The Royal Visit to the Battlefields of France, July 1917 - 3
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Visit of King George V and Queen Mary to France 3-14 July 1917.
The King and Queen go their various ways, the King to St-Sixte Monastery (used as a Casualty Clearing Station) and on to an aerodrome and the Gas School at Helfaut. Haig meets with the King, the Queen, and President and Madame Poincaré at Abbeville. The Queen and Prince visit the Asiatic Petrol Company factories near Rouen.
Pieces of History
Associate Professor, History Department, Université de Montréal
A total of 3,141 nurses worked in the Canadian army, 2,504 of them overseas—over a third of all Canadian registered nurses. Some were posted to British or Canadian hospitals in England, but at least a thousand served in France and Belgium; some were even sent to the Mediterranean or Russia. Unlike nurses from the other allied countries, who were in auxiliary corps, Canadian nurses were full members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps and thus held military rank. Margaret Macdonald, appointed matron-in-chief at the start of the war, was also the first woman of the British Empire to hold the rank of major.
From the outset, the military authorities had planned to keep the nurses in stationary hospitals, 250-bed units with 16 nurses, and in the general hospitals farther from the front, which had between 500 and 1,000 beds served by a team of 72 nurses. In practice, however, it soon became apparent that these medical professionals were also needed in the most advanced posts, called casualty clearing stations, because the wounded soldiers taken there often required emergency surgery impossible to do without the help of nurses. Many nurses thus found themselves very close to the front lines, working in tents or huts with minimal hygiene.
Although farther from the theatre of operations, the stationary hospitals and general hospitals still did not have all the facilities that nurses were accustomed to. Established in big houses, ruined monasteries, unused schools or hastily built shelters, these hospitals were far from an ideal environment. The nurses had to tend patients while slogging through mud, surrounded by rats or, on the Mediterranean front, flies, while being careful to use as little water as possible.
The nurses’ work followed the rhythm of the battles, each bringing a massive influx of wounded. Working around the stretchers lined up on the ground, the nurses had to take care of hundreds of soldiers brought in by train or ambulance. Bullets, bayonets, shells and shrapnel caused extremely serious wounds that bled profusely and often necessitated amputation, the only way to get rid of gangrene. Amputation was also the fate of men who suffered frostbite from their time in the muddy trenches, while on the Mediterranean front, dysentery laid many low. Gas, first used extensively in the First World War, attacked the eyes and lungs. The nurse placed the lung patient in an oxygen tent, but that did not always work as hoped. Nurses were just as powerless to help those suffering from psychological problems, termed shell shock, whose numbers grew as the war intensified. On the other hand, they were perfectly capable of taking care of soldiers with tuberculosis or other common ailments, like the flu. Due to the high mortality rate of the wounded, such cases actually made up the bulk of their work. Towards the end of the hostilities, when the Spanish flu started to spread, they were called upon to tend to soldiers with influenza.
Life at the front had its quieter moments, though, and nurses took advantage of them. Between two deliveries of casualties, they could do their jobs more calmly, befriending the soldiers they tended often over long weeks. They also gave themselves small treats. When not on duty, they could go to dances, receptions and concerts also attended by soldiers, officers or even civilians. They also took part in sports or games and went cycling near their hospitals. Nurses stationed in England took tea with members of the British and Canadian army or with nurses from other hospitals, and played golf and tennis. On leave, some even travelled to Scotland or the south of France.
Army nurses were the only women to go to the front during the First World War. Thirty-nine lost their lives, twenty-one in battles on the continent or at sea, and eighteen as a result of illness. Seven others died in Canada while serving in army hospitals. Over 500 of them were decorated, including matron Ethel Ridley, named Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and Vivien Tremaine, who was awarded the Royal Victorian Order for caring for King George V, who was hurt when he fell off his horse while reviewing Canadian troops. These military honours acknowledged their courage and the esteem in which they were held. This acknowledgment also extended beyond the military sphere, however, for the involvement of nurses in the war greatly contributed to making medical and hospital authorities more aware of the importance of their role. By the end of the First World War, nurses had gained a professional status that could never again be questioned.
