Canada's Part in the Great War
( Originally Published 1918 )
WHEN, in August, 1914, war burst suddenly upon a peaceful world like distant thunder in a cloudless summer sky, Canada, like the rest of the British Empire, was profoundly startled. She had been a peace-loving, non-military nation, satisfied to develop her great natural resources, and live in harmony with her neighbors; taking little interest in European affairs, Canadians, in fact, were a typical colonial people, with little knowledge even of the strength of the ties that linked them to the British Empire.
Upon declaration of war by Great Britain Canada immediately sprang to arms. The love of country and empire which had been no obvious thing burst forth in a patriotic fervor as deep as it was spontaneous and genuine. The call to action was answered with an enthusiasm the like of which had rarely, if ever, been seen in any British colony.
The Canadian Government called for 20,000 volunteers—enough for a single division—as Canada's contribution to the British army. In less than a month 40,000 men had volunteered, and the Minister of Militia was compelled to stop the further enrolment of recruits. From the gold fields of the Yukon, from the slopes of the Rockies on the west to the surf-beaten shores of the Atlantic on the east; from workshop and mine; from farm, office and forest, Canada's sons trooped to the colors.
It will be the everlasting glory of the men of the first Canadian contingent, that they needed no spur, either of victory or defeat: they volunteered because they were quick to perceive that the existence of their Empire was threatened by the action of the most formidable nation-in-arms that the world had ever seen. They had been stirred by the deepest emotion of a race—the love of country.
A site for a concentration camp was chosen at Valcartier, nestling among the blue Laurentian hills, sixteen miles from Quebec, and convenient to that point of embarkation. Within four days 6,000 men had arrived at Valcartier ; in another week there were 25,000 men. From centers all over Canada troop trains, each carrying hundreds of embryo soldiers, sped towards Valcartier and deposited their burdens on the miles of sidings that had sprung up as though by magic.
The rapid evolution of that wild and wooded river valley into a model military camp was a great tribute to the engineering skill and energy of civilians who had never done the like before. One day an army of woodmen were seen felling trees ; the next day the stumps were torn out and the hollows filled; on the third day long rows of tents in regular camp formation covered the ground, and on the fourth day they were occupied by civilian soldiers concentrated upon learning the rudiments of the art and science of war.
Streets were laid out; miles of water pipes, sunk in machine-made ditches, were connected to hundreds of taps and shower baths ; electric light was installed; three miles of rifle butts completed, and in two weeks the camp was practically finished—the finest camp that the first Canadians were destined to see. The building of Valcartier camp was characteristic of the driving power, vision and genius of the Minister of Militia, General Sir Sam Hughes.
Of the 33,000 men assembled at Valcartier, the great majority were civilians without any previous training in warfare. About 7,000 Canadians had taken part in the South African war, fifteen years before, and some of these, together with a few ex-regulars who had seen active service, were formed into the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry. Otherwise, with the exception of the 3,000 regulars that formed the standing army of Canada, the men and most of the officers were amateurs.
It was therefore a feat that the Canadian people could well afford to be proud of, that in the great crisis they were able, through their aggressive Minister of Militia, not only to gather up these forces so quickly but that they willingly and without delay converted their industries to the manufacture of all necessary army equipment. Factories all over the country immediately began turning out vast quantities of khaki cloth, uniforms, boots, ammunition, harness, wagons, and the thou-sand and one articles necessary for an army.
Before the end of September, 1914, the Canadian Expeditionary Force had been roughly hewn into shape, battalions had been regrouped and remodeled, officers transferred and retransferred, intensive training carried on, and all the necessary equipment assembled. On October 3, 1914, thirty-three Atlantic liners, carrying the contingent of 33,000 men, comprising infantry, artillery, cavalry, engineers, signalers, medical corps, army service supply and ammunition columns, together with horses, guns, ammunition, wagons, motor lorries and other essentials, sailed from Gaspé basin on the Quebec seaboard to the battlefield of Europe.
