The Royal Visit to the Battlefields of France, July 1917 - 4
Topical Film Company
Visit of King George V and Queen Mary to France 3-14 July 1917. The King tours Vimy Ridge and the Somme battlefield. At Albert the King knights two Corps commanders, General Currie of the Canadian Corps and General Fanshawe, and decorates a number of French officers. The King goes on to visit Australian 5th Division headquarters. The Queen visits the South African hospital at Abbeville. The King continues his tour of Vimy Ridge and the Somme area. Finally, the King, Queen and Prince call in at the Duchess of Sutherlands hospital prior to leaving for Britain from Calais.
Pieces of History
Associate Professor, History Department, Université de Montréal
A total of 3,141 nurses worked in the Canadian army, 2,504 of them overseas—over a third of all Canadian registered nurses. Some were posted to British or Canadian hospitals in England, but at least a thousand served in France and Belgium; some were even sent to the Mediterranean or Russia. Unlike nurses from the other allied countries, who were in auxiliary corps, Canadian nurses were full members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps and thus held military rank. Margaret Macdonald, appointed matron-in-chief at the start of the war, was also the first woman of the British Empire to hold the rank of major.
From the outset, the military authorities had planned to keep the nurses in stationary hospitals, 250-bed units with 16 nurses, and in the general hospitals farther from the front, which had between 500 and 1,000 beds served by a team of 72 nurses. In practice, however, it soon became apparent that these medical professionals were also needed in the most advanced posts, called casualty clearing stations, because the wounded soldiers taken there often required emergency surgery impossible to do without the help of nurses. Many nurses thus found themselves very close to the front lines, working in tents or huts with minimal hygiene.
Although farther from the theatre of operations, the stationary hospitals and general hospitals still did not have all the facilities that nurses were accustomed to. Established in big houses, ruined monasteries, unused schools or hastily built shelters, these hospitals were far from an ideal environment. The nurses had to tend patients while slogging through mud, surrounded by rats or, on the Mediterranean front, flies, while being careful to use as little water as possible.
The nurses’ work followed the rhythm of the battles, each bringing a massive influx of wounded. Working around the stretchers lined up on the ground, the nurses had to take care of hundreds of soldiers brought in by train or ambulance. Bullets, bayonets, shells and shrapnel caused extremely serious wounds that bled profusely and often necessitated amputation, the only way to get rid of gangrene. Amputation was also the fate of men who suffered frostbite from their time in the muddy trenches, while on the Mediterranean front, dysentery laid many low. Gas, first used extensively in the First World War, attacked the eyes and lungs. The nurse placed the lung patient in an oxygen tent, but that did not always work as hoped. Nurses were just as powerless to help those suffering from psychological problems, termed shell shock, whose numbers grew as the war intensified. On the other hand, they were perfectly capable of taking care of soldiers with tuberculosis or other common ailments, like the flu. Due to the high mortality rate of the wounded, such cases actually made up the bulk of their work. Towards the end of the hostilities, when the Spanish flu started to spread, they were called upon to tend to soldiers with influenza.
Life at the front had its quieter moments, though, and nurses took advantage of them. Between two deliveries of casualties, they could do their jobs more calmly, befriending the soldiers they tended often over long weeks. They also gave themselves small treats. When not on duty, they could go to dances, receptions and concerts also attended by soldiers, officers or even civilians. They also took part in sports or games and went cycling near their hospitals. Nurses stationed in England took tea with members of the British and Canadian army or with nurses from other hospitals, and played golf and tennis. On leave, some even travelled to Scotland or the south of France.
Army nurses were the only women to go to the front during the First World War. Thirty-nine lost their lives, twenty-one in battles on the continent or at sea, and eighteen as a result of illness. Seven others died in Canada while serving in army hospitals. Over 500 of them were decorated, including matron Ethel Ridley, named Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and Vivien Tremaine, who was awarded the Royal Victorian Order for caring for King George V, who was hurt when he fell off his horse while reviewing Canadian troops. These military honours acknowledged their courage and the esteem in which they were held. This acknowledgment also extended beyond the military sphere, however, for the involvement of nurses in the war greatly contributed to making medical and hospital authorities more aware of the importance of their role. By the end of the First World War, nurses had gained a professional status that could never again be questioned.