Allard, Geneviève, «Des anges blancs sur le front : l’expérience de guerre des infirmières militaires canadiennes pendant la Première guerre mondiale», Bulletin d’histoire politique, 8, nos 2-3 (hivers-printemps 2000): 119-132.
---, «Les anges blancs sur le front. Les infirmières militaires canadiennes durant la Première Guerre mondiale», [MA (Histoire), Université Laval], 1997.
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Nicholson, G.W. L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters. Toronto: A.M. Hakkert, 1975.
Strong-Boag, Veronica. "Making a Difference : The History of Canada’s Nurses." Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine, 8, 2 (1991) : 231-248.
The First Air War
Hugh A. Halliday
Historian and author
During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) experts noted that smokeless powder, rifled artillery, machine guns and barbed wire had turned battlefields into vast wastelands where armies hid from their opponent’s shells. Cavalry—the traditional form of reconnaissance—could not manoeuvre . Ten years later, aircraft made stalemate even more certain. In August 1914 aerial reconnaissance enabled the Allies to counter-attack against German armies invading France. Thereafter, with few exceptions, aerial observers forecast an enemy’s offensive and thus assured its failure (or success, at appalling cost).
The power of aerial observation went further. With armies driven into complex trench systems, artillery came to the fore as the deadliest weapon of the war. The great guns of the Western Front were the primary killing machines of what had become industrialized warfare—65 percent of all deaths and wounds were attributable to artillery fire, which delivered awesome weights of shell and shrapnel.
Days before his death by artillery fire, an American soldier wrote, “This is a cowering war—pygmy man huddles in little holes and caves, praying to escape the blows of the blind giant who pounds the ground with blind hammers.” But the hammers were not blind. Their targets were mapped by men in aircraft and balloons, their fire was directed from aircraft and balloons. The aerial observer was the most important airman of the war; his role today has been assumed by others, including the aerial spy satellite.
The courage of these men defies imagination. Balloon observers ascended under gas bags filled with flammable hydrogen, vulnerable to fighter aircraft determined to shoot them down. The men in the balloons at least had parachutes, if time permitted them to escape. For most of the war, pilots and airplane crews had no such equipment; fire in the air was the most dreaded fate of all, and many men carried pistols to shoot themselves rather than suffer agonizing deaths. In June 1918 German aircrews were issued parachutes; even these failed to deploy about 25 percent of the time.
Given the importance of aerial reconnaissance and artillery direction, it is puzzling to find so much attention being devoted to fighter pilots, these “knights of the air.” Fighter pilots and tactics evolved from 1915 onwards, but their task was always secondary to that of the observation crews. It was a fighter pilot’s job to shoot down enemy observation aircraft and protect his own observation aircraft. Nevertheless, propagandists trying to divert attention from the awful slaughter on the ground fastened upon the fighter pilots as men engaged in single combat, man-to-man, with the high-scoring “ace” as the centrepiece of the narrative. Never mind that the fighter pilot’s objective was (preferably) to surprise an opponent and shoot him in the back. Chivalry there might be—a decent burial for a fallen enemy, a toast with a captured foe—but in the heat of battle there could be only one rule: kill or be killed. At the heart of everything else, that was a fighter pilot’s job description. It is a measure of the propagandist’s success that, 90 years later, the public knows more about the First World War fighter pilots than the men they were actually protecting.
Airplanes were used for many other tasks—anti-submarine patrols, trench strafing, communications and bombing. Indeed, aircraft performed almost every task in the First World War that they would later execute in the Second World War. The one exception was the aerial delivery of soldiers. Even so, aircraft were used to place spies behind enemy lines and drop supplies to isolated troops. Nevertheless, in most roles the airplanes of 1914-1918 only hinted at what was to come. Only one submarine was sunk by aircraft during the First World War; at least 400 submarines on all sides were destroyed by aircraft during the Second World War. Aerial bombing between 1914 and 1918 inflicted only modest devastation (although its psychological impact was very great at the outset); the bombing campaigns of the Second World War were horrific both in physical impact and subsequent moral outrage.
