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Remembrance Day



Canadian trench display, Wellington County Museum,
Fergus, Ontario.
Photo by Jason Gray

"The great Allied victories of 1918 were spearheaded by Canadian troops, perhaps the most capable soldiers in the entire British order of battle."
-Kevin Myers, The Sunday Telegraph, 2002.

The origins of The Great War, as the First World War is known, is a long and complicated story which may have had its roots in the 1870s.  France was defeated by the disciplined troops of Prussia and her allies, and formed an alliance with Russia in 1894.  The Germans, allies of Prussia, made their own alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a collection of nationalities who were eager to free themselves from their Hapsburg Emporer Franz-Josef.  On June 28, 1914, the grandson of Franz-Josef, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was murdered by a young student believed to belong to the terrorist group "The Black Hand", in Sarajevo.  Blaming Serbia for the murder of their heir to the throne, the Austrian government demanded a heavy penalty and issued a list of demands for the Serbs to meet.  As the defenders of all Slavic peoples, including the Serbs, Russia prepared for war.  On August 1, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II mobilized the German army in support of Austria, who were now facing war with the Russians.  Because of their alliance, France now came to the aid of their Russian allies, and soon found themselves at war with Germany.

Germany had once been a close ally of the British, while both Russia and France had been enemies.  Kaiser Wilhelm, however, challenged the Royal Navy for dominance of the world's oceans, and a naval arms race had been building for several years between the two nations.  The British launched a massive class of armoured ships, known as Dreadnoughts, but the German navy was keeping pace with a shipbuilding program of its own.  This deadly buildup of naval power led to a bitter rivalry between the two European industrial superpowers.  Furthermore, a treaty signed in 1830 bound Britain, France and Prussia to protect Belgium; a treaty the Germans tore up on August 1st.  In an effort to overwhelm the French, German armies raced across Belgium.  In response, London sent an ultimatum to Berlin, ordering German troops to be withdrawn from Belgium by midnight, August 4th, or war would be declared.  The Germans ignored the demand, leading to the beginning of "The Great War".

News reached Canada that Britain had declared war on Germany on Monday, August 4, 1914.  In Ottawa, Sir Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia, was delighted at the news, as were many Canadian citizens.  Although it was a holiday in Canada, crowds filled the streets and stood outside of newspaper offices, hoping for bulletins about the situation.  In Ottawa, former Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier told the country that if Britain was at war, then Canada was also at war.  Canadians cheered at each bulletin, marching up and down in the streets waving Union Jacks and the Canadian flag, beating drums, and throwing their hats in the air in a show of Canadian loyalty.  In Quebec, the editor of the Le Devoir newspaper declared "Canada must contribute within the bounds of her strength, and by means which are proper to herself, to the triumph of the combined efforts of France and England".

To many Canadians, the idea of going to war seemed like an "adventure".  It had been more than one hundred years since the British Empire had known a great war, and Canadians believed the British to always be on the winning side.  Experts insisted that the war would be a very short affair, probably over by Christmas, and the biggest fear among Canadian men was that they may not get overseas in time to share in the fighting.  Canada's military consisted of a very small permanent army, and a militia numbering only 55,000, but Hughes had doubled Canadian military spending.  Although very little war material was being produced in Canada at the time, artillery and other equipment poured into Canada as quickly as British factories could produce it.

Canada declared war on August 19, 1914, and a new government under Prime Minister Robert Borden offered 25,000 troops to Great Britain.  At the time, Newfoundland was not a province of Canada, but a separate Dominion within in the British Commonwealth.  The Newfoundlanders also came to the aid of Great Britain, mobilizing an army of their own, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, to fight on the European battlefields.  Offers of Canadian naval service were also provided, but due to the small size of the Royal Canadian Navy, the British requested it remain in Canada to defend home waters.  Canada's contribution, it was decided, would be primarily that of a land based army.

In addition to troops, Canada's factories also began contributing to the war effort.  Over 65 million shells would eventually be produced in Canada, and in Welland, Ontario, a new shipbuilding company was formed.  British American Shipbuilding Co. was contracted to build hulls for warships, while the Ross Rifle factory in Quebec City produced thousands of guns utilized by soldiers on the front lines.

In the four years of war that would follow, Canadian industries produced everything from munitions to ship rigging.

Recruitment in Canada

"Canadian Troops Off For The War"
Colour postcard showing Canadian Expeditionary Force
on training excersises at Valcartier, Quebec.

"Manliness, courage, loyalty - these are the qualities that made the Canadian Corps famous, that gained them their splendid series of victories.  These qualities were characteristic of the whole nation".

-Lord Julian Byng

With patriotism still running high, and many believing the war would be over by Christmas, recruiting centres were over-run by those attempting to enlist.  The government had pledged 25,000 soldiers, but by September, a force of more than 32,000 men and 8,000 horses had been raised.  Some were volunteers from the militia regiments across the country, others had no military experience, and many more were recent immigrants from Britain.  Many of these British men were veterans of the Boer War, and a number of other European nationalities, as well as native Indians, black Canadians and Japanese volunteered to serve.  With enlistment running so high, Prime Minister Borden, in his New Years message in 1915, was promising half a million men for the allied war effort.  In the early years of the war, Canada was suffering from an economic depression, and many of the recruits joined the army to find work.  Others were drawn by a sense of adventure, or the desire to escape the boredom of school or a job, while many more felt a sense of duty as citizens.  In a drive to continue recruiting, wealthy citizens paid for recruiting posters, and many other citizens contributed to the Canadian Patriotic Fund, to support the families of soldiers.  In some cases, teachers, clergymen and patriotic associations told young men they were cowards if they didn't enlist, and in some cities, women pinned white feathers (a symbol of cowardice) on men wearing civilian clothing.

