Battle of Arras 7
Topical Film Company
Aftermath of the German retreat to the Hindenburg line, and the Battle of Arras, Western Front, March-April 1917. South African 1st Regiment during a trench raid (their leader, Captain Rolf, was awarded the MC), taking three prisoners. Another trench raid, possibly by 9th Battalion, the Cameronians. Behind the lines near Arras 1 9th Hussars wait.
Pieces of History
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 Horror of the Trenches
Historian and Author
Fraser found the front line trenches squalid. The dugouts, cut into the trench walls, “were small, damp and cold and overrun with rats.” Men slept in their clothes for the entire tour in the trenches, and sentries changed every two hours “so the chances are you get wakened up between the shifts….” Then there was a “stand-to…which means you have to hold yourself in readiness for eventualities, in other words you have to be wide awake with equipment on….” Add to this the cold and wet, the dirt and vermin, the constant enemy rifle and artillery fire, the patrols, and the possibility of major fighting, and the soldier’s life in the trenches was misery compounded by fear.
For almost four years, trench life was the Canadian infantrymen’s lot. Units took their turn in the line and fended off attacks or launched their own, almost always very costly. It was an unwavering routine of horror and filth, compounded by the ever-present fear of death or, perhaps even more terrible, of being trapped, unready, in a gas attack or of grievous, disfiguring wounds. No one could get accustomed to the trenches but, short of desertion or a “blighty”— an uncomplicated wound that led to some easy recovery time in a British military hospital—there was no escape. The Allies lived in perpetual mud, presumably because some generals believed that if the soldiers were too comfortable, they would not want to fight.
Most Canadian commanders, however, wanted to fight. If a sector was quiet, they tried to stir it up. The favoured tactic was the trench raid, a technique developed by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, a battalion initially attached to a British division. The PPCLI had invented trench raiding in February 1915, and their fellow Canadians soon raised it to an art form. Raids sought to establish dominance over no man’s land, keep enemy soldiers on edge, take prisoners, secure intelligence and do damage. Above all, raiding aimed to oblige the enemy to move more men to the front so a carefully planned artillery bombardment could inflict heavy casualties. Usually, a platoon or a company might be involved in a raid, though some could use a complete battalion. Raiders rehearsed their roles, carried wire-cutters, bombs and rifles and all worked together in a carefully orchestrated manner. Such raids could be useful.
But there was a price to pay for raids. The attackers usually suffered casualties, and by poking a stick into what had hitherto been a quiet sector, the Canadians stirred up the enemy, guaranteeing that heavy shelling would fall on their lines, as well as increasing sniper activity and more casualties. Those soldiers who preferred a “live and let live” policy at the front were not amused.
Still, raids seemed better than utter boredom. Life at the front featured brief stretches of intense activity followed by endless waiting or make-work projects devised by officers and sergeants. When troops went out of the line, it was to training courses, parades and “chickenshit”—polishing brass and painting rocks. When they were in the trenches, even in quiet sectors, there was a steady drain of casualties from enemy artillery and sniper fire. Between January and April 1916, a time in which the Canadian Corps was not engaged in any major actions, its divisions suffered more than 2700 casualties from all causes, including self-inflicted wounds. Still, most casualties occurred in attacks—10,000 at Vimy Ridge, almost 16,000 at Passchendaele, and, horrifyingly, when the troops finally left their trenches to engage the enemy in open warfare, 46,000 in the last hundred days of the war. The battles from August 8 to November 11, 1918 cost Canada’s army twenty percent of its casualties in the Great War.
Just surviving in the trenches was difficult enough, even without the presence of the enemy. Standing in mud and sleeping on a groundsheet or on the dirt were not good for one’s health. The cold and wet permeated boots and socks, causing trench foot. This disease was not fatal, but it incapacitated a soldier as much as a battle wound, and officers conducted daily foot inspections, whenever conditions permitted, to ensure their soldiers kept their feet in good condition.
Other diseases, usually lumped together as trench fever, sprang from poor drainage, human waste and the ever-present lice. Soldiers were prone to rheumatism from wearing wet clothes for long periods; others contracted tuberculosis, meningitis, influenza or a host of other ailments. The real terror for front-line troops, nonetheless, was of their trench being hit by artillery fire. Then, the trenches could be smashed and men buried under the mud of collapsed dugouts. They knew their comrades would dig them out—if they could.
The wounded, as these film clips amply demonstrate, received prompt, effective treatment. First aid came at the Regimental Aid Post set up in the support trenches. Stretcher bearers brought in those who could not walk, and a system of triage let the medical officer treat first those who might live. Then casualties began a rearward journey to an Advanced Dressing Station where morphine might be administered and then by train or ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station where surgeons operated. The final stage came when the wounded went to general hospitals in France or England, where further surgery might take place. There were specialized convalescent hospitals in England and, for those with terrible wounds, in Canada. The standard of care was impressive, and nine of ten wounded survived, a high figure considering the mud and septic filth in which soldiers lived and fought.
But always for the survivors and the new men, there were the trenches. A trench ideally was wide enough to allow two or three men to pass by and deep enough so that none need stoop to avoid falling prey to enemy snipers. Sometimes corrugated iron provided overhead shelter in dugouts or for revetments on the trench sides, essential to stop the walls from collapsing in the wet of Flanders. Firing steps, carved into the front of the trench, let men shoot at the enemy. Officers’ dugouts were frequently furnished with beds and desks and sometimes verged on the comfortable; unless they were lucky enough to take over a captured and well-built enemy position, the men’s dugouts were always crude and foul-smelling with the combination of body odour, tobacco, cooking smells, damp, and excrement creating a memorable reek.
To the front of the trench line were belts of barbed wire. Concertina wire, curling in rolls, was favoured, and every unit kept its protective wire in good shape, sending work parties out each night to ensure that the enemy had not cut paths through it. The day was full for the Canadian soldier, first because there was always work to be done, but primarily because the army instinctively believed that idleness was bad.
Soldiers wanted to live, but many lost their fear of death as they saw it all around them. One officer wrote his father to say that death “has no horrors for anyone here, at least for those who have been here a few weeks or more.” In the horror of the Great War, this was a widespread view. Men had no choice but to carry on.
Granatstein, J.L. Hell’s Corner: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Great War, 1914-1918. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2004.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War, 1914- 1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen, Dennys, 1989.