It was probably the largest convoy that had ever been gathered together. This mod-ern armada in three long lines, each line one and one-half miles apart, led by cruisers and with battleships on the front, rear and either flank, presented a thrilling spectacle. The voyage proved uneventful, and on October 14th, the convoy steamed into Plymouth, receiving an extraordinary ovation by the sober English people, who seemed temporarily to have gone wild with enthusiasm. Back of that demonstration was the conviction that blood had proved thicker than water and that the apparently flimsy ties that bound the colonies to the empire were bonds that were unbreakable. The German conviction that the British colonies would fall away and the British Empire disintegrate upon the outbreak of a great war had proved fallacious. It was, moreover, a great demonstration of how the much-vaunted German navy had already been swept from the seas and rendered impotent by the might of Britain's fleet.
A few days later the Canadians had settled down on Salisbury Plain in southern England for the further course of training necessary before proceeding to France. There, for nearly four months in the cold and the wet, in the fog and mud, in crowded, dripping tents and under constantly dripping skies, they carried on and early gave evidence of their powers of endurance and unquenchable spirit.
Lord Roberts made his last public appearance before this division and addressing the men said in part: "Three months ago we found ourselves involved in this war—a war not of our own seeking, but one which those who have studied Germany's literature and Germany's aspirations, knew was a war which we should inevitably have to deal with sooner or later. The prompt resolve of Canada to give us such valuable assistance has touched us deeply.
"We are fighting a nation which looks upon the British Empire as a barrier to her development, and has in consequence, long contemplated our overthrow and humiliation. To attain that 'end she has manufactured a magnificent fighting machine, and is straining every nerve to gain victory. It is only by the most determined efforts that we can defeat her."
And this superb German military organization, created by years of tireless effort, was that which Canadian civilians had volunteered to fight. Was it any wonder that some of the most able leaders doubted whether men and officers, no matter how brave and intelligent, could ever equal the inspired barbarians who, even at that very moment, were battling with the finest British and French regulars and pressing them steadily towards Paris?
In a short chapter of this kind attempting to deal with Canada's part in the Great War it is obviously impossible to go into detail or give more than the briefest of historical pictures. Consequently much that is fascinating can be given but a passing glance: for greater detail larger works must be consulted. Nevertheless it is well to try and view in perspective events as they occurred, in order to obtain some idea of their relative importance.
In February, 1915, the first Canadian division crossed the Channel to France, and began to obtain front-line experiences in a section of the line just north of Neuve Chapelle.
While the first division had been going through its course of training in England a second division had been raised in Canada and arrived in England shortly after the first left it.
During that period the conflict in Europe had passed through certain preliminary phases-most of them fortunate for the Al-lies. The unexpected holding up of the German armies by the Belgians had prevented the enemy from gaining the channel ports of Calais and Boulogne in the first rush. Later on the battle of the Marne had resulted in the rolling back of the German waves until they had subsided on a line roughly drawn through Dixmude, Ypres, Armentières, La Bassée, Lens, and southward to the French border and the trench phase of warfare had begun.
The British held the section of front between Ypres and La Bassée, about thirty miles in length, the Germans, unfortunately, occupying all the higher grounds.
Shortly after the arrival of the Canadian division the British, concentrating the largest number of guns that had hitherto been gathered together on the French front, made an attack on the Germans at Neuve Chapelle. This attack, only partially successful in gains of terrain, served to teach both belligerents several lessons. It showed the British the need for huge quantities of high explosives with which to blast away wire and trenches and, that in an attack, rifle fire, no matter how accurate, was no match for an unlimited number of machine guns.
It showed the enemy what could be done with concentrated artillery fire—a lesson that he availed himself of with deadly effect a few weeks later.
Though Canadian artillery took part in that bombardment the infantry was not engaged in the battle of Neuve Chapelle; it received its baptism of fire, however, under excellent conditions, and after a month's experience in trench warfare was taken out of the line for rest.