Allard, Geneviève, «Des anges blancs sur le front : l’expérience de guerre des infirmières militaires canadiennes pendant la Première guerre mondiale», Bulletin d’histoire politique, 8, nos 2-3 (hivers-printemps 2000): 119-132.
---, «Les anges blancs sur le front. Les infirmières militaires canadiennes durant la Première Guerre mondiale», [MA (Histoire), Université Laval], 1997.
Allemang, Margaret M. Canadian Nursing Sisters of World War 1, Oral History Program. Toronto: Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto, 1977-1980.
Nicholson, G.W. L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters. Toronto: A.M. Hakkert, 1975.
Strong-Boag, Veronica. "Making a Difference : The History of Canada’s Nurses." Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine, 8, 2 (1991) : 231-248.
By late March 1917, some battle-weary troops thought the war would never end. Many had once thought they’d be home by Christmas in 1914. But now the war was in its 32nd month, with no end in sight.
Worse yet, they seemed bogged down in a stalemate of sodden, static trench warfare. In spite of fierce fighting and grievous casualty lists, there had been no Allied breakthroughs, no stunning victories and no major advances. On the contrary, there had been devastating slaughter on the Somme and at Verdun the year before. And German U-boats were wreaking havoc on the seas, sinking tons of Allied shipping daily. Would it ever end?
In early April came a glimmer of hope. The United States was finally entering the war. Canadian trench raids, though costly, were finding critical intelligence regarding the status of German defences. And the British were planning a new offensive in the critical Arras sector of France. Canadian troops, as part of the British First Army, would have a major role in the “Battle of Arras.”
To the Canadian Corps, under the command of British Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng, fell the heavy responsibility of providing the defensive flank for the Third Army, and capturing what was reputed to be the strongest German defensive position in Northern France. It was “tactically one of the most important features of the entire Western Front.”1 Its name was Vimy Ridge.
There was just one problem. It was thought to be impregnable. Many, on both sides of No Man’s Land, believed the Ridge couldn’t be taken. After all, the Germans had held it since early in the war (October 1914) and had repulsed both British and French attempts to re-capture it2.
The Germans well appreciated its value, and to this end had tightened up their defensive lines, reinforcing them with concrete gun emplacements, complete with barbed wire. They had also fortified their trenches and dugouts, knowing that well-entrenched troops, with machine guns and artillery, could repulse a numerically superior enemy. They called their massive defensive system the Siegfried Stellung, more popularly known as the Hindenberg Line. Vimy was its “anchor point” or keystone.
And so the scene was set.
Byng had called upon the increasingly impressive Canadian, Major General Arthur Currie, Commander of the 1st Canadian Division, to assist in the Vimy preparations. Both Byng and Currie, respectful of the price their troops would have to pay, were careful planners. Both knew the importance of sound preparation for such an endeavour. They would leave nothing to chance. (Currie even visited Verdun for insights.)
Massive preparations had begun in February. Old roads were repaired. New roads were built. More ammunition dumps were constructed. Light railway tracks were laid. Additional cable and telephone lines were installed. And Byng and Currie insisted that not just the officers but every man know his task and what to expect in the confusion of battle. Soldiers received detailed maps of the enemy territory. (About 40,000 maps were distributed.) They were to memorize the location of every trench, every mound, every fortification. Even a replica of the battle area was constructed behind the Canadian lines to familiarize soldiers with the terrain. It was revised daily as aerial photographs revealed changes in the German front lines. Training was relentless, thorough, disciplined.
And there were more arrows in Canada’s quiver. The attacking troops would approach Vimy Ridge in stealth through 12 underground tunnels (“subways”) constructed largely by the British with some Canadian work parties. While the tunnels could hardly be called sophisticated, some had electric light, running water and ventilation systems. Most important, they would conceal and protect the attacking troops till the last moment.
