Sons of Our Empire Episode 4
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08 min 30 s
Topical Film Company
Preparations in the Somme offensive leading to the Canadian capture of Courcelette, Western Front, autumn 1916.
The moment of the attack. The heavy bombardment by various guns and howitzers continues. A Mk I Male tank in position. ‘The day...the hour...three minutes more then...the minute, and for God, King and Empire the Canadians swept forward.” The Canadian troops go over the top. Vickers machineguns give covering fire. Distant views across no man’s land, including a German surrender. A Mk I Male tank damaged, with part of its steering wheels missing. 56th Division rear areas, with wiring parties going forward. An officer controlling an 18-pounder battery’s fire with a megaphone. More views of no man’s land. A heliograph team signals to the guns. The 18-pounders continue to tire and ammunition is brought up to them.
Pieces of History
German Prisoners of War
Jonathan F. Vance
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture, Department of History, University of Western Ontario
The emotion of fear probably came first since the moment of capture was the most dangerous time for a prisoner. It was a reality of the First World War that the protection given to prisoners under the 1907 Hague Convention was not always observed in the front lines. Throwing aside one’s rifle and yelling “Kamarad” was no guarantee that the plea for mercy would be heeded, particularly if the approaching soldier had seen his unit decimated by enemy fire. By the same token, a platoon that was weakened by casualties and struggling to hold a hard-won position sometimes could not spare a couple of infantrymen to escort prisoners to the rear areas. In such cases, soldiers implicitly understood that the safest option for their unit was to shoot the prisoners and keep it to themselves.
And then there were the rumours that circulated through both sides of no man’s land about a particular battalion that never took prisoners, or about captives who were killed rather than being sent to the safety of a prison camp. A soldier who had been fired up by such stories might well wave aside his enemy’s pleas and pull the trigger instead. The faces you see in these films, then, represent the lucky ones, the soldiers who actually survived to become prisoners.
We should also be aware that there did exist a degree of sympathy between soldiers. Atrocities were committed on both sides, but often the sight of a cowering enemy soldier elicited a feeling of pity in the attacking soldier. This is not the demonic Hun depicted by the propagandists, he might think; this is a man like me, with a family, perhaps a wife and children. We are both caught in a war that is not our doing; I will treat him as I hope he would treat me, with kindness and consideration.
The exhausted Canadian sharing coffee and hardtack with a captured German became a stock propaganda image, as a way to demonstrate the kindness of our Canadian boys overseas. But just because they were propagandized does not mean such situations did not take place. On the contrary, many a soldier would share with his prisoner a water bottle, a packet of rations or a cigarette, because the fact that he was a fellow soldier was now more important than the fact that he was an enemy. There is genuine good humour in the image of the captor clowning with the captive by putting on his cap and pulling a face.
Once the new prisoner made it through the moment of capture and reached relative safety, his experiences in captivity became more typical. The First World War was a very labour-intensive conflict. It was the first truly mechanized war, but much of the heavy work was still done the old-fashioned way – by tens of thousands of men digging, carrying, lifting and moving. Neither side had any scruples about using prisoners as forced labour in or directly behind the front lines. We know that German units used their POWs to dig trenches, move ammunition and carry supplies – all tasks forbidden under international law – and Canadians may well have done the same. But such scenes would never have made it onto film. Instead, a much more common image is of German soldiers acting as stretcher bearers, bringing the wounded, Canadian and German alike, to safety. For the captors, this had the advantage of freeing up infantrymen who had been temporarily co-opted as stretcher bearers – every German prisoner who could carry a stretcher meant that one Canadian could go back to the firing line. But it also had value for the prisoners themselves. Many contemporary accounts tell of new prisoners who were almost pathetically keen to prove themselves useful by helping with the wounded. Carrying a stretcher, after all, was much better than being shot.
Prisoners were also a valuable source of information. They were searched for maps, papers or anything else that could have intelligence value (or even monetary value – Canadian soldiers were known as tireless souvenir hunters, and quickly stripped any item that could be sold to non-combatant troops in the rear areas. Rifles, canteens and other military equipment were confiscated and sent to salvage dumps. Then, German-speaking officers questioned the men about their unit and the defences on their side of the line. Probably, few POWs were as helpful as some of those who were filmed (including the one who is evidently hard of hearing, likely from artillery bombardment), but the evidence suggests that prisoners were actually forthcoming with information about what was going on in their own trenches.
Finally, the symbolic significance of prisoners should not be underestimated. It was important to depict German prisoners on film because they were very visible signs of success on the battlefield. In the bloodbaths of 1916 and 1917, when success was measured in yards of pulverized earth, scenes of a few bedraggled German soldiers proved that something concrete had been achieved. The Battle of the Somme, for example, was a notorious example of horrific casualties sustained for very little territorial gain, but footage of prisoners being marched away from the battlefield in this clip at least proved that there were a few enemy infantrymen who would never again fire on Canadian soldiers.
In the open campaigns that began in the summer of 1918, prisoners became even more dramatic evidence of success. Now, it was possible to show to Canadians images of long lines of Germans soldiers captured in battle as the Canadian Expeditionary Force swept across northern France. Scenes of POWs being marched away from the battle for Bourlon Wood in 1918, often combined with pictures of rows of captured artillery pieces, confirmed to people at home that the tide had finally turned. The Allies had the Germans on the run, and such images seemed to prove that they were just as happy to surrender as fight.
Statistics on German POWs captured by Canadian troops are far from complete. We know that over 4000 were captured at Vimy Ridge in April 1917; over 5000 on August 8, 1918, the first day of the Battle of Amiens; and roughly 6000 in the three-day battle for the Drocourt-Quéant line in September 1918. But these are only three of dozens of engagements fought by the Canadian divisions, and the total number of prisoners taken may never be known. In any case, the cold statistics tell us less about the experience of captivity than these moving images. The men we see remain nameless, but their faces speak volumes about the impact of war on the individual.
