cross Winners. Toronto: Hakkert, 1973.
Patrick H. Brennan
When the Canadian Expeditionary Force began to take shape in the autumn of 1914, the majority of its future commanding officers had been pursuing their business and professional careers only weeks earlier. Even those with some pre-war militia experience were still amateur warriors who would have to learn how to command soldiers while actually fighting a war. Combat would prove a cruel and unforgiving teacher, and the mistakes they made learning how to command would cost men’s lives.
Arthur Currie: the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps
Arthur Currie began the war in command of a brigade of 4000 men. He had earned his appointment on the recommendation of Garnet Hughes, a fellow British Columbia militia officer who happened to be the son of Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, the erratic, meddling and militarily incompetent Sir Sam Hughes. During the early stages of the war, Hughes personally selected almost every senior officer in the army, and far too many of them were friends and political cronies who proved unfit for their commands and ultimately had to be replaced. Nothing in Currie’s background as a school teacher and realtor with a smattering of militia experience made him stand out. Yet he turned out to be a fast learner and superb leader whose military skills quickly blossomed. By 1916 he was recognized as the best of the senior Canadian officers. A year later, he was the obvious choice to be the first Canadian to command the Corps, a responsibility he carried out with distinction through the rest of the war.
As the Canadians desperately struggled to overcome their inexperience, they were fortunate to have the guidance of some very capable British officers such as Lieutenant-General Julian Byng and his chief staff officer, Major-General Percy Radcliffe. First-rate professional soldiers, they identified the most promising Canadian commanders, mentored them, and, when they proved their worth, promoted them to more responsible commands. Consequently, by 1917 the Canadian Corps had assembled a pool of very capable, battle-experienced Canadian commanding officers.
Two of the brigade commanders, Brigadier-Generals James MacBrien and Victor Odlum, were typical of this group. MacBrien was a professional soldier, one of only a handful of such Canadian commanders. After initially serving as a staff officer, Byng gave MacBrien command of the 12th Infantry Brigade in September 1916, just before this untested unit received their first taste of combat.
After serving in the South African War, Odlum had returned to Vancouver where he’d built up a prosperous financial and insurance business. He saw action with the 7th Battalion at Second Ypres, the Canadians’ first battle, taking over command of the battalion when Lt. Col. McHarg was killed. Byng promoted him to the command of the 11th Brigade in July 1916 and like MacBrien, he led his brigade until the Armistice. MacBrien’s style was studious and reserved, and his forte was training and planning. In contrast, Odlum was a dashing, fearless battlefield commander who had the wounds to prove it. Although they displayed two very different styles of command, both were effective.
Unlike earlier wars, the sheer scale of World War I battles and the breakdown of communications during the fighting actually made it impossible for generals to control the attacks they launched. What they could do, however, was utilize the weeks before an assault to prepare for every possible battlefield contingency – in other words, to emphasize thorough planning and training.
From amateurs to an elite force
By the end of 1916, the British Empire forces were adopting new, more effective fighting tactics. This was particularly true in the Canadian Corps, where Byng, Radcliffe and Currie had inaugurated a highly efficient system of “organized learning.” The officers and soldiers doing the fighting now compiled “after battle” reports outlining in detail what had succeeded and what had failed. Whether it was tactics or weaponry, the Corps’ commanders placed a premium on figuring out better ways to fight, emphasizing to every officer and soldier how vital absorbing the lessons of the “battlefield classroom” was to the survival and success of them all. Henceforward, something of value learned by one battalion would be speedily adopted by the rest simply by making it part of everyone’s training. Lessons now learned in an organized way were applied in an organized way, too. More than any other factor, mastering this “learning curve” was responsible for transforming the Canadian Corps from an enthusiastic mob of amateurs into an elite attack force, the “shock troops” of the British Empire. Officers, and especially senior commanders, had played an indispensable role.
One group of commanders shared the dual responsibility of preparing their soldiers and then leading them in battle—the commanding officers of the Corps’ 48 infantry battalions. Of the 200-odd men who commanded a Canadian battalion, 22 were killed in action and many more were wounded. Along with the junior officers under them, they were in charge of most of the soldiers’ actual training. They also had the critical responsibility of maintaining the health, morale and unit pride of their men, and often organized sports, concerts and other entertainments with this end in mind.
Battalion commanders were the most senior officers their men actually knew and saw regularly, and who shared their daily risks and grim living conditions at the front. As a result, the men looked to them for inspiration and confidence, and a brave and skilful battalion commander could keep his men going under the most appalling conditions. Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Peck was one such officer. He’d enlisted in the 16th Battalion in 1914, fought with it at Second Ypres and commanded it from November 1916 until the end of the war. Although the stocky, walrus-moustached Peck was hardly the most military-looking of commanding officers, he was fearless, and none of his soldiers doubted who ran their unit. During the storming of the Drocourt-Quéant Line on September 2, 1918, such leadership won Peck the Victoria Cross. When stiff German resistance blocked his battalion’s advance, he exposed himself to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire in order to reconnoitre enemy positions, then re-organized what was left of his men and led them to capture and hold their objective.
