Canadian Journalists Visit France 5
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05 min 41 s
Visit of a delegation of prominent Canadian newsmen to England and France as guests of the Ministry of Information, July 1918.
A party in the garden of Lord Beaverbrook’s home at Cherkley Court on 14 July for the journalists and some prominent Canadian politicians. Shown in portrait shot are Sir Edward Kemp, the Canadian Minister for Overseas Forces, T C Norris, the Premier of Manitoba, George Stewart, the Premier of Alberta, and W W Martin, the Premier of Saskatchewan. The journalists are shown around the Canadian Training Division at its training grounds at Bramshot and Witley, Aldershot Command. Brigadier-General H F McDonald takes the salute as one battalion marches past. In France General Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corps commander, shows the men over the old Vimy Ridge battlefield. The journalists pose with Field Marshal Haig on the stops of his Château de Beaurepaire at Montreuil on 22 July. At Hangest on 27 July they watch the Canadian Cavalry Brigade pass by in company with its commander, Brigadier General R W Paterson. They look over Hazebruck and then go on to Ypres in a light railway train. Film taken from the train shows the remains of the Cloth Hall, which they investigate. At Verdun they are escorted by French Army guides to a high point for an overall view and are then taken into one of the deep dug-outs. They leave for England from Boulogne in a camouflaged passenger ship on 29 July.
Pieces of History
Canada's Mounted Troops
Major Michael R. McNorgan
Instructor, Royal Military College, Kingston
At the beginning of the First World War, horsed cavalry was still an army’s principal mobile arm. However, after the onset of static trench warfare on the Western Front in late 1914 – with thick barbed wire barriers and large numbers of machine guns protecting defensive works – the battlefield utility of cavalry was greatly diminished. Cavalry was nonetheless retained in large numbers because of the perennial hope of breaking through the enemy’s line and rolling up his defences from the rear. Thus, for virtually every major offensive operation during the war, cavalry divisions were kept in reserve.
Canada contributed two distinct groups of cavalry during the War – the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and an independent cavalry regiment known as the Canadian Light Horse.
Canadian Cavalry Brigade
This Canadian Cavalry Brigade was formed in England in the autumn of 1915, consisting of permanent force units, the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Lord Strathcona’s Horse, along with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. In early 1916, The Fort Garry Horse, a militia regiment from Winnipeg, was added, along with a Cavalry Brigade Machine Gun Squadron equipped with Vickers machine guns. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade served as part of a British cavalry division for the remainder of the war. Its first mounted action was at the Somme in the summer of 1916. When cavalry units were not needed as reserves for an offensive operation, they were often employed dismounted to occupy quiet sectors of the front.
The Brigade again saw mounted action in March 1917 when tasked to pursue an unexpected German withdrawal to a new defensive position called the Hindenburg Line. During this pursuit, Lieutenant Harvey of Lord Strathcona’s Horse earned the brigade’s first Victoria Cross for valour during the liberation of a French village. By the time of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 – best known as the first major tank offensive of the war – the Canadian cavalry was judged to be among the best brigades in the British Cavalry Corps, and it was tasked to serve in the lead of a large cavalry exploitation force. During this operation, a single Canadian squadron was the only cavalry to penetrate German lines, and Lieutenant Strachan of The Fort Garry Horse was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
The Brigade served with great distinction during the German’s March 1918 offensive toward Amiens, riding from place to place assisting in slowing the relentless enemy advance. Its final action in this operation took place at Moreuil Wood, where Lieutenant Flowerdew of Lord Strathcona’s Horse won a posthumous Victoria Cross for leading a gallant cavalry charge against German machine guns. After the war, Marshal Foch, the Allied supreme commander, credited the Canadians with halting the German offensive at Moreuil and preventing the separation of the French and British armies. Later in that final year of the war, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was in action during the great Canadian Corps victory over the Germans at Amiens in August, and it played an important part in following up the German retreat in the last two months of the war.
Canadian Light Horse
Until May 1916, three of the four infantry divisions of the Canadian Corps maintained their own independent cavalry squadron of some 150 all ranks . These squadrons – from the 19th Alberta Dragoons, the 1st Hussars and the 16th Light Horse – were then amalgamated into an ad hoc regiment that reported directly to Canadian Corps Headquarters. In early 1917, this unit was named the Canadian Light Horse.
The Canadian Light Horse first saw action as a mounted unit in the consolidation of the ground captured in the attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The CLH played a major role in the fighting at Iwuy on October 10, 1918, where the last ever swords-drawn charge by Canadian cavalry took place. During the pursuit of the Germans in the final month of the war, CLH squadrons were always well out in front as a scouting force, ensuring that the Canadian divisions would not be surprised by German lay-back patrols. When the war ended for the Canadians in Mons Belgium on November 11, 1918, the Canadian Light Horse was already well beyond the city.