Selective bibliography :
Cochet, François. "Le traitement des prisonniers de guerre en 1914-1918 : le règne de la réciprocité ?", in 14-18, le Magazine de la Grande Guerre, n° 23, Décembre 2003 - Janvier 2004.
Jackson, Robert. The Prisoners, 1914-18. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Morton, Desmond. Silent battle : Canadian prisoners of war in Germany, 1914-1919. Toronto : Lester Pub., 1992.
Moynihan, Michael, ed. Black Bread and Barbed Wire: Prisoners in the First World War. London: Leo Cooper, 1978.
Speed, Richard. Prisoners, Diplomats and the Great War: A Study in the Diplomacy of Captivity. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Vance, Jonathan F., ed. Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment. Denver, CO: ABC-Clio, 2000.
Vance, Jonathan F. Objects of Concern: Canadian Prisoners of War Through the Twentieth Century. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1994.
Williamson, Samuel R. and Peter Pastor, eds. Essays on World War I: Origins and Prisoners of War. NY: Brooklyn Coll, 1983.
Life in the Trenches
Historian, Canadian War Museum
From Switzerland to the North Sea, some 500 kilometres long, soldiers on both sides carved out ditches in the ground that, over time, were expanded in complexity and depth. By 1915, vast underground cities housed the soldiers, as the opposing armies faced off against each other across no man’s land. Along this continuous line of trenches, offensive operations degenerated into frontal assaults, which were usually stopped dead by concentrated fire.
The Western Front, as it was called, consisted of a series of trench systems in depth. The front lines were held in strength, but behind them, joined by a series of communication trenches that ran perpendicular to the front, were support and rear trenches. Deep protective dugouts were situated along the front and rear trenches to provide some degree of safety against all but direct hits from artillery fire. Saps and listening posts were pushed into no man’s land, where soldiers were positioned to provide advance warnings of enemy attacks.
Despite the unsanitary nature of front line trenches, they were areas of safety. The trenches protected against small arms fire, shrapnel bursts and high explosive bombardments. Every day and night soldiers shored up the crumbling walls, filled sandbags, and rebuilt sections that had been damaged by artillery fire. It was not only a war of the machine gun and rifle, but also of the shovel.
Life in the trenches was filled with long periods of boredom interspersed with terror. Much of the time was spent in routine duty. At half an hour before dawn, the infantry was roused from their dugouts or funk holes (small spaces carved into the trench walls) and ordered to ‘Stand-To.’ At the alert, they waited for a possible attack with bayonet fixed. If nothing occurred, and it rarely did, since the infantry of both sides were always at their most prepared at this time, officers inspected the men. Rifles were examined for rust; feet were prodded to ensure that dry socks had been worn to protect against trench foot. The latter being a type of frostbite that occurred from prolonged standing in cold, slushy water, and could, in severe cases, require the amputation of toes or feet. After inspection, soldiers were often rewarded with a small dose of rum, which was much appreciated by the men, who saw it as a form of medicine to help withstand the daily deprivations.
Breakfast, like most meals, usually consisted of canned beef, jam and biscuits. It was a monotonous diet, but soldiers rarely went hungry. For lunch or dinner, soup or stew was brought up from rear areas to offer some variety and warmth. Care packages from home, filled with cheese, bread and sweets, augmented the bland food. During the day, though, the goal of most privates was to avoid the sergeant who assigned trench chores. Most were unsuccessful, with soldiers spending much of their time rebuilding the trenches or standing sentry.
Despite these duties, soldiers had much free time, during which they dreamed of home and of loved ones left behind; worried about children who were growing up without a father; of ailing parents with no caregivers; or of a wife who was trying to feed a family with insufficient funds. Literate soldiers might spend a few hours scribbling letters. Return mail from home was a welcomed treat, with letters read and reread. These exchanges back and forth remained an important life-line to Canada from the trenches. And while they were usually subject to two levels of censorship, by officers at the front and officials in England, soldiers nonetheless tried to share their thoughts with those at home. Civilians could not understand everything, nor could soldiers often capture the full range of their strange experiences in words, but letters remained an important avenue of expression.
Boredom could be kept at bay through gambling, and there was always some rake with dice or cards to fleece his mates. If a soldier had no money, he at least had cigarettes. Soldiers smoked all day long, and cigarettes, which were issued by the army, bought in rear areas, and begged from those at home, were a useful distraction. They helped to calm the nerves, or so soldiers said, and they certainly helped to mask the stench of unwashed bodies.
There were no baths in the front lines and, most soldiers went at least a week, usually longer, without changing their clothes. Dirt and mud were a part of life and, during the winter, helped to insulate soldiers. Far more trying was the infestation of parasitic body lice. The lice lived in the seams of clothing where they feasted on human blood. Soldiers scratched themselves raw to get at their infernal enemies. They learned to defeat their insect adversaries, at least for a time, by taking off their shirts and running a candle over the seams. This drew out the lice that were then squashed satisfactorily between finger and thumb. While soldiers did this, they would sit around, talk, complain and gossip. It was known as ‘chatting,’ and it is just one of many wartime phrases that would enter the English lexicon. But the lice always came back, tormenting the soldiers day and night.
Rats, too, were a constant plague, and because they lived off corpses, they could grow as big as cats. They bit soldiers and scurried over their faces while they slept. The rats were hunted by soldiers and their trench pets, usually fierce terrier dogs, but the rodents lived in and outside of the trenches and were always multiplying. Their squealing movement could be heard throughout the battlefield.
