Battle of Arras 5
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09 min 41 s
Topical Film Company
Aftermath of the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, and the Battle of Arras, Western Front, March-April 1917.
In the aftermath, captured German gun positions are shown together with British howitzers moving to Monchy-le-Preux. The first train arrives at Arras station, played in by the pipe band of a battalion of Gordon Highlanders. Australians and men of 29th Division rest after the attack. On 13 April men of 29th Division are taken to rest by buses.
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.
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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.
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.
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Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Volume I. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
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).
Engineers on the Western Front
Historian, Department of National Defence
The Western Front made huge demands in matériel, lumber being an excellent example. Wood was needed to revet trenches, support the roofs of dugouts, for plank or corduroy roads, and as sleepers for tramways and railways. These tasks became the responsibility of the military engineers, specialized forestry units being formed for the purpose. Lumberjacks, graders and other skilled men from within the lumber industry were recruited. They cut timber and ran their own sawmills to provide a finished product.
The first forestry companies in the war were formed in 1915, in France. More units were created in England to harvest the island’s local resources. All of these were gathered into a corps in 1916 that eventually comprised 43 companies, and was of such a scale as to require its own hospital system. The men received more than the normal food rations, considering the fact that they were engaged in continuous hard labour.
Their work, in Britain and France, saved huge amounts in shipping costs, not to mention freeing up lumber supplies for such industrial endeavours as shoring up mines and building trawlers and other vessels. Nor did the forestry corps limit its work to cutting and preparing wood. Many of its units supported the Royal Air Force by clearing, draining, levelling and grading sites for aerodromes. By the time of the Armistice 11,750 men worked within its ranks, with another 6000 attached in various capacities.
Closer to the fighting there was a need for heavy-capacity means of transport to get the prodigious amounts of ammunition, food, water and other necessary matériel to the front line. One solution to such an intimidating logistical problem was the construction of tramways with specialized labour, with other specialists maintaining and operating the tractors and rolling stock. The result was a system of transport similar to that of a large North American city run by the Canadian Railway Troops. The troops worked on the Western Front and also in Palestine, the 1st Bridging Company serving there in the last part of the war. The system was, in fact, a merging of two networks, tramways closer to the front operating with gasoline-powered tractors while light railways a little farther behind used steam power, the whole being linked to France’s broad gauge system, which had been built in the decades before the conflict.
In the end, the war became too mobile for railway troops to keep up, and when an Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, the railways were some 30 kilometres behind the forward troops, in spite of the work of 25,000 railway construction engineers, two-thirds of them Canadian. Still, they had served their purpose in the almost four years of near-static warfare that characterized the Western Front from late 1914 to the summer of 1918.
It became clear in the early months of the First World War that operations above ground were distinctly hazardous, even suicidal, hence the trenches and dugouts in which soldiers took shelter. An obvious course was to begin operating underground, and within the Canadian Corps three specialized tunnelling companies were formed. Recruited in the main among miners and clay-kickers (the latter dug smaller tunnels to run gas and water mains under city streets), they began their work in 1915, and their role was multi-faceted. First, they used the galleries they excavated under enemy lines to listen in on his own work, the aim being to give fair warning if he began to threaten Canadian lines underground. Second, they might pack the galleries with explosives to destroy enemy defences; generally, however, such operations proved disappointing as German forces usually occupied the crater thus created before Canadian or British troops could reach it.
Tunnelling was particularly hazardous. Working underground can release toxic gas capable of disabling or killing, or one could find oneself tunnelling into an enemy gallery, leading to vicious little skirmishes fought with knives and digging tools. When fighting shifted from a mutual siege to more open warfare in 1918, tunnellers applied their skills to other work, disarming booby traps in dugouts and other underground facilities as the Allies advanced towards the German border. In fact, the only Canadian military engineer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Captain C.N. Mitchell, a tunneller who in 1918 removed explosives from a bridge while under attack.
The most versatile of the engineers operated on the front line. Originally organized in field companies of a hundred men or so, in 1918 they were reorganized into larger battalions and even brigades. Regardless of how they were administered, their tasks were widely varied. Just behind the front line they were responsible for building and maintaining roads, as well as providing water for humans and animals, the latter task requiring some of them at least to possess knowledge of how to locate and test the precious liquid. To give just two examples, part of the preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge included laying over 40 miles (65 km) of four-inch (10 cm) pipe, with five pumping stations and a total storage capacity of 560,000 gallons. Following the successful advance at Amiens in August 1918, one of the deepest penetrations achieved on the Western Front, the Canadian Corps and its allies found itself in the midst of a plain scorched dry by the summer sun, but engineers needed only two days to locate sufficient water to keep forward troops satiated.
In the front lines proper, sappers, as they were called, dug trenches, or oversaw this work done by the infantry work parties, and prepared defensive positions with the copious use of barbed wire. On occasion, as for a trench raid, for example, they were called upon to destroy such wire, using long cylinders filled with explosive called ammonal tubes or bangalore torpedoes. When that front line advanced, as in 1918, bridging became a most crucial sapper task, as forward movement could not be maintained without ammunition, water, food, and the other necessities of making war, all of which needed to be transported forward on roads or railways, both of which needed bridges to get across rivers and other, similar obstacles. Small structures made of cork sufficed to get the infantry across, while prefabricated materials called Inglis bridges carried heavier loads.