Aircraft affected the conduct of the war, and war influenced the technological development of aircraft. For example, engines increased from an average of 80 horsepower (1914) to 350 horsepower (1918), while speeds of 110 km/h had risen to about 200 km/h. Yet if the war had not taken place, it is conceivable that commercial incentives might have produced similar results. The first four-engine airliner had flown in Russia in 1913. Might not development have taken place along civilian lines ? Five years later, France and Britain initiated civilian air transport services using modified bombers that carried fewer passengers than their Russian predecessors of 1913.
Whether or not it was due to war, a radical transformation occurred between 1914 and 1918 that involved the attitudes of aviators themselves. Even among the select circle of 1914 pilots, flying was considered hazardous,, and training methods reflected this. At the time, no aircraft had been designed specifically for training; throughout the war most training aircraft were machines like the RE.7 and Farman Shorthorn, which had been retired from front-line duties to rear echelon tasks. The Curtiss JN-4 broke this pattern.
The most radical change, however, involved the training syllabus itself. Early flying instruction covered the basics of flying but emphasized dangers to be avoided, particularly stalls and spins. By 1916, however, the dynamics of flight controls were more fully understood, and recovery from spins could be practised. New systems of instruction emphasized the theory of flight and explained exactly how manoeuvres could be executed, thus encouraging intelligent aerobatics. Instead of being regarded as a threatening mount, the airplane came to be seen as an even-tempered, reasonable machine. Previously, students had been taught what to avoid; the new methods instilled confidence. By the end of the war, pilots had become enthusiastic about the potential uses of aircraft and convinced of the fundamental safety of their machines. Confident prophets inspire confident converts.
Canada’s role in these developments was insignificant in some ways, crucial in others. Before the war the government studiously ignored aviation, and only in 1918 did it take steps to form distinct Canadian air force units. On the other hand, it assisted the British flying services, which recruited in Canada and trained personnel in this country. Thousands of Canadians enlisted in the British flying services, either directly or by transferring from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. No one really knows just how many joined; the lowest estimate (13,160) seems too modest, but the highest guess (22,812) cannot be documented. It is generally believed that, as of 1918, about one-quarter of all members of the Royal Air Force were Canadians. The most famous were aces such as Raymond Collishaw and William Barker, but they included many other fascinating individuals. In 1915, Redford Mulock had been a trooper transferring from the cavalry to the Royal Naval Air Service. As of November 1918, he was a decorated colonel commanding heavy bombers that would have raided Berlin if the war had lasted only two weeks longer.
Chajkowsky, William E. Royal Flying Corps; Borden to Texas to Beamsville. Cheltenham, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1979.
Costello, W. Brian. A Nursery of the Air Force. Carleton Place, ON: Forest Beauty Products, 1979.
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Drew, George. Canada's Fighting Airmen. Toronto: Maclean Publishing, 1931.
Ellis, Frank H. Canada's Flying Heritage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1954.
Fuller, G.A., J.A. Griffin and K.A. Molson. 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics: A Chronology,1840-1965. Toronto: Canadian Aviation Historical Society, 1983.
Goodspeed, D. J. The Armed Forces of Canada,1867-1967. Ottawa: Canadian Forces Headquarters, 1967.
Greenhous, Brereton. The Making of Billy Bishop. Toronto: Dundern Group, 2002.
Greenhous, Brereton and Hugh A. Halliday. Canada’s Air Forces,1914-1999. Montreal: Art Global, 1999.
Halliday , Hugh A. Not in the Face of the Enemy: Canadians Awarded the Air Force Cross and Air Force Medal,1918-1966. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000.
Jones, Neville. The Origins of Strategic Bombing. London: William Kimber, 1973.
Milberry, Larry. Aviation in Canada. Toronto: Canav Books, 1979.
---. Canada’s Air Force at War and Peace. 3 vol. Toronto: Canav Books, 1999 to 2001.