Modern armoured fighting vehicles – tanks and armoured cars – owe their development in part to the stalemate created on the Western Front by the deadly combination of machine guns and thick belts of barbed wire protecting trench lines, along with massive artillery bombardments that could be brought down with great accuracy on an attacking force. The problem of how an attacking force could be strengthened to overcome well-defended trenches had been studied by British scientists since late 1914. They came up with the idea of a ‘land ship’ – a tracked vehicle protected by armour plate, large enough that it could carry guns or machine guns, drive over belts of barbed wire, and crossover trenches. This highly secret vehicle was given the code name ‘tank’.
Tanks were first introduced in limited numbers during the battle of the Somme in mid-September 1916, and the Canadian Corps was given seven (these models were called the Mark I) for its attack on the village of Courcellette. But these early versions were mechanical nightmares; almost all broke down before they got anywhere close to the German lines. Still, scientists kept improving their tank designs. Finally, in November 1917, tanks were used in large numbers in a successful offensive at Cambrai: the era of mechanized warfare had been born. Tanks then played major roles in the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in September, and in the pursuit of the retreating Germans in October and November 1918.
Early in 1918 many thought the war might well last into 1919, and the Canadian Army agreed to raise tank units. The 1st Canadian Tank Battalion was recruited from university students, and in June 1918 it was sent to England to begin training at the British Tank School. Despite the general aversion to volunteering at this stage in the war, a 2nd Battalion was also quickly raised. The 1st Tank Battalion had just completed its training and was preparing to leave for the front when the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918. Thus, while no Canadian tank unit saw action in the war, many Canadians did serve in British tank battalions, and in a number of instances displayed their nationalism by painting maple leafs prominently on their vehicles.
THE MOTOR MACHINE GUN BRIGADE
In 1914, Canada created the world’s first armoured unit. The driving force behind this achievement was Raymond Brutinel, a wealthy engineer originally from France, who had the idea that lightly armoured vehicles designed to carry machine guns would be especially useful. He offered to raise the funds for the vehicles, a suggestion which was readily accepted by the government. Brutinel designed the vehicles, had them built, purchased the machine guns, and recruited the soldiers, all within two months. His new unit was given the name ‘Automobile Machine Gun Brigade No. 1’. In the next few months three other mobile machine gun units were raised, all paid for by private subscription – the Eaton Battery, the Borden Battery and the Yukon Battery. All four units found their way to France where, in 1915, they were amalgamated under Brutinel’s command as the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade.
Brutinel’s Motors came into their own in the last year of the war, when the stalemate of trench warfare had been broken. This highly mobile force played an especially important role in stemming the onslaught of the Germans’ March 1918 offensive, and a second similar brigade was formed. The Motors were a valuable part of a composite formation of cavalry, armoured cars and cyclists, termed ‘The Independent Force’, during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. Between September and November this force led the Canadian Corps from one victory to another during the pursuit to Valenciennes and finally to Mons on November 11, when the war ended.
At the beginning of the war, each Canadian division had its own company of cyclists – troops equipped with sturdy bicycles whose tasks included field security and aspects of military intelligence. In the static conditions on the Western Front, they were not very useful, so they tended to be used as guards or labourers. In May 1916 the four companies were amalgamated as The Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion. In 1918, the battalion was included in Brigadier-General Brutinel’s ‘Independent Force’, and there they served valiantly at Amiens and in the Pursuit to Mons as a form of mounted infantry – riding to the scene of action, dismounting and then fighting as infantry.
Ellis, W.D., ed. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War 1914-1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Lynch, Alex. Dad, the Motors and the Fifth Army Show: The German Offensive, March 1918. Kingston, ON: Lawrence Publications, 1978.
---. The Glory of Their Times : 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, March 1918. Kingston, ON: Lawrence Publications, 2001.
Marteinson, John and Michael R. McNorgan. The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000.
Mitchell, G.D., Brian Reid and W. Simcock. RCHA - Right of the Line : An Anecdotal History of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery from 1871. Ottawa: RCHA History Committee, 1986.
Wallace, J.F. Dragons of Steel: Canadian Armour in Two World Wars. Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing, 1995.
Williams, S.H. Stand to Your Horses : Through the First World War, 1914-1918 with the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians). Winnipeg: Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) Regimental Society, 1999 (1961).
Some General Comments on Great War-era Films
Major Michael R. McNorgan
Instructor, Royal Military College, Kingston
The first feature of a Great War-era movie to strike the modern viewer is the jerkiness of people's movements, which stems from the low number of frames per second of the film of that time. The second feature is the fact that the camera is usually stationary while activities take place around it. Although the camera can pan across a scene, it does not itself move. Connected to this is a lack of changes in focus. If action is taking place in the foreground, for example, the camera stays there; if in the middle ground, it stays there and so on.
All of these features are a product of the technology of the time. The camera, along with its tripod and film stock, weighed over 44 kg. It was not easily moved about or easy to hide from view. In one extended scene depicting a front line bombardment, the sandbags used by the cameraman to help camouflage his equipment can be seen in the bottom of the frame. To change focus from close-up to medium distance to far distance required a change of lens, a procedure that took time and, of course, interrupted the filming process.
