The Royal Visit to the Battlefields of France, July 1917 - 2
06 min 50 s
Topical Film Company
Visit of King George V and Queen Mary to France 3-14 July 1917.
The Queen inspects aircraft with Brigadier-General Sir Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps, and goes on to meet briefly with Sir Douglas Haig, and later to visit an American hospital. The King visits an Royal Naval Air Service base. The Queen visits a Casualty Clearing Station and the Tank Corps central stores and tank park. The King and Prince arrive at Tramecourt Château and are joined by the Queen, together with the King and Queen of Belgium.
The film is less tedious than the simple list of Royal visits might suggest, and contains a few good and interesting moments, but these only serve to highlight a vast bulk of routine.
Pieces of History
Associate Professor, History Department, Université de Montréal
A total of 3,141 nurses worked in the Canadian army, 2,504 of them overseas—over a third of all Canadian registered nurses. Some were posted to British or Canadian hospitals in England, but at least a thousand served in France and Belgium; some were even sent to the Mediterranean or Russia. Unlike nurses from the other allied countries, who were in auxiliary corps, Canadian nurses were full members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps and thus held military rank. Margaret Macdonald, appointed matron-in-chief at the start of the war, was also the first woman of the British Empire to hold the rank of major.
From the outset, the military authorities had planned to keep the nurses in stationary hospitals, 250-bed units with 16 nurses, and in the general hospitals farther from the front, which had between 500 and 1,000 beds served by a team of 72 nurses. In practice, however, it soon became apparent that these medical professionals were also needed in the most advanced posts, called casualty clearing stations, because the wounded soldiers taken there often required emergency surgery impossible to do without the help of nurses. Many nurses thus found themselves very close to the front lines, working in tents or huts with minimal hygiene.
Although farther from the theatre of operations, the stationary hospitals and general hospitals still did not have all the facilities that nurses were accustomed to. Established in big houses, ruined monasteries, unused schools or hastily built shelters, these hospitals were far from an ideal environment. The nurses had to tend patients while slogging through mud, surrounded by rats or, on the Mediterranean front, flies, while being careful to use as little water as possible.
The nurses’ work followed the rhythm of the battles, each bringing a massive influx of wounded. Working around the stretchers lined up on the ground, the nurses had to take care of hundreds of soldiers brought in by train or ambulance. Bullets, bayonets, shells and shrapnel caused extremely serious wounds that bled profusely and often necessitated amputation, the only way to get rid of gangrene. Amputation was also the fate of men who suffered frostbite from their time in the muddy trenches, while on the Mediterranean front, dysentery laid many low. Gas, first used extensively in the First World War, attacked the eyes and lungs. The nurse placed the lung patient in an oxygen tent, but that did not always work as hoped. Nurses were just as powerless to help those suffering from psychological problems, termed shell shock, whose numbers grew as the war intensified. On the other hand, they were perfectly capable of taking care of soldiers with tuberculosis or other common ailments, like the flu. Due to the high mortality rate of the wounded, such cases actually made up the bulk of their work. Towards the end of the hostilities, when the Spanish flu started to spread, they were called upon to tend to soldiers with influenza.
Life at the front had its quieter moments, though, and nurses took advantage of them. Between two deliveries of casualties, they could do their jobs more calmly, befriending the soldiers they tended often over long weeks. They also gave themselves small treats. When not on duty, they could go to dances, receptions and concerts also attended by soldiers, officers or even civilians. They also took part in sports or games and went cycling near their hospitals. Nurses stationed in England took tea with members of the British and Canadian army or with nurses from other hospitals, and played golf and tennis. On leave, some even travelled to Scotland or the south of France.
Army nurses were the only women to go to the front during the First World War. Thirty-nine lost their lives, twenty-one in battles on the continent or at sea, and eighteen as a result of illness. Seven others died in Canada while serving in army hospitals. Over 500 of them were decorated, including matron Ethel Ridley, named Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and Vivien Tremaine, who was awarded the Royal Victorian Order for caring for King George V, who was hurt when he fell off his horse while reviewing Canadian troops. These military honours acknowledged their courage and the esteem in which they were held. This acknowledgment also extended beyond the military sphere, however, for the involvement of nurses in the war greatly contributed to making medical and hospital authorities more aware of the importance of their role. By the end of the First World War, nurses had gained a professional status that could never again be questioned.
Allard, Geneviève, «Des anges blancs sur le front : l’expérience de guerre des infirmières militaires canadiennes pendant la Première guerre mondiale», Bulletin d’histoire politique, 8, nos 2-3 (hivers-printemps 2000): 119-132.
---, «Les anges blancs sur le front. Les infirmières militaires canadiennes durant la Première Guerre mondiale», [MA (Histoire), Université Laval], 1997.