The division was at that time under the command of a British general and the staff included several highly trained British staff officers. Nevertheless the commands were practically all in the hands of Canadians—lawyers, business men, real-estate agents, newspapermen and other amateur soldiers, who, in civilian life as militiamen, had spent more or less time in the study of the theory of warfare. This should always be kept in mind in view of subsequent events, as well as the fact that these amateur soldiers were faced by armies whose officers and men—professionals in the art and science of warfare—regarded themselves as invincible.
In mid-April the Canadians took over a sector some five thousand yards long in the Ypres salient. On the left they joined up with French colonial troops, and on their right with the British. Thus there were Canadian and French colonial troops side by side.
Toward the end of April the Germans reverted to supreme barbarism and used poison gas. Undismayed, though suffering terrible losses, the heroic Canadians fought the second battle of Ypres and held the line in the face of the most terrific assaults.
When the news of the second battle of Ypres reached Canada her people were profoundly stirred. The blight of war had at last fallen heavily, destroyed her first-born, but sorrow was mixed with pride and exaltation that Canadian men had proved a match for the most scientifically trained troops in Europe. As fighters Canadians had at once leaped into front rank. British, Scotch and Irish blood, with British traditions, had proved greater forces than the scientific training and philosophic principles of the Huns. It was a glorious illustration of the axiom "right is greater than might," which the German had in his pride reversed to read "might is right." It was prophetic of what the final issue of a con-test based on such divergent principles was to be. So in those days Canadian men and women held their heads higher and carried on their war work with increased determination, stimulated by the knowledge that they were contending with an enemy more remorseless and implacable than those terrible creatures which used to come to them in their childish dreams. It was felt that, a nation which could scientifically and in cold blood resort to poison gases—contrary to all accepted agreements of civilized countries—to gain its object must be fought with all the determination, resources and skill which it was possible to employ.
Canada's heart had been steeled. She was now in the war with her last dollar and her last man if need be. She had begun to realize that failure in Europe would simply transfer the struggle with the German fighting hordes to our Atlantic provinces and the eastern American states.
The famous Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry was originally composed of soldiers who had actually seen service and were therefore veterans. Incidentally they were older men and most of them were married but the call of the Empire was insistent.
In the winter of 1914—15 the British line in Flanders was very thin and the P. P. C. L. I's. being a trained regiment was sent over to France several weeks before the first Canadian division. It soon earned the name of a regiment of extraordinarily hard-fighting qualities and was all but wiped out before spring arrived. The immortal story of this gallant unit must be read in detail if one wishes to obtain any clear conception of their deeds of valor—of what it is possible for man to go through and live. However, it was but one regiment whose exploits were later equalled by other Canadian regiments and it would therefore be invidious to select any one for special praise. After operating as a separate regiment for nearly two years and having been recruited from the regular Canadian depots in England, it became in composition like other Canadian regiments and was finally incorporated in the third Canadian division.
In the spring of 1915, a Canadian cavalry brigade was formed in France made up of Strathcona's Horse, King Edward's Horse, the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Canadian Mounted Rifles.
After the second battle of Ypres, the Canadians after resting and re-organization, were moved to a section of the line near La Bassée. Here they fought the battle of Festubert—a series of infantry attacks and artillery bombardments, which gained little ground.
Shortly afterwards they fought the battle of Givenchy, equally futile, as far as material results were concerned. Both of these battles had the double object of feeling out the strength of the German line and of obtaining the Aubers Ridge, should the attacks prove successful. In both battles the Canadians showed great aptitude for attack, and tenacity in their hold of captured trenches. They also learned the difficult lesson that if an objective is passed by the infantry the latter enter the zone of their own artillery fire and suffer accordingly.
In September, 1915, the Second Canadian Division arrived in Flanders and took its place at the side of the First Canadian Division, then occupying the Ploegsteert section in front of the Messines-Wytsehaete Ridge. The rest of the winter was spent more or less quietly by both divisions in the usual trench warfare, and battling with mud, water and weather.