The British first employed cameras on the battlefield in the spring of 1916. Once in the field, cameramen found that they needed clear daylight to get the best shots. When they did film on cloudy days, they tried to compensate for the lack of light by leaving the film in the developer for longer periods, but the films usually came out very dark in tone and difficult to see. Filming at night was impossible.
For all the above reasons, most filming took place behind the lines. There are some, very rare, shots taken in the frontline trenches, the most famous of which are the scenes of soldiers 'going over the bags' on July 1, 1916, during the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Although considered by many experts to be genuine, this film has attracted controversy with some informed commentators maintaining that it was actually shot behind the lines.
Another famous frontline shot (there being no controversy about its authenticity) is the explosion of the huge mine in front of the village of Beaumont-Hamel, also on July 1, 1916. The explosion of this mine marked the beginning of the action in which the Newfoundland Regiment was all but wiped out, with 710 casualties in a unit of 800 men.
As well as technical difficulties, cameramen also had to deal with official propaganda guidelines. Scenes of badly wounded or dead British or Allied soldiers were not to be shown. Fraternization between British and German troops was not to be shown. German prisoners should only be depicted in agricultural work. Chinese labourers, who were employed by the British on the Western Front in large numbers, should not be shown in work that might appear to their countrymen as military. It is remarkable how often these strictures were ignored; nevertheless, such scenes are fairly rare.
The cameramen too had an agenda. They wanted their work to be accepted by the general public as legitimate depictions of the war. During the South African War (1899-1902) faked war scenes shown in public cinemas had caused something of a scandal and the credibility of the filmmakers had suffered. Therefore, cameramen were not open to suggestions that war scenes be faked. The scenes of German prisoners of war loading stretcher cases onto a light railway are a case in point. We are seeing Allied wounded, albeit the wounds are covered and patients are ambulatory, and we are seeing prisoners used in work that is definitely not agricultural. The Canadians used a light rail system at Vimy Ridge to bring up supplies and evacuate casualties, and these scenes, which are definitely of Canadians (the divisional shoulder badges are visible), are probably taken at the Vimy rail line.
As time progressed, the cameramen gained experience in this novel business of wartime filming, and their product grew in quality and sophistication.
Helmets and other headgear
The wearing of steel helmets generally implies the nearness to the front lines of the scene being shown. The British steel helmet was introduced in the summer of 1916. It was uncomfortable to wear, because it was heavy and its solid rubber grommets would press into the skull. Furthermore, the lack of ventilation caused sweat to flow freely into the wearer's eyes, particularly during the summer. Nevertheless, it drastically reduced the number of head injuries and its use was not difficult to impose on frontline troops; but whenever possible troops would replace it with the soft peaked field cap. Thus, if a scene shows everyone in steel helmets, we are likely close to the front. If there is a mixture of the two types of headgear, then we are back of the lines, and if everyone is wearing field caps, we are definitely in a rear area. Soldiers did remove their headgear during strenuous work in the rear areas, but they were seldom depicted bareheaded: it was considered unsoldierly for an officer or man to be without a cap or helmet - for one thing, they could not salute without headgear.
Mounted troops (cavalry, horse artillery, cyclists) can be differentiated from dismounted ones (infantry, field artillery) by their wear of the cross-belt. This was a leather belt filled with .303-service ammunition that was worn by the men—but not by officers—over their right shoulder. Each clip of five rounds was in a separate pouch with a snap-down cover over it. Any man with a mounted role was issued with this particular item.
Officers can generally be differentiated from the men by their Sam Browne belts. These were leather belts worn around the waist with a cross strap worn over the right shoulder. Mounted officers usually wore high boots rather than puttees. (Puttees are a long cloth strip wore wrapped around the lower leg.) The fact that officers dressed differently made their identification easier in the field. This cut both ways, however, for the enemy could also more easily identify the officers and make them their priority targets. Some officers, primarily in infantry units, took to wearing the same uniforms as their men and to carrying rifles, instead of the officers' more usual revolver, when in action. Cavalry and artillery officers did not have this problem since one mounted man looked much like another when viewed from the enemy's perspective.
In front line units, a sleeveless leather jerkin was issued for winter, and many scenes depict these. Less commonly seen but also present are cap badges painted onto the steel helmets. Many units adopted this idea but it was not universally popular since, unless a cloth sacking or daub of mud covered it, it made the wearer more visible to the enemy, giving the enemy sharpshooter a target.
Several sequences depict tumpliners. These were soldiers from the front line units sent to the rear area to pick up rations, ammunition and trench stores for delivery to their unit, which normally took place at night. The boxes of supplies were carried by a tumpline, which was strong cloth slung from the carrier’s forehead, the load being balanced on his back. This left the bearers’ arms free to feel his way in the dark. This method of carriage was most commonly used by the Canadians and was a legacy of the early fur traders who learned this method of transport from the native Indians.