Amidst the mud and slush in the winter, or heat and flies in the summer, soldiers developed their own trench culture. New words sprang up, slang like ‘napoo’ for being killed, or ‘blighty’ that referred to England or home. Artistic soldiers could take spent ammunition and shape it into art. Some soldiers tried their hand at poetry. While most were not as skilled as John McCrae, Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, to name the best-known war poets, the trench poetry or doggerel provided much insight into the soldiers’ front-line experiences. At the group level, some battalions printed trench newspapers. Drawing from their own soldiers in the ranks—men who in civilian life had been editors, journalists and cartoonists—these crude newspapers contained rough humour and wry commentary on the strange, subterranean world of the trenches.
But just as a soldier might be penning a letter or staring at the blue sky above, the crash of an artillery shell could bring sudden death. The enemy was always there to kill or maim. Snipers skulked into no man’s land, camouflaged and ready to put a bullet through a man’s head should it rise, even for a second, above the safety of the trench parapet. Poison gas was released in the form of gas clouds and artillery shells, and soldiers who could not put on their respirator quickly faced a lingering death as chemicals corrupted and ravaged lungs.
Machine-gun bullets raked the front lines day and night. Yet artillery shells were the greatest killer in the war, accounting for more than half of all deaths. High explosive shells blew deep holes in the ground or wrecked trenches; soldiers were atomized by direct hits. Equally deadly, shrapnel artillery shells rained hundreds of metal balls and jagged steel down on soldiers, shredding through flesh and bone. Steel helmets, introduced in early 1916, helped to reduce casualties, but a unit’s tour in the front lines almost always resulted in a steady hemorrhage of casualties. It was clinically called wastage, and impersonal charts showed that each month the infantry would lose approximately 10% of its strength, even in quiet areas where no operations were carried out. While the snipers and artillerymen did their dirty work, the soldiers could look around and see their best friends killed and maimed.
Yet the soldiers struck back in the form of nighttime raids. Changing into dark clothes, equipping themselves with revolvers, grenades, daggers and clubs, small groups of men snuck past their wire and into no man’s land. Raids were a form of organized mugging, and the goal was to gather intelligence, kill the enemy and grab a prisoner. Enemy sentries were usually the target, but sometimes large groups of raiders slipped into the opposite trenches to wreck mayhem. While Canadian troops acquired a reputation as fierce raiders, these operations were dangerous affairs, and in the confusion of night fighting, casualties were often heavy.
To help relieve the unending pressure on soldiers, they were rotated in and out of the front line. On roughly four- to six-day tours, filthy, verminous, exhausted soldiers passed from front to secondary lines and finally to the reserves. This rotation helped to relieve the strain, but soldiers always knew they would return to the trenches in this maddening cycle.
Endurance was the key to survival and soldiers learned to cope with the inhuman conditions. Some developed fatalistic attitudes, believing they would be killed ‘when their number was up’; others lived in terror all the time; a few hoped for a blighty wound, a bullet through the hand or leg that would take them away from the horror and back to a clean hospital in England. Thousands suffered mental breakdowns, known as shell shock, but hundreds of thousands more of the ‘poor bloody infantry,’ as the soldiers liked to call themselves, learned to withstand the strain of the trenches. And it was these survivors who, after four years of bitter fighting, would finally break the static warfare on the Western Front and defeat the German forces.
Bird, Will R. Ghosts Have Warm Hands: A Memoir of the Great War, 1916-1919. Ottawa: CEF Books, 1997 (1968).
Black, Ernest Garson. I Want One Volunteer. Toronto: Ryerson, 1965.
Canadian Bank of Commerce. Letters from the Front : Being a Partial Record of the Part Played by Officers of the Bank in the Great European War. 11 v. Toronto: Canadian Bank of Commerce, 1915-1919.
Cook, Tim. "`More a Medicine than a Beverage': 'Demon Rum' and the Canadian Trench Soldier of the First World War." Canadian Military History 9, 1 (Winter 2000) : 6-22.
Fraser, Donald. The Journal of Private Fraser, 1914-1918, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Reginald H. Roy, ed. Nepean, ON: CEF Books, 1998 (1985).
Granatstein, J.L. Hell’s Corner: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Great War, 1914-1918. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2004.
Litalien, Michel et Stéphane Thibault, Tranchées : le quotidien de la guerre 1914-1918, Outremont, Québec, Athena éditions, 2004.
Morrison, J. Clinton. Hell upon Earth: A Personal Account of Prince Edward Island Soldiers in the Great War, 1914-1918. Summerside, PEI.: J.C. Morrison, 1995.
Morton, Desmond. "A Canadian Soldier in the Great War: The Experience of Frank Maheux." Canadian Military History 1, nos 1 & 2 (1992) : 79-89.
---. When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Toronto: Random House, 1993.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War, 1914- 1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen, Dennys, 1989.
Winter, Denis. Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War. Markam, ON: Penguin Books, 1985.
Historian, Department of National Defence
Battlefield communications were a mix of old and new. The Western Front benefited from the most technologically advanced artillery, where the guns could call on wireless-equipped aircraft to correct fall of shot. The communications technology available to the infantry was far less advanced, however; in late 1914 and early 1915, the Canadians in England who would be responsible for sending and receiving messages from the front were trained on flag drill and lamps.
The telephone, the most convenient means of communication then available, was the responsibility of brigade and division signallers, who, although farther back from the front line, faced an almost impossible task. When laid on the ground, wire was easily destroyed by shelling, and the Germans did not lack for artillery. Stringing it up on poles increased its endurance only slightly, so the only recourse left to signallers was to bury it. Finding labour for such a task when infantry units, who normally provided work parties, were busy digging their own trenches and dugouts was not easy, and a wire shortage made matters worse.
