Canadian Troops in Action
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09 min 01 s
British Topical Committee for War Films
The Canadians had to learn how to fight and survive trench warfare, and in the months after their battle at Ypres in April 1915, they developed their techniques. They built dugouts that could withstand enemy artillery fire, they worked on their trenches (though they could never find a way to keep them dry), and they did what soldiers have always done: trained and trained again; watched and waited; and trained some more. This film, shot in 1915 (when the soldiers still wore cloth caps in the trenches) and in the early months of 1916 (after they had acquired their steel helmets), shows the Canadians in this learning phase.
Pieces of History
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.
Letter from Will Beattie, Feb. 15, 1915
Feb 15, 1915
My Dear Mother,
This letter will be censored so cannot tell you where I am other than that we are at the seat of war and within ear of the big guns though not near enough to be in the danger zone. I can lie in my bed and see the flash of light in the sky made by the artillery duel constantly going on and hear the boom boom boom of the canon regularly. It is awful to think that every time one hears a boom probably some more souls are sent to their God. One can't conceive what it means to be at war at your distance from the seat of it. The village from which I write was eight days in the hands of the Germans in October they were driven out by the British and graves all over the field mark the places where brave men fell. The church tower was shattered by shells and the interior badly damaged. Many buildings suffered. The cottage where I have my billet is near the church and the mother and two children took refuge in the cellar. My room was occupied by a wounded German & two German officers were killed near here & the woman of this home went out with coffee to a third who was wounded. One does not see a young man in any of these villages at all. They are all fighting, dead or wounded. We had two men killed on the journey. One fell off the train & another fell under it. I got off at --- [sic] where one fell & helped amputate his right leg, right arm & left hand. I gave the anaesthetic. He could not survive the shock, we buried him at --- with full military honors. He came from Hespler Ontario.
The little boy here speaks English & I am fast learning to speak French. We have lots of fun. I just finished a two page letter to Mabel in French with the help of the boy. These people are very poor and will be glad of the help I can give them by living here.
Sunday I arrived here about 2 p.m. and in the evening held 4 brief services in the barns & haylofts where the men are quartered. They are in about 35 billets & I purpose [sic] holding 5 services a night. It is interesting work. I go in, speak a little while to them sing two hymns pray & all join in the Lord's Prayer. Then I go on to another place. Tonight two men followed me out of the hay loft where I held my only service one to ask for Baptism, the other to talk with me about spiritual things. I spent today (Monday) visiting the various billets finding where they are (in an area of about 8 sq. miles) and announcing my intention to hold services at night. The boys are very pleased with their beds in straw lofts etc. and nearly all are well.
I could tell you many more things but one must keep the censor in mind. I must just close with this. Sunday night when I asked at one of my 4 services in a loft – what hymn they would like one fellow suggested "Lead kindly light." Think of the words & the situation. Outside the pitch dark lit up on the horizon like a brewing thunderstorm with the flare of canon & bursting shells, the accompaniment. Not that of a swell church organ but the boom boom of the death dealing guns; inside the flickering of a few candles amid the prostrate forms of a hundred men and you will catch a glimpse of the scene & understand how one could preach to boys who will soon move forward to the battlefront. [….] There is probably nothing in this letter to prevent your giving it to [illegible] if you wish.
Much love to you all. I hope you are well as this leaves me well and busy and happy in my work.
Your loving son,
Used with permission of the estate of Will Beattie, provided by The Canadian Letters and Images Project, Department of History, Malaspina University College
Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI)
The PPCLI, the first Canadian unit to arrive at the war front, was integrated with the British 27th Division and suffered terrible losses. During 1915, a reserve infantry battalion provided the PPCLI with reinforcements. On December 22, 1915, under the command of Brig.-Gen. A. C. MacDonell, the PPCLI joined with the 42nd and 49th battalions to form the 7th Brigade. During the Battle of Passchendaele, before the start of the main attack on the night of October 30, 1917, the PPCLI captured “Snipe Hall,” an obstacle pillbox for the 9th Brigade on October 26. Struggling forward through the mire to their intermediate objective, a storm of enemy fire bombarded the battalion causing heavy casualties including most of their junior officers. The main accomplishment of the PPCLI on October 30 was the storming of the heavily guarded position on the Meetcheele crossroads due mainly to the courageous actions of two men. Lt. Hugh Mackenzie, DCM (a Patricia officer serving with the 7th Machine Gun Company), and Sgt. G. H. Mullin, MM, a regimental sniper, led an attack on the enemy’s machine-gun pillbox site that was creating an obstacle to the battalion’s left company’s ascent of the ridge. Mackenzie was killed by enemy fire but Mullin successfully captured the pillbox single-handedly. With his revolver, he killed its two machine gunners and forced the garrison of ten to surrender.