Rimell, Raymond Laurence. Zeppelin! A Battle for Air Supremacy in World War I. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1984.
Shores, Christopher, Norman Franks and Russell Guest. Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces, 1915-1920. Stoney Creek, ON: Fortress Publications, 1990.
Sullivan, Alan. Aviation in Canada,1917-1918. Toronto: Rous and Rous, 1919.
Wise, S.F. Canadian Airmen and the First World War. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1982.
The following Web site has a section "Honours and Awards" and a subsection dealing with Canadians in the British Flying Services during the First World War: http://www.airforce.ca/.
Military Logistics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1919
Canadian military logistics is a dimension of the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) that is often overlooked. Yet just a few days after Canada’s entry into the First World War, it was obvious that there was no way of ignoring it. When huge numbers of military and civilian volunteers showed up at Valcartier, near Quebec City, in August 1914, logistical support services, which had only recently been established, were soon put to the test. Clothing and equipping the members of the first contingent turned out to be a real headache. Manufacturers had to be found and contracts drawn up in a hurry for the production of uniforms, boots, belts, weapons, vehicles and so on. From a logistical standpoint, mobilizing the first contingent destined for Europe was a nightmare.
Throughout the Great War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s logistical support system was an immense, complex operation. Of all the support services, the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) was the most diversified. Its main responsibilities were transporting combat troops, delivering equipment and materials, and providing the troops with fresh supplies. In addition to these essential tasks, the CASC also evacuated the wounded (ambulance drivers belonged to the corps), salvaged equipment that had been captured from the enemy or left behind on the battlefield and delivered mail. The CASC worked closely with the Canadian Ordnance Corps, the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and the Canadian Artillery Corps for the transportation of specialized ordnance.
The CASC operated from seaports located hundreds of kilometres from the battlefield, all the way to just behind the front lines. Its replenishment system could supply not only small groups of just a few men but also formations the size of an infantry battalion (approximately 1,000 men).
Resupplying front-line units was a multistep process. From ports and depots, supplies were first taken by railway to railheads. From there, CASC units were responsible for moving the supplies by truck or light railway to supply dumps. These operations took place in the third line of supply. Thanks to their small size, light railways could run and reach areas closer to the front lines more easily. It was also harder for enemy artillery to pinpoint them. The administrative area behind the front lines was crisscrossed by light rail lines that were built and maintained by Canadian railway troops.
From the supply dumps, the CASC’s divisional train and ammunition supply column, both of which were horse-drawn, were responsible for bringing supplies closer to the front lines, to their respective divisions or individual units. This was the second line of supply.
Lastly, operations to supply front-line units constituted the first line of supply. These units had to come back to the rear to get their own supplies of gear, ammunition, weapons, technical and communications equipment, water, medication and food. These supply expeditions were carried out chiefly at night so that the soldiers could not be seen by the enemy. But assigning combat troops to this task meant that a battalion’s defensive positions at the front would be short of manpower for a time and so vulnerable to enemy attack.
Toward the end of the war, however, a Canadian officer from Montreal proposed using the tumpline system — the method that Canada’s aboriginal people and coureurs de bois had used to carry large loads on foot. Before the introduction of this system, infantryman had to carry supplies in their arms, thus limiting the quantity of materials due to their size and weight. The tumpline system, which involved the use of a head strap, allowed the soldiers to carry more weight and freed up their arms, thus giving them more freedom of movement. With this system, each soldier was able to transport a greater quantity of supplies and so fewer men were required for the job, leaving more troops to ensure the defence of the front lines.
Besides regularly providing drivers and vehicles to other units, the CASC also maintained and repaired its vehicles. It also had to make sure that the troops were fed, which meant that fresh and hard rations had to be allocated and distributed properly; its military cooks oversaw the operation of field bakeries and butcheries.
The CASC was not the only logistical support corps to play a key role in the CEF. The Canadian Ordnance Corps was responsible for procuring, storing and distributing uniforms, boots, equipment, weapons, ammunition and shells to combat troops. Specialized supply depots, located in the second line of supply, helped ensure more effective distribution.
