Canadian Victory at Courcelette 3
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10 min 36 s
Topical Film Company
Walking wounded, stretcher cases and prisoners filter back to the front line dressing stations and are evacuated by ambulance or on foot. Canadian soldiers watch from a safe distance as the Germans counter-attack at the sugar factory. As they are led back the German prisoners are allowed to wash, Fritz indulges in an unfamiliar exercise, in a nearby pond. Other Germans are shown dead, some of the Huns who did not get out of their trench in time. The captured trenches at Courcelette are a shapeless mass. Inside a field hospital surgery is performed on serious cases. Canadian dead are buried in shrouds in a permanent military cemetery after the battle. Graves and a memorial to the dead of the Canadian forces in the Baffle of Vimy Ridge, Western Front, summer 1917. The memorial reads “To the Memory of the Officers, NCOs and Men of the 2nd Canadian Division and the l3th Infantry Brigade who Fell in the Capture of Vimy Ridge on April 9th 1917, and is followed by a scene of graves being tended in a military cemetery.
Pieces of History
The Horror of the Trenches
Historian and Author
Fraser found the front line trenches squalid. The dugouts, cut into the trench walls, “were small, damp and cold and overrun with rats.” Men slept in their clothes for the entire tour in the trenches, and sentries changed every two hours “so the chances are you get wakened up between the shifts….” Then there was a “stand-to…which means you have to hold yourself in readiness for eventualities, in other words you have to be wide awake with equipment on….” Add to this the cold and wet, the dirt and vermin, the constant enemy rifle and artillery fire, the patrols, and the possibility of major fighting, and the soldier’s life in the trenches was misery compounded by fear.
For almost four years, trench life was the Canadian infantrymen’s lot. Units took their turn in the line and fended off attacks or launched their own, almost always very costly. It was an unwavering routine of horror and filth, compounded by the ever-present fear of death or, perhaps even more terrible, of being trapped, unready, in a gas attack or of grievous, disfiguring wounds. No one could get accustomed to the trenches but, short of desertion or a “blighty”— an uncomplicated wound that led to some easy recovery time in a British military hospital—there was no escape. The Allies lived in perpetual mud, presumably because some generals believed that if the soldiers were too comfortable, they would not want to fight.
Most Canadian commanders, however, wanted to fight. If a sector was quiet, they tried to stir it up. The favoured tactic was the trench raid, a technique developed by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, a battalion initially attached to a British division. The PPCLI had invented trench raiding in February 1915, and their fellow Canadians soon raised it to an art form. Raids sought to establish dominance over no man’s land, keep enemy soldiers on edge, take prisoners, secure intelligence and do damage. Above all, raiding aimed to oblige the enemy to move more men to the front so a carefully planned artillery bombardment could inflict heavy casualties. Usually, a platoon or a company might be involved in a raid, though some could use a complete battalion. Raiders rehearsed their roles, carried wire-cutters, bombs and rifles and all worked together in a carefully orchestrated manner. Such raids could be useful.
But there was a price to pay for raids. The attackers usually suffered casualties, and by poking a stick into what had hitherto been a quiet sector, the Canadians stirred up the enemy, guaranteeing that heavy shelling would fall on their lines, as well as increasing sniper activity and more casualties. Those soldiers who preferred a “live and let live” policy at the front were not amused.
Still, raids seemed better than utter boredom. Life at the front featured brief stretches of intense activity followed by endless waiting or make-work projects devised by officers and sergeants. When troops went out of the line, it was to training courses, parades and “chickenshit”—polishing brass and painting rocks. When they were in the trenches, even in quiet sectors, there was a steady drain of casualties from enemy artillery and sniper fire. Between January and April 1916, a time in which the Canadian Corps was not engaged in any major actions, its divisions suffered more than 2700 casualties from all causes, including self-inflicted wounds. Still, most casualties occurred in attacks—10,000 at Vimy Ridge, almost 16,000 at Passchendaele, and, horrifyingly, when the troops finally left their trenches to engage the enemy in open warfare, 46,000 in the last hundred days of the war. The battles from August 8 to November 11, 1918 cost Canada’s army twenty percent of its casualties in the Great War.