But the real key to victory on Vimy Ridge would rest with the artillery. As some liked to say, “the artillery conquers and the infantry occupies.” And the artillery had several surprises in store for the Germans.
The preliminary bombardment, under Brigadier-General E.W.B. Morrison, had already begun (March 20-April 2). It was relentless, pulverizing German targets day and night. Using information from aerial observers, trench raids and prisoner interrogation, the artillery fired not only on trenches, machine gun emplacements and strong points, but ammunition dumps, roads and communication systems. And that was just for preliminaries.
The artillery had still more in store for the Germans. Lieutenant Colonel A.G.L. McNaughton, Counter-Battery Staff Officer, had studied the deleterious effect of gun barrel wear on bombing precision, and ensured that key guns were carefully calibrated for accurate firepower. Brigadier General Raymond Brutinel perfected “indirect” machine gun fire to disrupt German road traffic, incoming troops and supplies. By Easter Sunday, 1917, all was in readiness. Troops waited, taut with anticipation.
Overhead, fierce aerial battles had already begun. In the days prior to the Arras offensive, 28 British aircraft were shot down (to Germany’s 15). Among those who still plied the skies were Canada’s Billy Bishop (who won the Military Cross on April 7), and Germany’s Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
At 5:30 on Easter Monday morning, April 9, the heavens reverberated with the sound of nearly a thousand guns and mortars. In driving sleet the first waves of more than 30,000 men of Canada’s four divisions, all fighting side-by-side for the first time, stretched out over four miles in the clinging mud3. Immediately in front of them, in practised precision and split-second timing, the artillery spread a carpet of fire — a “creeping” (or “rolling”) barrage4.
The rest is history.
Twelve hours later, most of the ridge — expect for Hill 145 and “The Pimple — had been taken. By dawn of April 12, Canada had captured all of Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps had accomplished in a few days what neither the British nor French could do in two years.
They had advanced some 4,000 metres, seized 54 guns, 104 trench mortars and 124 machine guns. They had taken more than 4,000 German prisoners5. Four valiant men had won the VC, but nearly 3,600 troops would never see Canadian shores again. More than 7,000 were wounded.
It cannot be said that the capture of Vimy Ridge changed the course of the war. It was, in fact, part of a larger campaign that failed. But it can be said that Canada won the first major offensive of the First World War. Some say the Vimy Ridge “was one of the notable feats of arms of the entire war.”6 Some say that the real significance of Vimy Ridge came in 1918, when the German assault on Arras “would certainly have been successful had they still held Vimy Ridge.”7 Some say the feat helped earn Canada its own place at the League of Nations.
And still many others say that it was on that blustery day in April 1917 that Canada truly “came of age” when its noble sons did the impossible on the sodden crest of Vimy Ridge.
1Nicholson, Official History, page 244
2The French had suffered heavy losses trying twice to capture Vimy Ridge in 1915, and the British lost ground there in 1916.
3Nicholson notes (Official History, page 252) that the Canadian Corps had a strength of approximately 170,000 men, all ranks, including British Units.
4The barrage had been introduced, with limited success, the year before on the Somme.
5Source; Nicholson, Official History, page 265
6Tucker, page 128
7Cruttwell, page 408
Patrick H. Brennan
When the Canadian Expeditionary Force began to take shape in the autumn of 1914, the majority of its future commanding officers had been pursuing their business and professional careers only weeks earlier. Even those with some pre-war militia experience were still amateur warriors who would have to learn how to command soldiers while actually fighting a war. Combat would prove a cruel and unforgiving teacher, and the mistakes they made learning how to command would cost men’s lives.
Arthur Currie: the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps
Arthur Currie began the war in command of a brigade of 4000 men. He had earned his appointment on the recommendation of Garnet Hughes, a fellow British Columbia militia officer who happened to be the son of Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, the erratic, meddling and militarily incompetent Sir Sam Hughes. During the early stages of the war, Hughes personally selected almost every senior officer in the army, and far too many of them were friends and political cronies who proved unfit for their commands and ultimately had to be replaced. Nothing in Currie’s background as a school teacher and realtor with a smattering of militia experience made him stand out. Yet he turned out to be a fast learner and superb leader whose military skills quickly blossomed. By 1916 he was recognized as the best of the senior Canadian officers. A year later, he was the obvious choice to be the first Canadian to command the Corps, a responsibility he carried out with distinction through the rest of the war.