The CEF wanted physically fit men, between the ages of 18 and 45.  Many who were either too young, or too old, lied about their ages in an effort to enlist.  Even some who were sick or disabled were passed by medical officers and allowed to enlist, but many of these broke down during military training and were discharged. In all, 258 CEF battalions were formed, far exceeding the 48 battalions that would be needed for the Canadian Corps overseas. Some battalions were formed along the lines of Irish and Scottish traditions, while others wanted "sportsmen" in its ranks.  In an effort to recruit the best young men available, one battalion even promised mothers its soldiers would never touch liquor.

Assembling at a military camp in Valcartier, Quebec, training and testing began, with nearly five thousand men being discharged, mostly for medical reasons.  Those that remained began training and, despite chaoes, disorganization, and a lack of equipment and qualified instructors, the men finished their boot camp, emerging as a fighting force dubbed the 1st Canadian Division.  Many of the men, who had never served in the military, had to get used to the life of army discipline. They were screamed at and insulted by drill sergeants, forced to endure long marches, and learn to live in barracks with little privacy and poorly cooked meals. Those who completed the basic training in Valcartier were assembled into battalions of 1,000 men each. Many old militia titles such as the Dufferin Rifles of Canada were scrapped; replaced instead with numbered battalions, a change instituted by Hughes himself.  An exception to the numbered battalions of the CEF was the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who entered the war initially attached to a British brigade, and retained their distinctive name and camp colours. Uniformed in khaki tunics, which had been adopted  by the militia in 1903, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was given a Canadian look, with maple leaf shaped cap and collar badges. Ten weeks after the world had gone to war, almost 30,000 Canadian soldiers were ready to sail for Europe's battlefields. 

The Canadian Expeditionary Force, accompanied by the Newfoundland Regiment and one hundred nursing sisters, sailed in a convoy, escorted by British warships, arriving in England during the winter of 1914.  For the next few months, the Canadians camped at Salisbury Plain, training and drilling in freezing rain, unitl the British high command finally decided they were ready to move to the combat zone.

Canadian Military Leadership

Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie,
Valiants Memorial, Ottawa, Ontario.
Photo by Jason Gray

In September, 1914, Canada's army was under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Edwin Alderson, a British born infantry officer.  Because of General Alderson's experience leading Canadian troops during the Boer War, he was selected to command the army by Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes.  However, after the arrival of the Canadian contingent in England, Hughes and Alderson were soon at odds.  Alderson complained about the poor training his men had received, criticized his officers (many of whom were appointed by Hughes), and was especially critical of the Ross Rifle, a weapon issued to Canadian soldiers that was manufactured by a colleague of Hughes.  General Alderson was in command of the Canadians following the disasterous Battle of Ypres, where his leadership was criticized by many of his subordinates, including Hughes' son.  Despite this, Alderson remained in command of the 1st Canadian Division.  He retained his command position until 1915, when Hughes was finally able to have him replaced, relegating Alderson to a largely ceremonial posting.  Another British born officer, and former Boer War veteran, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng filled Alderson's position in 1916.  Byng was in command of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, a glorious, albeit costly, victory.  It wasn't long until Byne was promoted to full General, and appointed commander of the British 3rd Army.

Following Byng's promotion, one of his subordinate officers, Major-General Arthur Currie, was appointed to command the Canadian Corps. Born near Strathroy, Ontario, Currie was a teacher and real estate agent, who had also worked his way up through the ranks in the militia.  Under Byng, Currie played an important leadership role at Vimy Ridge, and had participated in all of Canada's major engagements during the war.  He firmly believed that Canadian troops should be kept together, and that command in his Corps should be made up of Canadian officers.  He also believed that, prior to a battle, every soldier from private to general should be fully briefed and made aware of what was expected of them.  

The four Divisions which made up the Canadian Corps were all led by Canadians.  Major-General Archibald Macdonnell, of Windsor, took Currie's place as commanding officer of the 1st Division following the latter's promotion.  The 2nd Division was under Major-General Richard Turner, a Quebec City native who had won a Victoria Cross during the Boer War.  Toronto's Major-General Malcolm Mercer took command of the 3rd Division, while Quebec's Major-General David Watson led the 4th Division.  A 5th Division was being created for the Canadian Corps, but was disbanded in 1917, and its recruits spread among the existing four divisions.

The Second Battle of Ypres

Canadian soldiers in the trenches, Wellington County Museum, Fergus, Ontario
Photo by J. Gray

By February, 1915, following six months of training in England, the 1st Canadian Division had landed at the French coastal city of St. Nazaire, with the Princess Patricia's being "first in the field" among Canadian troops. Following some brief training by the British, the Canadians took over a series of trenches at Fleurbaix, near Flanders, on the French-Belgian border.  It was here that the CEF quickly discovered the reality of the First World War: dirt, disease, and death. In these trenches, the first Canadian casualties were recorded, when several soldiers were shot through the head by German snipers, or killed by shrapnel from artillery shells. At Fleurbaix, Canadian fatalities numbered one officer, and twenty nine men. By April, the First Canadian Division would soon be facing it's first test in combat, near a Belgian city called Ypres.

April 22-24, 1915

Many of the Canadians, who had been civilians only a few months ago, were about to discover first hand the horrors of the war.  Canadian troops were moved to a bulge in the Allied line near Ypres, where they joined a French Algerian division, and two British divisions. The Canadians were positoned in the middle, with the two British divisions to their right and the French-Algerians to their left.  The Germans held the advantage of higher ground, and were able to direct their fire into the Allied trenches.  An engagement, which became known as the Second Battle of Ypres, was fought on April 22, 1915. Following a heavy artillery bombardment, the Germans unleashed a new weapon on the allies... poison gas.  Green clouds of deadly chlorine gas drifted towards the Allied trenches, hitting the French first.  Those French troops who were not killed by the attack began to retreat, choking.