Just surviving in the trenches was difficult enough, even without the presence of the enemy. Standing in mud and sleeping on a groundsheet or on the dirt were not good for one’s health. The cold and wet permeated boots and socks, causing trench foot. This disease was not fatal, but it incapacitated a soldier as much as a battle wound, and officers conducted daily foot inspections, whenever conditions permitted, to ensure their soldiers kept their feet in good condition.
Other diseases, usually lumped together as trench fever, sprang from poor drainage, human waste and the ever-present lice. Soldiers were prone to rheumatism from wearing wet clothes for long periods; others contracted tuberculosis, meningitis, influenza or a host of other ailments. The real terror for front-line troops, nonetheless, was of their trench being hit by artillery fire. Then, the trenches could be smashed and men buried under the mud of collapsed dugouts. They knew their comrades would dig them out—if they could.
The wounded, as these film clips amply demonstrate, received prompt, effective treatment. First aid came at the Regimental Aid Post set up in the support trenches. Stretcher bearers brought in those who could not walk, and a system of triage let the medical officer treat first those who might live. Then casualties began a rearward journey to an Advanced Dressing Station where morphine might be administered and then by train or ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station where surgeons operated. The final stage came when the wounded went to general hospitals in France or England, where further surgery might take place. There were specialized convalescent hospitals in England and, for those with terrible wounds, in Canada. The standard of care was impressive, and nine of ten wounded survived, a high figure considering the mud and septic filth in which soldiers lived and fought.
But always for the survivors and the new men, there were the trenches. A trench ideally was wide enough to allow two or three men to pass by and deep enough so that none need stoop to avoid falling prey to enemy snipers. Sometimes corrugated iron provided overhead shelter in dugouts or for revetments on the trench sides, essential to stop the walls from collapsing in the wet of Flanders. Firing steps, carved into the front of the trench, let men shoot at the enemy. Officers’ dugouts were frequently furnished with beds and desks and sometimes verged on the comfortable; unless they were lucky enough to take over a captured and well-built enemy position, the men’s dugouts were always crude and foul-smelling with the combination of body odour, tobacco, cooking smells, damp, and excrement creating a memorable reek.
To the front of the trench line were belts of barbed wire. Concertina wire, curling in rolls, was favoured, and every unit kept its protective wire in good shape, sending work parties out each night to ensure that the enemy had not cut paths through it. The day was full for the Canadian soldier, first because there was always work to be done, but primarily because the army instinctively believed that idleness was bad.
Soldiers wanted to live, but many lost their fear of death as they saw it all around them. One officer wrote his father to say that death “has no horrors for anyone here, at least for those who have been here a few weeks or more.” In the horror of the Great War, this was a widespread view. Men had no choice but to carry on.
Granatstein, J.L. Hell’s Corner: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Great War, 1914-1918. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2004.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War, 1914- 1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen, Dennys, 1989.
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
On the battlefield, stretcher bearers, who were selected from the infantry or detached from a Field Ambulance unit, determined if the soldier needed to be treated, required immediate evacuation, or a combination of the two. The same process was repeated at the Regimental Aid Post (which was part of an infantry battalion at the front), at the Advanced Dressing Station (a section of a Field Ambulance), the Main Dressing Station (another section of the Field Ambulance), the Casualty Clearing Station, and the various forms of hospital near the front or well behind it, in England or even Canada.
The need for triage was not limited to times when the Canadian Corps was fighting battles—far from it—for disease had caused more casualties than combat since time immemorial. Even after such developments as vaccination in the 18th century and the studies of germs in the 19th, the sick were still plentiful among Canadian soldiers. Many conditions still forced tens of thousands to seek treatment. Among them were influenza, with some 65,000 ill in 1918-19; gonorrhea with over 45,000 ill in the course of the war; tonsillitis and sore throat with about 20,000 ill; syphilis with approximately 18,000; trench fever (caused by a bacterium transmitted by fleas), though non fatal, struck 18,000; myalgia (muscle pain) made some 15,000 sick, as did intestinal disease.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), however, was free of the kinds of epidemic diseases that had caused such ravages in the Crimea, the Spanish-American War and South Africa.
