September Offensive 3
06 min 57 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
The attack on the Drocourt-Queant Line from September 2-4, 1918 was a massive effort by two of the Canadian Corps’ four divisions. Canadian casualties numbered 5500 in the brief operation, but the Germans lost heavily as well, including hundreds of prisoners. Enemy morale was beginning to be very shaky, and war weariness had begun to grip the Central Powers.
The film clip shows the large numbers of Canadian wounded, likely at a Casualty Clearing Station located some miles behind the front. The high numbers of prisoners taken in the D-Q Line battles are also featured, but strikingly the price of war—dead Canadians and Germans, dead horses and even a dead dog—are given most prominence. Canadians at home read the weekly casualty lists and knew the war’s high cost; these graphic shots, however, would have shaken them.
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.
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.
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.
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/
Assault and Capture of the Drocourt-Quéant Line
On the Corps' southern flank three battalions led the 1st Division's attack- the 16th and 13th Battalions on the right opposite Cagmcourt, with the 7th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade on their left. The two 3rd Brigade units pushed forward quickly up the long slope to the enemy wire. They met little resistance at first, the Germans surrendering in large numbers. By 7:30 a.m. the 13th Battalion had captured its section of the D-Q support line. Shortly afterwards the 14th Battalion passed through to take Cagnicourt, where it surprised and captured in the village cellars enough Germans to make a full battalion. The men of the 14th then seized the Bois de Loison east of the village and in a quick dash across 2000 yards of open country reached their final objective in the Buissy Switch directly in front of the village of Buissy.
On Brig.-Gen. Tuxford's right progress was slower. The 16th Battalion, suffering heavily from machine-gun fire coming in across the open southern flank, lost the supporting barrage and had to storm weapon posts which the enemy was quick to re-man in his front line. Among many acts of bravery performed that day two stood out at this stage of the operations. Lance-Corporal W.H. Metcalf, M.M., an American serving with the 16th Battalion, calmly walked across bullet-swept ground guiding a tank and directing its fire against German strong points which were holding up the infantry's advance. Later, after the battalion had broken through the main D-Q position, only to be halted in front of the support line, the Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. Cyrus W. Peck, went forward through bursting shells and withering machine-gun fire to make a personal reconnaissance, and to compel roaming tanks to protect his open flank. He then reorganized his battalion and led them on to their objective. Both Metcalf and Peck won the Victoria Cross-one of the very few occasions in the war when a battalion twice earned the coveted award in a single day. Pushing through the 16th Battalion at the Red Line, the 15th, suffering crippling casualties, fought slowly forward to the Bois de Bouche, some 3000 yards short of the Buissy Switch, which here angled sharply to the south-east. Here the survivors consolidated as the 3rd Battalion came up from reserve. At 6:00 p.m. British infantry finally arrived to seal off the open flank which had proved so costly to the Canadians.
On the 2nd Brigade's front the 5th Battalion was still engaged in hand-to-hand fighting for the jumping-off line when the 7th Battalion passed through to assault. Aided greatly by the shrapnel barrage and the supporting tanks the 7th had little difficulty in capturing and mopping up the D-Q line in its sector. At eight o'clock the 10th Battalion took over the lead at the Red Line. Up to this stage the tanks had kept well to the fore, knocking out one enemy post after another. East of the D-Q Line, however, they began falling victim to the German artillery fire. Soon the 10th Battalion was halted by the intense fire that came from machine-guns and trench mortars in the Buissy Switch in front of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt. In dogged fighting the battalion had by late afternoon established a line east of the village. One more effort was to be made. An artillery barrage called down at 6:00 p.m. on the German positions eased the situation, and the weary Canadians pushed forward again to capture the Buissy Switch by 11:00 p.m.
In the meantime the 4th Canadian Division was fighting its own hard battle. At the start the 12th Brigade on the right had to contend with an enemy pocket along the Arras-Cambrai road; and its supporting tanks arrived too late to help here. The leading battalions-from right to left the 72nd, the 38th and the 85th - found the D-Q trenches, as expected, heavily wired and strongly garrisoned. Nevertheless the Red Line, east of the support line, was reached on schedule. But as the 72nd and 38th Battalions crossed the long, exposed crest of Mont Dury they met the full force of the German machine-gun fire. From the objective, a sunken road joining Dury to the Cambrai road, German reinforcements swept the bare slopes with bullets, while on the right the 72nd Battalion was also caught in enfilade fire from the direction of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt. In spite of mounting casualties the Canadians, aided by good work on the part of the tanks, pushed on grimly and by mid-morning they had captured and cleared the sunken road.
The 10th Brigade's initial assault on the divisional left was led by the 47th and 50th Battalions. Wire, largely intact, imposed serious delay as it had to be cut by hand. The two battalions occupied the main line trenches, allowing the 46th Battalion to leapfrog them and advance on the support line, which ran through the centre of Dury. There was particularly vicious fighting for the village, which was taken only after a flanking movement by the 46th had overcome a strong point on the southern outskirts, capturing some 120 prisoners and nine machine guns. With the fall of Dury, the brigade's objective line at the sunken road was secured by 7:30 a.m.