Journalists and the War
Student at HEC, Montreal
The military soon understood that while the mass communication methods that had come into use in the 19th century made it possible to inform and mobilize entire populations, they also gave rise to new risks. Censorship became a fundamental component of military strategy very early in the war, with two specific objectives: keep the enemy wrapped in a fog of ignorance and protect the morale of the nation in order to promote the war effort. No one was free to say or write whatever they wanted, as Canadian journalists soon discovered after hostilities broke out in August 1914.
Although the press’s primary objective when war was declared was to keep readers informed about developments on the battlefield, it proved to be an extremely difficult task. The British government banned journalists from the front until 1915. Even afterwards, the situation did not improve much. Military information was supplied by an “official eyewitness,” appointed by the Canadian government, whose dispatches from London were so biased that no one took them seriously. Finally, in March 1917, in response to increasing complaints from journalists, the Canadian Press Association sent a real war correspondent, T. S. Lyon, editor of the Toronto Globe, to the front.
With a shortage of Canadian war correspondents during the Great War, journalists had to get their combat news from telegrams sent by their European colleagues. All news dispatches were carefully monitored, however: information and photographs that managed to get past the censors assigned to each group of correspondents were scrutinized and altered by the French and British censors prior to transmission across the Atlantic.
The tentacles of censorship did not stop there, however. One of the Government of Canada’s first military initiatives was to impose censorship of the press under the War Measures Act. Yet this statute was not sufficient to stem the flow of information that might be harmful to national security. With war being a very lucrative subject for newspapers, and with censorship being voluntary, editors sometimes gave in to the temptation to boost sales by revealing risky information. The highest value was attached to any information that was supposed to be kept secret under the censorship rules: movements of troops or goods within Canada, departures of contingents for the front, locations of military industries, technical specifications of arsenals, espionage rumours and casualty lists.
In June 1915, in an effort to put an end to these leaks, the federal government established a censorship board and named Lt.-Colonel Ernest J. Chambers chief press censor. With over 30 years’ experience in journalism, on top of a career in the military, Chambers enjoyed the respect of both the government and journalists. Under his surveillance, editors had to make sure that any information that might aid the enemy, endanger soldiers or discourage the war effort went into the waste basket. The definition was very broad. Besides details on military operations, it also blocked most information providing a realistic portrayal of the war. As Chambers saw it, Canadians might be shocked and demoralized by the horrors of the war. As a result, journalists were forced to use euphemistic language: a defeat became a reversal, a retreat a strategic withdrawal, a slight advance a tremendous victory. Soldiers’ letters were censored, too. Only humorous and optimistic allusions to the war were allowed to be published in Canadian newspapers.
Most journalists deplored the situation. As some of them, including those at the Toronto World, saw it, preventing the publication of genuine news served no useful purpose, and in fact, had a negative impact on recruitment. Indeed, according to the daily, publishing the truth about the war would have served to underline the urgency of the situation on the front to the Canadian public and to encourage patriotic young men to join up. The image that was presented was one of a war effort that was going well enough and not really in need of new recruits. Another criticism levelled at censorship was that it protected the government from the scrutiny of public opinion. The Edmonton Bulletin drew its readers’ attention to the fact that the censors had kept Canadians in the dark about the defects of the Ross rifle for almost two years. Many newspapers argued that if accurate information about the weapon’s shortcomings had been known, the public outcry would have forced the military to switch to a better rifle and could well have prevented many deaths on the battlefield.
From 1917 on, freedom of the press came under even greater threat. Reflecting public opinion, newspapers became increasingly critical of the government’s war policies and of the socio-economic conditions in Canada: national registration, rationing, increase in the cost of living, poor treatment of civilians by the military authorities, and conscription. Dissent was most vocal in Quebec. Newspapers — liberal, nationalist and Catholic — refused to back down in their opposition to conscription or any other measure deemed excessive. Not wanting to allow criticism of this sort to be disseminated, the government passed a new, more restrictive censorship act, specifically aimed at banning the publication of views hostile to the government. While mere threats of banning, imprisonment and fines were not enough to convince French-Canadian journalists to cease their attacks, the shutting down of the liberal newspapers Le Canada and Le Bulletin and of the ultra-Catholic La Croix, along with the censorship of the war news column of the weekly L’Action catholique in the spring of 1918, forced them to submit.
In many respects, censorship in Canada during the First World War was more severe than in other Allied countries. From the time hostilities broke out until censorship of the news was officially lifted on April 30, 1919, 253 publications were banned in Canada. Of this number, 164 were published in a language other than English or French. Journalists knew what was at stake. Yet while they resisted any efforts to set limits on their freedom of expression, they were still willing to aid the war effort.
In a way, journalists became informers, supplying the censors with all kinds of information useful to the authorities. At the same time, newspapers were turned into instruments of propaganda. In Quebec, for instance, La Presse and La Patrie played an active role in raising the Canadian 22nd Battalion. Newspapers also provided free space to the government for its advertising campaigns and published articles encouraging young men to enlist.