Near the end of the conflict the medical corps did find itself in the midst of one of the great pandemics of human history, the influenza scourge of 1918–19. Killing millions, it can be compared to the plague of Justinian in the 6th century or the Black Death in the 14th. Though 30–50,000 Canadians would succumb to the disease, the great majority were on the home front and not members of the expeditionary force. According to official history, 3825 of those who went overseas died of disease, 776 of influenza.
The CEF still had a problem on its hands, as the illness “flooded the rest station and camps with sick” in the summer of 1918, and “The ailment was peculiar in that, while exhibiting the symptoms of influenza, it ran its course in a week or eight days. It spread rapidly and necessitated the promulgation of extensive and stringent precautionary orders to prevent its spread. All public places such as Unit Entertainments, YMCA Cinema Shows, Estaminets [small French cafés serving alcohol] &c were closed for a time. In the latter places it was permitted to serve drinks at tables outside the buildings.”1
Such illness was in addition to the medical challenges posed by the weapons of war and by the very ground being fought over. The conflict on the Western Front took place mainly on farmland that had been well-fertilized with manure, and its accompanying bacteria, for decades or centuries. The result, according to Canada's official medical historian of the conflict, was that nearly all wounds were infected. Sulpha drugs would not become available until the 1930s, and antibiotics would have to await another world war before coming into use, so infection was a serious challenge that could only be met by irrigating wounds with available chemicals and convalescence that could last months.
Another danger of wounds on the battlefield was shock due to blood loss, which could be fatal. The simple solution, first attempted in 1916, was to replace the patient’s blood with blood drawn from a donor; chemical preservatives and refrigeration allowed for the life-giving fluid to be stored for a period of time, and such blood was being transfused by the end of 1917. One practitioner was Norman Guiou, who recalled in April 1918:
We had our first opportunity to do several transfusions. The dressing station was set up in a Nissen hut, the stretchers were supported on trestles. There were a number of seriously wounded... One lad was brought in on a blood-soaked stretcher, with a shattered humerus - his upper arm swathed in copious blood-soaked dressings. A flicker of pulse was present. He was pale, "starey-eyed", and tossed about and pulled his wound tag off... We bled a donor about 750cc while the chaplain talked to him. If there is a dramatic procedure in medicine it is the blood transfusion. Color came into that lad's cheeks. He raised himself on his good elbow, drank tea, and ate some YMCA fancy biscuits, then was on to the casualty clearing station.2
One final challenge is worthy of mention here, that of psychological injury. According to medical historian Tom Brown, the condition was “the storm centre of military medicine” at that time. Symptoms could include uncontrollable weeping, trembling, paralysis, deafness and other manifestations without known physical causes. At first it was called shell shock, as it was thought that it resulted from the shock wave of an exploding shell damaging the brain, but by the middle part of the war the condition was thought to be purely psychological in nature. The patient could be diagnosed as suffering from hysteria or neurasthenia and could receive shock
treatment, talk therapy or simple rest in a hospital out of earshot of artillery. Most of the Canadian soldiers who suffered from such injuries were sent to No 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital in France, which specialized in such care.
Hospitals serve as examples of just how complex the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers had become by the First World War. Institutions specialized in ear and eye conditions, rheumatism, psychological injury, tuberculosis, orthopaedics, and venereal disease, in addition to general, stationary and convalescent hospitals. In an industrialized war, hospitals could become battlefield targets. Many nursing sisters and patients were killed when a hospital was bombed in 1918. They were among the 504 medical practitioners killed on the battlefield serving with Canadian units; another 127 succumbed to disease.
1Library and Archives Canada, RG 9, III, v.4715, 107-20, Passchendaele to Gouy-en-Artois, June 1918
2Norman Guiou, Transfusion: A Canadian Surgeon's Story in War and Peace (Yarmouth, 1985), 34-35.
McPhail, Andrew. Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-19: The Medical Services. Ottawa: Department of National Defense, 1925.
Nicholson, G.W.L. Canada's Nursing Sisters. Toronto: S. Stevens, 1975.
---. Seventy Years of Service: A History of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977.
Rawling, Bill. Death their Enemy : Canadian Medical Practitioners and War. Ottawa: B. Rawling, 2001.