Allemang, Margaret M. Canadian Nursing Sisters of World War 1, Oral History Program. Toronto: Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto, 1977-1980.
Nicholson, G.W. L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters. Toronto: A.M. Hakkert, 1975.
Strong-Boag, Veronica. "Making a Difference : The History of Canada’s Nurses." Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine, 8, 2 (1991) : 231-248.
Historian, Department of National Defence
On the battlefield, stretcher bearers, who were selected from the infantry or detached from a Field Ambulance unit, determined if the soldier needed to be treated, required immediate evacuation, or a combination of the two. The same process was repeated at the Regimental Aid Post (which was part of an infantry battalion at the front), at the Advanced Dressing Station (a section of a Field Ambulance), the Main Dressing Station (another section of the Field Ambulance), the Casualty Clearing Station, and the various forms of hospital near the front or well behind it, in England or even Canada.
The need for triage was not limited to times when the Canadian Corps was fighting battles—far from it—for disease had caused more casualties than combat since time immemorial. Even after such developments as vaccination in the 18th century and the studies of germs in the 19th, the sick were still plentiful among Canadian soldiers. Many conditions still forced tens of thousands to seek treatment. Among them were influenza, with some 65,000 ill in 1918-19; gonorrhea with over 45,000 ill in the course of the war; tonsillitis and sore throat with about 20,000 ill; syphilis with approximately 18,000; trench fever (caused by a bacterium transmitted by fleas), though non fatal, struck 18,000; myalgia (muscle pain) made some 15,000 sick, as did intestinal disease.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), however, was free of the kinds of epidemic diseases that had caused such ravages in the Crimea, the Spanish-American War and South Africa.
Near the end of the conflict the medical corps did find itself in the midst of one of the great pandemics of human history, the influenza scourge of 1918–19. Killing millions, it can be compared to the plague of Justinian in the 6th century or the Black Death in the 14th. Though 30–50,000 Canadians would succumb to the disease, the great majority were on the home front and not members of the expeditionary force. According to official history, 3825 of those who went overseas died of disease, 776 of influenza.
The CEF still had a problem on its hands, as the illness “flooded the rest station and camps with sick” in the summer of 1918, and “The ailment was peculiar in that, while exhibiting the symptoms of influenza, it ran its course in a week or eight days. It spread rapidly and necessitated the promulgation of extensive and stringent precautionary orders to prevent its spread. All public places such as Unit Entertainments, YMCA Cinema Shows, Estaminets [small French cafés serving alcohol] &c were closed for a time. In the latter places it was permitted to serve drinks at tables outside the buildings.”1
Such illness was in addition to the medical challenges posed by the weapons of war and by the very ground being fought over. The conflict on the Western Front took place mainly on farmland that had been well-fertilized with manure, and its accompanying bacteria, for decades or centuries. The result, according to Canada's official medical historian of the conflict, was that nearly all wounds were infected. Sulpha drugs would not become available until the 1930s, and antibiotics would have to await another world war before coming into use, so infection was a serious challenge that could only be met by irrigating wounds with available chemicals and convalescence that could last months.
Another danger of wounds on the battlefield was shock due to blood loss, which could be fatal. The simple solution, first attempted in 1916, was to replace the patient’s blood with blood drawn from a donor; chemical preservatives and refrigeration allowed for the life-giving fluid to be stored for a period of time, and such blood was being transfused by the end of 1917. One practitioner was Norman Guiou, who recalled in April 1918:
We had our first opportunity to do several transfusions. The dressing station was set up in a Nissen hut, the stretchers were supported on trestles. There were a number of seriously wounded... One lad was brought in on a blood-soaked stretcher, with a shattered humerus - his upper arm swathed in copious blood-soaked dressings. A flicker of pulse was present. He was pale, "starey-eyed", and tossed about and pulled his wound tag off... We bled a donor about 750cc while the chaplain talked to him. If there is a dramatic procedure in medicine it is the blood transfusion. Color came into that lad's cheeks. He raised himself on his good elbow, drank tea, and ate some YMCA fancy biscuits, then was on to the casualty clearing station.2
One final challenge is worthy of mention here, that of psychological injury. According to medical historian Tom Brown, the condition was “the storm centre of military medicine” at that time. Symptoms could include uncontrollable weeping, trembling, paralysis, deafness and other manifestations without known physical causes. At first it was called shell shock, as it was thought that it resulted from the shock wave of an exploding shell damaging the brain, but by the middle part of the war the condition was thought to be purely psychological in nature. The patient could be diagnosed as suffering from hysteria or neurasthenia and could receive shock
treatment, talk therapy or simple rest in a hospital out of earshot of artillery. Most of the Canadian soldiers who suffered from such injuries were sent to No 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital in France, which specialized in such care.