It was here that the Canadians evolved the "trench raid," a method of cutting off a section of enemy trench, killing or taking prisoners all the enemy inhabitants, destroying it and returning with little or no loss to the attacking party. This method was quickly copied from one end of the Franco-British line to the other; it proved a most valuable method of gaining information, and served to keep the troops, during the long cold winter months, stimulated and keen when otherwise life would have proved most dull and uninteresting.
The Third Canadian Division was formed in January and February, 1916. One infantry brigade was composed of regiments which had been acting as Canadian corps troops, including the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and the Royal Canadian Regiment. The second infantry brigade was made up of six Canadian mounted rifle regiments, which had comprised part of the cavalry brigade. These two brigades, of the Third Division, under the command of General Mercer of Toronto, almost immediately began front-line work.
During this period, the Germans, making desperate efforts extending over weeks of time, did their utmost to break through the French line at Verdun and exhaust the French reserves. To offset these objects, a fourth British army was assembled, which took over still more of the French line, while a series of British attacks, intended to pin down the German reserves all along the line, was inaugurated. One of these developed into a fight for the craters—a terrible struggle at St. Eloi, where, blasted from their muddy ditches, with rifles and machine guns choked with mud and water; with communications lost and lack of artillery support, the men of the Second Canadian Division fought gamely from April 6th to April 20th, but were forced to yield the craters and part of their front line system to the enemy.
Notwithstanding this the men of the Second Canadian Division at St. Eloi fought quite as nobly as had their brothers of the First Division just a year before, at the glorious battle of Ypres, a few miles farther north. But it was a bitter experience. The lesson of failure is as necessary in the education of a nation as that of success.
On June 2d and 3d, the Third Canadian Division, which then occupied part of the line in the Ypres salient, including Hooge and Sanctuary Wood, was smothered by an artillery bombardment unprecedented in length and intensity. Trenches melted into irregular heaps of splintered wood, broken sand bags and mangled bodies. Fighting gallantly the men of this division fell in large numbers, where they stood. The best infantry in the world is powerless against avalanches of shells projected from greatly superior numbers of guns. The Canadian trenches were obliterated, not captured.
By this time Britain had thoroughly learned her lesson, and now countless shells and guns were pouring into France from Great Britain where thousands of factories, new and old, toiled night and day, under the inspiring energy of Mr. Lloyd George.
On June 18th, in a terrific counter attack, the Canadians in turn blasted the Huns from the trenches taken from them a few days be-fore. The First Canadian Division recaptured and consolidated all the ground and trench systems that had been lost. Thus ended the second year of Canadian military operations in the Ypres salient. Each of the three Canadian divisions had been tried by fire in that terrible region, from which, it was said, no man ever returned the same as he entered it. Beneath its torn and rifted surface, thou-sands of Canadians lie, mute testimony to the fact that love of liberty is still one of the most powerful, yet most intangible, things that man is swayed by.
A very distinguished French general, speaking of the part that Canada was playing in the war, said, "Nothing in the history of the world has ever been known quite like it. My countrymen are fighting within fifty miles of Paris, to push back and chastise a vile and leprous race, which has violated the chastity of beautiful France, but the Australians at the Dardanelles and the Canadians at Ypres, fought with supreme and absolute devotion for what to many must have seemed simple abstractions, and that nation which will sup-port for an abstraction the horror of this war of all wars will ever hold the highest place in the records of human valor."
The Fourth Canadian Division reached the Ypres region in August, 1916, just as the other three Canadian divisions were leaving for the Somme battlefield farther south. For a while it occupied part of the line near Kemmel, but soon followed the other divisions to the Somme, there to complete the Canadian corps.