Engineers on the Western Front
Historian, Department of National Defence
The Western Front made huge demands in matériel, lumber being an excellent example. Wood was needed to revet trenches, support the roofs of dugouts, for plank or corduroy roads, and as sleepers for tramways and railways. These tasks became the responsibility of the military engineers, specialized forestry units being formed for the purpose. Lumberjacks, graders and other skilled men from within the lumber industry were recruited. They cut timber and ran their own sawmills to provide a finished product.
The first forestry companies in the war were formed in 1915, in France. More units were created in England to harvest the island’s local resources. All of these were gathered into a corps in 1916 that eventually comprised 43 companies, and was of such a scale as to require its own hospital system. The men received more than the normal food rations, considering the fact that they were engaged in continuous hard labour.
Their work, in Britain and France, saved huge amounts in shipping costs, not to mention freeing up lumber supplies for such industrial endeavours as shoring up mines and building trawlers and other vessels. Nor did the forestry corps limit its work to cutting and preparing wood. Many of its units supported the Royal Air Force by clearing, draining, levelling and grading sites for aerodromes. By the time of the Armistice 11,750 men worked within its ranks, with another 6000 attached in various capacities.
Closer to the fighting there was a need for heavy-capacity means of transport to get the prodigious amounts of ammunition, food, water and other necessary matériel to the front line. One solution to such an intimidating logistical problem was the construction of tramways with specialized labour, with other specialists maintaining and operating the tractors and rolling stock. The result was a system of transport similar to that of a large North American city run by the Canadian Railway Troops. The troops worked on the Western Front and also in Palestine, the 1st Bridging Company serving there in the last part of the war. The system was, in fact, a merging of two networks, tramways closer to the front operating with gasoline-powered tractors while light railways a little farther behind used steam power, the whole being linked to France’s broad gauge system, which had been built in the decades before the conflict.
In the end, the war became too mobile for railway troops to keep up, and when an Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, the railways were some 30 kilometres behind the forward troops, in spite of the work of 25,000 railway construction engineers, two-thirds of them Canadian. Still, they had served their purpose in the almost four years of near-static warfare that characterized the Western Front from late 1914 to the summer of 1918.
It became clear in the early months of the First World War that operations above ground were distinctly hazardous, even suicidal, hence the trenches and dugouts in which soldiers took shelter. An obvious course was to begin operating underground, and within the Canadian Corps three specialized tunnelling companies were formed. Recruited in the main among miners and clay-kickers (the latter dug smaller tunnels to run gas and water mains under city streets), they began their work in 1915, and their role was multi-faceted. First, they used the galleries they excavated under enemy lines to listen in on his own work, the aim being to give fair warning if he began to threaten Canadian lines underground. Second, they might pack the galleries with explosives to destroy enemy defences; generally, however, such operations proved disappointing as German forces usually occupied the crater thus created before Canadian or British troops could reach it.
Tunnelling was particularly hazardous. Working underground can release toxic gas capable of disabling or killing, or one could find oneself tunnelling into an enemy gallery, leading to vicious little skirmishes fought with knives and digging tools. When fighting shifted from a mutual siege to more open warfare in 1918, tunnellers applied their skills to other work, disarming booby traps in dugouts and other underground facilities as the Allies advanced towards the German border. In fact, the only Canadian military engineer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Captain C.N. Mitchell, a tunneller who in 1918 removed explosives from a bridge while under attack.
The most versatile of the engineers operated on the front line. Originally organized in field companies of a hundred men or so, in 1918 they were reorganized into larger battalions and even brigades. Regardless of how they were administered, their tasks were widely varied. Just behind the front line they were responsible for building and maintaining roads, as well as providing water for humans and animals, the latter task requiring some of them at least to possess knowledge of how to locate and test the precious liquid. To give just two examples, part of the preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge included laying over 40 miles (65 km) of four-inch (10 cm) pipe, with five pumping stations and a total storage capacity of 560,000 gallons. Following the successful advance at Amiens in August 1918, one of the deepest penetrations achieved on the Western Front, the Canadian Corps and its allies found itself in the midst of a plain scorched dry by the summer sun, but engineers needed only two days to locate sufficient water to keep forward troops satiated.