The 5th (Western Cavalry)
The 5th Battalion also engaged in fighting at St. Julien and Boetleer’s Farm in April 1915. In 1917 at Hill 70, when the machine guns of the 5th and of the Princess Patricia’s Light Cavalry Infantry could not halt the advance of the Germans, the battalion’s Mounted Rifles held in check enemy firing. After an assault on Hill 70 on August 15, the 5th Battalion captured 150 prisoners and eight machine guns. On August 9, 1918, at the Battle of Amiens, Sgt. Ray L. Zengel of the 5th Battalion was one of three men who prevented heavy casualties when he charged forward, attacked and silenced a machine-gun post, receiving the Victory Cross for his bold action.
Canadian Operations, January-March 19l6
In accordance with the policy of "wearing down" the enemy the Canadians carried out their orders to harass the Germans by sniping, raiding, and surprise artillery shoots. The second night of the new year saw some 65 members of the 25th Battalion (5th Brigade) adopt a device only recently introduced into trench warfare. To achieve surprise, the raiding party cut the enemy's wire by hand rather than with the artillery. Ironically enough, the experiment proved too successful. The wire-cutting group completed its task before the assault group was ready to enter the gap; and in the meantime a German wiring party discovered and repaired the damage, making the obstacle much stronger than before. The approach of daylight obliged the raiders to withdraw. Not long after this the enemy introduced tempered steel wire, and hand-cutting became a very slow and difficult process.
In the early morning of January 31 1916 the 6th Brigade staged a more eventful raid against the enemy's Spanbroekmolen salient, near the centre of the Canadian sector. Brig.-Gen. Ketchen's various objects were to obtain prisoners for identification purposes, to injure the enemy's morale and destroy his works, and to kill Germans - all in the shortest possible time. Picked parties of 30 men from the 28th and 29th Battalions were given special training at the brigade bombing school. After scouts had cut the wire at great risk the two parties, working to a pre-arranged schedule, crossed no man's land shortly before 2:40 a.m. and reached the German trenches at points 1100 yards apart.
As the raiders' bombs burst among them the startled enemy were further unnerved
by the terrifying appearance of the Canadians, who had blackened their faces with burnt cork. The Vancouverites (29th Battalion), encountering little resistance, secured three prisoners, bombed the enemy in his dug-outs and in four and a half minutes were on their way back to their front line, which they reached without loss of life. The men of the 28th remained in the German trench for eight minutes, the limit allowed by the brigade staff. A German relief was in progress when they attacked, and the Canadian bombs took terrible toll of the clustering enemy. In the return journey across no man's land their prisoners were killed by enemy machine-gun fire. The raid was considered a marked success and attracted great attention along the entire British front. Three German regiments opposing the 6th Brigade had been identified, the total cost to the Canadians being two killed and ten wounded.
Between February 8 and 19 the Germans launched a series of diversionary attacks against French and British positions in preparation for their Verdun offensive. One such attack fell on "The Bluff", a low tree-covered mound on the north bank of the Ypres-Comines Canal, in the sector held by the British 5th Corps. In bitter fighting the enemy captured The Bluff on the 14th, only to lose it seventeen days later to a well-mounted counter-attack.25 Although not directly involved in the fighting, the Canadian Corps assisted its British neighbours with artillery support and by taking over the southernmost 700 yards of the 5th Corps' front on the 17th - a relief which extended the Canadian sector to the outskirts of the ruins of St. Eloi.26 The Canadian operations in this period brought distinction to a member of the 1st Brigade. For conspicuous bravery under a heavy bombardment on March 18, Corporal R. Millar of the 1st Battalion received the Military Medal - the first Canadian to be so honoured. (The M.M., inscribed "For bravery in the field", had been instituted only that month. At first reserved for N.C.Os. and men, it was later awarded also to warrant officers.)
Canadian battle casualties in the first three months of 1916 numbered 546 killed, 1,543 wounded, three gassed and one taken prisoner. There were 667 accidents and other non-battle casualties, of which 20 proved fatal. In spite of weather and living conditions the health of the troops was good; though there were cases of influenza, paratyphoid, and - trench feet.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.119-121.