At the time of the Armistice what could be called field engineers (as opposed to railway and forestry troops) could count 14,285 men within their ranks, with responsibilities only somewhat less diverse than their numbers.
Kerry, A.J. and W.A. McDill. The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume I (1749-1939). Ottawa : Military Engineers Association of Canada, 1962.
Chaplin-Thomas, Charmion, Vic Johnson and Bill Rawling. Ubique! : Canadian Military Engineers : A Century of Service. Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing House, 2003.
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.
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 Expanding Allied Offensive
The first move in the Allied scheme to extend the stalled Amiens offensive on both wings was made on the southern flank on August 20 1918, when the French Tenth Army of General Mangin struck northward from the Aisne between Compiègne and Soissons with twelve divisions. An advance of nearly five miles in two days carried the assault to the river Oise between Noyon and Chauny. On the 21st the French Third Army (General Humbert) on Mangin's left resumed operations with some success, while on the same day north of Albert the British Third Army initiated Sir Douglas Haig's share in the renewed offensive. General Byng's forces struck a telling blow on the 23rd, when a two-mile advance towards Bapaume netted 5000 prisoners from General Otto von Below's badly shaken Seventeenth Army. This achievement was matched on Haig's right flank, where the Fourth Army had taken up the battle astride the Somme and the 1st Australian Division had shattered two German divisions on the southern bank. The next two days saw some slight progress on both the Third and Fourth Armies' fronts, and on August 26 an expansion of the battle into the First Army's sector brought the Canadian Corps once more into action.
The period of rest and refitting that would normally follow participation in such extensive operations as the Amiens battle was denied the Canadians; for in these last hundred days of the war each major offensive so rapidly succeeded its predecessor that unprecedented demands had to be made on the stamina of the forces employed. Back under General Horne's command in its former position east of Arras, the Canadian Corps was confronted by a series of formidable defence positions which the enemy was holding in strength. Immediately in front of the Canadians, about Monchy-le-Preux, were the old British trenches lost in the German offensive of March 1918, and to the east of these lay the enemy's former front line. This was backed up, two miles east of Monchy, by the so-called Fresnes-Rouvroy line, which was actually an extension south of the Scarpe of the original line joining Rouvroy (south-east of Lens) to Fresnes (north-east of Arras). Another mile to the east the approaches to Cambrai were blocked by the strongest position of all-the Drocourt-Quéant line (the southernmost portion of the Wotan I-Stellung), which, extending northward from the Hindenburg Line (Siegfried-Stellung) at Quéant, had been constructed by the Germans to contain any Allied advance into the Douai plain. Still farther east, crossed by the main road at Marquion, was the unfinished Canal du Nord, connecting the Somme Canal with the Sensée Canal. Though not yet extensively fortified it formed in conjunction with the Sensée marshes a major obstacle.
On August 22 General Currie outlined to his divisional commanders his plans for an attack eastward astride the Arras-Cambrai road. The Canadian Corps had been given the task of forcing the Drocourt-Quéant line south of the Scarpe and advancing to the line of the Canal du Nord. Having thus broken the hinge of the Hindenburg system the Corps was to swing southward and sweep down behind that formidable position in order to deny the Germans opposing the Third Army a rallying ground. On Currie's right the 17th Corps, operating on the Third Army's northern flank, was under orders to cooperate with the Canadian Corps, attacking south-eastward along both sides of the Hindenburg position.
General Currie's was an important and a difficult assignment. The enemy's main defence positions, supplemented by various subsidiary switches and strong points, were among the strongest on the Western Front. The ground was pocked with the scars of 1917 and early 1918, and in the litter of old trenches and fortifications German engineers had found ready-made positions which they had considerably strengthened. Furthermore, topography was on the side of the Germans. The battle area spread over the north-eastern slopes of the Artois Hills, whose summits about Monchy were over three hundred feet above the valley-bottoms of the Scarpe and the Sensée. The latter river, flowing generally eastward, together with its tributaries had dissected the hills into numerous deep valleys. The intervening ridges and high points, often mutually supporting, the enemy had fortified with a skill that demonstrated his mastery in military engineering.
The Germans' general defensive plan at this time was to give up ground in the region of the Lys and Ypres salients and to fight a determined rearguard action in the Somme area. Ludendorff overruled the views of those staffs (in particular Crown Prince Wilhelm's) that favoured a major voluntary retirement into the Hindenburg and adjoining defence systems. His purpose was by means of a gradual fighting withdrawal to wear out the Allied forces before they reached the Hindenburg position, thus gaining time to reorganize behind that formidable defence line. The defences about the Arras-Cambrai road in the Monchy area would form the pivot of any German retirement south of the Scarpe, while the security of Prince Rupprecht's northern armies also depended on retaining them.
These positions became the initial Canadian objective. With the enemy expecting attack, except for the actual hour of assault, surprise was clearly impossible. It would be a case of launching successive frontal, grinding assaults against well-established lines manned by tenacious, alert troops.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.399-401.