"They were mostly blind, and choking to death," commented one Canadian officer. The retreat of the Algerians caused a hole in the Allied line, almost four miles across.  The German army began to advance on this gap in the lines, and had they broken through, would have destroyed the Allied line.  The German troops, however, were suspicious of the poison gas, and only advanced a short distance towards the line, before digging in. The Canadians were called upon to help close the hole left by the retreating Algerians.  The 10th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, and the 13th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), were assigned to the task.  Lieutenant Guy Drummond and the kilted troops of the 13th were the first to engage the attacking Germans.  Occupying the abandoned French positions, Drummond and his men forced the Germans into a vicious, short fight.  To relieve the pressure on Lieutenant Drummond and his men, a battery of Canadian Field Artillery opened fire on the Germans, inflicting heavy casualties on their flanks. When the guns became targets of the German infantry, they were forced to withdraw from their position. Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher, a machine gunner with the 13th, opened fire on the advancing Germans long enough to cover the retreat of the artillery.  For his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.  The award was the first for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Although the Canadian highlanders were defeated, they prevented the enemy from surrounding the 1st Canadian Division, and their sacrifice was critical to the final outcome of the battle.  The 13th Battalion suffered casualties of 120 officers and 454 men.

A gap, almost seven kilometers wide, still remained in the Allied lines.  Senior officers were concerned that German troops would be able to move through, and capture Ypres, cutting off thousands of Canadian and British troops.  Despite worries of a second gas attack, the gap would have to be completely closed.  North of the small village of St. Julien, Canadian troops again engaged the enemy.  Although suffering heavy casualties, they were able to close off a small piece of the gap and keep the Germans north of St. Julien.  German artillery then smashed the village to pieces, and the Canadians were forced to dig for their lives.  By nightfall, the village was still in Canadian hands, but the German army had advanced considerably, and occupied Kitchener's Woods, a forested area just west of St. Julien. From this position, the Germans would be able to overrun the Canadian positions, capture St. Julien, and march to Ypres.  The Canadians would have to take Kitchener's Woods before daybreak.

The Battle of Kitchener's Wood

At midnight on April 22, at Kitchener's Woods, Canadian troops advanced on the German positions.  Two battalions, the 10th and 16th, numbering 1,600 men, would be assigned to capturing the forested area.  The 10th Battalion, commanded by a tough, former Alberta rancher named Lieutenant Colonel Russ Boyle, was made up of men from the Calgary Highlanders and the Winnipeg Light Infantry. The 16th Battalion, a kilted regiment known as the "Canadian Scottish", was made up of men from British Columbia and Manitoba. Between them, the two battalions had little combat experience.  They would be expected to conduct a night assault against a position they had never seen, without knowing the location of the enemy troops. Furthermore, they would have to attack across an open field, as silently as possible, since the element of surprise was essential. Making their way through hedges and bushes laced with barbed wire, the advancing Canadians remained un-detected until several men tripped over a low hedge near the German lines.  The noise awakened the defenders, and the troops were soon coming under heavy fire from German machine guns. Rushing into the woods, the Germans and Canadians were soon engaged in more vicious, hand to hand combat.  For three hours, the men fought with bayonets and rifle butts, before the woods fell to the Canadians.

The battle was a great victory for the Allies, but the Canadians suffered a heavy toll.  Lieutenant-Colonel Russell Boyle was killed, along with 75 percent of his men. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, and the poor planning of the attack, The Canadian assault at Kitchener's Wood was described by French Marshal Ferdinand Foch as "the greatest act of the war".

German Field Gun, manufactured in 1896,
Mount Forest, Ontario,
Photo by J. Gray (2009)

Mauser Ridge

On Friday, April 23rd, a day after the deadly gas attack on the Canadians, and the capture of Kitchener's Wood, the gap in the British lines still had to be closed.  Despite heavy shelling from the German artillery, many of the Canadian units still held the positions they had prior to the gas attacks the day before.  Major General Currie knew an attack would soon be launched against the Canadian position, and ordered a high point on  Gravenstafel Ridge, behind the Canadian lines, turned into a defensive position. 

In an effort to further close the gap left by the fleeing French-Algerian troops the previous day, two more Canadian battalions were ordered to attack a German position on Mauser Ridge.  Aware of their advantageous position on Mauser Ridge, the German army had strung barbed wire and dug machine gun emplacements, positioning them to rain fire down on attackers.  To capture Mauser Ridge, the Canadians would have to attack across open ground, in daylight hours, while coming under fire of the German machine guns.  This task fell to the men of the 1st and 4th Battalions, both consisting of troops from Ontario.  The attack on Mauser Ridge began at 5:25 in the morning, and the Canadians were soon under heavy fire from enemy machine guns and rifles.  The open ground offered little cover, and the attackers tried to entrench.  Some found cover in abandoned farm buildings, but were quickly driven out by artillery fire.  

By the time the gunfire stopped, the ground in front of the German position was littered with the bodies of Canadian soldiers. Of the 1,600 men who attacked Mauser Ridge that morning, 850 lay dead or wounded, including Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Birchall, commanding officer of the 4th Battalion.  That afternoon, a second attack on the ridge was attempted, this time with British reinforcements, but again, the Germans were successful in defending their position.