Hospitals serve as examples of just how complex the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers had become by the First World War. Institutions specialized in ear and eye conditions, rheumatism, psychological injury, tuberculosis, orthopaedics, and venereal disease, in addition to general, stationary and convalescent hospitals. In an industrialized war, hospitals could become battlefield targets. Many nursing sisters and patients were killed when a hospital was bombed in 1918. They were among the 504 medical practitioners killed on the battlefield serving with Canadian units; another 127 succumbed to disease.
1Library and Archives Canada, RG 9, III, v.4715, 107-20, Passchendaele to Gouy-en-Artois, June 1918
2Norman Guiou, Transfusion: A Canadian Surgeon's Story in War and Peace (Yarmouth, 1985), 34-35.
McPhail, Andrew. Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-19: The Medical Services. Ottawa: Department of National Defense, 1925.
Nicholson, G.W.L. Canada's Nursing Sisters. Toronto: S. Stevens, 1975.
---. Seventy Years of Service: A History of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977.
Rawling, Bill. Death their Enemy : Canadian Medical Practitioners and War. Ottawa: B. Rawling, 2001.
Canada's Mounted Troops
Major Michael R. McNorgan
Instructor, Royal Military College, Kingston
At the beginning of the First World War, horsed cavalry was still an army’s principal mobile arm. However, after the onset of static trench warfare on the Western Front in late 1914 – with thick barbed wire barriers and large numbers of machine guns protecting defensive works – the battlefield utility of cavalry was greatly diminished. Cavalry was nonetheless retained in large numbers because of the perennial hope of breaking through the enemy’s line and rolling up his defences from the rear. Thus, for virtually every major offensive operation during the war, cavalry divisions were kept in reserve.
Canada contributed two distinct groups of cavalry during the War – the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and an independent cavalry regiment known as the Canadian Light Horse.
Canadian Cavalry Brigade
This Canadian Cavalry Brigade was formed in England in the autumn of 1915, consisting of permanent force units, the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Lord Strathcona’s Horse, along with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. In early 1916, The Fort Garry Horse, a militia regiment from Winnipeg, was added, along with a Cavalry Brigade Machine Gun Squadron equipped with Vickers machine guns. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade served as part of a British cavalry division for the remainder of the war. Its first mounted action was at the Somme in the summer of 1916. When cavalry units were not needed as reserves for an offensive operation, they were often employed dismounted to occupy quiet sectors of the front.
The Brigade again saw mounted action in March 1917 when tasked to pursue an unexpected German withdrawal to a new defensive position called the Hindenburg Line. During this pursuit, Lieutenant Harvey of Lord Strathcona’s Horse earned the brigade’s first Victoria Cross for valour during the liberation of a French village. By the time of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 – best known as the first major tank offensive of the war – the Canadian cavalry was judged to be among the best brigades in the British Cavalry Corps, and it was tasked to serve in the lead of a large cavalry exploitation force. During this operation, a single Canadian squadron was the only cavalry to penetrate German lines, and Lieutenant Strachan of The Fort Garry Horse was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
The Brigade served with great distinction during the German’s March 1918 offensive toward Amiens, riding from place to place assisting in slowing the relentless enemy advance. Its final action in this operation took place at Moreuil Wood, where Lieutenant Flowerdew of Lord Strathcona’s Horse won a posthumous Victoria Cross for leading a gallant cavalry charge against German machine guns. After the war, Marshal Foch, the Allied supreme commander, credited the Canadians with halting the German offensive at Moreuil and preventing the separation of the French and British armies. Later in that final year of the war, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was in action during the great Canadian Corps victory over the Germans at Amiens in August, and it played an important part in following up the German retreat in the last two months of the war.
Canadian Light Horse
Until May 1916, three of the four infantry divisions of the Canadian Corps maintained their own independent cavalry squadron of some 150 all ranks . These squadrons – from the 19th Alberta Dragoons, the 1st Hussars and the 16th Light Horse – were then amalgamated into an ad hoc regiment that reported directly to Canadian Corps Headquarters. In early 1917, this unit was named the Canadian Light Horse.
The Canadian Light Horse first saw action as a mounted unit in the consolidation of the ground captured in the attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The CLH played a major role in the fighting at Iwuy on October 10, 1918, where the last ever swords-drawn charge by Canadian cavalry took place. During the pursuit of the Germans in the final month of the war, CLH squadrons were always well out in front as a scouting force, ensuring that the Canadian divisions would not be surprised by German lay-back patrols. When the war ended for the Canadians in Mons Belgium on November 11, 1918, the Canadian Light Horse was already well beyond the city.