Armies are hierarchical organizations, and the quality of command plays an enormous role in their ultimate success. Even the bravest and best-equipped troops will fail in battle if they are asked to execute a flawed plan, or if the officers directing them in the heat of combat make poor decisions. As the war progressed, the best commanders worked their way to the top of the Canadian Corps. Consequently, planning was sound, and Canadian soldiers were prepared for battle using the most effective tactics learned from earlier combat experiences. Once the battle began, brave and skilled leadership by battalion commanders and the junior officers who followed their lead contributed mightily to the chance for victory. By the last two years of the war, the quality of commander in the Canadian Corps was outstanding, as an unbroken string of victories attests.
Brennan, Patrick. “From Amateur to Professional: The Experience of Brigadier General William Antrobus Griesbach.” in Canada and the Great War, Briton Busch, ed. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003 : 78-92.
---. “A Still Untold Story of the Canadian Corps: Byng’s and Currie’s Commanders.” Canadian Military History 11, 2 (Spring 2002): 5-16.
Brennan, Patrick and Thomas Leppard. “How the Lessons Were Learned: Senior Commanders and the Moulding of the Canadian Corps after the Somme” in Canada and War: 1000-2000, Yves Tremblay, ed. Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 2001.
Dancocks, Daniel. Sir Arthur Currie: A Biography. Toronto: Methuen, 1985.
Hyatt, A.M.J. General Sir Arthur Currie: A Military Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
McCulloch, Ian. “‘Batty Mac’: Portrait of a Brigade Commander of the Great War, 1915-1917.” Canadian Military History 7, 4 (Autumn 1998): 11-28.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Vol. I: 1887-1939. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
Tremblay, Yves. “Brutinel: A Unique Kind of Leadership.” in Warrior Chiefs. Bernd Horn and Stephen Harris, eds. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001.
Canadian Operations, January-March 19l6
In accordance with the policy of "wearing down" the enemy the Canadians carried out their orders to harass the Germans by sniping, raiding, and surprise artillery shoots. The second night of the new year saw some 65 members of the 25th Battalion (5th Brigade) adopt a device only recently introduced into trench warfare. To achieve surprise, the raiding party cut the enemy's wire by hand rather than with the artillery. Ironically enough, the experiment proved too successful. The wire-cutting group completed its task before the assault group was ready to enter the gap; and in the meantime a German wiring party discovered and repaired the damage, making the obstacle much stronger than before. The approach of daylight obliged the raiders to withdraw. Not long after this the enemy introduced tempered steel wire, and hand-cutting became a very slow and difficult process.
In the early morning of January 31 1916 the 6th Brigade staged a more eventful raid against the enemy's Spanbroekmolen salient, near the centre of the Canadian sector. Brig.-Gen. Ketchen's various objects were to obtain prisoners for identification purposes, to injure the enemy's morale and destroy his works, and to kill Germans - all in the shortest possible time. Picked parties of 30 men from the 28th and 29th Battalions were given special training at the brigade bombing school. After scouts had cut the wire at great risk the two parties, working to a pre-arranged schedule, crossed no man's land shortly before 2:40 a.m. and reached the German trenches at points 1100 yards apart.
As the raiders' bombs burst among them the startled enemy were further unnerved
by the terrifying appearance of the Canadians, who had blackened their faces with burnt cork. The Vancouverites (29th Battalion), encountering little resistance, secured three prisoners, bombed the enemy in his dug-outs and in four and a half minutes were on their way back to their front line, which they reached without loss of life. The men of the 28th remained in the German trench for eight minutes, the limit allowed by the brigade staff. A German relief was in progress when they attacked, and the Canadian bombs took terrible toll of the clustering enemy. In the return journey across no man's land their prisoners were killed by enemy machine-gun fire. The raid was considered a marked success and attracted great attention along the entire British front. Three German regiments opposing the 6th Brigade had been identified, the total cost to the Canadians being two killed and ten wounded.
Between February 8 and 19 the Germans launched a series of diversionary attacks against French and British positions in preparation for their Verdun offensive. One such attack fell on "The Bluff", a low tree-covered mound on the north bank of the Ypres-Comines Canal, in the sector held by the British 5th Corps. In bitter fighting the enemy captured The Bluff on the 14th, only to lose it seventeen days later to a well-mounted counter-attack.25 Although not directly involved in the fighting, the Canadian Corps assisted its British neighbours with artillery support and by taking over the southernmost 700 yards of the 5th Corps' front on the 17th - a relief which extended the Canadian sector to the outskirts of the ruins of St. Eloi.26 The Canadian operations in this period brought distinction to a member of the 1st Brigade. For conspicuous bravery under a heavy bombardment on March 18, Corporal R. Millar of the 1st Battalion received the Military Medal - the first Canadian to be so honoured. (The M.M., inscribed "For bravery in the field", had been instituted only that month. At first reserved for N.C.Os. and men, it was later awarded also to warrant officers.)
Canadian battle casualties in the first three months of 1916 numbered 546 killed, 1,543 wounded, three gassed and one taken prisoner. There were 667 accidents and other non-battle casualties, of which 20 proved fatal. In spite of weather and living conditions the health of the troops was good; though there were cases of influenza, paratyphoid, and - trench feet.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.119-121.