German Prisoners of War
Jonathan F. Vance
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture, Department of History, University of Western Ontario
The emotion of fear probably came first since the moment of capture was the most dangerous time for a prisoner. It was a reality of the First World War that the protection given to prisoners under the 1907 Hague Convention was not always observed in the front lines. Throwing aside one’s rifle and yelling “Kamarad” was no guarantee that the plea for mercy would be heeded, particularly if the approaching soldier had seen his unit decimated by enemy fire. By the same token, a platoon that was weakened by casualties and struggling to hold a hard-won position sometimes could not spare a couple of infantrymen to escort prisoners to the rear areas. In such cases, soldiers implicitly understood that the safest option for their unit was to shoot the prisoners and keep it to themselves.
And then there were the rumours that circulated through both sides of no man’s land about a particular battalion that never took prisoners, or about captives who were killed rather than being sent to the safety of a prison camp. A soldier who had been fired up by such stories might well wave aside his enemy’s pleas and pull the trigger instead. The faces you see in these films, then, represent the lucky ones, the soldiers who actually survived to become prisoners.
We should also be aware that there did exist a degree of sympathy between soldiers. Atrocities were committed on both sides, but often the sight of a cowering enemy soldier elicited a feeling of pity in the attacking soldier. This is not the demonic Hun depicted by the propagandists, he might think; this is a man like me, with a family, perhaps a wife and children. We are both caught in a war that is not our doing; I will treat him as I hope he would treat me, with kindness and consideration.
The exhausted Canadian sharing coffee and hardtack with a captured German became a stock propaganda image, as a way to demonstrate the kindness of our Canadian boys overseas. But just because they were propagandized does not mean such situations did not take place. On the contrary, many a soldier would share with his prisoner a water bottle, a packet of rations or a cigarette, because the fact that he was a fellow soldier was now more important than the fact that he was an enemy. There is genuine good humour in the image of the captor clowning with the captive by putting on his cap and pulling a face.
Once the new prisoner made it through the moment of capture and reached relative safety, his experiences in captivity became more typical. The First World War was a very labour-intensive conflict. It was the first truly mechanized war, but much of the heavy work was still done the old-fashioned way – by tens of thousands of men digging, carrying, lifting and moving. Neither side had any scruples about using prisoners as forced labour in or directly behind the front lines. We know that German units used their POWs to dig trenches, move ammunition and carry supplies – all tasks forbidden under international law – and Canadians may well have done the same. But such scenes would never have made it onto film. Instead, a much more common image is of German soldiers acting as stretcher bearers, bringing the wounded, Canadian and German alike, to safety. For the captors, this had the advantage of freeing up infantrymen who had been temporarily co-opted as stretcher bearers – every German prisoner who could carry a stretcher meant that one Canadian could go back to the firing line. But it also had value for the prisoners themselves. Many contemporary accounts tell of new prisoners who were almost pathetically keen to prove themselves useful by helping with the wounded. Carrying a stretcher, after all, was much better than being shot.
Prisoners were also a valuable source of information. They were searched for maps, papers or anything else that could have intelligence value (or even monetary value – Canadian soldiers were known as tireless souvenir hunters, and quickly stripped any item that could be sold to non-combatant troops in the rear areas. Rifles, canteens and other military equipment were confiscated and sent to salvage dumps. Then, German-speaking officers questioned the men about their unit and the defences on their side of the line. Probably, few POWs were as helpful as some of those who were filmed (including the one who is evidently hard of hearing, likely from artillery bombardment), but the evidence suggests that prisoners were actually forthcoming with information about what was going on in their own trenches.
Finally, the symbolic significance of prisoners should not be underestimated. It was important to depict German prisoners on film because they were very visible signs of success on the battlefield. In the bloodbaths of 1916 and 1917, when success was measured in yards of pulverized earth, scenes of a few bedraggled German soldiers proved that something concrete had been achieved. The Battle of the Somme, for example, was a notorious example of horrific casualties sustained for very little territorial gain, but footage of prisoners being marched away from the battlefield in this clip at least proved that there were a few enemy infantrymen who would never again fire on Canadian soldiers.
In the open campaigns that began in the summer of 1918, prisoners became even more dramatic evidence of success. Now, it was possible to show to Canadians images of long lines of Germans soldiers captured in battle as the Canadian Expeditionary Force swept across northern France. Scenes of POWs being marched away from the battle for Bourlon Wood in 1918, often combined with pictures of rows of captured artillery pieces, confirmed to people at home that the tide had finally turned. The Allies had the Germans on the run, and such images seemed to prove that they were just as happy to surrender as fight.
Statistics on German POWs captured by Canadian troops are far from complete. We know that over 4000 were captured at Vimy Ridge in April 1917; over 5000 on August 8, 1918, the first day of the Battle of Amiens; and roughly 6000 in the three-day battle for the Drocourt-Quéant line in September 1918. But these are only three of dozens of engagements fought by the Canadian divisions, and the total number of prisoners taken may never be known. In any case, the cold statistics tell us less about the experience of captivity than these moving images. The men we see remain nameless, but their faces speak volumes about the impact of war on the individual.
Selective bibliography :
Cochet, François. "Le traitement des prisonniers de guerre en 1914-1918 : le règne de la réciprocité ?", in 14-18, le Magazine de la Grande Guerre, n° 23, Décembre 2003 - Janvier 2004.
Jackson, Robert. The Prisoners, 1914-18. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Morton, Desmond. Silent battle : Canadian prisoners of war in Germany, 1914-1919. Toronto : Lester Pub., 1992.
Moynihan, Michael, ed. Black Bread and Barbed Wire: Prisoners in the First World War. London: Leo Cooper, 1978.
Speed, Richard. Prisoners, Diplomats and the Great War: A Study in the Diplomacy of Captivity. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Vance, Jonathan F., ed. Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment. Denver, CO: ABC-Clio, 2000.
Vance, Jonathan F. Objects of Concern: Canadian Prisoners of War Through the Twentieth Century. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1994.
Williamson, Samuel R. and Peter Pastor, eds. Essays on World War I: Origins and Prisoners of War. NY: Brooklyn Coll, 1983.
Life in the Trenches
Historian, Canadian War Museum
From Switzerland to the North Sea, some 500 kilometres long, soldiers on both sides carved out ditches in the ground that, over time, were expanded in complexity and depth. By 1915, vast underground cities housed the soldiers, as the opposing armies faced off against each other across no man’s land. Along this continuous line of trenches, offensive operations degenerated into frontal assaults, which were usually stopped dead by concentrated fire.
