Canadians on the Western Front 1
05 min 31 s
Topical Film Company
The Canadians had fought a bitter battle in August 1917 for Hill 70, on the outskirts of the industrial city of Lens in northern France. Although the Corps engaged in terrible battles elsewhere (most notably Passchendaele), it returned to the Vimy-Lens sector of the front and, fortunately, was not in the direct path of the Germans’ great offensive drives of 1918. The Lens sector nonetheless was horrid, a tangled mess of ruined buildings, homes and mines. This clip shows the wreckage and includes scenes of the “Green Crassier” a slag heap over which the Germans and Canadians had fought bitterly in the summer of 1917.
Pieces of History
Artillery: The Great Killer
Historian, Canadian War Museum
In 1914 and 1915, artillery proved it was the great killer. For those caught in the open, shrapnel and high explosive shells wreacked havoc. Thousands were left rotting on the battlefields. However, artillery guns were vulnerable to small arms fire, and they could be driven away from the front. But the guns were soon firing indirectly from hidden positions several kilometeres to the rear, still causing terrible damage. Soldiers were forced to find safety in trenches, digging beneath the ground to escape the murderous fire.
As trenches were strengthened with barbed wire, deep dugouts, and machine -guns, an enormous weight of fire was needed to smash the enemy defences and support the infantry. But there were not always enough shells in the early years to feed the guns. And so the infantry were killed in the tens of thousands as they attacked undamaged enemy trenches in frontal assaults. As the war lengthened, artillerymen received nearly unlimited supplies of shells through the enormous production of munitions factories. New tactics were also developed to improve the accuracy of the guns.
Artillery shells contained high explosives, shrapnel, and, later in the war, poison gas and smoke. Both the high explosive and shrapnel shells were timed to detonate in the air above a target. High explosive shells blasted holes in the trenches and the concussion alone could kill, as lungs collapsed under the force of the explosion. Shrapnel shells were equally deadly, consisting of more than 300 rounded metal balls that exploded downward in a cone-shaped rain of whirling metal. As well, the casing of the shell was designed to explode outward, creating jagged, uneven shards of steel that tore through flesh.
By 1916, commanders believed that massive artillery shoots, involving hundreds of thousands of shells, would annihilate the enemy defenders. This would allow the infantry to punch a hole through enemy lines and restore mobility on the Western Front.
However, it was often hard to hit, and then destroy, the narrow and well-fortified trenches. The problem also lay in the shell fuses. Earlier types were not sensitive enough to explode on contact, especially with shells tasked to clear barbed wire. As a result, many of the shells exploded in the ground, killing very few of the enemy, leaving the infantry to fight their way through defences-in-depth. By the end of 1916, newer, sensitive fuses that exploded on the slightest contact harnessed the destructive power of the artillery and, equally important to the infantry, cleared barbed wire from in front of enemy trenches.
Tactics again changed during the later phases of the bloody battles of the Somme in the last half of 1916. The gunners would never be able to destroy all of the German defences, and even one machine -gunner could kill hundreds of attacking infantry. Instead, the artillery sought to suppress enemy fire through a “creeping barrage,” and give their own attacking infantry enough time to cross the killing zone of nNo Mman’s Lland.
Gunners fired their shells to create a “creeping” wall of fire that slowly moved forward over the enemy lines at fixed intervals: 50 yards (46 m) every couple of minutes, less for muddy ground, more for open warfare. In effect, it was a screen of fire and explosives. As this moving wall of shrapnel and high explosives chewed up the ground in its path, the infantry were told to “lean into the barrage” and stay as close as possible. Although friendly fire was expected and occurred, the casualties would still be lighter than if the creeping barrage moved off and allowed German machine -gunners, waiting in the safety of deep dugouts, to get to the top of their trenches before the infantry crossed nNo Mman’s lLand.