German Breakthrough at the Apex

On April 24, a second German attack came.  This time, however, the Canadians were targetted.  As before, the attack began with a heavy barrage of artillery, and then the chlorine gas was released. The Canadians tried to hold their position until re-inforcements could arrive, and attempted to breath through urine soaked handkerchiefs.  This failed to protect them, and many became violently ill as the poison gas filled their lungs. In addition to the deadly chlorine gas, the Canadians were under heavy fire from German machine guns.  

To further complicate matters, the Canadian made Ross rifles the men had been issued began to jam in the muddy conditions.  The rifles, manufactured in Quebec City, had been built by businessman Charles Ross after the British refused to supply the Canadian army with Lee Enfield rifles. The weapons had been criticized by the men, and even their commander, Lieutenant General Alderson. Prior to the war, the rifles had been issued to the Northwest Mounted Police, who rejected them because of their poor workmanship and tendency to jam. Many Canadians found dead on the battlefield were still clenching a jammed Ross Rifle in their hands, and those who survived, often threw away their weapon, replacing it with one from a dead British or German soldier. Despite all of the hardships, the Canadians managed to hold off the Germans for 48 hours.  Relief finally arrived on April 26, and the Canadians had proven themselves to be a formidable fighting force.

A third attack came on May 8.  German artillery pounded the Princess Patricia's at Frezenberg and Bellewaerde Ridge, which was followed by a battle involving small arms and rifle fire.  The Canadians withheld the larger German force before being relieved at the end of the day.  By the time the attacks had ceased, only four officers and 150 Canadians had survived. Canadian casualties were high at Ypres; two thousand men lay dead, with many others wounded.  As a result of their bravery at Ypres, four Canadian soldiers (Edward Bellew, Frederick Fisher, Frederick Hall, Francis Scrimger) were awarded the Victoria Cross.

It was after the carnage of the Second Battle of Ypres that a Canadian military doctor, Lieutenant Colonel  John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario, penned his famous poem, "In Flanders Fields". McCrae wrote the poem after witnessing the death of a friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer of Montreal, who was killed by an exploding shell.  It became one of the most well known poems written during the war.  McCrae himself died in France, in January, 1918, from pneumonia.  At the time of his death, he was commanding No. 3 Canadian General Hospital.

The Battle of the Somme

"Assault on Courcellette", by David Pentland,
used with permission of the artist

"The Canadians entered the Somme battle where they played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as storm troops.  For the remainder of the war, they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another"
-British Prime Minister David Lloyd George

By the summer of 1916, the Allies and Germany remained locked in a stalemate in the trenches on the Western Front.  The Allied commanders decided that brute force, not technology, would be required to provide a solution. Their strategy called on simultaneous assaults on three fronts, joint British-French attacks along the River Somme.  However, while these attacks were still in the planning stages, the Germans attacked the French city of Verdun.  The ensuing battle cost the French army 303,000 casualties, which led to pressure on the British to rush their offensive plans in order to relieve Verdun.  The original plan, a joint British-French offensive, now fell almost entirely on the British.

Despite the reduction in troops from France, the British commander in chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, was still able to build up an enormous number of men and equipment.  Haig believed that his forces could destroy the German lines, with cavalry attacking and destroying artillery and communications positions.  In addition, the British were able to excavate seventeen tunnels, which were filled with mines, and placed near the enemy front lines.  The fighting began on June 25, when a British bombardment fired more than 1.7 million shells at the German positions.  On July 1, following five days of shelling, the mines near the German trenches were detonated.

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel

120mm Officer and men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment,
Modelled by Ray Welshman, used with permission.

"Tell friends that the 1st Newfoundland is O.K. and never feels downhearted.  We will make you all proud of us someday".
-Letter from Pvt. Frank Lind,
June 29th, 1916.

Immediately following this detonation, thousands of French and British troops began an advance across No Man's Land.  Among the Allied troops were members of the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment.  As part of the British Army's 29th Division, under the command of General Beauvoir De Lisle, they moved into position near the small village of Beaumont Hamel.  The Newfoundland Regiment had joined the 88th Brigade, and moved to within 500 yards of the German trenches on April 22.  The German defences were behind a mass of barbed wire, and the trenches were manned by tough and experienced troops from the 119th Reserve Regiment.  In addition, the Germans had turned a Y shaped ravine into one of the strongest points on the Somme front. For the next two months, the 88th Brigade, Newfoundland troops among them, trained and practiced their assaults on the German lines. The plan called for the 29th Division to advance a distance of 5,000 meters, with the 86th and 87th Brigades leading.  The 88th Brigade, comprising the Newfoundland Regiment and 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment (British Army), were to attack German positions along the Beaucourt Road.  Prior to the assault, a week-long artillery bombardment would be launched, with the objective of softening enemy resistance and destroying the barbed wire. The Newfoundland troops were confident.  They had trained for weeks, and felt physically conditioned.  General De Lisle further assured them that the British offensive would be a powerful one, while German resistance was weak. 

Bad weather delayed the attack until July 1st.  By the evening of June 30th, each soldier in the Newfoundland Regiment was equipped, and the men paraded for the last time.  One of the regiment's officers, Lieutenant Owen Steele, noted in his diary how calm and optimistic his men were.  Less than a week after writing these words, Lieutenant Steele was dead.  At 06:25 hours, July 1st, the artillery bombardment began.  Mines exploded under the ridges, and the Germans prepared for battle.  Poor communication caused General De Lisle to mistake German flares for signs that his 87th Brigade had acheived their objective, and the 88th was ordered to move forward immediately.  In their trenches, the Essex Regiment was unable to move forward, because of the large number of dead and wounded in front of them.  The Newfoundland Regiment would be forced to move forward alone, their objective being two lines of German trenches 600 and 900 meters away.