The Western Front, as it was called, consisted of a series of trench systems in depth. The front lines were held in strength, but behind them, joined by a series of communication trenches that ran perpendicular to the front, were support and rear trenches. Deep protective dugouts were situated along the front and rear trenches to provide some degree of safety against all but direct hits from artillery fire. Saps and listening posts were pushed into no man’s land, where soldiers were positioned to provide advance warnings of enemy attacks.
Despite the unsanitary nature of front line trenches, they were areas of safety. The trenches protected against small arms fire, shrapnel bursts and high explosive bombardments. Every day and night soldiers shored up the crumbling walls, filled sandbags, and rebuilt sections that had been damaged by artillery fire. It was not only a war of the machine gun and rifle, but also of the shovel.
Life in the trenches was filled with long periods of boredom interspersed with terror. Much of the time was spent in routine duty. At half an hour before dawn, the infantry was roused from their dugouts or funk holes (small spaces carved into the trench walls) and ordered to ‘Stand-To.’ At the alert, they waited for a possible attack with bayonet fixed. If nothing occurred, and it rarely did, since the infantry of both sides were always at their most prepared at this time, officers inspected the men. Rifles were examined for rust; feet were prodded to ensure that dry socks had been worn to protect against trench foot. The latter being a type of frostbite that occurred from prolonged standing in cold, slushy water, and could, in severe cases, require the amputation of toes or feet. After inspection, soldiers were often rewarded with a small dose of rum, which was much appreciated by the men, who saw it as a form of medicine to help withstand the daily deprivations.
Breakfast, like most meals, usually consisted of canned beef, jam and biscuits. It was a monotonous diet, but soldiers rarely went hungry. For lunch or dinner, soup or stew was brought up from rear areas to offer some variety and warmth. Care packages from home, filled with cheese, bread and sweets, augmented the bland food. During the day, though, the goal of most privates was to avoid the sergeant who assigned trench chores. Most were unsuccessful, with soldiers spending much of their time rebuilding the trenches or standing sentry.
Despite these duties, soldiers had much free time, during which they dreamed of home and of loved ones left behind; worried about children who were growing up without a father; of ailing parents with no caregivers; or of a wife who was trying to feed a family with insufficient funds. Literate soldiers might spend a few hours scribbling letters. Return mail from home was a welcomed treat, with letters read and reread. These exchanges back and forth remained an important life-line to Canada from the trenches. And while they were usually subject to two levels of censorship, by officers at the front and officials in England, soldiers nonetheless tried to share their thoughts with those at home. Civilians could not understand everything, nor could soldiers often capture the full range of their strange experiences in words, but letters remained an important avenue of expression.
Boredom could be kept at bay through gambling, and there was always some rake with dice or cards to fleece his mates. If a soldier had no money, he at least had cigarettes. Soldiers smoked all day long, and cigarettes, which were issued by the army, bought in rear areas, and begged from those at home, were a useful distraction. They helped to calm the nerves, or so soldiers said, and they certainly helped to mask the stench of unwashed bodies.
There were no baths in the front lines and, most soldiers went at least a week, usually longer, without changing their clothes. Dirt and mud were a part of life and, during the winter, helped to insulate soldiers. Far more trying was the infestation of parasitic body lice. The lice lived in the seams of clothing where they feasted on human blood. Soldiers scratched themselves raw to get at their infernal enemies. They learned to defeat their insect adversaries, at least for a time, by taking off their shirts and running a candle over the seams. This drew out the lice that were then squashed satisfactorily between finger and thumb. While soldiers did this, they would sit around, talk, complain and gossip. It was known as ‘chatting,’ and it is just one of many wartime phrases that would enter the English lexicon. But the lice always came back, tormenting the soldiers day and night.
Rats, too, were a constant plague, and because they lived off corpses, they could grow as big as cats. They bit soldiers and scurried over their faces while they slept. The rats were hunted by soldiers and their trench pets, usually fierce terrier dogs, but the rodents lived in and outside of the trenches and were always multiplying. Their squealing movement could be heard throughout the battlefield.
Amidst the mud and slush in the winter, or heat and flies in the summer, soldiers developed their own trench culture. New words sprang up, slang like ‘napoo’ for being killed, or ‘blighty’ that referred to England or home. Artistic soldiers could take spent ammunition and shape it into art. Some soldiers tried their hand at poetry. While most were not as skilled as John McCrae, Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, to name the best-known war poets, the trench poetry or doggerel provided much insight into the soldiers’ front-line experiences. At the group level, some battalions printed trench newspapers. Drawing from their own soldiers in the ranks—men who in civilian life had been editors, journalists and cartoonists—these crude newspapers contained rough humour and wry commentary on the strange, subterranean world of the trenches.
But just as a soldier might be penning a letter or staring at the blue sky above, the crash of an artillery shell could bring sudden death. The enemy was always there to kill or maim. Snipers skulked into no man’s land, camouflaged and ready to put a bullet through a man’s head should it rise, even for a second, above the safety of the trench parapet. Poison gas was released in the form of gas clouds and artillery shells, and soldiers who could not put on their respirator quickly faced a lingering death as chemicals corrupted and ravaged lungs.
Machine-gun bullets raked the front lines day and night. Yet artillery shells were the greatest killer in the war, accounting for more than half of all deaths. High explosive shells blew deep holes in the ground or wrecked trenches; soldiers were atomized by direct hits. Equally deadly, shrapnel artillery shells rained hundreds of metal balls and jagged steel down on soldiers, shredding through flesh and bone. Steel helmets, introduced in early 1916, helped to reduce casualties, but a unit’s tour in the front lines almost always resulted in a steady hemorrhage of casualties. It was clinically called wastage, and impersonal charts showed that each month the infantry would lose approximately 10% of its strength, even in quiet areas where no operations were carried out. While the snipers and artillerymen did their dirty work, the soldiers could look around and see their best friends killed and maimed.
Yet the soldiers struck back in the form of nighttime raids. Changing into dark clothes, equipping themselves with revolvers, grenades, daggers and clubs, small groups of men snuck past their wire and into no man’s land. Raids were a form of organized mugging, and the goal was to gather intelligence, kill the enemy and grab a prisoner. Enemy sentries were usually the target, but sometimes large groups of raiders slipped into the opposite trenches to wreck mayhem. While Canadian troops acquired a reputation as fierce raiders, these operations were dangerous affairs, and in the confusion of night fighting, casualties were often heavy.