As the Canadians desperately struggled to overcome their inexperience, they were fortunate to have the guidance of some very capable British officers such as Lieutenant-General Julian Byng and his chief staff officer, Major-General Percy Radcliffe. First-rate professional soldiers, they identified the most promising Canadian commanders, mentored them, and, when they proved their worth, promoted them to more responsible commands. Consequently, by 1917 the Canadian Corps had assembled a pool of very capable, battle-experienced Canadian commanding officers.
Two of the brigade commanders, Brigadier-Generals James MacBrien and Victor Odlum, were typical of this group. MacBrien was a professional soldier, one of only a handful of such Canadian commanders. After initially serving as a staff officer, Byng gave MacBrien command of the 12th Infantry Brigade in September 1916, just before this untested unit received their first taste of combat.
After serving in the South African War, Odlum had returned to Vancouver where he’d built up a prosperous financial and insurance business. He saw action with the 7th Battalion at Second Ypres, the Canadians’ first battle, taking over command of the battalion when Lt. Col. McHarg was killed. Byng promoted him to the command of the 11th Brigade in July 1916 and like MacBrien, he led his brigade until the Armistice. MacBrien’s style was studious and reserved, and his forte was training and planning. In contrast, Odlum was a dashing, fearless battlefield commander who had the wounds to prove it. Although they displayed two very different styles of command, both were effective.
Unlike earlier wars, the sheer scale of World War I battles and the breakdown of communications during the fighting actually made it impossible for generals to control the attacks they launched. What they could do, however, was utilize the weeks before an assault to prepare for every possible battlefield contingency – in other words, to emphasize thorough planning and training.
From amateurs to an elite force
By the end of 1916, the British Empire forces were adopting new, more effective fighting tactics. This was particularly true in the Canadian Corps, where Byng, Radcliffe and Currie had inaugurated a highly efficient system of “organized learning.” The officers and soldiers doing the fighting now compiled “after battle” reports outlining in detail what had succeeded and what had failed. Whether it was tactics or weaponry, the Corps’ commanders placed a premium on figuring out better ways to fight, emphasizing to every officer and soldier how vital absorbing the lessons of the “battlefield classroom” was to the survival and success of them all. Henceforward, something of value learned by one battalion would be speedily adopted by the rest simply by making it part of everyone’s training. Lessons now learned in an organized way were applied in an organized way, too. More than any other factor, mastering this “learning curve” was responsible for transforming the Canadian Corps from an enthusiastic mob of amateurs into an elite attack force, the “shock troops” of the British Empire. Officers, and especially senior commanders, had played an indispensable role.
One group of commanders shared the dual responsibility of preparing their soldiers and then leading them in battle—the commanding officers of the Corps’ 48 infantry battalions. Of the 200-odd men who commanded a Canadian battalion, 22 were killed in action and many more were wounded. Along with the junior officers under them, they were in charge of most of the soldiers’ actual training. They also had the critical responsibility of maintaining the health, morale and unit pride of their men, and often organized sports, concerts and other entertainments with this end in mind.
Battalion commanders were the most senior officers their men actually knew and saw regularly, and who shared their daily risks and grim living conditions at the front. As a result, the men looked to them for inspiration and confidence, and a brave and skilful battalion commander could keep his men going under the most appalling conditions. Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Peck was one such officer. He’d enlisted in the 16th Battalion in 1914, fought with it at Second Ypres and commanded it from November 1916 until the end of the war. Although the stocky, walrus-moustached Peck was hardly the most military-looking of commanding officers, he was fearless, and none of his soldiers doubted who ran their unit. During the storming of the Drocourt-Quéant Line on September 2, 1918, such leadership won Peck the Victoria Cross. When stiff German resistance blocked his battalion’s advance, he exposed himself to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire in order to reconnoitre enemy positions, then re-organized what was left of his men and led them to capture and hold their objective.