Practicing what they had learned while training, the Newfoundland Regiment moved into No Man's Land, with no artillery fire covering their advance.  A murderous cross-fire soon cut down the regiment, many before they had even left the gaps in their own barbed wire.  Those who had survived the enemy machine gun fire pushed forward, towards a shattered tree trunk known as "the danger tree", near the halfway point across No Man's Land.  Even fewer of the men made it beyond the tree, and the few who did were horrified to discover the artillery barrage had failed to destroy the German barbed wire.  Most of those who reached the German trenches were killed as they became tangled in the enemy wire.  In less than 30 minutes, the attack was over.  From a forward observation position, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur L. Hadow witnessed the near annhilation of his regiment.  When roll call was taken, only 68 out of 800 men remained unscathed.  The final casualty numbers were 710 killed, wounded or missing. 

In August, under the command of Lieutenant General Julian Byng, the newly formed Canadian Corps arrived from the Ypres Salient.  Upon their arrival at the Somme, the Canadians took over a section near the German held village of Courcelette.  Almost immediately, the Canadians came under enemy attack, suffering 2,600 casualties before they were able to launch their first offensive.  By September 15, the Canadians were joined on their lines by the British, who brought with them a new weapon of war... the tank.  Although the new machines of war were considered vulnerable, un-reliable and slow, they intimidated the German soldiers.

The Canadians and British launched an assault on Courcelette, taking the village in only a few hours.  The tanks, however, became bogged down, and fighting slowed.  German reinforcements arrived the following day, and once again, a stalemate had occurred and trench warfare had taken hold.  The Canadian Corps launched attacks again and again, with little success.  On September 26, they were able to push the Germans back a kilometer from the village, and in November, the Canadians captured the "Regina Trench", which was believed to be central to German defences.  A week after the capture of the Regina Trench, cold and heavy rains turned the battlefield to a sea of mud.  With further offensives being pointless, the battle finally ended.

In four and a half months of fighting, the Allies had gained eight kilometers.  This victory cost nearly 630,000 casualties, of which 146,000 were killed.  The Germans, who suffered more than 164,000 dead and nearly 270,000 wounded, referred to the Battle of the Somme as das Blutbad - The Blood Bath.  The Canadians fought in the Battle of the Somme for three months, suffering casualties of nearly 25,000 men.  For their earlier actions at the Battle of Ypres, and their fierce fighting at the Somme, the Canadians earned a reputation as a fearless fighting force.  Respected on both sides of the battlefield, Canadian troops were soon used to head Allied assaults in major battles throughout the war.  In the words of British Prime Minister Lloyd George, "whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line, they prepared for the worst".

Four Canadian soldiers, Thomas Wilkinson, Lionel Clarke, James Richardson, and John Kerr, were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions during the Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge

"The Battle of Vimy Ridge", By Richard Jack,
Credit: Archives of Ontario

"We went up Vimy Ridge as Albertans and Nova Scotians.  We came down as Canadians"
-Un-identified Canadian veteran

Following the months long Battle of the Somme, with Canadian casualties numbering 24,000 and morale sinking, the Corps received orders transferring them out of the battle area.  Their relief, however, was short lived, when the men realized they were being deployed to the dangerous Vimy Ridge, a seven mile long escarpment in the French region of Artois. The ridge had been taken by the Germans early in 1914 and held ever since.  Despite attempts by the French and British to capture Vimy, it remained in German hands and was considered by many to be impregnable.

Three divisions of the German Sixth Army, under the command of General Ludwig von Falkenhausen, defended the strategically important ridge, which threatened the city of Arras and prevented the Allies from recapturing Douai Plain and the coal mining area of Lens.  The German fortifications included a network of trenches and fortified dugouts, complete with electricity and running water, as well as gun emplacements on the slope, machine guns mounted in concrete pillboxes, and rows of razor sharp wire.  Behind the ridge, the troops were also supported by artillery.  German snipers lined the hilltop, and even at night employed flares which lit up the Allied trenches, allowing them to fire on the soldiers.  The Germans were supremely confident that nobody, especially colonial troops from Canada, would be able to capture the ridge.

When the Canadians arrived, the surrounding farms and villages had been reduced to rubble.  No man's land was full of craters, and the remains of dead troops in French blue and German grey were scattered everywhere.  On the ridge, the Germans raised a sign reading "Welcome Canadians".

Under the leadership of Sir Julian Byng, the battle would be the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together.  The Canadians numbered nearly 100,000 men, and were joined by the British 5th Infantry Division, as well as some engineering and labour units.  Tunneling crews immediately went to work, creating twelve underground passages, more than one kilometer long.  These served to connect the reserve lines with the front lines, allowing the Canadian troops to advance without being seen.  More tunnels were created, and utilized as command posts, communications centers, ammunition storage facilities, and for laying mines under the German positions.

Byng, and Major General Currie, began the planning of the assault.  The officers believed that all men, from generals to privates, should be fully briefed and informed of what was expected of him.  Training was instituted, and infantrymen were now able to serve as riflemen, machine gunners and grenade throwers.  Behind the Canadian lines, the men trained and drilled in rehearsals of the assault on Vimy Ridge, and Currie developed a technique known as the "creeping barrage", where troops would follow advancing lines of artillery fire.  Syncronized with artillery, the infantry would move forward at a pace of 100 yards every three minutes.  This technique would put Canadian troops on top of a German position immediately after an artillery barrage, giving the defenders little time to recover. For four months, the Canadian troops trained and rehearsed, while the Germans observed, and realized an attack would be imminent.