To help relieve the unending pressure on soldiers, they were rotated in and out of the front line. On roughly four- to six-day tours, filthy, verminous, exhausted soldiers passed from front to secondary lines and finally to the reserves. This rotation helped to relieve the strain, but soldiers always knew they would return to the trenches in this maddening cycle.
Endurance was the key to survival and soldiers learned to cope with the inhuman conditions. Some developed fatalistic attitudes, believing they would be killed ‘when their number was up’; others lived in terror all the time; a few hoped for a blighty wound, a bullet through the hand or leg that would take them away from the horror and back to a clean hospital in England. Thousands suffered mental breakdowns, known as shell shock, but hundreds of thousands more of the ‘poor bloody infantry,’ as the soldiers liked to call themselves, learned to withstand the strain of the trenches. And it was these survivors who, after four years of bitter fighting, would finally break the static warfare on the Western Front and defeat the German forces.
Bird, Will R. Ghosts Have Warm Hands: A Memoir of the Great War, 1916-1919. Ottawa: CEF Books, 1997 (1968).
Black, Ernest Garson. I Want One Volunteer. Toronto: Ryerson, 1965.
Canadian Bank of Commerce. Letters from the Front : Being a Partial Record of the Part Played by Officers of the Bank in the Great European War. 11 v. Toronto: Canadian Bank of Commerce, 1915-1919.
Cook, Tim. "`More a Medicine than a Beverage': 'Demon Rum' and the Canadian Trench Soldier of the First World War." Canadian Military History 9, 1 (Winter 2000) : 6-22.
Fraser, Donald. The Journal of Private Fraser, 1914-1918, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Reginald H. Roy, ed. Nepean, ON: CEF Books, 1998 (1985).
Granatstein, J.L. Hell’s Corner: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Great War, 1914-1918. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2004.
Litalien, Michel et Stéphane Thibault, Tranchées : le quotidien de la guerre 1914-1918, Outremont, Québec, Athena éditions, 2004.
Morrison, J. Clinton. Hell upon Earth: A Personal Account of Prince Edward Island Soldiers in the Great War, 1914-1918. Summerside, PEI.: J.C. Morrison, 1995.
Morton, Desmond. "A Canadian Soldier in the Great War: The Experience of Frank Maheux." Canadian Military History 1, nos 1 & 2 (1992) : 79-89.
---. When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Toronto: Random House, 1993.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War, 1914- 1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen, Dennys, 1989.
Winter, Denis. Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War. Markam, ON: Penguin Books, 1985.
Canadian Small Arms of the First World War
Historian, Canadian War Museum
Although the carnage of the First World War was unprecedented, there was nothing truly new about the small arms used during the fighting. The story behind these weapons and their terrible efficiency stem from the tremendous advances in science and technology made throughout the late 19th century.
By 1850, arms factories in Europe and the United States were making the most of advances in metallurgy and mass production, and were capable of manufacturing hundreds of rifles daily. Repeating rifles, which could fire several shots before being re-loaded, were used extensively during the American Civil War (1861-65), as were the first simple multi-barrelled machine guns. More powerful ammunition was available in the 1870s. The American inventor Hiram Maxim introduced the first true machine gun, capable of firing 450 rounds per minute, in 1884. The water-cooled barrel gave Maxim’s machine gun the ability to fire for hours without stopping. By the turn of the century, most European and North American soldiers carried high-powered rifles that could fire 15 shots per minute at an effective range of 800 metres. The days of reloading a single-shot rifle, in the open, five or six times a minute, were long gone. The stage was set for the killing fields that were to come.
Two late-19th-century inventions, the Lee-Enfield rifle and the Ross rifle, the first Canadian-made military rifle, are central to this story.
In the late 1870s, the British Army accepted Scottish-born Canadian James Paris Lee’s rifle design for trials, ultimately resulting in the adoption of the Lee-Metford rifle, then later the Lee Enfield Mk 1 rifle. It was purchased by Canada and used in the South African War.
Sir Charles Ross designed his straight-pull bolt-action rifle and patented the design in 1897. The bolt mechanism, based on the Austrian Mannlicher rifle, also included Ross’s own innovations. In theory, this type of bolt-action was very easy to use and could be reloaded very quickly. The more quickly a rifle can be re-loaded, the more firepower it provides. Its drawback was a complicated manufacturing process and its fragile loading mechanism. Ross revised his design, introducing it as the Model 1900, then later with an improved bolt mechanism in 1901, both of which were submitted to American trials as a potential service rifle.
After the South African War, Sir Fredrick Borden, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, lobbied unsuccessfully to have the Lee-Enfield rifle built by a British firm in Canada. When the British turned down Borden’s request, the Canadian government turned to Ross and his rifle. After a series of modifications, Canada accepted the design, Ross built a factory at the Citadel in Quebec, and the rifle went into production. In 1904, the Royal North West Mounted Police received 1,000 rifles, the Department of Marine and Fisheries another 500. In the coming years, the rifle underwent continual modifications and developments to suit various requirements, including target shooting by the Canadian team at Bisley, where the Ross excelled. In August 1905, the militia received its first order of 1,000 Ross Mk 2 rifles. By 1911, the Mk 3 had been accepted and was being manufactured for the militia.
Britain tested the Ross rifle between 1900 and 1912, rejecting it because of problems with the design, including a propensity to jam.
The British Army continued to use the Lee-Enfield and in 1903, introduced the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (S.M.L.E.) into service. The S.M.L.E., a shortened version of the Lee-Enfield Mk I, had been developed as a result of experience gained during the South African War. The design and construction were simple, if not crude, but also robust, functioning under less than ideal conditions.
Ross continued to develop and fine-tune his design, resulting in dozens of variations. Between 1903 and 1915, 419,130 Ross rifles were manufactured, with most going to Canadian troops, and some to Newfoundland and Britain.
The Canadian forces entered the First World War with the Ross rifle, Mk 2, Mk 3, and its subsequent variations. Almost immediately, its shortcomings became evident.