Armies are hierarchical organizations, and the quality of command plays an enormous role in their ultimate success. Even the bravest and best-equipped troops will fail in battle if they are asked to execute a flawed plan, or if the officers directing them in the heat of combat make poor decisions. As the war progressed, the best commanders worked their way to the top of the Canadian Corps. Consequently, planning was sound, and Canadian soldiers were prepared for battle using the most effective tactics learned from earlier combat experiences. Once the battle began, brave and skilled leadership by battalion commanders and the junior officers who followed their lead contributed mightily to the chance for victory. By the last two years of the war, the quality of commander in the Canadian Corps was outstanding, as an unbroken string of victories attests.
Brennan, Patrick. “From Amateur to Professional: The Experience of Brigadier General William Antrobus Griesbach.” in Canada and the Great War, Briton Busch, ed. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003 : 78-92.
---. “A Still Untold Story of the Canadian Corps: Byng’s and Currie’s Commanders.” Canadian Military History 11, 2 (Spring 2002): 5-16.
Brennan, Patrick and Thomas Leppard. “How the Lessons Were Learned: Senior Commanders and the Moulding of the Canadian Corps after the Somme” in Canada and War: 1000-2000, Yves Tremblay, ed. Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 2001.
Dancocks, Daniel. Sir Arthur Currie: A Biography. Toronto: Methuen, 1985.
Hyatt, A.M.J. General Sir Arthur Currie: A Military Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
McCulloch, Ian. “‘Batty Mac’: Portrait of a Brigade Commander of the Great War, 1915-1917.” Canadian Military History 7, 4 (Autumn 1998): 11-28.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Vol. I: 1887-1939. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
Tremblay, Yves. “Brutinel: A Unique Kind of Leadership.” in Warrior Chiefs. Bernd Horn and Stephen Harris, eds. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001.
Overseas Training in the Canadian Expeditionary Force
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo
the sole object of training is to prepare our forces for war, success in battle being constantly held as the ultimate aim... It is the function of training to develop the mental, moral, and physical qualities as highly as possible in each individual, and also to inculcate by theory and practice the methods of employing the various arms in co-operation to the best advantage...1
As this passage demonstrates, military instruction consisted of two fundamental aspects: training of the individual soldier and training of formations. When new recruits joined the service, they first needed to learn the basic skills of soldiering—marching, drill and marksmanship. Once these were mastered, the soldier would continue to train for his specialized trade, whether it be infantry, artillery, engineering, signals, medical or supply. Then the individual would join a formation based on his trade, and training continued at the unit level on a regular basis. The ultimate objective was for each component of the army to function cooperatively as part of the whole; this was achieved through exercises at the battalion, brigade and divisional levels.
The first overseas contingent of Canadian troops was formed at Valcartier, Quebec, during August-September 1914. Much of the time at Valcartier was occupied with administrative details, and limited training was accomplished before the contingent—soon to be known as 1st Canadian Division—embarked for England in October. Upon arrival, the division was posted to Salisbury Plain, a large British training area, where it remained until February 1915.
The weather that winter was especially wet, and until recently, scholars have agreed that relatively little training was completed before the division moved to France. Recent research suggests, however, that despite inclement weather and other distractions, most elements of the division engaged in productive training on Salisbury Plain. The infantry learned to manoeuvre in conjunction with artillery and machine guns. Other divisional elements, such as engineers, artillery and signals, as well as mounted and transport troops carried out their own specialized programs. The engineers, for example, learned how to construct field fortifications, while the artillery brigades rehearsed their gun drills. The divisional transport and ammunition columns, meanwhile, discovered the intricacies of moving supplies around the battle zone.
The training of 1st Division did not cease after it crossed the English Channel in February 1915. Upon arrival at the front lines near the Franco-Belgian border, the Canadians were matched up with experienced British troops for orientation tours. The evidence suggests that this formative experience was overwhelmingly positive. As one soldier later recalled, “nothing could surpass the patience of” his British teachers “or their brotherly kindness to us as comrades in arms.”2 The Canadians also learned about the costs of war, as they suffered their first casualties and witnessed the damage inflicted on the landscape.