By July 1916, cable laying was somewhat faster, but only because an entire battalion worked on the project at any given time, and soldiers digging trenches for telephone lines were subjected to shelling and machine gun fire as they worked through the night. Wireless telegraphy, which as its name implies did away with wire, was in the early years of the war available only in small numbers, reflecting limited manufacturing resources. Heavy reliance on the telephone, then, could not be avoided, though something had to be done about wires and cables that were continually being cut by artillery and the movements of one’s own vehicles. A possible solution was soon forthcoming—laddering—a technique of laying parallel cables about 60 yards apart connected by lateral lines. To shut down communications, artillery would have to cut both main cables between cross-pieces.
Reliance on runners
Still, keeping in touch with the troops who were fighting their way into enemy trenches was an almost insoluble problem. After an attack on November 17, 1916, the 5th Brigade reported that its battalions had kept in touch with the front line with visual signals, but such ease of communication was uncommon, and even the formation in question mentioned that it also relied on runners. Forward of battalion headquarters the most common means of sending information was to have men hand-carry messages through shelling and, occasionally, machine gun fire. After two months of fighting on the Somme in the fall of 1916, commanders simply assumed that runners would be the only way to get messages across no man's land and planned accordingly.
An added possibility was contact patrols—aircraft that were supposed to advise commanders of what they could see by dropping messages or using wireless telegraphy, but the system was still experimental in 1916. The 78th Battalion suggested that, for troops in an advance, “Communication to contact airplanes is best maintained by flares,” but such techniques required perfect timing to ensure the signals were lit while the aircraft was in position to see them. Such synchronization was difficult to achieve when men were fighting for their lives.
Rather than solve the problem of communications on the battlefield, each new development was simply added to existing methods. At Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the Canadian Corps sought to maintain communications by exploiting every means available: runners, flags, pigeons and telephones. A little later, on August 15, the Canadian Corps assaulted and captured Hill 70, and here wireless played an important role, as the Canadians relied on their gunners to break up the inevitable German counterattacks. Signallers could send back quick corrections to an artillery exchange, which then passed on the information to the guns by telephone.
Until the end of the war, forward of brigade headquarters (which kept in touch with its flanks and higher formations with telephone or wireless), the most common and effective means of communication remained the runner, who carried written messages through enemy and friendly fire to keep commanders appraised of the situation so they could allocate reserves or artillery support accordingly.
Near the end of the war
In 1918, the war entered a more mobile phase. Headquarters had to move often in spite of their heavy reliance on the telephone, pushing signallers almost to the breaking point to keep messages moving. The tendency to multiply methods of communication, as at Vimy Ridge, continued. Telephones, visual signalling, pigeons, message-carrying rockets, wireless, runners and contact patrols were all available in the final battles of the war.
In the Canadian Corps' last set-piece attack at Valenciennes on November 1 and 2, there was no time to lay cable, and all messages from brigade to higher headquarters were sent through wireless stations. Communications between aircraft and troops on the ground, however, had not improved. Infantry devised a new system for signalling contact patrols: troops waved a white cloth with a metal disk sewn on the inside flap of the gas mask when they were called; and though the Royal Air Force found the devices very useful in determining the infantry's position, air-ground communications in the last Hundred Days were essentially the same as those of 1917, and remained so until the Armistice was declared on November11.
The First World War did see the development of aircraft, submarines and tanks as weapons of warfare, tactics underwent drastic changes as fire and movement replaced wave attacks, and scientific gunnery proved ever more capable of supporting infantry battalions as they struggled to survive in one of the most hostile environments our species has yet devised. However, in the realm of communications, the revolutionary developments of previous decades—especially the telephone and wireless telegraph—were only partially applied to the information problems of the modern battlefield. In fact, the runner remained an important link between the front line and headquarters until the very last days of the conflict.
Moir, John S., ed. History of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, 1903-1961. Ottawa: Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Corps Committee, 1962.
Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare : Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Canadian Small Arms of the First World War
Historian, Canadian War Museum
Although the carnage of the First World War was unprecedented, there was nothing truly new about the small arms used during the fighting. The story behind these weapons and their terrible efficiency stem from the tremendous advances in science and technology made throughout the late 19th century.
By 1850, arms factories in Europe and the United States were making the most of advances in metallurgy and mass production, and were capable of manufacturing hundreds of rifles daily. Repeating rifles, which could fire several shots before being re-loaded, were used extensively during the American Civil War (1861-65), as were the first simple multi-barrelled machine guns. More powerful ammunition was available in the 1870s. The American inventor Hiram Maxim introduced the first true machine gun, capable of firing 450 rounds per minute, in 1884. The water-cooled barrel gave Maxim’s machine gun the ability to fire for hours without stopping. By the turn of the century, most European and North American soldiers carried high-powered rifles that could fire 15 shots per minute at an effective range of 800 metres. The days of reloading a single-shot rifle, in the open, five or six times a minute, were long gone. The stage was set for the killing fields that were to come.
Two late-19th-century inventions, the Lee-Enfield rifle and the Ross rifle, the first Canadian-made military rifle, are central to this story.
In the late 1870s, the British Army accepted Scottish-born Canadian James Paris Lee’s rifle design for trials, ultimately resulting in the adoption of the Lee-Metford rifle, then later the Lee Enfield Mk 1 rifle. It was purchased by Canada and used in the South African War.
Sir Charles Ross designed his straight-pull bolt-action rifle and patented the design in 1897. The bolt mechanism, based on the Austrian Mannlicher rifle, also included Ross’s own innovations. In theory, this type of bolt-action was very easy to use and could be reloaded very quickly. The more quickly a rifle can be re-loaded, the more firepower it provides. Its drawback was a complicated manufacturing process and its fragile loading mechanism. Ross revised his design, introducing it as the Model 1900, then later with an improved bolt mechanism in 1901, both of which were submitted to American trials as a potential service rifle.