On March 10, 1915 the 1st Canadian Division went into battle at Neuve Chapelle, France. The Canadians were heavily engaged and, to the horror of the soldiers, their Ross rifles began to jam. The reasons for this were numerous: the ammunition provided was often inconsistent in size; muddy conditions allowed dirt to build up in the complicated loading mechanism, and the heat generated by rapid-firing caused the closely machined parts to expand and seize. A design flaw also made the bolt difficult to lock, if it had been assembled improperly, and some bolts were said to have blown back into the user’s face. Canadian soldiers soon began discarding the Ross in favour of the British S.M.L.E. Mk 3*, when they could find them in the field. General E.A.H. Alderson, commander of the 1st Canadian Division, was forced to issue an order banning the use of the S.M.L.E by Canadian troops.
When the Canadians fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, in late April 1915, the Ross failed again. Outnumbered and facing the first gas attack of the war, the Canadians found their rifles jamming. Some reports had them “Clubbing furiously at their seized bolts with trenching tools and boot heels.” By the end of the battle, hundreds had discarded their Ross rifles in favour of the trusted S.M.L.E.
By June 1915, British Field Marshal Sir John French ordered the Canadians under his command to be re-armed with the S.M.L.E. However, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions that soon arrived in Europe still carried the Ross.
In May 1916, a study into the Ross’s problems confirmed the jamming and recommended modifications to the rifle’s bolt-stops. Earlier tests had reported the Ross worked well with Canadian ammunition made at Dominion Arsenals in Quebec, but this ammunition was in short supply. New, poorly fitted stocks made from improperly seasoned birch were also causing problems as the wood warped and pressed against the metal frames. In light of the report, a few rifles were re-built with 26-inch barrels, trimmed stocks and larger bolt-stops. Although the rifles were reported to have worked “superbly,” soldiers had lost all confidence in them. In mid July, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig re-armed Canadians with the S.M.L.E. and the Ross was officially withdrawn from front line service by the end of that year.
By this time Sir Charles Ross was running into other problems. Skilled labourers were finding better work in the United States, machinery ordered in 1914 had yet to arrive, and supplies were increasingly difficult to secure. Ross won a $22,500,000 contract to make one million rifles for Russia, but had to let it go to the United States due to inability to meet his deadline. A second order from Russia was cancelled after the Mk 3 was withdrawn from Canadian service. On March 28, 1917, the Canadian Government expropriated the Ross Rifle Company. Canada’s first and only national rifle had failed as a battlefield weapon.
The Machine Gun
In 1912, the British Army adopted the water-cooled Vickers Mk 1machine gun, an improvement over the 1884 Maxim design, as its standard machine gun. The slightly lighter Vickers, like the Maxim, made use of an ammunition belt, and could fire 450 rounds per minute. Its water-cooled barrel could sustain this fire over very long periods of time, often for hours. Classified as a medium machine gun, the Vickers Mk 1 was used primarily on a tripod from defensive positions. It could be fired directly at a visible target, or indirectly, like artillery, at targets or positions at long range or behind obstacles.
In response to the need to provide quick-moving infantry with machine gun support, light machine guns appeared on the battlefield in 1914. The Lewis, the first light machine gun used by the British and Canadian forces, had been introduced into service with the Belgian army in 1913. It weighed about 18 kg and could be carried “over the top” like a rifle, to give advancing troops added firepower.
Due to a shortage of light machine guns, the British and Canadians also adopted the Hotchkiss machine gun in 1916. The Hotchkiss was based on the French medium machine gun the Mitrailleur Mle. 09, modified for use as a light machine gun. Although lighter than the Lewis, the Hotchkiss was more complicated and was used mainly by the cavalry. The Hotckhkiss remained in service for training and home guard use after the First World War and was not declared obsolete until 1946.
The decisions regarding when and how to deploy, or advance against small arms fire relate to the concept of the ‘beaten zone’ or ‘killing zone’ that existed between the lines, and the time-versus-lead equations; the idea that a storm of bullets and/or artillery shells poured into a given area made the task of ‘advancing to contact’ extremely difficult, if not impossible. This led to obvious challenges: crossing the zone more quickly (tanks) or by stealth (surprise attack, often without pre-shelling); better tactics to bypass resistance (storm troops, combined arms warfare); and heavier bombardments to keep enemy heads down, destroy obstacles, etc; and in the meantime, drove troops into the ground (trenches) to escape slaughter.
Most of the casualties during the war were inflicted by artillery or small arms fire coming from a distance. However, there was still some close and brutal fighting, often as part of larger operations, but particularly during trench raids.
All rifles were fitted with bayonets, which took the form of a long knife or spike that could be attached to the muzzle of the rifle, effectively forming a spear. By the First World War, British, and Canadian soldiers had been training to use bayonets for 200 years and were very efficient in its use. The bayonet also had an enormous psychological impact. Hundreds or thousands of enemy troops running towards you firing their rifles, screaming and brandishing long blades or spikes, was a terrifying and demoralizing sight. Despite the psychological advantage, many officers considered the bayonet perfectly useless, even in the 19th century. Firepower and broken terrain could keep cavalry at bay from c1860 onwards in most battles, thereby removing the bayonet’s one real advantage – warding off cavalry. When fighting in the confined spaces of the trenches, the length of a bayonet fixed to the muzzle of a rifle could be a great disadvantage. To this end, many soldiers equipped themselves with other weapons, both standard and non-standard issue. These weapons were especially important for trench raids.
Usually conducted at night, trench raiding was extremely brutal, tending to resemble medieval warfare. Soldiers made use of pistols, grenades, clubs, axes, morning stars, knives and even sharpened shovels. As a defensive measure, body armour was brought back into use and worn openly by infantry for the first time since the 17th century.
Pistols were issued officially to officers and NCOs exclusively, but they were also occasionally picked up or traded by soldiers and used for close fighting.
At the beginning of the First World War, Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence, ordered 5,000 semi-automatic .45 ACP calibre Colt model 1911 (Government Model) pistols through one of his “Honorary Colonels,” causing a short-lived political scandal. The pistols were issued to non-commissioned officers and made available to officers for purchase, along with some older Colt revolvers left over from the South African War. Canadian officers serving with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, or other units assigned to British formations, were issued with Webley revolvers of various marks.
With the forces rapid expansion, the military needed more pistols by mid 1915. Due to shortcomings found with the Colt Model 1911, the government purchased 1,500 Smith & Wesson .455 Hand Ejector Second Model revolvers on August 21, with later orders for 13,000 between 1915 and 1917. Revolvers were considered more reliable in harsh conditions.