Modern armoured fighting vehicles – tanks and armoured cars – owe their development in part to the stalemate created on the Western Front by the deadly combination of machine guns and thick belts of barbed wire protecting trench lines, along with massive artillery bombardments that could be brought down with great accuracy on an attacking force. The problem of how an attacking force could be strengthened to overcome well-defended trenches had been studied by British scientists since late 1914. They came up with the idea of a ‘land ship’ – a tracked vehicle protected by armour plate, large enough that it could carry guns or machine guns, drive over belts of barbed wire, and crossover trenches. This highly secret vehicle was given the code name ‘tank’.
Tanks were first introduced in limited numbers during the battle of the Somme in mid-September 1916, and the Canadian Corps was given seven (these models were called the Mark I) for its attack on the village of Courcellette. But these early versions were mechanical nightmares; almost all broke down before they got anywhere close to the German lines. Still, scientists kept improving their tank designs. Finally, in November 1917, tanks were used in large numbers in a successful offensive at Cambrai: the era of mechanized warfare had been born. Tanks then played major roles in the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in September, and in the pursuit of the retreating Germans in October and November 1918.
Early in 1918 many thought the war might well last into 1919, and the Canadian Army agreed to raise tank units. The 1st Canadian Tank Battalion was recruited from university students, and in June 1918 it was sent to England to begin training at the British Tank School. Despite the general aversion to volunteering at this stage in the war, a 2nd Battalion was also quickly raised. The 1st Tank Battalion had just completed its training and was preparing to leave for the front when the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918. Thus, while no Canadian tank unit saw action in the war, many Canadians did serve in British tank battalions, and in a number of instances displayed their nationalism by painting maple leafs prominently on their vehicles.
THE MOTOR MACHINE GUN BRIGADE
In 1914, Canada created the world’s first armoured unit. The driving force behind this achievement was Raymond Brutinel, a wealthy engineer originally from France, who had the idea that lightly armoured vehicles designed to carry machine guns would be especially useful. He offered to raise the funds for the vehicles, a suggestion which was readily accepted by the government. Brutinel designed the vehicles, had them built, purchased the machine guns, and recruited the soldiers, all within two months. His new unit was given the name ‘Automobile Machine Gun Brigade No. 1’. In the next few months three other mobile machine gun units were raised, all paid for by private subscription – the Eaton Battery, the Borden Battery and the Yukon Battery. All four units found their way to France where, in 1915, they were amalgamated under Brutinel’s command as the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade.
Brutinel’s Motors came into their own in the last year of the war, when the stalemate of trench warfare had been broken. This highly mobile force played an especially important role in stemming the onslaught of the Germans’ March 1918 offensive, and a second similar brigade was formed. The Motors were a valuable part of a composite formation of cavalry, armoured cars and cyclists, termed ‘The Independent Force’, during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. Between September and November this force led the Canadian Corps from one victory to another during the pursuit to Valenciennes and finally to Mons on November 11, when the war ended.
At the beginning of the war, each Canadian division had its own company of cyclists – troops equipped with sturdy bicycles whose tasks included field security and aspects of military intelligence. In the static conditions on the Western Front, they were not very useful, so they tended to be used as guards or labourers. In May 1916 the four companies were amalgamated as The Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion. In 1918, the battalion was included in Brigadier-General Brutinel’s ‘Independent Force’, and there they served valiantly at Amiens and in the Pursuit to Mons as a form of mounted infantry – riding to the scene of action, dismounting and then fighting as infantry.
Ellis, W.D., ed. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War 1914-1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Lynch, Alex. Dad, the Motors and the Fifth Army Show: The German Offensive, March 1918. Kingston, ON: Lawrence Publications, 1978.
---. The Glory of Their Times : 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, March 1918. Kingston, ON: Lawrence Publications, 2001.
Marteinson, John and Michael R. McNorgan. The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000.
Mitchell, G.D., Brian Reid and W. Simcock. RCHA - Right of the Line : An Anecdotal History of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery from 1871. Ottawa: RCHA History Committee, 1986.
Wallace, J.F. Dragons of Steel: Canadian Armour in Two World Wars. Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing, 1995.
Williams, S.H. Stand to Your Horses : Through the First World War, 1914-1918 with the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians). Winnipeg: Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) Regimental Society, 1999 (1961).
The First Air War
Hugh A. Halliday
Historian and author
During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) experts noted that smokeless powder, rifled artillery, machine guns and barbed wire had turned battlefields into vast wastelands where armies hid from their opponent’s shells. Cavalry—the traditional form of reconnaissance—could not manoeuvre . Ten years later, aircraft made stalemate even more certain. In August 1914 aerial reconnaissance enabled the Allies to counter-attack against German armies invading France. Thereafter, with few exceptions, aerial observers forecast an enemy’s offensive and thus assured its failure (or success, at appalling cost).