The Canadian Ordnance Corps’ other major role was to maintain equipment in the field. The repairmen in the specialized ordnance mobile workshops could get closer to the deployed units and repair their weapons, both light and heavy, as well as their equipment. If the mobile workshops were not able to do the repairs on site, the weapons and equipment were shipped to heavy or stationary workshops at the rear, where virtually anything could be reassembled or rebuilt. The small detachments of the Ordnance Corps worked closely with the various units of the Army Service Corps.
Despite the gradual mechanization of the war, horses remained a vital component of the CEF. The cavalry, the artillery and, of course, the Army Service Corps used huge numbers of horses right up to the end of the war. At one point, Canadians were using as many as 24,000 horses and mules in their overseas operations. Horses could often manage in places where motorized vehicles could make no headway! Inevitably, some horses suffered injuries or fell ill. The Canadian Veterinary Corps operated mobile sections to take care of horses; it also ran veterinary hospitals for horses, advanced remount depots and specialized basic provisions depots.
Other logistical support services also played a crucial role in enabling combat troops to get on with their job. The Canadian Postal Corps, for instance, helped maintain the morale of soldiers at the front, at the rear and also those convalescing in hospitals. Army chaplains, who constituted the smallest organized support group, provided religious services to Canadian soldiers of different faiths and offered moral support at difficult times. Lastly, despite the enemy’s efforts to maintain a naval blockade by submarines, the Canadian Forestry Corps ensured that Great Britain, France and the Canadian Expeditionary Force obtained all the timber they needed to carry out their military operations.
Thousands of men served in these various organizations. The Army Service Corps, for example, counted over 17,000 officers and non-commissioned soldiers in its organization. Even if these units were not combat troops, many of them, including the Army Service Corps, played important roles in all military actions. One hundred and four members of the CASC were killed, and 363 were wounded.
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To the Thunderer his Arms: The Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps. William F. Rannie, ed. Lincoln, ON: W.F. Rannie, 1984.
Warren, Arnold. Wait for the Waggon: The Story of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961.
Historian, Canadian War Museum
Desperate to find a solution to the deadlock of the trenches on the Western Front, the Germans turned to poison gas despite its banning at the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions. Tear gas had proven useless in several battlefield experiments in 1914 and early 1915. But when lethal chlorine gas was unleashed on April 22, 1915, its first victims, French and Algerian troops, were sent reeling in panic. A second gas cloud attack on April 24 against the Canadian Division was not so successful. Gagging and choking, the Canadians continued to fire into the cloud, effectively stopping the German advancing troops behind it. Nonetheless, the first two chlorine attacks had been stunning, and they forced Entente scientists to frantically prepare their own chemical retaliation. They did so while their propagandists proclaimed loudly the barbarity of the Hun, who had sunk to new levels in using chemicals to poison men.
While the Germans had initial success with gas cloud attacks on the Western Front in 1915 and continued success against the poorly equipped Russian troops in the east throughout the war, these gas clouds were never dependable. The chlorine was transported in metal canisters, opened and sent across no man’s land with the aid of a strong breeze. Too often, however, operations had to be postponed due to poor weather, leaving commanders and soldiers mistrusting chemical warfare.
The first British gas cloud attack occurred at Loos on September 25, 1915, and although it was effective in incapacitating German defenders, it was remembered primarily for having turned on British troops when the wind reversed, resulting in 2,000 casualties. Thus, while poison gas had initially been offered as a solution to the deadlock of the trenches, the rapid introduction of respirators and the unstable nature of the delivery system ensured that poison gas would not be a war-winning weapon.
Yet scientists continued to experiment with new and deadlier gases. With their advanced prewar chemical and dye industry, the Germans, under the leadership of future Noble Prize winner Fritz Haber, proved to be the leaders throughout the war. In December 1915, the Germans introduced phosgene gas, which was eight times more lethal than chlorine. Although the British had been forewarned and were thus able to equip their soldiers with proper respirators – a chemically treated bag that fit over the head and tucked into the battle jerkin – phosgene was another lethal addition to the battlefield. Invisible and nearly impossible to smell, phosgene (and later diphosgene) inhibited the transfer of water in the lungs. Victims could be gassed without even knowing it; within hours, a seemingly healthy man would begin to choke and vomit up fluid. It was a painful and grisly way to die.