Immediately after the ceasefire of November 11, 1918, many First World War small arms developments were shelved. Advances had been made in designing lighter, more efficient machine guns and submachine guns, but, in the debt-ridden postwar years the last thing most governments wanted to spend money on was small arms.
The Department of Militia and Defence was now faced with the disposal of the unwanted Ross rifles. Some 120,000 Mk 2 and Mk 3 rifles were taken overseas and turned over to the British, and 20,000 were sold to the United States for training. Of the rifles sent overseas, 9,334 were later returned to Canada. The Ross continued in use as a sniper rifle throughout the war, and well into the Second World War, making use of its initial design as a sporting and target rifle. Many Ross rifles were also re-issued during the Second World War for training and Home Guard use and eventually made their way into the hands of the armies of China, Chile, the Baltic states, Spain, New Zealand, Holland, India, Indonesia and the Soviet Union.
The S.M.L.E. remained in service well into the Second World War and was replaced in 1942 by the Lee-Enfield No. 4. James Paris Lee’s basic rifle design is still in limited service with the Canadian Forces in the 21st century with the Canadian Rangers and Cadets.
The machine gun continues to be a vital part of the arsenals of all armies. The Vickers machine gun was used in the Second World War, the Korean War, and was not officially declared obsolete until the 1960s. The Lewis gun saw limited service in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, notably at Hong Kong.
The bayonet is stilled issued and used as a standard attachment to most military rifles worldwide.
The small arms designs that were rooted in the late 19th century and used during the First World War evolved very little throughout the first half of the 20th century. Although infantry tactics evolved considerably and the casualty figures of the First World War seem incomprehensible today, killing over open sights remains the foot soldier’s basic role.
Edgecombe, David W. Defending the Dominion, Canadian Military Rifles 1855-1955. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2003.
---. Small Arms of the World: A Basic Manual of Small Arms. 12th rev. ed. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1983.
Ezell, Edward C. Handguns of the World: Military Revolvers and Self-Loaders from 1870-1945. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1981.
Hogg, Ian V. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Firearms. London: New Burlington Books, 1978.
---. Military Small Arms of the 20th Century. 7th ed. Iola: Krause Publications, 2000.
Law, Clive M. Canadian Military Handguns, 1855-1985. Bloomfield, ON: Museum Restoration Services, 1994.
---. Without Warning: Canadian Sniper Equipment in the 20th Century. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2004.
Maze, Robert J. Howdah to High Power: A Century of British Breechloading Service Pistols (1867-1967). Tucson: Excalibur Publications, 2002.
Meek, John F. Over the Top: The Canadian Infantry in the First World War. Orangeville, ON: John F. Meek, 1971.
Morton, Desmond. A Military History of Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1985
Nelson, Thomas B. The World's Submachine Guns. Cologne, Germany: International Small Arms Publishers, 1963.
Phillips, Roger. The Ross Rifle Story. Sydney, NS: John A. Chadwick, 1984.
Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Saunders, Anthony. Weapons of the Trench War, 1914-1918. Phoenix Mill: Alan Sutton, 1999
Skennerton, Ian D. The British Service Lee, Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles and Carbines 1880-1980. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1982.
---. The Lee-Enfield Story. Piqua: I.D.S.A. Books, 1993.
Artillery: The Great Killer
Historian, Canadian War Museum
In 1914 and 1915, artillery proved it was the great killer. For those caught in the open, shrapnel and high explosive shells wreacked havoc. Thousands were left rotting on the battlefields. However, artillery guns were vulnerable to small arms fire, and they could be driven away from the front. But the guns were soon firing indirectly from hidden positions several kilometeres to the rear, still causing terrible damage. Soldiers were forced to find safety in trenches, digging beneath the ground to escape the murderous fire.
As trenches were strengthened with barbed wire, deep dugouts, and machine -guns, an enormous weight of fire was needed to smash the enemy defences and support the infantry. But there were not always enough shells in the early years to feed the guns. And so the infantry were killed in the tens of thousands as they attacked undamaged enemy trenches in frontal assaults. As the war lengthened, artillerymen received nearly unlimited supplies of shells through the enormous production of munitions factories. New tactics were also developed to improve the accuracy of the guns.
Artillery shells contained high explosives, shrapnel, and, later in the war, poison gas and smoke. Both the high explosive and shrapnel shells were timed to detonate in the air above a target. High explosive shells blasted holes in the trenches and the concussion alone could kill, as lungs collapsed under the force of the explosion. Shrapnel shells were equally deadly, consisting of more than 300 rounded metal balls that exploded downward in a cone-shaped rain of whirling metal. As well, the casing of the shell was designed to explode outward, creating jagged, uneven shards of steel that tore through flesh.
By 1916, commanders believed that massive artillery shoots, involving hundreds of thousands of shells, would annihilate the enemy defenders. This would allow the infantry to punch a hole through enemy lines and restore mobility on the Western Front.
However, it was often hard to hit, and then destroy, the narrow and well-fortified trenches. The problem also lay in the shell fuses. Earlier types were not sensitive enough to explode on contact, especially with shells tasked to clear barbed wire. As a result, many of the shells exploded in the ground, killing very few of the enemy, leaving the infantry to fight their way through defences-in-depth. By the end of 1916, newer, sensitive fuses that exploded on the slightest contact harnessed the destructive power of the artillery and, equally important to the infantry, cleared barbed wire from in front of enemy trenches.
Tactics again changed during the later phases of the bloody battles of the Somme in the last half of 1916. The gunners would never be able to destroy all of the German defences, and even one machine -gunner could kill hundreds of attacking infantry. Instead, the artillery sought to suppress enemy fire through a “creeping barrage,” and give their own attacking infantry enough time to cross the killing zone of nNo Mman’s Lland.
Gunners fired their shells to create a “creeping” wall of fire that slowly moved forward over the enemy lines at fixed intervals: 50 yards (46 m) every couple of minutes, less for muddy ground, more for open warfare. In effect, it was a screen of fire and explosives. As this moving wall of shrapnel and high explosives chewed up the ground in its path, the infantry were told to “lean into the barrage” and stay as close as possible. Although friendly fire was expected and occurred, the casualties would still be lighter than if the creeping barrage moved off and allowed German machine -gunners, waiting in the safety of deep dugouts, to get to the top of their trenches before the infantry crossed nNo Mman’s lLand.