The power of aerial observation went further. With armies driven into complex trench systems, artillery came to the fore as the deadliest weapon of the war. The great guns of the Western Front were the primary killing machines of what had become industrialized warfare—65 percent of all deaths and wounds were attributable to artillery fire, which delivered awesome weights of shell and shrapnel.
Days before his death by artillery fire, an American soldier wrote, “This is a cowering war—pygmy man huddles in little holes and caves, praying to escape the blows of the blind giant who pounds the ground with blind hammers.” But the hammers were not blind. Their targets were mapped by men in aircraft and balloons, their fire was directed from aircraft and balloons. The aerial observer was the most important airman of the war; his role today has been assumed by others, including the aerial spy satellite.
The courage of these men defies imagination. Balloon observers ascended under gas bags filled with flammable hydrogen, vulnerable to fighter aircraft determined to shoot them down. The men in the balloons at least had parachutes, if time permitted them to escape. For most of the war, pilots and airplane crews had no such equipment; fire in the air was the most dreaded fate of all, and many men carried pistols to shoot themselves rather than suffer agonizing deaths. In June 1918 German aircrews were issued parachutes; even these failed to deploy about 25 percent of the time.
Given the importance of aerial reconnaissance and artillery direction, it is puzzling to find so much attention being devoted to fighter pilots, these “knights of the air.” Fighter pilots and tactics evolved from 1915 onwards, but their task was always secondary to that of the observation crews. It was a fighter pilot’s job to shoot down enemy observation aircraft and protect his own observation aircraft. Nevertheless, propagandists trying to divert attention from the awful slaughter on the ground fastened upon the fighter pilots as men engaged in single combat, man-to-man, with the high-scoring “ace” as the centrepiece of the narrative. Never mind that the fighter pilot’s objective was (preferably) to surprise an opponent and shoot him in the back. Chivalry there might be—a decent burial for a fallen enemy, a toast with a captured foe—but in the heat of battle there could be only one rule: kill or be killed. At the heart of everything else, that was a fighter pilot’s job description. It is a measure of the propagandist’s success that, 90 years later, the public knows more about the First World War fighter pilots than the men they were actually protecting.
Airplanes were used for many other tasks—anti-submarine patrols, trench strafing, communications and bombing. Indeed, aircraft performed almost every task in the First World War that they would later execute in the Second World War. The one exception was the aerial delivery of soldiers. Even so, aircraft were used to place spies behind enemy lines and drop supplies to isolated troops. Nevertheless, in most roles the airplanes of 1914-1918 only hinted at what was to come. Only one submarine was sunk by aircraft during the First World War; at least 400 submarines on all sides were destroyed by aircraft during the Second World War. Aerial bombing between 1914 and 1918 inflicted only modest devastation (although its psychological impact was very great at the outset); the bombing campaigns of the Second World War were horrific both in physical impact and subsequent moral outrage.
Aircraft affected the conduct of the war, and war influenced the technological development of aircraft. For example, engines increased from an average of 80 horsepower (1914) to 350 horsepower (1918), while speeds of 110 km/h had risen to about 200 km/h. Yet if the war had not taken place, it is conceivable that commercial incentives might have produced similar results. The first four-engine airliner had flown in Russia in 1913. Might not development have taken place along civilian lines ? Five years later, France and Britain initiated civilian air transport services using modified bombers that carried fewer passengers than their Russian predecessors of 1913.
Whether or not it was due to war, a radical transformation occurred between 1914 and 1918 that involved the attitudes of aviators themselves. Even among the select circle of 1914 pilots, flying was considered hazardous,, and training methods reflected this. At the time, no aircraft had been designed specifically for training; throughout the war most training aircraft were machines like the RE.7 and Farman Shorthorn, which had been retired from front-line duties to rear echelon tasks. The Curtiss JN-4 broke this pattern.
The most radical change, however, involved the training syllabus itself. Early flying instruction covered the basics of flying but emphasized dangers to be avoided, particularly stalls and spins. By 1916, however, the dynamics of flight controls were more fully understood, and recovery from spins could be practised. New systems of instruction emphasized the theory of flight and explained exactly how manoeuvres could be executed, thus encouraging intelligent aerobatics. Instead of being regarded as a threatening mount, the airplane came to be seen as an even-tempered, reasonable machine. Previously, students had been taught what to avoid; the new methods instilled confidence. By the end of the war, pilots had become enthusiastic about the potential uses of aircraft and convinced of the fundamental safety of their machines. Confident prophets inspire confident converts.