Throughout the war, Canadian journalists were torn between, on the one hand, not wanting to put the lives of young soldiers at risk or hinder “the successful prosecution of the war” and, on the other, not wanting to submit to the censorship imposed allegedly to protect the nation’s morale and, indirectly, the government in power in Ottawa. An integral part of the war machine, but also a tool of political power, censorship rocked the foundations of Canadian journalism for over four years.
Chambers, Ernest J. “Governing Principles of Censorship in Canada.” The Printer and Publisher (October 1915) : 39-42.
—, « Rapport sur le service de la censure de la presse canadienne – Première Guerre mondiale », présenté dans Le Canada français et les conflits contemporains. [Actes du colloque tenu à l’Université du Québec à Montréal, le 27 août 1995], Claude Beauregard, Robert Comeau et Jean-Pierre Gagnon, dirs., Cahiers d’histoire politique 2 (hiver 1996) : 185-288.
Comeau, Paul-André, dir., La démocratie en veilleuse, Montréal, Québec-Amérique, 1995.
Coutard, Jérôme, Des valeurs en guerre. Presse, propagande et culture de guerre au Québec. 1914-1918, [thèse de doctorat (histoire), Université Laval], 1999.
Desmond, Robert William. Windows on the World: The Information Process in a Changing Society : 1900-1920. Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, 1980.
Gagnon, Jean-Pierre, « Le rôle de la Presse dans la formation du 22e bataillon canadien-français », dans Conflits contemporains et médias, Claude Beauregard et Catherine Saouter, dirs.,Montréal, XYZ éditeur, 1997 : 55-59.
Kerr, George D. “Canadian Press Censorship in World War I.” Journalism Quarterly 59, 2 (1982): 235-239.
Keshen, Jeffrey A. “All the News that Was Fit to Print: Ernest J. Chambers and Information Control in Canada, 1914-19.” Canadian Historical Review 73, 3 (1992): 315-343.
—. Propaganda and Censorship During Canada’s Great War. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1996.
Kesterton, W. H. A History of Journalism in Canada. Ottawa: McClelland and Stewart, 1984.
Knightley, Philip. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam. London: Andre Deutsch, 1975.
Levert, Myriam, La censure de la presse d’expression française du Québec durant la Première Guerre mondiale, [mémoire de maîtrise (histoire), Université du Québec à Montréal], 2001.
—, « Le Québec sous le règne d’Anastasie: l’expérience censoriale durant la Première Guerre mondiale », Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 57, 3 (hiver 2004): 333-364.
Levine, Allan. Scrum Wars. The Prime Ministers and the Media. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993.
Rutherford, Paul. “The People’s Press: The Emergence of the New Journalism in Canada, 1869-99.” The Canadian Historical Review 56, 2 (June 1975): 169-191.
Salmon, Lucy Maynard. The Newspaper and Authority. New York: Oxford University Press, 1923.
Smith, David Edward. “Emergency Government in Canada.” Canadian Historical Review L (December, 1969): 429-448.
Vance, Jonathan F. W. Death so Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.
After the Great War
Provost of Trinity College and Professor of History at the University of Toronto
For Canadians, the First World War is a defining moment. For Canada, as for Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, the war brought a deeper sense of nationhood. “We were content to be Colonials,” said one of the Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge, but afterwards “National spirit was born...; we were Canadians.” Although Canada remained a part of the British Empire, Canadian leaders were learning how to represent Canadian interests and to stand up to the British.
During the war itself, the Canadian prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, increasingly dealt with his British counterpart as an equal. When David Lloyd George became British prime minister at the end of 1916, he summoned an Imperial War Cabinet, a sign of how much the British war effort was relying on the resources and the men from its empire. At the Paris Peace Conference, which followed the war, Canadians, along with Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Newfoundlanders, gained valuable experience in international diplomacy. As Loring Christie, one of Canada’s earliest distinguished diplomats, put it, Canada had become “an international person.”
To Canadians, as to Europeans, the First World War was simply the Great War. Few people imagined that Europe could ever put itself through that horror again. The years between 1914 and 1918 marked an end, for those at the time, and for historians ever since, between the long period of peace and prosperity that so much of Europe had enjoyed since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
The wreckage was appalling. Europe’s capacity for destruction had increased immensely over the century before 1914. Its science and technology, its industrial capacity and its political and social organization allowed its nations to put huge armies in the field and keep them there for years on end. Over 140,000 Canadians were wounded between 1914 and 1918, and 60,000 out of a total population of 7.2 million were dead. An equivalent proportion of deaths today would be close to 270,000 Canadians.
Altogether, nine million soldiers died in the war and perhaps another five million civilians. At the end of the war, economic and social collapse across large swaths of Europe brought starvation, premature death, and diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which had not been seen for generations. The ghastly influenza epidemic swept across the world in 1918 and 1919 killing, so it has been estimated, three times as many as the war itself. The world had not yet become used to death on such a scale. Or such destruction.