At the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the gunners had perfected the creeping barrage. Yet enemy gunners still took a fearful toll as they laid down their own counter-barrages to catch the follow-on waves of infantry. The enemy guns had to be stopped, or slowed, but it was exceedingly difficult to identify, target, and destroy camouflaged guns several kilometeres away.
Accurate intelligence was essential, and new and refined forms of science aided the gunners. The Canadian Corps was lucky to have Brigadier-General Andrew McNaughton, commander of the counter-battery office for much of the war, who embraced new technology and tactics. A prewar professor at McGill University, he turned to science to save his soldiers lives.
The Canadian Counter Battery Office (CCBO), established in February 1917, gathered intelligence and processed information on the enemy to assist in knocking out his guns. Aerial reconnaissance from the Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) was of great assistance as airmen photographed the front from great heights. Later in the war, observation aircraft circled the battlefield, passing real-time information to the gunners through letter drops and primitive wireless radio.
As the CCBO developed after April 1917, this information-gathering and target-selection became more sophisticated, with new technology, like sound-ranging and flash-spotting, assisting gunners to find and destroy enemy targets.
Flash-spotting involved the coordination of observers. At least three posts were needed, usually spread out along several kilometeres. When an enemy gun position was spotted by the revealing flash as the shell left the barrel, the observers were telephoned by headquarters to turn their attention to that spot. After studying the flash of the gun, the observers would hit a key that was connected to a lamp at headquarters. From the observers’ bearings, and by triangulating their estimates, enemy guns could be located with high precision.
Sound-ranging worked on a similar principle. Listeners sat two kilometeres behind the line with their microphones. Additional posts were manned well ahead of these positions. As long as there was not more than one shell per second being fired, on hearing the crash of an enemy gun, the forward listening post pressed a key that started an oscillograph, an instrument that recorded on film the sound of the shell in flight as it reached each microphone in turn. The time-intervals between the microphones allowed the CCBO to analyse the information and, if conditions were optimal, pinpoint enemy guns to within twenty-five 25 yards (23 m). All available counter-battery guns would be aimed on that spot to deliver a destructive shoot of 50-100 shells. Chemical shells were also used to kill or force the enemy gunners to wear debilitating respirators that severely affected the rate of fire.
In the last year of the war, artillery had perfected the creeping barrage and was steadily improving its counter-battery work. Further tactical refinement allowed gunners to fire more complicated barrages, like a box barrage. The box barrages set up a wall of fire and explosives around an enemy position —-- usually a trench —-- which effectively isolated it from reinforcements. It allowed assaulting Canadian infantrymen to capture and consolidate a position without fear of immediate counterattack.
By war’s end, 43,914 gunners had served in the Canadian artillery, and 2,565 had lost their lives from disease, injury, and battlefield wounds. They had fired tens of millions of shells, reducing the landscape to a desolate wasteland, and an estimated 60% of all wounds were inflicted by shell fire. The First World War was indeed a gunner’s war.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.
McNaughton, A.G.L. “Counter-Battery Work.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 3, 4 (July, 1926).
McNaughton, A.G.L. “The Development of Artillery in the Great War.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 4, 2 (January, 1929).
Nicholson, G.W.L. The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery, Vol. 1: 1534-1919 Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
Rawling, William. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Volume I. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
The Withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line
none the less hard-fought engagements preparatory to larger operations, pushed the
enemy five miles up the Ancre valley on a four-mile front; and on the night of 22-23
February the Germans fell back three more miles across a front of fifteen miles. The
inability of his forces to withstand British pressure in their present positions strengthened Crown Prince Rupprecht's argument for a general retirement to the Hindenburg Line at an early date. On 30 January Ludendorff agreed, not only because the consequent shortening of the front would release thirteen divisions and many artillery units for the projected offensive in Italy, but also because a general retirement could be expected to upset French and British campaign plans. It was in the German interest to delay as long as possible any struggle on the Western Front, in order to allow time for results from the campaign of unrestricted warfare by submarine and cruiser which had begun on 1 February. The deciding factor, however, appears to have been the need for time to replenish supplies of guns and shells, deliveries of which had fallen far short of von Hindenburg's orders and expectations.
On 4 February the High Command issued an order over the Kaiser's signature for a
withdrawal of the Seventh Army's right wing, the Second and First Armies, and the left wing of the Sixth Army to the Hindenburg Line between 15 and 18 March. This operation was aptly code-named "Alberich", after the malicious dwarf of the Nibelungen saga,28 for it called for the devastation of the whole area to be abandoned - nearly 100 miles of front between Soissons and Arras, averaging almost 20 miles in depth. Under this "scorched earth" policy all military installations and useful war material were removed from the existing forward zone, townspeople and villagers were evacuated and their communities razed, livestock were carried away or destroyed, and all wells were either filled in or polluted. To delay an Allied advance the retreating Germans felled trees across the roads, blew large craters at main intersections, and everywhere beset the pursuers' path with ingeniously laid booby-traps. Well organized rearguards covered the German withdrawal, though these received orders not to counter- attack. The skill of the Germans in concealing their plans from the Allies and the success of their delaying tactics helped prevent any effective follow-up. By the morning of 19 March, 29 divisions had completed the withdrawal with a minimum of Allied interference.29 Four Allied armies found themselves out of contact - from north to south, the right wing of the British Third Army about Arras, the Fifth and Fourth Armies to across the Somme valley, and the left wing of the French between Roye and the Aisne. It took until 5 April to drive in the German outposts and establish a new Allied line in front of the Hindenburg Position.*
The enemy's retirement did not greatly affect the plan of Nivelle's main offensive,
which was to be made east of Soissons. But it seriously upset the preliminary offensive in the north, for the Germans in the salient which converging British and French thrusts were to have pinched out had now escaped containment. Time was lacking in which to build new communications across the devastated area, particularly on the French left, where the retreat had been farthest. Accordingly, the northern attack became an all-British operation, the principal aim of which was to outflank the Hindenburg Line from the north and advance towards Cambrai. General Nivelle was forcibly told by Painlevé and Pétain and other high French officers that his scheme was no longer practicable. Army group commanders opposed the plan as a reversion to the discredited pre-war and 1914 overemphasis on offensive action for its own sake. There were also strategic and political objections. Neither the Russians nor the Italians would be able to mount offensives in time to render assistance; and the prospect of America's early entry into the war seemed another good reason for postponing a major French offensive. At one point Nivelle offered his resignation; but this being refused, he continued with his preparations. After various delays the assault on the Aisne was ordered to open on 16 April, the British offensive a week earlier.