After the South African War, Sir Fredrick Borden, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, lobbied unsuccessfully to have the Lee-Enfield rifle built by a British firm in Canada. When the British turned down Borden’s request, the Canadian government turned to Ross and his rifle. After a series of modifications, Canada accepted the design, Ross built a factory at the Citadel in Quebec, and the rifle went into production. In 1904, the Royal North West Mounted Police received 1,000 rifles, the Department of Marine and Fisheries another 500. In the coming years, the rifle underwent continual modifications and developments to suit various requirements, including target shooting by the Canadian team at Bisley, where the Ross excelled. In August 1905, the militia received its first order of 1,000 Ross Mk 2 rifles. By 1911, the Mk 3 had been accepted and was being manufactured for the militia.
Britain tested the Ross rifle between 1900 and 1912, rejecting it because of problems with the design, including a propensity to jam.
The British Army continued to use the Lee-Enfield and in 1903, introduced the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (S.M.L.E.) into service. The S.M.L.E., a shortened version of the Lee-Enfield Mk I, had been developed as a result of experience gained during the South African War. The design and construction were simple, if not crude, but also robust, functioning under less than ideal conditions.
Ross continued to develop and fine-tune his design, resulting in dozens of variations. Between 1903 and 1915, 419,130 Ross rifles were manufactured, with most going to Canadian troops, and some to Newfoundland and Britain.
The Canadian forces entered the First World War with the Ross rifle, Mk 2, Mk 3, and its subsequent variations. Almost immediately, its shortcomings became evident.
On March 10, 1915 the 1st Canadian Division went into battle at Neuve Chapelle, France. The Canadians were heavily engaged and, to the horror of the soldiers, their Ross rifles began to jam. The reasons for this were numerous: the ammunition provided was often inconsistent in size; muddy conditions allowed dirt to build up in the complicated loading mechanism, and the heat generated by rapid-firing caused the closely machined parts to expand and seize. A design flaw also made the bolt difficult to lock, if it had been assembled improperly, and some bolts were said to have blown back into the user’s face. Canadian soldiers soon began discarding the Ross in favour of the British S.M.L.E. Mk 3*, when they could find them in the field. General E.A.H. Alderson, commander of the 1st Canadian Division, was forced to issue an order banning the use of the S.M.L.E by Canadian troops.
When the Canadians fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, in late April 1915, the Ross failed again. Outnumbered and facing the first gas attack of the war, the Canadians found their rifles jamming. Some reports had them “Clubbing furiously at their seized bolts with trenching tools and boot heels.” By the end of the battle, hundreds had discarded their Ross rifles in favour of the trusted S.M.L.E.
By June 1915, British Field Marshal Sir John French ordered the Canadians under his command to be re-armed with the S.M.L.E. However, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions that soon arrived in Europe still carried the Ross.
In May 1916, a study into the Ross’s problems confirmed the jamming and recommended modifications to the rifle’s bolt-stops. Earlier tests had reported the Ross worked well with Canadian ammunition made at Dominion Arsenals in Quebec, but this ammunition was in short supply. New, poorly fitted stocks made from improperly seasoned birch were also causing problems as the wood warped and pressed against the metal frames. In light of the report, a few rifles were re-built with 26-inch barrels, trimmed stocks and larger bolt-stops. Although the rifles were reported to have worked “superbly,” soldiers had lost all confidence in them. In mid July, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig re-armed Canadians with the S.M.L.E. and the Ross was officially withdrawn from front line service by the end of that year.
By this time Sir Charles Ross was running into other problems. Skilled labourers were finding better work in the United States, machinery ordered in 1914 had yet to arrive, and supplies were increasingly difficult to secure. Ross won a $22,500,000 contract to make one million rifles for Russia, but had to let it go to the United States due to inability to meet his deadline. A second order from Russia was cancelled after the Mk 3 was withdrawn from Canadian service. On March 28, 1917, the Canadian Government expropriated the Ross Rifle Company. Canada’s first and only national rifle had failed as a battlefield weapon.
The Machine Gun
In 1912, the British Army adopted the water-cooled Vickers Mk 1machine gun, an improvement over the 1884 Maxim design, as its standard machine gun. The slightly lighter Vickers, like the Maxim, made use of an ammunition belt, and could fire 450 rounds per minute. Its water-cooled barrel could sustain this fire over very long periods of time, often for hours. Classified as a medium machine gun, the Vickers Mk 1 was used primarily on a tripod from defensive positions. It could be fired directly at a visible target, or indirectly, like artillery, at targets or positions at long range or behind obstacles.
In response to the need to provide quick-moving infantry with machine gun support, light machine guns appeared on the battlefield in 1914. The Lewis, the first light machine gun used by the British and Canadian forces, had been introduced into service with the Belgian army in 1913. It weighed about 18 kg and could be carried “over the top” like a rifle, to give advancing troops added firepower.
Due to a shortage of light machine guns, the British and Canadians also adopted the Hotchkiss machine gun in 1916. The Hotchkiss was based on the French medium machine gun the Mitrailleur Mle. 09, modified for use as a light machine gun. Although lighter than the Lewis, the Hotchkiss was more complicated and was used mainly by the cavalry. The Hotckhkiss remained in service for training and home guard use after the First World War and was not declared obsolete until 1946.
The decisions regarding when and how to deploy, or advance against small arms fire relate to the concept of the ‘beaten zone’ or ‘killing zone’ that existed between the lines, and the time-versus-lead equations; the idea that a storm of bullets and/or artillery shells poured into a given area made the task of ‘advancing to contact’ extremely difficult, if not impossible. This led to obvious challenges: crossing the zone more quickly (tanks) or by stealth (surprise attack, often without pre-shelling); better tactics to bypass resistance (storm troops, combined arms warfare); and heavier bombardments to keep enemy heads down, destroy obstacles, etc; and in the meantime, drove troops into the ground (trenches) to escape slaughter.
Most of the casualties during the war were inflicted by artillery or small arms fire coming from a distance. However, there was still some close and brutal fighting, often as part of larger operations, but particularly during trench raids.