Behind the Lines
Films : Canadian Troops in Action, August Offensive 6, September Offensive 1, The 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion
Background Notes for the Teacher
When soldiers weren’t fighting in the trenches, every waking hour was consumed by chores. Communication lines had to be maintained. Trucks needed constant repairs. Horses required attention. There was plenty of laundry, and lice had to be removed from clothing. The transportation and distribution of water and food rations were an ever-present concern. Rifles had to be checked and cleaned. The wounded needed to be cared for prior to being evacuated to a medical facility. Trenches were dug and duckboards had to be placed over the top of the mud in a vain attempt to keep soldiers dry. There were also training drills and other regimens for soldiers. When there was any free time, soldiers usually spent it waiting in line for coffee, tea, food, medical attention or to receive mail from back home.
Introducing the Subject
Discuss and define the term “chores.”
What are some of the jobs that students have around the house that “just need doing”?
Soldiers in WWI also had plenty of chores. When they weren’t fighting, there were certain routines of war that were taking place behind the lines of battle. Have students brainstorm what some of these routines may have been. The teacher can write the ideas on the board.
Teaching and Learning
While watching the films, note the jobs that soldiers are doing.
With a t-chart, classify the soldiers’ activities by personal chores or militarily-related jobs.
List other tasks that did not appear in the students’ lists or in the films. (The teacher may have to provide some of this information.)
Applying the Knowledge
Lines of communication were not only crucial to military planning but also to the maintenance of the morale of troops. Ask students to step into the boots of a soldier. Their “chore” is to draft a letter to be sent home to their loved ones detailing what life is like behind the lines of battle. Remind them to avoid modern slang that would not have been used at the time.
Were the students able to incorporate the chores into their letters?
Was a mood established? Did the student / soldier attempt to hide the struggles of military life to protect their family from worry?
Was the student able to step back in time and capture history? Was the language in the letters too modern?
The Battles: In the Trenches
Films : To Willie with Compliments, Canadian Troops in Action, August Offensive 6, September Offensive 1, The 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion
Background Notes for the Teacher
Troops at the battlefront rotated through three lines of trenches: the front line, the support line and the reserve line. The men were separated from the enemy by a barren patch of terrain no more than 30 metres wide called no man’s land. Trenches often flooded with rain, leaving soldiers wading through knee-high water. Mud was also a constant reminder of the foul weather. Rats and lice flourished in these horrible conditions. Men would sleep in “funk holes” dug into the walls. Soldiers were required to “stand to” ready to fight. At any moment, they might be ordered to go over the top and cross no man’s land to attack the enemy. Fear and extreme discomfort were a soldier’s constant companions.
Introducing the Subject
The expression “in the trenches” is a part of our lexicon. Discuss what it means.
In terms of the First World War, what images come to mind when you think of life in the trenches?
Tens of thousands of soldiers from the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought the war from trenches that zigzagged their way across the Western Front.
Teaching and Learning
View film footage that captures life in the trenches.
(Notice the trees in the countryside that appear to be dead or dormant. They were stripped of their bark to provide wall supports for the interior of the trenches.)
Applying the Knowledge
Have students, individually, write fifteen words that symbolize life in the trenches. Once each list is complete, students are to organize their words into a 15-word poem that is six lines long and follows this pattern:
Line 1 (two words)
Line 2 (three words)
Line 3 (two words)
Line 4 (four words
Line 5 (three words)
Line 6 (one word)
See the Appendix for a sample poem and for some Teacher Tips to present this activity.
Does the poem have a rhythm?
Is there a sense of closure with the word choice for the final line?
Were words placed randomly or does the final poem use any literary devices, reflect thought and some sort of organization?
Sample List of Fifteen Words
Shells sandbags collapse
Unbearable monotony muddy conditions
Dampness danger desperation
Do not tell students what they will be doing with their words until all fifteen have been chosen . Otherwise, students look for partner words and tend to develop phrases. For example, if a student knew that he was going to be asked to place three words together on a line, he might include conditions, were and terrible to formulate a phrase. However, were is a function word that doesn’t fit the imagery of life in the trenches. Only after lists have been final should you show students the pattern of the “poem.”
Students should not list compounds such as fighter pilots, because this would constitute two words. Discourage any phrasing because it simplifies the sorting process. Just don’t explain the “why” of these rules in advance!
Students should consider an introduction and conclusion to their creation.
Encourage alliteration and other literary devices.
Emphasize that revision—writing and rewriting—is essential to this exercise. Playing with the order of the words is the true challenge of this type of poetry.
Explain that some lines and word combinations might not turn out exactly the way that they’d like. Again, that is part of the challenge of this activity!