Canada’s role in these developments was insignificant in some ways, crucial in others. Before the war the government studiously ignored aviation, and only in 1918 did it take steps to form distinct Canadian air force units. On the other hand, it assisted the British flying services, which recruited in Canada and trained personnel in this country. Thousands of Canadians enlisted in the British flying services, either directly or by transferring from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. No one really knows just how many joined; the lowest estimate (13,160) seems too modest, but the highest guess (22,812) cannot be documented. It is generally believed that, as of 1918, about one-quarter of all members of the Royal Air Force were Canadians. The most famous were aces such as Raymond Collishaw and William Barker, but they included many other fascinating individuals. In 1915, Redford Mulock had been a trooper transferring from the cavalry to the Royal Naval Air Service. As of November 1918, he was a decorated colonel commanding heavy bombers that would have raided Berlin if the war had lasted only two weeks longer.
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Costello, W. Brian. A Nursery of the Air Force. Carleton Place, ON: Forest Beauty Products, 1979.
Dodds, Ronald. The Brave Young Wings. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1980.
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Jones, Neville. The Origins of Strategic Bombing. London: William Kimber, 1973.
Milberry, Larry. Aviation in Canada. Toronto: Canav Books, 1979.
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Rimell, Raymond Laurence. Zeppelin! A Battle for Air Supremacy in World War I. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1984.
Shores, Christopher, Norman Franks and Russell Guest. Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces, 1915-1920. Stoney Creek, ON: Fortress Publications, 1990.
Sullivan, Alan. Aviation in Canada,1917-1918. Toronto: Rous and Rous, 1919.
Wise, S.F. Canadian Airmen and the First World War. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1982.
The following Web site has a section "Honours and Awards" and a subsection dealing with Canadians in the British Flying Services during the First World War: http://www.airforce.ca/.
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.
The Lone Hawk: Ace Billy Bishop
The “Lone Hawk” became a living legend whose exploits brought excitement and glamour to a conflict bogged down by the appalling massacre in the trenches during the Great War, a legend that would later inspire thousands of others to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II.
He quickly proved his skill as the ultimate aerial duellist soon after joining a Royal Flying Corps fighter squadron on March 17, 1917. Eight days later, he brought down his first enemy plane. On April 7, he scored a second time, then a week later brought his tally to three. Next day, Easter Sunday, Bishop brought down three enemy planes to qualify him as an ace plus one. During the encounter, he experienced his closest brush with death when a bullet grazed his flying helmet and put a hole in his windscreen1. By this time, he had been awarded the first of his decorations, the Military Cross.
On the last day of that month, by which time his tally had climbed to fourteen victories, he clashed with the notorious Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” at 15,000 feet over Vitry. The dog-fight between the greatest aces of each side ended in a quick draw, the Lone Hawk getting off a short, exasperated shot at the scarlet Albatross, plunging to earth as if hit, the old ruse, then flattening out and away.
On May 2, a date in which Bishop engaged a total of 23 enemy aircraft, he destroyed a pair of enemy two-seater observation planes and over the next four days brought down three more, to boost his victories to nineteen. Before going on leave to England the next day, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
On his return to France, he shot down three planes in two days, then on June 2 made his historic lone attack on Esnes aerodrome that won him the Victoria Cross. He described it to me in these laconic words:
I'd forgotten that the 'drome would be guarded by machine guns when I planned the raid, and they shredded my wings. Anyway, I managed to shoot down an Albatross trying to take off. I took a shot at a second one but missed. It didn't matter; the pilot turned around in the cockpit and crashed into a tree. Two more tried to take off. I got one of them. The other one fled and I decided to get the hell out of there. On my way home, there were four Huns well above me. I was lucky. They never saw me.
But then nausea set in, he said—he hadn't eaten any breakfast and was afraid he'd pass out. However, he made it safely back to his field.
Before his first tour ended, he ran his score up to 47 and was awarded a bar to his DSO.
On May 27, 1918, Bishop returned to the Western Front as head of his own squadron and in twelve days of flying, shot down an incredible 25 planes, a record never equalled and for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
During the Second World War, Billy Bishop was head of recruiting for the RCAF as Air Marshal. He died in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1956 at age 62.
1On display at the Canadian War Museum
Bishop, Arthur. The Courage of the Early Morning: The Story of Billy Bishop. Paperback ed. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989 (1967).
"Aces" in WWI
Captain Arthur Roy Brown was born at Carlton Place, Ontario, in 1893, the son of J. M. Brown, a leading grain merchant. He attended school in Carlton Place and in Edmonton, where he starred as a basketball and hockey player. Later he took a business course at Ottawa.
When the Great War broke out, Brown tried to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps, but was turned down. In those early days one first had to have private pilot’s licence, so he went to Dayton, Ohio, where he entered the Wright Brothers’ Aviation School. He became one of the first persons trained there, flying rickety Wright Model B’s, two-seater pusher biplanes with twin chain-driven propellers, hopelessly obsolete even in 1915.