The second phase of the attack began soon after eight, when the 78th Battalion, until now held in reserve, attempted to push forward on the right of the 10th Brigade. But it could make little headway against the storm of machine-gun fire coming out of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt and from a sugar-beet processing plant at the crossroads north-east of the village. A mile east of the sunken road, on a ridge extending from Buissy to Saudemont, German artillerymen were firing over open sights. By nine o'clock the 78th had been brought to a halt 200 yards east of the sunken road. Attempts by the 11th Brigade to exploit the 12th Brigade's gains east of Mont Dury were equally fruitless. By mid-afternoon all brigades on the divisional front reported their advance held up. Armoured cars from the Independent Force made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the lateral Villers Saudemont road; the Force had to confine its efforts to firing at enemy positions with machine-gun detachments posted on either side of the main Cambrai road. On the Canadians' left the 4th British Division was able to capture its part of the D-Q system, but did not take Etaing until the following morning.
Although the Canadian Corps had not achieved all the objectives set (rather optimistically) for the attack, the results of September 2 were nevertheless eminently satisfactory. The Drocourt-Quéant Line had been assaulted and overrun on a frontage of seven thousand yards. In addition, the 1st Division had captured the Buissy Switch and the villages of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt and Cagnicourt. Some German formations in the forward line on September 2 had yielded quickly, but the Canadians had met resolute opposition from regiments of the 1st and 2nd Guard Reserve Divisions and the 3rd Reserve Division.
That evening General Currie issued orders for the three divisions under his command to continue the advance on the 3rd, in order to gain direct observation of all bridges over the Sensée River and the Canal du Nord.68 During the night, however, the enemy withdrew on a wide front. Air patrols flying over the enemy lines on the morning of September 3 saw no Germans between the Cagnicourt-Dury Ridge and the Canal du Nord. At the same time the Third Army reported that it had occupied Quéant and Pronville without fighting and that everywhere the enemy was falling back. By noon the entire Canadian Corps front was in motion as a general advance began to the Green Line. Except for artillery fire, resistance was practically negligible. By evening the 1st Division, having occupied Buissy and Baralle, had swept across the open fields to the west bank of the Canal du Nord. The 4th Canadian Division pushed quickly ahead, liberating the villages of Rumaucourt, Ecourt St. Quentin, Saudemont and Récourt. It reported the east bank of the Canal strongly held and all bridges destroyed. The 4th British Division cleared along the Sensée Canal, occupying the village of Lécluse. By nightfall the Canadian Corps controlled all ground west of the Canal du Nord between Sains-lez-Marquion and the Sensée. The formations which had broken the D-Q position had earned their relief, and during the hours of darkness the new line was taken over from north to south by the 1st British and the 3rd and 2nd Canadian Divisions.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.410-413.
The Battles: In Flanders Fields
Films : Canadians on the Western Front 2, Dressing Station, Prisoners and Wounded Coming in, Setember Offensive 2 & 3, Canadian Discharge Depot
Background Notes for the Teacher
The ferocity of the fighting across the fields of Europe left hundreds of thousands of soldiers with terrible wounds. They carried small bottles of iodine in their supply kit to treat their own wounds on the battlefield. At night, teams of stretcher-bearing soldiers risked their lives to retrieve the seriously wounded from the wartorn rubble of no man’s land. Dressing stations were operated by field doctors and nurses. They were the first line of care just behind the trenches. Soldiers with severe wounds would be transported to hospitals hastily set up in tents or abandoned buildings.
John McCrae, who wrote “In Flanders Fields” in May of 1915, served as Canadian medical officer. He witnessed the horrors of war first-hand.
Introducing the Subject
Briefly discuss how we modern-day Canadians deal with medical concerns (visits to a doctor’s office, walk-in clinics, emergency rooms, etc).
On the fields of battle during the First World War, how were the injured soldiers cared for?
During the war (1914-1918), many of the wounded were treated at dressing stations located just behind firing lines. Severe casualties were sent to makeshift hospitals for further diagnosis and treatment.
Teaching and Learning
View the film footage that depicts the transportation and evacuation of wounded from the battlefields.
Watch the NFB film John McCrae’s War:In Flanders Fields.
Discuss the role of medical personnel in the war.
Applying the Knowledge
Students will rehearse and present a tableaux dramatization of “In Flanders Fields” (see Appendix).
Did the discussion show that students recognized the difficulties of caring for the wounded during WWI?
Did students create the appropriate dramatic scenes?
Did the tableaux capture a sombre mood?
In this teaching and learning strategy, students create a series of scenes that retell a particular story or event. For example, if students were to imagine a tableaux that told the story of the Dirty Thirties, they might develop scenes like this:
Scene 1: Two characters – a husband and wife – the wife has her hands to her face, expressing despair. The husband stares forlornly at his field while leaning on an imaginary shovel.
Scene 2: Three characters – children – struggle, arms tensed, heads tucked into their shoulder or chest, seeming to grip a rope tied from the back door of their “house” to the barn so that they don’t lose their way in the dust storm.
Other scenes would be created to retell the whole story. The key point to remember is that when students step into a scene, they are frozen in place! There is no movement, no dialogue, no acting. In essence, they are a snapshot in time. A portrait!