In the front lines proper, sappers, as they were called, dug trenches, or oversaw this work done by the infantry work parties, and prepared defensive positions with the copious use of barbed wire. On occasion, as for a trench raid, for example, they were called upon to destroy such wire, using long cylinders filled with explosive called ammonal tubes or bangalore torpedoes. When that front line advanced, as in 1918, bridging became a most crucial sapper task, as forward movement could not be maintained without ammunition, water, food, and the other necessities of making war, all of which needed to be transported forward on roads or railways, both of which needed bridges to get across rivers and other, similar obstacles. Small structures made of cork sufficed to get the infantry across, while prefabricated materials called Inglis bridges carried heavier loads.
At the time of the Armistice what could be called field engineers (as opposed to railway and forestry troops) could count 14,285 men within their ranks, with responsibilities only somewhat less diverse than their numbers.
Kerry, A.J. and W.A. McDill. The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume I (1749-1939). Ottawa : Military Engineers Association of Canada, 1962.
Chaplin-Thomas, Charmion, Vic Johnson and Bill Rawling. Ubique! : Canadian Military Engineers : A Century of Service. Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing House, 2003.
The 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion
In April 1915, the battalion was used to reinforce British and Canadian lines in Ypres sector, the site of the first use of poison gas during the war. For the remainder of 1915 and 1916, the battalion fought in many locations, including Festubert, Messines, Bailleul, Givenchy, Flanders and the Somme. On April 9, the battalion went over the top in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In 1918, the 13th participated in battles around Amiens, Chaulnes, and Roye. In August 1918, they attacked the German forces outside Hangar Wood and two soldiers won Victoria Crosses for their courageous actions, Private J. B. Croak and Corporal H. J. Good. Croak attacked and captured a machine-gun nest single-handedly and despite being badly wounded, proceeded with the aid of other members of his unit, to attack another German strongpoint, silence three machine guns, bayoneting or capturing their crews. Croak was wounded again and died just after the last resistance was overcome. Good’s act of courage involved the destruction of three machine guns and their crews, and with the aid of three soldiers, successfully assaulted and captured a German battery of 5.9 inch guns and their entire crews. During the course of the war, the 13th suffered 5,881 casualties, of which 1,105 were fatalities.
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.
Wartime Letter from Captain Bellenden S. Hutcheson
This letter is transcribed from a rough draft found in an old trunk in 1989. Probable restorations of illegible characters are enclosed in brackets.
Dear Captain Gwynn;
Replying to your first series of questions, concerning the 76th Brigade of Royal Field Artillery:
The 76th Brigade was supporting the Canadian Infantry which was holding the line in front of Vimy. The brigade consisted of four batteries of 18 pounders (field guns) and one battery of 4.5 inch Howitzers. The cover of the guns, while poor was, I suppose, as good as that usually occupied by field guns in position only a few days, and the quarters of the gun that crews were in cellars near the guns, but the shells thrown at us were eight inch, and armour piercing. At least the artillerymen said that they were armour piercing, and after viewing the effects of their explosions I was in no position to argue with them. After several dugouts had been blown in, some of the uninjured personnel set to work digging out the injured while the bombardment was in progress and it was this rescue work which was carried out under scanty or no cover.
The bombardment lasted from 1 p.m. until 10 p.m., with a few periods of lull, and was apparently counter battery work on the part of the enemy. Our guns were not in action.
As you surmise, the gun crews had taken refuge in cellars, not anticipating a bombardment of such intensity with heavy stuff. Gas shells and high explosions were intermingled. My work consisted in dressing the wounded, checking hemorrhage, giving a hypo of morphine when necessary and seeing that the injured were evacuated to the rear. The gas used that day was the deadly sweetish smelling phosgene. It was my first experience with gas in warfare and I wore a mask part of the time and instructed the men to do so whenever there was a dangerous concentration. You ask about my own reaction. It was of course very disconcerting to endeavor to dress wounded while shells were showering debris about, and the possibility of being in the next few seconds in the same plight as the terribly wounded men I was dressing, occurred to me every now and then. The whole thing seemed rather unreal, particularly when it occurred to me, busy as I was, that the killing was being done deliberately and systematically. I felt particularly sorry for the young artillery men, (and many of them were about 19) who were being subjected to the ordeal. I remember one man who had a ghastly wound which would obviously prove fatal in a short time, pleading with me, amidst the turmoil of explosions, to shoot him. Every soldier who has seen action since knows that it requires the highest type of stamina and bravery for troops to lie in a trench and take a heavy shelling without being demoralized and panic stricken, therefore I shall always remember the orderly rescue work carried on by the officers and men of the artillery in the face of the concentrated shelling that occurred that afternoon.