Having completed his course, he enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service as a probationary flight sub-lieutenant and sailed for England on November 22, 1915.
While training at Chingford, Brown was repeatedly ill and in May 1916 he was hospitalized following an air accident. Nevertheless, he survived and was posted to No. 9 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service, attached to the Royal Flying Corps. On July 17, 1917, he scored the first of his kills. Three German Albatrosses attacked him. Twisting to and fro, he selected one of them and bored in. The enemy aircraft went out of control and crashed. More victories followed.
His Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) was gazetted on November 2, 1917, five days after he and a fellow flier, Lt. Banbury, had sent a German plane flaming from a formation of seven, and three days before he was made a flight commander. By the close of March 1918,while his squadron was engaged in a fierce fight, he made his thirteenth kill. It was not until some time after he had submitted his claim that he learned the identity of his victim: it was no other than the celebrated Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Knight of Germany, who had 80 kills to his credit.
Ill health again caught up with Brown and he had to leave the squadron for hospital. He then went to England to receive a bar to his DSC. For a time he was attached to the Second School of Fighting in a staff position. He wanted, however, to return to the front. Unhappily, battle fatigue clung to him and in July he fainted while flying and crashed. He was so badly injured that for a time the doctors despaired of saving him. He pulled through, but the Armistice found him still recovering from his injuries.
Brown left the service a captain with two DSCs and 13 confirmed kills. Friends who knew of his behind-the-lines patrols put the score at closer to 20.
Back in civilian life, he married and became the father of two daughters and one son. For several years he worked for the Imperial Varnish and Colour Co. Ltd., which specialized in aircraft finishes.
In 1934, he organized General Airways, which operated out of Noranda, Que., and Haileybury, Ontario. But ill health dogged him and a few years later he retired. In January 1943 he accepted the post of advisory editor of Canadian Aviation magazine. He found the work fascinating and he remained with the magazine until a few weeks before his death at fifty years of age, at Stouffville, Ontario.
Wing Commander William G. Barker, VC, DSO and Bar, MC and two Bars
Wing Commander Barker was born in Dauphin, Manitoba, on November 3, 1894. He attended elementary and high schools there and shortly before the outbreak of war moved to Winnipeg.
On December 1, 1914, he enlisted as a trooper in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR) at Brandon, Manitoba, and went with his unit to Britain in June 1915 to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). He took a machine-gun course at Shorncliffe Camp and sailed for France with his regiment in September 1915. His unit, along with a group of infantry and other dismounted cavalry units, formed part of Corps Troops [sic]. These units later became two brigades of the 3rd Canadian Division; the 1st CMR was part of the 8th Brigade.
Barker soon applied for service in the Royal Flying Corps and early in 1916 was sent to No. 9 Squadron, which was equipped with BE2c’s; he carried out reconnaissance duties as an observer under training on the Somme Front, but was still a member of his CEF unit.
No. 9 Squadron’s record book shows that Trooper W. Barker made a 20-minute test flight in a BE2c on March 6, 1916, and then flew nine other patrols, the last of which was photo reconnaissance on April 1, 1916.
Barker was struck off the strength of the CEF on April 1, 1916, and commissioned in the RFC on either April 1 or 2. Five days later he was sent to No. 4 Squadron RFC, also equipped with BE2c’s and based at Baizieux, France. He flew for three months with this squadron as an observer.
On July 7, 1916, still as an observer, Barker joined No. 15 Squadron, RFC, at Marieux, France. It also was equipped with BE2c’s although it later acquired BE2d’s, BE2e’s, and RE8’s. On July 20, 1916, Barker’s machine was attacked by a Roland Scout over Miraumont but it was driven off by Barker’s fire. On August 15 of the same year he drove off another Roland when it attacked him near Achiet le Grand. During November he was recommended for his first decoration, the Military Cross (MC), and the award was announced in the London Gazette in January 1917.
Sometime in late November, Barker was selected for pilot training and sent to the UK. He rejoined No. 15 Squadron as a pilot in February 1917 and much, if not most, of his flying was done on RE8’s. He and his observer were mentioned in RFC communiqués for actions of April 25 and May 25, 1917. He was made a flight commander on May 9, 1917, and two days later received a Bar to his MC.
Early in August 1917, Barker was wounded in the head, a shell splinter narrowly missing his right eye. In the middle of the month he was sent to the UK for a tour of instructional duty. He applied for service with a fighter squadron and was posted as a flight commander to No. 28 Squadron, then in England and preparing to fly its Camels to France. By now he had been promoted to captain. His new squadron arrived in St. Omar on October 8, 1917.