At the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the gunners had perfected the creeping barrage. Yet enemy gunners still took a fearful toll as they laid down their own counter-barrages to catch the follow-on waves of infantry. The enemy guns had to be stopped, or slowed, but it was exceedingly difficult to identify, target, and destroy camouflaged guns several kilometeres away.
Accurate intelligence was essential, and new and refined forms of science aided the gunners. The Canadian Corps was lucky to have Brigadier-General Andrew McNaughton, commander of the counter-battery office for much of the war, who embraced new technology and tactics. A prewar professor at McGill University, he turned to science to save his soldiers lives.
The Canadian Counter Battery Office (CCBO), established in February 1917, gathered intelligence and processed information on the enemy to assist in knocking out his guns. Aerial reconnaissance from the Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) was of great assistance as airmen photographed the front from great heights. Later in the war, observation aircraft circled the battlefield, passing real-time information to the gunners through letter drops and primitive wireless radio.
As the CCBO developed after April 1917, this information-gathering and target-selection became more sophisticated, with new technology, like sound-ranging and flash-spotting, assisting gunners to find and destroy enemy targets.
Flash-spotting involved the coordination of observers. At least three posts were needed, usually spread out along several kilometeres. When an enemy gun position was spotted by the revealing flash as the shell left the barrel, the observers were telephoned by headquarters to turn their attention to that spot. After studying the flash of the gun, the observers would hit a key that was connected to a lamp at headquarters. From the observers’ bearings, and by triangulating their estimates, enemy guns could be located with high precision.
Sound-ranging worked on a similar principle. Listeners sat two kilometeres behind the line with their microphones. Additional posts were manned well ahead of these positions. As long as there was not more than one shell per second being fired, on hearing the crash of an enemy gun, the forward listening post pressed a key that started an oscillograph, an instrument that recorded on film the sound of the shell in flight as it reached each microphone in turn. The time-intervals between the microphones allowed the CCBO to analyse the information and, if conditions were optimal, pinpoint enemy guns to within twenty-five 25 yards (23 m). All available counter-battery guns would be aimed on that spot to deliver a destructive shoot of 50-100 shells. Chemical shells were also used to kill or force the enemy gunners to wear debilitating respirators that severely affected the rate of fire.
In the last year of the war, artillery had perfected the creeping barrage and was steadily improving its counter-battery work. Further tactical refinement allowed gunners to fire more complicated barrages, like a box barrage. The box barrages set up a wall of fire and explosives around an enemy position —-- usually a trench —-- which effectively isolated it from reinforcements. It allowed assaulting Canadian infantrymen to capture and consolidate a position without fear of immediate counterattack.
By war’s end, 43,914 gunners had served in the Canadian artillery, and 2,565 had lost their lives from disease, injury, and battlefield wounds. They had fired tens of millions of shells, reducing the landscape to a desolate wasteland, and an estimated 60% of all wounds were inflicted by shell fire. The First World War was indeed a gunner’s war.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.
McNaughton, A.G.L. “Counter-Battery Work.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 3, 4 (July, 1926).
McNaughton, A.G.L. “The Development of Artillery in the Great War.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 4, 2 (January, 1929).
Nicholson, G.W.L. The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery, Vol. 1: 1534-1919 Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
Rawling, William. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Volume I. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
The Assault on Hill 70, August 15 1917
The final Canadian objective was a series of old German trenches which formed an arc around Hill 70's lower eastern slope, stretching for two miles from Cité Ste. Elisabeth to Bois Hugo. This and two forward trench lines on the hill, with deep old-style dug-outs, the enemy now used only as shelter from shellfire and rain; but in the eyes of the Canadian planners the position was far enough to the east to protect the artillery observation posts which they proposed to establish on the summit. The hard chalk subsoil, in which the men could quickly dig serviceable trenches, would lend itself to early consolidation against the inevitable counter-attack, which must be made under close observation and for this the Canadian artillery would be well prepared.