All rifles were fitted with bayonets, which took the form of a long knife or spike that could be attached to the muzzle of the rifle, effectively forming a spear. By the First World War, British, and Canadian soldiers had been training to use bayonets for 200 years and were very efficient in its use. The bayonet also had an enormous psychological impact. Hundreds or thousands of enemy troops running towards you firing their rifles, screaming and brandishing long blades or spikes, was a terrifying and demoralizing sight. Despite the psychological advantage, many officers considered the bayonet perfectly useless, even in the 19th century. Firepower and broken terrain could keep cavalry at bay from c1860 onwards in most battles, thereby removing the bayonet’s one real advantage – warding off cavalry. When fighting in the confined spaces of the trenches, the length of a bayonet fixed to the muzzle of a rifle could be a great disadvantage. To this end, many soldiers equipped themselves with other weapons, both standard and non-standard issue. These weapons were especially important for trench raids.
Usually conducted at night, trench raiding was extremely brutal, tending to resemble medieval warfare. Soldiers made use of pistols, grenades, clubs, axes, morning stars, knives and even sharpened shovels. As a defensive measure, body armour was brought back into use and worn openly by infantry for the first time since the 17th century.
Pistols were issued officially to officers and NCOs exclusively, but they were also occasionally picked up or traded by soldiers and used for close fighting.
At the beginning of the First World War, Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence, ordered 5,000 semi-automatic .45 ACP calibre Colt model 1911 (Government Model) pistols through one of his “Honorary Colonels,” causing a short-lived political scandal. The pistols were issued to non-commissioned officers and made available to officers for purchase, along with some older Colt revolvers left over from the South African War. Canadian officers serving with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, or other units assigned to British formations, were issued with Webley revolvers of various marks.
With the forces rapid expansion, the military needed more pistols by mid 1915. Due to shortcomings found with the Colt Model 1911, the government purchased 1,500 Smith & Wesson .455 Hand Ejector Second Model revolvers on August 21, with later orders for 13,000 between 1915 and 1917. Revolvers were considered more reliable in harsh conditions.
Immediately after the ceasefire of November 11, 1918, many First World War small arms developments were shelved. Advances had been made in designing lighter, more efficient machine guns and submachine guns, but, in the debt-ridden postwar years the last thing most governments wanted to spend money on was small arms.
The Department of Militia and Defence was now faced with the disposal of the unwanted Ross rifles. Some 120,000 Mk 2 and Mk 3 rifles were taken overseas and turned over to the British, and 20,000 were sold to the United States for training. Of the rifles sent overseas, 9,334 were later returned to Canada. The Ross continued in use as a sniper rifle throughout the war, and well into the Second World War, making use of its initial design as a sporting and target rifle. Many Ross rifles were also re-issued during the Second World War for training and Home Guard use and eventually made their way into the hands of the armies of China, Chile, the Baltic states, Spain, New Zealand, Holland, India, Indonesia and the Soviet Union.
The S.M.L.E. remained in service well into the Second World War and was replaced in 1942 by the Lee-Enfield No. 4. James Paris Lee’s basic rifle design is still in limited service with the Canadian Forces in the 21st century with the Canadian Rangers and Cadets.
The machine gun continues to be a vital part of the arsenals of all armies. The Vickers machine gun was used in the Second World War, the Korean War, and was not officially declared obsolete until the 1960s. The Lewis gun saw limited service in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, notably at Hong Kong.
The bayonet is stilled issued and used as a standard attachment to most military rifles worldwide.
The small arms designs that were rooted in the late 19th century and used during the First World War evolved very little throughout the first half of the 20th century. Although infantry tactics evolved considerably and the casualty figures of the First World War seem incomprehensible today, killing over open sights remains the foot soldier’s basic role.
Edgecombe, David W. Defending the Dominion, Canadian Military Rifles 1855-1955. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2003.
---. Small Arms of the World: A Basic Manual of Small Arms. 12th rev. ed. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1983.
Ezell, Edward C. Handguns of the World: Military Revolvers and Self-Loaders from 1870-1945. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1981.
Hogg, Ian V. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Firearms. London: New Burlington Books, 1978.
---. Military Small Arms of the 20th Century. 7th ed. Iola: Krause Publications, 2000.
Law, Clive M. Canadian Military Handguns, 1855-1985. Bloomfield, ON: Museum Restoration Services, 1994.
---. Without Warning: Canadian Sniper Equipment in the 20th Century. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2004.
Maze, Robert J. Howdah to High Power: A Century of British Breechloading Service Pistols (1867-1967). Tucson: Excalibur Publications, 2002.
Meek, John F. Over the Top: The Canadian Infantry in the First World War. Orangeville, ON: John F. Meek, 1971.
Morton, Desmond. A Military History of Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1985
Nelson, Thomas B. The World's Submachine Guns. Cologne, Germany: International Small Arms Publishers, 1963.
Phillips, Roger. The Ross Rifle Story. Sydney, NS: John A. Chadwick, 1984.
Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Saunders, Anthony. Weapons of the Trench War, 1914-1918. Phoenix Mill: Alan Sutton, 1999
Skennerton, Ian D. The British Service Lee, Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles and Carbines 1880-1980. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1982.
---. The Lee-Enfield Story. Piqua: I.D.S.A. Books, 1993.
Artillery: The Great Killer
Historian, Canadian War Museum
In 1914 and 1915, artillery proved it was the great killer. For those caught in the open, shrapnel and high explosive shells wreacked havoc. Thousands were left rotting on the battlefields. However, artillery guns were vulnerable to small arms fire, and they could be driven away from the front. But the guns were soon firing indirectly from hidden positions several kilometeres to the rear, still causing terrible damage. Soldiers were forced to find safety in trenches, digging beneath the ground to escape the murderous fire.