On October 20, Barker’s squadron took part in an attack on a German airfield. The plan called for aircraft of No. 70 Squadron to bomb and shoot up the German airfield at Rumbeke, at low level. Biplane fighters of No. 23 Squadron were to fly a high patrol during the attack while 19 Camels of No. 28 Squadron were to come in from the rear to attack any German aircraft which might be able to take off from the Rumbeke field. Heavy damage was done by the bombing and strafing and seven enemy scouts were shot down. One of these was an Albatross, described in RFC reports as being “painted green with small black crosses,” and which Barker sent down “with both wings off.”
Barker was hospitalized following his Victoria Cross (VC) fight of October 27, 1918, and on leaving hospital was commissioned a lieutenant-colonel in the Manitoba Regiment and seconded to the Canadian Air Force overseas. After returning to Canada he became a partner with Billy Bishop in a post-war commercial aviation venture in Toronto. In June 1922, he accepted a commission as a wing commander in the non-permanent Canadian Air Force formed in Canada and he was a member of the permanent RCAF, which came into being in 1924, serving as its first director from April 1, 1924 to May 18, 1924. He resigned his commission in 1926. On March 12, 1930, he took up a commercial Fairchild from Rockcliffe air station, Ottawa, and was killed when the machine crashed on landing.
Air Vice-Marshall Raymond Collishaw, CB, DSO and Bar, OBE (Order of the British Empire), DSC, DFC
Air Vice-Marshall Raymond Collishaw was born at Nanaimo, British Columbia, on November 22, 1893 and received most of his schooling there. At age 15 he joined the Fishery Protection Service, being rated as a cabin boy. He served in several ships engaged in patrol work along the British Columbia coast, rising to first officer. In 1915 he applied for service in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and briefly attended—at his own expense—the Curtiss flying school in Toronto. In January 1916 he was appointed a probationary flight sub-lieutenant and embarked for England.
He was selected to serve on fighters and after completing his training in England was posted to No. 3 (Naval) Wing, formed to fly long-range bombing attacks on German industrial targets from bases on the Vosges region of north-eastern France. He went out to the Wing’s aerodrome at Luxeuil-les-Bains in September 1916 and for the next five months flew escort to the RNAS bombers. Collishaw flew a Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter while with Three Wing and it was on this machine that he had his first aerial combat with enemy fighters. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his escort work.
In late January 1917, Collishaw was posted to No. 3 (Naval) Squadron, then attached to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on the Somme and equipped with the little Sopwith Pup fighter. He scored his first confirmed aerial victories with this squadron but during the latter part of March suffered severe frostbite and was sent to England to recover.
He returned to France a month later and was posted to No. 10 (Naval) Squadron, also a fighter unit, which had just been equipped with the Sopwith Triplane. With Naval Ten, Collishaw led the famous “B” or “Black” Flight throughout the spring and summer of 1917 and was able to demonstrate his full capabilities as a courageous and skilful fighter pilot. Naval Ten was attached to the RFC on the Ypres front and a grim aerial war of attrition developed with heavy casualties. While with Naval Ten he was credited with sending down 27 German aircraft and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Collishaw left the squadron during the first several days of August 1917 for Canadian leave.
He returned to duty in late November and was posted to lead a flight in the Seaplane Defence Squadron, a Sopwith Camel unit situated near Dunkirk. It later became No. 13 (Naval) Squadron. At this time its main duties were providing aerial protection for Royal Navy vessels off the French and Belgian coasts, carrying out fighter sweeps and flying escort for RNAS bombers. In late December he took over command of the unit when its commanding officer was injured in a crash. Promotion to rank of squadron commander followed.
He was then posted back to one of his old squadrons, No. 3 (Naval) – this time as its commanding officer. It was also equipped with Sopwith Camels and was heavily engaged with the enemy, particularly during the great German offensives of March and April 1918 and the Allied victory push that began early in August. It became No. 203 Squadron on creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Collishaw was given the rank of major. While leading No. 203, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and a Bar to his DSO.
Collishaw left No. 203 Squadron on October 21, having been selected to fill a senior staff position in the big pilot training scheme that the RAF was operating in Canada but the war ended before he could take up his new appointment. He is generally credited with having shot down 60 enemy machines during his flying in France. Under Collishaw’s command, No. 203 Squadron is credited with shooting down some 125 enemy aircraft; fewer than 30 of its own pilots were killed or became prisoners of war.
From 1919 to 1943, Collishaw was responsible for commands in South Russia, Iraq, England, Sudan and Egypt. In the summer of 1943, he retired from the RAF but remained in uniform in Britain until after the war’s end, serving as a regional air liaison officer with the civil defence organization. He returned to Canada after the war and made his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. He died in September 1976 in Vancouver, at age 82.
Adapted with permission from texts provided by the Directorate of History and Heritage, Canadian Department of National Defence.