* Taking part in the Fourth Army's advance was the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. On 27 March, Lieut. F.M.W. Harvey, Lord Strathcona's Horse, ran into a wired trench and captured a machine-gun, for which daring act he was awarded the V.C.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.218-219.
The Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood
On the Corps right, troops of the 10th Brigade, hugging their artillery cover, quickly crossed the canal on a two-battalion front between Inchy and Moeuvres. They overcame resistance from the Canal du Nord Line, and established them selves on Red according to schedule. The 11th and 12th Brigades, leading the 4th Division's attack on the right and left respectively, pushed forward but almost immediately met trouble from the south. Opposing General Watson's formations was the German 187th Infantry Division, with its 188th Infantry Regiment directly west of Bourlon Wood, flanked to north and south respectively by the 186th and 187th Regiments. Farther south was the dismounted 7th Cavalry Division; unused to infantry tactics they were quickly defeated. The 52nd Division, attacking on the Third Army's flank, had not achieved the same initial success as the 4th Division, and as a result the Canadian right suffered many casualties from enfilade fire.
In stiff fighting the 87th Battalion gained an entry into the southern part of Bourlon village by 9:45 a.m., and the 54th, passing through, skirted the north end of Bourlon Wood to reach the far side. The slower advance of the British troops to the south compelled the 102nd Battalion to form a defensive flank beside the Bapaume road and defeated the plan to encircle the wood from the south. This left the 54th in a pronounced salient, suffering mounting casualties. The battalion pushed on towards Fontaine-Notre-Dame, finally coming to a halt about 7:00 p.m. just west of the village, the 75th and 87th Battalions coming up on its left. Farther north the 12th Brigade also had stiff fighting throughout the day. The 85th and 38th Battalions, heavily hit by shelling and machine-gun fire during their advance, cleared their part of the Marquion trench system, allowing the 78th and 72nd Battalions to gain all but the extreme right of its Blue Line objective. It took a fresh attack mounted at 8:00 p.m. by the 78th Battalion to overcome the final pocket of resistance.
In the course of the 4th Division's operations on September 27 two subalterns had won the Victoria Cross. Lieutenant G.T. Lyall of the 102nd Battalion, and Lieutenant S.L. Honey, D.C.M., M.M., 78th Battalion, through their skilful leadership and courage in dealing with German strong points both significantly contributed to the capture of Bourlon Wood. Like many another recognition for brave deeds in the war, Lieutenant Honey's award came posthumously.
On the Corps left the 1st Division's success paid tribute to careful planning and well-directed and determined execution. Two guns of the 1st Battery C.F.A. gave the 1st Brigade a good start by moving in front of Inchy-en-Artois and firing point-blank into enemy positions along the canal. Thus aided, the 4th Battalion, having crossed the dry bed with little difficulty, was able to jump ahead to the north-east and capture its assigned portion of the Marquion Line. Here the 1st Battalion pushed through as planned and secured the Green Line in short order. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions now assumed the lead, only to be stopped by heavy fire from the embanked railway which curved north from Bourlon. With the aid of a timely flanking attack by the 72nd Battalion they overcame this resistance and swept on to the Blue Line. The action of the Commander of the 3rd Battalion's left support company, Lieutenant G.F. Kerr, M.C., M.M., in rushing single-handed a German strongpoint near the Arras-Cambrai road played an important part in the 1st Brigade's advance. Kerr, who captured four machine guns and 31 prisoners, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The 2nd Brigade's role was to follow the 1st up to the Marquion Line and then extend to the left to capture the central portion of the Blue Line on the divisional front. By two o'clock the 7th Battalion was firm on its objective midway between Marquion and Haynecourt. During the afternoon the 5th Battalion went on to occupy Haynecourt and push patrols almost to the main Cambrai-Douai road. On the left, units of the 11th British Division passed through, headed for Epinoy. By the end of the day (September 27) patrols of the 10th Battalion-which had passed through the 5th just east of Haynecourtwere approaching the Marcoing Line, coming first to a heavy belt of uncut wire covered by enemy machine-guns. With mounting casualties the infantry cut the wire and pushed forward; but confronted by a second wire barrier, which marked the line itself, and with darkness approaching, the battalion consolidated on the east side of the Douai-Cambrai road.
On General Macdonell's left the 3rd Brigade had the important task of driving northward beyond the Canal du Nord and capturing in turn the villages of Sainslez-Marquion and Marquion, thereby freeing the eastern bank to permit crossings by the 11th Division. Leading the 3rd Brigade's advance the 14th Battalion crossed south of Sains-lez-Marquion, and swinging north behind the village, quickly captured its part of the Red Line. Four supporting tanks rendered good service in crushing wire barricades and in mopping up the village, but mechanical difficulties kept them from advancing past the Red Line. From Chapel Corner, south-east of Marquion, the German opposition, which had wavered before the initial rush of the 14th, rallied with heavy fire to stop the 13th Battalion, which was following up the initial assault. It took a joint effort by the 13th and 15th Battalions with tank assistance to clear Marquion. The 15th continued northward across the Arras road, mopping up the area east of the canal. By 2:00 p.m. it was firm at the Blue Line, just south of Sauchy-Lestrée.
Both Canadian divisions had received useful help from the tanks-each being supported by a company (of eight tanks) from the 7th Tank Battalion. The four allotted to each assaulting brigade successfully crossed the dry canal under cover of an artillery smoke-screen. Later they contributed to their own concealment by means of smoke dischargers fitted to their exhausts. During the day they gave good service in crushing wire entanglements and silencing with their fire enemy machine-gun posts. Of the sixteen tanks engaged in the first phase of the operation five fell victim to German fire.
About midday, when the 3rd Infantry Brigade had completed its assigned task of clearing the east bank of the canal, units of the 11th Division crossed at four places between Sains-lez-Marquion and the highway and moved smoothly into place on the left of the 1st Division to start the second phase of the attack. The advance to the north and north-east continued without serious interruption, and by dusk Epinoy and Oisy-le-Verger were in British hands.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.419-422.