It may be stated here that though a fifth Canadian division was formed and thoroughly trained in England, it never reached France. Canada until the passing of the Military Service Act on July 6, 1917, depended solely on voluntary enlistment. Up to that time Canada, with a population of less than 9,000,000 had recruited 525,000 men by voluntary methods. Of this number 3543,986 had actually gone overseas. Voluntary methods at last, however, failed to supply drafts in sufficient numbers to keep up the strength of the depleted reserves in England, and in consequence conscription was decided upon. By this means, 56,000 men were drafted in Canada before the war ended. In the meantime, through heavy fighting the demand for drafts became so insistent that the Fifth Canadian Division in England had to be broken up to reinforce the exhausted fighting divisions in France.
It would be an incomplete summary of Canada's part in the war that did not mention some of the men who have been responsible for the success of Canadian arms. It is obviously impossible to mention all of those responsible; it is even harder to select a few. But looking backward one sees two figures that stand forth from all the rest—General Sir Sam Hughes in Canada, and General Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian corps.
To General Sir Sam Hughes must be given the credit of having foreseen war with Germany and making such preparations as were possible in a democracy like Canada. He it was of all others who galvanized Canada into action; he it was whose enthusiasm and driving power were so contagious that they affected not only his subordinates but the country at large.
Sir Sam Hughes will be remembered for the building of Valcartier camp and the dispatch of the first Canadian contingent. But he did things of just as great importance. It was he who sought and obtained for Canada huge orders for munitions from Great Britain and thereby made it possible for Canada to weather the financial depression, pay her own war expenditures and emerge from the war in better financial shape than she was when the war broke out. It was easy to build up a business once established but the chief credit must go to the man who established it.
Sir Sam Hughes was also responsible for the selection of the officers who went overseas with the first Canadian contingent. Among those officers who subsequently became divisional commanders were General Sir Arthur Currie, General Sir Richard Turner, General Sir David Watson, Generals Lipsett, Mercer and Hughes.
Of those generals, Sir Arthur Currie through sheer ability ultimately became commander of the Canadian corps. This big, quiet man, whose consideration, prudence and brilliancy had won the absolute confidence of Canadian officers and men alike, welded the Canadian corps into a fighting force of incomparable effectiveness—a force which was set the most difficult tasks and, as events proved, not in vain.
When Canada entered the war she had a permanent force of 8,000 men. When hostilities ceased on November 11, 1918, Canada had sent overseas 418,980 soldiers. In addition to this about 15,000 men had joined the British Royal Air Service, several hundred physicians =d veterinarians, as well as 200 nurses, had been supplied to the British army, while many hundreds of university men had received commissions in the imperial army and navy.
In September, October and November, 1916, the Canadian corps of four divisions, which had been welded by General Byng and General Currie into an exceedingly efficient fighting machine, took its part in the battle of the Somme—a battle in which the British army assumed the heaviest share of the fighting and casualties, and shifted the greatest burden of the struggle from the shoulders of the French to their own. The British army had grown vastly in power and efficiency and in growing had taken over more and more of the line from the French.
The battle of the Somme was long and involved. The Franco-British forces were everywhere victorious and by hard and continuous fighting forced the Hun back to the famous Hindenburg line. It was in this battle that the tanks, evolved by the British, were used for the first time, and played a most important part in breaking down wire entanglements and rounding up the machine gun nests. The part played in this battle by the Canadian corps was conspicuous, and it especially distinguished itself by the capture of Courcelette. Although the battles which the Canadian corps took part in subsequently were almost invariably both successful and important, they can be merely mentioned here. The Canadian corps, now known everywhere to consist of shock troops second to none on the western front, was frequently used as the spearhead with which to pierce particularly tough parts of the enemy defenses.
On April 9th to 13th, 1917, the Canadian corps, with some British support, captured Vimy Ridge, a point which had hitherto proved invulnerable. When a year later, the Germans, north and south, swept the British line to one side in gigantic thrusts they were unable to disturb this key point, Vimy Ridge, which served as an anchor to the sagging line. The Canadian corps was engaged at Arleux and Fresnoy in April and May and was effective in the operations around Lens in June. Again on August 15th, it was engaged at Hill 70 and fought with conspicuous success in that toughest, most difficult, and most heart-breaking of all battles—Passchendaele.