Beginning in December, 1916, trench raids were conducted against German positions.  Attacking with bombs and Lewis machine guns, the raiders were able to capture enemy documents and prisoners, both of which were used for intelligence gathering.  In the initial trench raids in December, only a handful of men would attack... later growing in size until over 1,000 soldiers would sometimes be conducting a raid.  The raids enabled the Canadian Corps to gather valuable intelligence, learn the territory, and kept the German soldiers in a state of constant tension.  The raids, however, came at a cost.  More than 1,600 Canadians were killed before the main attack came on April 9th.  The costliest raid came on March 1st, when more than six hundred officers and men from the 4th Canadian Division became casualties.

Canadian infantry advance with tank across No Man's Land
Credit: Library and Archives Canada

The battle began on the morning of March 25, 1917, when artillery began to rain down on the German positions. Every hour, for the next seven days, the barrage continued to hammer the German positions.  By the time it had ended, more than one million shells had fallen on the enemy positons.  On the morning of April 9th, in the cold and rain, the Canadian Corps began their assault on Vimy Ridge.  The mines had been detonated, and under the cover of the "creeping barrage", the infantry advanced.  The first Canadian wave numbered 15,000 men, who were supported by more than 1,000 cannon, some mounted on railway cars miles from the battlefield.  In less than two hours, the Canadian Corps had acheived three out of their four objectives.  Only Hill 145, the highest point on the ridge, had not been captured.  Because it suffered less damage during the artillery barrage than other German positions, the troops were able to inflict high casualties on the Canadian 4th Division.  However, despite losing more than sixty percent of their men, the 4th Division was able to capture the hill by day's end.  The next morning, the 4th Divison moved east from Hill 145, assaulting a line of German trenches.  By April 12th, in a snowstorm, the last German resistance had fallen, and the Canadian Corps controlled the entire ridge. Vimy was the biggest single advance on the Western Front up to that time, and was soon celebrated as a national coming of age for Canada.

German prisoners captured by Canadian troops at Vimy.
Credit: World War 1 image archive

Despite the victory, it was a bloody battle for Canada.  3,598 men had been killed, and more than 7,000 were wounded.  The Germans suffered 20,000 dead and wounded, and another 4,000 captured.  The survivors retreated towards the Plains of Douai, with their morale undermined.  For Canada, it marked the first time in the nation's fifty year history that a corps sized formation fought as a unit.  Julien Byng was promoted to command of the Third British Army, and Sir Arthur Currie, knighted by King George V on the battlefield, was promoted to command the Canadian Corps.

In 1922, the French government recognized the accomplishments of the Canadian Corps at Vimy, when the ridge was ceded to the people of Canada.  On the top of Hill 145, which was once covered in German machine gun nests, a white limestone monument now stands.  The monument was designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward, and constructed from limestone quarried in Croatia. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial, the largest of Canada's monuments, took eleven years to build, at a cost of $1.5 million.

The Battle of Passchendaele


Passchendaele display, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
photo by J. Gray (2009)

"A forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility"
-Winston Churchill on Passchendaele

The Battle of Passchendaele illustrated the horror and futility of the First World War more than any other battle. Beginning on July 31st, 1917, the objective was for the British and their allies to break through German defences in the Ypres Salient, breaking the stalemate that had been in place for three years, as well as capturing the highland at passchendaele Ridge. This would be followed by an advance on the Belgian ports which were still under German occupation. Supported by the Royal Navy, the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, hoped that by capturing these ports, German submarine attacks on allied supply convoys could be stopped. After three years of fighting, Brigadier General Henri Philippe Petain and his French forces had been weakened.  By 1917, they were conducting fewer offensives, instead adopting a strategy of defence and re-building his shattered army.  Initially planned as a joint British-French offensive, the fighting at Passchendaele would fall on solely on the shoulders of the British.

When the battle began, the British met with success, advancing more than 2,000 meters and capturing Pilkem village.  As they advanced to the northeast, the Germans counter attacked, and recaptured some of the territory.  With stiff resistance, the German army was able to stop the British advance.  In addition to the German resistance, the weather changed, presenting problems for the British.  Heavy rains turned the plains into a sea of mud, and millions of exploding shells churned up the mud until it was waist deep in places. The soldiers of the British Empire now found themselves wading through the thick mud, and the artillery crews were forced to haul their guns through the quagmire.  They also had to construct platforms to prevent the cannons from sinking, while the sea of mud drowned the wounded.  In addition to the weather and mud, the Germans held the ridge, an advantage that allowed them to rain fire down on the Allied troops.  The German troops also remained safe and relatively dry inside a series of interlocking concrete pillboxes. British, Australian and New Zealand troops fought the futile battle through August and September, and in October, the Canadians entered the battle.  The Canadian Corps commander, General Arthur Currie, predicted 16,000 Canadian casulties, a number which would be frighteningly accurate.

Little ground had been gained by the time the Canadian Corps entered the battle, and casualties were high.  General Currie devised a strategy, where Passchendaele would be taken by a series of engagements, each with a narrow objective, which together would support the overall goal of driving a wedge into the position of the German army.  His Canadians would launch their first assault in the early  morning hours of October 26th, in a field of mud and a heavy rainfall. The 3rd and 4th Divisions fought for three days, gaining only 700 meters, but suffering more than 2,500 killed, wounded and missing.

A second Canadian assault was launched on October 30, also with devastating losses.  Another kilometer of ground had been taken, but in this attack, more than 2,300 Canadian casualties were suffered.  A third attack, a week later, was launched by soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Divisions.  Fighting through waist deep water, they liberated the village of Passchendaele, situated on a ridge north east of Ypres.  The fourth, and final, attack came on November 10th, where the high ground of Passchendaele Ridge was secured.  The Allies had been fighting for 98 days, before Haig ordered an end to the offensive.