Although aircraft did not yet have the capacity to destroy whole cities, towns, villages, farms, factories and mines lay in ruins. Priceless parts of Europe’s culture had vanished: the magnificent Gothic cloth hall in Ypres; the great medieval library at Louvain, with its priceless manuscripts; great cathedrals and smaller churches built laboriously over the centuries. Europe had lost something more, a sense of confidence and pride in its own civilization. Its political landscape had changed out of recognition. Russia had had a revolution in 1917 followed by a civil war that raged on into 1920. At the end of the war the Germany monarchy was overthrown, and Austria-Hungary—that huge multi-national empire that had dominated the centre of Europe for centuries—fell to pieces. The hideous cost of the war was to be much on the minds of the Allied statesmen when it came to drawing up peace terms.
While the collapse of Russia gave the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire the opportunity to break the stalemate on the Western Front, they were unable to capitalize on it before the United States—which had entered the war in April 1917—started to pour its huge resources of men and materiel into Europe. Even so, the Great War ended surprisingly abruptly. Allied leaders had expected to fight on into the spring of 1919, but by the autumn of 1918, the Central Powers had reached the end of their tether. Bulgaria was the first to sue for an armistice, then the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary, in one of its last acts as an empire, asked for its armistice in November.
With its allies falling away and its armies running out of men and resources, Germany asked Woodrow Wilson, the American president, to help arrange an armistice. On November 11, 1918, the Great War came to an end. Germany surrendered all its heavy land equipment and its navy. German troops withdrew from all occupied territory and Allied troops, Canadians among them, moved into the Rhineland, that part of Germany west of the Rhine, and occupied bridgeheads on the east side of the river.
The armistice has given rise to much controversy ever since. Wilson had promised a peace without vengeance or retribution and his Fourteen Points outlined a new world order based on principles of fairness and justice, where nations could decide their own fates. The Germans felt that they had made their armistice on this understanding. Many hoped, unreasonably, that Germany would pay no penalty for losing the war. As the weeks and then the years went by, many Germans, perhaps most, persuaded themselves that Germany had never been defeated on the battlefield. To the General Staff and its right wing supporters, defeat had come at the hands of disloyal Germans at home, left wingers, liberals and Jews.
After November 1918, the huge citizen armies started to melt away. Societies already damaged by the war struggled to provide jobs and housing. For the men themselves, returning to civilian society was often difficult. Their wives and sweethearts had managed without them, taking on jobs and roles previously done by men. Rapid demobilization also created problems for Allied leaders as they tried to deal with what was a rapidly changing and turbulent world. While the Allies were powerful on paper, in reality, their capacity to impose order was increasingly limited.
The range of problems was growing. The war had turned much of European society upside down. The Russian Revolution had destroyed an empire as well as an old political and social order. Russia’s possessions along the Baltic—Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—won their independence. Ukraine tried and failed. In the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia enjoyed their brief moments as independent nations. Russia’s Polish territories vanished into a reborn Poland. The end of Austria-Hungary left chaos and fighting in the centre of Europe, as states—some old like Hungary and Poland, some quite new like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia—struggled to emerge and stake out their territories.
Farther afield, there was trouble brewing in the Middle East. It was only a matter of time until the Ottoman Empire, which controlled present-day Turkey and much of the Arab Middle East, went the same way as Austria-Hungary. Who would inherit its possessions? The British and the French, uneasy allies, manoeuvred to stake out choice bits for themselves while Arab nationalists saw a chance for independent Arab states.
Russia’s revolution was not the only one. For a time, it looked as though much of Europe would be engulfed by a triumphant Bolshevism. In Germany and Austria, there were communist-inspired insurrections. Hungary had a communist government for several months in 1919. In France and Italy, the left brought the workers out in violent strikes and demonstrations. Even Britain and Canada, both stable democracies, had general strikes. The peacemakers who met in Paris at the peace conference in 1919 feared that if they did not make peace quickly, the misery in much of Europe would increase and revolution would spread. They also had to decide how to deal with the new Bolshevik government of Russia. The answers ranged from intervention to accommodation.
European statesmen also had to confront the fact that they no longer dominated the world. New powers—Japan in the East and the United States to the West—were cutting into European markets and European influence. Within the British Empire, still the largest political organization in the world, the Dominions and India were challenging the United Kingdom. Sir Robert Borden, Canada’s prime minister, complained bitterly that the British treated Canadians as ‘toy automata’ and demanded that Canada share in decisions about the conduct of the war and the shape of the peace to come. Borden insisted that Canada be represented in its own right at the Paris Peace Conference.
The end of the war had come so quickly that Allied leaders did not have time to think about what happened next. As always happens with the coming of peace, the wartime alliance began to fall apart. Each statesman had the interests of his own nation to consider. For France, the key issue was how to safeguard against a revival of German power, but there were many views on how to do this, from breaking Germany up to imposing strict peace terms. For Britain, it was protecting the empire and its trade and eliminating the menace from Germany’s navy. Italy wanted territory, along its northern frontier and along the eastern side of the Adriatic. Japan came with two goals: to retain captured German colonies (including concessions in China) and to gain recognition as the racial equal of the white powers. China, also an ally, wanted the German possessions on its soil.