You ask about the work of the artillery officers. They very bravely and ably directed the men in the work of rescue and tried to keep gun crews intact as nearly as possible, in order to fire at any time, should orders to do so, be received.
During the trench tours in front of Lens, I usually had a deserted gun pit or cellar communicating with the support trench as a dressing station. The actions about the G[um] Crossin and La Coulotte, though attended by heavy casualties, were more in the nature of raids or diverting attacks, than holding attacks, therefore, I did not accompany the attacking parties. During a trench tour I stuck close to the dressing station if the enemy was active, in order to look after the injured, if things were quiet I visited the different headquarters of the platoons and companies holding the line. Going into the line was sometimes the most disagreeable part of the tour, because of the darkness, danger of getting lost, the mud, and the shelling of the roads just behind the line. The Passchendaele Campaign was carried on in a sea of mud. I have never seen a drearier sight than the salient in front of Ypres -- churned up mud with mucky shell holes and never a tree as far as the eye could reach. It was necessary to march single file on duck walk because of the mud for a distance of five or six miles when going in for a tour. We were machine-gunned and bombed from the air and subjected to a terrific shelling on the way in and nothing like a real trench system was possible, the line being held by a series of posts in shell holes. My dressing station was located beside a concrete "pill box", an old German strong point. Captain Dunlap, medical officer of the 102nd Battalion, who was later killed, shared the dressing station with me. I had never met Dunlap before and when he appeared at our rendezvous, with four days growth of black beard on his face, a torn tunic and string like remnants of puttees, he looked so much like a stage hobo that I burst out laughing in his face. He was a fine chap and we became good friends.
The stretcher bearers had a very difficult time. The whole area was subjected to continuous shelling by the enemy. The pill box afforded shelter on one side for the dressing station and sheets of camouflage and canvas formed the roof. When no wounded were coming in Dunlap and I would crawl into the pill box for greater security. We kept no enlisted personnel with us as there was literally no place where they could stand without sinking to their knees in mud and the number of wounded men was not so great but that the two medical officers could do all that could be done. When we were relieved by the medical officer of the English unit that took over; Dunlap and I, with Captain A.A. Gray, adjutant of the 75th, started back towards Ypres, over the duckwalk. The different platoons of our battalion had trickled back as they were relieved. The two way duckwalk was, as usual, shelled heavily. We were passing the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders coming when a shell got a direct hit among them about 200 feet ahead of us. Their dead and wounded, lying in grotesque attitudes, were being cleared away by their comrades with feverish haste as we dog trotted past the smoking shell hole. We did not stop because their own medical unit was on the job, they had plenty of help and each unit was supposed to take care of its own casualties.
Regarding the citation for the Military Cross: "The open ground" mentioned consisted of the wheat fields and other flat unwooded ground through which we passed between Beaucourt and Le Quesnel on the immediate left of the Amiens-Roye road. As we advanced we were frequently under direct observation by enemy balloons directing artillery fire. When one shell landed half a dozen others were pretty sure to land in a very short time within a radius of 50 yards or so of where the first one did, consequently when the first few caused casualties they had to be attended in a shower of debris caused by the explosion of succeeding shells.
It was necessary to pass through the streets of Le Quesnel several times during the barrage in order to find the wounded who were scattered throughout the town. I supervised their collection, during lulls in the shelling in a cellar I used as a dressing station. The platoons furnished stretcher bearers. My medical section, consisting of a sergeant, corporal and two privates were with me part of the time, or were in the dressing station when I was out, or they themselves were engaged in looking for wounded.
Excerpted and reproduced with permission from Veterans Affairs Canada website http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/