During the ninety-eight days of fighting, few significant gains were acheived.  All of the territory taken by the Allies had been ceded within six months.  The Allies suffered 448,000 casualties, nearly 16,000 of them Canadians, as General Currie had predicted.  The Germans suffered approximately 260,000 killed, wounded or missing.  Although some argued that the battle had helped to wear down the Germans, Haig was heavily criticized for his leadership role and actions, and British prime minister Lloyd George was among those condemning him.  The battle was a futile struggle, which was fought under horrendous conditions.  The public was horrified by photos of soldiers drowning in a sea of mud, and Prime Minister Lloyd George remarked that Passchendaele was "among the greatest, most difficult, futile, and bloodiest battles ever fought.. in the history of warfare".

Nine Canadian soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions at Passchendaele.  These men were Colin Barron, Thomas Holmes, Cecil Kinross, Hugh McKenzie, George Mullin, Christopher O'Kelly, George Pearkes, James Robertson and Robert Shankland.  Receiving his medal at only 19 years of age, Private Holmes holds the distinction of being the youngest Canadian recipient of a Victoria Cross.

The Battle of Passchendaele was memoralized in film in 2008.  Written, co-produced and directed by Canadian actor Paul Gross, the movie Passchendaele tells the story of Sergeant Michael Dunne, a soldier with the Canadian Expeditionary Force who fought in the battle.  In addition to writing and directing the film, Gross also stars in the role of Sgt. Dunne. 

The Halifax Explosion

Aftermath of the Halifax explosion, December, 1917
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

"Munitions ship on fire in the harbour. Goodbye"
-Railway telegraph operator Vincent Coleman

"Most deeply regret to hear of serious explosion at Halifax resulting in great loss of life and property. Please convey to people of Halifax, where I have spent so many happy times, my true sympathy in this grievous calamity."
-Telegram from King George V

While thousands of Canadians were across the sea, fighting the war in Europe, an event on the morning of December 6, 1917, brought the terror of war to the shores of a major Canadian port.  Following the tremendous explosion of an ammunition ship in the harbour, a blast of fire and wind instantly destroyed entire city blocks, causing millions of dollars in damage, and killing and wounding thousands of people.

The Canadian port city of Halifax had always played an important role in Canada's history.  The British founded a military base here in 1749, naming it after Lord Halifax.  Throughout the cities history, it has always been an important trading port, as well as playing a vital role in the defence of North America and in the supply of essential goods to Europe during both World Wars.  The harbour is deep enough to allow ships of all sizes to anchor here, with docks and terminals to service both naval and civilian vessels.  The entrance to the harbour is guarded by Citadel Hill, an early fortress constructed by the British, where heavy cannon controlled the entrance to the port.  With a population of more than 60,000 people during the First World War, Halifax was not only a vital port city for the allies, but also active with many factories and mills producing supplies vital for the war effort.

In the early morning hours of December 6, 1917, the city was just coming awake.  The day was clear, and very little snow was on the ground.  Ferries were carrying workers across the harbour to the foundries and mills, shops and businesses were just beginning to open for business, and many children were on their way to school. The city's main railway station is located near Pier 9, and a passenger train, which is running behind schedule, is due to arrive at approximately 9am.  In the Naval College and local armouries, soldiers and sailors are preparing for morning inspections and the day's activities, and the harbour is full of ships, both military and civilian.  Among these are the british cruisers HMS Highflyer and HMS Changuinola, both preparing to escort a convoy across the Atlantic.  The Canadian training ship HMCS Niobe is moored in the dockyard, as is the Belgian relief ship Imo, which is waiting for coal before carrying its cargo of relief supplies from New York to Europe.  The freighter SS Calonne, moored at Pier 9, is loading a number of horses for transport overseas, while the freighter Picton is having its cargo, including explosives, unloaded.  At the same time, a small French freighter, the Mont Blanc, has just entered the harbour.  It has just arrived from New York, to join a convoy bound for Europe, and is packed with high explosives.  More than two thousand tonnes of picric acid are stored below her decks, while the decks themselves are packed with barrels of benzine, a highly flammable material.  A further 200 tonnes of TNT round out Mont Blanc's cargo.

At approximately 8:45 a.m., the relief ship Imo and the Mont Blanc attempt to pass each other in the narrows leading into the harbour.  Despite the blast of her whistles, and an attempt to reverse the engines, the Imo and the Mont Blanc collide, sending a shower of sparks onto the deck of the ammunition ship.  The liquid benzine spills onto the decks of the french ship, and leaks into the holds, and is suddenly ignited by the sparks.  Although she has stopped her engines, the Mont Blanc is now burning, and drifting towards Pier 6.  Despite the efforts of the crew to fight the fire, it has spread too quickly, and the French captain orders his men to abandon ship.  The derelict ship continues its course towards Pier 6, a wooden dock stacked with war materials.  The city of Halifax Fire Department has only one modern fire engine, which races towards the pier with its five man crew, followed by the fire chief and his assistant in a car.  The tugboat Stella Maris races towards the burning ammunition ship, in the hopes of securing a line to her stern and towing her away from the shore.  Both the British warship HMS Highflyer and the Canadian training ship HMCS Niobe send sailors in rowboats to assist. None of the sailors or crew on the tugboat are aware of the deadly cargo below the decks onboard Mont Blanc.