Smaller allies all had their own demands. Greece wanted huge swaths of Anatolia, and Belgium asked for reparations for the damage done by the war. The United States, by contrast, had no demands for territory or reparations. President Wilson talked of building a better world; on the other hand, he and his advisers insisted that the Europeans repay their considerable debts. Canada took a line similar to the United States although there were moments when Canadian delegates dreamed of winning back the Alaska panhandle, perhaps in exchange for Britain handing over territories in the Caribbean to the United States.
The peacemakers also confronted pressures from their own publics, often contradictory ones. On the one hand there was a strong sense that the defeated nations, Germany above all, were responsible for starting the war and for all its damage. It was probably impossible to get much in the way of reparations out of Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria, but Germany remained relatively unscathed and with much of its industrial plant and infrastructure. Why, as the French asked pointedly, should French taxpayers pay for repairing the destruction done on French soil by what had been a German invasion?
Allied publics also demanded that the guilty be punished and that meant Kaiser Wilhelm II and his generals. On the other hand, the same Allied publics also called for a better world, where nations would settle their disputes peacefully and work together to prevent aggression. The League of Nations had huge support across Europe.
The Paris Peace Conference lasted for a year, from January 1919 to January 1920, but the most intense period was during the first six months when the major Allied statesmen and their advisers gathered. It started out as a preliminary conference, where the Allies would agree on the terms to be offered the defeated. The intention was then to have the old-style conference, like the Congress of Vienna, where victors and losers sat down together and haggled until they came to terms. The negotiations over the League of Nations, which Wilson insisted must come first, and over the German terms, took so much time and involved so many difficult compromises that the Allies dared not open them up again. The Germans, and this caused much resentment then and later, were given two weeks to comment on the terms in writing and told that there would be no face to face negotiations. The other defeated nations received similar treatment.
The peace settlements have been criticized ever since. The Italians were deeply disappointed with what came to be called “The Mutilated Peace.” The Japanese gained the German colonies they wanted but not the racial equality clause in the League they hoped for. In the centre of Europe, it is said, the peacemakers created unstable, quarrelling states. In the Middle East, the British and the French created countries such as Iraq to suit their own needs, not those of the locals. By encouraging a Jewish homeland in Palestine while also promising Arab independence, the British helped to drive a wedge between Jews and Arabs. Some of these criticisms are fair; in the Middle East, for example, where the powers behaved like 19th century imperialists. Others are less so. The peacemakers did not bring Poland to life again or create Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. Those nations established themselves on the basis of ethnic nationalism. The peacemakers helped in drawing the boundaries and tried very hard to create ethnically homogeneous states, something that could not be done given the population mix.
The most controversial part of the settlements remains the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. John Maynard Keynes attacked it at the time as vindictive and short sighted and many, Germans among them, have echoed him. If the Weimar republic of the 1920's had severe economic and political problems, so the argument goes, that was the fault of the harsh terms. If Weimar failed and Hitler came to power, that too can be traced back to the decisions of 1919. So, following a reasoning which is still popular today, the end of the First World War leads directly to the outbreak of the Second. In recent years, historians have challenged this simplistic view.
Weimar’s economic problems were not so much the fault of reparations payments (Germany only ever paid a fraction of its bill), but fiscal and economic mismanagement. If the German government had been willing to tax its citizens at the same rate the Allies were taxing in their countries, it could have paid off its bill. Hitler came to power partly because he capitalized on German resentments, partly because the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s made the Nazis seem like a real alternative to the misery Germany was suffering, and partly because of foolish decisions by key German leaders. Even in the 1930s, when Hitler was determined on expanding German power even if it meant war, he could have been stopped if Allied leaders, particularly those in Britain, had been willing to move. To say that 1919 lead directly to 1939 is to ignore the promise of the 1920s, when it looked as though the world was putting the Great War behind it, as well as the decisions, both for good and for evil, that were taken in those twenty years.
The March to the Rhine
On Sunday, November 17 1918, a day of thanksgiving, representatives of Canadian units attended special services in the Mons churches. In honour of the liberating troops the city's carillon played "O Canada". At nine o'clock on the following morning, leading units of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions crossed the outpost lines and commenced the march to the Rhine. Each division proceeded in three brigade columns, on separate routes. Those of the 1st Division on the left, had Cologne as the destination; the 2nd Division on the right headed towards Bonn. A cavalry screen advanced one day's march ahead of the leading infantry, and each column provided its own close protection, in which it was assisted by cavalry and cyclists attached from Corps Troops. The whole 250-mile march was conducted under operational conditions, and all military precautions were taken against surprise. To ensure a smooth take- over from the enemy the country had been divided into zones. The Germans had orders to deposit war material at selected places in each zone and to withdraw from the area the day before the Allies entered it. Before the 3rd and 4th Divisions could set out, however, supply difficulties necessitated a change in the general plan for the advance. The almost complete destruction of all railways and roads in the old battle areas made it impossible to maintain two armies on the move and at the same time provide for the Belgian civilian population. Accordingly the Second Army now went forward alone. The Canadian occupation force was reduced to the 1st and 2nd Divisions, together with Corps Headquarters and some Corps Troops already on the march.