In the summer of 1915, the 2nd Canadian Division arrived in England and began to train at Shorncliffe Camp. The open ground was ideal for company and battalion manoeuvres, and much of the instruction revolved around the challenges of trench warfare. Some of the officers attended British courses, while others went to France for short combat tours with 1st Division.3 With the expansion of the Canadian Corps to four divisions during 1915-16, additional training space was required for the new arrivals in England. A camp was opened at Bramshott in late 1915, and additional camps were added in 1916, including Crowborough, Hastings, New Shoreham, Seaford and Witley.4
As the war progressed, a broad selection of specialized schools was established—both in England and in France—covering everything from hand grenade training to field sanitation. Instructional programs were gradually standardized, while the British Army Printing and Stationery Depot produced a vast selection of training literature on every conceivable subject.
New technology appeared on the battlefield throughout the war and was reflected in training programs. In April 1915, for example, the German Army introduced chemical weapons to the Western Front. All soldiers were issued with respirators for the duration of the conflict and gas drill became an important component of basic training. Later in 1915, the .303 calibre Lewis gun, a portable automatic rifle, was issued to British and Dominion forces. Here again was a new piece of equipment to be mastered. In common with other types of military training, the correct procedure was subdivided into a simple series of component tasks.
Not all military instruction revolved around weapons systems and tactics. Sport and physical exercise were also important; peak fitness was vital if soldiers were to function under the strain of battle. As the British Army Manual of Physical Training explained:
a soldier should be well disciplined, a good marcher, intelligent, smart, active and quick, able to surmount obstacles in the field and capable of withstanding all the strains and hardships of active service...5
Fitness was achieved through physical drills, “Swedish” exercises and regular sporting events. Organized games and competitions not only fostered physical fitness, but also improved morale and encouraged teamwork. During the summer months, battalions, brigades and divisions organized their own sporting events in rear areas. After the war a veteran fondly recalled a sports day from the summer of 1918:
Who lives that does not remember the day of brigade sports at Izel-les-Hameaux? There were races and jumps and hurdles, something for everyone, a ring to box and wrestle in, baseball and football championships. The day was fine... everybody was there. It was a gay scene, the boys of four battalions and the airmen who joined us for the fun, all rollicking together...6
By late 1916 the Canadian Corps was a veteran formation, and had suffered heavy casualties in a series of costly battles, including Second Ypres, Festubert, St. Eloi Craters, Mount Sorrel and the Somme. In addition to formal training routines, this practical and bloody battle experience shaped the capabilities of the Corps. At the same time, the high casualty rates meant that large numbers of new recruits were constantly arriving in France and Belgium. Some Canadian commanders were dissatisfied with the level of basic training displayed by these reinforcements, and decided to establish their own courses at the battalion, brigade or divisional levels. These short refresher courses helped to ensure that new arrivals were familiar with the basics of soldiering before being thrust into the unforgiving front lines.
Training was an ongoing process throughout the First World War, as Canadian units were created, consumed in combat, reformed, and once again committed to battle. Under the challenging tactical and operational circumstances of 1914-18, nothing could have prevented high casualties, but effective training improved the chances that soldiers would succeed on the battlefield.
1Training and Manoeuvre Regulations, 1913. London: General Staff, War Office, 1913, p. 10-11.
2George Drillie Scott Fonds, LAC, MG 30, E 28.
3G.W.L. Nicholson. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1962, p. 113.
4David W. Love. “A Call to Arms”: The Organization and Administration of Canada’s Military in World War One. Winnipeg: Bunker to Bunker Books, 1999, p. 91.
5Manual of Physical Training, 1908. Rev. ed. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1914, p. 7-8.
6James H. Pedley. Only This: A War Retrospect, 1917-1918. Ottawa: CEF Books, 1999, p. 175-176.
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.