As trenches were strengthened with barbed wire, deep dugouts, and machine -guns, an enormous weight of fire was needed to smash the enemy defences and support the infantry. But there were not always enough shells in the early years to feed the guns. And so the infantry were killed in the tens of thousands as they attacked undamaged enemy trenches in frontal assaults. As the war lengthened, artillerymen received nearly unlimited supplies of shells through the enormous production of munitions factories. New tactics were also developed to improve the accuracy of the guns.
Artillery shells contained high explosives, shrapnel, and, later in the war, poison gas and smoke. Both the high explosive and shrapnel shells were timed to detonate in the air above a target. High explosive shells blasted holes in the trenches and the concussion alone could kill, as lungs collapsed under the force of the explosion. Shrapnel shells were equally deadly, consisting of more than 300 rounded metal balls that exploded downward in a cone-shaped rain of whirling metal. As well, the casing of the shell was designed to explode outward, creating jagged, uneven shards of steel that tore through flesh.
By 1916, commanders believed that massive artillery shoots, involving hundreds of thousands of shells, would annihilate the enemy defenders. This would allow the infantry to punch a hole through enemy lines and restore mobility on the Western Front.
However, it was often hard to hit, and then destroy, the narrow and well-fortified trenches. The problem also lay in the shell fuses. Earlier types were not sensitive enough to explode on contact, especially with shells tasked to clear barbed wire. As a result, many of the shells exploded in the ground, killing very few of the enemy, leaving the infantry to fight their way through defences-in-depth. By the end of 1916, newer, sensitive fuses that exploded on the slightest contact harnessed the destructive power of the artillery and, equally important to the infantry, cleared barbed wire from in front of enemy trenches.
Tactics again changed during the later phases of the bloody battles of the Somme in the last half of 1916. The gunners would never be able to destroy all of the German defences, and even one machine -gunner could kill hundreds of attacking infantry. Instead, the artillery sought to suppress enemy fire through a “creeping barrage,” and give their own attacking infantry enough time to cross the killing zone of nNo Mman’s Lland.
Gunners fired their shells to create a “creeping” wall of fire that slowly moved forward over the enemy lines at fixed intervals: 50 yards (46 m) every couple of minutes, less for muddy ground, more for open warfare. In effect, it was a screen of fire and explosives. As this moving wall of shrapnel and high explosives chewed up the ground in its path, the infantry were told to “lean into the barrage” and stay as close as possible. Although friendly fire was expected and occurred, the casualties would still be lighter than if the creeping barrage moved off and allowed German machine -gunners, waiting in the safety of deep dugouts, to get to the top of their trenches before the infantry crossed nNo Mman’s lLand.
At the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the gunners had perfected the creeping barrage. Yet enemy gunners still took a fearful toll as they laid down their own counter-barrages to catch the follow-on waves of infantry. The enemy guns had to be stopped, or slowed, but it was exceedingly difficult to identify, target, and destroy camouflaged guns several kilometeres away.
Accurate intelligence was essential, and new and refined forms of science aided the gunners. The Canadian Corps was lucky to have Brigadier-General Andrew McNaughton, commander of the counter-battery office for much of the war, who embraced new technology and tactics. A prewar professor at McGill University, he turned to science to save his soldiers lives.
The Canadian Counter Battery Office (CCBO), established in February 1917, gathered intelligence and processed information on the enemy to assist in knocking out his guns. Aerial reconnaissance from the Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) was of great assistance as airmen photographed the front from great heights. Later in the war, observation aircraft circled the battlefield, passing real-time information to the gunners through letter drops and primitive wireless radio.
As the CCBO developed after April 1917, this information-gathering and target-selection became more sophisticated, with new technology, like sound-ranging and flash-spotting, assisting gunners to find and destroy enemy targets.
Flash-spotting involved the coordination of observers. At least three posts were needed, usually spread out along several kilometeres. When an enemy gun position was spotted by the revealing flash as the shell left the barrel, the observers were telephoned by headquarters to turn their attention to that spot. After studying the flash of the gun, the observers would hit a key that was connected to a lamp at headquarters. From the observers’ bearings, and by triangulating their estimates, enemy guns could be located with high precision.
Sound-ranging worked on a similar principle. Listeners sat two kilometeres behind the line with their microphones. Additional posts were manned well ahead of these positions. As long as there was not more than one shell per second being fired, on hearing the crash of an enemy gun, the forward listening post pressed a key that started an oscillograph, an instrument that recorded on film the sound of the shell in flight as it reached each microphone in turn. The time-intervals between the microphones allowed the CCBO to analyse the information and, if conditions were optimal, pinpoint enemy guns to within twenty-five 25 yards (23 m). All available counter-battery guns would be aimed on that spot to deliver a destructive shoot of 50-100 shells. Chemical shells were also used to kill or force the enemy gunners to wear debilitating respirators that severely affected the rate of fire.
In the last year of the war, artillery had perfected the creeping barrage and was steadily improving its counter-battery work. Further tactical refinement allowed gunners to fire more complicated barrages, like a box barrage. The box barrages set up a wall of fire and explosives around an enemy position —-- usually a trench —-- which effectively isolated it from reinforcements. It allowed assaulting Canadian infantrymen to capture and consolidate a position without fear of immediate counterattack.
By war’s end, 43,914 gunners had served in the Canadian artillery, and 2,565 had lost their lives from disease, injury, and battlefield wounds. They had fired tens of millions of shells, reducing the landscape to a desolate wasteland, and an estimated 60% of all wounds were inflicted by shell fire. The First World War was indeed a gunner’s war.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.
McNaughton, A.G.L. “Counter-Battery Work.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 3, 4 (July, 1926).
McNaughton, A.G.L. “The Development of Artillery in the Great War.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 4, 2 (January, 1929).
