06 min 24 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
The footage was filmed by Walter Buckstone, cameraman with the CWRO, and contains images of the Canadian Scottish Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, along with brief close-ups of Brigadier-Generals James H. MacBrien and Victor Odlum, smiling and speaking to the camera. This is followed by group shots of Canadian officers. Towards the end of the clip we see images of the American pilot Eddie Rickenbacher and of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
Brigadier-Generals MacBrien and Odlum were among the most capable of Canada’s commanding officers. They had been appointed through a process initiated by Lt-General Sir Julian Byng that aimed to recognize merit rather than “connections” to Sam Hughes when filling senior positions. Lt-General Sir Arthur Currie considered them among his favourites and was considering them both for promotion in the closing weeks of the war. Both were key participants in Currie’s efforts to develop a more thorough system of military planning, as new methods of warfare rendered 19th century military methods obsolete. The new system of “organized learning” entailed unforeseen levels of pre-battle preparation and meticulous post-battle analysis.
MacBrien was one of the few Canadian commanders who was a professional soldier at the outset of the war, having recently completed training at the British Staff College in Camberly. When the war started he was initially employed as a staff officer with the 1st Canadian Division. He had his first opportunity to command with the 4th Division in 1916, the last division Canada sent into France. He was reputed to be reserved and somewhat aloof but also kind: he is said to have openly wept on the evening of September 2, 1918, when the faulty planning of his superiors had led to heavy Canadian casualties during the attack on the Droucourt-Quéant Line. He remained with the army following the war, going on to serve as RCMP Commissioner.
Odlum had served in the South African War, after which he returned to Vancouver to pursue a successful financial career. Known as outgoing and brave, he frequently joined his men on the front lines and on a few occasions actually led his men with pistol drawn. He was wounded several times in the course of the war. A teetotalling Methodist, Odlum attempted at one point to suppress the daily rum ration, a time-honoured British military tradition. This unpopular move earned him the nickname Pea Soup Odlum. His offer to replace spirits with hot soup did not go over well, particularly as his men witnessed comrades in other units continue to get their daily restorative, and Odlum eventually relented. Odlum and another 4th Division commander, David Watson, came to Currie’s financial aid in 1917 when the issue of Currie’s pre-war debts threatened to become politically embarrassing.
The group of men appearing to pose for a group portrait would have been officers. Each battalion would have about 30 officers, who were responsible for leadership in battle, as well as training and morale. Their leadership styles varied, but an effective officer needed to inspire confidence and possess strong organizational skills. The military hierarchy generally reflected social divisions, with most officers coming from the educated middle classes and most soldiers from the working class. It was a risky job and almost 10% of all infantry battalion commanders died in the battlefield.
Towards the end of the clip we see Sam Hughes leading a group cheer, as well as a close-up of the American pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, with a hangar in the background, and a scene of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig chatting outside with a small group of men.
Pieces of History
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.
Sir Samuel Hughes
These experiences produced a Canadian nationalist slant to Hughes's imperialist leanings. By 1911, with years of solid caucus and parliamentary service - including 10 years as Opposition militia critic - and personal loyalty to R.L. Borden behind him, Hughes won the militia portfolio in Borden's new government. Hughes promoted citizen-soldiers over professionals (to the latter's detriment) and preached the social value of military training and national preparedness.
Early in WWI, Hughes was hailed as the genius of the war effort. Unfortunately, favouritism, confused civil-military functions, disrespect of Cabinet, administrative incompetence and scandals such as the Ross Rifle fiasco forced Borden to fire Hughes in November 1916. He died in 1921, a reluctant and sometimes bitter Conservative-Unionist MP for Victoria-Haliburton. Although Hughes was a sincere Canadian and a successful constituency politician, his erratic talents never matched the demands of high office during total war.
Ronald G. Haycock
Haycock, R.G. Sam Hughes: The Public Career of a Controversial Canadian 1885-1916. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press in collaboration with Canadian War Museum, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1986.
Reproduced with permission from The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Foundation of Canada, 1988.
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.
The 16th (Canadian Scottish) (Princess Mary’s) Battalion
Under the commands of Lt-Cols R. G. E. Leckie and C. W. Peck, the 16th Battalion fought in many battles, including Ypres, Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Passchendaele and Amiens. At Regina Trench on October 8, 1916, men of the 16th were restricted at the wire by a storm of enemy machine-gun and rifle fire, not one being able to get through. With complete disregard for the gunfire, the 18-year-old piper James Richardson marched up and down playing his bagpipes, inspiring about a hundred of the Scottish to rush the wire. The soldiers managed to fight their way into the Regina Trench. At Vimy Ridge, Private W. J. Milne engaged in heroic action for which he was awarded a Victoria Cross posthumously. While his company was being held up by enemy machine gun, Milne crawled on hands and knees to bombing distance, wiped out the crew and captured the gun. Later that day, he was killed.
Adapted from Nicholson, G. W. L. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1918.