Once all poses have been established, students write a short narrative to accompany each tableau. Using Scene 1 from above as an example, the narrative might be, “Three years now without rain. My fields just blow away in the wind. I don’t know how we’ll survive.”
When all scenes have accompanying narrative, these are the steps to put it all together.
1. The group presenting the tableaux stand in a loose line.
2. A leader steps forward, says the title of the piece, then steps back into line.
3. The students in Scene 1 move forward and step into their scene. They remain frozen in place for about 10 to 15 seconds, long enough for the audience to capture the essence of the scene.
4. At this point, one student “thaws” and steps out of the scene. Everyone else in the scene remains frozen in place. He/She moves forward, stops at centre stage and delivers the narrative. The character speaks in the first person.
5. The character finishes, then steps back into the scene.
6. The group holds the frozen image for another 7 to 10 seconds to give the audience the chance to connect the narrative with the scene.
7. Students relax and slowly move out of the scene and back into their line.
8. After a brief pause of 5 to 10 seconds, students move into Scene 2.
The entire story is retold in this manner!
This activity works best with groups of 5 to 7 students.
Not every student needs to be in every scene.
Props are not necessary.
Students need time to practise. They need to think about how to develop a frozen image that clearly depicts, for example, someone shovelling. The challenge is how to do that without movement and without a shovel!
Facial expressions are crucial to help deliver the message.
Students sometime have difficulty keeping a straight face during a tableaux dramatization. Tell them to focus on a particular spot rather than looking at another student to reduce the onset of “the giggles.”
The following is a ready-made script to present the John McCrae poem, “In Flanders Fields.” This is a slight variation to the typical approach to tableaux. In this performance, the poem will be read to accompany the dramatic interpretation.
The poem is broken down into seven parts. A student (or group of students) will be responsible for reading the poem. This person will be located either stage right or stage left. The students presenting the tableaux will be situated at centre stage. After the first part of the poem is read, the students creating the first scene will step forward. Once they are finished and have stepped back into line, the second part of the poem is delivered. The entire performance will be delivered in this way.
The words in quotations are the narratives students will deliver to help interpret each scene for the audience.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place;
Scene #1 – Men enlisting in the army
“When the war began in August of 1914, no one knew that millions of us would die. We thought that the fighting would be over by Christmas.”
And in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amidst the guns below.
Scene #2 – In the trenches
“I’ll never forget the trenches. The damp and the cold and the rain. “Standing to”meant ready to fight. Sleeping when we could in bunks that we’d dug out of the walls.”
We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived,
Felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
Scene #3 – Standing in line
“When we weren’t fighting, we’d spend our days waiting. Waiting for our mail from back home, for food and water, to see the doctor, or waiting for dark so we could crawl out onto the battlefield and drag back our dead and wounded.”
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Scene #4 – Digging graves
“Fighting went on around the clock. Soldiers were dying all around us. It seemed like we’d been digging graves forever.”
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands
We throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.
Scene #5 – Doctors and nurses treating patients
“We treated hundreds of patients every day. With shells exploding all around us. It was nearly impossible to do our job.”
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep.
Scene #6 – Friendship
“The friends I made in the war were friends for a lifetime. Those that I lost in battle were like brothers to me.”
Though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
Scene #7 – Act of Remembrance
“These poppies grew everywhere! We used to pick them and wear them on our helmets. Nowadays, they help people remember…. Something that we will never, ever forget .”
Conscription Debate: Conscripting Dogs and Horses
Grade Level: Elementary 5-8
Time Allowance: 45 minutes
Films: September Offensive 2 & 3
Summary: Students debate whether dogs and horses, and not just men, should have been conscripted into the military during World War I.
The debate over conscription (forcing men to join the armed forces and go to Europe to fight) during World War I was one of the bitterest disputes in Canadian history.
Imagine that it is 1917, the year that Canada debated conscription. The government has proposed extending conscription, so that dogs and horses, and not just men, will be sent to Europe. Debate the following with your classmates: “Be it resolved that the Canadian government conscript all dogs and horses.” Prepare for the debate by watching the film clip September Offensive 2 & 3 and researching the lines of argument below. Develop some additional lines of argument to use in the debate.
For the resolution:
1. This war is a total war; everyone and everything must help. It is not right to conscript men and not also expect animals to contribute to the war effort.
2. These animals are needed. Horses can pull guns and transport men and supplies. Tracker dogs can be used to find wounded men, and guard dogs can protect important areas.
3. It is expensive to buy these animals on the world market; many that are being used solely for pleasure can be found in Canada.
Against the resolution:
1. It is cruel to take somebody’s pet away.
2. It is unethical to put animals in the line of fire. This is not their war. Many horses, dogs and carrier pigeons have already been killed on the battlefront, and this should not be allowed to continue.
3. Animals are not necessary to fight the war. We have invented motorized vehicles such as trucks, and these should be used instead of horses.
4. It is not economical to have thousands of horses that need to be fed and watered.
5. Horses and dogs are not effective in the heat of battle – they become frightened under fire and try to run away, which usually results in their death.