The Germans were expected to accept the temporary loss of their lightly held forward position and to fight the main defensive battle from machine-gun posts and shell-holes immediately to the rear, counter-attacking with fresh troops from assembly areas in and about Cité St. Auguste. To meet this latter threat heavy and divisional artillery would shell probable lines of advance from these areas, while aerial observers watched for German troop concentrations farther back. As far as possible Hill 70 was to be a killing by artillery. The main assault was to be supported by nine field brigades - five with the 1st Division on the left, and four with the 2nd Division. Their barrage would be supplemented by the fire of 160 machine-guns. Rehearsals for the attack, carried out on ground resembling the actual battlefield, repeated the tactics that had proved successful at Fresnoy. There was emphasis on immediately mopping up the captured area and bringing forward the machine-guns-48 with each assaulting brigade-as soon as the objective was taken. Each machine-gun position would then become the centre of a platoon strongpoint manned by at least 25 infantrymen.
The two assaulting divisions each had two brigades forward - from north to south the 3rd, 2nd, 5th and 4th - totalling ten battalions. Their objective was marked off in depth in three stages. The assaulting battalions would take the enemy's front trenches in their first stride. The Blue Line ran along the German second position, on the crest of the hill. The Green, the final objective, marked the enemy's third line, on the lower reverse slope, some 1,500 yards from the starting position. From north to south it followed in succession "Hugo" and "Norman" Trenches and "Nun's Alley", their chalky course showing a dead white in air photographs. Opposite the 2nd Division's right flank the Green Line lined south-west along "Commotion" Trench, to bend sharply westward along "Chicory". In the centre, where the 2nd Brigade had the greatest distance to cover, the intermediate Red Line formed a chord to the curve of the final objective.
The assault went in at 4:25 on the morning of August 15 1917, just as dawn was breaking.
Special companies of the Royal Engineers began firing drums of burning oil into Cité Ste. Elisabeth and at other selected targets in order to supplement the artillery fire and build up a smoke-screen. The 18-pounders, 102 to each Division, laid down their rolling barrage "with beautiful accuracy". Four hundred yards ahead 4.5- and 6-inch howitzers fired a jumping barrage, while still further forward known enemy strong points were blasted by heavy howitzers.
The Germans holding Hill 70 were the 26th and 165th Regiments of the 7th Infantry Division. On the previous night, in anticipation of the Canadian attack, they had moved their reserve battalions up to Mortar Wood (600 yards north-east of Cité St. Auguste) and to the brickworks at the south-west corner of the Cité. They had detected tie assembly of our troops at 3:00 a.m., and three minutes after zero their artillery brought down defensive fire at widely scattered points. Our counter-batteries were ready, however, and quickly neutralized the German guns. Under cover of the barrage and the thick oil smoke the Canadians advanced rapidly, overwhelming trench garrisons as they went. In the more difficult sector on the right the brigades of Major-General Burstall's 2nd Division made their way through the debris of Cité St. Edouard and Cité St. Laurent without losing pace. Within twenty minutes, both divisions were on the Blue Line, having covered an average distance of 600 yards. Another twenty minutes passed while the 18th and 21st Battalions of the 4th Brigade made of Chicory Trench a defensive flank facing the northern edge of Lens; the 20th then resumed the advance through the ruins of Cité Ste. Elisabeth to secure the remainder of Commotion Trench. To the right of centre, the 5th Brigade passed the 24th and 26th Battalions through the 25th and 22nd to overrun Cité St. Emile and take Nun's Alley. In spite of heavy machine-gun fire from Cité St. Auguste and the adjacent brickworks, the 2nd Brigade closed with the Red Line - the 7th Battalion on the left and the 8th on the right. The 3rd Brigade continued its advance to Hugo Trench with its three original assault battalions (the 15th, 13th and 16th) remaining forward.