In 1918, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade won distinction in the German offensive of March and April. On August 12, 1918, the Canadian corps was engaged in the brilliantly successful battle of Amiens, which completely upset the German offensive plan. On Au-gust 26th to 28th the Canadians captured Monchy-le-Preux, and, in one of the hammer blows which Foch rained on the German front, were given the most difficult piece of the whole line to pierce—the Queant-Drocourt line. This section of the famous Hindenburg line was considered by the enemy to be absolutely impregnable, but was captured by the Canadians on September 3d and 4th. With this line outflanked a vast German retreat began, which ended on November 11th with the signing of the armistice.
To the Canadians fell the honors of breaking through the first Hindenburg line by the capture of Cambrai, on October 1st to 9th. They also took Douai on October 19th, and Dena on October 20th. On October 26th to November 2d they had the signal honor of capturing Valenciennes thereby being the first troops to break through the fourth and last Hindenburg line.
It surely was a curious coincidence that Mons, from which the original British army-the best trained, it is said, that has taken the field since the time of Caesar—began its re-treat in 1914, should have been the town which Canadian civilians were destined to recapture. The war began for the professional British army—the Contemptibles—when it began its retreat from Mons in 1914; the war ended for the British army at the very same town four years and three months later, when on the day the armistice was signed the men from Canada re-entered it. Was it coincidence, or was it fate?
During the war Canadian troops had sustained 211,000 casualties, 152,000 had been wounded and more than 50,000 had made the supreme sacrifice. Put into different language this means that the number of Canadians killed was just a little greater than the total number of infantrymen in their corps of four divisions.
The extent of the work involved in the care of the wounded and sick of the Canadians over-seas may be gathered from the fact that Canada equipped and sent across the Atlantic, 7 general hospitals, 10 stationary hospitals, 16 field ambulances, 3 sanitary sections, 4 casualty clearing stations and advanced and base depots of medical stores: The personnel of these medical units consisted of 1,612 officers, 1,994 nursing sisters and 12,382 of other ranks, or a total of about 16,000. This will give some conception of the importance of the task involved in the caring for the sick and wounded of about 90,000 fighting troops, some 60,000 auxiliary troops behind the lines and the re-serve depots in England.
The work of the Canadian Red Cross Society included the building and equipping of auxiliary hospitals to those of the Canadian Army Medical Corps; providing of extra and emergency stores of all kinds, recreation huts, ambulances and lorries, drugs, serums and surgical equipment calculated to make hospitals more efficient; the looking after the comfort of patients in hospitals providing recreation and entertainment to the wounded, and dispatching regularly to every Canadian prisoner parcels of food, as well as clothes, books and other necessaries: The Canadian Red Cross expended on goods for prisoners in 1917 nearly $600,000.
In all the Canadian Red Cross distributed since the beginning of the war to November 23, 1918, $7,631,100.
The approximate total of voluntary contributions from Canada for war purposes was over $90,000,000.
As practically all of the increase of food and other materials went to Great Britain, France and Italy, the extent of Canada's effort in upholding the allied cause is clearly evident and was by no means a small one.
The trade of Canada for 1914 was one billion dollars; for the fiscal year of 1917—18 it was two and one-half billion dollars.
Approximately 60,000,000 shells were made in Canada during the war. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities a shell committee was formed in Canada to really act as an agent for the British war office in placing contracts. The first shells were shipped in December, 1914, and by the end of May, 1915, approximately 400 establishments were manufacturing shells in Canada. By November, 1915, orders had been placed by the Imperial Government to the value of 00,000,000, and an Imperial Munitions Board, replacing the shell commit-tee, was formed, directly responsible to the Imperial Ministry of Munitions.
During the war period Canada purchased from her bank savings $1,669,381,000 of Canadian war loans.
Estimates of expenditures for the fiscal year ending March 31, 1919, demonstrated the thoroughness with which Canada went to war.