Nicholson, G.W.L. The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery, Vol. 1: 1534-1919 Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
Rawling, William. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Volume I. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
The Ross Rifle and other Small Arms in World War I
Sir Sam Hughes, the future minister of militia and member of the 1901 militia committee, was a supporter of the Ross rifle. The Mark 1 Ross rifle was not delivered until 1905 and 1000 units were supplied to the RNWMP but various problems plagued this model of rifle and it was eventually recalled in 1906. Changes were made to the production model until 1910 when the various models of the Mark 2 were produced. Great Britain at that time was strongly urging Canada to adopt the Lee-Enfield rifle for its armed forces so as to have consistency within the Empire regarding weaponry, and because Canada refused to halt production of the Ross rifle, strains developed over imperial defence. The Mark 2 rifle was adopted by the Canadian armed forces in 1911, and in that year work was begun on the Mark 3, although few were produced before 1914. In the first years of WWI the Ross rifle received a bad reputation. It was seen as unsuitable for the "trench-and-charge" tactics employed during that war because of its weight, 9 lbs 14 ozs (c 4.5 kg), its overall length, 60½ inches (c 1.5 m) with bayonet fixed, and the continual jamming problem plus the occasional "blowback." The cause of the jamming was eventually corrected but came too late for the rifle to maintain its use. In the summer of 1916 the rifle was withdrawn from service and by mid-Sept Canadian troops had been rearmed with the British-made Lee-Enfield. The Canadian government expropriated the Ross Rifle Co in March 1917 after paying Ross $2 million. The total production of the Ross rifle was approximately 420,000 with 342,040 units being purchased by the British. During WWII, the Mark 3 Ross rifle was given to the Royal Canadian Navy, the Veteran's Guard of Canada, coastal units, training depôts, the British Home Guard and the Soviets.
GLENN B. FOULDS
Reproduced with permission from The Canadian Encyclopaedia, Historica Foundation of Canada
Letter from Geoff Redman, Sept. 25, 1916
Sept. 25, 1916
My Dear Sis
It is time I was dropping you a line to let you know that I am still living. I would write more than I do but I have nothing much to say except that which would be censored so a card is just as good to let you know that I am still alive and well.
I have received your photo and several bundles of papers for which I cannot thank you enough especially this last week as it has been so wet, we have put in an awful wet week wet every day and no place to dry. But to day is a beauty could not wish for better. [Enis?] was here yesterday when I received your last letter so I told his [sic] what you said about the photo so I expect he will write you he is looking well but is sick of soldiering and will be glad when it is all over. I am in the hope of seeing Russell any day as the Canadians are [censored]. I do not know of much that you can send me unless it is socks but do not send me more than two pair at once as we have no where to put them. A small close knit sweater coat not to thick would be a good thing to send and a few of them camphor balls put them in a little sack so I can hang them around my neck. It is no use sending us a lot of stuff as it is only a bother enough is all we want even that is two [sic] much sometimes. If Mr. Smith is still in the hospital give him my kind regards also any of the rest that you may happen to see in Brandon. Now I will close hoping that by the time I write you again that I can say I have seen Russell. Hoping this will find you well.
Your loving Bro,
Canadians at the Somme
It was General Sir Douglas Haig's wish that the Canadians should have a chance to settle in before taking part in an offensive. A G.H.Q. directive on August 19 had announced the Commander-in-Chief's intention to deliver a strong attack about the middle of September using "fresh forces and all available resources". This was the role to which the Canadian Corps had been summoned. While the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions prepared for the battle, the 1st Division held the whole of the Corps front - three thousand yards of battered trenches running westward along the Pozières ridge from the boundary with the Fourth Army (just east of Pozières) to a point 700 yards west of Mouquet Farm, a stronghold in the German Second Position based on a nest of deep dug-outs which six bitter Australian assaults had failed to capture. As we shall see, the Division's tour of duty was not as uneventful as Sir Douglas Haig had intended it should be.
The Australians' final attempt to capture Mouquet Farm was made on September 3 by their 13th Brigade, which had the 13th Battalion, of the relieving 3rd Canadian Brigade, temporarily under command. The attack, while failing to secure the farm, gained 300 yards of Fabeck Graben, a German trench running north-eastward towards Courcelette. In attempting to extend this holding two companies of the Canadian battalion suffered 322 casualties. The relief of the Australians was completed on the morning of the 5th, and for three more days the 3rd Canadian Brigade continued to hold under heavy fire and frequent counter- attack more than two thousand yards of line, including the captured portion of Fabeck Graben. The brigade's 970 casualties in this period gave it good reason to remember its first tour of duty at the Somme. Early on September 8, during a relief by the 2nd Brigade, the Germans regained the now almost obliterated section of Fabeck Graben.
Next day the Canadians slightly improved their positions, when the 2nd Canadian Battalion captured a portion of a German trench about 500 yards long south of the Cambrai road. In gaining and retaining its objective (and thereby earning the congratulations of the Commander-in-Chief) the battalion owed much to the valour of one of its junior N.C.Os.-Corporal Leo Clarke. While clearing a continuation of the newly-captured trench during the construction of a permanent block on the battalion flank, most of the members of his small bombing party were killed or wounded and their supply of grenades was exhausted. Clarke was building a temporary barricade when an enemy party of twenty, led by two officers, counter-attacked down the trench. Coolly the corporal fought them off. Twice he emptied into the Germans his own revolver, and then two abandoned enemy rifles. He shot and killed an officer who had bayoneted him in the legs and he is credited with having killed or wounded at least sixteen enemy before the rest turned in flight. Then he shot down four more of the fleeing Germans, and captured a fifth - the sole enemy survivor. His courageous action brought Corporal Clarke the first of two Victoria Crosses to be won by his battalion. He was killed five weeks later, before the award was announced.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.148-149.