At 9:05 am, telegraph operator Vince Coleman warns the incoming trains of the munitions ship burning in the harbour, and instructs them to stop.  One minute later, the Mont Blanc explodes in the harbour, causing the greatest disaster in Canadian history.  In a blast that is heard for miles, the Mont Blanc is blown into a  million pieces, sending red hot pieces of metal across the city.  A raging wind is formed by the explosion, flattening everything in its path, and a huge wave rushes towards shore, destroying boats and docks, before rushing into the streets.  A mushroom cloud rises several miles into the sky, causing many to believe the Germans are bombing the city from a squadron of zeppelins.

There is nothing left of the French ammuniton ship.  Her forward gun and anchor are located miles from the explosion.  Nearly every house and business for miles around is destroyed, or heavily damaged, and piers, docks and sheds along the waterfront simply vanish.  Brick, glass and timber create deadly showers, killing and injuring many, and the Belgian relief ship is grounded by the explosion, with seven of her crew killed on deck.  The entire crew of the tugboat Stella Maris are lost, as are all of the sailors from the British and Canadian warships.  Crewmen and longshoremen loading and unloading the freighters are mostly killed outright, along with all but one of the responding firefighters and many other workers along the shoreline.  At the railway station, track is torn up, engines and freight cars overturned, and the roof of the station collapses, killing scores of railway workers, including dispatcher Vince Coleman.  A sugar refinery on the waterfront is completely destroyed, and the bodies of many of its workers never found.  All over the city, wooden houses are on fire, people are trapped in debris, and many are blinded by flying glass.  A rumour quickly spreads that the powder magazine is on fire at the local armoury, however, this proves to be un-true.  Telephones, gas lines and transportation is all knocked out, and any available vehicles and horse drawn wagons are immediately pressed into service as makeshift ambulances.  The next day, a blizzard hits Halifax, burying the devastated city in snow, which paralyzes the rescue efforts.

The official count, by the Halifax Relief Commission, lists 1,963 killed and more than 9,000 injured, although many believe the number to be higher.  More than six thousand people are homeless, and the blast causes an estimated $35 million (approximately half a billion in today's dollars) damage.  Prior to the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945, the Halifax explosion is the most devastating man-made explosion in history. 

Rescue teams from the naval ships are quickly put to work, helping to free trapped survivors and to assist medical personnel in treating the wounded.  Soldiers help erect temporary shelters for those left homeless, and patrol the streets to prevent looting and maintain law and order.  Everyone who is able, military and civilian, help to recover bodies, put out small fires still burning, and transport the wounded.  Two American warships, USS Von Steuben and USS Tacoma, immediately head for Halifax.  Their crews assist with the rescue operations, and a third American vessels is utilized as a hospital ship.  A train carrying doctors, nurses and supplies from nearby Kentville attempts to reach Halifax, but the damaged tracks stop it on the outskirts of town.  The medical personnel are forced to walk to reach the wounded.  Over the course of the next few days, trains from Boston and New York arrive, carrying more medical supplies as well as doctors, and an American steamship carries supplies to rebuild the city.  Money from the Government of Canada, as well as Australia, Britain and New Zealand pours in, and the effort to rebuild the city is soon underway.  In the days that followed, inquiries were set up, with blame eventually falling on the shoulders of Mont Blanc's Captain Aime Le Medec, his pilot Francis Mackey, and Commander Frederick Wyatt. Commander Wyatt, a forty year old naval officer, was responsible for overseeing the movement of all large vessels in the harbour.  A commission recommended pilot Mackey be fired from his job, Captain Le Medec lose his license to sail, and Commander Wyatt be found guilty of negligence. Additionally, all three were charged with manslaughter, but the case was thrown out of court.  In the end, both Le Medec and Mackey were cleared of any guilt.

Even in the present day, more than ninety years after the disaster, the people of Halifax remain thankful to their American neighbours. In an annual tradition, the people of Nova Scotia send a Christmas tree to the city of Boston as thanks for the American's assistance in rebuilding Halifax.  The tree is grown in Nova Scotia, and the provincial government then transports it to Boston Common, where it is decorated with thousands of lights in an annual lighting ceremony.

Painting at Wellington County Museum, Fergus, Ontario,
Photographed by Jason Gray

Canada's Last Surviving Veterans

Only a handful of Canada's First World War veterans survived into the 21st Century.  The last of these men, Jack Babcock, died on February 18, 2010.  He was recognized as the last Canadian soldier of the First World War. Born in central Ontario in 1900, Babcock attempted to join the army at age fifteen, but was placed in the Young Soldiers Battalion, where he trained until he was of age to move to the front lines.  The war had ended before Babcock saw action.

Canada's last combat veteran of the First World War, Charles "Clare" Laking, was born in Campbellville, Ontario, in 1899.  He served in the Canadian Artillery as a signaller in France, where he was awarded the French Legion of Honour Medal.  Laking died on November 26, 2005, at a veteran's hospital in Toronto.

  Further Reading:

Baldwin, Jerome, "Canadian Capture of Vimy Ridge", published in Military Heritage Magazine, Feb. 2010

Christie, N.M., "Gas Attack ! The Canadians at Ypres, 1915", CEF Books, 1998

Christie, N.M., "Slaughter in the Mud. The Canadians at Passchendaele, 1917", CEF Books, 1998

Giesler, Patricia, "Valour Remembered. Canada and the First World War", Department of Veterans Affairs, Ottawa, 1980

Hannon, Leslie, "Canada at War", McClelland and Stewart Publishing, 1968

Howard, Michael, "Europe on the Eve of the First World War", Oxford University Press, 1988

Humphreys, Edward, "Great Canadian Battles. Heroism and Courage Through the Years", Arcturus Publishing, 2008

McCaffery, Dan, "Air Aces.  The Lives and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots", James Lorimer & Company, 1990



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