Sir Arthur William Currie
Currie participated in all major actions of the Canadian forces, including Passchaendale, during the war but is best known for his planning and leadership during the last 100 days, beginning August 8 and lasting until 11 November 1918, perhaps the most successful of all Allied offensives during the war. Criticism of this campaign by Sir Sam Hughes in Parliament resulted in postwar controversy and a libel action in 1928 which completely vindicated Currie.
Fighting off bankruptcy, Currie diverted $11 000 of his regiment's money to cover his personal debts. The affair came to the attention of Prime Minister Borden, who refused to consider court-martialling Canada's best soldier. British wartime Prime Minister Lloyd George called Currie a "brilliant military commander," and might have appointed him commander of all British forces had the war continued.
Currie served as inspector general of the militia forces in Canada 23 August 1919 to 30 July 1920, and in 1920 became principal and vice-chancellor of McGill, a position he held until his death. Without benefit of post-secondary education himself, he was extraordinarily successful as a university administrator at a time of particular importance in McGill's development.
Dancocks, D.G. Legacy of Valour: The Canadians at Passchendaele. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1986.
Hyatt, A.M.J. General Sir Arthur Currie: A Military Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press in collaboration with Canadian War Museum, Canadian Museum of Civilization, National Museums of Canada, 1987.
Urquhart, H.M. Arthur Currie: The Biography of a Great Canadian. Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1950.
Author A.M.J. HYATT
Reproduced with permission from The Canadian Encyclopaedia, Historica Foundation of Canada
Canadians at the Somme
It was General Sir Douglas Haig's wish that the Canadians should have a chance to settle in before taking part in an offensive. A G.H.Q. directive on August 19 had announced the Commander-in-Chief's intention to deliver a strong attack about the middle of September using "fresh forces and all available resources". This was the role to which the Canadian Corps had been summoned. While the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions prepared for the battle, the 1st Division held the whole of the Corps front - three thousand yards of battered trenches running westward along the Pozières ridge from the boundary with the Fourth Army (just east of Pozières) to a point 700 yards west of Mouquet Farm, a stronghold in the German Second Position based on a nest of deep dug-outs which six bitter Australian assaults had failed to capture. As we shall see, the Division's tour of duty was not as uneventful as Sir Douglas Haig had intended it should be.
The Australians' final attempt to capture Mouquet Farm was made on September 3 by their 13th Brigade, which had the 13th Battalion, of the relieving 3rd Canadian Brigade, temporarily under command. The attack, while failing to secure the farm, gained 300 yards of Fabeck Graben, a German trench running north-eastward towards Courcelette. In attempting to extend this holding two companies of the Canadian battalion suffered 322 casualties. The relief of the Australians was completed on the morning of the 5th, and for three more days the 3rd Canadian Brigade continued to hold under heavy fire and frequent counter- attack more than two thousand yards of line, including the captured portion of Fabeck Graben. The brigade's 970 casualties in this period gave it good reason to remember its first tour of duty at the Somme. Early on September 8, during a relief by the 2nd Brigade, the Germans regained the now almost obliterated section of Fabeck Graben.
Next day the Canadians slightly improved their positions, when the 2nd Canadian Battalion captured a portion of a German trench about 500 yards long south of the Cambrai road. In gaining and retaining its objective (and thereby earning the congratulations of the Commander-in-Chief) the battalion owed much to the valour of one of its junior N.C.Os.-Corporal Leo Clarke. While clearing a continuation of the newly-captured trench during the construction of a permanent block on the battalion flank, most of the members of his small bombing party were killed or wounded and their supply of grenades was exhausted. Clarke was building a temporary barricade when an enemy party of twenty, led by two officers, counter-attacked down the trench. Coolly the corporal fought them off. Twice he emptied into the Germans his own revolver, and then two abandoned enemy rifles. He shot and killed an officer who had bayoneted him in the legs and he is credited with having killed or wounded at least sixteen enemy before the rest turned in flight. Then he shot down four more of the fleeing Germans, and captured a fifth - the sole enemy survivor. His courageous action brought Corporal Clarke the first of two Victoria Crosses to be won by his battalion. He was killed five weeks later, before the award was announced.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.148-149.