During the 1916 Battle of Verdun, the French introduced chemical artillery shells filled with lethal gas and the Germans perfected their use. This increased reliability also meant that fireplans could include a combination of high explosive, shrapnel and gas bombardments. Poison gas supported a number of tactical missions: to harass soldiers, to strangle the supply of logistics and to blanket opposing artillery-men beneath a gas cloud, thereby forcing the wearing of respirators that inhibited the rate of fire.
To respond to these chemical advancements, respirators were continually improved, and by mid 1916, most armies had developed an effective gas mask for their troops. However, equipping terrified soldiers with a flimsy respirator did not end casualties or suppress the fear. Soldiers had to be taught how to get their respirators on quickly, how to identify gases, how to establish efficient warning systems, and how to fight while wearing them.
With respirators and better anti-gas discipline saving most soldiers from chemical attacks, the Germans again changed the nature of the gas war by introducing mustard gas in July 1917. Mustard gas burned the lungs like conventional chemical agents, but also the skin. Even low doses of the vapour were enough to cause suppurating blisters and temporary blindness. Here was a terror weapon that seemed to negate all that soldiers had been told up to this point in the war: with a respirator you would be safe.
Unlike chlorine and phosgene that dissipated within minutes or hours depending on the weather conditions, mustard gas remained active, lying dormant in the mud and water of the battlefield. Days or weeks later, a soldier passing through the area, especially after the sun had warmed the ground and released the still-potent vapour, could fall victim, going blind, suffering burns or developing hacking coughs and subsequent bronchial infections. This chemical plague was particularly insidious against soldiers as they huddled together for warmth in their dugouts.
By 1918, all armies were employing gas with greater frequency. The German March Offensive was unleashed behind a thunderous barrage of high explosives and chemicals. Employing their refined infiltration tactics of moving around areas of resistance, the German infantry pushed deep into Entente territory. In the process, gas bombardments, with heavy concentrations of mustard gas, were employed to protect vulnerable flanks. When the Entente armies responded with their own multi-army offensive in the last half of 1918, all of the operations relied heavily on poison gas to lower the frontsoldatens’ morale, sow confusion in the enemy’s rear areas and disrupt gunners with chemical counter-battery fire. The Germans, in turn, employed gas bombardments to slow the Entente advance and reduce the fighting efficiency of the attacking troops. If the war had extended into 1919, as many expected, poison gas would have been employed even more frequently, further rendering the Western Front a chemical wasteland.
Soldiers had to be trained to survive in the chemical environment of the Great War. For the poor Russian infantry, who received desultory instruction at best, they were gassed to death in the tens of thousands; for the brash, inexperienced Americans, a full one-fourth of all their battlefield casualties came from poison gas. Although it is notoriously difficult to gauge gas casualties, as they were often lumped in with other wounds, the German, French and British armies suffered approximately 200,000 gas casualties each, while Canada’s forces had 11,572 recorded cases. However, the death-rate was very low: about 3% in comparison to the 25% from more conventional weapons.
The steady trickle of gas-induced casualties aside, the wearing of a respirator – even under ideal conditions – was always debilitating. Respirators did not allow enough oxygen into the lungs so that men became exhausted from even minor exercise. Poison gas became an essential weapon against soldiers in a war that was based on a policy of attrition. Furthermore, poison gas was terrifying: men could at least understand the effects of bullets and shells, no matter how terrible they were, but a chemical agent that poisoned the very air that soldiers breathed, that blinded eyes or burned genitalia, and that damaged the lungs, was seen collectively as beyond the pale of civilized warfare.
Most soldiers did survive the scars and inhalations of poison gas. But the Great War soldier, wearing his respirator while going in for the attack or while huddled in his trench under a chemical deluge, well understood the terror of gas warfare.
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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.