September Offensive 1
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05 min 48 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
Even when great battles were underway, as at the beginning of September 1918, not every soldier could be in action at once. Units moved in and out of the line to enable the men to rest and recuperate. Tented camps behind the front provided a respite where hot food— shown here being carried in “dixies”—could be eaten in marginally more comfortable circumstances than in the trenches. But work never ceased. Troops in reserve were frequently called on to do construction work, and there were always guards to be mounted both for general protection of the camp and to greet visiting dignitaries.
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.
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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.
Assault and Capture of the Drocourt-Quéant Line
On the Corps' southern flank three battalions led the 1st Division's attack- the 16th and 13th Battalions on the right opposite Cagmcourt, with the 7th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade on their left. The two 3rd Brigade units pushed forward quickly up the long slope to the enemy wire. They met little resistance at first, the Germans surrendering in large numbers. By 7:30 a.m. the 13th Battalion had captured its section of the D-Q support line. Shortly afterwards the 14th Battalion passed through to take Cagnicourt, where it surprised and captured in the village cellars enough Germans to make a full battalion. The men of the 14th then seized the Bois de Loison east of the village and in a quick dash across 2000 yards of open country reached their final objective in the Buissy Switch directly in front of the village of Buissy.
On Brig.-Gen. Tuxford's right progress was slower. The 16th Battalion, suffering heavily from machine-gun fire coming in across the open southern flank, lost the supporting barrage and had to storm weapon posts which the enemy was quick to re-man in his front line. Among many acts of bravery performed that day two stood out at this stage of the operations. Lance-Corporal W.H. Metcalf, M.M., an American serving with the 16th Battalion, calmly walked across bullet-swept ground guiding a tank and directing its fire against German strong points which were holding up the infantry's advance. Later, after the battalion had broken through the main D-Q position, only to be halted in front of the support line, the Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. Cyrus W. Peck, went forward through bursting shells and withering machine-gun fire to make a personal reconnaissance, and to compel roaming tanks to protect his open flank. He then reorganized his battalion and led them on to their objective. Both Metcalf and Peck won the Victoria Cross-one of the very few occasions in the war when a battalion twice earned the coveted award in a single day. Pushing through the 16th Battalion at the Red Line, the 15th, suffering crippling casualties, fought slowly forward to the Bois de Bouche, some 3000 yards short of the Buissy Switch, which here angled sharply to the south-east. Here the survivors consolidated as the 3rd Battalion came up from reserve. At 6:00 p.m. British infantry finally arrived to seal off the open flank which had proved so costly to the Canadians.
On the 2nd Brigade's front the 5th Battalion was still engaged in hand-to-hand fighting for the jumping-off line when the 7th Battalion passed through to assault. Aided greatly by the shrapnel barrage and the supporting tanks the 7th had little difficulty in capturing and mopping up the D-Q line in its sector. At eight o'clock the 10th Battalion took over the lead at the Red Line. Up to this stage the tanks had kept well to the fore, knocking out one enemy post after another. East of the D-Q Line, however, they began falling victim to the German artillery fire. Soon the 10th Battalion was halted by the intense fire that came from machine-guns and trench mortars in the Buissy Switch in front of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt. In dogged fighting the battalion had by late afternoon established a line east of the village. One more effort was to be made. An artillery barrage called down at 6:00 p.m. on the German positions eased the situation, and the weary Canadians pushed forward again to capture the Buissy Switch by 11:00 p.m.
In the meantime the 4th Canadian Division was fighting its own hard battle. At the start the 12th Brigade on the right had to contend with an enemy pocket along the Arras-Cambrai road; and its supporting tanks arrived too late to help here. The leading battalions-from right to left the 72nd, the 38th and the 85th - found the D-Q trenches, as expected, heavily wired and strongly garrisoned. Nevertheless the Red Line, east of the support line, was reached on schedule. But as the 72nd and 38th Battalions crossed the long, exposed crest of Mont Dury they met the full force of the German machine-gun fire. From the objective, a sunken road joining Dury to the Cambrai road, German reinforcements swept the bare slopes with bullets, while on the right the 72nd Battalion was also caught in enfilade fire from the direction of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt. In spite of mounting casualties the Canadians, aided by good work on the part of the tanks, pushed on grimly and by mid-morning they had captured and cleared the sunken road.
The 10th Brigade's initial assault on the divisional left was led by the 47th and 50th Battalions. Wire, largely intact, imposed serious delay as it had to be cut by hand. The two battalions occupied the main line trenches, allowing the 46th Battalion to leapfrog them and advance on the support line, which ran through the centre of Dury. There was particularly vicious fighting for the village, which was taken only after a flanking movement by the 46th had overcome a strong point on the southern outskirts, capturing some 120 prisoners and nine machine guns. With the fall of Dury, the brigade's objective line at the sunken road was secured by 7:30 a.m.
The second phase of the attack began soon after eight, when the 78th Battalion, until now held in reserve, attempted to push forward on the right of the 10th Brigade. But it could make little headway against the storm of machine-gun fire coming out of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt and from a sugar-beet processing plant at the crossroads north-east of the village. A mile east of the sunken road, on a ridge extending from Buissy to Saudemont, German artillerymen were firing over open sights. By nine o'clock the 78th had been brought to a halt 200 yards east of the sunken road. Attempts by the 11th Brigade to exploit the 12th Brigade's gains east of Mont Dury were equally fruitless. By mid-afternoon all brigades on the divisional front reported their advance held up. Armoured cars from the Independent Force made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the lateral Villers Saudemont road; the Force had to confine its efforts to firing at enemy positions with machine-gun detachments posted on either side of the main Cambrai road. On the Canadians' left the 4th British Division was able to capture its part of the D-Q system, but did not take Etaing until the following morning.
Although the Canadian Corps had not achieved all the objectives set (rather optimistically) for the attack, the results of September 2 were nevertheless eminently satisfactory. The Drocourt-Quéant Line had been assaulted and overrun on a frontage of seven thousand yards. In addition, the 1st Division had captured the Buissy Switch and the villages of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt and Cagnicourt. Some German formations in the forward line on September 2 had yielded quickly, but the Canadians had met resolute opposition from regiments of the 1st and 2nd Guard Reserve Divisions and the 3rd Reserve Division.
That evening General Currie issued orders for the three divisions under his command to continue the advance on the 3rd, in order to gain direct observation of all bridges over the Sensée River and the Canal du Nord.68 During the night, however, the enemy withdrew on a wide front. Air patrols flying over the enemy lines on the morning of September 3 saw no Germans between the Cagnicourt-Dury Ridge and the Canal du Nord. At the same time the Third Army reported that it had occupied Quéant and Pronville without fighting and that everywhere the enemy was falling back. By noon the entire Canadian Corps front was in motion as a general advance began to the Green Line. Except for artillery fire, resistance was practically negligible. By evening the 1st Division, having occupied Buissy and Baralle, had swept across the open fields to the west bank of the Canal du Nord. The 4th Canadian Division pushed quickly ahead, liberating the villages of Rumaucourt, Ecourt St. Quentin, Saudemont and Récourt. It reported the east bank of the Canal strongly held and all bridges destroyed. The 4th British Division cleared along the Sensée Canal, occupying the village of Lécluse. By nightfall the Canadian Corps controlled all ground west of the Canal du Nord between Sains-lez-Marquion and the Sensée. The formations which had broken the D-Q position had earned their relief, and during the hours of darkness the new line was taken over from north to south by the 1st British and the 3rd and 2nd Canadian Divisions.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.410-413.
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!