Meanwhile, the marching divisions made frequent halts to permit the Germans to evacuate zones as planned. They encountered no enemy troops but saw much evidence of their passing. The wreckage of a great fighting machine was everywhere at hand. In accordance with the terms of the Armistice the Germans had assembled, usually in or near the villages and towns, huge parks of guns and dumps of munitions and other war equipment. Miles upon miles of laden barges had been left tied up on the canals, and the roadways were littered with helmets, discarded army clothing, and even weapons. The march through Belgium was in general a triumphal progress, particularly for the leading battalions. The in habitants of the various communities through which the Canadians passed where Germans had been in occupation were warm in their welcome and
expressed their gratitude in many ways. In other places the populace was more restrained, for no soldiers of any nationality were wanted. In marked contrast was the cool reception afforded the Canadians after they had crossed the German border. Here the only spectators in view were children with close cropped heads who stared curiously from the roadside. Their elders remained discreetly out of sight, peering through half closed doors or shuttered windows at the marching columns.
The day set for crossing the Rhine by the Allies was December 13. The occasion was considered to be of greater significance than the crossing of the German frontier, and for several preceding days the Canadians were concentrated on the left bank opposite Cologne and Bonn, as far forward as possible. In these positions all units busied themselves with traditional "spit and polish" to ensure that with brass gleaming and equipment and clothing in the best possible condition all ranks would present a faultless appearance on the important day. On the 12th the British 1st Cavalry Brigade, which had come under General Currie's command on December 1, crossed at Bonn to establish control posts within the bridgehead.
The morning of the 13th dawned dark and wet, and a steady rain poured down throughout the day. The 1st Division crossed the Rhine by South Bridge at Cologne, marching past the G.O.C. Second Army, General Sir Herbert Plumer, while crowds of Germans lining the streets of the city silently watched the steel-helmeted Canadians swing by in full battle order. At the bridge at Bonn, General Currie, "after a very comfortable night in His Majesty's bed", witnessed the crossing and took the salute of the 2nd Division, which marched past in an impressive column that extended for eighteen miles. Here the civilian spectators were fewer in numbers, and equally undemonstrative. What was a memorable day for the Canadians could only be one of humiliation for the people whose armies they had helped to vanquish.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.497-500.
From a Stretcher Handle:
June, 1916 — Third Battle of Ypres
June 7 Advanced Dressing Station, "Railway Dug-Outs."
We arrived here — three stretcher squads of us — this afternoon. Along the Ypres road were scattered the debris of War — rifles, pieces of equipment, ammunition limbers, ration wagons, and dead horses. Guns of all calibre are massed hereabouts. The small guns are firing continuously. The Dressing Station is built into the Railway Embankment, and is practically shell-proof.
For forty-eight hours we have been working without a stop, and still the fighting is going on, and the wounded are falling faster than we can pick them up. It has rained all week. The trenches are knee-deep, — in some places waist-deep, with mud and water. The dead and wounded lie everywhere: in trenches, and shell pits, and along the sodden roads. Two thousand wounded have passed through our hands since the attack. Hundreds more are dying of exposure a mile away, and we cannot reach them. The wounded who are already here must lie outside the Dressing Station, in the open, under the rain, until their turn comes.
We shall be relieved tonight, for twelve blessed hours, by the 3rd Field Ambulance. We are all in.
September, 1916 — The Somme — An Air Battle
The aeroplane activity alone, every day, would be quite enough to make life interesting out here. No grander tournaments were ever staged in the old days of Chivalry, than what these 20th-century knights pull off so nonchalantly in the blue sky. This morning saw a grand duel between a British and a German squadron of planes. They battled up there in the clouds for some thirty minutes, to the immense satisfaction of the scattered audience below which, to the number of some quarter-million, cheering lustily from every corner of the Line. The fight centred around two machines, which were manoeuvring about each other like hostile eagles. Backwards and forwards, over the breathless trench-lines they soared, each seeking to swoop upon the other from higher ground. Finally, "our man" got the advantage, opened his deadly machine-gun fire, and sent his opponent blazing to the ground, where he landed with the sickening thud of a thunderbolt –like Milton's angel— "Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky."
During the fight, all traffic had halted and the whole activity of War seemed to have stopped like a piece of clock-work. Now the wheels automatically started again—teams trudged over the roads as before; men picked up their discarded rifles, or fell into step, or went back to dinners and card-games; and the Colonels climbed back into their dug-outs.
Extracted and used with permission from: From a Stretcher Handle: The World War I Journal & Poems of Pte. Frank Walker. Mary F. Gaudet, ed. Charlottetown, PEI: Institute of Island Studies, 2000.