Brig.-Gen. Tuxford's battalions suffered some casualties from machine-guns in Bois Hugo before bombers closed in on these from the flanks. A medium trench mortar with all-round traverse fell to the 15th Battalion; 500 rounds which lay beside it were subsequently fired into the north-east end of Bois Hugo. By 6:00 a.m. the 2nd Brigade was at the intermediate Red Line, and in the other brigade sectors the Green Line was in Canadian hands.
In Major-General Macdonell's sector there remained the 2nd Brigade's advance to its Green Line objective, which included Norman Trench and a large chalk quarry abreast of the northern outskirts of Cité St. Auguste. After a halt of twenty minutes prescribed by the artillery time-table Brig.-Gen. Loomis sent the 7th and 8th Battalions forward in this final phase. Unfortunately, during the delay the oil smoke-screen had largely cleared and the enemy had been able to rally his remaining garrison. Machine-gun and rifle fire swept the eastern slope of Hill 70, slowing the advance to "individual rushes from shell-hole to shell-hole", in which all benefit of the barrage was lost. Only the flank companies of the two battalions reached their objectives. The 7th, on the left, found the quarry toughly garrisoned and well covered by enfilading machine-guns. Rifle grenadiers of one of the attacking companies wiped out a strongpoint manned by thirty Germans, and then covered a second company's assault from the northern flank. Knocking out a machine-gun post at the entrance, the latter rushed into the quarry, and seized close to fifty prisoners, setting up posts which they were able to hold until the early afternoon. The remainder of the battalion was forced to retire up the slope to the Red Line, being joined on the Brigade right by the 8th Battalion, whose attack had lost momentum and petered out in the shell-holes.
On General Currie's right flank a diversionary operation mounted by the 4th Canadian Division at Lens had proved its worth. As the main attack went in, 200 gas bombs were projected on to enemy strong points and dug-outs opposite Avion, while artillery and machine-guns not involved at Hill 70 fired the conventional barrage. The simulated assault by the 12th Brigade on the divisional right drew much more retaliatory fire than did the main operation. Four hours later, on the 2nd Division's immediate right, the 11th Brigade pushed strong fighting patrols towards the centre of Lens, preparing to reinforce and exploit their success should the enemy relax his hold of the town. But the Germans were not ready to abandon Lens, and a renewal of local counterattacks across the 4th Division's front drove the Canadian patrols back to the city's outskirts.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.260-263.
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/
How We View the Past
Grade Level: Secondary 9-12
Time Allowance: 45 minutes
Films: Canadians on the Western Front 1, August Offensive 2, Canadians Advance East of Arras 2, Bourlon Wood
Summary: Students consider the differing viewpoints of Germans and Canadians on World War I.
World War I generated massive changes. The Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed. Communism transformed Russia into the Soviet Union. Canada moved closer to being an independent nation within the British Commonwealth. Conscription deepened the French-English divide. Women gained the vote at the federal level. The value of Canada’s manufacturing output equalled the value of our agricultural output. Medicine was improved. Radios and cars became common. The United States became the world’s richest nation, and the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, was created. Most of these changes are indisputable. But how people interpret these changes - how they judge their meaning - varies.
Watch the films. You are employed by the United Nations as a historian who is developing materials to be used in schools in Germany and Canada. Your first job is to determine how each country has interpreted what has been captured on film and what is known about the war in general.
Fill in the chart using the statements below. You may place a statement on one or both sides.
a) Treaty of Versailles, 1919, was humiliating.
b) British blockade preventing food from entering Germany was inhumane.
c) German aggression made war inevitable.
d) Bombing of London by airships was a major atrocity.
e) Treaty of Versailles, 1919, was hard but fair.
f) The Kaiser abdicated; it was right to allow the new government into peace talks in Paris, 1919.
g) Both sides were equally to blame for war.
h) Canada achieved a great victory at Vimy Ridge.
i) Submarine warfare was necessary to stop the blockade.
j) The war resulted in economic advances.
k) The war resulted in economic collapse and misery.
Textbooks often illustrate different viewpoints on history. Write an overview of important events in World War I that includes both German and Canadian points of view.